Know your noodles: Chow mein vs. Lo mein
From upscale seasonal noodle bowls to Asian diner food to ordinary grocery store items, “mein” means delicious food. But when it comes to chow mein vs. lo mein, home cooks and foodies alike may struggle to make a distinction. The differences between these two noodle styles have a rich history. Once you know which is which, you can decide if you prefer one or the other or if both types have their advantages.
The American Chow Mein Love Affair Begins
Starting in 1980, Chinese food was the most popular ethnic option in America, but chow mein reached these shores long before that. According to culinary historian Andrew Coe, immigrants brought the stir-fried noodle dish with them to Mott Street in New York’s Chinatown in the 1880s. While there were many different styles of noodle throughout China, the version that made it to the U.S. was from China’s Southern region, where they fried the noodles until they were crunchy. The dish quickly became popular at mom-and-pop Chinese eateries. Chop suey is credited as the first Chinese favorite in America, but chow mein followed shortly thereafter.
The La Choy company began in 1922. It was soon offering the crunchy noodles in a can. It also sold a separate canned vegetable mix marketed to make either chop suey or chow mein. Both items are still sold today.
Chow Mein Vs. Lo Mein: It’s All In The Prep
While some Chinese menus don’t really make much of a distinction between the two noodle dishes, chow mein, and lo mein are prepared differently and each has pronounced characteristics when prepared in the traditional fashion. The key to understanding which is which is asking how they’re made. Both are prepared from wheat noodles that include eggs, similar to Italian or American spaghetti or vermicelli. Either can be cooked with crispy vegetables, possibly involving celery or onion. They both may be vegetarian or either vegan, but more commonly come with some chicken, beef or shrimp as an ingredient.
But here’s where the two dishes part ways. A chef will parboil chow mein noodles to soften them, and then fry them to a crisp. Lo mein is only boiled until it’s soft (but not sticky.) The two different prep methods also mean that lo mein always begins with fresh noodles, while chow mein might start with fresh or dried.
A Few More Ways To Tell Chow From Lo
Lo mein often has bok choy or Chinese cabbage as ingredients. The parboiled noodles go in the pan after the stir-fried vegetable and protein come out. They’re lightly sauteed and then tossed with the veggies and a sauce. Other signs that you’re eating lo mein vs. chow mein: The noodles aren’t greasy and you don’t get as much crunch.
What you might get is more salt with lo mein. The sauces for it tend to include salty oyster sauce. Chow mein, on the other hand, is likely to pack in a few more calories. While both dishes start with the same type of noodles, the frying can add lots of fat and calories to the chow mein. Back in the ’20s, home cooks were even encouraged to make fry chow mein noodles in lard.
The Seasonal Chef Takes On Chow Mein
Noodle bowls have been all the rage with fusion chefs and home cooks for a few years now, which means less traditional ingredients are making their way into both chow mein and lo mein. Beets are one example, seafood like calamari and salmon another. The culinary community has also embraced riffs on chow mein and lo mein so they can emphasize sustainable and fresh seasonal ingredients, from small farm cumin leaves to figs and kales