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Lo Mein - something missing

Made a huge pile of lo mein for dinner last night. It was really good, but was missing something that I just can't put my finger on. There's some taste that the lo mein from the restaurant has that I wasn't able to replicate last night. Some...umami.

Here is a rough lineup of my ingredients, in no particular order:
peanut oil
napa cabbage
carrots
garlic
ginger
noodles
light soy
dark soy
oyster sauce
chicken broth
sugar
salt
mushrooms
char siu
shrimp
cornstarch
sesame oil

What is the missing taste? It's definitely a sauce component, not a veggie or meat. The shrimp and char siu were just perfect. Is it MSG?

What is it that makes that wonderful taste?

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  1. QueenB, maybe it's not the ingredients but the proportions? Maybe you had too much of one ingredient that overpowered another? Or do you think maybe it's Chinese cooking wine that you're missing? I see that in a lot of marinades added to stir-fries.

    It could also be the quality of the lo mein. If the noodles itself doesn't have the right taste, that might throw off the balance. Of course, it's really hard for us to say since we can't taste your lo mein over the Internet. Again, whoever is inventing that tastable screen has got to hurry up. ;-)

    1. try fresher lo mein, avoid shrimp, and lighten up on the sesame oil .
      Regarding mushrooms (fresh or canned), have you tried sesame seeds to kick up the flovor? Also bean sprouts and fresh scallions?
      sequence of cooking and proportions are important. (if there is a restaurant that you like, you could just ask them for the recipe :)

      http://allrecipes.com/Recipe/Vegetabl...

      on the last line try low mein (instead of chow mein)

      1. Do you mean that almost "smoky" taste? I hope someone knows the answer to this, because I've tried everything I can think of. I have a suspicion that it's from a searing-hot wok almost burning the oyster sauce or soy sauce. ???

        15 Replies
        1. re: bakergal

          Yes! That is exactly it! A smoky, almost sweet-smoky taste! I couldn't figure out how to put it into words.

          1. re: QueenB

            Oh, then it sounds like you're talking about "wok-hay" or wok breath as some refer to. That's basically just the caramelization of the savory-sugary ingredients from the very hot wok. Just cook at high heat and very quickly so you don't burn things. You'll know you've got it right when you hear that sizzling.

            1. re: singleguychef

              I second that - the wok must be smoking hot, and then you will arouse that lovely smoky aroma. The noodles need to have that bit of color on them, and then that is where all the flavor (or fond in French cooking) will be found. Go easy on that sesame oil also because that can really distorte the taste. Store the sesame oil in the fridge if you don't already - I learned the hard way by adding some to a dish of noodles once and it was so rancid I had to toss all the noodles away! Good luck and try the super hot wok and a neutral oil, and then see if that helps.

              1. re: daguttgrl79

                I think I used a teaspoon of sesame oil on an entire wokful of lo mein. Enough to let you just know it was there, but it certainly wasn't overwhelming. I'm pretty experienced in the use of sesame oil, and do keep it in the fridge.

                I'll try a hotter wok next time (had it turned up to 8 on my stove, where 10 is the highest. I think I may have to go out and buy one of those metal non-stick woks though, to get the real "wok-hay". Mine is nonstick and doesn't quite produce the same result.

                1. re: QueenB

                  It is indeed the “Wok Hay” that is missing, but unfortunately the home cook unless they have a high BTU setup that a Chinese restaurant has, will be unable to duplicate the “Wok Hay” produced by restaurant Wok stoves that have outputs of typically 100,000 to 200,00 BTUs (http://www.foodventure.com/Book_FireP... ). In addition, even if one were to buy a complete Chinese commercial Wok station, there are usually city ordinances that prohibit the large gas lines needed to produce those high BTU’s, since it is obviously dangerous to have such large heat output in homes. A home professional type stove unit (Viking, Wolf, Bluestar, and others) connected to the maximum allowed home gas lines typically only output 20,000 BTU’s. The only way for a home cook to obtain such high BTU’s is to buy an outdoor Wok unit that is powered by a propane tank for use in your backyard (http://www.chow.com/stories/10004 ).

                  Although we read one suggestion somewhere, possibly Chowhound, where one can have some aspect of the “Wok Hay” by allowing the meats to sear in the Wok for 15 to 30 seconds under the highest heat setting to try to obtain the “Wok Hay.” But obviously, it is not the same as cooking on a commercial high BTU Chinese stove with a huge wok (24 inch diameter) where the food is cooked in literally 10 to 15 seconds.

                  At the low BTU outputs of the typical home stove, once too much food is put into the wok, the wok immediately cools down and the high heat searing technique needed in Chinese cooking is lost. For the home cook who wants to cook Chinese dishes, one just has to accept that one is not going to be able to duplicate the “Wok Hay” of the restaurants. One possible way to mitigate the low heat output of home stoves is to reduce the size and volume of the dishes in order to not lower the temperature of the wok as much when the food is thrown into the wok, but this is not always practical if one has to cook for a large family, hence Asians who use wok cooking have accepted that they are not going to be able to duplicate the restaurant “Wok Hay” aspect of Chinese food, but Chinese home cooking done well is still tasty in it’s own way, even though it lacks that elusive “Wok Hay” only obtainable using a very high BTU burner setup (must include the needed ventilation for high heat stoves) and the requisite cooking skills to handle such high heats that cooks the food literally in seconds. One second too long and the dish is already overcooked.

                  Being Chinese, we have to tell you that we have eaten many a delightful home cooked Chinese meal at the homes of friends who are skilled cooks, even though the Chinese dishes were not cooked at the high heats available in Chinese restaurants. And we have eaten many bad meals at Chinese restaurants cooked with high heats by lesser skilled cooks, hence it is not only the high heats but also the elusive skill of the cook that is probably more important. Keep trying different techniques to mitigate the lowering of the wok temperatures and one can still obtain very tasty Chinese dishes. Maybe not as good as the dishes the best cooks in Chinese restaurants can produce, but nevertheless still good in it’s own right.

                  It should be mentioned that there are many other Chinese dishes that do not depend upon high heat stir-frying (the Yang – hot and active) techniques, but use steaming, braising, poaching, and boiling (the Yin – cool and soothing) instead. When we were younger, we would always hear our mother tell us not to eat too much “Yang” foods that are stir fried or deep fried, which are tasty but not as good for you as the foods cooked with “Yin” methods.

                  1. re: lwong

                    Very informative. Thank you!

                    I'll be content with making very good food at home, just without the wok-hay.

                    1. re: lwong

                      Iwong excellent points! Such valuable information is usually left out of Chinese or Asian recipes! I have a wonderful old cookbook "Secrets of Chinese Cooking" by Tsuifeng and Hsiangju LIN and it speaks of these exact elements needed for a Chinese meal. It is a basic source, nothing fancy, but the information on technique and the power behind the recipes is invaluable.
                      The recipes are family style, and many their own, what it has taught me is that temperature ( which is so important ) slicing, the ultimate freshness of ingredients,how the ingredients can bring out the best in foods. And that patience and enormous respect for the Chinese cuisine is a direct result of the outcome.

                      Most recipes posted just don't give out that kind of information.

                      1. re: lwong

                        For some reason, Chowhound includes the period at the end of the sentence in converting the Internet links into clickable links, which of course will result in an error message that no link is available. The links in our above message have been corrected with no grammer "periods" below. The links below should be one click linkable now:

                        a. http://www.foodventure.com/Book_FireP...

                        )

                        b. http://www.chow.com/stories/10004)

                  2. re: singleguychef

                    What order should we add ingredients to emphasize that smoky taste? Hot oil, then garlic & ginger. Noodles next? Veg next? Sauces when? A lot of technique needed for such a simple dish, lol. Thanks for this help.

                    1. re: bakergal

                      It is a lot of work! But at least it's simple, I think.

                      What I've learned is that it helps to have anything that needs a long time to cook be prepared separately ahead of time. For example, I might fry the egg on its own and have it all light and fluffy and then add to the general mix later.

                      Vegetables also let off some moisture, so you'd want to cook that first and then let the moisture dry out before you add the next ingredients to your wok.

                      Looking at Queen B's list of ingredients, this is how I probably would have done it in sequence of when what goes in the wok:

                      1) peanut oil goes into the hot wok followed by garlic and ginger to create the aromatics.

                      2) mushrooms, napa cabbage, and carrots to soften the vegetables. Sprinkle some salt to extract moisture. You don't need the vegetables to be fully cooked because it'll continue to cook when you add the rest of the ingredients.

                      3) At this point, you may need to add some more oil that may have dried out while cooking the vegetables. Add some sesame oil then the noodles and your marinade of light soy, dark soy, oyster sauce and sugar. I wouldn't put in all the marinade, just a little at a time. As your wok dries out, then add more.

                      4) finish off with shrimp and char siu, then create the "gravy" or sauce with the chicken broth and cornstarch.

                      Again, all the above should happen in just minutes if you have a lot of the ingredients prepared and cooked ahead of time (if needed). Hope that helps. Does this inspire you to make another batch? ;-)

                      1. re: singleguychef

                        I did things almost how you list them.

                        Basically, peanut oil then in goes ginger and garlic for a few seconds until they smell really good. Then, mushrooms (that I "marinated" in oyster sauce) and carrots. Cook a minute. Then, cabbage, sugar and salt. Cook one more minute, dump out of wok. Put char siu in wok until just turns crispy on edges (2 minutes) add shrimp and cook until just done. Dump out of wok. Add more peanut oil (2 Tbsp?), then throw in noodles, wok until they turn just a bit crispy. Add sauce made of soy(s), chicken broth and cornstarch. Wok a minute, until noodles have pretty much absorbed sauce. Add veggies and meats back in, toss. Drizzle a tsp of sesame oil over the lot and toss again. Serve. Very tasty, but missing that "wok-hay".

                        1. re: QueenB

                          For that smoky flavor, you have to cook the "towel dried" noodles in a pancake like style on high heat, then flip so that you have a golden brown noodle pancake. Probably where that smoky flavor is coming from, then you remove the pancake. and cooking the other ingredients. I wipe my wok out after cooking the meat or the veggies to avoid wok gook, and I then heat the wok up again adding oil making sure to get it good and hot and throw it all back in, stiriing in the seasoning sauce and giving it time to thicken.

                          This is the way I was taught, by a wonderful Chinese woman, and she did not add oyster sauce, Along with that her instructions were to marinate the chicken in sherry, not the mushrooms. I guess it wouldn't hurt if you wanted to though. Her method was to use several dried shitake, rehdrated and then squeezed dry and sliced, removing the hard stem.

                          It takes practice to get the art of making good chowmein down, but once you do, you will have many friends.

                          1. re: QueenB

                            Hmm, sounds like a good sequence. If you ever feel you're lacking "wok hay", then reduce the liquids, which means maybe less borth and less sesame oil. (Although less oil may mean sticking to the wok.) And always remember not to crowd the wok with too many ingredients.

                            I think you're on the right track. Just have to practice more.

                    2. re: QueenB

                      Here's the secret answer:
                      Literally one drop of 'liquid smoke'. No more.
                      Since I started adding this drop that special something is barely present.

                      1. re: Puffin3

                        Excellent idea Puffin3. Thanks so much. I will give that a try and I know what you mean about "one drop". It is so weird how one thing can be off and it just don't taste that good. Appreciate your message!!!!!

                  3. Didn't have time to read all the great posts - heading out the door - but I find that almost all home ranges don't have the btu's needed to properly fire up a wok and keep it at optimal temperature . If you don't have access to a range that does pump out serious heat, you might try a cast-iron pan and cook in small portions. Cast-iron retains heat like no other, and searing is its specialty, which in essence is what you're trying to accomplish.

                    Also, try adding a little fish sauce for more umami - it works well with rice noodles. But you still need the heat to get it to work with everything else. Also try to keep your dry ingredients dry, i.e., towel dry your veggies and the noodles shouldn't be dripping wet... hope this helps - good luck!

                    3 Replies
                    1. re: bulavinaka

                      Although a cast iron pan does retain temperatures quite well, a cast iron pan is not particularly well suited for Chinese stir frying since it lacks the oval design of a wok where the wide and high sides allows quick and vigorous stirring of the ingredients. One needs to actually tour a working Chinese restaurant kitchen to see wok cooking in action to understand what we mean by vigorous stirring. Professional wok cooking is a show in itself with rapid and constant stirring, the food almost flying out of the wok, the quick putting in and taking out of ingredients, and Chinese chefs often times allows the food inside the wok to catch on fire briefly, which is another professional technique that is not typically available to the home cook. We do not know any home cooks who use this technique of letting the food inside the wok catch on fire, and while there are certainly some home cooks who can do this, the number of home cooks who use this technique are obviously not very common. It would be not be the safest technique to adopt for the home cook, to put it mildly.

                      At the Foodtimeline.org website (http://www.foodtimeline.org/foodasian...) , it states amusingly that:

                      “The wok appears to be a rather recent acquisition as Chinese kitchen furniture goes; it has been around for only two thousand years. The first woks I know of are little pottery models on the pottery stove modes in Han Dynasty tombs.”

                      With such longevity, the assumption must be made that the wok is the ideal design for Chinese cookery with no suitable substitute in sight yet.

                      Another website with further information on the Chinese wok is at http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/food/19... .

                      Bulavinaka made a very good point about ensuring that all of the ingredients to be cooked in the very hot wok are dry, otherwise there will be much splattering and oily smoke and residue rising from the wok due to the water coming in contact with the hot oil. This aspect of keeping your ingredients dry is usually not mentioned or stressed in Chinese cookbooks, since it is a “don’t care” situation for the professional cook with commercial high Cubic Feet per Minute (CFM) ventilation systems, but for the home cook it is very important to keep the amount of vaporized oil to a minimum, otherwise your whole kitchen will be oil covered and sometimes even the other rooms in your house depending upon the air flow patterns, since in the typical American kitchen, ventilation is an afterthought with CFM’s of only several hundred CFM. Typical American kitchen ventilation systems are not designed for Chinese cooking, which requires much more ventilation to exhaust the oily smoke to the outside. Commercial kitchens have ventilation systems in the thousands of CFM’s of air being vented from the kitchen to the outside air. If you have ever wondered why a person can smell a fast food restaurant like McDonald’s from blocks away, it is because they all have extremely efficient ventilation systems.

                      1. re: lwong

                        You're right on the money about the shortcomings of a cast iron skillet. However, the important thing is to reduce the quantities and increase the steps to ultimately get a similar affect. One needs to sautee the ingredients individually - removing them as they're done(keeping them warm in the oven), then returning all in the reheated pan to finish them all together. It's a pain, but most don't have the gear (as you mention so eloquently above - a need for serious btu's and ventilation) necessary to even come close by using the same methods as a chef who is adept at using a properly equipped wok station. The great thing about kitchen remodelling nowadays is that there are contractors who can make a seperate wok "closet" for those so predisposed to apply their skills. Another trick is to take it outside and get a high btu burner. My neighbor used to do this, not to stir-fry, but to fry up whole large catfish, Thai-style. The results were magnificent!

                        Iwong, thanks for the great info! Kana vaka levu (eat well in Fijian)!

                      2. re: bulavinaka

                        I think bulavinaka's right on with the fish sauce - specially for the noodles.

                      3. Use 3-4 tbsp schmaltz, when hot, toss in noodles (preboiled, of course). Better if cooked noodles rest in fridge overnight lightly oiled and covered. Let noodles sit undisturbed for 5-10 minutes, until some are charred in spots. Removed from wok and add at end of cooking. Use well seasoned carbon steel wok, no non-stick, no cast iron and NO stainless steel. Black mushroom, black vinegar and sweet chili sauce add a lot to the dish...instead of salt, use fish sauce.