Egg foo young, the classic Chinese-American puffed omelet, was just one of the dishes we served under silver domes at Chinese Pagoda, the chop suey restaurant on the Northwest Side of Chicago owned by my aunt and uncle.
The last wok on the end of the fiery line in the kitchen was reserved exclusively for making the deep-fried delicacies. At a glance, I could always tell who’d made the order — my grandmother’s were my favorites for their endearingly irregular form.
Well into her 70s, she’d heat the oil nearly filling the enormous blackened wok, before lowering a scoop filled with ingredients bound by eggs and bean sprouts. Forged by ferociously bubbling fat, a golden puff emerged. Before rushing the dish to a waiting table, I’d ladle on gravy.
That’s where it all goes wrong.
The egg foo young origin story is said to go back to the southern Chinese coastal province of Guangdong, formerly known as Canton. The dish can now be found as a Cantonese hybrid not only in this country, but across Asia too.
But the reputation of the Chinese-American restaurant dish has been unjustly smeared with poorly made gravy, often nothing more than a cornstarch thickened, soy sauce-colored nightmare.
The recipe here simply celebrates the ingredients, hopefully with the best pastured organic eggs, crisp local bean sprouts and fresh shiitake mushrooms, the savory umami taste subtle yet decisive.
Rather than deep frying, pan fry in a wok with a generous pour of oil for a halo of crispy, egg-battered tendrils.
And then there’s the redemptive gravy: a luscious mushroom sauce that will have you licking the spoon, after lavishing it over your finished dish.
Purists may cry that this is not a so-called authentic egg foo young, and it’s not. It’s not the vintage restaurant dish, but its handcrafted modern descendant, perhaps closer to the spirit of the original.
EGG FOO YOUNG
Prep: 25 minutes. Cook 35 minutes. Makes 6 servings.
Peanut or vegetable oil
8 ounces fresh shiitake or portobello mushrooms, sliced thin
3 tablespoons soy sauce
1 teaspoon dry vermouth or vegetable stock
2 teaspoons sesame oil
1/2 cup water chestnuts, chopped rough
1/2 cup bean sprouts
1/2 cup thinly sliced scallion greens
Freshly ground black pepper
6 eggs, beaten frothy
Steamed white rice
Egg foo young gravy, see recipe
Sesame seeds, optional
1. Heat wok to medium-high; add 1 tablespoon peanut oil and mushrooms immediately. Cook until mushrooms start to brown, about 5 minutes. Add 2 tablespoons soy sauce and vermouth; cook until mushrooms are golden brown, about 5 minutes more. Transfer to a big bowl, with scraped up browned bits; stir 1 teaspoon sesame oil into the mushrooms; set aside to cool.
2. After mushrooms cool, add water chestnuts, bean sprouts, 1/4 cup scallions, remaining soy sauce and sesame oil, and salt and pepper to taste; toss to mix well.
3. To frothy beaten eggs, add mushroom-sprout mixture; mix well to coat all with eggs.
4. Clean out wok, heat, then add oil for frying, about 2 tablespoons.
5. Immediately ladle about 1/2 cup egg mixture in wok. When bottom sets and turns barely golden, flip carefully. Cook other side. Transfer to a rack over a baking sheet. Repeat with remaining mixture, adding more oil if needed.
6. Best served immediately over steamed white rice, with gravy on top or on the side, garnished with scallions and sesame seeds.
EGG FOO YOUNG GRAVY
Prep: 15 minutes. Cook 25 minutes. Makes 6 servings.
1/2 cup peanut or coconut oil
1/2 cup finely sliced white part of scallions
4 ounces shiitake or portobello mushrooms, chopped well
1/2 cup flour
4 cups (one 32-ounce carton) vegetable broth
1 teaspoon soy sauce
Freshly ground black pepper
1. Heat wok to medium-high; add oil, scallion whites and mushrooms. Cook until browned well, about 10 minutes.
2. Sprinkle in flour; stir and cook until golden, about 5 minutes. Slowly whisk in stock until sauce forms. Simmer until desired consistency, 5 to 10 minutes. Add soy sauce, and salt and pepper to taste. Keep warm until ready to serve.