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Chow Mein: One Dish, Many Traditions
Beloved by many, chow mein can mean something different, depending where you’re standing. Dig into Groupon’s study of the Chinese dish’s numerous varieties.
Although many North Americans salivate at the mention of chow mein—practically synonymous with Chinese food for decades, as some old neon signs in restaurant windows still attest—the image the name conjures can vary widely by location. Chow mein translates literally to fried noodles, but although it’s true that Chinese egg noodles are one of the few consistent elements of the dish, frying isn’t always involved. Here’s a breakdown of how different regions tend to handle the iconic dish:
In East Coast eateries, chow-mein noodles are stir-fried or deep-fried, tossed with soy-based sauce, and served with veggies such as celery and water chestnuts and sometimes meat. The stir-fried noodle’s crunchy exterior gives way to a savory softness inside, although deep-fried noodles are often 100% crunchy. This version is sometimes referred to as Hong Kong–style chow mein, and it can be eaten alone or even, in a southeastern New England tradition, between the halves of a hamburger bun.
In contrast, diners at an L.A. restaurant may be alarmed to hear a crunch with their first bite of chow mein, unless they were hoping to show how loud they can chew. That’s because the West Coast style of chow mein usually relies on steamed or parboiled noodles instead of fried ones. Although this dish also features vegetables and assorted protein, it will usually have more sauce than its East Coast counterpart, as the softer noodles tend to soak up the flavor. West Coast–style chow mein turns up on East Coast menus, too—it’s just that there it adopts the alias of lo mein.
Canada, too, has its own variations on the recipe. There, heavily sauced Cantonese-style chow mein features deep-fried noodles similar to those in America’s Hong Kong style, and plain chow mein is known for its mountains of bean sprouts.