Chow mein from a can ≠ chǎomiàn / caau2min6 from a wok

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The theme of today's post:  MSM chǎomiàn / Cant. caau2min6  trad. 炒麵 / simpl. 炒面 ("fried noodles").

When I was a wee lad growing up in East Canton (formerly Osnaburg; population about a thousand), Ohio, all that I knew of Chinese food came out of cans, and it was branded either as La Choy or Chun King.  The noodles were short, brown, hard, and crunchy, the vegetables were rather tasteless (with mung bean sprouts predominating and plenty of somewhat rubbery sliced mushrooms), all in a mucilaginous matrix of thick, starchy sauce.  But it was a lot of fun to prepare and eat because of the way it came in three cans and was so very exotic — not like the daily fare of meat, potatoes, peas, beans, and bread favored by Midwesterners.  Oh, and the watery, caramel colored soy sauce was so cloyingly salty.

The only exception was that once a year our Mom would alternate taking one of the seven siblings to the big city of Canton (population about eighty thousand) five miles to the west and would treat us to a Chinese restaurant meal.  I think the owners were the only Chinese in the city.  The two things that impressed me most were how dark and mysterious the room was in the unmarked, old house where the restaurant was located and how the egg foo young (and I just loved the sound of that name!), which was so much better than the canned chicken chow mein we ate at home, was served to us on a fancy, footed platter with a silver cover.  It was always a very special moment when the waiter uncovered the egg foo young and I smelled its extraordinary aroma.

Here's a description of an intrepid foodie preparing and eating today's version of La Choy's Chicken Chow Mein, which is still apparently "available at supermarkets everywhere":

La Choy’s chow mein dinner comes in three separate cans. Following the instructions faithfully I first heated the chicken and gravy mixture from one can in the microwave for two minutes, stirring in between. Right off the bat, the gelatinous concoction began making popping sounds, like it was exploding. While that was going on, I opened the can of vegetables—carrots, water chestnuts, etc.—drained them in a colander, then mixed them in with the chicken and gravy once they were done. This combo gets heated for three minutes, or until hot. Then you sprinkle on the dry noodles, which come in a can of their own.

Digging in, I found the dish unbelievably bland. The vegetables, such as they were, were indistinguishable from each other. The chicken was fairly unrecognizable as chicken, too. The noodles were the best part by far: dark, even burned-looking, deliciously crispy. An hour or so later, alas, I “had to go to the bathroom.” Badly. And, I can’t help thinking it was mainly because of the chow mein feast. Either my constitution is much more delicate than when I was a kid—or La Choy just ain’t no Chun King.

That's from "Bygone Bites: A Review of La Choy’s Chow Mein:  Glenn and Carol do a side-by-side critique of these canned fake-Asian noodles. Cue the nostalgia." Carol Shih [and Glenn Hunter], D Magazine (3/4/14)

Here are some interesting facts about La Choy:

The company was founded in 1922 by Dr. Ilhan New (유일한), later founder of Yuhan Corporation in South Korea; and Wally Smith from the University of Michigan. The first product, canned mung bean sprouts, was originally sold in Smith's Detroit, Michigan, grocery store.

New left the company for personal reasons in 1930. Smith was killed by lightning in 1937.

And Chun King:

Chun King was an American line of canned Chinese food products founded in the 1940s by Jeno Paulucci, who also developed Jeno's Pizza Rolls and frozen pizza, and the Michelina's brand of frozen food products, among many others. By 1962, Chun King was bringing in $30 million in annual revenue and accounted for half of all U.S. sales of prepared Chinese food. Chun King was sold to the R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, in 1966 for $63 million.

l won't go into the history of how the two companies competed and merged, nor how they were both bought by large food conglomerates.  What's remarkable is that, in one or another guise, they survived for so long even after authentic Chinese food became widely available in America.

What prompted this post in the first place was the following photograph, sent to me by fintano:


The name of the restaurant is Chóngqìng xiǎomiàn 重慶小面 ("Chongqing / Chungking noodles" [lit., "small noodles"]).

Maidhc comments on the feelings evoked by the photograph:

I have a vague recollection from my youth that Stan Freberg made commercials for Chun King (which was founded by an Italian), and even as a child I loved Stan Freberg, and more so as an adult.

See Stan Freberg Presents the Chun King Chow Mein Hour in this Wikipedia article.  This was during the advertising part of his career, which was later than most of his recordings.

At any rate this sign made me think of the old Chun King Chow Mein commercials and I believe they sponsored a pavilion at the Seattle World's Fair. I hate to think what kind of food they served there. Thankfully at least on the west coast we can now get some more authentic Chinese food.

I never actually ate Chun King Chow Mein, because my mother knew how to cook fairly authentic basic Chinese food, and that's what I had growing up. I was eating with chopsticks from age 7 or so.

I don't know if the people who run this restaurant chain know of the ancient memories they are stirring.

I was just looking through the Yelp reviews and I found this:

"some dishes may be hella ma la hot"

Is this the most SF Bay Area sentence ever?

Chow mein from a can ≠ chǎomiàn / caau2min6 from a wok ≠ Chóngqìng xiǎomiàn 重慶小面 ("Chongqing / Chungking noodles") in a San Francisco Sichuanese restaurant, though they all have their own charms.


  1. Jonathan Badger said,

    August 21, 2017 @ 9:06 pm

    And besides Freberg hawking Chun King, there was another famous set of comedian/puppeteers hawking the competing La Choy — Jim Henson and Frank Oz had a series of ads featuring Oz in a full body muppet suit as "Delbert the La Choy Dragon" who advertised that La Choy was "quick cooked in dragon fire".

  2. Keith said,

    August 22, 2017 @ 3:43 am

    I grew up in the UK in a city with a small Chinese population and few Chinese restaurants. Eating at a restaurant was an expensive and rare treat, but we had a fair number of Cantonese take-away shops, and one of them was within easy walking distance of home.

    I doubt that the fare was what would pass for "authentic" these days; as I remember it, the only ingredients that were not also used in ordinary English cooking would have been the been sprouts, water chestnuts, and bamboo shoots. By the 1970s, rice and noodles were already staples in the English kitchen.

    The nearest thing we had in those days to your "chow mein in three cans" was the Vesta range. These are now available in the US, through Amazon, probably for nostalgic British ex-pats.

    I don't know how close to the 1970s version these are, but there are surely some reviews and comparisons somewhere on the intarwebs.

  3. David Moser said,

    August 22, 2017 @ 5:58 am

    Wow! What a trip down memory lane. I remember well the La Choy "chow mein in three cans", my first introduction to Chinese food when I was a kid. I quickly figured out that the only thing worth eating was the crunchy noodles, which I snarfed down while watching cartoons on TV. My mom quickly noticed my preference, and started buying just the noodles. Interesting historical footnote there about the La Choy owner Wally Smith "killed by lightning in 1937." Divine retribution?

  4. cliff arroyo said,

    August 22, 2017 @ 7:49 am

    I'm surprised no one has mentioned the iconic jingle

    La Choy makes Chinese food….. swing! Ameeerican!

    The commercials I can find only have two cans…

    I had totally forgotten the La Choy dragon….

  5. bfwebster said,

    August 22, 2017 @ 10:16 am

    Yeah, the canned stuff was the only "Chinese" food I had growing up until some time post-college (I graduated in 1978). While back living in San Diego, I had a couple — Wayne & Nancy, both of whom had gone to high school with me — take me out to an actual Chinese restaurant. It was a revelation. Still one of my favorite cuisines.

    But I'd still eat those crunchy noodles in a heartbeat.

  6. Jerry Friedman said,

    August 22, 2017 @ 4:28 pm

    We had canned chicken chow mein, but what I really remember is La Choy crunchy noodles with canned chicken a la King poured over them. With soy sauce, which is the part with the flavor. Civilization has advanced in some ways.

  7. Terry Hunt said,

    August 22, 2017 @ 7:13 pm

    Living for three years as a small boy in a predominently Chinese environment (in Hong Kong and Singapore), I became accustomed to, and remain, aquiescent to but not inordinently enamoured with Chinese cuisine of whatever authenticity. However, as a long-term low earner, constitutionally tight-fisted individual, and willing self-experimentalist, well accustomed to trimming and picking the mouldy bits off foodstuffs and eating canned products literally years past their declared "sell-by" dates, I can assure the originators of this piece that dodgy food does not pass through one's system in a mere hour.

  8. Fluxor said,

    August 22, 2017 @ 11:54 pm

    Is no one going to mention how the name of the store 重慶小面, with its mixed traditional and simplified script, is probably a better example of the "gradual change in the Chinese diaspora" than the apartment ad in Prof. Mair's previous post (

  9. Adrian said,

    August 23, 2017 @ 5:02 am

    I like the irony of "the owners were the only Chinese in [Canton]."

  10. flow said,

    August 23, 2017 @ 1:57 pm

    @Fluxor "重慶小面 […] example of […] gradual change in the Chinese diaspora"—it is obvious that the shop owners are pre-1960s emigrants from the Chongking area (hence the 慶 instead of 庆) who are now adapting to the new demographics of their patrons and are catering for tourists from the mainland who know 面 but not 麵; this also explains the pinyin transcript, CHONG QING XIAO MIAN, which they would have written CHUNGKING HSIAOMIEN (or SIAOMEIN, as the case may be) as recently as ten years ago. This can be interpreted as a kind of token patriotism, surely.

  11. stephenl said,

    August 27, 2017 @ 6:16 pm

    Apropos of very little, I came across a London restaurant sign recently doing some graphic substitution of a bowl of noodles for the 面 radical in 麵 –

    (here's the non-substituted continuation of the sign the other side – )

  12. Jonathan said,

    August 27, 2017 @ 7:07 pm

    A friend of mine in the advertising business, back in the '80s, was asked to pitch a new slogan for La Choy, whose slogan since primordial times was "La Choy makes Chinese food swing American." His slogan is still the single best unused slogan in American slogan history, IMO: "We're not really Chinese, but then again, neither are you."

  13. Jongseong Park said,

    August 29, 2017 @ 8:55 pm

    That's a fun connection seeing Ilhan New being mentioned here as the founder of La Choy—he is practically revered as a saint in Korea, decades after his passing, so respected he was as a businessman and independence activist. La Choy was his first business venture, started when he was in his twenties.

    The linked Wikipedia article states that his original Korean name was 'Ilhyeong New'. Ilhyeong is the romanization of 일형 based on South Korea's official standard which was introduced in 2000, so this is surely an anachronism. I don't know how he would have spelled it in the U.S. when he first arrived before changing his name. The story goes that while he was delivering newspapers as a student in the U.S., a depot worker found his name difficult to pronounce and called him 'Ilhan' instead, which he adopted as his new name both for the easier pronunciation and as a reference to Korea with the Chinese character 韓 han (the Korean name for Korea is 한국 韓國 Hanguk). He obtained permission from his family to change his name legally, and his parents were so supportive that his brothers all switched the 'hyeong' element in their given names (the 'generational name') to 'han'.

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