Ah, egg foo young.
In my memory, this dish is a greasy mess of overcooked eggs, watery bean sprouts, and sauce that can only be described as “brown.”
Of course the version I am thinking about is the one that I used to make as a very small child using the 1970s version of a food kit. Everything came in a little box with all of the cans, powders, and packets pre-measured. Basically macaroni and cheese with one or two extra steps. Egg foo young was the one I made with my dad, and Chef Boyardee pizza was the one I made with my darling Aunt Clem, who I should also note bought me my first KISS album.
But fond memories and KISS albums aside, let’s face it, these were more for fun than taste. Even as a kid, I looked forward more to making the food than eating it.
Egg foo young used to be a staple of American Chinese food, but has kind of fallen off the radar. It’s also pretty dated–the kind of dish I could see Don Draper turning up his nose at. Even the name sounds vaguely racist.
I’ve had Cantonese versions of this dish in Hong Kong and Foshan, in both cases it was a fairly straightforward dish of fried egg with seafood. Versions of this dish also filtered through the Chinese diaspora in Southeast Asia, morphing into different variations of deep fried omelette. Dishes like Singapore’s “oyster cake” (蚝煎, 蚝蛋) often come with deep browned skin, eggs that are fluffy but also greasy, and some salty sauce. Some people swear by it, but it’s one taste I never cared for. It’s a great dish if you are stinking drunk, but otherwise not so much.
But other versions of the dish are almost unrecognizable.
The name egg foo young comes from furong dan 芙蓉蛋 (dan just means egg, so it’s a short trip from furong egg→egg foo young).
But the similarity stops there. Elsewhere in China, I had versions of furong dan that were not fried, but rather a delicate steamed custard, topped with salty and spicy ground pork.
In this dish the custard is meant to be extremely soft–in class we used about half egg and half water/corn starch mix to make a custard that could be mistaken for soft tofu. That got topped by a mixture of ground pork that was parboiled and rinsed, then fried with garlic, ginger, red and green 二荆条 chilis, and unusually–soy sauce. This was spooned over the top of the custard along with a good amount of oil, so that the diner could have egg, meat and oil in each bite.
Mine is slightly different. I lean more heavily on the eggs, which you can see in a brighter yellow color, and a firmer custard. Conversely, I prefer the pork mixture a bit less intense, and also cut some of the oil. You could also supplement the flavor of the topping with shitake mushrooms, or pickled vegetables.
I’m the last person to say that my teacher’s version is wrong, but I have to say that I like mine quite a lot. It’s also a question of when it’s served. As one of many dishes at a dinner, the softer version is probably better, but as a standalone dish for breakfast, the firmer version really hits the spot.