Beef Chow Fun Exploration – James Chalco

While watching the Noodle Road documentary in class, I was surprised to discover the variety of noodles that existed. I was pretty ignorant to the different types of noodles and the processes that made them, I believed they were all made of wheat and came in a variety of shapes. The documentary explained that not all noodles were necessarily made of wheat because certain regions did not have access to that crop, such as Northern China where weather conditions were too harsh to grow wheat so buckwheat was grown instead. Noodles made from rice were another alternative. While learning about these new noodles and their development across the Silk Road I thought about my own history with noodles.


Growing up in a Latino household noodles were typically not found at the dinner table. Only on a rare occasion we would have spaghetti and it served to break the routine of having rice all the time.

While looking into my noodle past, I started to recall a dish I had in high school years ago: Beef Chow Fun. Not only did I find it very tasty, but it was a dish tied with memories of my younger self and my introduction to Manhattan’s Chinatown. For the majority of my life I have never ventured outside my home borough of the Bronx. That would change when I got accepted to my high school in Manhattan. One day after class my friend and I were hungry looking for something to eat that would be in the budget of the allowance our parents gave us. I was used to going home or sometimes going to the local McDonalds after school, but my friends protested saying they were tired of burgers. My friend made the suggest we go downtown to a restaurant near his home. At first I hesitated but I went along and we took the 6 train to Canal Street.

 First Steps in Chinatown

Getting out of the train on Canal Street for the first time was an experience. It made me realize that I still have so much to explore in the city. The amount of people in the area, the variety of languages, the store signs and posters I couldn’t read all caught me off guard. I didn’t expect to be in a totally new landscape after a 30-minute subway ride. My friends and I walked by these small shops that sell trinkets like jade bracelets, Buddha figures, lucky cat figurines, and coins. I was not used to walking a block without hearing some bachata or hip-hop music.  Further down there was a produce market selling fruits and vegetables I have never seen such as dragon fruit and Bok Choy. Next to that was a fish market with live fish in baskets and crabs, the smell was like the ocean, it didn’t bother my friends, this seemed like the norm and they probably didn’t realize I was having an experience at the time. In contrast to my neighborhood in the Bronx, Chinatown was different visually, acoustically and  aromatically.


We turn a corner on Mott Street and arrive to the restaurant called Wo Hop. My friends and I are seated on a round table as the waitress hands us menus and settles a kettle at the center. In the kettle was complimentary warm tea we all served each other, my friend informed me this was customary in Yum Cha restaurants. Yum Cha translates to “drink tea”, a long time traditional custom in China that was introduced to the western world via the silk road trades.[1] Yum Cha refers to the meal that is accompanied with tea and food choices are referred as Dim Sum. Dim Sum is usually a late brunch that originated from the Chinese province of Canton and can consist of different types of meals ranging from dumplings in bamboo baskets, to egg rolls, and a variety of noodle dishes.[2] This was reflected in the menu at Wo Hop. I was not quite sure what to get and my friend recommended we get 2 orders of the dish called Beef Chow Fun which was his favorite. There wasn’t quite much of a description of the dish on the menu, but the general idea was that it was noodle with beef and I was okay with that choice.

Beef Chow Fun

beef Chowtea

The food arrives and at first sight I see two large plates of noodles, all brown covered in soy sauce which gave it a darker shade. I could see green onions and bean sprouts mixed into the dish along with pieces of dark beef. The noodles were flat and long, steam arose from the dish. The table was filled with a smoky and soy sauce aroma from Chow Fun. I struggled with my portion of noodles since I was a novice at using chopsticks. It was then my friends realized that this was all new to me and shared a laugh. They taught me some basic chopstick handling techniques including the ways to cheat which were helpful in handling the thick and greasy noodles. Placing the first bite into my mouth was satisfying, the texture of the noodle felt elastic and the soy sauce was prominent in the dish. A few bites in I noticed the addition of a crunchy texture from the bean sprouts and onion, the beef was very tender. Although the dish primarily tasted like soy sauce, the different ingredients helped compliment every bite and add texture making the dish very enjoyable. My family never really used soy sauce in cooking but the beef tasted and reminded me of palomilla, a Cuban steak dish marinated in onion garlic that my family prepared. It was my first time eating bean sprouts and noodles of that variety and that good experience would influence me to try new foods and break out of my comfort zone for the rest of my life.

Yum Cha and the Introduction of the Wok

When I reflected on the memory, I realized that I did not think about the origin of the dish or the process of preparing it. I chose the artifact dish as an opportunity to uncover that mystery and learn about myself. Beef Chow Fun is a Cantonese dish that originated in the same place as the Yum Cha tradition which is Guangzhou located in the Guangdong province of China.[3] The dish is mainly composed of wide rice noodles known as “he fen” and beef, but can include a variety of ingredients such as scallions, ginger, bean sprouts all mixed in a combination of dark and regular soy sauce. [4]The list of ingredients correlate with the memories I had when I consumed chow fun at Wo Hop, which were the scallions and bean sprouts. At first the dish may not seem like anything special with its simple list of ingredients, but I soon learned that would not be the case. The dish is a staple in Cantonese cuisine, which primarily consists of Yum Cha and Dim Sum restaurants both in China and abroad in other countries[5]. It is a true test for the chef since the dish requires the “wok hei” technique to be made correctly. Wok hei refers to the use of high heat to sear a bowl shaped pan, known as a wok to add a distinct flavor to the food while cooking (Umami).[6] The wok is essential in cooking the chow fun as it facilitates the second important technique called “pow wok”, which is the process of stirring and tossing the food in the wok without the need of a spatula. The mastery of both techniques will result in a well cooked stir fry giving the dish a good seared flavor without having any of them burn. After learning about the history and cooking process of the chow fun I was a bit intimidated, but I was ready to test my skills.

Although my recipe did not call for the use of a Wok, I obtained one to get as close to the experience as possible. According to The Complete Book of Asian Stir-fries, a Wok must be seasoned in a process that involves wiping the surface of the wok lightly with some oil heating it up until it smokes, plunging it into hot water, and reheating it until it dries. The process must be repeated 3 times to prepare the wok for use and is done to prevent food from sticking on to it[7]. After the wok is seasoned, it must be preheated, once it reaches a warm temperature the cooking oil can be placed and the wok should be rotated to spread it out over the cooking surface. The reason the wok is preferred over a standard skillet is because its shape facilitates the stirring of ingredients and also holds heat very well, which is essential in cooking at high flames in a small window of time to get the proper “wok hei”.[8]

wok hei

Before we get to the stir frying the ingredients should be prepared beforehand. The beef component in chow fun is made of a flank steak that is marinated corn starch, soy sauce and oil along with any other seasoning of choosing. The scallions are cut in half vertically and then cut into 3 inch pieces and 3 slices of ginger. It is important to not make your vegetables too small as to avoid it from burning to quickly in the high heat of the wok.[9] The first step was to prepare the beef by placing it into the preheated wok with oil and cook it until it seared brown, then it is set aside, the ginger and more oil is added into the wok then the green onions are placed in to cook and absorb the flavors. I used precooked rice noodles so they were ready to be placed into the wok with the scallions. Next the soy sauce, sesame oil, pepper, and the cook beef are added into the wok. I then used a wooden spatula to carefully stir the ingredients in the wok in an upwards motion to ensure nothing gets burned from staying on the surface to long. The heat should remain high at all times and the noodles will cook in a manner of minutes. At the end the bean sprouts are added and cooked until they are soft, they should not stay in the wok for too long or they will end up burning. After that the dish is ready to serve. I had to make the dish twice because the first time I did not season the wok or oil it properly and some noodles got burned, luckily my mother assisted me the second time.

Tasting my own dish after doing all the research was intimidating. I haven’t had the dish in years which meant I did not have a recent memory to compare it too. I was worried that my noodles did not have enough time in the wok, but I was afraid to burn them again. The first bite brought back memories of the past, the greasy, soy sauce texture and elasticity of the long rice noodles. There was no smoky flavor this time but the beef was tasty and sprouts and onion cooked nicely. My fellow peers enjoyed it, my mom did not try it because the aroma was very oily and strong which turned her away from it.

I was very happy with the dinner party our class had to share our dishes, because I’ve only had that dish in the company of my fellow classmates and here I was years later doing the same thing. The experience I was rewarded with learning the stir fry technique and how important it is to Cantonese cuisine and Chinese culture. Grace Young’s book essentially describes how the memories of her father and childhood were molded by the wok and the meals her father made using it. The wok “breathes” through the high flames and in its breathe allows for the production of all the foods she ate growing up.[10] Wo Hop in Chinatown was not the only dim sum place, there are many locals there, 3 were on the same block and it shows the importance and popularity of stir fry wok cooking in the Chinese community. By making this dish I was given insight into that culture and when I eat the dish I will have Cibopathic visions of a chef prepping the wok, throwing in the rice noodles that traveled along the Silk road to Canton. The full experience overall taught me about a different culture and allowed me to go out of my comfort zone to educate myself through food rather than texts and lectures. It was a rewarding experience and reminds me that there are many forms to obtaining knowledge and challenging yourself can lead to a better and learning experience.



[1]Furnham, Adrian. Dim Sum for Managers : Advice and Ideas for the Hungry Mind. Singapore, SGP: Marshall Cavendish, 2007. Accessed April 27, 2016. ProQuest ebrary.

[2] Furnham, Adrian. Dim Sum for Managers : Advice and Ideas for the Hungry Mind. Singapore, SGP: Marshall Cavendish, 2007. Accessed April 27, 2016. ProQuest ebrary.

[3] Zhang, Y. ( 1 ), and M. ( 2 ) Long. 2015. “The role of Yum Cha (Cantonese morning tea) in the integration process among interprovincial migration in China.” Leisure Studies 34, no. 1: 59-66. Scopus®, EBSCOhost (accessed April 28, 2016).

[4] Bill. “Beef Chow Fun Noodles (gon Chow Ngau Ho) – The Woks of Life.” The Woks of Life. 12 June 2014. Web. 28 Apr. 2016.

[5] Furnham, Adrian. Dim Sum for Managers : Advice and Ideas for the Hungry Mind. Singapore, SGP: Marshall Cavendish, 2007. Accessed April 27, 2016. ProQuest ebrary.

[6] Young, Grace, and Alan Richardson. The Breath of a Wok: Unlocking the Spirit of Chinese Wok Cooking through Recipes and Lore. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004.

[7] Liley, Vicki. Complete Book of Asian Stir-fries: Asian Cookbook,techniques, 100 Recipes. S.l.: Periplus Editions, 2016.

[8] Young, Grace, and Alan Richardson. The Breath of a Wok: Unlocking the Spirit of Chinese Wok Cooking through Recipes and Lore. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004.

[9] Bill. “Beef Chow Fun Noodles (gon Chow Ngau Ho) – The Woks of Life.” The Woks of Life. 12 June 2014. Web. 28 Apr. 2016.

[10] Young, Grace, and Alan Richardson. The Breath of a Wok: Unlocking the Spirit of Chinese Wok Cooking through Recipes and Lore. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004.