Chow Mein?

Now, being a second generation Asian migrant, who spent his childhood in the kitchen of his family’s Chinese restaurant in rural Victoria, I will admit to a certain level of insider knowledge, and accompanying this knowledge, a difference of experience which has quite plainly left me somewhat ignorant. Ignorant of what some Australians understand by ‘chow mein’, that is.

As a child, it always amused me when customers would come in asking for “chow mayne”, as the Chinese pronunciation is much closer to “chao miin”. The literal translation of Chow Mien is (stir)fried noodles. Which is why when I read Phil Lees’ post about Chow Mein I was a little confused. Rice? In a Chow Mien dish? Really?

Perhaps as the only Chinese kid in town, when I went over to a friend’s house for dinner, her/his parents would be wary of cooking ‘Chinese’ food, but I never encountered such an abomination as a rice-based dish being labelled ‘Chow Mien’.

While Phil’s description of American or Chinese Chow Mien seem fairly accurate to me, I would question his assertion that Chow Mien isn’t a dish found in Chinese restaurants any longer. In fact, I think it’s still very much a staple dish in many Chinese restaurant menus, at least of the suburban variety, along with the ubiquitous Holy Trinity of ‘bastardised Chinese food’ – Lemon Chicken, Sweet and Sour Pork, and Beef and Black Bean Sauce. Even in many of the Hong Kong style Chinese restaurants in Chinatown, you will still find Chow Mien (possibly not named so explicitly) on the menu.

As for Chow Mein’s close cousin Chop Suey, I think the absence of that from many Chinese restaurant menus in Australia is due to the fact that the term ‘chop suey’ (properly pronounced ‘tchaap soo’ – literally bits and pieces, referring to the combination of chopped vegetables) was never really that popular in Australia, and Chinese restaurants quickly realised it was more accessible to just name the dish something along the lines of “Chicken with Selected Vegetables”, or “Beef and Vegetable Stir Fry”.

From a linguistic point of view, it’s interesting to note the persistence of the Romanised ‘Chow Mein” and “Chop Suey” in the US, compared with the preference for more explanatory translations here in Australia. For me, it raises questions about how language is negotiated; how do factors such as the origins, literacy and influence of the migrants, along with the point in time and cultural formation when the waves of migration occurred, influence terms which we use to label food?

If this other version of ‘Chow Mein’, with the rice and the chicken noodle soup, really does still exist in this day an age, I’d like to try it, if only out of curiosity. The idea of a “mix of mirepoix and cheap cabbage, mince and packet food” makes me a little nauseous, to be frank.

5 Replies to “Chow Mein?”

  1. If you'd like a recipe: – it even suggests including bacon. Here's an interesting discussion where everyone admits it isn't true to the Chinese version –

    I'm really interested in how the literal chow mein (mixed noodles) came to be detached from this strange Anglo-Australian version of chow mein (cabbage/rice/chicken noodle soup).

    It is a good point that even though Chinese restaurants dropped the names chow mein and chop suey from the menu, it still lives on, but Anglicised.

  2. I agree with both of you about how interesting these cultural borrowings, translations and unusual results are when migrant foodways are adopted by the majority culture. I think Phil's speculation about the genealogy of this Anglo Australian chow mein (which I cannot comment on as I don't eat out enough, nor have I ever been served such a thing in anybody's home here… nor would I want to be…) – I would think the Women's Weekly or Margaret Fulton could easily be an 'original' source for it.

    Interestingly, one of my subjects, and Anglo Australian woman in her 70s, described a 'soup stock' she makes to me that goes like this:

    She takes “six plain chicken wings”, fills up the pressure cooker and adds onion, carrot, rice and a packet of chicken noodle soup and simmers it for an hour and a half. She then fillets the meat off the wings and puts some back in for the soup, but keeps the rest to add to a simple pasta for another meal the next day.

    It struck me as she told me about it that it's not so much a soup stock as a rice/soup dish… and is perhaps similar to this chow mein of which you speak? Since I don't actually know the ratios she was talking about, I may be wrong, but even the addition of a packet of chicken noodle soup sounded bizarre at the time, but makes more sense given Phil's theories…

    Hopefully we can discuss these fascinating questions next week at Izakaya!

  3. Not to be too snobby, but those recipes are hilarious! I'm sure they have their own charm about them, but they really should drop the Chow Mein moniker.

    I will give credit to 'Donna' for not labelling the recipe as 'Chinese', but I'd hardly call it 'Modern Australian', either. That term seems to be a bit of a catch-all for cuisine which doesn't fit into any other category, I guess.

    Just on that recipe – who cooks cauliflower for longer than carrots? I mean, really!

  4. I was also confused by Phil's article. Stunned, actually. I have never experienced Chow Mein as he described, and it is a constant on the menu of all Chinese restaurants I've been to, and NEVER includes rice or cabbage. Noodles are most definitely included, with soft or crispy given as an option. So amazing how different 'chow mein' is to different people.

  5. I have seen this recipe in many Australian cook books sometimes labelled 'chow mien' or 'chop suey' or 'ki-sie-min'.
    This dish, with Fried Rice and "the ubiquitous Holy Trinity of 'bastardized Chinese food' – Lemon Chicken, Sweet and Sour Pork and Beef and Black Bean Sauce" make up the most common and delicious "Chinese food" for the Australian palate…at least in my 60 years of experience!

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