Lo mein vs. chow mein is a battle that rages on to this very day. People think they know the differences between the two. Well, I’m here to say that there’s far more than meets the eye.
Both make use of noodles and vegetables, and both share a similar origin, so only an expert at Chinese food can know the difference at the core. But once you’ve tasted it, you’ll realize how distinct they are. You’ll also discover that both of them are worthy options. We’re not here to argue which one’s better!
Outside China, many people use the names of these dishes interchangeably. It’s not such a big deal; the close resemblance makes it difficult to distinguish them. Well, after reading this, you’ll be able to impress your friends by stating with authority what chow mein is and how it compares with the lo mein dish on the menu.
During my visit to several other countries, I couldn’t find lo mein in most of the Chinese restaurants. Despite being such a tempting dish, lo mein hasn’t gotten its due as a fine Chinese noodle recipe. This led me to investigate the two recipes further, and it turns out that they have their own characteristic features. For one, the names in Chinese indicate that one is crispy stir-fried noodles and the other is soft noodles.
What is Chow Mein?
Chow mein is one of the traditional Chinese recipes which are known as stir-fried Chinese noodles. The name comes from the Chinese word Taishanese Chau meing. It was later Romanized into chow mein. This noodle recipe became famous through the Chinese diaspora living in different parts of the world.
The dish is commonly enjoyed in Chinese restaurants throughout many other countries like India, Pakistan, Nepal, as well as in Europe and the US. The combination of spices and sauces used in this recipe makes it suitable for every sophisticated palate.
The word chow mein literally mean stir-fried noodles, chow for stir-fried and mein for the noodles. So, any Chinese recipe having noodles in it will be called mein. But the way the noodles are used and cooked differentiate it from the other noodle’s recipe. I never knew this difference until I dug a little bit deeper.
It is always interesting to know what is responsible for a dish’s origin and how the recipes evolved after gaining popularity. Chow mein experienced the same journey when the recipe went global, as it was subsequently transformed into several varieties.
In the US, chow mein is mostly made using pork steaks slices, while in India, there is a larger trend of enjoying vegetable chow mein. The most popular version around the world is the chicken chow mein, which is quite easy to make. I used to go to Chinese restaurants to enjoy the pure taste of traditional chow mein, but ever since I found the secret ingredients behind its amazing taste, I prefer making it at home instead. That way, I can have a healthy and rich bowl of vegetable noodles.
Stir-fried noodles are made out of three basic ingredients: fried chow mein noodles, sauteed vegetables, and sauteed meat. Everything is stirred together with special chow mein sauce. The chow mein noodles are not boiled, but they are soaked in boiled water for a minute or two, and then they are stir-fried at the end.
The recipe employs double cooking of the noodles, which makes then crispy on the outside and soft on the inside. That’s the secret! Also, the sauce is made to season the noodles and vegetables, and also to marinate the meat for deeper flavors.
A Popular Chow Mein Recipe
The recipe I am sharing here is one of the most popular styles of making the chow mein. The order of adding the ingredients may differ for every Chinese cuisine expert, but I have tried and tested this one, and it turned out great. Both the texture of the noodles and the flavor of the sauce tasted so well together.
Vegetables are cut into lengthwise slices and sautéed with the meat to get a crisp, and later the noodles are also sautéed in this mixture.
- 6oz chicken thigh fillets, cut into bite-size pieces
- 3 – 4 cups green cabbage or Chinese cabbage, finely shredded
- 1 1/2 tbsp peanut oil
- 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
- 6 oz fresh chow mein noodles
- 1 carrot, julienned
- 1 cup bean sprouts
- 3 shallot/scallions/green onions, cut into 2″ pieces
- 1/4 cup water
Chow Mein Sauce:
- 2 tsp cornflour / cornstarch
- 1 1/2 tbsp soy sauce, all-purpose or light
- 1 1/2 tbsp oyster sauce
- 1 1/2 tbsp Chinese cooking wine
- 2 tsp sugar
- 1/2 tsp sesame oil
- White pepper
Start by mixing the cornflour with soy sauce, oyster sauce, wine, pepper, sugar, and white pepper in a bowl. Mix well until the sugar is completely dissolved in the cornflour mixture. Keep this sauce aside for a while.
For marination of the chicken drizzle, pour 1 tablespoon of the prepared sauce over it and rub it well to make sure it is completely coated. Cover this chicken in the marinade for 10 minutes in a bowl.
While the chicken is marinating, you can work on the noodles. Cook the noodles as per the given instructions on the box. It usually says soak the noodles for 1 minute in boiled water, then drain and allow to cool down.
After you are done with the preparation, it’s time to start cooking. Do that by heating the wok. This wok should be deep enough to house all the noodles and the ingredients of the chow mein. Add the cooking oil to the wok while it is heating.
Once the oil is heated, add the garlic and sautee it for 10 seconds until it turns in golden brown. Then add chicken and sautee for 1 minute until the chicken turns golden brown. After cooking the chicken, stir in the carrot, cabbage and chopped white parts of the shallots. Stir fry the chicken with vegetable for 1.5 minutes until the cabbage is wilted.
Once the vegetables are ready, the noodles and the remaining sauce (and remaining water) have to be added to the wok. Stir cook this mixture for 1 minute while tossing the noodles thoroughly. Stir in bean sprouts and scallions. Continue cooking the chow mein for 30 seconds, then turn off the heat.
The chow mein is ready to serve.
Important tips for best results
The chicken can be replaced with turkey or beef or sliced pork or even with shrimp, but the time of cooking for each of the meat types will vary. All of them should also be marinated using the same marinade. To tenderize the meat, most Chinese restaurants use special methods to make it extra soft in a short time. For that, the chicken is cut and rubbed with ½ tsp baking soda and kept aside for 20 minutes.
Place this chicken in the colander and rinse it well. Remove its excess water using a paper towel. After this, marinate the chicken as per the given instructions above.
Now the chicken will turn out more tender and soft.
The noodles used for chow mein are available in Asian specialty shops and even in some general grocery stores. You can ask for help finding these noodles in the stores.
The cabbage used for chow mein is mostly green or savoy or Chinese cabbage. Purple cabbage is not usually added to the recipe, but I sometimes use it to add more color to the chow mein. After cooking, there won’t be a noticeable difference between their flavors.
Any all-purpose soy sauce or light soy sauce can be used for the making of the chow mein. Dark or sweet soy sauce should not be used for the chow mein recipe. For a gluten-free recipe, go for tamari sauce instead of soy sauce.
The popular Chinese wine Shaoxing wine is often used for the chow mein recipe. This wine is also used for many another Chinese recipes, so it is smart to buy a bottle and keep it in the refrigerator if you’re a Chinese food lover. However, if it is not available, it can be replaced with mirin, sake or dry sherry.
Mirin is naturally sweet, so reduce the amount of sugar to maintain the sweetness of the sauce. If you are looking to avoid alcohol, replace the wine with the same amount of chicken broth or even water.
What is Lo Mein?
Lo and behold! Lo mein. Lo mein originated from the Cantonese Chinese cuisine. It is made out of egg noodles and a saucy vegetable mixture. This combination can be paired with seafood, chicken, pork, seafood including shrimp, or even with wontons. The basic recipe is made only with the vegetables sautéed in the lo mein sauce and egg noodles.
These noodles have a distinct elastic texture which is not found in other noodles or spaghetti. If you have ever tried Chinese wonton noodles soup, you will know how lo mein tastes, as this noodle recipe is like the dry variety of that same wonton noodle soup. Except for the soupy liquid, it contains only a sauce which tastes similar to the soup. It is best to serve as the main course, or you enjoy it on the side in a small amount since lo mein is not a high-calorie meal.
The word lo mein literally means stirred or tossed noodles.
The noodles in lo mein recipes are simply mixed with the other cooked ingredients. These egg noodles are boiled and drained. After all the excess liquid is removed, the noodles are tossed into the vegetable sautee, and the sauce is used for seasoning. In this way, the noodles for lo mein remain soft, like in soup or other egg noodles recipes, and that is why they are also known as Chinese soft noodles.
Sriracha Sauce Lo Mein Recipe
The Sriracha sauce recipe for the lo mein is my personal favorite. I know that in China, this single dish is made using a variety of sauces and other vegetables. But I find this one the best as it is quick and a good option for all vegetarians to enjoy the tempting taste of lo mein.
Here is the basic recipe without meat. The beef lo mein and other varieties are derived from this basic recipe, so I will share it first. Later we will also discuss how to make the beef lo mein, but for now, here’s the veggie option.
- 8 ounces lo mein egg noodles
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 cups cremini mushrooms, sliced
- 1 red bell pepper, julienned
- 1 carrot, julienned
- 1/2 cup snow peas
- 3 cups baby spinach
For the Sauce:
- 2 tablespoons reduced sodium soy sauce, or more, to taste
- 2 teaspoons sugar
- 1 teaspoon sesame oil
- 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
- 1/2 teaspoon Sriracha, or more, to taste
Mix the soy sauce with sugar, sesame oil, ginger, and Sriracha in a small bowl. Keep this mixture aside. Prepare the noodles by boiling them in water as per the given instructions on the package. Make sure that you are not overboiling the noodles; if you do, they will start breaking into pieces or even dissolve in with the sauce during mixing with the vegetables, and the end product will not look like traditional lo mein at all.
Egg noodles do not need much cooking — only a few minutes in the boiling water is enough to make them tender. If you are not comfortable having the elastic egg noodles, you can readily replace them with normal market-bought spaghetti. In this way, you will have that firm texture.
Take a suitably-sized wok over medium-high heat and add the cooking oil to the heating wok. Sauté garlic, bell pepper, carrot, and mushrooms for 4 minutes until the vegetables are completely tender. Once these vegetables are sautéed, add spinach and snow peas. Sauté again for 3 minutes. Toss in soy sauce mixture and cooked egg noodles to the wok.
Gently toss the noodles with the vegetable mixture, then turn off the heat. Serve warm and enjoy.
This dish cannot be kept for more than a few hours as the noodles will turn soggy after refrigeration and reheating. I normally keep the ingredients like vegetables and meat ready and frozen in the refrigerator. To quickly cook the dish, I make use of the sliced vegetables and marinated meat and boil the noodles at the last minute.
Beef Lo Mein
The lo mein previously mentioned is entirely vegetarian; the beef lo mein, however, is made out of beef slices. The beef is first cleaned and sliced, and then it is marinated using a tablespoon of the sauce used in this recipe. The beef is then cooked in a greased pan until it is al dente and brown.
The rest of the vegetables and ingredients are tossed with the beef along with the egg noodles at the end. Adding the meat to the lo mein makes it more protein rich. There is also a tradition of using sliced tofu in the recipe instead of beef.
Broccoli florets are also commonly added to beef lo mein. Don’t be surprised when you find those green veggies in your bowl of lo mein. Lo mein does not have to be made using the same set of vegetables; you can always add the vegetables of your choice to the noodles. So, whether it is broccoli florets or snap peas, both taste delicious with the saucy egg noodles. As long as you are not sautéing your noodles, you will still be enjoying traditional lo mein.
Differences between lo mein and chow mein
How can you distinguish between the two recipes when they sound so similar? That must be the question going on in your mind after learning about the two recipes. But if you have noticed, these recipes are not at all similar. Their method of preparation may look similar, but they employ different techniques of dealing with the noodles and other ingredients.
Lo Mein and chow mein are both Chinese recipes. That does not make them one and the same. Despite being made out of noodles, there is a marked difference between these two dishes. From the type and texture of the noodles to the use of vegetables, sauces, and spices, they are entirely different. And to make those differences clear for all, I have managed to jot them down separately.
First, chow mein translates to ‘Stir-fried noodles’ whereas lo mein means egg noodles. That’s how different their names are; they are given other names in China with similar meanings. They both originated from the same stretches of land, yet they are made differently. It is not just the matter of the etymology but actual cooking differences which make a chow mein different from lo mein. Following are some of the differences.
The very obvious difference between the lo mein and chow mein is the use of the noodles. Chow mein is made out of crispy fried noodles. Because of these, it turns out to be crispier than the lo mein. These noodles are characteristic of chow mein, and in market, they are available with the tag “chow mein.”
Lo mein, on the other hand, is made out of plain egg noodles which are simply tossed into the mixed vegetable mixture. Egg noodles of any brand and variety are suitable for lo mein. You can even use spaghetti instead of the egg noodles. This is because in lo mein you are not bound to a certain texture.
Plain wheat noodles can also be used for this recipe.
You can identify chow mein with its sharp and crispier looking noodles with a light brownish appearance, while the noodles for lo mein appear pale and bright in color, and they look soft since they are only boiled and not stir-fried with the other ingredients.
After the noodles, the major difference between the two recipes is the preparation of the sauce. All the taste these noodles have is because of the sauce added to it. No extra spices or herbs are added to the recipes other than those added to the sauce. So, it holds a special place in the making of these dishes.
The color of the sauce used for chow mein has more of the blackish appearance whereas the one made for lo mein has a light red-orange tinge as it carries a small amount of Sriracha sauce. The sauce for chow mein, on the other hand, is the mixture of soy sauce and oyster sauce. With this minor change, they taste entirely different. The oyster sauce has its distinct flavor and aroma which can be experienced in chow mein.
Another vast difference between their sauces is that the sauce for chow mein also has some amount of Shaoxing wine added to it. The addition of this wine further infuses a very mildly sweet and savory taste to its sauce which is not found in any lo mein variant. The combination of the sauces used in lo mein does not require any amount of wine or cider.
Wine gives a nice look and aroma to the chow mein. The Shaoxing Chinese wine is famous for its culinary use in the region, and it is most commonly used in most of the Chinese recipes.
The sauce for Lo mein also tastes differently because of the ginger ground added to it. Chow mein has no ginger-like flavors added to its recipe. So that is another factor which makes them strikingly different in taste from one another. Instead of ginger powder, freshly chopped ginger can also be used to infuse the same strong flavors.
As for the combination of vegetables, chow mein is not complete without adding sliced cabbage. Cabbage is juicy and crunchy, so when it is mixed with stir-fried noodles along with carrots and other vegetables, it simply adds up to the desirable crispy taste of the chow mein. However, cabbage is not used for lo mein; it makes use of other vegetables like the bell pepper, snap peas, or spinach.
Due to the different choice of the veggies, their taste starts to contrast distinctively. In lo mein there is an open choice to add the vegetables of your liking. However, chow mein has to be made with the combination of vegetables which complement its own taste and aroma. That is why you don’t find chow mein recipes with broccoli or snap peas, while lo mein do have these in one way or another.
Method of preparation
The method of preparation for both the recipes also differs; by now we are well aware of this fact. Chow mein is made by first marinating the chicken then sautéing it with the vegetables and then stir-frying them with the crispy chow mein noodles, but nothing of such sort is done while preparing lo mein.
You only add the noodles just before you turn off the heat.
You don’t stir fry the noodles or cook them for some time. They are only boiled as per the given instructions on their packet. After that they are only mixed with a saucy vegetable mixture. Chow mein made out of chicken is usually quick to make compared to beef lo mein where sliced beef steak is used.
When it comes to serving, there are no specifications for both recipes. Lo mein is often served with sliced chilies on top whereas the chow mein can be served with toasted sesame seeds or freshly chopped spring onions. When made with shrimps, they are placed over the noodles. A drizzle of soy sauce or sriracha sauce is also used for the serving.
Both the dishes have to be served warm and freshly cooked. Lo mein is a perfect dinner meal or a side dish, while chow mein, which is richer in content, should be served as a lunch entrée.
It’s not only the taste and appearance, but the two dishes also differ from each other in terms of their nutritional value, too. A single bowl of lo mein noodles contains less calories than the same amount of chow mein. So, people craving a light noodle recipe can opt for lo mein. But for a meal with a good amount of calories, chow mein is a good option.
A bowl of chow mein contains 273 calories, and lo mein of the same amount contains 165 calories. Chow mein also contains more carbohydrates, around 45 gram per serving, while lo mein contains only 27 grams of carbohydrates.
The same is true for fats, which are more in chow mein and lesser in quantity in lo mein. Based on these statistics, you now know when and where to eat any one of them to maintain your nutritional needs.
What should you be ordering for your Chinese takeout?
Well, for me, chow mein and lo mein both taste equally incredible, but I would recommend chow mein for those who are up for a crunchy bowl of fried noodles. Not all people like their noodles crispy when it comes to Chinese, so you can always switch to lo mein.
I know many people who have ordered chow mein instead of lo mein without knowing the difference, and they end up getting disappointed. You don’t have to go through that — simply look into the details of both recipes and consider their nutritional value.
Many times I am asked if any of these two recipes can replace each other, and my answer is always “no.” Having noodles with vegetables does not make these recipes a substitute for one another.
After being introduced to the variety of Cantonese Chinese dish, I found that the essence of all of them lies in the combination of sauce added to them for seasoning and the methods that are used to the recipe. Even with the change of heat, cooking equipment, and basic seasonings, every dish comes out entirely differently.
So, chow mein vs lo mein. Which is your preference? The next time you have Chinese, you will know what good you will be getting out of each of them.
Chow mein, with its crispy noodles, has its own temptations, while lo mein, with the tossed in egg noodles, have the softer feel to every bite. Chow mein has a range of vegetables, the starchy sauce, and the sautéed marinated meat, making it taste differently from a lo mein, which is less saucy and it is normally made out of sliced beef steaks.
Chow mein is mostly made out of chicken slices marinated in soy sauce marinade and vegetables including carrot and cabbage. The vegetables used for chow mein complement the crispy texture of its noodles, while the vegetables used in the lo mein complements its own combination of vegetables and soft egg noodles.
That’s how the two differ from each other. Keeping these differences in mind, let’s try them one more time and cherish the uniqueness of their flavors even more.