It is commonly believed that the main difference between lo mein and chow mein is the type of noodles that are used. This is understandable since chow mein noodles are crisp, while lo mein noodles are soft. But it’s how the noodles are prepared that distinguishes these two popular dishes, not the type of noodle used – they're two different foods due to their cooking methods. Mein is the Chinese word for noodles. Lo mein means 'tossed or stirred noodles', while chow mein means 'fried noodles'. Let’s find out more.
What is chow mein?
The term chow mein refers to fried noodles. Chow mein dishes can be divided into two types:
- Steamed chow mein. In this recipe, the noodles are initially flash-fried, then stir-fried together with meat and vegetables, and topped with a light sauce.
- Crisp chow mein. In this recipe, the noodles are flattened while frying, resulting in a pancake-like dish. Any additional ingredients and sauces are layered on top of the noodle pancake.
The noodles are the star of both styles of chow mein recipes – vegetables and proteins are kept minimal, so they do not distract from the crunchy noodles. These additional ingredients are added only after the noodles have been boiled and fried on their own, allowing the chef to concentrate solely on creating a crispy texture.
In a chow mein recipe, the sauce is sparingly used and does not dominate or weigh down the noodles. Rather than smothering the noodles in sauce, chow mein dishes allow their crispy noodles to glow without becoming mushy.
What is lo mein?
Lo mein is made with noodles that have been boiled and drained. A lo mein dish includes vegetables and a source of protein – such as chicken, beef, pork, seafood or tofu – that have already been cooked. The cooked noodles are added to a wok with the vegetables and proteins and tossed in a savoury sauce.
Difference between lo mein and chow mein: the noodles
Lo mein and chow mein are both made with Chinese egg noodles. Lo mein is best made with fresh noodles, and chow mein can be made with either fresh or dried noodles. Either way, the noodles must be boiled until soft before cooking. Dried noodles are parboiled in boiling water for 5 to 6 minutes before using, while fresh egg noodles only need to be boiled for 2 to 3 minutes. However, whether you’re using fresh or dried noodles, it’s essential to boil them until they are just cooked but still firm.
As we have seen, the main distinction between the preparation styles of each dish is the cooking method. Chow mein noodles are soaked in hot water before being stir-fried. The technique of stir-frying fully cooks the noodles along with the ingredients. In contrast, lo mein noodles are fully cooked before being mixed with the meat, vegetables and sauce. Instead of getting stir-fried, the lo mein ingredients are combined and tossed.
The wok technique. Both dishes are best cooked in a wok, but their preparation differs. Making chow mein noodles requires a small amount of oil in a hot wok to lightly fry the ingredients while stirring briskly. In lo mein, the noodles are already cooked and are simply tossed with the rest of the ingredients instead of fried.
The sauce. Chow mein is a dry noodle dish with a delicate, light sauce. Lo mein is a noodle dish that relies heavily on a rich sauce.
The texture. Chow mein noodles have a crunchier texture than lo mein noodles due to their different cooking methods. Lo mein noodles are softer and chewier because they are fully cooked before being tossed with additional ingredients. The noodles used in a lo mein dish also need to be thick and sturdy enough to hold the extra sauce.
How to make chow mein
Chow mein is stir-fried in a wok. First, the noodles are parboiled or soaked in hot water just enough to soften – they’re not fully cooked yet. Meat or tofu, or shrimp, are stir-fried in the sizzling wok, along with onion, celery, beansprouts, and other vegetables. The partially cooked noodles are then added to the wok to finish cooking. The result is a noodle dish with crisp and tender vegetables.
How to make lo mein
In contrast to chow mein, lo mein noodles are cooked separately from the other ingredients in the dish, so they’re fully cooked instead of parboiled. Vegetables and meat or seafood are stir-fried, and then everything is tossed together and coated in sauce.