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Trying to duplicate take-out lo mein

Hello,

Specifically, I am trying to make the brown noodles, soaked in brown sauce, stir-fried with thin-sliced chicken, scallions, and still-crispy onion and carrot slivers, bamboo shoots, sprouts, celery, and napa cabbage. Eaten straight out of the waxed carton, and available at fine strip-mall Chinese restaurants throughout the Midwest.

I have tried to make it at home but I have never gotten that indefinable savory flavor you get from the restaurant. Please help me stop paying $7 per carton for such a seemingly simple dish!

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  1. It IS very simple. I commend you on your quest.
    Please describe your method when you try at home.

    4 Replies
    1. re: gordeaux

      OK. First, I thin slice the chicken and toss in cornstarch. While the chicken marinates I slice the vegetables into thin ribbons. I heat up some vegetable oil in the skillet to the point where it is starting to smoke, then I quickly sauté the chicken to a half-done state. Remove chicken, add a little more oil, heat it up again, and then the vegetables go in with some grated ginger. Stir fry for 2 minutes, then add in chicken. Add soy sauce and cornstarch slurry to make a brown sauce. Finally the cooked noodles go in and it’s all stir-fried together for 2-3 minutes.

      The problem is that the end result is too oily, rather than saucy like I am looking for. It also does not have the savory, hard-to-describe take-out taste which is the whole point of the dish. Finally, the color is all wrong… the noodles are too pale and barely even browned! Any tips?

      1. re: RealMenJulienne

        "Add soy sauce and cornstarch slurry to make a brown sauce. Finally the cooked noodles go in and it’s all stir-fried together for 2-3 minutes."

        You can't brown your noodles if you are cooking them in liquid. That is to say, if you are looking for pan seared noodles.

        BUT, if you are looking for them to get brown as in coated with sauce -
        I would suggest a few extra ingredients besides what you've listed. There is a pretty big hole in what you've listed. The biggest omissions from my standpoint are:

        Oyster sauce
        Sesame oil
        Chili garlic sauce
        Shou-Xing wine
        (I'll assume you use garlic)

        "The problem is that the end result is too oily, rather than saucy like I am looking for. It also does not have the savory, hard-to-describe take-out taste which is the whole point of the dish."

        That statement is SCREAMING oyster sauce, chili garlic, and sesame oil to me. Soy sauce, ginger, and slurry are NOT going to net you anything tasting like Chinese take out.

        Try adding a few drops of sesame oil each time you add an ingredient to your wok. It's pretty strong stuff, so just a few drops at a time. The oyster sauce, chili garlic sauce/paste, and shao xing would be added to the soy sauce and slurry. Start with a good tbs full of oyster sauce, to 1/2 tbs of chili garlic, and a splash of the wine. Mix it in the wok, let it get hot, taste the concoction, and add more as needed.

        I really think that sesame oil, and oyster sauce are going to open up a whole new world for you as far as figuring out Chinese take out concoctions.

        Flavor profiles of these things:
        Oyster Sauce - pretty salty, thick, hint of sweetness
        Toasted Sesame oil - very strong nutty flavor. A few drops can season a lot.
        Chili Garlic sauce - salty, garlicky, and depending on the brand, possibly a good amount of heat
        Shao Xing cooking wine - It's cooking wine.

        Get these things at an Asian mkt instead of a big American grocer, and you'll prolly pay about 1/3 of the price the American grocer is charging. Any Asian grocer will have ALL of these things, and probably four or five different brands.

        1. re: gordeaux

          Gordeaux, thank you for your very comprehensive reply. I am off to Asia Mart at this very moment!

          1. re: gordeaux

            I wonder, are there any standard ratios for basic chinese sauces? For instance, I know when I am making a vinaigrette it is generally 3-1 oil to vinegar.
            Is there any foolproof soy to sesame oil to chili garlic sauce to fish sauce to sesame oil etc. ratio for any of the basic sauces?

      2. You need wok hay, which is the flavour imparted by cooking over a higher heat than you could easily replicate at home. MSG would also probably help.

        2 Replies
        1. re: mrbozo

          "MSG would also probably help."

          L! F'ng! O! L!
          Sweet. I needed that.

          1. re: mrbozo

            Exactly.

            So much of what people like about restaurant chinese is impossible to recreate at home because it comes from cooking in a well-seasoned, screaming hot wok.

            The wok gives the food much of that "indefinable savory flavor. "

            Agree on the MSG too. A pinch of Goya sauzon (without annatto) would do it.

          2. Unfortunately, I don't think that you will be able to re-create that unique flavor you are describing without a well-seasoned wok and a really high BTU burner. I say this because I was in pursuit of the same flavors and it wasn't until I was able to replace my cooktop with a high-BTU unit that I ever achieved anything reasonably close to "real" Chinese food. I know that some determined cooks who are unable to re-design their kitchen order a single, high-BTU unit for outdoor use and have had good luck with that. IMHO you are going to need 20k BTU at a minimum, more is better! Also be sure that your wok is properly seasoned - it gets better the more that you use it.

            3 Replies
            1. re: kbjesq

              I agree that it will be very difficult to obtain EXACTLY what you're looking for.

              High BTUs aren't only for getting the pan hot (you can get your pan white hot with enough time on the home stove), but keeping it up to temp while you're cooking.

              Seasoned wok - sure, the home-wok will eventually get seasoned, but that wok in the restaurant kitchen is a genuine workhorse. Cooking almost every dish coming out, day in day out. This amount of use, I think, adds a certain something.

              Speaking of which, there's probably plenty of 'certain somethings' entering the equation. I remember a friend asking me why I couldn't make salt and pepper squid like our favorite Chinese. We agreed, need proper BTUs, super seasoned wok, and alot of this and thats. For example, he usually smoked while he cooked, the cigarette ash about 2 inches long, smoke seeping up so that he'd squint with one eye - secret ingredient is probably cigarette ash...

              You should get better results with the suggestions here.
              My 2c: experiment with various flavors sparingly at first. Sometimes a lighter touch with sasame oil or oyster sauce or chili paste will get you better results than being heavy handed.

              1. re: kbjesq

                Hi Kathryn. Did you see the latest issue of Cook's? They have a pork lo mein recipe. They specifically state that they're using a skillet because the wok doesnt work well at home.

                Let me know what you think if you make it.

                1. re: Calipoutine

                  Their recipe is really meat- and veggie-heavy for the amount of noodles used, and they admit to quadrupling the amount of meat to satisfy their American tasters! There's other changes I would make, but that's our family's taste.

              2. Hmmmmm!

                This is an actual commercial recipe for brown sauce used in quite a few places in Seattle.

                Commercial/Institutional Recipe for Chinese Brown Sauce (Sauce)
                Yield: Approximately 4 1/2 US gallons.

                Ingredients

                50 cups water
                2 cups Shaoxing Cooking Wine
                2 cups mushroom soy sauce
                7 cups soy sauce
                3 lbs sugar
                3 tbsp white pepper
                3 tbsp garlic powder
                3 cups oyster sauce
                1 1/2 cups chicken base
                1 cup sesame oil

                Directions

                Combine all ingredients except sesame oil.
                Place in pot and bring to boil.
                Remove from heat, add sesame oil and stir.
                Cool and refrigerate until use.

                Notes:
                1 pound sugar equals 2 1/4 US cups. 3 pounds equal 6 3/4 cups.
                Chicken base is a commercial product available in various container sizes.

                For smaller batch sizes, use the following ingredient amounts:

                2 1/4 US gallons
                25 cups water
                1 cup Shaoxing Cooking Wine
                1 cup mushroom soy sauce
                3 1/2 cups soy sauce
                1 1/2 lbs sugar
                1 1/2 tbsp white pepper
                1 1/2 tbsp garlic powder
                1 1/2 cups oyster sauce
                3/4 cup chicken base
                1/2 cup sesame oil

                1 1/8 US gallons
                12 1/2 cups water
                1/2 cup Shaoxing Cooking Wine
                1/2 cup mushroom soy sauce
                1 3/4 cups soy sauce
                3/4 lbs sugar
                2 1/4 teaspoon white pepper
                2 1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
                3/4 cup oyster sauce
                6 tablespoon chicken base
                1/4 cup sesame oil

                3 Replies
                1. re: hannaone

                  LOL! Any one of those should last me a couple of years. Maybe decades!

                  1. re: Caroline1

                    When my wife and I did our Teriyaki take out in Seattle, I ummm, uhhh, "acquired" a book of Chinese restaurant take out recipes that are still in use in a number of places in Seattle. I've been toying with the idea of tweaking some of them and downsizing to usable home quantities.

                    1. re: hannaone

                      Well, I see some of my posts are going into orbit again instead of on this board. <sigh> Either that, or the first one will arrive after the secone one.

                      I think you've got a winner! Taking any advance orders? I'm seriousl Call it something like, "Cantonese like you can't get any more," and it will be a runaway best seller!

                2. If you enjoy Asian food, it's really worth buying a wok. Just make sure it's carbon steel and you learn how to cure and care for it. You'll never get "authenic" flavor out of a non-stick or stainless wok, no matter wh's name is on the label. Carbon steel woks are cheap, and for once in life, the best is the cheapest!

                  Lo mein... For openers, I start with a really not wok, add some peanut oil, stir fry shaved garlic and ginger. Do NOT let the garlic burn. Add whatever meat you're using. When I use chicken, I use thighs and cut it into small pieces.. Let begin to brown stirring constantly, then add veggies in order, longest cooking first, then push it all high on the sides of the pan, add a bit more oil if needed, add cooked noodles and allow to brown a bit, then stir everything together with a slurry of corn startch, mirin, a little oyster sauce to darken it, and soy suace (Kikkoman for cooking, Yamas for finishing). Add to lo mein and stir until thickened. Add sesame oil, maybe a little fish sauce. Taste. Add more oyster sauce if desired. All sorts of things you can add at this point to tune the flavor.

                  I often make a really basic lo mein using chicken, sliced onions, chopped celery, a few sliced button mushrooms, green cabbage and good old supermarket fettucini. And the slurry, of course. Many years ago, there was a great Asian market in San Diego called Woo Chee Chong, and they sold this by the tubfull from their food cunter. $2.00 worth of take-out to feed an army!

                  23 Replies
                  1. re: Caroline1

                    Do you first cook your noodles (boil), dry them and put the noodles into the wok, leave them alone allowing them to brown and crisp a bit first. Then remove the noodle nest and put it back in the wok once you're made the rest of the dish? Or am I thinking of a different dish? Chow mein perhaps? I had this question askedof me once before and the person was from Texas. This brown sauce is really something I'm not understanding, is it different than say the sauce for brocolli beef with oyster sauce?

                    1. re: chef chicklet

                      For lo mein, I just use very well drained fettucini. I usually boil them before I even heat up the wok, set them in the collander to drain while I do the rest. They don't have to brown, but if they do, that's okay too. I just do try to get a little of the fry-texture in a few places, but it's really not an absolute must. I did use fresh-frozen udon once, and it was good, but I love udon too much to use it in anything but a broth. But there's no law you can't experiment. I have used wide rice noodles, but they aren't my favorite because they don't have the "tooth" that wheat pasta does.

                      For other dishes such as chow mein, in which there are no noodles actually in the dish, but are used as a garnish (if that's the right word), I often deep fry rice noodles and make a sort of nest -- or whatever happens once they hit the hot oil -- and use that UNDER the chow mein, as opposed to the traditional on-top-of. When rice noodles hit hot oil, it's like instant popped rice. They expand like a balloon and take on a fascinating texture. Crispy, tender, fun. I often eat them alone, just as a snack, but when you put any meat-vegetable-sauce dish on top of them, the puffed noodles take on the moisture and do their best to revert to the original texture they would have had if boiled. But little edges and curls escape the sauce, so you end up with both textures. I *THOUGHT* I had created this all by myself, but when I talked about it in another thread, several Asian Amricans told me that there is, indeed, nothing new under the sun and it's been done for ages. But if I understood correctly, mostly in homes and rarely in restaurants. Maybe it's just a no brainer that anyone can stumble on to, no creativity required. '-)

                      With Chinese dishes, I'm not convinced there is a right way or a wrong way, just one particular cook's way as opposed to another cook's. In Chinese cooking (as opposed to French), "brown sauce," for me, is simply a sauce that is brown, and there are several ways to get there. Oyster sauce is a common method. Dark soy sauce is another. Can't remember what the recipe was for, but decades ago I used a Chinese recipe that made "brown sauce" by adding molasses. Don't be afraid to experiment. But for dishes like lo mein or chow mein or moo goo guy pan, the sauce is most often the last step in making the dish when a slurry is added in the final stage of cooking. In some dishes there is already plenty of liquid cooked out of the vegetables, so a broth would not be used beyond what is required to make the slurry. Sometimes the slurry is best made with water so as not to modify the delicate flavors of the ingredients already in the wok. Just depends on the dish and what you're after.

                      For me, wok cooking is most often an adventure because I cook by intuition and inspiration, even though I must have at least a dozen Chinese cook books. And too bad for me (usually) if I ever want the exact dish again, because if I don't write it down before finishing the meal, chances are it's a place I'll never go again! But who knows? Next time may be even better.

                      So now I have a question for all of you bona fide Chinese and/or Asian cooks out there. Is this the usual way to cook, or is it just me? Do you improvise a lot, based on what you have at hand? Are there any recipes you do exactly the same very time? Thanks! Just trying to figure out if I'm weird or not.

                      1. re: Caroline1

                        I am definitely the same as you with this stuff. Eyeballing is a big part of my method for cooking. Improvisation makes it fun. You KNOW how much of X is needed, and how much of X is too much. Like soy sauce for example. You have to use simple common sense. Too much will make your dish too salty / watery. Too much sesame oil will overpower everything else. Too much garlic will - well, there's really no such thing when it comes to chowing. The Chinese method of cooking "chow"ing that is. :-)

                        For danhole below, just a data point:

                        I generally use chow fun noodles, rice flakes, or rice thread noodles. I do not think this would be called a "lo mein" but a chow fun. The cooking method will be exactly the same, just a diff noodle, and prep of the noodle. When prepped correctly, you do get a nice (albeit different) "chew" from a rice noodle.

                        1. re: gordeaux

                          gordeaux,

                          thanks for the answer. I have seen 3 different type of lo mein.

                          1) very thin noodles, which I am guessing are the rice thread noodles, and the kind I prefer,

                          2) noodles that look like brown fettucini, which I suspect are wheat noodles,

                          3) noodles that look like spaghetti (doesn't look very good to me).

                          My daughter likes the lo mein that looks like fetticini, so if she wanted to could she substitute that, or do we need to go to an asian market?

                          1. re: danhole

                            The fettucini works fine for me. Most of the labels at my Asian markets have little to no English, so I have no idea -- well, other than looking -- what they're made of. Got some noodles made out of sweet potatoes one time. So the advantage of fettucini is that at least I know what I'm buying!

                            Oh, and the texture works well too. Or at least I've never had any complaints. Or leftovers. '-)

                            1. re: danhole

                              Are you describing the 3 noodles in their raw/packaged or cooked state?

                          2. re: Caroline1

                            I do have recipes since I learned those while taking Chinese cooking. The recipes are so good, I can't see what I could do to improve them. The one dish I've made different once in awhile is Fried Rice, meaning just the veggies vary from time to time. Or sometimes I use shrimp and sometimes Pork Char Siu. I love Chinese food, or Asian food for that matter, I want to make it like they do so I'll follow the recipes.

                            I have a Chicken Chow Mein recipe its pretty close to an authentic take out, its just delicious. And I'm craving it now.

                            1. re: chef chicklet

                              I can follow a recipe, and it's nice to know they're there if I need them. I think my cooking was marked by one of my childhood Christmases. My parents gave me a very elaborate chemistry set, assuming I would follow the booklet and do some well proven "experiements." Instead, I did experiment. Did my damndest to either turn lead into gold, or build the world's first cold fusion reactor. Didn't do either successfully, but I did make the house unihabitable without gas masks a couple of times. Little wonder I never got another chemistry set... But NO ONE can take my spice rack away!!! '-)

                              1. re: Caroline1

                                How funny!!! I guess I'm stifled a bit. Gotta tell ya those momofuku buns that they posted the other day make me wnat to just my recipe for steamed buns and just roll it thicker, and cut into that shape. See that's about it... but man that pork belly bun grabbed me!!! Ok get back to work and pass on more recipes doctor.

                            2. re: Caroline1

                              Hi Caroline1, just wanted to make a small clarification about chow mein. Authentic chow mein (i.e., Cantonese style) has noodles as the base of the dish, not on top of the dish. Cooked egg noodles are pan fried to make the edges crispy, placed on the platter, then the meat/veggies/sauce mixture gets poured on top. The noodles soak up the sauce, but the noodles around the outside edge that miss the sauce stay nice and crispy. The dish with the dry noodles sprinkled on top is a sad travesty imposed upon unsuspecting Westerners by LaChoy.

                              And to answer your question, yes, there are definitely real, classic recipes in Chinese cooking, just as with any other cuisine. Bad "westernized" Chinese restaurants may have people thinking that there is just one generic brown sauce that is used over and over, but that is really not the case. Each region in China has its own specialties and cooking style, and most don't even have a "brown" sauce in their repertoires. If you check out some good Chinese cook books that covers different regional cooking, you can get a sense of the wide variety of styles.

                              But, just to be clear, there is nothing wrong with how you're cooking. Just like there is a "classic" coq au vin in French cooking, there are infinite varieties that home and professional cooks create to make it their own. It's the joy of cooking!

                              1. re: TorontoJo

                                My nephew and I always joked about a theoretical North American chinese restaurant (on main street next to the pharmacy) in a town of 258 people in the middle of nowhere;

                                Boiled spaghetti tossed with VH soy sauce: Chinese Noodles
                                Fried Pork chop marinated in VH soy sauce: Chinese pork
                                Campbells Chicken Noodle Soup with La Choy soy sauce stirred in: House Special Chinese Soup
                                Fried Chicken Nuggets tossed in La Choy red sauce: Chinese Pineapple Chicken

                                NOTE: add tobasco to any dish for 'Szechuan Style"

                                Well you get the point '-)

                                1. re: TorontoJo

                                  Hi, TJ... Then maybe it's "chop suey" that you're supposed to put the fried crispy noodles on top of? I just don't remember.

                                  Yes, there are great regional differences in Chinese cooking, and to follow them faithfully also requires a great Chinese pantry! <g> I try to keep mine stocked, but I have to admit I'm almost always out of something and have to improvise.

                                  For anyone interested in "authentic" (if there really is such a thing) Chinese cooking, I highly recommend the near-encycolopedic book by Eileen Lin-Fey Lo simply called "Chinese Kitchen." I don't think it's possible to write a truly "encyclopedic" cookbook on Chinese cuisine in one volume! Maybe not even in twenty. But what I do treasure about her work is that she spends a great deal of time detailing different ingredients, even utensiles, and isn't afraid to recommend brands she thinks work well. A truly exceptional work.

                                  For variety and authencity, I also treasure the "Wei-Chuan Cooking Book" series. I have "Chinese Snacks" and "Chinese Cuisine," both by Huang Su Huei. Beutifully photographed with detailed instructions and mouth watering pictures of the dishes.

                                  Unfortunately, I seem to have lost my "best" Chinese cook book. It was a small, spiral bound volume written by an order of nuns in China, prior to WWII, as a fund raiser for their order. The thing I miss most about it is that it contains the best recipe for sweet and sour pork I have ever come across. Contrary to popular belief, sweet and sour is an authentic Chinese dish. It's just that they don't make it in the USA! This particular recipe used par boil whole pork ribs, then coated with corn starch and deep fried to crispy yet tender goodness, with a pungent dark brown sweet and sour sauce that took your breath away if you inhaled while taking it to your mouth. With cucumbers in the sauce. I can approximate it from memory, but really wish I could find it again to fine tune things!

                                  There are a lot of excellent Chinese cook books out there. However, once you have the basics down, sometimes it's just more fun to let my "mad scientist" complex have its way and strike out for new glory!

                                  And yes, there are dozens of Chinese "brown sauces." Don't know what else to call them, but a copy of "Chinese Kitchen" will send people in the right direction for many of them. A truly great cuisine!

                                  1. re: Caroline1

                                    Could you please provide a full bibliographic citation for "Chinese Kitchen"? Google isn't picking it up.

                                    1. re: FoodFuser

                                      She likely means this book, here at amazon:

                                      http://www.amazon.com/Chinese-Kitchen...

                                      Hope that link works. Just search on Eileen Yin-Fei Lo

                                    2. re: Caroline1

                                      Honestly me, I've never used those dried noodles from a can. For me those have nothing to do with Chinese food as I know it.

                                      The chow mein I was taught was a fried noodle basket that is topped with the rest of the goodies. They are not so fried that you can' t mix it all up, they are just barely crispy, and the sauces softens it, and then I toss it all together and mix it up because that's what chow mein is here. Ya know, I don't think I know what lo mein is???

                                      I know it as chow mein and even that I'm sure varies regionally. I don't want to challenge anyone's recipe, because I do think we are going to get a gazillion variances. Mrs. Yu taught me the recipes she knows, and she cooks very similar to the Chinese food I've grown to love in the Bay Area. I feel so fortunate to have taken her classes, I love her style. I don't know if it's Cantonese, Mandarin or what, but she really emphazied the importance of using garlic and ginger in just about every dish we made.

                                      1. re: chef chicklet

                                        Don't believe I've ever seen "lo mein" on a West Coast menu. Here noodles mixed with stir-fried ingredients are called "chow mein" -- unless made with soft rice fun noodles, in which case they're called "chow fun". Seems to be a geographic semantics thing.

                                        1. re: Sharuf

                                          I went on my flickr accout did a search to see pics of lo mein and chow mein, they look identical to me....appears you are correct!

                                          1. re: chef chicklet

                                            While it's possible both dishes *may* have identical ingredients, there is a difference. Chow mein has the noodles prepared seperately from the rest, then the veggies and meat part is put on top of the noodles just before serving. For lo mein, the noodles are drained well, then added to the wok with the vegetables and meat, usually just before the slurry is added. The end result is that the noodles in lo mein have much more flavor than those in chow mein.

                                            And yes, I've seen (ordered) lo mein on the west coast. Not only in restaurants, but in the hot food section of my favorite Asian market, which has since closed. You have to look in the "Rice and Noodles" section of a menu to find it, whereas chow mein is often listed in the chicken section.

                                            1. re: Caroline1

                                              The only reason you have seen lo mein on Western menus is because Easterns think chow mein is a veggi meat mix served on crispy Chun King noodles, and the name is for easy understanding. I wouldn't use the hot food section of your Asian market as the bellwether of Chinese cuisine. Also, your description of chow mein is incorrect...you are describing "Hong Kong style" chow mein, where the noodles are fried first.

                                              1. re: OldTimer

                                                I think you haven't understood what I wrote. Here's a basic chow mein recipe:
                                                http://chinesefood.about.com/od/chowm...
                                                Note the final instruction for pouring the chow mein over the prepared noodles.

                                                Here's a lo mein recipe:
                                                http://chinesefood.about.com/od/chick...
                                                Note when the noodles are added to the wok? Before the slurry and sauce flavorings, just as I said.

                                                Hope this helps.

                                                1. re: Caroline1

                                                  Hey girlfriend, I hate to quibble with you but I never see the noodles and stir-fry thingies served in separate layers around here (Bay Area). Chow mein (and chow fun) I get served are always commingled. The once-famous "beef chow mein with black bean sauce" served at the well-loved and long departed Jackson Cafe in SF Chinatown is a prize example.