Thursday, June 7, 2012

Moo Goo Gai Pan

         The other day, when I opened a post from Bee at, along with Bee's recipe for Moo Goo Gai Pan came a flood of memories.  It instantly took me back to my childhood in Montreal.  Not that I ever ate Moo Goo Gai Pan. I don’t think Chinese food in any form ever crossed the Mathews’ family doorstep.  However, my parents had one friend in particular whose entire diet seemed to consist of Chinese take-out.  At least that’s the way it looked to me at aged 10. 

Note that Ruby Foo's served
Chinese and American Dishes.
And also note that there's not a word
of French on their signage.
         Our house was a convenient dropping off place on Auntie Ann’s way to her lakeshore home.  A very glamorous figure and former fashion model, she’d stop in for a quick visit but somehow one dry martini led to another and all thoughts of cooking dinner went out the window.  Instead, she would call Montreal’s most famous Chinese restaurant, Ruby Foo’s, and order exotic-sounding dishes to be picked up on the final leg of her trip home.  Her waiting husband and child must have had Chinese several times a week. How I wanted to join them!  Who wouldn’t want to taste a dish called Moo Goo Gai Pan? 

The Chinese ladies are joined
with someone vaguely Polynesian
to extoll their umbrella drinks
on Ruby Foo's menus 
         My parents were nothing if not adventurous eaters but Chinese cooking--in reality Chinese-American cooking—did not interest them in the least. It may have been my mother's extreme aversion to any form of rice. Whatever the readon,  it wasn’t until I came to New York that Chinese food became a part of my vocabulary.  By that time, however, Hunan and Szechuan restaurants had inundated New York with the fiery hot flavors of those two provinces. Gentler Cantonese dishes like Moo Goo Gai Pan and Egg Foo Yung were relegated to the New York equivalents of Ruby Foo’s. That is vast eateries where the great majority of diners were Jewish and where Chinese food on a Sunday was (and still is) a ritual.  Truth be told, Ruby Foo’s in Montreal was owned and run not by anyone Chinese but by a Jewish family called Shapiro. 
Did Education kill Ruby Foo's ?
Photo from the Jewish Public Library
Archives, Montreal 
         When the father of the Shapiro family died, he left the running of the restaurant to his twin sons, Harold and Bernard.  The brothers managed the restaurant while pursuing their educations at McGill University.  After both boys graduated, they went on to distinguished academic careers: Harold became first the President of the University of Michigan and later the President of Princeton University. Bernard became the Principle and Vice Chancellor of McGill University and then Canada’s first Ethics Commissioner.  All that education spelled the demise of Ruby Foo’s.  (A hotel by the same name opened a couple of blocks down from Ruby Foo’s original location but its only relation to the Shapiro’s is its name.) 
         Back to Moo Goo Gai Pan.   As exotic as it sounds, Moo Goo means mushroom and Gai Pan means chicken in Chinese.  It’s a delicate dish, the perfect thing to serve young children when you want to introduce them to another culture at its most child-friendly.   No spicy or fiery flavors here, just tender silky chicken with crispy vegetables all tied together with a sweet and sour sauce.  It’s a basic stir-fry that requires a little time marinating the strips of chicken in egg whites.  But other than that, it’s a snap with or without a wok. I made it in my largest sauté pan.  Here’s the recipe:

Recipe for Moo Goo Gai Pan from
16 oz boneless skinless chicken breast, cut into 1/8-inch thick slices

1/3 cup + 2 tbsp. canola or other vegetable oil

2-3 cloves garlic, peeled and minced

2 cups mixed vegetables (snow peas/sugar snap peas and carrots)

1 cup mixed mushrooms (button mushroom, thickly sliced and straw mushroom)

Salt and sugar as per taste
For the Marinade:
2 egg white
A pinch of ground white pepper

1 teaspoon salt
For the Sauce:
1/2 cup chicken broth

2 tablespoon light soy sauce

1/2 teaspoon sesame oil

1 tablespoon brown sugar

1/4 of ground white pepper

1 tablespoon Shaoxing wine, or any Chinese cooking wine
 or substitute Sherry
1 teaspoon cornstarch
In a bowl, prepare the marinade. Lightly beat the egg whites, and mix well with the rest of the marinade ingredients. Marinade the chicken, coat well and let it sit for 30 minutes, making sure that all the egg whites are well soaked at the end of the marinating  process. This will ensure a smooth and silky texture when the chicken is cooked. Discard any excess marinade.
In a wok or large heavy skillet, heat 1/3 cup of oil to smoky hot, gently drop slices of chicken in, constantly stir-fry until the chicken is a little over half done, for about 45 seconds, or until the chicken turns silky white on the surface and still pink on the inside. Dish out, drain on paper towels and set aside. Scrape off any excess on the wok, and rinse the wok well.
Heat up wok with 2 tablespoons oil, stir-fry minced garlic until lightly browned and fragrant. Toss in the peas, carrots and continue to stir-fry for 2 minutes. Add in mushrooms and stir-fry for another 1-2 minutes.

Toss in the cooked chicken, mix well and quickly pour in the Sauce. Stir well, cover the pan and gently simmer on medium heat until chicken is completely cooked and sauce has thickened (about 10 minutes). Remove cover, adjust salt, sugar, or other flavorings as per taste. Serve at once over hot steamed rice.


  1. I loved Moo Goo Gai Pan from the days of Mah Jong when we were kids. I have already copied this so I can make it next week. Thanks, Monte.

  2. Hi Lauren, This was really excellent and very easy and economical. So funny that you remember it from a place called Mah Jong because when I was researching Ruby Foos in Montreal and discovered there's a hotel called Ruby Foo's, guess what the name of the restaurant is in the hotel? Mah Jong!

  3. OMG this is what my father always ordered with his Beefeater martini from Gam Wah on Old Country Road, Carle Place (the only Chinese restaurant on Long Island in the 60's I believe). But wait, then there was The Golden Fan down the road. I'm smiling and shaking my head. Aw, I'm gonna make it. Thanks Monte!

    1. Did you read Lauren Phillips Ready's post above? Did you ever hit Mah Jong's in Syosset? By the way, this would be great for your grandchildren because it's mild and not at all spicy. All best, Monte

  4. We made it last night. Easy and cheap but best, delicious and healthy. I only used 2 chicken breasts and still have plenty of leftovers. I think I will double the sauce the next time and store the sauce in a different Tupperware so I can pour some over the leftovers. We added some Sriracha to spice it up.