When we order what passes for Chinese food in this country, we tend to stick to a handful of familiar items. Sesame chicken, beef with broccoli, wonton soup … there are a dozen or so specialties that just about everybody orders, and for most of us the other items on the menu remain a bit of a mystery. Well, we’re here to demystify them for you.
As opposed to menus for many other cuisines, which often provide an explanation or description for each dish, Chinese menus, for whatever reason, often leave us in the dark. They list moo goo gai pan with nothing in the way of explanation: Does it contain some sort of meat? Noodles? Vegetables? Sauce? Nobody is exactly sure why Chinese restaurants usually don’t venture to explain what’s on their menus — maybe they just assume that because all menus are essentially identical they’ve seeped into the collective unconscious — but most of us remain entirely in the dark about what some of these menu items are.
Some Chinese menu items (and by Chinese, we mean Chinese-American, by the way) are fairly self-explanatory. Order chicken with string beans and you’ll get, well, chicken with string beans. Other items, like sweet and sour pork and General Tso’s chicken, are so engrained in American culture that they might as well be, say, hamburger. If hamburger’s on a menu, you know what you’re going to get. Same with General Tso’s.
We’re not saying that there isn’t anybody out there who gauges a restaurant based on the quality of their sha cha beef and orders it every time. We’re just saying that there are far more people who are completely mystified by the dish than people who are well-versed in all its nuances. So if you’ve always been intrigued by those slightly mysterious Chinese menu items but have never been adventurous enough to order them, read on. And if you think we’ve left any off, let us know in the comments!
This staple Cantonese dish gets its name from the noodles involved, which are called ho fun. They’re wide and flat, with a chewy texture, and usually paired with a protein (beef chow fun, chicken chow fun), bean sprouts, onions, and occasionally other mixed vegetables, all cooked in a wok with soy sauce over high heat.
Chow mein translates to “fried noodles” in the Taishan dialect of Chinese, and that’s exactly what they are. When you see chow mein on a menu, it usually implies that the dish will consist of noodles, meat (there’s usually one indicated), onions, celery, and occasionally other vegetables, mixed with soy sauce; it’s occasionally synonymous with lo mein. There’s also crispy chow mein, which is primarily composed of fried flat noodles topped with a thick brown sauce. When you’re ordering, ask whether it’s steamed or crispy so you know what you’ll be getting.