Egg foo young, the classic Chinese-American puffed omelet, was just one of the dishes we served under silver domes at Chinese Pagoda, the chop suey restaurant on the Northwest Side of Chicago owned by my aunt and uncle.
The last wok on the end of the fiery line in the kitchen was reserved exclusively for making the deep-fried delicacies. At a glance, I could always tell who’d made the order — my grandmother’s were my favorites for their endearingly irregular form.
Well into her 70s, she’d heat the oil nearly filling the enormous blackened wok, before lowering a scoop filled with ingredients bound by eggs and bean sprouts. Forged by ferociously bubbling fat, a golden puff emerged. Before rushing the dish to a waiting table, I’d ladle on gravy.
That’s where it all goes wrong.
The egg foo young origin story is said to go back to the southern Chinese coastal province of Guangdong, formerly known as Canton. The dish can now be found as a Cantonese hybrid not only in this country, but across Asia too.
But the reputation of the Chinese-American restaurant dish has been unjustly smeared with poorly made gravy, often nothing more than a cornstarch thickened, soy sauce-colored nightmare.
The recipe here simply celebrates the ingredients, hopefully with the best pastured organic eggs, crisp local bean sprouts and fresh shiitake mushrooms, the savory umami taste subtle yet decisive.
Rather than deep frying, pan fry in a wok with a generous pour of oil for a halo of crispy, egg-battered tendrils.
And then there’s the redemptive gravy: a luscious mushroom sauce that will have you licking the spoon, after lavishing it over your finished dish.
Purists may cry that this is not a so-called authentic egg foo young, and it’s not. It’s not the vintage restaurant dish, but its handcrafted modern descendant, perhaps closer to the spirit of the original.