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~ The Difference Between Chow Mein and Lo Mein ~

IMG_1891Chinese-American fare.  It's a favorite in our house.  About once a week, we either order take-out or delivery from our two favorite places, or, I take the time to make some.  Each of us has our favorite menu item -- the one that we crave and can't wait to plunge our chopsticks into.  For me, it's chow mein or lo mein -- two of China's most iconic dishes.  "What exactly is the difference between the two?"  When I got asked that very question last night, I decided to transcribe the discussion into a blog post today -- while it's still fresh on my mind and I have leftovers.

Mein = noodles.  Chow mein = fried noodles.  Lo mein = tossed noodles.

IMG_1925In a world full of famous Chinese dishes, chow mein and lo mein are two noodle dishes that every Chinese chef skillfully knows how to prepare, but, they're two that are hard for many non-Chinese cooks to distinguish between.  It's commonly thought the difference between the two lies in the type of noodle used. It's not.  The type of noodle is the same -- fresh Chinese Egg Noodles. Literally translated, "mein" means "noodles", "chow mein" means "fried noodles", and, "lo mein" means "tossed noodles" -- the exact same  noodles are used to make both.  

It's the way the noodles are cooked and used during the cooking process that distinguishes the two, but, depending upon the chef who's cooking the dish, or the preference of the person eating the dish, when placed side by side, the differences between how the two can look and taste range from almost identical to dramatically different.  It's all in the details.  Read on:

IMG_1883Similarities = Chinese egg noodles, stir-fried veggies, sauce & protein.

6a0120a8551282970b01bb08b463ee970d-120wiA bit about Chinese Egg noodles:  The Chinese have an almost overwhelming variety of noodles to choose from.  Fresh Chinese egg noodles (the four most common being thin or wide wonton noodles, and, Hong-Kong-style chow mein noodles or lo mein noodles), found in all Asian markets (and larger grocery stores) are made with wheat flour and eggs and are yellow in color (which is often attributed to the addition of yellow dye).  Fresh egg noodles are also cooked to the point of only needing to be briefly reheated in a pot of simmering water or broth, and/or, tossed into a stir-fry at the beginning and/or end of the cooking process.  If kept sealed, they keep in the refrigerator about a week, and, once opened, for best results, should be used within 24 hours.

Chow mein and lo mein are 100% Chinese, although after the Chinese brought their recipes to America, they quickly got Americanized.  Initially, this was done out of necessity, using ingredients available to the area it was being prepared in, then, eventually, to suit the tastes of locals.

IMG_1902Example:  The chicken chow mein Americans have to come to expect to eat in our favorite Chinese-American restaurants -- a stewy melange of tender strips or chunks of velvety white chicken and crunch-tender celery, onions, bean sprouts, cabbage and water chestnuts enrobed in a lightly-colored soy and chicken-stock-based sauce -- it's beautifully monochromatic to look at and undeniably delicious.   It's also emblematic of 1950's Chinese-American food, and, there's almost nothing Chinese about it.  

6a0120a8551282970b019b0134f884970dPast the egg noodles, traditional Chinese versions contain a variety of stir-fried vegetables with a brown soy-based sauce, and, can contain beef, pork, chicken, seafood or tofu. When it comes to the protein, "velveting" is an ancient Chinese technique used to coat proteins to protect them from overcooking.  To learn how Chinese restaurant chefs achieve that signature "velvety" soft texture we all love, read my post  ~ How to Velvet (Tenderize) Protein the Chinese Way ~.  

Difference = the preparation of and when the noodles enter the dish.

In the case of chow mein, which means fried noodles, it implies a method in which the noodles are fried at the beginning of the cooking process, set aside, and then added back to the stir-fry at serving time: soft fried = authentic Chinese, crisp fried = Americanized.  The noodles get cooked twice.  As a result, the noodles do not absorb the sauce, which is why chow mein contains a judicious amount of sauce.  Americanized chow mein sauce is light in color and runny.  

In the case of lo mein, which means tossed noodles, it implies a method in which the egg noodles get tossed into the stir-fry at the end of the cooking process.  The noodles get cooked once.  As a result, the noodles absorb some sauce and stay soft while the other previously-cooked ingredients get distributed evenly throughout, which is why lo mein dishes contain a more generous amount of sauce.  American and Chinese lo mein sauce is dark in color and drizzly.

And now for something completely different -- Italian style?

IMG_1860In the case of canned chow mein (which was my first experience with Chinese food as a kid in the early 1960's), it was the creation of Jeno Paulucci, the son of Italian immigrants, who, oddly, had a notion that chow mien seasoned with Italian spices would cater to the palates of European immigrants.  In 1946, Chun King marketed his kettle stewed version -- the meat, seasonings and vegetables got dumped into a kettle and stewed for hours.  All the home cook had to do was put the contents into a saucepan and reheat the stew.  

Each portion got topped with some crispy store-bought chow mein noodles and dinner was served.  If he had paired his Italian-themed chow mein with a box of dried spaghetti-type chow-mein noodles that required boiling, I'd have spent my childhood eating Italian-themed lo mein too. Paulucci's company became so successful selling canned chow mein and chop suey (a similar dish, only served over steamed white rice) that President Gerald Ford quipped, "What could be more American than a business built on a good Italian recipe for chow mein and chop suey." Paulucci sold Chun King in 1966, then it was sold several more times, then dissolved in 1995.

Chow mein or lo mein?  I think I'll have a bit of both!

IMG_1901"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti

(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2023)


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