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Origin of a Chinese Recipe: Beef with Ho Fun

by Irving Beilin Chang

Food in History

Fall Volume: 2005 Issue: 12(3) page(s): 11 and 26

When reading about Chinese cooking, I find many interesting stories that tell how many of them were invented or developed. Some query me abut one or another, and perhaps you want to hear about others so here is the first one I want to share. With continued interest there can be more.

Dry-Sauteed Beef With Ho Fun, is a very typical Cantonese recipe. Ho Fun are broad rice noodles; that today in Pinyin, are called mi fun. But this story is not about today. It is about an earlier time; so I will tell it as written during the time it took place.

The Dry-sauteed Ho Fun dish I have in mind is often sauteed with beef. But it does not have to be made with one particular meat; it can be prepared with any kind of steak, or made with pork, chicken, or shrimp. Every one of these meats can make an interesting dish. However, beef is the most commonly used protein in this recipe, so I will stick with it, but suggest another at the recipe's end.

The ingredients for Dry-sauteed Beef with Ho Fun are simple and generally inexpensive, and the finished product is tasty and easy to serve. In the dry-sauteed form, it looks sumptuous, is mouth-watering and, is very fragrant. Usually, rice noodles are very sticky, but in this recipe they do not lump together. Myself, I was always curious as to why it is called 'Dry-sauteed' and what makes it different from any other sauteed entree? I also wondered why is it that Cantonese chefs generally make the best rendition?

Recently I came across a Chinese book by Chung Cheng Chan. The name of the book is called Eat In Guanzhou (Canton), published in July 1980 by the Hua Chen Publishing Company. In it, I found an article describing a family restaurant in Guangzhou in 1938. That was the time when the Sino-Japan War was in full swing and the city was under control of the Japanese Army. In this restaurant, the book tells that the husband was the chef, the mother the cashier, and the chef's wife the one who served customers waiting on the tables. Reading on, one learns that the family was barely able to make a living from this enterprise.

The story goes on to say that on one particular evening, a guest came into the restaurant and ordered sauteed beef with ho fun. Normally, when the chef sauteed beef with ho fun, he would use a brown sauce consisting of soy sauce, water, and a special starch made from beans. The starch had a pair of special purposes, to thicken the sauce and keep the ho fun from lumping together.

However, on that very day, the chef had run out of this special starch. Since the whole city was under curfew, it was very dangerous to go out on the streets, especially after dark, to get the starch he needed. So he asked the guest if he could change his requested order. The guest happened to be a notorious Chinese spy who was working for the Japanese. He felt the chef was saying that as a means of giving him no respect. So he pulled out a pistol and threatened to kill the chef if he did not prepare the requested dish.

The mother, hearing the commotion, quickly came over to calm things down. She told the chef to go to the kitchen and prepare the dish. However, the chef did not have the most important thickener for the sauce, and he knew that somehow he had to keep the ho fun from forming one big lump. So he created a new recipe for this dish. His resulting creation was a shiny, mouth-watering and fragrant dish sauteed without any brown sauce. It came out very well and he was delighted; but what would this upset restaurant patron say?

Out of necessity, the chef had created a new dish, and to his delight, his guest enjoyed this new dish so much that he came back the next day for more. Through word of mouth, people all over town came to taste this new creation. That meant that this restaurant's business began to flourish. The Chinese have a saying: Necessity Creates Heroes. That is how this chef became famous, a culinary hero, if you will.

Here is a recipe for this heroic chef's Dry Sauteed Beef with Ho Fun. Cook this sumptuous and tasty dish and become famous, well-known, even heroic among your friends and family. Remember, you can substitute chicken or any other protein for the beef.
Dry-sauteed Beef with Ho Fun
6 ounces flank steak, cut across the grain into one-quarter to one and a half-inch strips
1 teaspoon cornstarch
2 teaspoons soy sauce
4 Tablespoons peanut oil
2 scallions, minced
4 ounces mung bean sprouts
10 ounces of fresh wide ho fun rice noodles
1 teaspoon oyster sauce mixed with one teaspoon of soy sauce
dash of MSG (optional)
1/2 teaspoon sugar
dash ground black pepper
4 ounces chicken soup, or more if needed
2 teaspoons cornstarch mixed with one tablespoon of cold water
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1. In a small bowl, mix flank steak with cornstarch and soy sauce, and set this aside.
2. Heat wok and add the peanut oil. When hot, add scallions and the flank steak mixture and stir-fry for half minute. Then add the bean sprouts, and stir-fry a few times before adding the ho fun noodles and the oyster sauce/soy sauce mixture, sugar, MSG (if using it), and the black pepper. Stir-fry a few times until the noodles are hot.
3. Then add a few tablespoons of the soup and the corn-starch mixture and stir until thickened. If needed, add more soup at this time, but not so much that you make a gravy; just enough so that the sauce coats the meat and the noodles. 4. Transfer the contents to a serving dish and sprinkle the sesame oil on top for extra flavor.
Note: Chicken can be substituted for the flank steak. Shred it and mix it with one egg white, cornstarch, and soy sauce; then continue following the recipe as written.

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