Lo Mein Vs. Chow Mein: What's The Difference?

Whether curled up on a couch with a box of fried rice takeout, or whipping up a rendition of General Tso's chicken, it's safe to say American-Chinese food delivers comfort. Rather than questioning authenticity, consider the cuisine as its own delectable hybrid — born of immigration and diverse influences. Existing for nearly 150 years, this cuisine blends humble origins, like using less meat to reduce costs, with carried-over techniques, like stir-frying. Spun with accessibility for American diners, American-Chinese food demonstrates incredible innovation and resourcefulness (via The New York Times).

Chow mein and lo mein have a unique standing in this culinary tradition — the dishes are widespread in both mainland China and abroad. Due to their versatility, the two recipes cover the same breadth as pasta in Italy. Restaurants in China even specialize in specifically their preparation (via SideChef). Globally, there are dependable characteristics that distinguish lo and chow mein, so let's dive into the differences.

History of lo mein and chow mein

Noodle making has long been an integral part of Chinese culture, with origins tracing to the Han Dynasty 2,000 years back. In old customs, the noodle's length and lack of cuts symbolized long life and prosperity, and they were often prepared during celebrations. Since lo mein is traditionally made with long, thin noodles, its roots point to an early emergence in Chinese cuisine.

Investigating chow mein, it's unclear when the stir-frying technique was applied to noodles. The first mentions of cooking in a wok with oil occurred in the 6th century, in reference to frying a duck. A recipe involving noodles didn't appear until the Song Dynasty, which started during the 10th century. However, the dish was simply known as cut noodles — not by its current name of chow mein. Although of Chinese, probably Cantonese origins, chow mein only started ubiquitously appearing in recipes during the emergence of American-Chinese cuisine. From the 1920s onwards, many new versions arose, some native only to the U.S., notes Flavor and Fortune. The popular variation with a thick gravy poured over deep-fried noodles is purely an American creation, becoming standard fare in the 1950s (per The New York Times).

Chow mein and lo mein employ different wok technique

The principal difference between the noodle dishes is evinced through their name. Chow mein means stir-fried noodles, while lo mein means stirred (via PureWow). Both use a wok, although chow mein crisps the components at a higher heat, generating more wok hei, or smoky flavor. The noodles are a part of this high-heat application, stir-fried alongside the vegetables and other components. 

Alternatively, they're sometimes fried separately into a noodle pancake, notes Spruce Eats. Such a hot pan, alongside the oiled components, generates flavor through frying. With lo mein, it's all about the sauce. The vegetables are first cooked in the wok, but the noodles are cooked separately. A large amount of sauce is then added to the pan — hence a stirring technique. The smaller heat required makes it easier to replicate in any pan, since the vessel is mainly used to mix everything together (per San-J). Ingredient additions vary across both dishes, with usually only noodle type adhering to a style.

Lo mein and chow mein use different noodles

Although sometimes misattributed as the only difference between the dishes, the noodle type also impacts the final result. Lo mein uses fresh, chewy, thick noodles, while chow mein opts for a thin, dried variety. Such a textural difference allows for a difference in heat application. The lo mein noodles are excellent for soaking in sauce, so they're added at the end, bathed in a larger amount of seasoned liquid. Conversely, with chow mein, more oil is added, generating crispy noodles tossed with other ingredients at high heat. Both noodles are boiled before cooking, but for different durations. The fresh lo mein only takes a quick couple of minutes in the water, while chow mein noodles need to boil for up to 5-6 minutes, says Delish.

Noodles in both dishes are typically egg-based, but there are further differentiations in shape. With the crispy chow mein, flat noodles can be used, as well as rounded. Lo mein exclusively utilizes a rounded shape. In a pinch, the freshness or shape are interchangeable, with the technique making a greater difference in preparation.