Cantonese Steak Chow Fun (Ft. Dried Ho Fun Noodles)
Chow Fun Any Place, Any Time
The most important thing to know about this recipe is that unlike all other recipes for Cantonese beef chow fun, this one does not require you to make or find freshly steamed rice noodles. Instead it shows you how to make do with dried rice noodles. And in fact, more than make do, make something genuinely great.
But first, a bit of why I, who cook almost exclusively Sichuan food for my spicy girl, am making Cantonese noodles. Spicy Sichuan dishes are Fongchong’s favorite, and mine as well, and what I tend to cook for her because it’s what I know. But my daughter actually grew up on the rural outskirts of Guangzhou, where the food was far from spicy, and on the rare occasions that I make a Cantonese dish, she lights up. These are flavors she knows in her soul.
So I’ve been trying to add some classic Cantonese dishes to my repertoire, starting with noodles, my personal weakness. I mean, if you’ve ever sat outside at a daipaidong (大牌档, dàpáidàng/daai6 paai4 dong3) in Hong Kong and had a plate of just-wokked beef chow fun, the wok hei still floating above it, then you will always crave that dish. That’s my memory, however, not Fongchong’s, because she had never eaten at a restaurant before we met her. But the flavors of Cantonese food are still ingrained in her from 11 years of home-cooking in her village in Conghua.
The problem with making chow fun, stir-fried rice noodles, at home is the noodles themselves. Restaurants use fresh, wide rice noodles, called ho fun in Cantonese, and recipes always recommend the same. But how many of us actually live near a source of freshly steamed rice noodles? And the noodles must be very fresh—as in just made—because noodles that have been refrigerated are impossible to work with. When you take them out of the package, they are more than stuck together, they are melded together. You can’t pry them apart with your fingers; microwaving doesn’t budge them much; and boiling just turns them to mush before they separate.
It’s been an eternal frustration for me, and I thought I was alone. But I recently learned from this revealing look inside a Chinese rice noodle factory, that southern Chinese rice-noodle lovers know that no more than 24 hours can elapse between the making of rice noodles and their consumption. So I am not alone in rejecting the refrigerated version!
But I never see fresh rice noodles in Nashville. By the time they get here from Atlanta or California, they are bricks. So I made it my mission not only to learn to make dried ho fun noodles taste great but to import them myself for The Mala Market’s new noodle line, bringing in the best examples we could find from Guangdong. (Our buyers Suki and Charlotte made a whole lot of chaofen in Chengdu, testing and tasting the different brands for us before recommending one made in northern Guangdong province.)
By all means, use just-made noodles if you are so lucky as to find them, but otherwise, here’s a recipe for a damn good beef chow fun made from dried rice noodles.
In coming up with my recipe, I visited those of my Cantonese gurus. Their recipes all call for fresh rice noodles and are all similar in technique, though they vary as to the sauce ingredients. The Woks of Life base their sauce on light soy sauce and dark soy sauce; Grace Young uses oyster sauce and douchi (fermented black soy beans); and, going back a bit in time, Eileen Yin-Fei Lo uses oyster sauce, dark soy sauce and douchi. They all add sesame oil and white pepper, as is the Cantonese way. Bill (TWOL father) and Grace add mung bean sprouts and scallions, and Eileen adds green and red bell pepper strips.
My sauce reasoning went like this: We love the umami bomb that is douchi, so that’s a must. And our Zhongba soy sauces are just so superbly and uniquely flavorful we opted for both light and dark, using light soy sauce to add salt and dark soy sauce to color the beef and noodles a gorgeous reddish-brown. In our tests, we found oyster sauce a bit mild for this dish, but if you prefer a milder taste (or are watching your salt), then oyster sauce is a deliciously acceptable sub for light soy sauce.
I bumped up the beef quality from the flank steak usually called for to a nice top sirloin steak, very thinly sliced, which makes it steak chow fun I guess. With any dish this beef forward, you want the good stuff. (Alternatively, you can go vegetable-forward with a version like this one by Kenji Lopez-Alt with gailan at our affiliate Serious Eats.)
The hardest part about creating our recipe was replacing the fresh rice noodles with the appropriate amount of dried noodles. We eventually settled on equal amounts by weight of beef and dry noodles. So with 8 ounces of beef, we used 8 ounces of dried noodles, which is about 3 bundles of the ho fun noodles we carry at The Mala Market. The noodles roughly double in weight after they are soaked, so this is equivalent to about 1 pound of fresh noodles.
That amount is never quite enough to satisfy our three-person family however, so I often bump it up to 10 ounces of beef and 10 ounces of dried noodles—or four bundles. This will fit and cook well in a 14-inch, deep wok, but I wouldn’t try it with a smaller wok or pan.
A soak of about 30 minutes softens them up, but I have found after further testing that they really benefit from a quick 30-second boil after soaking. Boil just until opaque, then drain and rinse under cold running water, running your fingers through to make sure they don’t stick together. They hydrate further while still retaining a slight al dente texture before the stir-fry. Like fresh noodles, they may still try to clump together in the wok, so carefully separate them as they cook, adding a sprinkle of water to aid in that if necessary, before adding the sauce.
While most of us are cooking on home stoves that aren’t likely to impart much wok hei, which requires super-high BTU heat, cooking this dish quickly over high heat will get you close enough to say “yummmm” when you eat it. I think you’ll agree that just because you don’t have freshly steamed rice noodles doesn’t mean you have to go without chow fun.
Fongchong definitely approves of the homemade, dried-noodle version of these classic Cantonese restaurant noodles. But what does she do with them? Tops them with homemade mala chili crisp! You can take the girl out of China, but you can’t take the spicy out of my Cantonese girl.
For more gluten-free Chinese noodle ideas, we also import sweet potato noodles in two widths, the wide one being a perfect match for hotpot or Sichuan Malatang: DIY Personal Hotpot, and the round one making an excellent Ants Climbing a Tree (Mayi Shangshu, 蚂蚁上树)!
Cantonese Steak Chow Fun (Ft. Dried Ho Fun Noodles)
- 8 ounces top sirloin, flank or skirt steak
- ½ teaspoon baking soda
- 2 teaspoons corn starch
- 2 teaspoons light soy sauce (preferably Zhongba)
- 2 teaspoons neutral oil
- 8 ounces dried ho fun noodles (3 bundles if using Mala Market noodles)
- 4 tablespoons light soy sauce (preferably Zhongba) can substitute oyster sauce for milder taste and less salt
- 1 tablespoon dark soy sauce (preferably Zhongba)
- 1 tablespoon fermented black soy beans (douchi), roughly chopped
- 1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil
- ¼ teaspoon sugar
- 2 tablespoons julienned ginger
- 6 scallions, cut in half vertically and into 2-inch pieces
- 4 tablespoons Shaoxing wine
- 6 ounces mung bean sprouts
- white pepper to taste
- Slice steak into thin slices, no more than 1/8 inch thick. Add to bowl with baking soda, corn starch, 2 teaspoons light soy sauce and neutral oil. Marinate for 30 minutes, or up to an hour.
- Add noodles to large bowl and cover completely with warm tap water. If using The Mala Market's Guangdong wide rice noodles, 3 bundles is roughly 8 ounces. Soak noodles for about 30 minutes.
- Bring a pot of water to a boil and add the noodles. Cook for only about 30 seconds, or until the noodles turn opaque. Drain and rinse under cold running water until they cool down, running your fingers through the noodles to make sure they don't stick together. At this point they should be fully hydrated but still al dente. They will finish cooking during the quick stir-fry.
- Mix sauce ingredients: 4 tablespoons light soy sauce (or oyster sauce if you are subbing), dark soy sauce, fermented soybeans, sesame oil and sugar.
- Heat wok over a high flame until smoking hot. Add 2 tablespoons oil (roasted rapeseed oil if you have it), swirl around wok, then add beef slices. Sear briefly, then stir-fry quickly until steak is lightly browned and just barely pink in spots. Remove to a plate.
- If your beef stuck (which it shouldn't have if your wok was hot enough before adding it), wash wok and return to heat. When hot, add 3 tablespoons more oil and the ginger. Cook briefly. If the noodles have dried, run them under water briefly to add a little moisture and separate them with your hands. Then add the drained noodles to the wok. Sear them a few seconds.
- Add scallions to the wok and continue gently flipping and mixing noodles. Add Shaoxing wine in around the perimeter of the wok. Add back beef, then mix in the sauce. If the wok is too dry and noodles are starting to stick, add water a couple tablespoons at a time. Add bean sprouts and white pepper, mix briefly, then remove and serve piping hot.