Two of the most popular Chinese noodle dishes outside China are chow mein and lo mein. For most folks, the only way they can differentiate the two is by looking at the texture of the noodles. If it is soft and saucy, then it must be lo mein. And if the noodles have a bit of crunch or crispness in them, then the noodle dish is a chow mein. While this differentiation is accurate, it only scratches the surface. There is a lot more to chow mein and lo mein than being different in their noodle texture. In this article, we will attempt to identify these differences so you will have better understanding of these noodle dishes.
Origins of the Word
There is one common word in both lo mein and chow mein, and that is “mein”. For obvious reasons, this is the Chinese equivalent to what we know in the West as “noodles”. As such, there is now a need to differentiate “lo” from “chow”.
The word “lo” has its origins from the Cantonese term “lou1” (or 撈, pronounced as ‘lou one’) which denotes “to stir”. This is quite different from the original meaning of the Chinese character which is “to scoop up” or “to gain”. Nevertheless, the current notion is that the noodles get “tossed” in the pan rather than “fried”.
The term “chow” has a very different story. This word also has its origins from a Cantonese dialect known as Taishanese. This term is the Taishanese equivalent of “stir-fried”, although some say it is to “sauté”.
Not only is there a difference in the origins of the terms. There are also regional variations. For example, in many American Chinese restaurants, it is almost impossible to distinguish lo mein from chow mein. This is because they also tend to stir fry lo mein which follows the traditional cooking of chow mein. Moreover, authentic Cantonese lo mein requires the stirring of the noodles in a thin sauce before the addition of stir-fried beef brisket, wonton, or other ingredients. Some American lo mein chefs stir fry the noodles before adding a soy sauce-based seasoning.
Chow mein can have more numerous regional variations. There’s the original Cantonese version, American Chinese version, and versions from Australia, Brazil, Canada, India, Nepal, Peru, Mexico, and the Caribbean.
There are two styles of chow mein in American Chinese cuisine. The first one is steamed chow mein, which gives the noodles a softer texture. The noodles used here are long and rounded. The other style is the crispy or Hong Kong-style chow mein. As the name implies, the noodles are crisper and drier. Crispy chow mein always uses fried flat noodles.
If you go to the West Coast, expect that their chow mein will be the soft, steamed version. If you head to the East, American Chinese restaurants will always serve you with the crispy Hong Kong style of stir-fried noodles. As such, people in the East Coast don’t say crispy chow mein anymore. All they have to tell their order-takers is that they want Hong Kong style and they already know.
The Noodle Difference
While it is true that both Chinese noodle dishes use egg noodles, there is a distinct difference in the type of egg noodles that go into the making of either lo mein or chow mein. A basic egg noodle recipe falls for wheat flour and eggs.
Chow mein calls for either rounded or flat round noodles. Crispy Hong Kong style noodles will often have flat noodles because they are a lot easier to “fry” than rounded ones. As such, the noodles are often dry. However, there are regional variations where fresh chow mein noodles are also used.
The noodles used in lo mein are quite different. Only fresh rounded noodles are perfect for lo mein dishes. They do not use dried versions of pastas or the flat ones. This is one of the major differences between the two types of Chinese pasta dishes. Hence, if someone offers you a bowl of sautéed flat noodles and tells you it is lo mein, you already know better.
There are home cooks that use linguini or fettuccini as a substitute. There are also those who resort to using instant ramen noodles. These may be great substitutes, but nothing can ever compare to authentic egg noodles.
The Difference in Cooking Process
Before cooking, the noodles for either lo mein or chow mein get parboiled. This helps hasten the cooking process. Dry noodles require parboiling for about 5 to 6 minutes. On the other hand, fresh pastas only need parboiling for 2 to 3 minutes.
However, it is best to read the package directions. Different manufacturers have their specific time requirements for parboiling their respective pasta. It is important to follow these instructions to the letter.
As mentioned above, lo mein dishes only require fresh or soft pasta. Chow mein, on the other hand, can use either the dry or the fresh version of pasta.
- Chow Mein
To make chow mein, the noodles get stir fried in oil, giving it that delicious crunch. Some will sauté the other ingredients in a separate pan before adding the fried noodles. What is important to understand about chow mein is that the noodles have to be the star of the show. Hence, other ingredients are best kept to a minimum. This is the crispy version, of course.
As for the steamed version of chow mein, it somehow follows the process of cooking lo mein. The noodles get sautéed in the initial seasonings. Halfway through the cooking process, other ingredients get added into the mixture. The point here is to sauté the noodles with a little seasoned oil.
- Lo Mein
Cooking lo mein can be very tedious since you have to cook the ingredients a group at a time before cooking the noodles. When it comes to cooking the noodles, however, it is easier since the partially-cooked noodles only need some heating through. Hence, the noodles get introduced later in the cooking process.
Chefs and cooks toss the pasta in the thick mixture, making sure that each noodle strand gets coated with the luscious sauce. If the feature in the chow mein is the noodles, the star of the lo mein is the sauce. This is one very important point to distinguish one from the other.
Differences in Nutrition
There is no difference in nutrition between chow mein and lo mein when it comes to its egg noodles. After all, they both use the same type of pasta, save for the shape of the individual strands. As such, a cup of egg noodles will give you about 221 calories, 7.3 grams of protein, 40 grams of carbohydrates, and 3.3 grams of fat.
Now, here’s the thing. Since chow mein requires sautéing or stir-frying the noodles in oil for a much longer period of time than lo mein, then you can expect the noodles to absorb more of the fat in the oil. On the other hand, lo mein only involves the tossing of the noodles in a thin sauce together with the rest of the ingredients. This does not give it enough time to absorb all the fat that cooks may use in the process.
But then, there is also the issue of the ingredients used in both dishes. Since the main feature in chow mein is the noodles, then other ingredients are often kept to a minimum. This means you get less protein, carbs, fats, and calories from these ingredients. On the contrary, lo mein often have a greater proportion of ingredients to noodles than chow mein. As such, you can expect the carbs, fats, calories, and proteins to be higher.
Sample Chow Mein Recipe: Chicken Chow Mein
- 6 ounces of dry or fresh chow mein noodles, parboiled
- ½ pound of skinless chicken breast, sliced into small bite-sized pieces
- 3 tablespoons of peanut or vegetable oil
- 1 cup of shredded cabbage
- 3 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 small carrot, julienned
- 1 piece of scallion, chopped
- 1 teaspoon of white sugar
- 3 tablespoons of soy sauce
- Get a saucepan and fill it with water to parboil the noodles as directed on the package. Make sure to separate the individual noodle strands. Drain and rinse well using cold water. Drain again and set aside.
- Place the wok on your stovetop and turn up the heat to high. Add the oil and wait for it to be smoking hot. Sauté the garlic for 10 seconds.
- Stir in the chicken breast and continue sautéing for 2 to 3 minutes.
- Add the cabbage, carrot, scallion, and noodles and stir-fry for another 2 to 3 minutes.
- Add the sugar and soy sauce. Mix well. Adjust the taste if desired.
Sample Lo Mein Recipe: Shrimp Lo Mein
- ½ pound of fresh raw shrimp, shells and veins removed
- ½ pound of Chinese egg noodles, parboiled
- 1 teaspoon of cornstarch
- 2 teaspoons of Chinese rice wine
- 1 ½ teaspoons of sesame oil
- ½ cup of Napa cabbage, shredded
- 1 piece of red bell pepper, sliced into strips
- 1 can (3.5 oz) of bamboo shoots, rinsed and drained
- 2 teaspoons of ginger slices, minced
- 1 tablespoon of light soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon of oyster sauce
- ¼ cup of low-sodium chicken broth
- 6 tablespoons of oil
- ½ teaspoon of granulated sugar
- Wash the shrimps in warm water. Pat them dry using paper towels. Cut the shrimps lengthwise if you wish. Place the shrimps in a bowl and add the cornstarch and the rice wine. Mix it well and let the shrimps soak in the marinade for about 15 to 30 minutes.
- Parboil the noodles and drain it well. Toss it with sesame oil.
- Combine the chicken broth, sugar, light soy sauce, and oyster sauce in a bowl. Set this aside.
- Get your wok and place it over high heat. Medium-high heat also works. Add about 2 tablespoons of cooking oil and wait until it is hot. Sauté the ginger for 30 seconds to release its aroma. Stir in the shrimps and cook until they get a pinkish color. Transfer onto a plate.
- In the same wok, heat another 2 tablespoons of oil and stir-fry the bamboo shoots and the shredded cabbage for about a minute. Stir in the red bell pepper and continue sautéing for another minute. Transfer to another plate.
- Again, in the same wok, heat the last 2 tablespoons of oil. Put the noodles and pour the sauce. Stir to coat the noodles with the sauce. Lower the heat to medium and allow the noodles to absorb the sauce. Dump in the vegetables and the shrimp and heat everything through.
From our sample recipes, it is clear that cooking chow mein is very fast. Cooking lo mein, on the other hand, takes a lot of steps. Notice, too, the number of ingredients in both noodle dishes. With these sample recipes and our discussion in the preceding sections, you now know the difference between chow mein and lo mein.