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What's Yat?

by Michael Gray

Rice, Noodles, and Other Grain Foods

Summer Volume: 2011 Issue: 18(2) page(s): 10


Does your local neighborhood Chinese take-out restaurant have 'Yat' on their menu? Passing by the Jing Fong restaurant, its name meaning 'Golden Abundance,' this Chinese take-out in Wilmington, Delaware does. Matter of fact, it has six Yat dishes on theirs. They are: Plain, Pork, Chicken, Beef, Shrimp, and Chicken and Shrimp. That small section of their menu is below; and they serve them with soy sauce.

Although the menu is decidedly American-Chinese with old stalwarts including Egg Rolls, Egg Foo Young, Crabmeat Rangoon, and General Tso's Chicken; it also offers up Pizza Rolls, French Fries, Fried Chicken Wings, Buffalo Wings, and Chicken Nuggets. Also, 'Rice Gravy' as well as plain 'Gravy' are also available.

One menu item at this Jing Fong stands out, it is just 'Plain Yat.' A pint made that way is two bucks and a quarter, a quart goes for a nickle less than four dollars. Among the five other Yat dishes, only one is just sold by the quart, the others come as both pints or quarts. A quick iPhone-online-google search reveals 'Yat' as New Orleans slang; it is also a noodle dish in Hawaii called Yat Gow Mien. There is a Chinese restaurant in Cincinnati called Yat Ka Mien, and there are a few Wat Yat Noodle shops in Hong Kong.

Intrigued, I walk in. On the right, two small tables finds the owner and two of his young children eating a late lunch of scrambled eggs, tomatoes and scallions. His wife waits on me. Her English is limited and she has no idea what 'Yat' means.

I order the Plain Yat and the owner switches places with his wife. She continues the lunchtime meal with her children while I speak to him and learn they are from the Fujian Province and have been in Delaware, specifically in Wilmington, for six years. He has no idea where 'Yat' came from or what the Chinese character might be. Pressing him further, he tells me it came with the restaurant when he bought it.

To paraphrase Andrew Coe, author of Chop Suey: A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States (Oxford University Press, 2009: 'Yat Gau Mein' was one of the basics of early Chinese-American restaurants. It was part of the holy trinity of Chop Suey, Chow Mein, and what was called 'Yokaman.' Yat Gau Mein was simply a broth with wheat noodles and a little shredded meat, usually chicken, on top. Yat Gau Mein, cheap, filling and moderately nutritious, was certainly on Chinese-American restaurant menus by 1900. It began to disappear in the 1960s.

Yat is Cantonese for 'one.' A look into James D. McCawley's The Eater's Guide to Chinese Characters (University of Chicago Press, 1984) finds the Cantonese Romanization entry for 'Yi Ge Mian' sometimes listed as Yatcamen. It means one portion of noodles.

To make matters more confusing, there are three separate Romanization systems for Cantonese, all created after the first appearance of yat on Chinese-American menus. They are the Yale System (1943 – Yaat), the Guangdong one (1960 – Jat), and the Jyutping system (1993 – Waat). Note the three spellings of this one small word.

So how is my simple order of Plain Yat? Take a look at its picture; the taste is only so-so. It is in a brown sauce, rather limp, and with a few strips of bok choy brightening the dish. The immigrants at this Jing Fong work twelve-hour days, seven days a week to meet the need of Delawareans who have a hankering for old-style Chinese-American dishes. A sign on their menu proudly boasts ‘no msg’ and offers Chop Suey and Chow Mein, each at three dollars-seventy-five a pint.

At Jing Fong, both the holy trinity and a step back in time are complete. Does your local Chinese restaurant or take-out place have one or more renditions of 'Yat Ca Mien,' a spelling the editor recalls on Manhattan Chinatown menus in the 1950's?

                                                                                                                                                       
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