The Cultural Journey Of Chow Mein

Chow mein is one of the most inexpensive and satiating street foods that is sold across the Indian subcontinent. Every Indian has fond memories of feasting on stir-fried noodles from disposable paper plates in the late hours of the evening with their friends or colleagues. The noodle is one of the best examples of culinary diaspora in human history. Nearly every country with a large number of Chinese immigrants has a version of this dish that has been modified to suit the tastes of the host country. 

The origins of the dish are lost to history, as is characteristic of most migrant populations that rely on oral tradition to pass on knowledge. The dish is said to have been inspired by a hakka-style struggle food that was eaten across China for several decades and was made using stir-fried noodles and leftover meat and vegetables. This dish would take on new life in the many countries that Chinese populations would migrate to throughout the 1900s, from the crispy, deep-fried noodles of American-style chow mein to the spicy peanut sauce of Indonesian-style chow mein. The flexible nature of the noodle’s recipe is what makes it so popular; vendors can add just about anything to the noodles and still call it chow mein. 

American-Chinese Cuisine  

The US is credited with having the most variants of the dish in circulation today, which is not surprising given that it was one of the first countries to have a large Chinese diaspora. Nearly every state in the country has its own recipe for the dish, which is made using a base of either crispy or steamed wheat noodles. The crispy variant features deep-fried noodles that are served with a brown sauce and vegetables such as carrots and celery, sometimes with protein or cooked vegetables. The noodles may also be served over a bed of steamed rice with similar inclusions. The steamed version of the noodles features a variety of processed proteins, from chicken to tempeh. The noodles are often tossed with soy sauce before being served. Restaurants in southern states like Louisiana and Mississippi popularly serve chow mein made in either style with gravies that are local to the area, such as Cajun-style shrimp gravy or sausage gravy. Street food vendors across the country also use chow mein as a popular filling for sandwiches and wraps. 

Indo-Chinese Cuisine  

Chow mein is considered one of the cornerstones of Indo-Chinese cuisine, along with similar hakka preparations such as chop suey and fried rice. The noodles were first introduced to the country by migrant populations that settled in Calcutta in the late 1700s as a hakka-style stir-fried noodle made using local produce such as carrots, bell peppers, and long beans. It wasn't until the early 1900s that the dish finally earned its namesake, following the addition of endemic Chinese ingredients such as soy sauce and MSG. The recipes for chow mein that are served across the country today follow an almost identical outline: hakka noodles are stir-fried with inclusions such as crispy vegetables and cooked meats that are tossed in soy sauce to serve. 

Indonesian-Chinese Cuisine  

The only difference between the Indonesian and Chinese versions of chow mein is the sauce used to coat the noodles. Vendors in Indonesia toss the noodles with a satay-style chili peanut sauce and crushed peanuts to finish, creating a noodle that tastes completely different from other global variants. The most mainstream additions for this style of noodles are vegetables and mushrooms, but meat and eggs are also popular. Some communities may add egg yolks to the peanut sauce in order to even out the spice and acidity to suit western palates. 


The term "chifa" refers to a Peruvian cooking style with Cantonese influences. Most preparations in the cuisine use Peruvian food as a base, a notion that has shifted in recent decades with a steady rise in the country’s Chinese migrant population. Migrant-owned food stalls and restaurants serve several staples of Chinese diaspora cuisine, including chow mein. The noodles are similar to the steamed chow mein that is served in the US, but with the addition of local produce such as onions, peppers, and tomatoes. The dish is popularly served with large portions of roughly chopped protein, such as chicken and beef. 

Caribbean Chinese Cuisine 

Chow mein is popularly served in the Caribbean in a sauce made with inexpensive soy sauce and local spices. The dish features small pieces of protein such as chicken, pork, and shrimp, along with vegetables such as carrots, peas, and onions. Some areas may feature the addition of endemic ingredients such as pork sausages and scotch bonnet.