Our societal love for Chinese takeout runs deep. So deep that even in the tiniest of towns, you're likely to find a Chinese restaurant or two. And the cuisine--savory, satisfying, packed full of different textures and flavors--is somehow always ready in a matter of minutes!
Chow fun and chow mein tend to be among the most popular options on Chinese food menus, yet these two dishes are often mixed up or thought to be one and the same. Understandably so! Aside from the similar sound of their names, both meals have a similar appearance as well, especially when tucked into those perfect little Chinese takeout cartons.
Rest assured though, chow mein and chow fun are distinct dishes, each well worth eating for its own reasons. Let’s chow down!
Chinese Food Comes to America
Chinese cuisine became the center of attention in the mid-19th century, as the great gold rush was drawing vast numbers of Americans out to the West Coast. Recognizing the sudden birth of an entire industry, and the growing abundance of opportunities along with it, many Chinese immigrants made the journey across the Pacific Ocean to start up a range of profitable businesses and services. One of these successful endeavors was, of course, Chinese food restaurants. It took some time, but eventually Chinese restaurants and take outs gained in popularity with Americans as well, as the food was affordable, unique, and most of all, irresistibly delicious.
Is Chinese Food Actually Chinese?
One big question people often seem to have is in regard to the authenticity of what we know as Chinese food. While it’s true that some westernized Chinese restaurants have ingredients and flavor profiles geared more toward American palates, it's arguable that Chinese food is in fact, plenty authentic. The first Chinese food cooked in the US was cooked for fellow Chinese immigrants, but without access to many of the typical ingredients. As a result, substitutions were made and new dishes were crafted, becoming what we now know as Americanized Chinese food.
Now, in an age of globalization and ease of access, many Chinese chefs finally have the ability to bring traditional ingredients and cooking styles into their restaurants abroad. "Authentic" Chinese cuisine continues to gain well-deserved notoriety, but our love affair with American-Chinese food (thankfully) remains strong!
Similarities Between Chow Fun & Chow Mein
Now that we have a good grasp on the hows and whys of Chinese cuisine in the US, we can finally get to the real stars of the show today: chow fun and chow mein.
When perusing the menu at your favorite local Chinese takeout, you’ll notice right off the bat that both of these dishes begin with the word "chow". Referring not to what is in the dishes, but rather how they are to be cooked, this word translates to “fried". So, you can bet that both of these dishes will involve frying or stir-frying as a means of preparation.
Another similarity between chow mein vs. chow fun is that both dishes rely on noodles as a base, which are then topped with various other ingredients. The noodles themselves may differ (which we’ll get to in a moment!), but both of these dishes will have the same general composition: fried or stir-fried noodles served with a range of meats, seafood, vegetables, and a soy sauce based sauce to bring it all together.
Before each of these noodle dishes can be fried or stir fried, the noodles must be partially cooked. The time and method of pre-cooking will vary depending on the type of noodle used, but this step is vital in the successful preparation of both noodle dishes.
Differences Between Chow Fun vs. Chow Mein
We've established that both chow fun and chow mein are fried noodle dishes with a somewhat similar appearance, especially when topped with some combination of meats, vegetables, and soy sauce, and other flavorings. The similarities end there though! There are plenty of things that set these two meals apart from one another.
It is believed that chow fun originated in the Guangzhou province of China, where it is known in the local dialect as “ho fun”. Chow fun remains an immensely popular offering in Southern China, where Guangzhou is located. The chow fun style of noodle dish has spread beyond China as well, as there are versions of this dish in the nearby countries of Vietnam and Thailand.
Chow Fun Rice Noodles
Since we now know that “chow” refers to a method of preparation, what about the fun? Actually pronounced “foon”, this makes reference specifically to what type of noodles you can expect in your noodle dish! In this case of chow fun, you'll find wide and flat rice noodles, somewhat like the Italian pasta fettuccine. When cooked, rice noodles such as these have a pleasantly chewy texture and a slippery surface that makes them all too easy to slurp down!
The flat rice noodles of chow fun are available in either dried or fresh form, each of which requires a different cooking process. Fresh rice noodles are ready to use as is, just go ahead and toss them right into your stir fry or wok. Dried rice noodles on the other hand must be soaked in very hot water for about 8-10 minutes (just until they are tender and pliable) before they can be cooked with.
How to Make Chow Fun
After preparing the noodles, it's all about the stir fry! Chow fun dishes are commonly seen featuring tender strips of beef, but a variety of other proteins are possible such as: roast pork, shrimp, or chicken.
The meat is cooked in a smoking hot wok along with vegetable oil and plenty of crunchy veggies such as carrots, onion, and cabbage. Once the meat and vegetables are stir fried to perfection, the soaked rice noodles are added, stir fried over high heat briefly, and then everything gets seasoned with savory condiments such as soy sauce, oyster sauce, or hoisin sauce. Sometimes, crunchy bean sprouts are added right at the finish, and then the dish is served!
The origins of chow mein are a bit more unclear than those of chow fun. It is believed that chow mein originated in Northern China, however, precisely where remains up for debate. What we do know for sure though is that chow mein is one of the most widely consumed dishes in China, as well in Chinese restaurants all over the world.
Chow Mein Egg Noodles
As we learned above, "fun" indicates that a dish will include rice noodles. So, what type of noodle can we expect in a dish with the name "mein"? Chinese egg noodles! More specifically, round and relatively thin egg noodles, somewhat like spaghetti or ramen noodles.
Just like rice noodles, egg noodles are available either fresh or dried as well. Once again, the fresh noodles are ready for immediate use, while the dried noodles must be pre-cooked before adding to the stir-fry. Egg noodles will not soften enough if they are simply soaked in hot water though, instead they must be cooked in boiling water for 3-5 minutes before draining and frying.
How to Cook Chow Mein
The rice noodles of chow fun are only lightly stir-fried and due to their nature, tend not to develop much crispness. Egg noodles on the other hand, do get crispy and are fried in either of 2 ways when it comes to cooking up a batch of chow mein.
One method of crisping the noodles is to add them to the stir fry, right alongside the meat and vegetables, tossing them around and allowing all of the ingredients to cook and crisp together. This process is similar to the process of cooking chow fun, except that the egg noodles are fried for longer and therefore able to achieve some crispness.
The other most popular method is to heat vegetable oil in the wok and add the noodles all at once, keeping them together so they fry into more or less of a large "noodle pancake"--think like a large hash brown patty or potato pancake! This will result in a delightfully crisp and crunchy fried noodle exterior, with a soft and tender interior. The fried noodle pancake is then topped with stir fried meat, vegetables, and seasonings.
What type of meat and vegetables are commonly used in chow mein? Chicken is one of the most common options, but other delicious choices include: tofu, pork, and lobster among others! The meat will often be cooked with vegetables like cabbage, bok choy, and sugar snap peas. Chow mein tends to be less saucy than chow fun, but still, plenty of savory sauce ingredients are added--from sesame oil and rice wine to oyster sauce and soy sauce.
Other Chinese Noodle Dishes:
Ah "mein", we meet again! Just like chow mein, lo mein is a dish consisting of egg noodles. Lo mein noodles do tend to be thicker than the rather thin noodles of chow mein, but they have the same ingredients, savory flavor, and soft texture.
Unlike chow mein however, the noodles of a lo mein dish are not at all fried (no crisping here!), rather they are boiled and then tossed together with other stir fried ingredients. Since the lo mein noodles are larger and softer, they tend to soak up a lot of whatever they are tossed with. The sauce of lo mein will typically include condiments such as sesame oil, garlic, ginger, and soy sauce. Most lo mein recipes will include vegetables such as sugar snap peas and bell peppers, and some will include the addition of protein such as beef or chicken as well!
Mei Fun or Mai Fun
Things continue to get even more confusing as this type of noodle almost sounds like a combination of "mein" and "fun", but you can be sure that these are indeed rice noodles! Mei fun or mai fun noodles mei fun are very thin rice noodles though, as opposed to the wide and flat rice noodles featured in chow fun. Mei fun/mai fun noodles are also sometimes packaged as “rice stick noodles'' or “rice vermicelli noodles”.
Chow Mei Fun
This is the final test. We learned that chow means “fried” and if “mei fun” are thin rice noodles, then chow mei fun must be--fried thin rice noodles?
You got it! You can expect chow mei fun to be everything that chow fun is, except rather than the wide flat noodles being tossed into the stir fry there will be thin round rice noodles instead.
One popular iteration of this dish is known as Singapore chow mei fun. This version is made with golden curry powder, giving it a brilliant yellow coloring and features a special type of Chinese barbecued pork known as char siu. Plenty of veggies such as napa cabbage, carrots, and scallions are also included before everything is tossed with dark soy sauce, rice wine, and sesame oil.
Chow Fun & Chow Mein: Other FAQs
Are Chow Fun Noodles Gluten Free?
Yes! Chow fun noodles, as well as mei fun/mai fun noodles, are gluten free as they are made from only rice and water. The egg noodles in chow mein however, are not gluten free as they do contain wheat flour. Other wheat flour noodles include lo mein noodles, soba noodles, and ramen noodles.
It's worth noting that just because the noodles in a particular dish are gluten free, does not mean the dish as a whole is free of gluten. Gluten is hiding in many frequently used condiments like soy sauce, oyster sauce, and hoisin.
Are Chow Mein Noodles Vegan?
You'll have to check on the packaging to be sure, but most of these noodles contain egg products, meaning they would not be suitable for a vegan diet. However, there are some brands and restaurants that may be using eggless versions, so read labels and don't be afraid to ask questions!
Chow Mein and Chow Fun: The Takeaway
Despite their similar sounding names and appearances, when you take a close look at chow mein vs chow fun, you'll see that these two dishes are quite unique! Each dish originated in a completely different region of one of the largest countries on earth and features different noodles, ingredients, and cooking methods.
Chow fun is a rice noodle dish that is only lightly stir-fried, often along with beef or seafood and plenty of cooked vegetables. The wide, ribbon-like rice noodles are pleasantly chewy, giving this dish plenty of texture and making for a satisfying meal.
Though fried as well (remember, chow means fried!), chow mein uses a slightly different cooking style in order to deliver a real crispness to those egg noodles. Whether stir-fried all together or toasted up as a crunchy noodle pancake, the fried noodles of chow mein are perfect when topped with saucy chicken or seafood and vegetables.
The most important similarity between these two popular Chinese food dishes? They are both good eats. Do yourself a favor next time you order take out and get one of each!