What Is Vegetable Chow Mein?

J.E. Holloway

Vegetable chow mein is a term for a range of Chinese dishes containing vegetables and fried rice noodles. Like other types of chow mein, vegetable chow mein is an important part of Westernized Chinese cuisine. The specific forms of chow mein found outside China were popularized by emigrants from southern China in the 19th century. In China, chow mein is a generic term for fried noodles rather than a specific dish. Even in Westernized Chinese cooking, vegetable chow mein can take a number of different forms.

Rice noodles are used to make vegetable chow main.
Rice noodles are used to make vegetable chow main.

The primary differences between the different types of vegetable chow mein in westernized Chinese cooking is the method of cooking the noodles. Chow mein noodles can either be crispy or soft. Crispy chow mein noodles are flat, and fried until they achieve a firm consistency with a softer center. By contrast, soft chow mein noodles are rounder, and are served soft.

A variety of vegetables can be used in Vegetable Chow Mein.
A variety of vegetables can be used in Vegetable Chow Mein.

Either of the two types of dish can carry the name "chow mein," but which is the most common depends on the region. For instance, in the eastern United States, the term usually refers to crispy fried noodles, while on the west coast, it tends to refer to the soft noodles. The same is true in the United Kingdom, where the term does not refer to crispy noodles without some kind of modifier.

Noodles are not the only variable in chow mein. The ingredients of the dish can vary from recipe to recipe. As a rule, however, vegetable chow mein tends to contain onions. It may also often contain celery. Bean sprouts are another common ingredient.

In addition to these core elements, vegetable chow mein can include other ingredients, including bok choy, water chestnuts, cabbage or mushrooms. The exact composition of the dish will vary from chef to chef. Some vegetable chow mein recipes include primarily vegetables used in traditional Chinese cooking, such as spring onions, while others will include ingredients from European and American cuisine such as onions.

Vegetable chow mein is a common dish in westernized Chinese cuisine, but it is also found around the world. In India, for instance, vegetarian Chinese dishes are popular, since many Indians are vegetarian. Ingredients in this version of the dish include peppers and carrots in addition to onions and bean sprouts. Similar dishes exist in the Chinese cuisine of the Caribbean. Local ingredients such as fiery Scotch bonnet peppers add new flavors to the traditional ingredients.

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