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Moo goo gai pan is originally a Chinese dish that is made like a stir-fry with sliced chicken, mushrooms and vegetables coated in sauce. Most familiar Western versions of the dish are made from more convenient ingredients than the original Chinese vegetables, although some aspects are the same. Creating moo goo gai pan is mostly a matter of personal taste, although there are some elements, such as the sauce, that can be tweaked to increase or decrease the intensity of flavor. Many of the components of the stir fry can be changed in small ways that affect the resulting flavors and the overall character of the food.
One of the more flexible parts of moo goo gai pan is the sauce in which all the ingredients are coated near the end of cooking. This is most often a combination of chicken stock, rice wine or sherry, and some sugar. The flavor is intentionally light to reflect the goal of creating a light, fresh-tasting meal. For a more intense Asian flavor, oyster sauce or soy sauce can be added in small amounts. The sauce also can have a sweet and sour taste with the addition of vinegar, sugar or dry sherry.
A common ingredient in the sauce that should not be overlooked is the addition of cornstarch. By adding cornstarch to the sauce and allowing it to heat, the sauce will become very thick and start to coat the meat and vegetables instead of sitting in the bottom of the pan. The overall effect is different from allowing the sauce to reduce. To prevent clumping when adding cornstarch, it should first be completely dissolved in some liquid prior to being introduced to heat.
The type of vegetables added can vary from one kitchen to another. The flexibility of moo goo gai pan makes it easy to add whatever is convenient, including leftover vegetables. Frozen vegetables can be added directly to a hot wok if the pieces are sufficiently small in size. One important tip is to keep the balance between the amount of meat and vegetables even so one does not overpower the other, because making moo goo gai pan is partly about managing the balance of texture and flavor. This can be especially true when working with dried, reconstituted mushrooms, which can have a much more intense flavor than fresh ones.
The cooking technique used to make moo goo gai pan also can make a large difference. Like many stir-fry recipes, it is meant to be cooked quickly over high heat in stages. When an element — such as the chicken — is done cooking, it is usually removed from the pan while the next element is cooked. At the end of cooking, everything is returned to the pan with the sauce and heated quickly, after which it can be served very hot over white rice.
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