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.