Chow Mein vs Lo Mein: What are the differences?

Written by Peter Allen on . Posted in food

Lo mein vs. chow mein has been a topic of debate for people around the world. Due to the close similarity of the names of both the dishes, it becomes almost impossible to differentiate their taste, form, and flavors.

Both make use of the noodles, have a similar origin and have some variety of vegetables, so only an expert at Chinese food can know the difference at the core. But once you have the taste of it, you realize how distinctly unique they are, and each of them is worthy of adding to your Chinese menu.

Outside China or its vicinity, I have seen people who only know about any of these two recipes. They order for them by using their names interchangeably. It is not something to worry about, as the close resemblance makes it difficult to distinguish them. It can mainly because of the regional popularity of chow mein or people being unaware of the lo mein dish.

During my visit to several other countries, I couldn’t find lo mein in most of the Chinese restaurants, so I wondered why despite being such a tempting dish, lo mein hasn’t found its recognition as being a fine Chinese noodle recipe. then I went on comparing the two recipes, and it turned out that they have their own characteristic features. The names themselves represent that one is cooked out as crispy stir-fried noodles and the other with soft noodles.

What is Chow Mein?

Chow mein is the traditional Chinese recipes which are known as the 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 from the Chinese diaspora living in different parts of the world.

From the menus of the Chinese restaurants, the recipe came out in the open and commonly enjoyed in many other countries like India, Pakistan, Nepal in Europe and the even US. the combination of spices and sauce 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 in it, differentiate it from another noodle’s recipe. I never knew this difference until it went deeper into the study of the names of recipes.

It is always interesting to know what is responsible for their origin and how the recipes evolved after gaining popularity. The Chow mein experienced the same journey, when the recipe went global, it was later transformed into several other sub-varieties.

In the US, the chow mein is mostly made using pork steaks slices whereas the in India, there is a larger trend of enjoying vegetable chow mein, but the most popular around the world is the chicken chow mein which is easy and quick to make. earlier I used to look for Chinese outlets 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 to have a healthy and rich bowl of vegetable noodles.

The stir-fried noodles are mainly made out of three basic ingredients, the fried chow mein noodles, the vegetable and meat Sautee and the 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.

So, the recipe employs the double cooking of the noodles which makes then crispy on the side and soft on the inside. 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 for the chow mein 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 simply turned out great. Both the texture of the noodles and the flavor of its sauce thorough mixed tasted so well together.

Vegetables are cut into lengthwise slices and sautéed first with the meat to get a crisp and later the noodles are also sautéed in this mixture.

Ingredients

  • 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

Instructions

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.

Meanwhile, the chicken is marinating; you can work on the noodles. Cook the noodles as per the given instructions on the box, it usually says soaking the noodles for 1 minute in boiled water then drain it and allow it to cool down.

After you are done with the preparation, it’s about the time to start the cooking.  Do that by heating the wok. This wok should be deep enough to carry all the noodles and the ingredients of the chow mein. Add the cooking oil to this 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 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 vegetable is ready, the noodles along with remaining sauce and water have to be added to the wok. Stir cook this mixture for 1 minute while tossing the noodles thoroughly. Stir in bean sprout along with 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 the 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 of the 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 keep it aside for 20 minutes.

Then 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 to be more tender and softer.

The noodles used for chow mein are easily available in the Asian stores and even in some of the general stores. You can ask for help to find 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 will hardly 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. The dark or sweet soy sauce should also be not used for the chow mein recipe. For a gluten free recipe go for tamari sauce instead of soy sauce.

The popular Chinese wine is Shaoxing wine which is mostly used for the chow mein recipe. This wine is also used for many another Chinese recipe, so it is smart to buy a bottle and keep it in the refrigerator if you are 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 the alcohol, replace the wine with the same amount of chicken broth or even water.

What is Lo Mein?

Let’s get down to the lo mein! The lo mein originated from the Cantonese Chinese cuisine. It is made out of egg noodles and the saucy vegetable mixture. This combination can either be paired with seafood, chicken, pork, seafood including shrimps or even with wontons. The basic recipe is made only with the vegetables sautéed with 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 ever have tried the Chinese wonton noodles soup, you will know how the lo mein actually tastes as this noodle recipe is like the dry variety of that same wonton noodles soup. except for the soupy liquid, it contains only the sauce tasting similar to the soup. It is best to serve as the main course, or you enjoy on the side in small amount since lo mein is not a high caloric meal.

The word lo mein literally means stirred or tossed noodles.

It is because the noodles in its 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 the seasoning. In this way, the noodles for lo mein remain soft like as they remain in the soup or other egg noodles recipes, that is why they are also known as the 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 as the best as it is too quick and it is a good option for all the vegetarians to enjoy the tempting taste of the lo mein.

The beef lo mein or any other sub-varieties are derived from this basic recipe, so I would like to share this one. Later we will also discuss how to make the beef lo mein at home.

Ingredients:

  • 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

Instructions

Mix the soy sauce with sugar, sesame oil, ginger, Sriracha in a small bowl and 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, because in that case, while mixing them with the cooked vegetables they will start breaking into pieces or even dissolve in with the sauce, and the end product will not look as appealing as the traditional lo mein is.

Egg noodles do not need much of the 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.

It cannot be preserved for more than a few hours as the noodles will turn soggy after refrigeration and reheating. So, I normally keep the ingredients prepared 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

This lo mein is entirely vegetarian; the beef lo mein is however 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 the beef.

Broccoli florets are also commonly added to the beef lo mein. Don’t be surprised when you find those green veggies in your bowl of lo mein. Lo mein is basically not made using the same set of vegetables; you can always add the vegetables of your choice to the noodles. So, whether it is the broccoli florets or the snap peas, both taste delicious with the saucy egg noodles. As long as you are not sautéing your noodles, you will still be enjoying the 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. 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, the chow mein translate into ‘Stir-fried noodles’ whereas the lo mein means the egg noodles. That’s how different their names; 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 difference.

The noodles

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 the chow mein, and in market, they are available with the tag of the chow mein.

The 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 spaghettis instead of the egg noodles. It is because in lo mein you are not bound to cook the noodles into a certain texture.

Plain wheat noodles can also be used for this recipe.

By the look of both the recipes, you can identify the chow mein with its sharp and crispier looking noodles with a light brownish appearance however 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.

The sauce

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 the 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 the chow mein.

Another vast difference between their sauce 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 of the lo mein variants. The combination of the sauces used in the lo mein does not require any amount of wine or cider.

Wine is mostly used deglazed of the cooking mixture; it is giving 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.

Vegetables

In the combination of the vegetables, the chow mein is not complete without adding the sliced cabbage. Cabbage is juicy and crunchy in its texture, so when sautéed it is mixed with stir-fried noodles along carrots and other vegetables, it simply adds up to the desirable crispy taste of the chow mein. However, the cabbage is not used for lo mein; it makes use of other vegetables like the bell pepper, the snap peas or the spinach.

Due to the difference 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, the chow mein has to be made with the same combination of vegetables which would complement its own taste and aroma. That is why you don’t find chow mein recipes with broccoli or snap peas, but lo mein do have these in one way or another.

Method of preparation

The method of preparation for both the recipes also contrasts; by now we all aware of this fact. The 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 the lo mein.

You only add the noodles just before the 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 saucy vegetable mixture. Chow mein made out of chicken is usually quick to make compared to the beef lo mein where sliced beef steak is used.

Serving

When it comes to serving, there are no specifications for both the 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, where chow mein which is richer in content, should be served as entrée on the lunch.

Nutrition

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 lesser calories than the same amount of chow mein. So, people craving for a light noodle recipe can opt for lo mein whereas for a meal with a good amount of calories chow mein is a good option.

A bowl of Chow Mein contains 273 calories, and the lo mein of the same amount contains 165 calories. Chow Mein also contain the high dose of carbohydrates, around 45 gram per serving, while lo mein contains only 27 grams of carbohydrates.

Same is true for fats, which are more in chow mein and lesser in quantity in the 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 tastes 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 without knowing difference order for chow mein instead of lo mein, and they end up getting disappointed. You don’t have to go through that, simply read into the details of both the recipes and consider their nutritional values to place an order.

Many times I am asked if any of these two recipes can replace each other, and my answer is always a big NO. Having the noodles with vegetables does not make these recipes a substitute for one another, and we should too stop looking at them as one.

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 wares and basic seasonings, every dish comes out entirely differently.

Conclusion

So, chow mein vs lo mein, which is your preference? The next time you will be ordering any of these Chinese meals, you will know what good you will be getting out of each of them.

The chow mein with its crispy noodles has its own temptations whereas the lo mein with the tossed in egg noodles have the softer feel to every bite. Chow mein with a range of vegetables, the starchy sauce, and the sautéed marinated meat, tastes differently from a lo mein which is less saucy and it is normally made out of the sliced beef steaks.

Chow mein is mostly made out of chicken slices marinated in the soy sauce marinade and vegetables including carrot, cabbage, and bell pepper. The vegetables used for chow mein complements the crispy texture of its noodles whereas the vegetables used in the lo mein complements its own combination of the 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.

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Peter Allen

Peter Allen

Peter's path through the culinary world has taken a number of unexpected turns. After starting out as a waiter at the age of 16, he was inspired to go to culinary school and learn the tricks of the trade. As he delved deeper, however, his career took a sudden turn when a family friend needed someone to help manage his business. Peter now scratches his culinary itch on the internet by blogging, sharing recipes, and socializing with food enthusiasts worldwide.

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