It wasn’t until I started cooking professionally that I considered the origins of the foods of my childhood. Ethnically, my family is predominantly Chinese, but we identify as Vietnamese—my parents and I were born in Vietnam and speak Vietnamese, and I attended Vietnamese school. My parents understand Teochow, the Chinese dialect my grandparents spoke, but aren’t fluent; I recognize only a handful of words.
Growing up, I thus assumed the dishes my grandmother regularly prepared—fried rice, pickled mustard greens soup, wonton noodle soup—were Vietnamese. I noticed the phonetic similarity between the Vietnamese word “hoành thánh” and the Chinese word “wonton,” but I didn’t make the connection that, like our family, those recipes are multicultural: They had been made and customized by Vietnamese cooks for generations, but they contained ingredients and techniques from China.
One such dish is mì xào giòn (pronounced MEE-sao-YON in my family’s Southern Vietnamese accent). The dish features a delicate tangle of golden noodles that are dropped into hot oil in a wok, fried until crisp, and then topped with a stir-fry of proteins and vegetables in a glossy, umami-rich sauce. Mì xào giòn is made across China and in Taiwan, but the Vietnamese version tops the golden egg noodles (a Chinese ingredient) with a stir-fry flavored with fish sauce, a distinctly Vietnamese inclusion.
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During my childhood in the Bay Area, my family often ate mì xào at banquet-style meals at both Vietnamese and Chinese restaurants, where men in crisp white shirts and black vests dropped it onto the large turntable after the lighter courses. Knowing it was at its best right out of the kitchen, we would dive in, using a large serving spoon to cut through the nest. The varied textures of the sauced noodles and the myriad ingredients in the stir-fry made each bite a unique treat.
A Simpler Stir-Fry
The typical restaurant version of this dish features an assortment of seafood and vegetables, but I decided to pare back the ingredient list for home cooks. In lieu of the shellfish, I used just one protein: boneless pork loin chops, which can be found in 8-ounce portions (with all the vegetables, I needed only a small amount of meat to serve four). I sliced a chop thin and then tossed the slices in a water-and–baking soda solution to prevent the proteins in the pork from contracting when exposed to heat. I mixed in 2 teaspoons of soy sauce and 1 teaspoon of Shaoxing wine and then set the slices aside to marinate.
I wanted the vegetables to provide color and textural variety, so I chose shiitakes, red bell peppers, and gai lan. Traditionally, the vegetables would be stir-fried in batches and then tossed together with the meat at the end of the recipe before saucing, but batch stir-frying can take a long time. Instead, I simply blanched the prepped vegetables since I’d need a pot of boiling water to cook the noodles anyway (plus skipping the stir-frying allowed me to cut back on oil)
Building a Nest
The noodles are mì xào’s starring component—and its most particular. After assembling an ideal mì xào, “you have all this textural play,” Diep Tran, writer and co-author of the Red Boat Fish Sauce Cookbook, told me in an interview. The delicately fried noodles should transform after they take on the sauce from the stir-fry—they might be tender, chewy, or crunchy, depending on when and where you take a bite.
I needed to employ thin noodles so that they would yield to the sauce and create the symphony of textures Tran described, and I needed to fry them just long enough that they would maintain some structure. Fresh thin, Hong Kong–style noodles are the typical choice: After a quick blanch, I added them to a 3/4-inch layer of oil I heated in my wok, spreading the noodles evenly. After a few minutes of floating in the oil, the nest was just right: The outer 2 inches were crisp and golden brown, while the center was firm but pliable.
For this recipe, we prefer fresh Hong Kong–style noodles or fresh chow mein noodles (labeling will vary depending on the manufacturer): They’re 1⁄16-inch-thick egg noodles that are nonalkaline (as opposed to springy-textured noodles, such as ramen, that contain an alkaline component). If you can’t find them, look for any egg or wheat noodle (fresh or frozen) that is between 1⁄16 and 1/8 inch thick. Check the package to make sure they don’t include alkalizing agents such as sodium or potassium carbonates or bicarbonates.
When the nest of fried noodles is sauced, the noodles take on a dynamic array of textures. Noodles at the very center absorb the most sauce and become tender, while those at the outer edges of the stir-fry might be lightly chewy. The outer ring retains its light crispness.
Crisp and Colorful
Time to stir-fry. I started off by flavoring neutral oil with aromatics and then added the pork, stir-frying until it lost its pink hue. After clearing the meat from the wok, I added a little more oil and the blanched shiitakes, resisting the urge to squeeze them dry first. Here’s why: Blanching collapses the air pores within the mushrooms and fills them with liquid. During the stir-fry stage, both that liquid and the umami-rich liquid trapped in the mushrooms’ cells are drawn out into the wok, creating a flavorful mushroom broth that cooks down into an umami-rich fond. If I had squeezed the mushrooms dry, I would have lost all those savory juices.
Customize Your Stir-Fry
Fried noodles and an umami-rich stir-fry sauce complement a wide range of proteins and vegetables. Here are a few swaps you could make in this recipe.
Use 8-ounce boneless, skinless chicken breast or 8-ounce strip steak (trim off fat cap); follow pork preparation instructions.
For gai lan:
Blanch 2¼ cups of 1½-inch broccoli florets about 20 seconds.
For bell pepper:
Blanch 1¼ cups of 1/8-inch-thick bias-cut carrot slices for about 1 minute.
I deglazed with a quick pour of Shaoxing wine and then returned the pork and vegetables to the wok, along with a mixture of soy, oyster, and fish sauce. By the time the liquid came to a boil, the food was heated through, and all that was left to add was a cornstarch slurry to give the sauce more body.
I carefully crowned the awaiting tangle of noodles with the stir-fry and then used my spoon to cut through the nest. The sound of the crunch transported me straight back to childhood, and just like when I was a 10-year-old, each bite—whether it was a chewy noodle paired with tender pork or a crisp noodle shard accenting gai lan and shiitake—kept me going back for more.