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Chow Mein Sandwiches

by Imogene Lim

Chinese Food in the USA

Summer Volume: 1999 Issue: 6(2) page(s): 5

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 forty to fifty 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 forty 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 (eight 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.

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