While some American Chinese food menus consider chow mein and lo mein synonymous, they’re two distinct foods, thanks to their cooking methods. Here’s how to differentiate between the popular dishes the next time you want to enjoy a plate of savory, slurpable noodles.
Chow mein vs. lo mein: What is the difference?
Both of these noodle dishes are Chinese in origin and made with egg noodles (plus a combination of vegetables and sometimes meat or seafood), but their similarities stop there. Chow mein, or chāu-mèn, translates to stir-fried noodles. Lo mein, lāo miàn, means stirred noodles. So, the biggest difference is in how they’re cooked.
What type of noodles are used in each dish?
Chow mein and lo mein are both made with egg noodles, which contain wheat flour and eggs, just like Italian pasta. Lo mein is best made with fresh noodles, and chow mein can be made with either fresh or dried noodles. The noodles are usually about an eighth of an inch thick (slightly thicker than spaghetti) and have a smooth surface and toothsome texture.
How is chow mein prepared?
Because it’s stir-fried, chow mein is prepared in a wok. First, the noodles are par-boiled or soaked in hot water to soften slightly—however, they’re not fully cooked at this stage. Meat (such as chicken, pork or beef) or tofu or shrimp are stir-fried in the sizzling wok, along with aromatics like onion and celery, and beans sprouts or other vegetables. The par-cooked noodles are added to the wok to finish cooking. The end result is a slightly soft noodle dish with crisp-tender vegetables. (Chow mein is more about the noodles than the vegetables.)
How is lo mein prepared?
Different from chow mein, lo mein noodles are cooked separately from the remaining ingredients in the dish, so they’re fully cooked instead of par-boiled. Meanwhile, vegetables and meat or seafood are stir-fried, then everything gets tossed together with a sauce before serving. (That’s another distinction between chow mein and lo mein: Lo mein is a saucy dish, while chow mein is typically drier or less liquid-y.) The final dish is soft and coated in sauce.
Finally, it’s important to note is that both chow mein and lo mein have been heavily influenced and modified by the western populations that have adopted them. When you order either dish from an American Chinese restaurant, they’re usually very different from traditional Chinese cuisine, because they’ve been altered to appeal to western tastes.