To kick off our series on chow mein, I thought it would be a good idea to try and define what chow mein is. Most of us have probably seen or eaten the cans of La Choy crispy chow mein noodles. Many of us have also had the dish and know that it doesn’t always come with that sort of noodle. Today, we are going to dive a bit further to try and define what chow mein is.
Literal Translation of Chow Mein
A great first place to look to defining this dish is to look at the name. The translation of the word Mein is ‘noodle’. Then, the translation of chow is fry. Chow Mein has a literal translation to Fry Noodles. I think that translation pretty much sums it up and leaves some interpretation that allows for different interpretations of the dish we have today.
Is The Chow Mein We Know an Americanized Dish?
Sure, but the dish definitely has origins in Chinese Cuisine. If you get a side of crunchy noodles with a box of mushy grey stuff containing strips of a chicken composite, yes it is an Americanized version of the dish.
Chow Mein, however, did make a journey from China to the American West Coast and then spread across the nation. It may have evolved into something slightly different, but there is some authenticity in most versions of Chow Mein if it contains fried noodles. I have seen some versions that only have rice. Sorry… NOT chow mein. Literally not fried noodles. I think rice that is fried would be called fried rice.
It’s All About The Noodle
So, Chow Mein translates to Fry Noodle. What does that mean for the actual dish? I mean, a pot pie doesn’t have pot in it, right? Fry Noodles can be interpreted in different ways. Some of these interpretations are more accurate than others.
The chow mein noodle is a wheat noodle that can look very similar to what we would see in an Italian dish today, depending on how it is cooked. Many identify Asian noodles as only being rice noodles, but that is completely inaccurate. Northern China did not have the climate or means to grow rice like much of southern Asia, so wheat became a staple in that part of the world. Remember, China is huge and it has many climates and microclimates. We will dig a bit more into the history of this in an upcoming post. For now, we just need to know that wheat dough is very common in China. It has given us many dishes like Chow Mein and all the tasty dumplings in the world.
By the definition of the dish, the noodles are the most important element of chow mein. There are other things to consider, like the sauce, ingredients, and cooking method.
Chow Mein vs Lo Mein
There is a difference between the two. The literal translation of Lo Mein is Stirred Noodle. So, both contain noodles, but one is stirred and one is fried. My interpretation of this difference is that Lo Mein noodles are always boiled and cooked only once. Chow Mein noodles are EITHER just fried or boiled and then fried. They can be fried in a wok or any other frying dish.
Lo Mein will always have a soft noodle, cooked once, and stirred with a sauce. Chow Mein will always have a crispier, fried element to them and will always be fried. These noodles could be cooked once (deep fat fried) or twice (boiled and then fried in a wok OR deep fat fried).
Cooking Method of Chow Mein
The most common method I have found for cooking chow mein is demonstrated in this video. Basically, it is fried noodles with other minimal ingredients. This really is what I currently feel is the most accurate. There should be a crispiness to the noodle, but still has that soft base. ‘Fry Noodle’ can have other interpretations.
Deep Fat Fried Noodles
I had briefly mentioned the crispy noodles you might find in the Asian section of your local big box grocery store. The ones that a person might look at and think “Oh, that is a grossly misrepresented Americanized version of what Asian food is.” Well, maybe that is the case, but there is some historical precedence behind these kinds of noodles and it really does stay true to the idea of ‘Fry Noodles.’
Chinese food in America goes back to the mid-1800s and La Choy’s version of the Chow Mein noodle reaches to the early 1900s. Once again, I will be covering some history a bit more in depth in the near future. Sign up to get my updates via email to get notified in your inbox or check the Chow Mein Series page to see if it already published.
Hong Kong Chow Mein Noodles
Some packaging and labeling is marked as Hong Kong noodles. This was a little confusing to me, but I think I have worked out what I believe this to be. These are the twice cooked noodles but are always meant to be served as a bed for stir-fry on top. So, it is like you would get a nest of fried noodles, but then the stir fry is on top.
If you order Chow Mein from take-out and get a package of crispy noodles, it is likely meant to be a bed for the stir fry to lay on.
Sauce and Ingredients
I think this is where the biggest leeway can be given in what Chow Mein is. I have found recipes that are darker sauces and recipes that have lighter sauces. There are a variety of meats and veggies that can be included in this dish.
As long as the recipes follow with an Asian spirit and keep true to the idea of a fried noodle, I think there can be many different interpretations of what Chow Mein can be.
Who knew that defining Chow Mein would be such a provocative and confusing topic? It really is interesting to see so many sources have slightly different ideas on what chow mein is and how to cook it. If you found this interesting and want to keep on following, subscribe to get a weekly update from me.