If it's all "mein," isn't it all the same? Actually, not! It's really easy to assume with Chinese dishes that you're ordering what you think you want, but then you'll find your take-out looking different than expected. That moment is sometimes the outcome when ordering chow mein vs. lo mein.
It's not completely your fault if you do end up getting the wrong Chinese food. The noodles are very similar to begin with. Both chow and lo mein consist of Chinese egg noodles, made with the same ingredients of eggs and wheat flour. You can use fresh noodles to make both dishes, but dried noodles will also work for chow mein.
*Quick tip - If you ever make this at home, you can substitute the noodles with fettuccini or linguini. Just boil it al dente.
But even though the noodle is essentially the same, it's the cooking method that truly differenciates chow mein noodles from lo mein noodles. The preparation is different, as well as the outcome texture.
The answer is almost in the name. As Bee from Rasa Malyasia shares, chow mein (Chao mian in the Chinese language) means stir-fried noodles, and lo mein (lao mian in Cantonese dialect) means mixed or tossed noodles.
When making chow mein dishes, you parboil the noodle till al dente and stir fry in a wok. Afterwards, you can add in other ingredients. Chow mein is all about the noodles, with veggies and/or protein being second to the noods.
Lo mein dishes, on the other hand, are a good mix of both noodles and veggies, and/or protein. The boiled noodles are fully cooked before being tossed with the other ingredients and sauce. The dish is heavy on veggies and/or protein and sauce, with fewer noods.
The way the noodles are cooked also change up the taste. Because chow mein is stir-fried, the taste is enhanced from the wok and whatever oil you use. Sesame oil is a great addition to the flavor. In lo mein, the flavor profile comes from the veggie and protein additions, as well as any sauces you throw in. Love soy sauce or oyster sauce? Make it saucy, baby!
Chow mein turns out to be on the crunchier side with the crispy noodles, whereas lo mein is for those who enjoy fork twirling with soft noodles. Both can be enjoyed with chopsticks.
In summary, yes both noodle dishes seem the same. But it's all about preference and your taste buds when choosing between the two. Think about what you truly want before ordering next time.