THEY REALLY DID INVENT NOODLES IN CHINA
The white boxes of greasy lo mein that show up at front doors every night in cities big and small don’t do justice to the rich history of this recipe. One of the world’s oldest (and greatest) dishes deserves a bit more respect. According to archaeologists, China is the birthplace of noodles. (Sorry, Italy.) The evidence is pretty convincing—an earthenware bowl found along the Yellow River that contained 4,000-year-old noodles.
Lo mein noodles (the “mein” part refers to the main ingredient, wheat) should have a chewy, almost firm texture so they can stand up to the sauce and bits of protein and vegetables. The most popular Chinese lo mein dish in the West contains bits of smoky barbecued pork (char siu) and still-crisp cabbage.
The noodles are the star ingredient and the curly fresh noodles labeled “lo mein” at many Asian markets are your best bet. Vacuum-packed fresh noodles from your typical supermarket (often labeled Chinese-style noodles) are pasty and gummy. If you can’t find real Chinese lo mein, dried linguine (yes, the Italian stuff) is a better choice since it will provide chew similar to lo mein—a must for noodles that are so heavily sauced.
Of course, the sauce here is actually a stir-fry with meat and multiple vegetables in a lightly thickened soy-based liquid. This abundant approach to saucing works well with the American habit of serving pasta as a one-dish meal. Yes, to the cook used to preparing marinara and Bolognese, this method of sauce making will seem very novel. But that’s the point.
WHY THIS RECIPE WORKS
Pin Down the Pork
For a facsimile of the slow-cooked pork shoulder used in restaurants for char siu, we swap in country-style pork ribs. These meaty ribs from the upper side of the rib cage have the same rich flavor of pork shoulder and they’re naturally tender. Typical recipes use about one-quarter pound of pork. Bump it up to a full pound for a heartier stir-fry. (Do the same with the vegetables—it’ll make for a fresher dish.)
Marinate the thin strips of the pork in a classic Chinese mixture of hoisin sauce, oyster sauce, soy sauce, toasted sesame oil, and five-spice powder. If you like, add a few drops of liquid smoke to mimic the smoky flavor that’s the hallmark of good char siu. Before adding the liquid smoke, reserve some marinade for the sauce—add chicken broth and a little cornstarch for body.
Stir-Fry in Batches
Use plenty of heat and cook the meat in small batches for best results. A cast-iron skillet will give you the best sear on the pork, but a nonstick skillet can also be used.
Cook the Noodles Last
Be sure to cook the noodles when the stir-fry is almost ready. If the noodles sit, they’ll clump. And adding oil to them might prevent clumping, but this do-ahead trick will also prevent the sauce from clinging adequately to the noodles.
A Fresh Finish
There’s no need to mess with tradition with the vegetables and seasoning in this stir-fry. For lots of flavor and texture, stir-fry shiitake mushrooms, scallions, and cabbage. Garlic and fresh ginger add assertive, aromatic flavor. Once the vegetables are done and tossed with the meat and noodles, spoon in a little Asian chili-garlic sauce for added kick.
Start the cooking by giving the pork a hard sear in a cast-iron pan; end by boiling the noodles.
Pork Lo Mein
- 20 minutes to slice and marinate pork (pork can marinate for up to 1 hour; make sure to bring water to boil)
- 25 minutes to prepare aromatics and vegetables (do this while pork is marinating)
- 25 minutes to stir-fry pork and vegetables (boil pasta while cabbage is cooking)
- 2 minutes to drain noodles and toss with stir-fry mixture and chili-garlic sauce
- Rasp grater for grating ginger
- 12-inch skillet, preferably cast iron (or nonstick if cast iron is not available)
- Tongs for stir-frying meat and vegetables and tossing noodles
- Dutch oven for boiling noodles
- Colander for draining noodles
Substitutions & Variations
- If no hoisin sauce is available, substitute 1 tablespoon of sugar.
- If boneless pork ribs are unavailable, substitute 1½ pounds of bone-in country-style ribs, followed by the next best option, pork tenderloin.
Use a cast-iron skillet for this recipe if you have one—it will help create the best sear on the pork. When shopping for Chinese rice wine, look for one that is amber in color. Liquid smoke provides a flavor reminiscent of traditional Chinese barbecued pork. It is important to cook the noodles at the last minute to avoid clumping.
- 3 tablespoons soy sauce
- 2 tablespoons oyster sauce
- 2 tablespoons hoisin sauce
- 1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
- ¼ teaspoon five-spice powder
- 1 pound boneless country-style pork ribs, trimmed and sliced crosswise into ⅛-inch pieces
- ¼ teaspoon liquid smoke (optional)
- ½ cup chicken broth
- 1 teaspoon cornstarch
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- 2 teaspoons grated fresh ginger
- 1½ tablespoons vegetable oil
- ¼ cup Chinese rice wine or dry sherry
- 8 ounces shiitake mushrooms, stemmed and halved if small or quartered if large
- 16 scallions, white parts sliced thin, green parts cut into 1-inch pieces
- 1 small head napa cabbage (1½ pounds), halved, cored, and sliced crosswise into ½-inch strips (4 cups)
- 12 ounces fresh Chinese egg noodles or 8 ounces dried linguine
- 1 tablespoon Asian chili-garlic sauce
- Bring 4 quarts water to boil in Dutch oven over high heat.
- Whisk soy sauce, oyster sauce, hoisin, sesame oil, and five-spice powder together in medium bowl. Place 3 tablespoons soy sauce mixture in 1-gallon zipper-lock bag; add pork and, if using, liquid smoke. Press out as much air as possible and seal bag, making sure that all pieces are coated with marinade. Refrigerate for at least 15 minutes or up to 1 hour. Whisk broth and cornstarch into remaining soy sauce mixture in medium bowl. In small bowl, mix garlic and ginger with ½ teaspoon vegetable oil; set aside.
- Heat 1 teaspoon vegetable oil in 12-inch cast-iron or nonstick skillet over high heat until just smoking. Add half of pork in single layer, breaking up clumps with wooden spoon. Cook, without stirring, for 1 minute. Continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until browned, 2 to 3 minutes. Add 2 tablespoons wine to skillet; cook, stirring constantly, until liquid is reduced and pork is well coated, 30 to 60 seconds. Transfer pork to medium bowl and repeat with 1 teaspoon vegetable oil, remaining pork, and remaining 2 tablespoons wine. Wipe skillet clean with paper towels.
- Return now-empty skillet to high heat, add 1 teaspoon vegetable oil, and heat until just smoking. Add mushrooms and cook, stirring occasionally, until light golden brown, 4 to 6 minutes. Add scallions and continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until scallions are wilted, 2 to 3 minutes longer; transfer vegetables to bowl with pork.
- Add remaining 1 teaspoon vegetable oil and cabbage to now-empty skillet; cook, stirring occasionally, until spotty brown, 3 to 5 minutes. Clear center of skillet; add garlic mixture and cook, mashing mixture with spoon, until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Stir garlic mixture into cabbage; return pork-vegetable mixture and broth-soy mixture to skillet; simmer until thickened and ingredients are well incorporated, 1 to 2 minutes. Remove skillet from heat.
- While cabbage is cooking, stir noodles into boiling water. Cook, stirring occasionally, until noodles are tender, 3 to 4 minutes for fresh Chinese noodles or 10 minutes for dried linguine. Drain noodles and transfer back to Dutch oven; add cooked stir-fry mixture and chili-garlic sauce, tossing noodles constantly, until sauce coats noodles. Serve immediately.
A Better Way to Prepare Ginger
Mincing doesn’t work well with fibrous ginger, especially in sauces, dressings, glazes, and other dishes where smoothness is key. That’s why we often use a grater—rather than a knife—when preparing ginger. Note that freezing the peeled ginger for 30 minutes firms it up, making it easier to grate.
1). Use rounded edge of small spoon, vegetable peeler, or small knife to remove skin from portion of gingerroot. (Leaving the skin on the remaining portion gives you a “handle” that keeps your fingers away from the grater in the next step.)
2). Holding unpeeled end, run ginger along fine teeth of rasp-style grater to yield smooth puree. (The fine holes on a box grater will also work nicely.)
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