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Informal poll-- how many New York Chowhounds realize that if you order "chow mein" in New York you're actually getting chop suey? [moved from Manhattan]

Mr Taster Dec 25, 2009 12:33 AM

This has been bugging me for years, and I'd love to know your opinions.

First, my Chow cred. I grew up in New Jersey eating Chinese food my whole life. I now live in Los Angeles, am married to a Taiwanese woman, have spent several months traveling and eating all throughout China and Taiwan, and I speak Mandarin.

After many years of traveling and eating across this country and around the world, I came to see that the same Chinese-American dish ordered in Topeka is not necessarily the same as the same dish ordered in New York (or Beijing).

When I came to LA well over a decade ago, I remember ordering "chicken chow mein" and was surprised to have gotten not the soupy gravy with meat and vegetables with crunchy noodles, but rather a dish of stir-fried noodles, veggies and meat. (This is what I would have called "lo mein" back home).

Eventually I came to the odd, ground-shaking conclusion that in New York City (or New Jersey), when you order "chow mein" you get what Topekans, for example, would call chop suey. When I learned to speak Mandarin, I discovered that "chow mian" literally means "stir fried noodles", not "thickened soupy mess of veggies and meat over rice with a few crunchy deep-fried wontons sprinkles over the top".

Why or how this widespread misapplication occurred is an utter mystery to me, and if anyone here can enlighten me I'd love to know. Does it not seem insane to anyone else that this is so deeply embedded in the food consciousness of New Yorkers, and that there is no attempt being made to educate people or correct it?

As a kid I grew up eating "chicken chow mein", never realizing that I was essentially doing the equivalent of going into an Italian place, ordering a pizza, and getting a chicken parm. But the thing is, the Italian owner knows I want chicken parm, because people have been asking for pizza and getting chicken parms for so long that it's just expected.

It's lunacy, I tells ya!

Your thoughts?

Mr Taster

  1. s
    Steveinjapan Dec 25, 2009 03:43 AM

    My thoughts as a long-gone but native New Yorker.... Why in the world would anyone even order those 2 abominations when there are an infinite number of superior Chinese dishes????? Even 50 years ago we had Cantonese moo goo gai pen and mu shi pork, and that was in Brooklyn!

    3 Replies
    1. re: Steveinjapan
      gordeaux Dec 25, 2009 07:40 AM

      100% seconded.
      I don't think I've even thought about chow mein or chop suey for 30 years. Horrendous glop.

      1. re: gordeaux
        FrankD Dec 27, 2009 12:41 AM

        You should come to Toronto, and try Cantonese Chow Mein. It is a bed of egg noodles which are boiled first, and then quickly fried in the wok. I like the cantonese version because it contains a mixture of meat, all of it stir fried with vegetables like water chestnuts, broccoli, carrots, etc. The meat usually contains chicken, shrimp, and bbq pork. If you're lucky, you get scallops as well.

        It's not at all "soupy" or "gloppy" -it has no sauce to speak of, and its moistness comes from the little bit of oil it was fried in. It doesn't come with those deep fried crunchy noodles.It gets its crispness from the water chestnuts, bamboo shoots, etc. Its one of our favourite dishes. Chicken chow mein is boring by comparison.

        1. re: FrankD
          fourunder Dec 27, 2009 02:50 AM

          This is more or less my experience of Cantonese Chow Mein when ordered in NYC's Chinatown for the past 40 years.

    2. monku Dec 25, 2009 06:09 AM

      Growing up in NY my favorite school lunch was CCM, that dish with the gloppy veggies, chicken served on rice with crunchy noodles. My grandfather had a restaurant in Columbus, OH and CCM was the same dish. La Choy (canned Chinese food) has Chicken Chow Mein and that's what it is too.

      My experience in NYC Chinatown was "Lo Mein" which was stir fried whatever with noodles...same as Chicken Chow Mein you'd get in Los Angeles, stir fried with noodles.

      My first experience ordering "Lo Mein" in Los Angeles was a shocking surprise to get a pile of plain noodles topped with the meat of your choice say char siu and a side of plain broth.

      BTW: Paul's Kitchen in downtown LA has the best old school BBQ pork chow mein around.

      1 Reply
      1. re: monku
        fourunder Dec 25, 2009 06:33 AM

        Here's my take for NY/NJ Cantonese restaurant style Chow Mein



      2. thew Dec 25, 2009 06:47 AM

        hong kong style chow mein has crispy noodles

        5 Replies
        1. re: thew
          Mr Taster Dec 25, 2009 07:20 AM

          How can you back this up?

          1. re: Mr Taster
            Cathy Dec 25, 2009 07:49 AM

            It is served differently in different restaurants. That's why this and the other posts that fourunder has linked to are topics of discussion.


            Hong Kong Style is crispy noodles, Cantonese style is stir fried noodles.

            1. re: Mr Taster
              Blueicus Dec 25, 2009 10:14 AM

              they're crispy, but they're not canned La Choy noodles or anything like that

            2. re: thew
              monku Dec 25, 2009 09:09 AM

              In Los Angeles Hong Kong "style" means those thin chow mein noodles from my observation.

              1. re: thew
                soypower Dec 25, 2009 09:59 AM

                Hong kong style chow mein is a fried noodle 'cake' with vegetably gravy over top.


                It's a wholly different animal than the new york chow mein that is being discussed here. I think the idea is to top a meat & vegetable stir-fry with crunchy noodles.


              2. monku Dec 25, 2009 10:06 AM

                I think the mid-western Chinese style chow mein is because 50+ years ago there were no fresh or soft Chinese noodles available in those regions, only those crunchy chow mein noodles. Chinese food probably didn't become a recognized main stream cuisine in the mid-west until maybe the mid 1940's. My grandfather's Chinese restaurant in Columbus 50+ years ago (he had two restaurants in Columbus and one in Cleveland) didn't have soft noodle dishes, only those crunchy chow mein noodles. We loved going to the kitchen and snacking on them all day, like potato chips. My brother who lives in Ohio said he didn't have access to fresh chow mein noodles until maybe 30 years ago.

                True, there is a misapplication of terms, but they will never change.

                1. bagelman01 Dec 25, 2009 01:57 PM

                  I am aware that outside of Metro New York, chow mein is a dish that we grew up with called Lo Mein. However, New York area chow mein and chop suey are not the same, although both are vegetables in a starchy sauce. Chow mein had large pieces of celery and onions that were crunchy when you bit into them. Chop Suey has softer, mushy vegetables. Both are still served that way in my area of Fairfield County, CT.

                  I grew up eating traditional American Cantonese food in the 50s and 60s and experienced the wave of Szechaun, Hunan, Hion Kong food as politics changed and more Chinese came, and then those leaving Hong Kong before the British returned the colony to China. The quick takeout places are all mostly run by Fujianese and serve a homogonized stylke of Chinese-American cooking.

                  I have eaten 'Chinese' food all over the globe and until the last 15 years it tended to be greatly influenced by what foodstuffs were available in the local market and the tastes of the locals where the Chinese emigrated. Now with China fully open to foreign trade and reliable jet cargo transport authentic Chinese ingredients make 'true' Chinese food available. However, most locals around the globe don''t want or appreciate 'true' Chinese cooking, they want the hyphenated Chinese-xxxx food adjusted for their palate.

                  1. johnb Dec 25, 2009 08:06 PM

                    Isn't there something similar to this going on with gyro vs. souvlaki? I originally learned about gyros in NYC in the 1970's, but later on I saw the same thing, i.e. lamb cut off a big wheel of meat after being grilled on one of those vertical rotisseries, being sold as "souvlaki".

                    2 Replies
                    1. re: johnb
                      FrankD Dec 27, 2009 12:49 AM

                      Not in the Greek restaurants in Toronto - gyros are that mystery meat on a big spit, and souvlaki is chunks of chicken, lamb, or pork threaded on to a skewer and grilled. Gyros are almost always served in a pita, while when most people order souvlaki, it comes on a plate and you eat it with a knife and fork. However, they serve "souvlaki on a pita" for people who want something to go.

                      1. re: FrankD
                        johnb Dec 27, 2009 02:23 AM

                        I think what you describe is the "classic" or "correct" association of the names with the dishes as they would be found in an authoritative source. But out in the wild I have seen them switched around.

                    2. ipsedixit Dec 25, 2009 08:59 PM

                      Do real Chinese restaurants even serve chop suey?

                      7 Replies
                      1. re: ipsedixit
                        monku Dec 25, 2009 09:07 PM

                        What is a "real" Chinese restaurant?

                        1. re: monku
                          ipsedixit Dec 26, 2009 02:01 PM

                          One that does not serve chop suey.

                          1. re: ipsedixit
                            FrankD Dec 27, 2009 12:55 AM

                            They should also serve Peking Duck, and their sweet & sour sauce should not feature corn starch as its main ingredient.

                            1. re: FrankD
                              Caitlin McGrath Dec 27, 2009 01:45 PM

                              There are thousands of "real" Chinese restaurants in North America that do not serve Peking Duck. Cantonese restaurants, Sichuan restaurants, Hunanese restaurants, and so on. Chinese cuisine is very regional, and Peking Duck is a regional specialty, just as tea-smoked duck is.

                        2. re: ipsedixit
                          Ruth Lafler Dec 25, 2009 10:14 PM

                          Let's put it another way: chop suey is not a real Chinese dish (i.e. one that would be served in China). Chow mein is a real Chinese dish, although it doesn't bear much resemblence to the NY version.

                          1. re: Ruth Lafler
                            monku Dec 25, 2009 11:05 PM

                            "Let's put it another way: chop suey is not a real Chinese dish (i.e. one that would be served in China)."

                            Of course not...it was probably the result of only American available vegetables like onions, celery, carrots and bean sprouts and soy sauce.

                            1. re: monku
                              fourunder Dec 28, 2009 03:40 PM

                              Of course not...it was probably the result of only American available vegetables like onions, celery, carrots and bean sprouts and soy sauce.

                              This is very true....back in the 50's and 60's the various types of cabbages popular today were probably very limited. Snow Pea Pods and such may have been scarce as well.....In my friend's restaurant however, I distinctly recall Napa, Bok Choy and Shanghai cabbages in both Chop Suey. It was not a terrible dish as most have described in this thread.

                              Chow Mein was made with onions, celery, bean sprouts, bok choy and ground pork in Beef and Chicken and Red Roast Pork varieties. Shrimp Chow Mein omitted the ground pork.

                        3. Miss Needle Dec 25, 2009 11:47 PM

                          Depending on where you go in NYC, chow mein can either be pan-fried noodles topped with meats in a gravy (Hong Kong style that people are referring to in this thread) or meats and veggies in a cornstarch-laden sauce topped with fried noodles.

                          I've never ordered chow mein in NYC and have received what you refer to as "lo mein." Doesn't mean this doesn't exist -- just never ran into it.

                          1. r
                            Russel Shank Dec 26, 2009 01:36 AM

                            It is pretty surprising when you see how many American Chinese dishes don't even have a distant parent dish in China.

                            Did anyone see that short documentary investigating the origins of General Tso's Chicken. The filmmakers go to the hometown of THE General Tso and can find no one who's heard of the dish (even from weird/sentimental tourists), nor can they attribute any known dish name to it, after being presented with a photograph.

                            Unbeknownst to them, their famous General Tso has reached a magnitude of fame and appreciation that they can't grasp, in a foreign land, and for something they'd never expect..
                            General Tso is their David Hasselhoff.

                            3 Replies
                            1. re: Russel Shank
                              johnb Dec 26, 2009 04:27 AM

                              General Tso's chicken was invented sometime in the 1950's by a Hunanese chef named Peng Chang-Keui, in Taiwan, where he had emigrated with the Nationalist Chinese after Mao kicked them out in the late 40's. It essentially started out as a dish for the Hunanese diaspora in Taiwan. While it isn't traditional, it certainly has authentic roots (this would refer to the dish invented by Peng, not necessarily to imitators). Peng was a highly-regarded Chinese chef, and a very inventive one, who after serving as a main chef for the Chinese leadership in Taiwan finally opened a place in NYC, and reworked the dish for non-Hunanese by adding sugar, and that is the version of GTC most Americans are familiar with. So the "authenticity" of this dish can be argued. Its history also makes it clear why the dish is largely unknown in its "home" province.

                              The above is a summary of Fuschia Dunlop's discussion of the topic in her "Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook," pp117-122. There are other versions of the story involving other chefs (see the Wikipedia article) but they are broadly similar.

                              There are notable inconsistencies in the stories. For example, Fuscia Dunlop has an article in the NYT in which she recounted an interview with Chef Peng who stated he had added sugar to the dish for the US palate (same as the story in her book). Yet Jennifer 8 Lee, a writer for the NYT and author of "The Fortune Cookie Chronicles," states that in her interview with the same Chef Peng he emphatically stated that sugar should never be used in the dish. Take your pick.

                              1. re: johnb
                                shaogo Dec 27, 2009 11:42 AM

                                Chef Peng's original dish was originated in the Sichuan cuisine. It's dark meat chicken coarsely minced and made into croquettes which are crispy outside and decadently rich inside. The sauce is a sugarless fresh garlic sauce with a little chili paste. The Chinese for this is 魚香八塊雞 (in my bad Pinyin: Yu shan ba quai gee) "crispy chicken chunks in garlic sauce." The garlic sauce is not to be confused with the garlic sauce on dishes like "pork with garlic sauce." It's more garlicky and not sweet at all.

                                General Tso's chicken as it's served in this country is the kind of dish I call "food candy." It appeals to most Americans' love of sugar.

                                1. re: shaogo
                                  johnb Dec 27, 2009 06:06 PM

                                  I doubt that. What is your source? Peng was a native of Hunan, apparently cooking mostly for other Hunanese among the Chinese Nationalists in Taiwan, and named the dish after the greatest historical figure from Hunan, General Tso (Hunan's other great historical figure was Mao, but it's clear why the dish wasn't named after him). I can find no reference to any Sichuan connection at all, and given the numerous Hunanese links, it seems questionable. As to the ingredients, every source I have consulted suggests the dish is and always was made with chunks of chicken, not chopped and made into patties.

                                  You are correct that the original dish did not contain sweetner, and I agree that Americans eat way too much sugar.

                            2. r
                              RGC1982 Dec 27, 2009 09:50 AM

                              We were just discussing this here in Texas the other day, when I suddenly had an irrational craving to order good old fashioned, New York chicken chow mein, and I was trying to figure out what that might be on the menu I was reading. Chow mein here contains noodles, not celery, onions and bean sprouts. Chop suey, if you can find it, is the closest thing to it.

                              1. ChrisOC Dec 27, 2009 10:47 AM

                                I thought Chow Mien camein a can marked Chung King

                                1. shaogo Dec 27, 2009 11:46 AM

                                  On-topic: the closest thing in the Chinese repertoire to what most of us think is chow mein is "liam mein huang." That means "mixed noodles yellow," literally. It's a "pancake," if you will, made by placing par-cooked noodles in a hot wok with oil and rendering the outside crispy. Then gravy and sliced meat and vegetable are placed on top of the crispy noodle "pancake."

                                  Now, the shredded veggies and meat in white sauce with deep-fried noodles on top may not be authentic, but it's one of my childhood comfort foods. If made with fresh ingredients, cooked right, and sauced with good stock and condiments, it's sure tasty.

                                  1 Reply
                                  1. re: shaogo
                                    FrankD Dec 27, 2009 12:45 PM

                                    Not in Toronto - chow mein noodles are soft, not crispy. And there's no gravy or sauce placed on the Cantonese version.

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