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Chow mein

Chow mein
File:Chow mein 1 by yuen.jpg
Traditional Chinese 炒麵
Simplified Chinese 炒面
Literal meaning stir-fried noodles

Chow mein (/ˈ ˈmn/) are stir-fried noodles, the name being the romanization of the Taishanese chāu-mèing.[1] The dish is popular throughout the Chinese diaspora where it will appear on the menu of Chinese restaurants.[2] It is particularly popular in the United States, India and Britain.[3][4]

There are a number of varieties of chow mein.


The word means 'fried noodles', chow meaning 'fried' and mein meaning 'noodles'. The pronunciation chow mein is an English corruption of the Taishanese pronunciation chāu-mèing. The lightly pronounced Taishanese [ŋ], resembling the end of a Portuguese nasal vowel, was taken to be /n/ by English speakers.[citation needed] The Taishan dialect was spoken by migrants to America from Taishan.

Regional cuisine

American Chinese cuisine

File:Subgum chow mein.jpg
Subgum chow mein

In American Chinese cuisine, it is a stir-fried dish consisting of noodles, meat (chicken being most common but pork, beef, shrimp or tofu sometimes being substituted), onions and celery. It is often served as a specific dish at westernized Chinese restaurants.

There are two main kinds of chow meins available on the market:

  1. Steamed chow mein, and
  2. Crispy chow mein, also known as Hong Kong style chow mein (see below).

The steamed chow mein has a softer texture, while the latter is crisper and drier. Crispy chow mein uses fried, flat noodles, while soft chow mein uses long, rounded noodles.[5]

Crispy chow mein has either onions and celery in the finished dish or is served "strained", without any vegetables. Steamed chow mein can have many different kinds of vegetables in the finished dish, most commonly including onions and celery but sometimes carrots, cabbage and mung bean sprouts as well. Crispy chow mein is usually topped with a thick brown sauce, while steamed chow mein is mixed with soy sauce before being served.[6]

There is a regional difference in the US between the East and West Coast use of the term "chow mein". On the East Coast, "chow mein" is always the crispy or "Hong Kong style".[7] At some restaurants located in those areas, the crispy chow mein noodles are sometimes deep fried[8] and could be crispy "like the ones in cans"[9] or "fried as crisp as hash browns".[10] At a few East Coast locations, "chow mein" is also served over rice.[11] There, the steamed style using soft noodles is a separate dish called "lo mein". On the West Coast, "chow mein" is always the steamed style; the crispy style is simply called "Hong Kong style" and the term "lo mein" is not widely used.[5][6]

The crispy version of chow mein can also be served in a hamburger-style bun as a chow mein sandwich.[6]

There are also variations on how either one of the two main types of chow mein can be prepared as a dish. When ordering "chow mein" in some restaurants in Chicago, a diner might receive "chop suey poured over crunchy fried noodles".[12] In Philadelphia, Americanized chow mein tends to be similar to chop suey but has crispy fried noodles on the side and includes lots of celery and bean sprouts and is sometimes accompanied with fried rice.[13] Jeremy Iggers of the Star Tribune describes Minnesota-style chow mein as "a green slurry of celery and ground pork topped with ribbons of gray processed chicken".[14] Bay Area journalist William Wong made a similar comment about what is sold as chow mein in places like Minnesota.[15] A published recipe for Minnesota-style chow mein includes generous portions of celery and bean sprouts.[16][17] Another Minnesotan variant includes ground beef and cream of mushroom soup.[18]

Food historians and cultural anthropologists have noted that chow mein and other dishes served in Chinese American restaurants located away from areas without any significant Asian American population tend to be very different from what is served in China and are heavily modified to fit the taste preference of the local dominant population.[19][20] As an example, the chow mein gravy favored in the Fall River area more closely resembles that used in local New England cooking than that used in traditional Chinese cooking. The founder of the food manufacturer Chun King and the creator of canned chow mein admits of using Italian spices to make his product more acceptable to Americans whose ancestors came from Europe.[21]

Chow mein is mentioned as early as 1920, in the novel Main Street by Sinclair Lewis.[22][23]

It is frequently confused with chop suey; a dish incorrectly labeled as chow mein was sometimes served in American restaurants, drug store soda fountains,[24] school cafeterias,[25] senior citizens facilities,[26] and military bases chow halls.[27] In many of these cases, this particular dish was served over rice and did not include noodles.[24][25][26]

In 1946, one of the first companies to market "chow mein" in a can was Chun King.[28] The product's creator was Jeno Paulucci, the son of Italian immigrants, who developed a recipe based mostly upon Italian spices that would be better catered to the food preferences of European immigrants and some Americans of similar ethnic origins.[29][30][31][21] To keep cost down, Paulucci ingeniously substituted expensive water chestnuts with lower cost celery stalks that were originally destined for cattle feed.[29] Paulucci's company became so successful selling canned chow mein and chop suey that President Gerald Ford quipped “What could be more American than a business built on a good Italian recipe for chop suey?" when praising Paulucci accomplishments with Chun King.[21][32] After Paulucci sold Chun King in 1966, the company would be sold several more times more until it was dissolved in 1995.[33]

By 1960, Paulucci described in the New York Times that "At Chun King we have turned out a 'stew-type' chow mein. I'd guess this type has been around for thirty - maybe forty - years. To make it, all the meat, seasonings and vegetables are dumped into a kettle and stewed for hours - until everything is cooked."[34] At the time of the interview, "sales from restaurants 'to take home' are almost three times as great as in the food markets". Paulucci wanted to increase market share by using more effective advertising.

Brazilian Japanese cuisine

Chow mein was brought to Brazil by Japanese immigrants and is thus referred as yakisoba (Portuguese pronunciation: [jakiˈsoβɐ] or [jakisoˈba]). It fits Brazilian tastes rather than Japanese ones though, and is thus more similar to the North American versions of chow mein.

Pastelarias and Asian restaurants serve it in the entire country. They generally are presented in chicken (the most common), beef, shrimp and pork versions, with vegetarian and egg versions being much rarer. Brazilian yakisoba is typically served much more al dente than the Japanese, being also heavy in shoyu (soy sauce), azeite de gergelim (sesame oil) and vegetables, almost always including at least carrot, cabbage, onion and at least one dark green species (usually other than kale, collard, spinach, chicory or mustard) such as Chinese cabbage, and less often either bean sprouts, broccoli/broccolini, zucchini, shiitake, bell pepper and/or cucumber.

Also popular is yakibifum ([jakibiˈfũ], from Japanese yakibīfun), its equivalent that instead of a wheat noodles uses rice vermicelli. Brazilian spring rolls' (rolinhos-primavera or harumakis) fillings generally use the same ingredients of the stir-fried noodles in the restaurants or fast-food chains they are found, though spring rolls may have cheese, usually white (such as catupiry or other kinds of requeijão, or queijo minas), or tofu instead of meat, what is uncommon for the noodles. All of them, but most often and especially spring rolls, may be served with bright red molho agridoce (soursweet sauce), that combines ketchup, vinegar, sugar, star anise and other spice.

Canadian Chinese cuisine

Canadian westernized Chinese restaurants may offer up to three different types of chow mein, none of which is identical to either of the two types of American chow mein. Cantonese style chow mein contains deep-fried crunchy golden egg noodles, green peppers, pea pods, bok choy, bamboo shoots, water chestnuts, shrimp, Chinese roast pork (char siu), chicken, and beef, and is served in a thick sauce. Plain chow mein is similar to other Western chow meins but contains far more mung bean sprouts; some regional recipes may substitute bean sprouts for noodles completely. In Canada, Hong Kong style chow mein is similar to plain chow mein but is always served on a bed of deep-fried crunchy golden egg noodles. The Japanese Canadian community also have their own version of chow mein that might include dried seaweed and pickle ginger and could be served in a bun.[35][36]

South Asian Chinese cuisine

Chow mein is also common in Bangladeshi Chinese, Indian Chinese and Pakistani Chinese cuisine. In India, it was introduced by the Chinese of Calcutta. It is usually offered Hakka or with gravy. Catering to vegetarian diets, there is an Indian variant, vegetable chow mein, which consists of noodles with cabbage, bamboo shoots, pea pods, green peppers, and carrots. In the New Delhi area, chow mein can sometimes include paneer with the mixture of noodles and vegetables. Another non-meat Indian variant includes scrambled egg as a protein source.[37][38]

Nepalese Chinese cuisine

File:Chicken Chow Mein.JPG
Nepalese-style hot chicken chow mein

Tibetans who settled in Nepal brought chow mein with them. It is a popular fast food in Nepal. The Newari people of the Kathmandu Valley use water buffalo meat and chicken in their cuisine, and chow mein in Nepal is often cooked with onion, vegetables and buff (water buffalo meat).

Caribbean Chinese cuisine

Many West Indian people include chow mein in their cuisine, especially peoples from islands like Trinidad and Tobago[39][40] and Jamaica which include a significant ethnic Chinese population; much of the cooking has infused itself into the population in general. As well, in the South American country Guyana the culture and cuisine is similar to the Caribbean's.[41][42] These chow mein dishes are cooked in a similar manner, with green beans, carrots, peas, onions and sometimes other vegetables. Meat used is mostly chicken and sometimes pork and/or shrimp. The main difference is that local spices are added, and the dish is often served with hot Scotch bonnet peppers and/or pepper sauce.

In Cuba, aside from the foreign owned tourist hotels which often serve Western-style Chinese food, local Chinese restaurants can be found in Havana that offer a distinct Cuban style.

In Panama, chow mein is prepared with a mixture of shredded carrots and cabbage with pork or chicken and served over noodles. Another recipe includes canned corn.[43]

Peruvian Chinese cuisine

Chinese food (Chifa) is very popular in Peru and is now a part of mainstream Peruvian culture. Chow Mein is known to Peruvians as Tallarín salteado and may contain peppers, onions, green onions, and tomatoes.[44]

Australian Chinese cuisine

Traditional chow mein is made with egg noodles which are boiled then strained and left to dry.[citation needed] They are then stir fried and finally left to sit at the bottom of the wok and pressed down, this crisps the noodles at the edges and underside. Chow mein is made with either seafood, often just prawns, chicken, beef or barbecued pork. Restaurants will serve a combination chow mein or a single type. Chicken and beef are often softened with a little bicarb of soda. The sauce is made from garlic, rice wine, light stock, MSG, salt and corn flour. Vegetables are usually one green such as bok choy or choy sum plus a little chopped carrot, but also other green vegetables are acceptable. This stir fry is poured onto the noodles. Chow mein is unique as its noodles are both soft in part but also crispy. There are various other stir fried noodle dishes but none are authentic chow mein.[citation needed] This traditional style of chow mein is served in Australian Chinese restaurants many of which cater to a predominantly Chinese clientele.

See also


  1. Deh-Ta Hsiung, Nina Simonds (1 Jun 2005). Food of China. Murdoch Books. p. 239. 
  2. Lily Cho (6 Nov 2010). Eating Chinese. University of Toronto Press. p. 51. 
  3. Uma Aggarwal (24 Oct 2013). America's Favorite Recipes. iUniverse. p. 199. 
  4. Laura Mason (1 Jan 2004). Food Culture in Great Britain. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 163. 
  5. 5.0 5.1
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 "The pounds – of noodles – pile up at chow mein factory". Made In Fall River. 2008-09-23. Retrieved 2010-09-12. 
  7. "Classic Cantonese Chow Mein With Fried Noodles – That Was Then. Sophistication, Freshness And Delicacy – This Is Now". Philadelphia Inquirer, November 9, 1988.
  8. "In Search of Chow Mein". New York Times, November 23, 1997.
  9. "Chow Mein Lives". Los Angeles Times, April 19, 2000.
  10. "Soup That Bowls You Over: One man's quest for the perfect won ton min (in America, anyway) ends at Har Lam Kee". Los Angeles Times, April 15, 1999.
  11. "Chinese Dishes, American Style". New York Times, April 13, 1983.
  12. "Theories on origin of other Chinese foods". Chicago Tribune, November 3, 2005.
  13. "Top Spots For Chow Mein In The Region". CBS Philly, September 10, 2013.
  14. "Restaurant review: Chow mein". Star Tribune. October 27, 1999.
  15. "Yellow Journalist: Dispatches from Asian America". By William Wong (2010), Temple University Press, Pages 92–94. The essay in this book was original published in the East-West News, July 21, 1988 as an article titled "Minnesota Chow Mein".
  16. "Nankin-Style Subgum Chow Mein". Washington Post, May 23, 2007.
  17. "Bite Of Minnesota: Subgum Chow Mein". WCCO-TV, October 9, 2012.
  18. "Recipes: Beef Chow Mein Hot Dish". Star Tribune, January 17, 2007.
  19. Lim, Imogene L. & Eng-Wong, John (1994). "Chow Mein Sandwiches: Chinese American Entrepreneurship in Rhode Island" (PDF). In Kwok, Munson A. & Quan, Ella Yee. Origins and Destinations: 41 Essays on Chinese America. Los Angeles: Chinese Historical Society of Southern California, UCLA Asian American Studies Center. pp. 417–436. ISBN 9780930377038. OCLC 260218520. 
  20. "Mostly Mississippi: Chinese Cuisine Made In America". Flavor & Fortune 13 (1). Spring 2006. pp. 11–12. 
  21. 21.0 21.1 21.2 Shapiro, T. Rees (November 30, 2011). "Jeno Paulucci, pioneer of frozen-food business, dies at 93". Washington Post. 
  22. Main street novel by sinclair Lewis
  23. (Lewis, Sinclair), "Main Street" (1920), Project Gutenberg.
  24. 24.0 24.1 "Fountain Specials for the Peoples Drug Store ad". Free Lance–Star, April 8, 1982, Page 10.
  25. 25.0 25.1 "School lunch menus". South Coast Today, October 20, 1996.
  26. 26.0 26.1 "Ruthton News". Tyler Tribune, June 3, 2004.
  27. "Index of Recipes: Armed Forces Recipe Service". 2000 Index, COG I Stock No. 0530-LP-011-3090.
  28. "RJR Sending Chun King To Orient". Chicago Tribune, June 22, 1989.
  29. 29.0 29.1 "Food Giant's Green Thumb Grew 2 Big Successes". Chicago Tribune, March 23, 1987.
  30. "Jeno Paulucci, a Pioneer of Ready-Made Ethnic Foods, Dies at 93". New York Times, November 25, 2011.
  31. "What Makes Jeno Paulucci Happy? Italian Influence, Clean Lakes, Punctuality and Pizza Eaters". People, September 13, 1976, Volume 6, Number 11.
  32. "Remarks Of The President At The Italian-American Foundation Bicentennial Tribute Dinner". September 16, 1976.
  34. Alden, Robert (March 13, 1960). "Advertising: Chow Mein to Be Reoriented: Packager Cooks Up Sales Recipe for 'Chinese' Dish". New York Times. p. F12.  Link via ProQuest.
  35. "The Legacy of the Cumberland Chow Mein". The Bulletin (Japanese Canadian Citizens Association), May 29, 2013.
  36. "Japanese-Canadian chow mein: Chow mein — with seaweed and pickled ginger — never tasted so good". Toronto Star, March 8, 2011.
  37. "Recipe: Egg Chowmein" Zee News, January 21, 2013.
  38. "Egg Hakka Chowmein". Recipe on
  39. "Recipe: Eight-Treasure Trini Chow Mein". NPR, February 1, 2011.
  40. "Chinese New Year, Trinidad-Style". NPR, February 2, 2011.
  41. "Guyanese-style chicken chowmein": Sometimes you just crave chowmein. Using chowmein noodles, marinaded chicken, and veggies like beans, carrots, and green onion, you can make your own version at home". Christian Science Monitor, January 29, 2013.
  42. "Guyanese chow mein: A traditional Guyanese dish that reveals a fusion of Asian influences". Christian Science Monitor, April 30, 2011.
  43. "El "Chow Mein" es panameño; La ancestral receta es diferente a la nuestra. Hemos creado un plato a nuestro gusto, que de chino solamente tiene los fideos". Panamá América, March 31, 1997. (In Spanish)
  44. "Lunch Bunch: A Peruvian twist; Andes fare meets Mexican eatery". Times Record News, July 6, 2012.