What Is Chow Mein

April 24, 2018 (Last Updated: May 17, 2019) - As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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.

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5 Comments

  • Reply
    Frank
    April 28, 2018 at 7:29 am

    I’ve always found this subject a bit confusing, too! The difference between chow mein and lo mein is especially slippery… thanks for clearing that up! But my favorite Chinese noodle of all may be the Hong Kong style, which in Chinese restaurants around here anyway are called “pan fried noodles”: A literally pancake of noodles, fried on each side until crisp, then topped with a quite saucy stir fry, often seafood and veg but sometimes with pork. The sauce sinks in and softens the crispy noodle. A delicious combination.

    • Reply
      Ben
      April 28, 2018 at 4:55 pm

      Thanks for reading! I thought about including a specific Hong Kong style, but opted against it. The temptation for me to stir in the wok is far too great. 🙂

    • Reply
      Fat Boi
      February 20, 2019 at 10:42 am

      As a Singaporean Chinese reading, this is kind of intriguing. I almost want to say that I am flipping my shit as I read some of these misinterpretations, but this stems from a language barrier, rather than a lack of research, so I can’t really put much blame on Ben.

      I can’t say the same about American Chinese Chow Mein and Lo Mein, or even in China, but at least in Singapore, anything that I would call Chow Mein (we don’t spell it that way), or 炒面, is a pretty clear distinct from Lo Mein (again, we don’t call it that in Singapore), or 捞面. You got the literal translation for Chow Mein right, in that it is Fry Noodles; or more specifically, stir fried noodles. 炒 is a word specifically used for frying in a wok, or stir fry. In contrast, if something is fried, it would be Zha (炸). For Lo Mein, “stir” is somewhat correct, but also not really completely right. It’s more of “scoop out of something”. What this “something” is refers to the boiling or hot water that you dunk the noodles into. There’s really not much to be confused about. It is about the method of cooking, and not the type of noodles used.

      So then the next question would be: Is this naming convention the same for ALL Chinese in the world? I would expect no. China is HUGE, and that also means that the cultures in regions are vastly different. To understand naming, you can think of how someone might understand what “Fried chicken” is. Someone living in Korea will call Korean fried chicken, simply, fried chicken. If they want to refer to a specific version of fried chicken, they start to call it something different, e.g. Japanese fried chicken. So to different Chinese, Chow Mein has different interpretations. If I were to eat a Chow Mein from Hong Kong, or a specific dish, I would call it Hong Kong Chow Mein or whatever region it is supposed to be from, unless I was given a specific name for the dish.

      In https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mifi4tcRwqA, this actually refers to a very specific recipe/dish of Chow Mein, which is the Supreme Soy Sauce Stir-Fried Noodles, a variety of Chow Mein from Canton/Guangdong, though this seems to be popular in Hong Kong as well. So people in China who are not in Guangdong might call this Hong Kong Chow Mein, or Guangdong Chow Mein, but as you can probably tell, neither of those are the “correct” names. The most “correct” name would thus be Supreme Soy Sauce Stir-Fried Noodles, which actually tell us about both cooking method as well as what would be in the dish.

      This also happens to answer the question: “What would a dish which is dunked into boiling water (Lo), and then stir fried (Chow)?”. Such a question wouldn’t even exist in the first place if you know that Chow Mein and Lo Mein are over generalized names that don’t actually refer to any dish.

      As for the “Hong Kong Chow Mein Noodles” in Ben’s post, it is referring to Liang Mian Huang, which you can see in https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wc-2j_F2p90. The name literally means “Two Sides Yellow”, which probably refers to the cooking process of frying both sides. In Singapore, we call this Sheng Mian, and you can see another problem with the overly generalized names.

      Thus, you can also see why the sauce and ingredients have a huge leeway. Chow Mein is too generalized of a name to have any specific meaning to the type of dish you are referring to.

      I haven’t ate American Chinese food before, but having read your other post and knowing trade seemed to happen with Guangzhou, I imagine that there would be a lot of Cantonese influence on the modern American Chinese Chow Mein.

      • Reply
        Ben
        February 20, 2019 at 4:31 pm

        Beautiful response and thanks for participating! Always good to get great, thoughtful feedback like this!

  • Reply
    Jeff
    May 3, 2018 at 6:45 am

    i don’t know. My pot pie does have pot in it, so…

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