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Every so often I come across a dish in my repertoire , often remembered from my childhood or early years of marriage, that makes me think ‘what the hell – how on earth has this stood the test of time’? The answer of course is that they taste great, and pretty much without exception are simple to make , as well as being family favourites that kids enjoy as much as adults. Even with that, how they ever got up in the first place remains a mystery and testament to our overall creativeness. Such a dish is ‘70s style chow mein.

I’ve written previously about how much food has changed over the years in Australia, notably in my lifetime from about the mid 1970s onwards, when Asian influences started to take hold in this country following the influx of refugees at the end of the Vietnam war. Of course there will always remain timeless classics of cookery that have been around for decades and even longer and will no doubt go on being classics. Things like chicken cacciatore, beef wellington and lemon meringue pie will probably be around forever, while others come and go as a passing phase and probably won’t be heard from again. Hopefully from the contemporary food list anything with kale in the title will fall into the latter category and never darken our kitchens again.

chowmein1 Fry the onion and garlic gently until softened. I had a rather large brown onion and half a leftover red one, hence the colour mix. I think it looks rather striking.

Chow mein (of the type I describe here) is a different sort of classic, possibly known only in Australia. and at least in our family it hasn’t slipped from memory. I remember having this at home as a child, and certainly during the early years of our marriage Ms Onion and I would have had it, although it was possible to buy a packet mix base in those days from which we would have made it. I don’t know if the packet mixes are still available, but if my recollection of them is reliable they contain enough salt to make a facsimile statue of Lot’s wife. I put together the recipe here mostly from memory and some experimentation, but as is the way these days variants are easy to find on the internet, usually under the title of beef and cabbage chow mein, beef mince chow mein or something similar. It therefore would appear that others haven’t forgotten it either, and perhaps we could agree to call it a retro-classic.

chowmein2 Add the water, soup mix, sauces and curry powder and mix it all together.

chowmein3 Then add the carrots and rice and simmer gently for about 15 minutes. Most of the water will be absorbed and the rice cooked.

The provenance of this dish remains unknown to me. It is unlike any other ‘Chinese’ dish you have ever had, and apart from containing some noodles (via the chicken noodle soup) and rice that is where the similarity ends and weirdness begins, such as the addition of curry powder and tomato sauce. No doubt it was quite exotic in the ‘70s and was cobbled together by someone as their best approximation of something they had tried on their overseas trip to Singapore or some such place. Nevertheless it’s a very simple dish to make that will only dirty one pot, the kids will love it and there’s a very good chance you might be able to make it from materials already in your cupboard and fridge. At worst you might have to pick up some mince and chicken noodle soup from the shop.

chowmein4 Finally add the cabbage , cover and simmer for another five minutes or so.

Do add some fresh black pepper to this, but taste it before you add any salt, as the chicken noodle mix and soy sauce make it plenty salty enough for my taste without the addition of more.

Have a great Christmas.

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chowmein5 The finished masterpiece. Trust me - it’s really really hard to make this look good in a photo!

Chow Mein (‘70s style)

Cooking: 30 minutes
Serves: 4

  • 12 tablespoon olive oil
  • 2 onions, sliced
  • 1 clove garlic, crushed
  • 500 g mince
  • 3 cups water
  • 1 packet chicken noodle soup
  • 1 teaspoon curry powder
  • 2 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 2 tablespoons tomato sauce
  • 14 cup rice
  • 1 carrot, diced
  • 12 cabbage, shredded
  • salt and pepper, to taste
  • Heat the oil in a frypan or pot over medium heat, add the onion and fry for a few minutes until slightly softened but not browning. Add garlic and stir for 1 minute until fragrant. Add the mince and fry gently until just browned.
  • Add the soup mix and water, bring to the boil, then add the curry powder, soy, tomato sauce, rice and carrot and simmer for about 15 minutes or until the vegetables are tender and the rice is cooked.
  • Stir in the cabbage, cover with a lid and simmer for an additional 5-10 minutes until cabbage is just tender.
  • Season with salt and pepper as required and serve.