Lo Mein Versus Chow Mein
Mein (or mian) is simply the Chinese word for ‘noodles‘ (pronounced ‘me-an’). Both lo mein and chow mein are made from the same type of Chinese noodle. This noodle is made from wheat flour and eggs, similar to Italian pasta. What makes the dishes differ is the way the noodles are prepared. Lo means ‘tossed‘. So, when we’re talking about lo mein, we’re talking, quite simply, about ‘tossed noodles‘. Chow, on the other hand, means ‘fried‘. So, for chow mein, we are talking about ‘fried noodles‘.
American and Chinese Versions
While many Chinese-American dishes, like General Tso’s chicken, are nowhere to be found in China, lo mein is actually an authentically Chinese dish, popular and inexpensive throughout many regions in China. There are similarities and differences. Typically both versions use Chinese egg noodles made from fresh wheat flour with egg and are about ¼ inch thick. They are cooked al dente, drained and placed in a sizzling wok where they are then quickly tossed with sauce (as opposed to fried).
Chinese Lo Mein sauce tends to be thin and soupy whereas in America it is darker and thicker. This is because we add ingredients to the basic broth such as sesame oil, rice wine, soy sauce, hoisin, ginger, oyster sauce and a thickener like cornstarch. In China you might find wonton or beef brisket crowning the dish and the noodles, veggies and meat are often served alongside the sauce. On the other hand, in America all the ingredients are combined. In China, vegetables typically include bok choy, mushrooms and cabbage whereas in America you will see a broader selection.
Identifying Lo Mein
Here’s how you can tell if you’re eating lo mein:
- There’s a light sauce
- The noodles aren’t greasy
- The dish includes veggies (and possibly protein) that have been tossed with the noodles and sauce
In chow mein, the noodles really are the star of the show, so any vegetable or protein add-ins are kept to a minimum so they don’t distract from the perfectly crispy noodles. In addition, the noodles are oily (if steamed chow mein) or distinctly crispy (if crisp chow mein).
The Han Dynasty
Modern Lo Mein has some key differences from its original manifestation. In its earliest days during the Han dynasty (206 BC to 220 AD) Chinese noodle dishes were made from millet grains instead of wheat. Analysis of the noodle remains reveals that the ancient Chinese used specific variations of millet known as broomcorn and foxtail, which are still available today. Eventually, millet was replaced with the wheat-based noodle and then lo mein became even more popular throughout China and a few neighboring Asian countries.
Speaking of Noodles…
The egg flour noodles of lo mein are one of three common noodles in Chinese cuisine:
- Cellophane Noodles: Also called bean threads, slippery noodles, or even bean vermicelli, cellophane noodles are made from mung bean starch. Before using, soak them in hot (not boiling) water. Cellophane noodles work well in soups and stir-fries, absorbing the flavor of the foods they are cooked with. When deep-fried they puff up and become quite crispy.
- Egg Flour Noodles: Fresh or dried, you’ll usually know these noodles by their yellow color. Made with eggs, wheat flour, and water, they come in a number of widths and shapes, from the thinner vermicelli to flat thicker noodles (instant Ramen is a type of egg noodle). Used in soups and stir-fries, they need to be boiled before using.
- Rice Noodles: Made with rice flour and water, rice noodles come in many types, from thin vermicelli to thick flat noodles. The term “rice sticks” can refer both to the thinner noodles as well as medium-sized and thicker flat noodles. Rice noodles should be soaked in hot water for fifteen to twenty minutes before using. Medium-sized rice noodles, called Banh Pho, are used to make Vietnam’s popular Pho soup.
Are you in the mood for some lo mein? Head over to EatFlavorly’s menu and try out our delicious beef low mein. Featuring pan-seared marinated skirt steak, classic lo mein noodles, and chocked full of veggies like bell peppers, snow peas, cabbage, bamboo shoots, carrots, scallions, and mushrooms, all tossed in our house-made lo mein sauce, this is a hefty meal that won’t leave you feeling heavy like its lower-quality fast-food counterparts. We are based in Houston, TX and offer the best tasting freshly prepared, frozen meal delivery in the nation.