What Exactly Is “Chow Mein”?

Food for Thought

In New York, if you order it from a Chinese takeout restaurant, you’ll get vegetables cooked in white sauce (with a protein of your choice) served with white rice. You’d probably find a small bag of crackers in the delivery bag. But if you Google “chow mein,” you don’t see this rice dish. What gives?

“Mein” means noodles. Why would anyone call a rice dish “mein”? On Yelp, I came across some people posting photos and complaining about the lack of noodles. Complaints must be common because many menus say “with rice” or “no noodles.”

I wondered if this is a New York thing, so I surveyed different cities on Yelp. It appears to be an east coast thing. I found the rice version in Boston, New York, and Miami. I also found it in Austin. But on the west coast, I found none. In San Francisco and LA, “chow mein” is what the name implies, “stir-fried noodles.” Anyone who moved to New York from the west coast must be baffled when they order “chow mein” (and complain on Yelp).

At high-end Chinese restaurants, “chow mein” sometimes refers to crispy pan-fried noodles. This is also a misnomer. I came across a YouTube video by a couple in China who was also wondering why it’s called “chow mein” in the US since “chow” means stir-fried, not deep-fried.

The best theory I can come up with is as follows:

Originally, what the chefs meant by “chow mein” was crispy pan-fried noodles, but to cut time and cost, they fried all the noodles in advance, not to order. Eventually, they felt no need to use real noodles either; they could just cut up left-over wonton skins and deep fry them. Although the vegetables are supposed to be served over the noodles (or crackers), the form factor of the crackers seemed more natural for sprinkling. But given that the bag of crackers was delivered separately, many Americans did not realize they were to be eaten together. Some began to assume that they must be missing the rice that goes with the vegetables, so they called to complain. At this point, it became easier for Chinese takeout restaurants to serve rice with “chow mein” than to deal with the complaints. Thus, a rice dish called “chow mein” was born.