Leftovers again? Try these makeover tips to create a 'new' dish.

With a few added flourishes leftover food can be transformed into a fresh meal, such as this 'recipe' for white chicken curry noodles.

Pickles and Tea
Transform leftover chicken curry into a delicious noodle dish.

My mom doesn’t waste food. She never has, doesn’t now, and never will. A friend joked that there’s a term for that: CCW – cheap Chinese woman.

Jokes aside, I was well aware as a little girl that Mom was very conscious of stretching the ingredients she bought to their limits. 

Mom was a proponent of nose-to-tail and root-to-top eating long before it became fashionable. I believe she honed her kitchen skills experimenting with ways to make all cuts of meat and every part of the plant palatable to her husband and three always-hungry kids.

She was not a stickler for recipes. She always had her staples on hand but if she ran out of an ingredient, she’d always find a substitute in her fridge or pantry.  

She found ways to make us finish our meals, using guilt: “Think of all the starving children in Africa!” As well as fear: “Finish your rice or your future husband will have pock marks as numerous as the grains left on your plate.”

One of Mom’s most admirable talents was being able to take yesterday’s leftovers and turn it into something unrecognizable. It’s in this category that her culinary prowess shines. She did so not just because of her zero-waste ethic but also because my dad refused to eat leftovers. If he saw anything on the table that looked remotely familiar, he wouldn’t eat it. My dad’s not a snob at all. I’m sure it has everything to do with living through a war when rationing rendered food scarce and monotonous.

Mom had (and still has) an uncanny ability to transform parts of one dish into a completely different one. And I’m not talking just about the ubiquitous fried rice.

Mom turned turmeric fried chicken into a refreshing soup afloat with glass noodles; the chicken and mushroom topping in bakmi ayam went into a Shepard’s pie of sorts (minus the noodles!); peanut sauce evolved as a sweet-tart dressing for a tossed noodle salad; leftover vegetable stir-fry was stuffed into egg foo-young; and the list goes on.

In this tradition, I’ve conjured some of my own culinary makeovers. Like my mom, I tend to want to use up what’s available in my kitchen. Unlike my mom, I’m a little more reliant on recipes however, I don’t usually follow them to a T. Bolognese sauce transforms into a casserole with spiral pasta and ricotta cheese (even if the recipe calls for mascarpone); the meat from bbq pulled pork sandwiches does double duty as carnitas tacos or enchiladas (or vice versa!); stir-fried vegetables into mushu pork; cedar plank-grilled salmon fillet becomes salmon cakes. Then, there’s my new favorite: Indonesian White Curry Chicken morphs into a curry noodle soup.

To jump-start ideas, here are some leftover makeover tips to try:

  • Just add liquid: Just about any leftover can be transformed into a soup or stew. Minestrone  and chili are two easy ideas.
  • Consider the salad: Leftover meat or tofu makes a great topping for salads, and adds always-welcome protein.
  • Rice/grain bowls: Use leftover rice or any grain for that matter (quinoa, barley etc.) as a base and add leftover protein, pickles and vegetables. Drizzle with spiced yogurt or gojuchang sauce and you’ve got a complete meal!
  • Stuff it: Stuff bell peppers with meats, veggies and, grains or fill a calzone, then bake.
  • Rollin’ rollin’: Just about anything – meat or veggie – can be rolled into tacos or enchiladas.
  • Go ahead, you try it. All it takes is a little creativity and thinking out of the wok.

    White Chicken Curry Noodles

    This isn’t really a recipe per se so it’s really versatile. I usually use leftovers from when I make Indonesian White Curry Chicken or Vietnamese Curry Chicken for this makeover but you can use any curry recipe that has lots of gravy. I use about 1/4 cup shredded chicken and 3-4 ounces dried noodles per person.

    Time: 10 minutes
    Makes: 1 serving


    Leftover chicken curry with gravy separated
    Water or chicken/vegetable stock
    Dried egg, wheat or rice noodles
    Chopped green onions, cilantro, chili flakes, and fried shallots for garnish


    1. Shred the chicken meat into bite-sized pieces.

    2. Heat the curry gravy on the stove over medium heat and thin with stock if it’s too thick. Do this a little at a time and taste as you go. The gravy should be a consistency between broth and turkey gravy. Season with salt and pepper as desired. Once the gravy starts to bubble gently, turn down the heat and keep warm.

    3. Cook the noodles according to package directions. Drain and place in a large bowl. Arrange 1/4 cup chicken on top. Pour about 1/2 to 3/4 cup gravy over the noodles. Garnish with green onions, cilantro, chili flakes, and fried shallots and serve.

    Related post on Pickles and Tea: Indonesian-Style Chicken-Mushroom Noodles

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