Shanghai’s most popular street food—cong you ban mian—is a boldly savory tangle of chewy noodles and crisp-fried scallions. But the bulk of its flavor comes from the least obvious ingredient: the oil. The dish, which translates as noodles tossed in scallion oil, is a master class in extracting deep, rich flavors from just a handful of simple ingredients and equally simple cooking.
Scallions are fried crisp in copious oil until the latter is infused with the aroma and taste of the green onions. Sometimes shrimp or ground pork are added, too, but classic versions skip the protein. Either way, noodles are cooked, then doused with the oil, along with the crispy-smoky bits of scallion.
The oil is so flavorful, in fact, that Fuchsia Dunlop—the Chinese food expert whose recipe inspired our own—makes it in large quantities and stores it in the refrigerator to combine with frozen noodles for easy, 10-minute meals.
At Milk Street, we loved how a simple technique transformed oil from neutral to flavor-packed. Though many recipes use more, we found ⅓ cup of oil was plenty to fry the scallions and dress the noodles, adding loads of flavor without weighing down the dish.
We did find that cutting the scallions into thin, evenly sized strips helped them crisp quickly and uniformly. Some recipes insist that the scallions be cooked low and slow; others call for high-temp frying. We got the best—and most consistent—results with medium heat, giving the scallions a bit more time to brown. We also reserved some of the scallion greens for sprinkling over the finished dish to add fresh flavor that mirrored the infused oil.
Though we wanted to preserve the dish’s simplicity, we did like the meatiness of a little ground pork (Dunlop’s recipe uses shrimp) browned in the scallion oil. And a finishing sprinkle of chopped fresh chilies balanced the dish with pops of heat to cut through the richness. Finally, freshly pulled Asian wheat noodles aren’t common in American kitchens, but we found that dried Asian wheat noodles, noninstant dried ramen and even thin lo mein noodles worked just as well.