Apsara Palace's Cambodian Style Cantonese Noodles (Dry)
I always tell my students to avoid making broad generalizations, but I'm going to make this one anyway: American Jews love Chinese food. Go to any Chinese restaurant open on Christmas Eve or Day, or the end of the Passover leavened bread fast, and it will be full of Jews. This love precedes the ubiquity of Chop Suey joints and Americanized Chinese restaurants across the US. Maybe it goes back to the 19th-century waves of Chinese and Jewish immigration to the US, when we were the two largest groups of non-Christian immigrants. Maybe it's the proximity of Chinatowns to Eastern-European immigrant Jewish neighborhoods, like NYC's Chinatown and Lower East Side. But the connection goes back even earlier. Lokshen, the Yiddish word for noodles, is derived from lo mein.
Chinese food is surprisingly Kosher-friendly, too. Though pork and shellfish figure prominently in many Chinese regional cuisines, vegetable dishes, tofu, eggs, and flaky white fish are also common. Chinese food rarely incorporates dairy, so the taboo of mixing milk and meat is not an issue (this may also be why there are numerous meat/nondairy Kosher Chinese restaurants). Chinese Buddhist monks developed incredibly creative, delightful vegetarian dishes to approximate luxurious meats like tea smoked duck and scallops in XO sauce. One of the best parts of going to NYC was going to a vegetarian dim sum restaurant with my family and being allowed to order anything I wanted! (Now, ironically, I eat all the treif but can't have wheat gluten and can no longer eat at these creative Buddhist Chinese restaurants).
And for many Jews, Chinese food somehow gets this exceptional status when it comes to following the laws of kashrut. Meat is often chopped up into bite size chunks or incorporated seamlessly into turnip cakes, dumplings, and umami sauces. You aren't necessarily breaking open lobsters and chewing on pig ears (though plenty of Jews, even mostly Kosher ones, will do this at Chinese restaurants too). Even my parents, who don't eat nonkosher meat, would never ask about broth bases or oyster sauce in our Chinese food; we just accepted that these vegetarian-looking foods were just fine.
I grew up in Providence, RI, where the Chinese food scene has its own unique flair...mainly that all the Chinese restaurants are actually owned by Cambodian or Lao people and serve a mix of Chinese, Khmer, and other Southeast Asian foods. In fact, I was really disappointed upon discovering in my adulthood that many of my favorite Chinese food wasn't Chinese at all...which brings me to today's recipe.
Apsara Palace opened down the street from my parents' house in the late 1990s and was an immediate hit with the heavily-Jewish East Side neighborhood. We probably had Apsara food every week, and my very favorite thing were these Cambodian Style Cantonese Noodles, in both wet and dry iterations. The wet version is a more common Cambodian interpretation of Chinese Chow Fun served with vegetables in gravy; it is called Mee Ketang. It is similar to the Thai dish Lad Na. The dry version, I have never seen anywhere outside of Providence. It has the sticky, slightly crisped texture of Pad See Ew with the sweet-savory taste of Mee Ketang. Sadly, I do not have Apsara's true recipe, which somehow manages to be vegetarian and gluten-free and still taste extremely delicious. But my version approximates the taste and is easy to make if you can find the ingredients.
This recipe is really adaptable to incorporate whatever meat or vegetables you happen to have—Apsara's version always had bok choy, choy sum, and carrots, but the other vegetables vary by the season. You can also make this dish vegetarian/vegan/kosher by making a few substitutions. The amounts of vegetables and meat are approximate as it is a matter of preference. I included my preferred vegetables, you you could also add baby corn, broccoli, mushrooms, etc.
Serves 2-3 as a meal or many more as part of a spread.
1 package fresh flat rice noodles (you can substitute dried rice flake noodles if fresh are not available)
roughly 1 lb of meat, seafood, tofu, or combination cut into bite sized chunks
1 medium carrot, sliced diagonally or in rounds
2-4 baby bok choy, cleaned and sliced in half
a few handfuls of choy sum or Chinese broccoli, cut into 2-inch pieces
one handful of pea pods
3 green onions, chopped
2 stalks Chinese celery, chopped
2 eggs (optional)
Knorr chicken flavored broth powder or other chicken-style bullion or MSG
1-2 tbsp neutral oil
For the sauce:
3 tbsp Kecap Manis or other dark sweet soy sauce
1 tbsp fish sauce (or soy sauce if you are vegetarian)
1 tbsp oyster sauce (or mushroom sauce if Kosher or vegetarian)
1 tbsp sugar, preferably palm or coconut
4 cloves garlic, chopped
If your noodles were refrigerated, you will need to soak them in warm water for a few minutes to be able to pull the sheets apart. They will probably tear in pieces, and that is fine—you need to cut/rip them into bite size pieces anyway. If you are working with dry rice flakes, soak them in warm water for ~10 minutes. They should be flexible but still firm. Strain and toss with a bit of oil if they are sticking.
Prepare the meat/tofu. If you are using tofu, I recommend you fry it in a generous amount of oil so that it has a nice texture. For any other meat or fish, stir fry in a wok over high heat with salt and a small amount of neutral oil until just cooked. Set aside. If there is a lot of liquid or fat left in the wok, wipe it out before continuing to the next step.
Mix the ingredients for the sauce together.
Put the wok over high heat. Add 1 tbsp oil to the wok. When it starts to spittle, add the noodles They will break into smaller chunks as you stir fry them.
Once the noodles have softened, push the noodles to the side of the wok and crack the eggs into the space you made. Scramble until cooked, then mix back in with the noodles.
Add the celery, carrots, and sauce, and stir to incorporate. Cook for 2-3 minutes, until the noodles begin to stick to the pan and get caramelized in parts. This is the tastiest part, so you want to let it happen.
Add the bok choy, choy sum, peapods, and cooked meat to the pan. Sprinkle with 1/2 tsp chicken flavor broth powder, if using. Stir everything again and cover for a minute or two, until the greens are just cooked and the meat/tofu is warmed through. Sprinkle with msg or chicken broth powder until preferred level of saltiness is achieved.
Serve with hot sauce and fish sauce as a one-pan stir fry or part of a larger meal.