When I was a child growing up in a small, Northwestern Iowa town in the 60’s, my Dad had to take a trip to Iowa City and it was my “turn” to go along. I must have been about six or seven, and I can’t remember anything about the trip except we ate at a Chinese restaurant.
Now, luckily for me, my parents never let us order off the “American” items off restaurant menus. (Back then, they didn’t have “kids” menus like they do today, but places often had things on their menus like hamburgers and French fries.) I remember being a little wary of the huge menu I didn’t understand, but the waiter suggested what we Americans think of as “Moo Goo Gai Pan” which is actually an Americanized version of “Muh Gu Gai Pin” a Cantonese dish.
I loved it – I wanted to commit it to memory, and I remember saying it over and over on three-hour or so trip home so I would never forget the name of the dish. It must have driven my Dad nuts…
I’ve since ordered it at Chinese restaurants, and then stopped – the lovely dish of a fond childhood memory was corrupted, and often out came sticky, mushy and overly sweet dish – tasting of…nothing. I found out many restaurants use a generic canned sauce, which explains the downfall of the dish. Consequently I now make my own.
The best part? I can put in what ever vegetables I want and what ever is on sale at the grocery store. When I make it at home, I’m not limited to the classic vegetable combination (wonderful as it is) and can still enjoy the lovely sauce that is used in Mah Gu Gai Pin. Asian Fusion? You betcha, but in a good way.
I just follow a few “secret” principles that make a huge difference in the outcome of the dish, as well as many other Asian dishes you may make:
- Follow the marinade and process for the chicken, similar to “velveting,” below. That’s how restaurants achieve the soft, tender chicken that is the hallmark of so many dishes.
- Place your chicken breast in the freezer for a few minutes to facilitate very thin cutting.
- Blanche your snow peas for about 30 seconds and broccoli or cauliflower for about a minute. You’ll have the simmering water anyway for your chicken.
- Don’t skimp on the white pepper – if your Asian dishes seem like they are missing something, it may very well be this ingredient.
- Do have everything set out ahead of time and ready to go before you start cooking.
Many Asian dishes are not only super healthy, they are also very fast and very inexpensive to make. This one came to the table, complete with rice, for about $4.55 – six servings. This may look like a lot of ingredients, but many are used in the sauce and the marinade, so it’s really not as bad as it seems at first glance. For a Vegetarian meal, omit the chicken.
Mah Gu Gai Pin
- 1/2 pound skinless, boneless chicken breast, cut into 2-by-1 1/2-inch strips
- 1 tablespoon finely grated fresh ginger
- 1 ½ teaspoons sesame oil
- 1 teaspoon Chinese white rice wine or gin
- ½ teaspoon sugar
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- 1 ½ teaspoons oyster sauce
- ½ teaspoon soy sauce
- 1 teaspoon cornstarch
- Pinch freshly ground white pepper
- 1 egg white
- 2 teaspoons oyster sauce
- 1/2 teaspoon sugar
- 1 teaspoon soy sauce (preferably dark soy, although the color of the sauce will be darker than we may be used to in restaurants – I used regular soy in the photo above, so you’ll have some idea)
- 1/2 teaspoon sesame oil
- 2 teaspoons cornstarch
- Pinch of preferably freshly ground white pepper
- 5 tablespoons chicken stock (water can be used)
- 3 1/2 tablespoons peanut oil, divided use
- 1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 pound small button mushrooms, stems removed and caps cut into 1/4-inch slices
- 4 – 6 ounces snow peas, strings removed and cut into 1-by-1 1/2 inch pieces
- 1/4 cup bamboo shoots, cut into 1-by-1 1/2-inch pieces
- 8 water chestnuts, peeled and cut into 1/4-inch slices, fresh if you can find, if not canned, rinsed
- 1 tablespoon minced garlic
- 1 tablespoon Chinese white rice wine or gin
In a bowl, combine the marinade ingredients, one tablespoon ginger, 1 ½ teaspoons sesame oil, 1 teaspoon Chinese white rice wine, ½ teaspoon sugar, ¼ teaspoon salt, 1 ½ teaspoons oyster sauce, ½ teaspoon soy sauce pinch of white pepper, 1 teaspoon cornstarch – mix and then add egg white. (Do not beat the egg white – you want to “work” it as little as possible. Add the chicken and allow to rest for at least 30 minutes. Reserve.
In a small bowl, combine the sauce ingredients: the 2 teaspoons oyster sauce, ½ teaspoon sugar, 1 teaspoon sesame oil, 2 teaspoons cornstarch, pinch of white pepper and five tablespoons of chicken stock. Reserve.
To Par Cook any Vegetables and Chicken:
Vegetables that should be parcooked: Snow Peas for 30 seconds, and although not in the classic version of Mah Gu Gai Pin, if broccoli or caulifower is used, they should be parcooked for about 1 minute. Bring large pan of water to a boil. Drop in vegetables for the appropriate time. Remove. Drop in chicken and simmer for about 30 seconds and remove as soon as the coating turns a whitish color. Drain well and set aside. Strictly speaking, you could eliminate the blanching of the chicken and just stir fry, but I think it makes a huge difference.
Put the dish together:
Heat a wok (a cast iron skillet works great, too) over high heat for 30 seconds. Add 2 tablespoons of the peanut oil and coat the wok with it using a spatula. When a wisp of white smoke appears, add the ginger and salt and stir for 10 seconds.
Add the mushrooms and stir for 10 seconds. Add the snow peas, bamboo shoots, and water chestnuts and cook, stirring, for 2 minutes. Turn off the heat, transfer the mixture to a bowl, and reserve. Wipe off the wok and spatula with paper towels.
Heat the wok over high heat for 20 seconds. Add the remaining peanut oil and coat the wok with it using the spatula. When a wisp of white smoke appears, add the garlic. When it begins to brown, add the chicken. Spread in a thin layer and cook for a minute.Turn the chicken over and cook for 1 more minute.
Drizzle the wine down the sides of the wok, stir into the chicken, and cook until the chicken is cooked through, about 1 more minute. Add the reserved vegetables and cook, stirring, for 2 minutes.
Make a well in the mixture, stir the sauce mixture, and pour in. Stir well and cook until the sauce bubbles and thickens, about 30 seconds. Turn off the heat, transfer to a heated platter, and serve with steamed rice.
Use your judgment on the cooking times – they vary depending on the heat. You want your vegetables beautiful, bright and crisp tender and the chicken moist and just cooked through.
Note: if making a smaller portion of the recipe, say a half recipe or a single portion, be very careful with the sauce – you may wish to use close to the full amount of chicken stock and/or water. When a small amount hits the hot pan, it will immediately thicken into a gloppy substance.
Let’s talk about how to save money/time on this recipe:
- Use a coupon matching site! One of my favorites in my area is Pocket Your Dollars, but every store has a group of enthusiastic Coupon Matchers. Do not discount the savings! I check their site every week, even if I don’t “need” to go to the store and often find bargains I can’t pass up.
- Follow my 12 Strategies – You’ll see them on the upper drop down menu of every page and how I apply them, below.
- Don’t get discouraged if your prices don’t match mine! Keep shopping at the best prices and your fridge/freezer and pantry will be stocked with sales priced ingredients.
- Read below for additional tips as well as throughout the recipe, for saving time and managing food.
- I can’t give you, exactly, the cost of this dish, but I can give a pretty good estimate, AND tell you how to get the ingredients at the least expensive prices and how to properly store so you can get the most out of them. If you don’t have them on hand, the initial investment will be a little high, but if you love Asian food of any kind, or make your own marinades, you’ll find you’ll use them over and over.
- If you have access to a Chinese or Asian market, you’ll find prices that beat out standard American markets by a surprising amount. As a matter of fact, the market near my home always has marvelous chicken for less than I can buy at my standard 99 cents a pound. I’m counting the sauce ingredients – small amounts that they are, at about 50 cents – but I suspect the actual cost might be less.
- Chicken: I will always choose chicken on the bone over boneless skinless. I buy a lot of chicken breast when it’s 99 cents a pound. I’ll bring the chicken breasts home and break it down myself so that I have a number of packages of frozen boneless, skinless breasts in Ziplocs appropriate for a meal for the size of my family. I’ll then make Chicken Stock with the bones and my vegetable parings.) I usually use the white meat, less cholesterol, but be careful to not overcook. Cost $.50
- Mushrooms: They do go on sale every few weeks, and especially around holidays. Check the package price compared to the loose price. (If you have access to traditional Asian mushrooms, feel free to use – the price may be higher.) I try to buy button mushrooms for about a dollar a pound – full price it’s often twice that or more. Cost: 50 cents.
- Water Chestnuts: I pick up several cans during the Chinese New Year (start looking for sales right after the American New Years!) 79 cents a can is a great price. I’ll often use a whole, small can in this, but if I don’t feel like using so many, I’ll throw them in salads with an Asian dressing – and they’re traditional in Spinach dips. Cost 80 cents.
- Snow Peas: Very expensive per pound, they are really just pennies! They’re so light they weigh very little. Six ounces cost about $1.50.
- Bamboo Shoots: Another ingredient difficult to find fresh in many areas, canned is fine, but rinse under running water for a moment. And just like the other ingredients, watch your timing and location when you buy. Cost about 50 cents.
- Ginger: I’ve never seen a “hand” of ginger on sale, but it’s generally inexpensive. I keep mine in the freezer in a heavy Ziploc. Sometimes it will give up some moisture, but the flavor is still fine. It takes just a minute on the counter to soften enough to grate or mince.
- Oyster Sauce & Soy Sauce: both key ingredients, especially, I think, the Oyster sauce (which doesn’t taste like Oysters – it’s wonderful.) If you don’t have Oyster, use Hoisin or more Soy. Again, look for sales during New Years (some brands actually do have coupons) or buy at an Asian market.
- Sesame Oil: Buy, again, during New Years or at an Asian market, and keep in the fridge. Sesame Oil goes rancid quickly, and be careful – it can overpower a dish quickly.
- Rice Wine: Try to find a decent one rather than a grocery store item – doesn’t have to be the most expensive. Keeps for a long time.
- Chicken Broth: I say it every post, right – I make my own from scraps and bones, so I don’t count the cost.
- White Pepper: I call this a key ingredient – if you’ve not used in your Asian dishes, try it and you’ll see what’s been missing. If you buy whole, and grind yourself (use a blender if you don’t have a grinder) it keeps forever. Pick it up in the bulk aisle or in the “store” packages if they’re sold in your produce aisle.
- Peanut oil: Not absolutely essential, but you want a good oil that doesn’t break down under high heat.
- Cornstarch: Used in all kinds of Asian stir-fries, I always pick up several boxes (or jars, nowadays) around Thanksgiving, Easter or Christmas when baking goods are on sale and coupons are available. It lasts for years, so why not?
- Rice: You can buy special rice, but I just use supermarket rice. (This method will not work with “converted” rice like Uncle Ben’s. To make it a bit stickier like the restaurant version, I first rinse, then measure in the water (use a 1 to 2 ratio, rice to water) let it sit for a few minutes and then give it a good stir. Cook as usual: Bring to a boil, put on lid and barely simmer 20 minutes, leave the lid on, turn off heat, and let it steam for five, then fluff gently with a fork. Rule of thumb? Use a half a cup of uncooked per person. Buy on sale, with a coupon – look for a price of about 8 cents a cup. I often find smaller packages, with a coupon are free. Three cups for six people, 25 cents.
This is based on the traditional Muh Gu Gai Pin, using the ingredients listed, not including rice. Calories 125, Cal fr Fat: 86.43, Tot Fat 9.78g; sat fat: 1.64g; Chol 3.66 mg; sod 378 mg; tot carb 6.33g; fib 1.11g; sug 2.42g; prot 3.34g
Put Your Own Spin on It:
Why not use whatever YOU like? I do, and it’s always good.
Recipe made June 2012