Yakamein

Winston Ho 何嶸.  
University of New Orleans,
Department of History 紐奧良大學歷史學系.

https://nolachinese.wordpress.com
NolaChinese on FacebookYoutube, Instagram, and Pinterest.

2020 Feb. 28, Friday.

 


Yat Ka Mein (Stafford, David, 2014) (WWOZ) - 1[Linda Green’s yakamein stand at Jazzfest. Photograph by David Stafford, 2014.  Courtesy of WWOZ.]

Many people have been asking me about my Yakamein research.

Yakamein is a noodle soup associated with Creole cooking and Soul Food in New Orleans. It can be found at “food stores” and Soul Food restaurants in African American neighborhoods throughout the city. It can also be found in Chinese restaurants that cater to African American patrons, such as Chinese Kitchen on Carrollton, and it has emerged as a popular dish at festivals. There is no agreement on how to make yakamein or what kind of noodles should be used, though New Orleans style yakamein always includes a boiled egg and some sort of meat, such as pork, chicken, beef, or shrimp.

Yat Ka Mein (Stafford, David, 2014) (WWOZ) - 2[Yakamein from Linda Green’s stand at Jazzfest.  Photograph by David Stafford, 2014.  Courtesy of WWOZ.]

African Americans in the city have always know about it, but yakamein became known to the rest of the city after Hurricane Katrina, when Linda Green began serving her secret family recipe at Jazzfest and other festivals. Linda Green has a fascinating personal story, and she has emerged as a local celebrity known as “the Yakamein Lady.” By the way, Linda Green is a genuinely nice person, and her seafood yakamein is delicious.

But the question remains, what is the origin of yakamein?  Many people, Leah Chase for example, would tell you that yakamein is not Chinese at all, but an African American knock-off of Chinese noodles.  In this “African American origin theory,” basically, the dish was created by Chinese American restaurants for African American patrons, and catered to their tastes.  According to Mrs. Chase, African Americans like spicy foods, so that’s the way the Chinese made yakamein.  Eventually, African Americans began preparing their own version of it.  This African American origin theory is a perfectly reasonable theory, and it might still turn out to be true.  After all, the evidence is that the Chinese have never prepared the dish for their own consumption, and have only prepared it for non-Chinese patrons.  Yakamein does not exist in China itself.

I am not yet ready to release all of my yakamein research, mostly because I need time to review the new research on Chinese American restaurants, and because I need to explain how noodles work in Chinese cuisine… Chinese people love noodles, and traditional Chinese noodles are complicated.  I even found something that resembled yakamein when I lived in Taiwan — a distant cousin perhaps.  Also, I need to explain how Chinese American restaurants came to exist in the New Orleans Chinatown, and how African Americans in New Orleans came to love Chinese food.

New York - Oriental Restaurant - Menu (1904) (NYPL) - 1New York - Oriental Restaurant - Menu (1904) (NYPL) - 2[“Yet quo mein” from the menu of the Oriental Restaurant, 1904.  Earliest evidence of yakamein on a Chinese American restaurant menu.  From the New York Public Library.]

But basically, my “Chinese American origin theory” is that yakamein is an improvised noodle soup, which the Cantonese created in the late 1800s from whatever ingredients they could find in North America — spaghetti noodles instead of Chinese noodles for example.  I have found yakamein on Chinese restaurant menus in New York city as early as 1904, in San Francisco in the 1930s, and in Las Vegas in the 1950s.   We can find yakamein in Chinese restaurants all over North America, especially the older historic restaurants, though it is often spelled “yet ca mein.”  One of the best documented cases of the dish outside New Orleans is in the coastal “tidewater” region of Virginia, where the dish has existed since at least the 1920s and is known as “yockamin” or “yock.”  There were even noodles factories in Virginia that produced “yock noodles.”  

Multiple sources report that yakamein is actually “an order of noodles” 一個麵 in Cantonese.  No matter how it is spelled in English, it is always a noodle soup with wheat noodles, especially “lo mein” noodles or “egg noodles.”  Outside New Orleans, the noodles do not always include a boiled egg.

We have a 1918 photograph of the Ben Hong Low Restaurant on 156 Basin Street (modern Elk Place) inside the New Orleans Chinatown, courtesy of the Historic New Orleans Collection. If you look carefully, you can see a painted menu left of the door with the words “chicken chop suey” and “yet yok min.”  This is the earliest photographic evidence of yakamein in New Orleans.

156 Basin Street (156 Elk Place) - Ben Hong Low Restaurant, Yet Yok Min (Meyers, C. J. Sr. 1918) (HNOC 1983.159) (resize)[“Yet yok min” from Ben Hong Low Restaurant on 156 Basin Street (modern Elk Place) inside the New Orleans Chinatown.  Photograph from C. J. Sr. Meyers 1918.  “Yet yok min” appears on the menu painted to the right of the door.  Earliest evidence of yakamein in New Orleans.  From the Historic New Orleans Collection (1983.159).]

We also have a 1969 biographical essay by Louis Armstrong, where Armstrong describes eating at Chinatown restaurants when he growing up in New Orleans in the 1910s (this is the same essay where he talks about the Jewish family he grew up with). Armstrong grew up in the Back’O’Town neighborhood immediately north of Chinatown. He says he enjoyed ordering red beans & rice in Chinatown, and in fact, we know from other sources that Chinatown restaurants served both Americanized Chinese dishes, such as chop suey, and Creole favorites, such as po-boy sandwiches, on the same menu.

We even have a photograph of an African American restaurant and bar that served “yat-mein” in the 1955, again from HNOC. This is the earliest evidence that yakamein was being made by African Americans for African American patrons.

Walter's Place (Crawford, Ralston, c. 1955) (HNOC 2013.0021.23)[“Yat-mein” from Walter’s Place Restaurant and Bar, photograph by Ralston Crawford, c. 1955.  Earliest evidence of yakamein prepared by African Americans for African American patrons.  “Yat-mein” appears on the sign over the door.  Courtesy of the Historic New Orleans Collection (2013.0021.23).]

Yakamein is a simple dish to make, so I believe African Americans began preparing their own versions of it in the early or mid-twentieth century, but “Creolized” to African American tastes. When Chinatown existed, most Chinese men were working class laborers who lived and worked in close proximity to African Americans. Chinese-owned laundries often hired African American workers, and there was intermarriage between Chinese men and African American women. So, there may be more to this story than just African Americans copying what they were ordering in Chinatown. In any case, yakemein may have migrated from its Chinatown origin into African American “Soul Food.” Who knows where Yakamein first developed, but this point of migration may have happened in New Orleans, which would explain why the dish is so popular here.

House of Lee - Menu, Oversize (1967) (NOPL) - 1House of Lee - Menu, Oversize (1967) (NOPL) - 2[“Yat ca mein” from the menu of the House of Lee restaurant in Metairie, 1967.  Note that both American and Cantonese dishes are on the same menu.  From the Menu Collection and Restaurant Memorabilia at the Louisiana Division of the New Orleans Public Library.]

Chinese American restaurants continued to serve the original Chinatown form of yakamein, but by the 1970s, Chinese-speaking immigrants from Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Mainland China — who had no idea what yakamein was — began opening restaurants in the city, and customers began asking for it. Yakamein is not difficult to make, so these new Chinese Americans began preparing their own version of it, using their knowledge of traditional Chinese noodles and their best guess to recreate the dish.

Therefore, yakamein is an improvised noodle dish developed by the Cantonese in the mid or late 1800s.  It migrated into the African American community in the early or mid twentieth century, possibly because they were ordering yakamein in Chinatown restaurants, resulting in a “Soul Food” version of it.  By the late twentieth century, recent Chinese-speaking immigrants established new restaurants and created another version of yakamein, based on descriptions by their patrons.  Thus, a “Creole yakamein” and a “Chinese yakamein” exist today, neither of which are authentic.

Who knows what the original Chinatown yakamein looked like.  Fong’s in Kenner, the last restaurant that served what I thought resembled the original version, closed last year.  So, “Chinatown yakamein” could be extinct today.”  Creole yakamein is tends to be spicier and heavier than Chinese yakamein.  Recipes can vary greatly, ranging from large amounts of soy sauce and spices and even ketchup.  Chinese yakamein is lighter and relies on the broth and the natural flavors of the meat, resembling traditional Chinese cooking techniques.

Chinese Kitchen - Menu (1970s) (Tulane) - Yat Ka Mein[“Yat ka mien” from the menu of Chinese Kitchen restaurant in New Orleans, c. 1970s.  This restaurant still serves yakamein today.  From the Menu and Restaurant Collection at the Louisiana Archives of Tulane University.]

I will add that the Southern Food and Beverages Museum has taken an interest in publishing my research as a monograph, so that might happen in a few years. However, my masters thesis about Chinese Americans in New Orleans during the Second World War has taken over my life, so I expect to be working on that until the end of the year.  Hopefully this will answer a few of the questions people have about Yakamein.

 


Fong's - Menu (2013) (WH) - 1Fong's - Menu (2013) (WH) - 2[“Yatka mein” from the menu of Fong’s in Kenner, 2013.  From the personal collection of Winston Ho.]

Sources.

NolaChinese: Yakamein (https://nolachinese.wordpress.com/2020/02/28/yakamein/).

LA2LAChef, “Leah Chase on the Chinese in New Orleans and ‘Yaka Mein’,” 2009.  Accessible from Youtube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yvVIrA5DE7k).

Linda Green “the Yakamein Lady” official website (http://neworleanssoulfood.com/).

“‘Yakamein lady’ steers a small food empire at 2016 New Orleans Jazz Fest.”  New Orleans Advocate (2016 Apr. 26).   Accessed from the New Orleans Advocate (http://www.theadvocate.com/new_orleans/news/article_a9a11f35-9711-56e4-acd1-1641fd11f7ba.html).

Abbott, Glen. “Miss Linda, the Ya-Ka-Mein Lady.”  Times-Picayune (2012 Mar. 21).  Accessed from the Times-Picayune (http://www.nola.com/nolavie/index.ssf/2012/03/miss_linda_the_ya-ka-mein_lady.html).

“Chinese Restaurants.” New York Tribute (1901 Feb. 2): p. 6.

Menu from the Oriental Restaurant, 1904.  Accessible from the New York Public Library (https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47db-70ad-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99).

Eaton, Lorraine.  “Yock has long, murky history.”  Virginian-Pilot (2013 Oct. 13).  Accessed from the Virginian-Pilot (https://www.pilotonline.com/food-drink/article_cdc0b2d7-4e10-59bf-8097-9db754c1c5fc.html).

Wood, Sara.  “Tidewater Virginia Yock.”  Southern Foodways Alliance (2014 Dec. 5).  Accessed from the Southern Foodways Alliance (https://www.southernfoodways.org/oral-history/a-box-of-virginia-yock/).  [Look for the oral histories here].

Korfhage, Matthew, and Watson, Denise M.  “The last real yock: Chinese soul-food restaurants are closing in Hampton Roads.”  Virginian-Pilot (2018 Aug. 17). Accessed from the Virginian-Pilot (https://www.pilotonline.com/food-drink/article_171102a2-a008-11e8-ac0b-a7a26bbe137d.html).

“New Orleans Chinese Captains of Industry.” Daily Picayune (1911 Jul. 2): p. 14.

Armstrong, Louis.  “Louis Armstrong + the Jewish Family in New Orleans, LA, the Year of 1907,” written in 1969.  Louis Armstrong in His Own Words: Selected Writings.  New York City, New York:  Oxford University Press, 1999.  

Photograph of the Ben Hong Low Restaurant on 156 Basin Street (modern Elk Place), 1918.  Accessible from the Historic New Orleans Collection, 1983.159 (http://hnoc.minisisinc.com/thnoc/catalog/1/26872).

Photograph of Walter’s Place Restaurant and Bar, by Ralston Crawford, c. 1955.  Accessible from the Historic New Orleans Collection, 2013.0021.23 (http://hnoc.minisisinc.com/thnoc/catalog/1/204833).  

Menu from the House of Lee, 1967.  Accessible from the Menu Collection and Restaurant Memorabilia, Louisiana Division, New Orleans Public Library (http://archives.nolalibrary.org/~nopl/menus/omenusa-z.htm).

Menu from the Chinese Kitchen.  Accessible from the Louisiana Menu and Restaurant Collection , Louisiana Archives, Tulane University Library (https://digitallibrary.tulane.edu/islandora/object/tulane%3A18371).

 

 

2 thoughts on “Yakamein

  1. Since previewing my yakamein research last week, I have received many questions about the dish from other cities. Such questions are welcome, and one reason I post previews of my research is because I use social media to gather tips on research topics.

    Marrisa from Washington D.C. writes:
    “Hi Winston– I came across your fascinating post about yakamein in New Orleans on Twitter and immediately wondered if it was related to the “yat gaw mein” that appears on some Chinese carryout menus in DC. I’ve been in DC for about ten years and had never seen the dish on a menu before moving here. I ordered ”yat gaw mein” out of curiosity when I first saw it on a menu– it was egg noodles in some kind of thick brown sauce; soupy but not quite soup. The DC carryouts that have it on their menus seem to be neighborhood joints catering to significant African American clientele. Often they also have “American food” (wings, fries, sometimes fried fish, even “cheese steak eggrolls”) on their menus alongside Chinese dishes. Anyway, thought you might find this interesting!”

    So, the answer to Marissa’s question is yes, “yat gaw mein” is “yakamein” noodle soup by a different name.

    Chinese is not written with an alphabet but with Chinese characters. Chinese characters tell you what something means, but not how it is pronounced. Also, there is more than one spoken language in China, though all of these regional languages are derived from the same ancient Chinese language, and they all share the same written language. So, for example “mu 木” is the character for tree (or really wood or lumber in the modern language). It is actually a picture of a tree, and it is pronounced “mu” in Mandarin Chinese, but it may be pronounced differently in Cantonese, Shanghainese, or any other regional Chinese language.

    Before the Second World War, almost all of the Chinese who immigrated to North America were Cantonese-speakers from Guangdong province. Even today, there is no standard way to transliterate Cantonese names into the English alphabet, so Chinese people have to use their best guess. Thus, there are countless spellings of the same noodle soup, but they all probably mean the same thing. Interestingly, once yakamein becomes established somewhere, eventually one specific spelling and pronunciation becomes the one that everyone there uses.

    This is a very good question, but it’s really a question about language and how words can change over time. Words like Creole, jambalaya, and gumbo have a similar story, and language specialists still argue over exactly where these words came from. (We think Creole is the same thing as “Criollo” in Spanish, and that it basically means local or locally-born; jambalaya might be a combination of the French word “jambon” meaning ham, and the Spanish word “paella,” which is a rice dish the Spanish make; “gumbo” is probably derived from “ngombo,” the West African word for okra… but not everyone agrees on this…)

    Because Linda Green spelled the dish yakamein, it has been the standard spelling in New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina. But in restaurant menus before the storm, “yet ca mein” and “yat ca mein” were also commonly used in this city. It’s “yockamein” or “yok” in Virginia. I just did a quick Google search, and I’m finding “yat gaw mein” in Philadelphia and New Jersey, so it might be a mid-Atlantic thing. And, I expect to encounter more spellings in other cities.

    Wow, cheese steak egg rolls…

    Like

  2. Very interesting post Winston..thanks. The definition or recipe variations that bear the same name are fascinating.
    I once read that the name itself literally could be translated as one order of noodles
    You suggested that idea in your commentary as well.
    That definition could explain why there is no one recipe for this dish. Over time Chinese restaurants used more distinctive names for different noodle dishes and most dropped the ya ka mein name as it was too generic.

    Liked by 1 person

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