Mama’s Noodles with Mushrooms and Ham, and Her Special Bowl

February 24, 2013
By Holly Jennings

Mama's Noodles


Today Chinese people all over the world are enjoying the Lantern Festival, which marks the last day of the Chinese New Year season. The traditional food for the festival is Yuanxiao dumplings, made with sticky rice flour.


Instead of dumplings, I made a rice noodle dish found in the cookbook The Breath of a Wok by Grace Young. In an email, Grace had suggested it to me as a very auspicious New Year’s recipe to try. “The noodles symbolize longevity, the mushrooms prosperity, and the scallions intelligence. How can you go wrong?,” she wrote.

Alan Richardson's photograph of Mama's Noodles in BREATH OF A WOK

Detail of Alan Richardson’s photograph of Mama’s Noodles in BREATH OF A WOK


That would have been enough to sell me on trying the recipe, but then Grace informed me that the serving bowl used in the beautiful photograph of the noodle dish (shot by photographer Alan Richardson) is not a mere photo prop: It is from her mother’s dowry and is more than sixty years old. It’s part of a set, Grace explained, that her mother only uses for New Year’s celebrations and very special occasions. Flipping through the book, I discovered that this special bowl makes another appearance in a photograph capturing Grace’s father, Baba, carrying the same noodle dish swiftly from the kitchen to the table, so that it can be savored immediately before its flavor and aroma—the wok hay—dissipate.


Alan Richardson's photograph of Baba carrying Mama's Noodles swiftly from kitchen to table. (One of my favorite objects, a leather bookweight from Levenger, can be seen in the upper right corner.)

Alan Richardson’s photograph of Baba carrying Mama’s Noodles swiftly from kitchen to table. (One of my favorite objects, a leather bookweight from Levenger, can be seen in the upper right corner.)


Note to Cook: In her recipe introduction, Grace Young explains that the Cantonese in America prefer to use Smithfield ham as its flavor approximates that of a famous ham from Yunnan province. To remove some of its saltiness, Smithfield ham is rinsed and simmered in water; to avoid this extra step for the small amount of ham used in this recipe, Grace uses prosciutto.


Do not be confused by the appearance of the noodles in my photograph of the dish at the top of this posting. Though they are rice noodles, they are not the flat dried rice noodles Grace calls for this recipe. The small Asian market near me was out of the flat rice noodles, but did have a thinner, round version of the same noodle. I guess you’d say they are the spaghetti, rather than fettuccini, version.


The three complementary toppingsthe ham, cilantro, and scallionsmake this dish, which has overall a clean, light, and subtle flavor. Be sure to have plenty of fresh cilantro. It’s the perfect accent for the pleasantly fatty and salty prosciutto and earthy shiitake.


6 dried shiitake mushrooms
8 ounces flat dried rice noodles
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 tablespoon finely shredded ginger
8 ounces mung bean sprouts (about 4 cups)
1 teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon sugar
2 teaspoons sesame oil
3 teaspoons soy sauce
2 ounces prosciutto, julienned
1 scallion, thinly sliced
Cilantro sprigs


  1. In a medium shallow bowl soak the mushrooms in ¾ cup cold water 30 minutes or until softened. Drain and squeeze dry, reserving the soaking liquid. Cut off and discard the stems and thinly slice the caps. Set aside. Soak the noodles in a bowl with enough warm water to cover 20 minutes or until they are soft and pliable. Drain and set aside.
  2. Heat a 14-inch flat-bottomed wok over high heat until a bead of water vaporizes within 1 to 2 seconds of contact. Swirl in the vegetable oil, add the ginger, and stir-fry 10 seconds. Add the bean sprouts and stir-fry 1 minute. Add the mushrooms, ½ teaspoon of the salt, and the sugar and stir-fry 1 minute or until the sprouts are cooked but still crisp. Transfer to a shallow bowl and toss with 1 teaspoon of the sesame oil and 2 teaspoons of the soy sauce.
  3. Add ½ cup of the reserved mushroom soaking liquid, the remaining 1 teaspoon soy sauce, and 1 teaspoon sesame oil to the unwashed wok. Add the rice noodles and warm over medium heat, stirring constantly, 2 to 3 minutes until all the liquid is absorbed and the noodles are just tender. Add the bean sprout mixture and the remaining ½ teaspoon salt, and stir-fry 1 minute until combined. Transfer to a platter. Sprinkle on the shredded ham, scallion, and cilantro sprigs. Serves 4 as part of a multi-course meal.


Recipe ingredients and instructions from THE BREATH OF A WOK by Grace Young and Alan Richardson. Copyright © 2004 by Grace Young and Alan Richardson. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc., NY. Recipe introduction was written by Holly Jennings.


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