This week’s Wok Wednesdays stir-fry is Chicken Chow Fun. The main ingredient is the fresh rice noodle known in Cantonese as haw fun or hor fun, and in Mandarin shahe fun. The ivory white noodles with their tender, slippery and slightly chewy texture are my comfort food.
When I was a child my father made a special haw fun noodle soup with soy sauce chicken, Chinese greens and homemade chicken broth that I adored. My cousin Kathy was famous for stuffing the noodles with stir-fried cha siu, bean sprouts, scallions and cilantro. Her recipe is in “The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen.” But nothing compares to the noodles when they’re used for Chicken Chow Fun, stir-fried just til they’re slightly crusty and charred.
In New York City’s Chinatown, you’ll find the fresh noodles sold in some of the big supermarkets. But I like to buy them at Fong Inn Too (46 Mott Street), an old-fashioned tofu and noodle shop that was founded in 1933. The shop is the oldest tofu store in the country.
Once inside you’ll see the noodles piled in a big metal tub that sits on the main glass counter. You can buy a thick slab that weighs about a pound for under a dollar.
For years I’ve heard that the family owned shop is on the brink of closing because the next generation has no interest in carrying on the business. (For more on this listen to this short piece WNYC produced a few years ago.) I continue to support the store because their fresh rice noodles are the best and I like the feeling of stepping into old world Chinatown.
I’ve decided when the shop finally closes I will make the noodles myself. It’s a super easy batter to prepare and the process of steaming the noodles is fun once you get the hang of it. There’s nothing like the taste of fresh noodles or the satisfaction of making them yourself. But in the meanwhile, I’ll continue to make my pilgrimage to Fong Inn Too. It’s an unglamorous, cluttered shop and the clerks who work behind the counter are a tad gruff and unfriendly. But I will relish the experience of this little slice of vanishing Chinatown for as long as I can.
Coincidentally, just as I was about to post this piece my friend Tricia sent me an article from dna on a young Chinese American woman’s desire to save her family’s antique store in New York’s Chinatown. It’s worth reading to understand the ever changing face of Chinatown.
In the meanwhile, for those who cannot make it to Fong Inn Too, you can prepare the noodles yourself. Just be sure you buy rice flour and not glutinous rice flour. My favorite brand is Erawan from Thailand. The label is red and has the 3 elephant emblem. I have not had good results with rice flour from China.
I like to use a large liquid measuring cup to whisk together the flour, cornstarch and salt. After you add the cold water and peanut or vegetable oil you want to whisk until the batter is just smooth and free of lumps. The recipe says 3 tablespoons of oil. The recipe works with only 1 1/2 tablespoons of oil but the noodle will not be as tender.
Then bring water to a boil over high heat in your steamer. I use a covered 10 3/4 inch bamboo steamer set over a wok with about 1-inch depth of water. A stacked stainless-steel steamer works too.
Then, brush about 1/2 to 3/4 teaspoon of oil only on the bottom of a 9 1/2-inch pie dish. You can also use a 8-inch metal cake pan but the slanted sides of a pie plate make it easier to slip a spatula under the noodle once it’s cooked.
Ladle about 3 tablespoons of the batter into the oiled pie plate. If you add too much batter the noodle will be thick and gummy. You want the batter to barely coat the bottom of the plate. (After you’ve steamed a few you’ll know how much batter to add and can pour it directly from the liquid measuring cup.) Tip the plate from side to side to completely spread the batter over the bottom of the plate. Turn off the heat to prevent getting a steam burn. Then, carefully place the pie plate into the steamer. If you see that the batter favors one side like the photo below, adjust the steamer to make sure the plate is level and the batter completely covers the bottom of the plate.
Return the heat to high. Cover, and steam 3 to 4 minutes or until a “crepe” is formed. Carefully remove the pie plate from the steamer. Let set for a few minutes to cool. Use a flexible spatula or a cheese slicer to loosen crepe from the plate and roll it up. Be careful as the noodle crepe may still be hot. I like using the cheese slicer because it’s small enough to get under the noodle crepe.
Carefully remove “crepes” to a cutting board. They’ll be very oily. For chow fun cut the rolls into 1/2 to 3/4-inch wide strips. You’re now ready to prep the rest of your ingredients for your chow fun.
I normally do not write recipes in metric but I’m doing this for Birgit, one of our Wok Wednesdays members from Germany.
Broad Rice Noodles Haw Fun
1 1/2 cups plus 3 tablespoons rice flour (150 gms)
3 tablespoons cornstarch (15 gms)
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups cold water (300 gms)
3 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil (30 gms)
Additional oil for greasing pan
In a large liquid measuring cup whisk together the flour, cornstarch and salt. Add the cold water and 3 tablespoons oil (you can reduce the oil to 1 1/2 tablespoons but the noodle will not be as tender). Whisk until batter is smooth and free of lumps.
Bring water to a boil over high heat in a covered 10 3/4-inch bamboo steamer. Brush about 1/2 to 3/4 teaspoon of oil only on the bottom of a 9 1/2-inch pie dish. You can also use a 8-inch metal cake pan but the slanted sides of a pie plate make it easier to slip a spatula under the noodle once it’s cooked. Ladle about 3 tablespoons of the batter in the oiled pie plate. Tip the plate from side to side to completely spread the batter over the bottom of the plate. Turn off the heat to prevent getting a steam burn. Then, carefully place the pie plate into steamer making sure the plate is level. Return the heat to high. Cover, and steam 3 to 4 minutes or until crepe is formed. Carefully remove pie plate from steamer. Let set for a few minutes to cool. Use a flexible spatula or a cheese slicer to loosen crepe from plate and roll up. Remove rolled noodle to a plate or cutting board.
To facilitate the cooking, use 2 pie plates; one can be cooking while the other one is cooling off. Wipe the used pie plate clean with a paper towel, oil again and repeat procedure until all the batter is used. Make sure to monitor the water level in the wok. It will definitely need to be replenished several times as you continue steaming the noodles. If there is any sticking in the pie plate, wash the plate and dry before oiling. The steamed rice noodles are now ready for stir-frying or to be stuffed with fillings. For stir-frying cut the rolls into 1/2 to 3/4-inch wide strips. Makes about 1 pound of noodles.
Here’s a photo of this week’s recipe: Chicken Chow Fun from Stir-Frying to the Sky’s Edge, page 276.