Some of you reading this are probably very excited and some of you a probably very confused – so let’s make sure we’re on the same page. Chow Mein, (also sometimes spelled Chao Mein, and often pronounced by some native Spanish speakers as “Chow Ming”), is best known as a noodle dish from China. Many people don’t realize that just as we have our Americanized versions of Chow Mein in the United States, there are well-loved versions of the dish all around the world, including in Central America.
Guatemala in particular has a great love of Chow Mein. This do-it-yourself box of “Chao Mein” (pictured below) is a brand commonly found in Latino Markets here in the U.S., and it’s made in Guatemala.
Chow Mein is also a favorite in neighboring El Salvador, and ever since I’ve known Carlos, he has loved Chow Mein, and Chinese food in general.
On our first date we spent the entire day together. For lunch we ate at a hamburger place but for dinner, (yes two meals together in one day!) Carlos wanted to go out for Chinese food. As we were waiting to be served at the Chinese restaurant, two waiters were standing nearby having a conversation in Chinese. Carlos jutted his chin in their direction, “Entiendes lo que dicen?” [Do you know what they’re saying?] he asked me.
“No, no hablo Chino,” I responded perplexed.
“Yo sí,” he said, smiling, and then he proceeded to invent a translation of the waiters’ conversation.
I wasn’t convinced, but as you know, we soon married anyway. Years later Suegra moved in. When Suegra lived with us and we would go out to eat, we often ended up at Chinese buffets because it was the one cuisine she wouldn’t complain about. I never ate so much Chinese food in my life until I married a Salvadoran!
So, with that being said, here is my version of Salvadoran Chow Mein, which is basically the same as Guatemalan Chow Mein, although families each have their own unique way of making it.
Chow Mein (Central American style!)
1 package of “Chao Mein” noodles, or any brand Chow Mein Stir Fry Noodles
1 cup raw mushrooms, sliced
1 cup chayote (also known as güisquil), julienned
1 cup carrot, julienned
1 cup celery, julienned
1/2 cup green onion, (sliced lengthwise and then cut in 1 inch pieces)
5 chicken thighs, cooked and shredded (see notes below)
oil for frying (sesame oil and/or canola oil)
1/3 cup soy sauce (low sodium soy sauce can be used)
Notes Before We Get Started:
• It’s not necessary to buy the box of “Chao Mein” noodles pictured above. The box contains the noodles, a little packet of soy sauce (not nearly enough for my recipe), and 2 seasoning packets which I discarded because they contain MSG which I avoid. You can buy any Chow Mein Stir Fry Noodles. You may need to buy 2 packets of Chow Mein noodles depending on the size of the packages. You’ll want about 12 ounces to feed a hungry family of six people.
• This recipe is very flexible, feel free to try different vegetables and to increase the vegetables to make it healthier. You can also replace the dark meat chicken with chicken breast meat, steak or shrimp. I used green onions because that’s what I had on hand, but any type of onion you like can be used.
• If using chicken, you can cook it however you like. I cook it like this: Boil the chicken thighs in water with a little annatto (also known as “achiote”), a little salt, a little pepper, 1/2 an onion and a tablespoon of minced fresh garlic. After the chicken has cooked through, remove to cool. Once cool, discard the skin and bones. Shred the meat by hand and set aside. (The leftover broth can be used in another recipe.)
• For those who aren’t familiar, chayote (“güisquil” to Central Americans), is a type of squash, usually light green in color and about the size of a fist with one puckered side. The flavor is very mild and pleasant. To use chayote in this recipe, wash it and then julienne it, (i.e. cut it approximately into the size and shape of matchsticks or shoestring-style french fries.) You do not need to peel it but there is a small white seed in the middle you should discard.
• You can use sesame oil or canola oil for frying. I like to use equal amounts of both. The sesame oil gives it a nice flavor which helps make up for the fact that I discard the “condiment/flavoring” packets.
1. Prepare all vegetables while the chicken cooks. Put the vegetables in a large bowl together and set aside.
2. Prepare chicken (see notes above), and then set aside.
3. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Put the noodles into the water and cook about 5 minutes until al dente, being careful not to overcook them.
4. Remove the noodles to a colander to drain. Set aside.
5. In a large skillet over high heat add a few tablespoons of oil. Use either canola oil or sesame oil, or use equal amounts of both, (which is what I do.)
6. When the oil is very hot, add the vegetables, and stir them continuously for one to two minutes.
7. Add the chicken and continue stirring for another minute.
8. Add the noodles and continue stirring for another minute.
9. Add 1/3 cup soy sauce, stir and remove from heat.
10. Serve and enjoy!