Chicken chow mein refers to a stir-fried noodle dish made with pieces of chicken. The term "chow mein" is Chinese for "fried noodles," and chow mein noodles can either be soft or crunchy. Chicken is the most common meat used in the dish, especially when prepared in westernized Chinese restaurants. Aside from chicken, many cooks also add a variety of vegetables into the chicken chow mein, making the dish nutritionally well-rounded.
Traditionally, chow mein noodles are a type of egg noodle. As long as the noodle is prepared with a stir-frying method, a dish is technically "chow mein," regardless of whether the noodles are crunchy or soft. Crunchiness is determined by the amount of oil used and the length of time a cook fries the noodles. Softer noodles are fried in less oil for a shorter amount of time, while crunchier noodles are cooked longer and in more oil. The popularity of crunchy versus soft noodles depends largely on the region in which the chow mein is prepared.
Even though the noodles must go through a frying process, a cook preparing soft chicken chow mein typically begins by boiling the noodles in water. As the noodles boil, the cook begins to stir-fry the other ingredients. Strips or chunks of chicken are tossed into a wok or skillet and rapidly fried in enough oil to coat the bottom of the pan. Some cooks prefer to season the chicken beforehand with spices or toss it in a soy sauce based marinade, but other cooks simply add the chicken to the pan without any prior preparation.
The vegetables may be added to the pan either before, while, or after the chicken browns, depending on the type of vegetable and the size of the chicken pieces. Larger chunks of chicken take longer to cook than many vegetables and are usually cooked first, but shredded chicken cooks quickly and is sometimes added after many of the vegetables are already fried. The vegetables used in chicken chow mein vary based on a cook's individual preferences. Popular additions include bok choy, mushrooms, water chestnuts, celery, carrots, onion, snow peas, broccoli, sweet bell pepper, and bean sprouts.
Once the chicken and vegetables finish cooking, the cook adds the pre-boiled noodles to the pan. These noodles are stir-fried for a few minutes with the other ingredients, just long enough to take on a slightly stiffer texture without losing all elasticity. Lastly, the cook adds a sauce. A chicken chow mein sauce almost always contains soy sauce as its base, and frequently contains a mixture of chicken broth and cornstarch, which creates a thick sauce capable of coating all the ingredients. Additional spices, such as ginger and garlic, may also get added at this point in order to enhance the flavor.
For crunchier chicken chow mein, the noodles are stir-fried before any of the other ingredients. Instead of quickly frying the noodles in the remaining oil at the end of preparation, the cook deep fries the noodles in several inches of hot oil for a few minutes until they become crisp. The crisp noodles are removed from the pan and kept warm while the chicken, vegetables, and sauce cook. Sometimes the noodles are added back into the pan at the very end for reheating, but oftentimes, the cook opts to pour the stir-fried chicken mixture over the crispy noodles on a serving plate or platter.