If you’ve never had mu-shu pork, imagine a delicious pork stir-fry that, instead of being served with rice, gets wrapped in a tender, chewy pancake, tortilla style. This famous dish is from northern China where rice is seldom used; instead, flour-based noodles, steamed buns, and pancakes like these are served. The thin pancakes, called Mandarin pancakes, are the same as those featured in Peking duck. Indeed, mu-shu pork is known in China as the poor man’s Peking duck, in part because very little meat is required, and in part because the duck takes at least a day to make, while the pork filling for mu-shu is ready in minutes.
While you can find mu-shu pork on many Chinese restaurant menus, it’s a wonderful dish to make at home because of the pancakes. Unfortunately, the pancakes served at most restaurants are often commercially made and they feel (and taste) like paper. They’re very dry and—I’m sure this has happened to many of you—they often tear, causing the filling to fall out. Fresh homemade pancakes, on the other hand, are supple and slightly chewy; they surround the filling willingly, almost lovingly. Compared to the starch-white color of commercially made pancakes, they have a lovely golden color plus a little browning from the skillet, which adds just a bit of toasty flavor.
An easy hot-water dough gives the pancakes their pleasing texture
There are just three ingredients needed to make Mandarin pancakes: flour, water, and dark (toasted) sesame oil. Boiling the water before mixing it with the flour causes the starch in the flour to swell immediately and allows the flour to absorb more water. After kneading the dough briefly, it’s important to let it rest for at least half an hour to relax the dough and make it easier to roll out.
There’s a wonderful trick to making these pancakes (see “Step-by-Step: Making paper-thin pancakes,” below): Cooking two “sandwiched” pancakes at once saves time and allows for the thinnest pancakes possible. Some say this technique developed as a time saver, but I think its main value is that it makes it easy for even the inexperienced pancake-maker to get pancakes that are perfectly paper-thin. Basically, you oil two rounds of dough, press them together, and roll them as flat as possible. After cooking them, you peel the two layers apart and wind up with two pancakes half as thin as the original. Because the pieces of dough were oiled, they separate quite easily as long as they’ve been cooked correctly.
Step-by-Step: Making paper-thin pancakes
Cook the pancakes quickly but thoroughly. You want to cook the pancakes over medium-high heat. If the pan is too hot, the outside will brown before the inside has cooked through, and the pancakes will be difficult to pull apart and will taste floury. An overcooked one, however, will no longer be pliable. Cooking the pancakes correctly is easy as long as you’re vigilant. Cook the first side for about a minute, and then turn it over and cook the other side briefly, another 30 seconds or less. The pancake is done when it begins to look less opaque and starts to bubble; a few brown spots are all right.
You’ll know soon enough if you’ve got them right. For starters, they should be easy to peel apart while hot. Then check on a few pancakes after they’ve cooled somewhat but before you’ve finished cooking the rest. The cooled pancakes should be pliable enough to roll. If they’re brittle, cook the remaining pancakes for less time, lower your heat, or both.
You can make the pancakes ahead of the stir-fry—they can even be frozen—and reheat them by wrapping them in foil and heating them in a 350°F oven for a few minutes or steaming them in a bamboo steamer.
A delicious pork filling that feels both exotic and familiar
The filling for Mu-Shu Pork is a pleasing jumble of textures and flavors. Its ingredients include finely sliced marinated pork, crunchy shredded cabbage, and soft-cooked scrambled eggs, broken up into pieces, as you’d find in fried rice. There are also a couple of ingredients that, despite their charming names, may seem off-putting: golden needles and cloud ears. Golden needles are dried tiger lily buds; cloud ears, also called wood ears, are pieces of dried black fungus. These ingredients, which are often paired in Chinese cooking, are likely more familiar to you than you think because they’re featured in other popular Chinese dishes, notably hot and sour soup and the vegetarian dish called Buddha’s Delight.
Both golden needles and cloud ears provide more in the way of texture than flavor. Good golden needles offer a slightly sweet or slightly musky flavor, and cloud ears mainly absorb the stronger flavors in the dish. Both are readily available in Asian markets or online, both usually come packaged in cellophane, and both must be rehydrated before using in a stir-fry.
If you can’t get your hands on golden needles, increase the amount of bamboo shoots in the recipe (another exotic-sounding ingredient but one that’s available canned in most supermarkets). In place of the cloud ears, try reconstituted dried shiitakes; they won’t have the same pleasant, slightly rubbery texture of the cloud ears, but they’ll be delicious.
A tangy-sweet sauce completes the package
The third element of mu-shu pork is a thick sauce (the same one used for Peking duck) that gets brushed onto the pancake before the filling is added. A mixture of hoisin sauce, brown sugar, soy sauce, and sesame oil, the thick, slightly spicy Mandarin sauce binds the flavor and texture of the filling to the pancake. The sauce, which can be made ahead and refrigerated, is also great added at the end to other stir-fries or brushed on grilled chicken and steak.