In the West, there is a popular perception that rice is the staple crop of the Chinese people. This is true to an extent, but it is an over-simplification of the situation. Instead, it is important to note that people in Northern China tend to eat more wheat and less rice compared to people in Southern China, whose consumption patterns are the reverse. This is a reflection of food production in those regions in former times, though they remain true to some extent in the present because of pure inertia if nothing else.
Regardless, the mein in chow mein is one way of Romanizing mian, which is a Chinese word that encompasses a wide range of wheat noodles. In contrast, rice noodles are called fen, while other noodles made using other materials might use other names. With that said, calling something mian isn't actually that useful for distinguishing what it might be because said word can encompass a wide range of wheat noodles cooked in a wide range of styles.
What Is Chow Mein?
Chow mein translates to "stir-fried noodles." In Mandarin Chinese, it would be chao mian. However, the pronunciation of chow mein is based on the Taishanese pronunciation chau meing. For those who are unfamiliar with that name, Taishanese is one of the dialects that can be found in the Chinese province of Guangzhou, which has had a huge impact on the Chinese diaspora in both the United States and Canada because a huge percentage of the Chinese immigrants to those countries in the 19th and 20th centuries came from places that spoke it.
Regardless, chow mein has undergone a fair amount of change in their new home countries, with the result that it may or may not refer to the same dishes from place to place. For example, chow mein can sometimes refer to steamed chow mein and sometimes refer to crispy chow mein in the United States. The first kind is softer, longer, and rounder, whereas the second kind is drier and crispier. Other countries can offer other kinds of chow mein, which is unsurprising because chow mein has undergone evolution in each place to become better-suited to the preferences of the local population. In other words, while U.S. chow mein might have its roots in Chinese cuisine, it is Chinese-American food in the same sense that, say, Peruvian chow mein is Chinese-Peruvian food.
What Is Lo Mein?
Once more, lo mein is a name that comes from the Chinese province of Guangzhou. For those who are curious, lo mein translates to "stirred noodles," which can mean a number of different things. First, lo mein can refer to a dry version of wonton noodle soup, meaning the noodles plus other ingredients while the soup has been separated so that it can be served on the side. Second, lo mein can refer to a kind of noodle dish in which the noodles have been stirred within a sauce before other ingredients are added on top. Third, lo mein can be used as a synonym for chow mein in the United States, which can make this rather complicated to say the least.
What Is the Difference Between Chow Mein and Lo Mein?
Summed up, chow mein is supposed to be stir-fried noodles, whereas lo mein is supposed to be noodles cooked in either a sauce or a soup before being served up. However, both terms have undergone continuous evolution, which is why neither one is limited to meaning one single thing. Moreover, since the Chinese diaspora in each country has gone in its own direction, it is unwise that assume that either one of the terms means exactly the same thing as their counterparts in other countries.
Due to this, interested individuals should make sure that they know what they are ordering before they order it even if they think that they know what they are ordering. This is because both chow mein and lo mein can see significant variation even within the single country, meaning that it never hurts to be sure before making a decision about what to eat. Still, interested individuals should be able to count on chow mein to be some kind of stir-fried noodles, meaning that general expectations are not wholly useless in this case.
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Written by Garrett Parker
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