At one time, Americans and many other Westerners knew but two Chinese dishes: ‘chop suey’ and ‘chow mein’. Until very recently, these two concoctions sufficed to satisfy the interest in Chinese cookery. As I have indicated, this is no longer the case. However, chow mein and chop suey remain very prominent on the menus of many Western hotels and inexpensive Chinese restaurants. They are even available ready-made in the chilled- and frozen-food section of the supermarket.
I am ambivalent about this promotion of second-rate dishes. Chow mein, literally meaning ‘stir-fried noodles’, is popular in China, too. When the noodles are combined with meats, poultry or seafood, and whatever vegetables may be in season, the dish provides a nutritious meal, balanced in tastes, textures and colours. It is most popular in southern China, and is a standard offering of street food stalls, cafés and noodle shops. No dim sum luncheon is complete without it.
In the Western version, the noodles are deep-fried in advance into crispy morsels, which are then allowed to dry. The simmering sauce, with whatever added meat and vegetables, is ladled over the noodles. This version bypasses the stir-frying stage so that the dish can be served immediately. The first Chinese restaurateurs in the US quickly learned that most Americans don’t like to wait for their food, nor do they dawdle over it in conversation, unlike the pioneer Chinese.
These early cooks did not mind tinkering with the authentic version of chow mein as long as the real thing remained available on the ‘secret menu’. Here I offer two versions, the traditional stir-fried dish, and an updated version of the ‘classic’ Westernized Chinese restaurant dish.
© 1998 Ken Hom. All rights reserved.