Cooking with the (Silent) Stars: Anna May Wong’s Egg Foo Yung

Welcome back! I am cooking my way through the 1929 Photoplay cookbook (recipes of the stars!) and you are invited to tag along. (I have listed all the recipes I have tested on this dedicated page. Check back often.) Today, we will be testing a recipe from an actress who challenged the racial status quo.

Anna May Wong had all the tools necessary to become a big Hollywood star. She was beautiful, she could act, she could talk, she had brains… But she was also Chinese-American and her career proved to be a long series of frustrations. Matters got even worse with the enforcement of the Code and its specific ban on “miscegenation” (romance between the races). Even if a white actor was playing a “Chinese” role, Wong couldn’t romance him without being in violation of the rules.

In spite of all this, Wong managed some memorable roles and strong performances but her career is always tainted by the racism of the society in which she lived. When reading about Wong, we always must wonder what might have been.

A teenager when she made a splash in the early Technicolor film The Toll of the Sea, Wong played a bad girl in The Thief of Bagdad and a doomed dancer in E.A. Dupont’s Piccadilly. Her deep voice proved to be perfect for sound films and she all but stole Shanghai Express away from Marlene Dietrich.

Wong played some good roles in some good films but her full potential was never tapped and she knew it. Talk about frustrating. It would be easy to pat ourselves on the back for our progress but we also live in a world where Aloha is a thing so…

But now we shall taste Wong’s recipe and see what delights she has in store for us.

Anna-May-Wong-Egg-Foo-Young

I groaned inwardly when I saw that Anna May Wong had been saddled with the most cliched of Chinese-American recipes.

(And, no, I’m not sure why water chestnuts would be at a Spanish store but that’s a moot point as my neck of the woods has Mexican, Filipino, Korean, Chinese, Indian and Middle Eastern markets but nary a Spanish one.)

Egg foo yung (or young, or yong) has become a punchline, sniffed at by both Americans, who are now seeking more authenticity, and by Chinese cooks ready to serve their region’s real cuisine. No one is entirely sure when egg foo yung was first cooked or how it came to be but by the early twentieth century, it was a restaurant staple in America. Nowadays, it’s much rarer, at least in my area. I have never actually seen it on a Chinese restaurant menu.

However, the dish is making something of a comeback. Chinese-American food writer Mei Chin sang its praises as a forbidden delicacy to be enjoyed a bit ironically. At its core, egg foo yung is just a savory little pancake/omelet made with vegetables and a few shreds of meat. What’s not to like?

I gathered my ingredients (water chestnuts now being a supermarket staple) and opted for pork over beef as it sounded like a tastier combination. As texture is everything in a recipe like this, I bought a little loin chop. I hoped its satiny texture would go well with the egg and veggies. I also let the eggs sit out at room temperature as I wanted the pancakes to cook as evenly as possible.

The sliced ingredients with the pork on top.
The sliced ingredients with the pork on top.
And with the egg added in.
And with the egg added in.

I may not know much about Chinese or Chinese-American food but I am pretty competent with Korean cuisine and Koreans love their savory pancakes. I am insane for any variation: mixed seafood, kimchi, mung bean… Yum! My favorite is squid and green onions.

So, based on my experience with these things, here are a few tips:

  • Your pan must be hot, hot, HOT! You want your pancake to develop a nice crust and cook through in a snap.
  • Don’t get lazy with your chopping. Cut everything finely to assure that your pancake won’t have raw ingredients in the middle.
  • Don’t be stingy with your oil. If you’re worried about calories, make something else. Oil is essential for that crispy exterior.

Warning: Look, don’t touch! This recipe can go VERY wrong if you poke and prod at the cakes as they are cooking. It will make them greasy and sad. So let them brown in peace (it only takes a minute if your pan is hot enough) and only touch them when you’re positively positive that you’re ready to flip them. Watch the edges for brownness and flip once they turn a pretty mahogany shade.

Smells so good!
Smells so good!

The recipe does not call for sauce but egg foo yung is often served with brown gravy-like stuff that terrifies me. As the recipe does not specify, I decided to use a simple blend of soy sauce, rice vinegar, sesame seeds, a little sugar and sliced green onions. Delish! (You can add red pepper and garlic if you want more of a kick.) You can even get cutesy and say it is Philip Ahn’s secret sauce. (Ahn and Wong were the leads of Daughter of Shanghai, which seriously needs a DVD release.)

Here is my taste test video:

My Score: 5 out of 5. The minute these little suckers hit the pan, I knew I had a winner on my hands. I could hardly wait until they were done. These are like little omelets with brownness and crunch! The tender pork went very well with the onions and crisp water chestnuts. (My friend swears water chestnuts are the true secret to perfect egg rolls. Her egg rolls are indeed killer.)

Look at that lovely brown crust!
Look at that lovely brown crust!
Yum.
Yum.
Go away, I'm eating.
Go away, I’m eating.

These are good on their own but even better with a little sauce for dipping. I would experiment to find one you like. The meat and veggies can also be mixed up. I imagine this would work with firm tofu but you would have to be extra careful with the mixing.

Once more, I will remind you that a lot can go wrong with this recipe if you cook at too low a temperature or fiddle with the pancakes as they are cooking. Also, be sure to use the freshest ingredients and remember that texture is very important so choose your protein wisely.

This is not an “authentic” egg foo yung, if such a thing exists. Its ingredient list is considerably shorter than most and it contains no thickening agent (e.g. cornstarch) which seems to be pretty standard to the recipe. (Though I should note that one blogger versed on Asian cuisine objects to both thickening agents and the weird gravy sauce most strenuously. Her arguments are sound and I completely agree.)

The egg foo yung this recipe creates is less a pancake and more a miniature omelet cake with a slight Chinese accent or a Korean one if you use the same soy-vinegar sauce that I did. Substitute finely shredded potatoes for the water chestnuts and ham or bacon for the pork and you would have a very American breakfast thingy.

10 Replies to “Cooking with the (Silent) Stars: Anna May Wong’s Egg Foo Yung”

  1. Nom! I’ll have to try this one. A little hot mustard would set these off nicely, I think. In my universe, everything tastes better with hot mustard (don’t care if it’s authentic or not. It’s yummy…) 😀

  2. That’s interesting that the pork and onions aren’t cooked first, then added to the eggs. Never seen that before. But it sure looks delicious!

    1. It was great! Yes, this is why the fine chopping is so essential. If you leave the pork or onions too large, they won’t cook before the outer crust burns. I made mine about 3″ in diameter and that seemed to be about the right size for fast cooking.

  3. This looks really good, but alas! I am not a big fan of water chestnuts. What do you think would be a good substitute? Would you say they are more for taste or texture?

    1. I think they help both flavor and texture but if you want something light to counterbalance the onion & meat, you could try some celery or bean sprouts. I’m not sure of any options that will add crunch.

  4. Egg foo young may be a fantastically inauthentic ‘Chinese’ dish. But it is a safe thing to get in an unfamiliar place as everybody can make it pretty well.

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