No, it’s not chop suey
Chop suey can be cooked with any meat and combination of vegetables, or even with no meat at all. For the dish to be moo goo gai pan, two ingredients are a must: chicken and mushrooms. The name of the dish, after all, is merely an American transliteration of the name of an old Chinese dish from which it was adapted.
Is moo goo gai pan a Chinese dish or an American dish? It’s Chinese-American. Or, to be more precise, this is my version of a Chinese-American dish which makes it an adaptation of an adaptation. The preparation is traditional Chinese; so are the ingredients.
It begins by velveting the chicken breast fillet which has to be thinly sliced. By “velveting”, I refer to the process of marinating the chicken in Shao Xing rice wine and starch which magically transforms the texture of the meat to make it tender yet springy rather than having the mouthfeel of cardboard. While the chicken undergoes transformation, the rest of the ingredients are prepared. Carrot, snow peas, sauce and mushrooms.
Button or oyster mushrooms?
While some American bloggers say that “moo goo” translates to button mushroom, its etymology shows that mógu, the Chinese word from which it was derived, simply means mushroom. Interestingly, a New York blogger who is originally from Beijing wrote that in northern China, the ancestor of moo goo gai pan is cooked with oyster mushrooms.
Which of the three should be my peg? The dictionary, the chorus of American bloggers or one Chinese blogger who has transplanted herself to America? Well, let’s see… Shiitake has better flavor than both button and oyster mushrooms, and the color makes the dish more visually appealing. Why not shiitake, right?
So, back to the dish. When you’ve prepped the vegetables, mushrooms and sauce, the chicken can go into the pan. Spread the chicken slices in a single layer for even cooking. Then flip them over. Once they lose the pinkish color (they will only be partially cooked at this point), add the carrot slices because they take longer to cook than the snow peas and mushrooms.
By the time the carrots are done — and they should retain some crispness — the snow peas and mushrooms go in. Half a minute of stir frying and you’re ready to add the sauce.
The sauce is a mixture of chicken stock, oyster sauce and starch. Because starch has a nasty way of settling at the bottom of the vessel in which you mixed the sauce, remember to stir it first before pouring into the pan. Less than a minute later, with some stirring, the sauce should lose its cloudy appearance and thicken. Your moo goo gai pan is ready to be served.
Moo goo gai pan (chicken and mushroom stir fry)
Mushroom and vegetables
- 3 shiitake mushrooms - caps only
- 10 snow peas
- 1 small carrot
- salt - if the chicken stock is unseasoned or underseasoned
- 2 tablespoons peanut oil - or any oil with a high smoking point
Velvet the chicken
- Pat the fillet dry, cut into three portions lengthwise then cut each portion into thin slices.
- Place the chicken slices in a bowl, add the salt, garlic, corn starch and Shao Xing rice wine. Mix well and set aside.
Prep the mushrooms and vegetables
- Thinly slice the shiitake.
- Trim the snow peas by pinching off the tops and pulling off the fibrous string that runs along the sides.
- Peel and thinly slice the carrot.
Mix the sauce
- In a small mixing bowl, stir together the chicken stock, oyster sauce and sugar until homogenous in color and the sugar is fully dissolved. Taste and add salt, if needed, to get a good balance.
- Stir in the corn starch and sesame seed oil.
Stir fry the moo goo gai pan
- Pour the peanut oil into a heated wok and swirl to allow the oil to coat the sides of the pan as well.
- Stir the chicken to separate then spread on the hot oil in a single layer.
- Leave for half a minute then flip and cook for another 15 seconds.
- Add the carrot slices and stir fry for about half a minute.
- Add the snow peas and sliced shiitake, and stir fry for half a minute.
- Stir the sauce to loosen any starch that has settled in the bottom of the bowl.
- Pour the sauce over the chicken, mushrooms and vegetables.
- Cook, stirring a few times, until the sauce is thick and no longer appears cloudy.