Nostalgia so thick you need a chainsaw to cut it

This was my lunch yesterday at the collaborative Obon service held in Steveston. (We did it with the guys from Vancouver and Fraser Valley. This is, incidentally, my second Obon service in as many weeks — hooray for travel to places with large-ish Jodo Shinshu communities!) For those of you keeping track at home, this is chow mein, teriyaki chicken, teriyaki hotdogs, age sushi, sunomono salad, and rice. With watermelon and green tea.

I probably haven’t eaten like this since I was 12, and seeing the huge aluminum trays laid out on the tables and the random, assorted bin of hashi that had been dropped off by whoever had extra disposable ones lurking around, with the bad acoustics in a church gym and stackable wooden and metal chairs — it was damn near overwhelming. The only things missing were the green metal-sided coolers and pump-action vacuum thermoses with flowers on the side, and it would have been a perfect recreation of my childhood church experiences.

It was a meal so quintessentially Japanese-Canadian that I was nearly moved to tears. This is the stuff we ate growing up. The combination of teriyaki chicken and chow mein (yeah, I know it’s really Chinese in origin, but lookit, we made it ours) evokes memories of September, when the Calgary temple would hold its fundraising dinner, hilariously well attended by all, inside a cavernous community center with the same kinds of folding tables and stackable chairs; the moms would be in the kitchen mixing and prepping the plates of chow mein while the men would be out back in front of huge grills with laundry tubs full of chicken marinating in a sauce that we’d made a month earlier — I remember helping in the back with the grills one year when I was maybe ten or eleven and ending up so infused with the smoke I could barely stand it. Today, when I throw teriyaki-marinated meat on my own, much higher-technology grill (no chopped-in-half oil drum for me!), I get funny flashbacks to that time. Brilliant stuff.

Wanna make your own chow mein, Japanese-Canadian style? Here’s what I do:

Go get

  • 1 pound pork tenderloin, in 1/2″ cubes
  • four large stalks of celery, cleaned, trimmed, then angle sliced 1/8″ thick
  • 4 cups of bean sprouts
  • 1 large yellow onion, sliced lengthwise into 1/8″ strips
  • two carrots, peeled and very thinly julienned (if your knife technique leaves a bit to be desired, you can grate this thinly)
  • a half-thumb-sized piece of ginger (or less depending on how much you like ginger), peeled and minced
  • 1 clove of garlic, minced
  • package of steam fried noodles (find it in the ethnic aisle of your grocery store)
  • 1 cup of mushrooms (if you want), sliced
  • shoyu
  • canola oil
  • optionally, sesame seeds for garnishing

Bring a tablespoon of oil over medium-high heat in a heavy pan (my Le Creuset dutch oven works great). Add the onions, garlic, and ginger and cook, stirring frequently, until the onions begin to turn translucent. Add the mushrooms and cook until they begin to shrink. Add celery, carrots, and pork to the pan, stirring occasionally to ensure even cooking. Add bean sprouts and cook for 10-ish minutes, then add the noodles and a splash of shoyu. Cover the pan and let cook for five minutes; remove lid, stir, and continue to cook for five more minutes. (This will preserve some crunch in the noodles.) Remove from heat, garnish with sesame seeds and serve with short koshihikari rice.

NB: There’s no need to add any water to this recipe because the bean sprouts will release quite a bit as they cook. The moisture helps to soften the steam fried noodles; if you like less crunch, leave the lid on longer.