“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.