History of takeaway food - Chow Mein
By Kevin Moyse
At Cheap Takeaway Menus we spend our days thinking about takeaways. We think about what makes a successful takeaway, what makes a better takeaway, what makes a profitable takeaway, and strange as it may seem, we think about the opposites of all of those things. The pitfalls to be avoided are as important as the steps you should take. When we’re designing our high quality takeaway menus we do so from a position of experience. Our menu designers and our menu printers have spent years perfecting what they do so that when you buy your takeaway menus from us you know you will get the best in menu design and menu printing at a low cost.
When you think about takeaway businesses as much as we do, you begin to realise how takeaway food has developed and is still developing. So when we produce these potted histories of takeaway dishes, we do so knowing that each dish we look at has a longer and more varied tale behind it than we could offer without a six part series on BBC2 and a generous expense account, but we do our humble best to provide some interesting information. With that in mind, this month – chow mein!!!
The Chinese diaspora, which went on in its greatest numbers between the 19th and the mid-20th century, brought a great deal of Chinese culture with it, as you can imagine. Not least among this was food. As Chinese emigrants travelled and settled in many different parts of the world, so their food evolved the slight variations we see today, which often reflect the particular tastes and dishes of the country in which they are created.
The name chow mein is evolved from the Chinese chāu-mèing, or fried noodles. It is typically stir-fried noodles with meat and vegetables but that simple description does it a disservice as there are as many slight variations to the look, taste and ingredients as you might expect from a dish which has spread across the planet. We all have our food preferences, and I’m sure we all have our chow mein preferences. Whatever your preference in flavour, ingredients or cooking style, you can bet there is chow mein somewhere in the world that was made for you.
Chow mein is most popular in the UK, USA, and India where the stir-fried noodles are cooked with meat (chicken, pork, or beef) or a meat substitute (shrimp or tofu), as well as onions, celery and carrot. Chow mein noodles can be steamed or crispy (Hong Kong Style). Steamed chow mein is softer in texture, whereas Hong Kong style is drier and crispier. Crispy chow mein uses fried, flat noodles; steamed chow mein is cooked with long, rounded noodles. Even as it varies from country to country, it changes also from region to region. Some places serve it as more of a stew, others serve it dry and compact enough to eat on a sandwich. Chow mein sandwiches are a wonder of the modern world!
In the USA and Canada there are multiple versions of dishes called chow mein. Where there is less of a present Chinese population, there is a broader definition of what constitutes chow mein. Mostly it is the vegetables and the sauce which varies but in some parts of Canada the noodles are done away with altogether and replaced with beansprouts. Remember the TV show Taggart when the main actor died but they kept on making the show with the same name and it was still very popular? It’s a bit like that.
In Brazil, chow mein is a Japanese variation on the original Chinese recipe, having been brought by settlers from there. It is rich in soy sauce, sesame oil, and vegetables, usually carrot, cabbage, onion and at least one dark green vegetable such as Chinese cabbage, and less often either bean sprouts, broccoli, courgette, shiitake mushrooms, bell pepper and cucumber.
It is also very popular in Indian, Pakistani, and Bangladeshi cuisine. The Chinese of Calcutta introduced it to the Indian palate. It is often served with gravy. The Indian variant, vegetable chow mein, designed for the non-meat eaters which consists of noodles with cabbage, bamboo shoots, pea pods, green peppers, and carrots. In New Delhi, chow mein can sometimes include paneer with the noodles and vegetables. Another non-meat Indian chow mein includes scrambled egg as a protein source. Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) has a version of its own called Calcutta Chow Mein which adds green chilli, chilli garlic, or hot garlic.
The hot and spicy approach is also what differentiates Caribbean chow mein from the rest. While the basics of the dish are very similar to the rest of the world, the influence of local cuisine is what sets it apart. Local spices give an extra kick and the dish is often served with hot Scotch Bonnet peppers and pepper sauce. Order a side of Gaviscon with that one.
Settlers in Nepal also arrived with the chow mein recipe, but it has been adapted slightly there by using water buffalo as the meat ingredient. It is an extremely popular fast food item in Nepal.
What is interesting about chow mein is how a single dish can have so many variants. If you were to just say you were cooking fried noodles then no one would be surprised if you then added all manner of ingredients. But chow mein has become a catch-all name for a noodle, meat, and vegetable dish. In our opinion you can’t go wrong when you make chow mein: we have tasted some wildly different examples from takeaway menus far and wide, and all of them were absolutely delicious. Whether you like your noodles steamed and soft or super crispy (yes, please), you can find a chow mein which will hit the spot.
And a chow mein sandwich? The best thing since sliced bread and the best thing on it.