chow mein circa 1980s

I’m sure there are other children of the ’80s who have this memory: A hole-in-the-wall (no sit-down dining, only take-out) Chinese restaurant where my parents occasionally picked up an order of chow mein and rice for supper. We transferred the food from its white take-out containers to our dinner plates and I remember thinking it was fun eating directly from take-out containers. Such rebellion. Our spot was named Wong’s and of course it’s long gone.

Even without Wong’s and spots like it, Asian food is easier to find now more than ever and its scope is so much broader (stir-fries, spring rolls, noodle dishes, rice bowls, pho, and then some). But back in the day, in suburban middle America at least, chow mein was plenty ethnic and exotic.

Because I enjoyed that chow mein as a child, it’s still something I seek out. I love the fall-apart-in-your-mouth celery, the savory chunks of meat, the tiny flecks of onion, and, most of all, the thickened and savory gravy that binds it all together. Served on a pile of steamy rice, it’s comfort food that brings me back.

I’ve never found a chow mein recipe that creates what I remember this dish to be, so I tend to make it up as I go along when the craving hits. Chow mein was on tonight’s menu as it seemed a good vehicle for the leftover chicken in our fridge. I managed to get proportions right (doesn’t always happen) and was pleased with the final dish. It’s a healthier version of the chow mein of my childhood as it’s loaded with veggies, leaving meat as accent. I also tossed in baby corn as it was in my pantry and I’m a huge Chinese 5-spice fan so had to use it. It’s not exotic and it’s not fancy. But it is hearty, healthy, and full of flavor. And for me, it’s comfort.

chow mein cooked up in cast-iron

on the plate

Chicken Chow Mein

Amounts for all ingredients are approximate.

  • 1 teaspoon peanut oil
  • 1 cup chopped onion
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 2 to 4 tablespoons chicken stock
  • 4 cups chopped celery
  • 1 (15-ounce) can chopped baby corn, drained (sliced water chestnuts would also work well)
  • 1/2 teaspoon grated gingerroot
  • 1/2 teaspoon Chinese 5-spice
  • 1/4 cup stir-fry sauce (I used a tasty black stir-fry sauce which is bottled and sold by a local chef)
  • 1 tablespoon cornstarch mixed into 2 to 3 tablespoons water
  • Sliced almonds
  • Soy sauce

In large skillet, heat oil over medium (or so) heat. Add onion and garlic; stir-fry 3 minutes or until fragrant and onion starts to soften, adding stock as needed to keep pan from drying out.  Add celery, baby corn, gingerroot, and 5-spice. Stir-fry 5 minutes, continuing to add stock as needed, until celery starts to soften. Stir in stir-fry sauce; cook until vegetables are coated and celery is tender. Add cornstarch slurry; cook, stirring frequently, until sauce is bubbly and thickened. Serve sprinkled with almonds. Season with soy sauce as desired. Makes 4 servings.

2 thoughts on “chow mein circa 1980s

  1. Can anyone please tell me the name of the Chinese Restaurant in Parramatta, on the opposite side of the lane to the Fire Station back in the 1970’s – 1980’s???

    Cheers,
    Tony5555

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