Recalling a lunch room conversation with an office mate nearly twenty five years ago I’m reminded of how desperately ignorant I was about cooking then. I was in my first real job out of college, still living at home enjoying my mother’s cooking. It would be another year or two before I leave the nest and move into my own apartment…conveniently a mere three miles away from my parents’ home where my claim to the same chair at the family table remained secure. The intention to cook was there. I stocked my refrigerator every week but with long work hours coupled with the convenience of meeting friends for dinner, more produce went to the trash than I would like to admit.
That conversation years ago went something like this:
Me: “Mmm, that smells good. What’s for lunch?”
Friend: “Chow mein.”
Me: “Oh, what restaurant did you get it from?” (I had assumed that she was eating restaurant leftovers.)
Friend: “I made it.”
Me, with a look of awe: “You know how to cook chow mein?”
Friend, incredulous: “You mean you don’t know how to cook chow mein?”
We were the same age, of a similar upbringing, both fresh out of college, both of Asian heritage (she Chinese, me Filipina) and our cooking experiences couldn’t be more different. I had no interest then. My mother had a willing apprentice in one of my younger sisters so there was no pressure to learn to cook. Besides, I was good at doing dishes.
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that this memory came to mind when I prepared Pancit Canton recently. Of the multitude of noodle dishes that Philippine cuisine boasts, Pancit Canton (translation: Cantonese noodles) most closely resembles Chinese chow mein. Both are nothing more than stir-fried noodles with vegetables and a little meat (though Canton noodles have a flavor all their own, more distinctive than chow mein noodles). But despite a name that implies Chinese origin there is no documentation that proves this to be the case. Not unlike Singapore noodles, really. The latter is a popular Chinese-American menu item with no traceable provenance in Singapore.
What I’m happy to share is that I’ve learned to employ a Chinese cooking technique that works well in this classic Filipino dish: velveting chicken. Maybe you’ve heard of the term before? It’s the process of marinating pieces of meat (any meat) in egg white, corn starch, rice wine and some flavoring component before flash cooking in oil or water. The meat remains tender and succulent and stands up to high-heat stir frying without getting tough. I always ended up with dry stir-fried chicken breast pieces until I learned to use this technique.
I’ve learned to embrace a simpler method over the years and have found my lazy way to be just as effective: I often skip the egg white and just rely on the corn starch and seasonings to flavor and tenderize my meat. My marinate time is the handful of minutes between tossing the meat in the corn starch and seasonings and prepping the rest of the ingredients for my stir-fry. It’s one simple step that has made a world of difference in my cooking. And while my cooking journey is far from over, I’m no longer the girl who was awestruck by homemade chow mein–I can whip up a pot of noodles in a jiffy. I’ve come a long way since that eye-opening day nearly 25 years ago…at least with noodles.
- For the Chicken:
- 3 boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut in bite-size pieces
- Roughly 2 - 21/2 teaspoons corn starch
- 1-2 tablespoons oyster sauce
- 1 teaspoon low sodium soy sauce
- (Note: traditionally an egg white is added to the process but I find that it's not necessary)
- For the Noodles:
- 1 8 ounce package pancit canton noodles (I use Excellent brand)
- Marinated Chicken above
- Half small cabbage, chopped
- Half bunch kale, chopped
- Two carrots
- 1 onion
- 1 cup green beans
- 1 8 oz package pancit canton
- 2-3 ounces whole grain pasta (angel hair or spaghetti, optional)
- 2 cups chicken stock
- Onion powder (few dashes or to taste)
- Soy sauce (few tablespoons)
- Oyster sauce (2-3 tablespoons or to taste. You an also use lo-mein sauce from the Asian aisle)
- Lemon wedges and ground white pepper for serving
- Velvet Chicken
- Toss all the chicken ingredients together in a bowl--chicken, corn starch, soy sauce, oyster sauce. Allow the marinade to sit for 30 minutes to build flavor but if in a hurry, the technique will work without the wait.
- Cook the Noodles
- In a wok or large skillet/pot, heat two to three tablespoons oil over medium high heat. Add the chicken pieces, tossing occasionally, and cook until the meat has slightly browned, about three to four minutes. Transfer the chicken to a large bowl and set aside.
- Using the same skillet (don't clean out the flavorful bits from the chicken) add another tablespoon or two of oil if needed and turn up the heat to high. Cook the onion for one two minutes then add the carrots and green beans. Cook for an additional minute or two. Season with a few dashes of onion powder. Next add the kale, soy sauce and oyster sauce and cook for about three minutes. Turn down the heat if the vegetables brown too quickly. Transfer the vegetables to the same bowl as the chicken and set aside.
- In the same skillet, add the chicken stock and bring to a boil. Scrape the bits that have stuck to the pan as the stock comes to a boil. If using the whole grain pasta add them to the skillet first and cook them for about two minutes followed by the canton noodles. Lower the heat a little . The crispy canton noodles will soften in the liquid fairly quickly but you can the noodles soften uniformly by pressing them into the liquid and tossing them around with tongs or a spatula. Once the noodles/pasta have been moistened by the liquid add the chicken and vegetables and cabbage and toss everything together. Lower the heat, cover and allow the noodles to cook further. Check for doneness after five minutes. The noodles should be done. Taste for additional seasonings and plate and garnish with white pepper and lemon wedges. Enjoy.