Suzhou Double Gold Chow Mein 两面黄 炒麵: Preserving a family heritage

By Charleen - August 20, 2019

I grew up enjoying a unique version of chow mein 炒麵 noodles, consisting of tender, sauce-absorbing noodles sandwiched between two crisp golden layers. Recently, I learned that this dish, 两面黄 (liǎngmiàn huáng), is one of the regional Chinese specialties that was lost from Suzhou following the Chinese Civil War, but preserved by the Jiangsu/Shanghai diaspora.
Although my mother cooked daily Chinese meals based on whatever meats and vegetables were fresh, on weekends, my father would make chow mein 炒麵 (chǎomiàn), which literally means fried noodles, egg fried rice 蛋炒飯 (dàn chǎofàn) with ham and peas, a big bowl of spaghetti or dishes he invented such as the all-popular Chili Mac. My favorite was this chow mein noodle cake, which was usually served with a lightly sauced stir-fry of julienned pork strips and vegetables.

Shortcut to the Love2Chow recipe.
My father, who was enthusiastic and had a flair for the dramatic, would call us over when he was ready to flip the chow mein. He would walk out of the kitchen holding the 12-inch stainless steel frying pan, heavy to the rim with 8 servings of noodles, in one hand. With the other hand tucked behind his back, he would flip the cake high up into the air and then catch it with a flourish.
In my mid-teens, I would come home famished. So he taught me how to cook and flip my own personal sized chow mein noodle cake using a smaller 8-10 inch pan. Back in those days, I did not properly appreciate the spirit or soul of a good stir-fry (wok hay-鑊氣). Rather than learn how to handle fresh vegetables and meat, I topped my noodle cake with crispy cubes of spam cooked right into the cake and a smooth-melting farmer's cheese similar to Monterey jack.

When I left home for college, I was disappointed to find that restaurant versions of chow mein were vastly different. Most frequently, they were reasonably tasty, but consisted of soft, oily strands of noodles tossed with meat, scallions and minimal vegetables. To this day, I am not completely clear on the difference between restaurant chow mein (fried noodles) and lo mein 撈麵 (scooped noodles). Even worse, was the fried noodle cake made from a tangle of thin, yellow noodles. These were dry discs deep-fried through and through, with so little substance that they would degenerate into soggy, squiggles upon contact with the heavily sauced topping.

The first person that seemed to know about the style of chow mein that I had enjoyed was a college roommate, who told me it was called 两面黄 (liǎngmiàn huáng), or "both faces yellow." Once I had a kitchen, I tried making it, but found that spaghetti and most egg noodles would end up rubbery instead of forming a nice crisp crust that contrasted with the soft, tender noodles inside. I solved this dilemma by buying 5 pound boxes of the dry chow mein noodle that my father used and packing it in my carryon luggage. The noodles always generated a bit of a stir at LAX airport security... apparently, dry noodles in a box are very dense to x-ray. Luckily, a single box usually lasted several years.
Shortly after getting married, I was excited to discover this issue of Food and Wine magazine. On its cover, it featured a Tibetan dish that looked familiar -- a golden double sided disc of noodles with a saucy meat and vegetable curry sauce on top. My husband and I made the Tibetan Crisp-fried Noodles with Lamb and Vegetables several times, using the Quon Yick noodles of course. It was very tasty with butter, western onion, tomatoes and tumeric, but I found myself longing to recreate not just the noodle cake, but also the flavors of my parents' stir-fries.
In 2012, I asked my son to videotape me making the dish so that the method would be preserved. Although he did not quite capture the flip, I did some internet research into this dish 两面黄, and discovered a fascinating history behind our family chow mein tradition. Apparently, the dish, in a play on words, is also known as 面中的皇帝the Emperor of noodles, as the word for 皇 Emperor and 黄 yellow are homophones. Due to the inexact nature of Chinese-English translations, I have decided to use "Double Gold Chow Mein" for our family version of chow mein.

The cuisine of 江苏 Jiangsu province, where my father's family originates, is known as 苏菜 (Sū cài;  Su dish/greens). According to an article in the Suzhou Evening News, there were two legendary regional dishes from the Republic of China period (1911-1949), five-spiced ribs 五香排骨 (wǔxiāng páigǔ) and Double Gold Chow Mein 两面黄 (liǎngmiàn huáng). However, in the post-war era, master chefs with knowledge of more sophisticated cooking died, and several dozen traditional foods were lost. As a result Double Gold Chow Mein disappeared from Suzhou and Shanghai for more than 30 years. In the early 2000s, I began to see brief Chinese articles online, such as those announcing that traditional "yellow on both sides" is now being served in Shanghai with a choice of shrimp or pork toppings. Double Gold Chow Mein was finally re-introduced in Suzhou in 2012 by Yang Yu Su, who had childhood memories of watching his father and grandfather make the dish.
This opening allowed many elderly people to either re-experience or try for the first time this "luxury" dish that is more expensive than meat and involves several cooking steps. One person interviewed for the Suzhou Evening News stated: 
"I have never eaten two sides of yellow. Now that the family conditions are good, I have transferred several buses to eat. I am very emotional and say that I finally realized my childhood wishes." (Translation by Google Chrome).
Double Gold Chow Mein with Kung Pao Chicken
My parents, with their electric coil stoves, always lamented that the food they cooked lacked 氣 chi, or the soul/spirit/breath of the wok (known in the Cantonese dialect as wok hay-鑊氣). However, they made delicious foods using ingredients that were readily available in 60s and 70s America, adapting their cooking to make the best use of Revere Ware skillets and saucepans and sometimes a pressure cooker. Now Chinese ingredients are easily found, and there is a resurgence of appreciation for the humble, low-cost, versatile wok, thanks in large part to the wok evangelist Grace Young. A few years ago, I came full circle, as I made my father's Double Gold Chow Mein noodle cake, as it would have been made in his childhood, in a carbon steel, hand-hammered pow wok.

Even better, a few years ago I taught my teenage daughter to make a 10-inch Double Gold Chow Mein noodle cake, and am pleased that she managed her very first flip cautiously, but successfully. Then, cooking with Eastern and Western pans side-by-side, I recently incorporated Double Gold Chow Mein into the double college send-off dinner for my Thanksgiving daughter and Christmas nephew (recipe links below). May these fledgling family traditions continue to grow and thrive!
Large noodle cake in skillet and individual noodle cake in wok
The smaller chow mein browned faster in the dark wok, which was then used to prepare the final stir-fry
Double Gold Chow Mein served with MuShu pork, Szechuan dry-fried green beans (both from Grace Young) and Vietnamese tofu in fresh tomato sauce (from Cameron Stauch)

Please enjoy the recipes and share what you think in the comments below, or using social media.
Click here for the Sichuan Dry-fried Green Beans and the Vietnamese Tofu in Fresh Tomato Sauce.
Click here for pork slivers and vegetables in black bean sauce.
Click here for a Printer formatted version of the Double Gold Chow Mein recipe.

Pork slivers, zucchini, purple carrot in black bean sauce served over Double Gold Chow Mein.

Love2Chow   Family Double Gold Chow Mein Noodle Cake 两面黄炒麵                                        Serves 4-6 with other dishes                                                         August 15, 2019

10-12 oz (w) Chinese Style Dry Noodle (See Note 1)
Large pot of salted water
Vegetable oil
Stainless steel skillet (12 inch) for one big noodle cake or pow wok (12-14 inch) for individual cakes

1.     Prep ingredients for the final stir-fry dish to go with the chow mein (See Note 2). As soon as noodle cakes are done, you can use the same pan to make the accompanying stir-fry.
2.     Cook noodles.  Boil lots of salted water and cook for 3-4 min until it is cooked through but still al dente (remove a strand to taste).  Or use a microwave pasta cooker on water level IV for 10-11 min. 
3.     Drain well, then toss noodles back into the cooking pot with a bit of oil to prevent sticking.
4.     Heat 1/8 inch of oil in large frying pan or 1-2 Tbs oil in a wok over medium heat. 
5.     If using a 12-inch skillet: When oil is shimmery, add noodles to the oil and rapidly stir in a swirling motion with chopsticks or spatula to form a flat pancake. Push loose noodles at the edges into the cake. Balance a small amount of oil on the back of an unperforated pancake flipper and run around the edge of the pan so oil drips down the sides of the pan and underneath the noodle cake.
If using a wok: add a quarter to a third of the noodles and rapidly stir in a swirling motion to form a small pancake. Tip the wok to spread the oil beneath the noodle cake.
6.     If using a 12-inch skillet: Allow noodles to cook, undisturbed for at least 4 min.  Carefully peek under one edge to check crust without disturbing most of the cake. Depending on the pan and heat, it can take up to 8 minutes. The water has to evaporate first, and then it takes 3-4 min to brown.
If using a wok: Check crust after 2-3 minutes. Smaller pancakes will cook faster on the dark surface.
7.     Add a little more oil and shake the pan gently to see if there are any areas of sticking.  If necessary, use spatula to free up these areas. When it slides around easily, flip it into the air and catch on the other side. Smaller noodle cakes can be flipped using one or two spatulas.
8.     Add two more spatulas of oil to edges and allow to cook undisturbed for 3-4 min.  Check bottom and remove to plate when browned to desired degree.
9.     Prepare accompanying stir-fry dish and serve on top of noodle cake, using a large spoon to break up noodle cake. Or, if you want longer lasting crispness, you can cut noodle cake into smaller pieces using kitchen scissors, and serve the stir-fry alongside.

Note 1. My father always used the Quon Yick Noodle Co Chinese Style Dry Noodle www.quonyicknoodle.com, El Monte, CA
Ingredients: enriched wheat flour, water, egg white, salt.  Get the “Regular” spaghetti-like noodles, not the “Wide” fettucini-like noodles, which are better for noodle soups than chow mein.

Note 2. Any moderately saucy stir-fry can go with this. Spooning it on top of the noodle cake immediately before serving allows the sauce to coat the inner noodles while maintaining the crisp outer layer. Here is a flexible recipe for a stir-fry in Chinese black bean sauce that tastes great with the chow mein noodle cake. 

When I was a teen, I put spam cubes on the pan before adding the noodles, and after flipping, melted Monterey jack cheese on top while the other side browned. My Dad most frequently used pork, dried tofu, and cabbage. A shrimp topping can also be used.

Tips: 
🐾 You want a fairly light weight pan for flipping the cake – it’s easier than it looks!
I started out making smaller cakes in a 10-inch skillet, before moving on to a 12-inch copper bottom Revere Ware skillet. The first time can feel scary, but if the cake is sliding freely, all it takes is a gentle toss upwards.
If necessary, you can slide it onto a plate, sandwich with another plate, invert to flip, then slide the cake back into the pan to cook the other side.

🐾 Don’t skip swirling the noodles and tucking in loose strands. You want them tangled together so the noodle cake flips as a single unit.

🐾  Do not get impatient and try to peek under the noodles too early. When the browned crust has formed, the noodles will naturally release from the pan. If you peek too early, it rips a very thin layer off the noodle, which will remain stuck to the pan. If unsure, you can shake the pan gently to see if it starts sliding. If the top jiggles without shifting the bottom, it is not ready.

This patience and trust in the cooking process that I learned from my Dad applies to browning meats as well, although you can always rescue stuck bits of meat (the fond in culinary terms) by deglazing with wine, stock, vinegar and/or water exuded by subsequently added vegetables, into a sauce. From my Mom, I learned to hear when food transitioned from steaming off water to browning/frying, to assess vegetable color, and to smell for the release of aromas that often signify when a dish is done.

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https://www.love2chow.com/2019/08/suzhou-double-gold-chow-mein-preserving_20.html

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1 comments

  1. This is so awesome. I was lucky enough to be invited to dinner. Found the Quon Yick noodles at Marina Foods and I'm ready to try it out. Thanks for the great recipe and cultural context. :)

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