Mouthful

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Chow Mein: The Australian Classic

11 November 2009 | 12:24 - By Phil Lees

Chow Mein, Australian-Style

How did chow mein become a uniquely Australian food?

Chow mein in Australia is a monotonal mush that you would cook with the express purpose of annoying the convalescent. It looks terrible and most of the components – rice, cabbage, celery, carrot, onions – are cooked to a nigh on uniform texture. If anything retains the last vestiges of their original consistency then the chow mein requires more boiling. The other key ingredients, a packet of chicken noodle soup, Keen's brand curry powder and light soy sauce, provide the MSG umaminess and salt hit that makes the dish worthwhile. This is not the chow mein that the rest of the world eats but is nonetheless, delicious.

Australian chow mein bears currently no resemblance whatsoever to American or Chinese chow mein. Crispy, deep-fried noodles in a starchy sauce are the dominant elements of both the US and Southern Chinese styles; noodles only appear in the Australian version as a corollary of chicken noodle soup rather than as a main carbohydrate. In the US, chow mein remains available in restaurants where in Australia, it is primarily a home-cooked food.

So how did chow mein become a uniquely Australian food that is also of Asian origin, like the Australian dim sim or Chiko rolls?

My original theory was that chow mein in Australia was like chop suey – a dish that was imported with Chinese and American miners (from America, where it was popularised) some time during the late 1880s and early 1890s - but survived in Australia where chop suey failed. Writing in The Argus on 21 September 1929, John Owen writes of a mythical visitor to Melbourne "down from the country for a week’s holiday, and determined in that week to see the best that the city has to offer". Amongst the restaurant recommendations, Owen suggests:

The next two nights he spends paying visits to some of the Chinese and Continental restaurants in the neighbourhood of Russell and Bourke Streets. Here, for a small sum, he procures strange Chinese foods, probably choosing one of the two well known dishes, chicken chop suey or chicken chow mein

It appears that by the late 1920s, chow mein was a well established dish in Australia; that it was mentioned in the same breath as chop suey suggests that it was held in equal esteem and possibly, the only other well known Chinese dish in Australia. At some point in the 1940-1950s, Chinese restaurants in Australia stopped cooking chop suey and chow mein. Today it is a very rare restaurant that serves either or both as a part of their menu but chow mein has lived on in Australian home kitchens.

My only theory is that chow mein was reintroduced in Australia with the Margaret Fulton-spurred wave of Chinese home cooking in Australia in the late 1950s and 1960s. Possibly, the addition of chicken noodle soup happened as a suggestion by a chicken noodle soup manufacturer (the brand Continental manufactures a "Chow Mein Mince" recipe base in Australia and New Zealand) or as a recipe in a popular women's magazine. The mix of mirepoix and cheap cabbage, mince and packet food smells like vintage Women's Weekly.

Does anyone have a less apocryphal Australian chow mein history?

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Comments (21)

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10 Sep 2014 16:13 AEST

ming bu

From: bung

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Thank you for the articles you publish. This is very useful information polikokim kiwibox cikimbing

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16 Jan 2014 18:12 AEST

James

From: james

Cooking easy with

Now we have better units to that we can use in our kitchen. From last few years number of new recipes with better taste is the only reason that we have better understanding of usage of such units. Water heaters help us to get warm water when we need it and same like that.

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17 Sep 2012 23:37 AEST

Noname

From:

Ew??

This type of chow mein looks like vomit

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20 Jul 2012 15:58 AEST

Dana

From:

The Same Australia?

I question whether some of the other commentators live in the same Australia as I do. Chow Mein was a staple of my mother's cooking repertoire in the 70s and 80s, a she still makes it. I ate it at friend's houses and it was always the same basic recipe. It appears in my 1990s edition of "Cookery the Australian Way". Aussie Chow Mein may be absent from your region, but there it's no question that this dish exists and has been popular over several decades. It's delicious, and I'm making it

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26 Nov 2010 8:59 AEST

Rod

From:

Chow Mein - Evolving Cuisine

Mr Lees surely does not understand the significant role that Chow Mein in the style that he describes had on the evolution of Australian cuisine. I can remember heading down to the local 'Chow' shop with my Dad in the 50's. Saucepan in hand to pick up the very special treat of take away chinese. Special Fried Rice and Chicken Chow Mein. Evolving from a basic english cuisine of meat and three veg, these were the first tentative steps to a wider world of cuisines and tastes.

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12 Aug 2010 21:01 AEST

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07 Jan 2010 16:52 AEST

Denise

From:

Kai si min

My mother used to cook something similar in the 60s - Kai si min - it was from the sunbeam mix master cookbook - i think. It was basically mince cabbage and soy sauce boiled up to mush. - yuk. This was my first taste of chinese food - I was not convinced to try anything Asian again until the 80s.

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10 Dec 2009 9:36 AEST

AllyEJ

From:

Chow Mein or Chop Suey?

We had something similar to this as a regular staple in our home growing up in Oz. It also had minced beef in it. My pommy grandmother introduced us to it but she called it Chop Suey. I absolutely loved it and still do. I still make it to this day. A great winter warmer.

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02 Dec 2009 2:27 AEST

Annette

From:

Great Aussie Food!!!

Delicious...easy to cook......adaptable...can taste slightly different each time you make it...nutritious...economical! Indonesian sweet soy sauce is perfect with it... a great Aussie dish!!!

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23 Nov 2009 17:35 AEST

Ros

From:

Where did it come from?

After considering the comments on the blog, I have to wonder if the idea has sprung from the recipe ideas leaflet / cookbooks that have been supplied with the ever so popular Electric Frypans. The phenomenom of the "one pan" dinner was rife through that era. Just about every kitchen had an Electric Frypan. Most "Would be if they could be mother chefs" were trying one dish or another. Daring to be different, than the regular meat and three vegs.

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About this Blog

A blog about what the world eats, when and where it eats it, and why it matters to us all. Only much less ambitious than that sounds and with more excruciating puns.

Phil Lees grew up in rural Victoria, the first generation in his family to not have lived on the farm and thereby not slaughter their own meat.

In 2005 he moved to Cambodia and started the nation’s first food blog, Phnomenon.com, named after the best pun that he has ever made. It turns out that Cambodian food is delicious and unlike the warnings in most guidebooks, is not likely to kill you with any immediacy. Gridskipper called him a “national treasure”. Lonely Planet’s Greater Mekong guide called him “the unofficial pimp of Cambodian cuisine”. The New York Times laughed at a funny hotdog he saw.

Phil makes a mean sausage, a hoppy pale ale, a modest laksa. He owns three barbecues and is in the market for a fourth.

 
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