“Chow fun” is both a noodle and a dish most commonly seen in the cuisine of Southern China and Hong Kong, though it also appears in some regions of both Malaysia and Singapore. In most cases, this name is only used for the dish in countries that speak English. The Southern Chinese dialectical term for the noodles is ho fun, and the style of preparation — usually stir-fried with vegetables or meat — is shahe fen. The Anglicized name is widely believed to derive from the Mandarin, or Standard Chinese, translation of shahe fen, which is chao fen.
Only very wide noodles qualify as chow fun. Most of the time, they are made from ground rice, and are typically sold dry either in thick strips or in sheets. They are usually at least an inch (about 2.5 cm) wide, and anywhere from 6 to 12 inches (about 15 to 30 cm) long. Fresh markets may also sell the noodles wet, usually coated in oil to help them maintain their elasticity.
Means of Preparation
There are usually two ways of preparing a chow fun dish. The first method is “dry” frying, in which the noodles are cooked on their own in a wok or deep skillet. The heat of the pan gives the noodles a distinctive smoky flavor that many consider a delicacy.
The alternative is “wet” cooking, in which the noodles are soaked in oil or a savory sauce before cooking, then fried while moist. These noodles often turn out more slippery than those cooked dry, but may be more flavorful.
Types of Dishes
There are many different ways to prepare chow fun dishes, but two of the most popular involve pork or beef. Purely vegetarian options are common as well, usually incorporating produce that is locally or seasonally available. In most cases, chefs will add all of the ingredients — including the noodles — to the wok at the same time, then fry them over high heat. Additional sauces and seasonings are frequently added.
Differences from Lo and Chow Mein
Chow fun noodles are usually made of the same rice starch as chow mein or lo mein, but are very different when it comes to shape and presentation. Both chow and lo mein are rounded thin noodles, often about the size and width of spaghetti. Chow mein are fried in oil before serving, which makes them crunchy. Lo mein are cooked soft, and are usually piled at the bottom of a stir fry dish or topped with meats or cooked vegetables. Fun noodles, in contrast, are usually cooked alongside other ingredients and served as one large mixture.
Nutritional and Health Concerns
Chow fun is rarely considered a health food, even when made with plenty of vegetables. It is typically known for its greasy, oily texture, and the thick sauces most chefs use carry a lot of calories. Some home cooks are able to make moderately healthy chow fun from scratch, but the majority of the dishes that are purchased in restaurants are not considered particularly healthful.
Points of Sale
In the south of China, where the dish originates, noodle stalls and roadside food stands are popular places to find the "fun" preparation, with each vendor offering a slightly different twist. Sometimes, the distinction comes through the sauce or the additions; other times, it is the cooking style. In its many variations, the dish is one of the most popular street foods of Hong Kong and the Guangzhou region of China.
Most Westernized Chinese restaurants and take out services offer a variety of chow fun dishes as well. Some of these are similar to what could be found in China or Southeast Asia, but others are much more adapted to local tastes and customs.
What’s in a Name? Ho Fun vs Chow Fun
If you’re looking at a menu and get stuck because you can’t find chow fun, but you do see ho fun, relax, you’re still on the right track. Chow fun is simply the Anglicized version of chow fun. Chow fun is only used as a term in countries that speak and write menus primarily in English. In other countries, the same noodle dish is also referred to as ho fun.
Ho fun originated in Hong Kong and Southern China. It is the Southern Chinese dialectical term for the specific type of noodle that is widely recognized in the United States as chow fun. Researchers suspect that the name chow fun actually comes from a different translation. The style of preparation for the noodles, rather than the noodles themselves, stir-fried with vegetables and meat is called shahe fen.
When shahe fen was derived from Southern Chinese and Mandarin, it was Anglicized as chao fen; many people understood this translation to sound like chow fun. So, to clarify, the specific noodles refer to ho fun, and shahe fen or chao fen, also known as chow fun, refers to the actual preparation of the dish.
Chow Fun vs Chow Mein
What’s more confusing is that many people and restaurants in the United States simply refer to both the dish and the noodles singularly as chow fun. However, the noodles must have specific characteristics to be categorized as chow fun over other types of noodles, such as chow mein or lo mein.
Chow fun noodles are very wide noodles made of rice. Chow fun noodles measure at no less than an inch wide and sometimes even wider. They range from six to twelve inches in length, depending on the recipe and the region of preparation. Since the noodles are made from ground rice, they are almost always sold wet and coated in some kind of oil to maintain their elasticity; usually, the oil is sesame. You can also find chow fun noodles at the supermarket, vacuum-sealed or dried.
Chow mein is very different than its similarly named noodle cousin. While both noodles are made of dried rice, chow mein noodles are skinny and rounded. You can expect chow mein noodles to look more similar to traditional spaghetti noodles. Further, chow mein is never sold wet and fried in oil before it is ever packed for sale.
Chow mein noodles are meant to be eaten crunchy. Some people use them as a garnish, and others use them side-by-side with a richer meat and vegetable dish that would benefit from additional texture.
Is Chow Fun Gluten Free?
Since chow fun noodles are made of ground rice, they are usually naturally gluten-free. Checking ingredients is always a safe bet when you have a food allergy. However, be cautious when purchasing chow fun as a dish. Remember that chow fun is often sold in restaurants in the United States as a complete dish with some variation of stir-fried vegetables and meat.
When ordering, be sure to request that no soy sauce or other ingredients containing wheat or gluten be used in the dish you are ordering. Gluten can pop up in the most surprising places, and it is in your best interest to call ahead and clarify your dietary restrictions with the chef.
Beef Chow Fun Recipe: Serves 2
For Beef and Marinade
- 10 oz flank steak, sliced into ⅛ inch pieces
- ½ tsp. corn starch
- 1 tsp. soy sauce
- 1 tsp. vegetable oil
For Sauce and Stir Fry
- 14 oz. fresh ho fun noodles
- 3 tbsp. vegetable oil
- 5 scallions, split vertically and split into 2-inch pieces
- 4 slices ginger, paper-thin
- 2 tbs. Shaoxing wine
- 1 tbs. sesame oil
- 2 tbs. dark soy sauce
- 2 tbs. regular soy sauce
- ½ tbs sugar
- 6 oz. green beans blanched, cut into 2-inch pieces
- 6 oz. edamame steamed
- Seasonings to taste
- Combine all ingredients in a bowl
- Add beef
- Cover and let sit for 1 to 4 hours
- Prepare wok
- Heat wok until smoking
- Add ½ of vegetable oil to wok
- Add beef and brown, then remove and set aside
- Add ½ of vegetable oil to wok
- Add ginger and saute for 30 seconds
- Add scallions and saute for 30 seconds
- Spread noodles evenly in the wok
- Stirfry for 20 to 30 seconds
- Add wine around the perimeter of the wok
- Add remaining wet ingredients
- Saute for 30 seconds
- Add back in beef
- Add prepared vegetables
- Sautee for one minute
- Taste before seasoning
- Season to taste if necessary
- Serve and enjoy