Everybody wants to save the earth, nobody wants to help mom do the dishes.  --P.J. O'Rourke

Friday, January 16, 2009

Chow Mein Sangmidges

Chow Mein Sandwiches (Along with Coffee Milk) is one of the truly regional Southern New England dishes...Here is everything the informed reader should know

Boucher, David

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Chow Mein Sandwiches

by Imogene Lim

Food: Meat, Poultry, and Fish

Summer Volume: 1999 Issue: 6(2)

On occasion, you come across a food that seems a total curiosity. The Chow Mein Sandwich is such an item. What is it, you ask and where do you find this Chinese American sandwich? Try New England. Specifically go to Fall River Massachusetts for this food specialty. Local neighborhood Chinese restaurants where both Chinese and American foods are served will, no doubt, still have it on their menus.

Although the popularity of the Chow Mein Sandwich peaked some 40 to 50 years ago, it is still a favorite menu item in Fall River Chinese restaurants and as far southwest as Providence Rhode Island. One restaurant in East Providence reputedly sells between nine to ten dozen a day, perhaps a mere trifle compared to the largest Chinese restaurant in Fall River that sold more than two million during its 40 year existence.

To many Fall River natives, the Chow Mein Sandwich is associated with their youth. Rather than stopping at a fast food drive in during the 1930's and thereafter, when hungry they would drop by the local Chinese restaurant for a sit down meal of a Chow Mein Sandwich, French Fries, and an Orange Soda. In the early 1990's in Fall River, the Chow Mein Sandwich was still popular. So much so that it remained a part of the school lunch menu.

The question then is "What is a Chow Mein Sandwich?" The chow mein part is easy enough to describe. It is a mixture of minced meat (pork), celery, onions, and bean sprouts in gravy over deep fried noodles. This combination or blend of ingredients is more like a thick sauce or a stew. It is placed between a hamburger bun or between two slices of white bread. For the latter, brown gravy is ladled over the works. As with any category of chow mein, there are variations. In addition to pork (the standard), there are other choices such as chicken, beef, or shrimp. For those who do not like noodles, the Chop Suey Sandwich (with the same variations) is available, and even a Chow Mein/Chop Suey Sandwich can be had by an indecisive diner.

Portability and inexpensive price were factors in its popularity. This was during a time before there were McDonald's, Burger King, and every other kind of fast food establishment. For a mere five cents (the original cost), you would be waited on and served in a booth! Many an older person has recalled that for a dime a Chow Mein Sandwich and a soda were preferred over an ice cream and soda that would have to be consumed standing up. Dining out made the individual, if young, feel grown up. Back then, and even today, the Chow Mein Sandwich provided an economical and filling meal.

Although this sandwich is no longer as popular, it still has an avid following in southeastern New England. For many individuals, this sandwich is like the Madeleine of Proust's Remembrance of Things Past evoking specific memories of life in America. If you discover the Chow Mein Sandwich at your local eatery, please let the editor know because we are keeping tabs on where else one finds it. We know that Nathan's in Coney Island once served it; where else was or is it found? In the meantime, Happy Eating!

If you want to try the Chow Mein Sandwich (a la Fall River), purchase one package (8 ounces) of "Original Hoo Mee Chow Mein Mix." Then prepare your chow mein according to directions. Place a hearty scoop of the chow mein mixture between a hamburger bun or between slices of white bread (square loaf required, to be authentic). When using white bread, also prepare the Chow Mein (brown gravy) Mix and ladle the resulting gravy over the sandwich as one would for a hot turkey sandwich.

"Original Hoo Mee Chow Mein Mix" is available in southeastern New England supermarkets, or it can be ordered directly from: Oriental Chow Mein Company, 42 Eighth Street, Fall River MA 02720.

When you prepare your own chow mein mix, or use the proper local product, another key to authenticity is in the noodles. They should be flat deep fried noodles. The sauce (which can be equal parts chopped onion and sliced celery cooked in stock, with if desired the addition of pork, beef, or chicken) is poured over the noodles immediately before serving. There should be some crunch to the textural mix.

Imogene Lim, an anthropologist teaching at Malaspina University College in Canada, researches food culture and ethnicity. Research on the chow mein sandwich was done while a Rockefeller Humanities Post Doctoral Fellow.

Flavor and Fortune is a magazine of:

The mein event 
Family business in Fall River has supplied Asian ingredients for more than half-century 
By Brian J. Lowney, Standard-Times correspondent

Photos by JOHN SLADEWSKI/The Standard-Times 
Barbara Wong and her son Fred are the owners and operators of the Oriental Chow Mein Company in Fall River. Mrs. Wong said her business is the only producer of fried chow mein noodles in the United States.
 If you ask any transplanted SouthCoast native what he misses most about the area, he might tell you that he yearns for a good chow mein sandwich. 
 "I have customers in Florida, Arizona, Texas and California," notes Barbara Wong, the delightful and energetic owner of the Oriental Chow Mein Company, a family-operated business that has been supplying Southern New England's Asian restaurants and retail customers with chow mein noodles and other Asian food products for more than 50 years. 
 Area retailers report that chow mein noodles and gravy mix, along with coffee syrup, frozen lemonade mix, meat pies, chourico and linguica are the most popular food products purchased by relatives seeking to send a touch of home to loved ones now living in other states. 
 According to Mrs. Wong, a native of Canton, China, the well-known Fall River establishment is the only producer of fried chow mein noodles in the United States. 
 "This is strictly a Fall River product," she continues, adding that chow mein noodles served in other parts of this country and in Asia vary in taste and texture. In China, for example, chow mein noodles are soft when brought to the table. 
 According to Mrs. Wong's brother-in-law and plant manager Alfred Wong, the plan to produce fried noodles was conceived by his late father Frederick, operator of the popular Hong Kong Restaurant, a city landmark located in the then-bustling downtown section for almost 20 years, before it closed in the early 1950s. The noodle business was developed as a sideline, and eventually expanded. Today the company sells more than 10,000 pounds of fried chow mein noodles a week, in addition to two varieties of lo mein noodles, egg roll wrappers and gravy mix. 
 The company also sells bean sprouts, which are grown from seeds planted in a computer-driven hot house, which was designed by Mrs. Wong's late husband Alfred, an MIT-trained engineer. The sprouts are not only popular with cooks of Asian cuisine, but also with vegetarians and those who are trying to develop healthier menus. 
 According to Mrs. Wong, producing the chow mein noodles is a very labor intensive operation. Flour, salt and water are first combined in a large mixer. The dough is then rolled out into large sheets before it's placed in a noodle cutting machine. The noodles are then cut, fried, cooled and then boxed or bagged. The company employs 12 workers and operates a fleet of four trucks. 
 Three of Mrs. Wong's children are involved in operating the small company: son Frederick helps to oversee the plant's operation, daughter Margaret serves as the bookkeeper, and son Nelson works as a driver, delivering Oriental Chow Mein products to Asian restaurants and supermarkets throughout Southern New England. 
 When pressed for a recipe or two using her company's products, Mrs. Wong graciously defers to customer Jo Anne De Medeiros of Westport, who has enjoyed chow mein sandwiches for decades. 
 "I've been coming here since I was big enough to hold the money," the inventive cook reminisces, adding that the fried noodles and gravy mix, sold in supermarkets under the Hoo Mee brand, are staples in her kitchen. "I make chow mein sandwiches for a quick meal, or I make smothered hamburgers by adding some Gravy Master, a little hot sauce and some fried onions to the gravy mix and simmering the patties in the gravy." 
 Noting the gravy mix's versatility, the talented cook says that she uses the mix to make gravy for chicken, pork and meat loaf. She adds different seasonings depending on the dish she's creating and the taste buds of those being served. 
 "My husband likes things hot and he's a great eater," she quips. 
 For another quick meal, Mrs. De Medeiros makes egg rolls by using filling wrappers with sliced chicken breast or other meats, bean sprouts, chopped lettuce and other vegetables. 
 "It's a great way to use leftovers," she observes. "All I do is roll them up and fry them." 
 Both ladies agree that every cook has his own recipe for chow mein. Some cooks add shrimp, crabmeat, lobster, diced chicken, pork or marinated beef strips. Mrs. De Medeiros usually adds peapods, bean sprouts, cooked hamburger and a can of water chestnuts. 
 "I've even used turkey after Thanksgiving," she adds proudly. "Sometimes you just don't know what to do with all that turkey after the holidays." 
 While Mrs. Wong admits to being a traditional cook, she laughs when she tells about one customer, an elderly man who has been visiting the retail shop for more than 30 years, who has a big bowl of chow mein noodles with milk and sugar every morning instead of cereal. 
 "Everyone has their own way of using the products," she concludes, offering the following recipe for a delicious sweet snack made with chow mein noodles


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