My Mom’s One And Only Tomato Beef Chow Mein

My favorite tomato beef chow mein. Recipe follows at the end.

Fresh tomatoes. Seared slices of flank steak. Pan-crisped Chinese egg noodles.

Three simple ingredients that together have the most profound of meanings for me.

They make up my favorite tomato beef chow mein dish that my late-mother used to make for family lunches and dinners. Of all the home-style Cantonese dishes she cooked, it’s the one that most reminds me of her, it’s the one that most epitomizes her.  It’s a strong dish that can stand on its own, yet it’s unfussy, it’s comforting, and it’s full of sweet soulfulness.

I still can picture my Mom in the kitchen of our family house in San Francisco, draining the pot of noodles, tossing them with soy sauce and toasted sesame oil, then splitting them between two frying pans to crisp. With my fingers, I would pick a few hot, crunchy strands out of the pan. As I happily chomped, she would shoo me away with a glint in her eyes, knowing full well I just couldn’t resist.

When the noodles were ready, my petite Mom would toss the hefty mound in a big wok with the flank steak, stewed tomatoes, fresh tomatoes, celery, onions, green pepper, and coins of ginger. When it was ready, my father, two brothers, and I would eagerly line up at the stove to heap some onto our plates.

The taste is at once sweet, savory, and lively, with crisp vegetables and noodles, and unctuous, jammy tomatoes. We always had seconds. We never, ever tired of eating it.

My dear Mom (photo courtesy of Jennifer Jung)When my Mom suffered a stroke four years ago, and went through rehabilitation to relearn how to speak and to use her right hand again, my husband used to try to keep her fighting spirit up by telling her, “You have to get better so you can cook me your tomato beef chow mein. You know, I’ve never had it yet.”

A few years later when her health started to decline severely, my husband would continue to say that to her, even if we all knew in our hearts she probably would never make that dish or any other again. Even so, there were times when he said it that I saw that familiar twinkle in her eyes again.

My husband never got to try my Mom’s true version, made lovingly with her own hands. Sadly, she passed away last year.

As what would have been my Mom’s 88th birthday approaches this week, I vowed to make tomato beef chow mein in honor of her. Fortunately, I had the foresight to have her write down the recipe a decade ago. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the prescience to have her jot down more of them.

I cut the celery on the diagonal, just as I had watched her do so many times. I sliced the flank steak against the grain, just as she always had. Maybe it was the fact that I was mimicking her movements, but I felt as if she was there with me, instructing me, and keeping a watchful eye to make sure I did it as it should be done.

As I tossed the noodles, tomatoes and beef in the fiery wok, it all looked so familiar and felt so right. I scooped a tangle of noodles onto a plate for my husband, who had waited years to taste this dish that he had heard so much about.

He put a forkful into his mouth, and chewed as he let out a most contented “Mmmmm.”

“This is GOOD!” he finally said, reaching for another forkful.

I can’t say if my Mom would have thought it tasted exactly like what she used to make. But I’m pretty proud of this rendition. I even threw in a few heirloom tomatoes, something my Mom never would have considered. Still, I think she would have approved.

This was my first time making my Mom’s tomato beef chow mein. I know it won’t be my last. From now on, it’ll once again be a staple in my life. Because, Mom, this one’s by you, and is you. Now. Always. With every blissful bite.

My Mom’s Tomato Beef Chow Mein

(serves 4)

For meat:

½ pound flank steak, sliced thinly, against the grain

1 teaspoon Asian sesame oil

1 teaspoon dark soy sauce

¼ teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon cornstarch

For noodles:

1 pound fresh Chinese egg noodles

2 tablespoons Asian sesame oil

2 tablespoons dark soy sauce

For sauce:

1 onion, sliced thinly

2 ribs celery, sliced diagonally

½ green bell pepper, sliced

4 large tomatoes, cut in large chunks

1 can (14.5 ounces) stewed tomatoes

1 teaspoon dark soy sauce

1 teaspoon vinegar or lemon juice

1 tablespoon sugar

1 teaspoon ground ginger or a few slices of fresh ginger

2 tablespoons cornstarch, mixed with ½ cup cold water until dissolved

To marinate beef: Mix beef slices with 1 teaspoon sesame oil, 1 teaspoon dark soy sauce, 1 teaspoon cornstarch, and ¼ teaspoon baking soda. Marinate in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes.

To make noodles: Cook noodles in a pot of boiling water for about 1 minute. Drain noodles, rinse under cold running water, drain again. Put noodles in a bowl, and stir in 2 tablespoons sesame oil, and 2 tablespoons dark soy sauce.

Heat a small amount of oil in two 12-inch non-stick frying pans. Divide noodles evenly between the two pans. Cook on medium meat until noodles are crispy and light-brown in color. Stir frequently to prevent burning. Set noodles aside and keep warm.

Add a little bit of oil to a large wok or non-stick frying pan, and brown the beef over high heat. Transfer beef to a bowl, and set aside.

Add a little more oil to the pan. On medium-high heat, saute onion, celery, and bell pepper for a few minutes. Then add fresh tomatoes, stewed tomatoes, dark soy sauce, vinegar, sugar, and ginger. Bring to a boil. Slowly stir in cornstarch mixture. Cook until sauce thickens. Add beef, then stir in the noodles. Serve immediately.

— Recipe by my late-Mom, May Jung

Don’t Miss: My Video Demo of Making Tomato Beef Chow Mein at Macy’s Union Square

More: My Mom’s Prawns with Pork and Black Bean Sauce

More: My Version of My Mom’s Sticky Rice

More: Recreating My Mom’s Steamed Pork Cake

More: My Mom’s World’s Easiest Noodle Soup

And: Recreating My Mom’s Rice Porridge

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  • This is a great piece of writing. The kind so missing in today’s food journalism.

    Thank you for this post! Saved to delicious.

    Happy 88th birthday to your mother.

  • Carolyn

    All of your entries are wonderful but this one was incredible. I have tears in my eyes and I promise to make this recipe and I am naming it “Carolyn’s mom’s!” I will also note on the recipe card this week’s date to remember the mom of my friend.

  • Food Gal, what a nice legacy from your mom. I think we all have favorite dishes of our parents growing up and it’s such a great way to honor them by keeping those favorites alive in mind and belly.

    I’ve forgotten that I used to love this combination of sweet/tart tomatoes with beef, mostly because as an adult I’ve been eating less and less beef dishes. But I am definitely going to try this soon!

  • We should all be so lucky as to have such wonderful memories…Thank you for sharing that Carolyn.

    And not to take things down a notch, but I’m intrigued by the addition of baking soda to the beef marinade. Do you happen to know the reasoning behind it?

  • My Mom would have been 88 this Saturday. I’m sure she would have been a little embarrassed by all the attention. But I’m also sure she would have been pleased that a dish she made could capture so many people’s fancy. Thank you all for the sweet comments. It’s the best birthday present my Mom could have.

    As for the baking soda, I’m taking a wild guess here: But I’m thinking it may help tenderize the beef. Also, baking soda neutralizes acidity, so it might help tame the tang of the tomatoes and vinegar, giving them a little more roundness. But if anyone has any other explanation, I’m all ears.

  • I so wish I had taken the time to learn the recipes my Grandmother used to make. I won’t make that same mistake with my mom. Lovely post and maybe I’ll just try my hand at Carolyn’s Moms Tomato Beef Chow Mein!

  • I just love this post…. Just brilliant…

    And the recipe looks great!

  • A beautiful, moving tribute and one that’s especially poetic. Thanks for sharing this with all of us.

  • Thanks for sharing your story, it’s very touchy and I feel I almost have tears coming out. What else can compare a dish made by our mom which is fully of warmth, love and memory! I am glad you could repeat the dish and share the old memories with him.

  • Such a heartfelt story. Thank you for sharing your beautiful writing and treasured family recipe with us.

  • Carolyn, lovely story and such a delicious dish – everything tastes better with someone you love behind it!

  • This was really tasty, and what’s interesting is that the sauce is just like the Chinese-Peruvian dish lomo saltado — you just have to toss in some French fried potatoes (!!) and serve over rice!

  • Hi Cicely,
    I never thought about that, but you’re right _ the sauce IS like that Chinese-Peruvian dish. I’ve only tasted lomo saltado once. It was at Limon restaurant in San Francisco. A friend ordered it, and since I can never resist French fries, I had a bite. Good stuff!

  • Fawn Keh Gnow Yook Chow Mein–many thanks, Carolyn. So many comments that validate what I’ve felt all along: you’re not just an excellent food writer; you’re a truly talented writer–period. It’s rare indeed to see such a string of responses all describing how one piece engaged them. Your story of what today would be labeled your Mom’s “signature dish” was written in less complex prose than many other stories you’ve penned. That simplicity I think, reflects both the dish itself–straight forward and soooo good just as it underscores the sincere love of a daughter writing about a cherished link to her beloved Mom. Well done, Carolyn. And a belated birthday greeting to your Mom who I’m sure is beaming with pride somewhere overhead. — wayne

  • I offer my thanks, too, Carolyn, for this post and the body of work that this blog allows you to continue. Your blog is a “don’t miss” for me.

    As for the baking soda in the recipe I offer this. I’m third generation Chinese American raised in Oakland. Our family lore says that baking soda is used to tenderize cheaper cuts of beef. I infer from past dinner table conversation that in some restaurants cheap, tough cuts may have be dusted with baking soda for some period then had it rinsed off before cooking. In particularly egregious cases I think that I can taste beef processed in this way. It’s hard to describe, but the slices of beef have a oddly soft quality to them, not to be confused with the tenderness of, say, filet. Sound familiar? Your mom’s recipe may carry the baking soda as an artifact of an earlier era and may not suffer at all from the exclusion of the baking soda.

  • Thank you so much for all the kind words, Geoff. They mean a lot. And I think your explanation of the baking soda is on the mark. It makes a lot of sense. Flank steak is pretty lean, and therefore, not as tender as other cuts, so I’m sure the baking soda does help tenderize it. I know what you mean about the flabby texture of overly tenderized beef. Because this recipe only uses a quarter teaspoon, I don’t think you get that unwanted texture. I think it softens it just enough so that you don’t have to gnaw away on it quite so much. 😉

    Many thanks again for your insights. And thank you, too, for reading.

  • Hi Carolyn, I hadn’t read your blogs for awhile so I was catching up tonight and saw this one. It’s lovely. There’s not a stronger connection to family than through food. Your mom would be so proud that you made this dish!
    The recipe brings back my own memories of eating at the Far East Cafe in SF’s Chinatown with my family. I always wanted to order the tomato beef chow mein on the menu because it reminded me of my favorite food: spaghetti!

  • Thanks for sharing your mom’s recipe. I too miss my Mom’s cooking! It’s been a decade since having her Brocolli Beef, Black Bean Pepper Chow Fun, and her famous Osso Bucco. How wonderful it is to share food, especially with a wonderful long history behind it with those we love. Thanks for sharing yours. Don’t stop.

  • I missed this post earlier. What a moving tribute to your mother and, as everyone else has stated, very eloquently written. I’m sure she would have been proud.

  • thanks for sharing another moving story – these noodles look so delicious and I’m sure your mom would have been very proud of your rendition. Great post and pics! can’t say that enough 🙂

  • Am I the only one to try this recipe? It was delicious! Congrats in recreating the recipe and to a wonderful tribute to your mom.

  • Enmisme: Thank you so much for that. I am soooo happy you enjoyed the tomato beef chow mein. My late-Mom would be thrilled.

  • This was DELICIOUS. My dad was a huge fan of this back in the day and I decided to use your mother’s recipe to make it for him. There were no leftovers because everyone loved it.

    I can really see the love and significance behind this recipe. Thank you for sharing it. 🙂

  • Wow, what a heartwarming blog post. Thanks so much for sharing. I really enjoyed reading this post. It makes me want to pick my mom’s brains for as many recipes as possible!

  • What a grand idea, Carolyn — running this hugely well-received post on the eve of your Mom’s birthday (Sept. 13?) presumably an annual homage to her, the relationship you and your husband had with her, and wonderful feeling of sharing your Mom’s recipe for the dish you lovingly describe as “unfussy, it’s comforting, and it’s full of sweet soulfulness.” Of course … it was Mom’s.

  • CJ, our whole family loves Tomato Beef Chow Mein! It seems like tourist food because I don’t think it really exists in China. We order it every Sunday when we eat lunch in Chinatown after church. I was planning on making it tonight for dinner…don’t have a recipe…just do it by instinct. I’ll give your mom’s recipe a try. Your post is a very sweet homage to her. She was such a kind person.

  • Thanks for sharing this wonderful, moving story. 88 years is a pretty significant number in Chinese culture and I’m so glad you paid your mom this tribute. Your sentiments are mine exactly which is why I feel that my upcoming cookbook is so important to me and to Asian cultures everywhere. If you don’t record all these amazing recipes, they will be gone forever! I’m definitely going to try out your recipe!

  • Wotten: You’re correct! It was my Mom’s upcoming birthday that made me think of making this last night. Well, that, plus my husband saying repeatedly, “When are you going to make some tomato beef chow mein? When??” Hah.

    Liane: Wow, had no idea you guys eat this every Sunday. What a fun tradition after church.

    Pat: Couldn’t have said it better myself. Isn’t it always true that we really appreciate things only after the fact? That’s why I always urge people to get their parents and grand-parents to write down favorite recipes. You never realize what you’re going to end up missing until years later. Jot it down, pass it down to the the next generation, and keep these cherished flavors alive.

  • What a wonderful and bittersweet post. Good on you for having the forethought to write down the recipe. I wish I had done the same for my grandmother, whose recipes all went to the grave with her.

    By the way, now you’re inspiring me to add “learn how to cook Chinese cuisine” to my big list of Must-Do’s!

  • yummy:) thanks for your share i’d love to follow you.anyway happy new year ~~~~~~~~

  • Hi Carolyn,
    I am so touched by your story of your mom. I have lots of good memories of my mom’s cooking as well. I left home to live overseas when I was a young adult. I never did write down all my mom’s wonderful recipes when I was growing up. When I was on my own and did think of asking my mom her wonderful recipes,it was too late. She had a stroke and had difficulties with speech and lost some memories. I have very fond memories of my mom and did remember a lot of her good cooking, but wish I have all her recipes.

  • Michael Goldberg

    Carolyn – what a lovely and wonderful way to think of your mom. I learned to love Tomato Beef Chow Mein as an undergrad at UC Berkeley in the early ’70’s. There were several students on my dorm floor from Hong Kong, and we would go to the City late on a Saturday night to The Empress of China – or one of the other Chinese restaurants in the City. I loved it then and still do. I have made it a few times, as where I live, no one seems to have heard of the dish. So good and with so many variations. thanks michael Goldberg

  • One of my best eating memories from the sixties is eating tomato beef chow mein with pan fried noodles at a place located at the end of Castro Street in Mountain View California. We since moved back east and I cannot find a source here in Maryland. I dream of this stuff.
    We found a small paper back book that had a recipe — but somehow it isn’t the same.
    I would give a vital body part to find a source within a hundred miles of Westminster, MD.
    In the meantime I will copy you mom’s recipe and your back story. I can taste it as I write.

  • I don’t remember how I stumbled upon your website but I’m sure glad I did! I bookmarked the tomato beef chow mein recipe and make the dish frequently for my family – we clean the platter every time! My nephew is visiting tomorrow and guess what I’m making for dinner!?!

    What I love most about your recipe is the personal connection – it feels real. Real food eaten by real people… Thank you so much for your beautiful blog!

  • My mom used to make the same dish as well, since she passed away two years ago of brain cancer, I haven’t been able to eat this dish. I feel as though it would hurt too much. But seeing this recipe, I think it’s time to think of her and her food fondly. Thank you so much for posting this recipe!

  • Kitty: My condolences about your Mom’s struggle with brain cancer. Do yourself a favor, though — make this dish or make any dish that reminds you of your Mom. I won’t kid you — likely, you’ll get a little teary at first. I know I did the first time I made my Mom’s tomato beef chow mein. But in the end, when you take that first bite, what will come over you is not sadness, but wonderful memories — ones that have stayed with you all these years and will continue to do so. It’s a way of keeping her spirit alive, and honoring what she meant to you. You will be glad you did it, I promise. 😉

  • Beth-Sacramento Native

    What a wonderful article. Condolences to you and your family. My Dad recently passed away from a short but swift battle with cancer. One of his all time favorite dishes was the Tomato Beef Chow Mein from the China Moon Cafe in Sacramento. I can’t wait to make this recipe in his honor as well. Bless you for sharing!

  • I grew up eating my mother and grandmothers
    tomato beef chow mein and it was absolutely hands down, my favorite dish that they made. I have wanted to learn this recipe for soooo long and yours is it for sure! my mom used a teaspoon of tomato paste and black bean sauce inplace of stewed tomatoes. beyond that your directions were perfect and very easy to follow. Thank you for sharing the recipe for my favorite comfort food. It’s a great dish and a beautiful story!

  • Shirley McIntyre Bird

    Thank you. I also remember this dish in San Francisco and at my friend Tommy Wong’s mother’s restaurant in Redwood City. What a wonderful tribute to your mother. I feel as though I know you.

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  • Barry & Eva Jan

    Your blog is very interesting. It remind us of our Moms when we were living in SF Chinatown,
    flank steaks, salmon bellies, ground pork patties using salted fish or jai choi, lo han jai etc. You are a very good writer. We will be looking forward to your future articles. Please add us to your mailing list. Keep up with the good work.

    Barry & Eva

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  • tomato beef chow mein, you only use baking soda on your meat when you are trying to tenderize tough cuts of beef. it is not really good for you. your better off buying a better quality of meat.

  • I am 54 years old and still looking for the version of beef tomato i enjoyed with my family in SF chinatown on weekends or family vacations in Hawaii.
    This was is pretty darn close! Made it last night and was especially impressed with the method of making the noodles. Now days if you ask for pan fried noodles waiters just look at you funny. Great dish!


    ps my mothers name was also May. Actually Mayday, as she was born on May 1. Love you mom…

  • ClaireKaui: Awww, I’m so glad my Mom’s version is so close to what you were looking for. It must be fate that you found the recipe here, too, since we both had mothers with the same name. The love of tomato beef chow mein just can’t be denied. 😉

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  • Being your cousin, and therefore your mom’s nephew, I had the pleasure and honor of having many meals cooked by your mom, inc. this very special Tomato Beef Chow Mein. Remembering the days of our youth in the ‘hood, I recall fondly all those special meals all our moms made for us since three of our families lived within walking distance of each other. Your mom’s TBCM stands out.

    I have LONG sought to find a restaurant that could even TRY to replicate your mom’s unique way of “burning” the noodles into a crunchy texture. Never accomplished that, the restaurants tended to think I was describing “Hong Kong” noodles.

    I will have to try and whip this up myself. I’ll be thinking of the old days as I bite into my first mouthful, and will try to explain the importance of it all to my daughter. THANKS!

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  • When I lived in San Francisco in the 70’s and 80’s, I used to go to a restaurant on 18th St called the South China Cafe. I always got the Tomato Beef Chow Mein because it was soooo good! As soon as I walked in, the lady behind the counter would always laugh and say “You want Chinese spaghetti, right?” I made your Mom’s recipe the other night and it is the first recipe I’ve found that is as good as (if not better than) the chow mein I remember. Thank you so much for sharing your Mom’s recipe. I’ll be making it often!

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