I’ve been lucky enough to have had the opportunity to eat my way around the world in recent years, but that’s not how it’s always been. I grew up in a small agricultural community in Northern California and we rarely ate out. This was mainly due to the fact that my mom firmly believed in the healthfulness of wholesome home cooked meals, a belief that I hold to this day.
Still, there were the occasional splurges where we’d order a pizza or take-out “Chinese” food. I always looked forward to these evenings, not because my mom’s food was bad, but because they seemed like windows into distant cultures that I didn’t have at home. As it turned out, they were windows into other food cultures, just not the ones I thought I was peering into.
My two favorite dishes from our local greasy wok were Mongolian Beef and Singapore Noodles. Not only did the names sound exotic to my 8 year old ears, they were delightfully different from anything my mother would make at home.
After leaving home and discovering a world of culinary wonders beyond the tight confines of my hometown, I was shocked to learn that neither dish comes from the countries they are named after. I was so embarrassed that I buried those childhood favorites, and for a time became one of those food snobs that obsesses over authenticity.
Needless to say I’ve come full circle, and while dishes like Mongolian Beef may not be Mongolian (or even Chinese), they’ve become an authentic part of the Chinese-American culinary heritage. I’m sure there are at least a few of you shaking your head in disapproval over my last sentance, but may I remind you that if it weren’t for culinary abominations, we wouldn’t have dishes like ramen, the hamburger, and cronuts. If however you’re of Mongolian descent, I apologize on behalf of the Western world for misappropriating the name of your country for this dish. Having seen my share of food named “Japanese _____” I feel your pain.
For my version of Mongolian Beef, I like to marinate the meat in a mixture of chinese wine and oyster sauce. This builds a savory base, onto which the hoisin sauce can contribute its distinctive sweet earthy flavor. To spice things up, I add a bit of doubanjiang, a Sichuan chili bean paste which not only brings the heat, it also adds umami to the dish. Stir-fried with pungent garlic, spicy chili peppers and sweet scallions and you have a dish with a unique flavor that stands out amongst the long list of Chinese-American classics.
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