There's no doubt that you know your favorite Chinese takeout items by heart. But, have you ever wondered how these dishes got their name, or how they became staples of the American-Chinese takeout cuisine that we all know and love? Why is chow mein called chow mein, and how is it different from the original Chinese version?

Most Chinese takeout items get their names from Cantonese, which is typically spoken in Hong Kong. The written language of Cantonese is basically the same as that of Mandarin Chinese, but the two have drastically different pronunciations. So, let's break down what Chinese takeout items mean and how they may be different in the US versus in China or Hong Kong.

1. Chow Mein

Hong Kong Lounge - Dim Sum

BrownGuacamole on Flickr

This beloved noodle dish is a staple of Chinese takeout restaurants in the US, and it's often made with a choice of protein and vegetables like cabbage, celery, and carrots. The words chow mein are pronounced "chao mian" (ch-awe mee-en) in Mandarin, which translated literally just means "stir-fried noodles." In the US, some restaurants serve chow mein as stir-fried noodles while others will serve it as a thick stew of vegetables and meat with a side of noodles. But in China, chow mein is only served as stir-fried noodles, and it can vary significantly from restaurant to restaurant since Chinese provinces each have different preferences for taste and ingredients. Stir-fried noodles can basically be made with anything in your fridge, which is especially helpful if you have a lot of fresh produce expiring soon. 

2. Lo Mein

Shiitake-and-Scallion Lo Mein

Gnawme on Flickr

While on the topic of noodles, let's talk about lo mein. What's the difference between lo mein and chow mein? Lo mein in American-Chinese takeout is sometimes used synonymously with chow mein, meaning you'll usually find one or the other on a menu. Lo mein is originally a very different dish–the word "lo" is based on "lao" (l-awe), an action word meaning "to scoop out;" it is supposed to describe taking noodles out of boiling water. Traditional Cantonese lo mein is often a plate of boiled egg noodles stirred in a sweet and salty sauce served with sides of soup, wontons, and bok choy. Lo mein in American-Chinese restaurants, on the other hand, is usually stir-fried in soy sauce instead of boiled, and it doesn't typically come with soup and wontons. 

3. General Tso's Chicken

General Tso's Chicken Lunch Special

max_wei on Flickr

General Tso's is a crispy fried chicken dish that is doused in a sweet and sour sauce. Sounds like orange chicken, right? Orange chicken is actually a variation of General Tso's chicken that was popularized by Panda Express, thus it has a similar taste and appearance. General Tso's chicken wasn't actually created in China. Based on traditional Chinese flavors, General Tso's chicken was first made in the US by a Chinese immigrant chef who came from the same province as the formidable military officer that this dish is named after–so no, General Tso never really made chicken; he was actually a military man. Nowadays, some local Chinese chefs have even added General Tso's chicken to their menus after seeing the item's success abroad. 

4. Mei Fun

Fried Rice Noodles

kudumomo on Flickr

Mei fun is another type of noodle dish, but it's different from chow mein and lo mein in that the noodles are made from rice flour rather than from wheat flour. This makes them a little more transparent, and it also gives them a bouncier texture, especially since mei fun is often thinner than regular noodles. Mei fun is based on the words "mi fen" (mee fen) which literally mean "rice" and "noodles." You can tell that Chinese people like simple and obvious literal meanings. Anyways, traditional mei fun can come in all different forms and styles, from spicy soup noodles to salty stir-fried noodles to plain noodles mixed with sweet and sour sauce. On Chinese takeout menus, mei fun is usually seen stir-fried with soy sauce and complemented with scallions, minced meat, and other diced veggies. 

5. Chop Suey

Veganes Chop Suey mit Reis und Gemüse

marcoverch on Flickr

Chop suey is a stir-fried dish of meat and vegetables in a starchy sauce that is almost always served with rice. Chop suey isn't exclusive to American-Chinese cuisine, but it's actually an integral part in much of South East Asian food. It often contains vegetables like onion, celery, cabbage, bean sprouts, and bamboo shoots, stir fried in a combination of soy sauce, cornstarch, oyster sauce, and Chinese cooking wine. The Chinese words for chop suey are "za sui," (zah soo-way) which literally means "a little bit of this and that." For that reason, you usually would never see chop suey on a restaurant's menu in China, but stir-frying a whole bunch of stuff together is a fundamental part of the Chinese cooking style. In that respect, chop suey is basically an overarching word that describes stir-fried vegetables and meat.

6. Egg Foo Young

Mushroom Egg Foo Yung

jenarrr on Flickr

You may or may not have heard of egg foo young before, but it is often found on a Chinese takeout restaurant's menu. Egg foo young is an omelet dish that has meat or veggies and can be served with a brown gravy and a side of rice. Sometimes, it can be ordered on the side to go with your main meal, like egg rolls or crab rangoon. While egg foo young in Chinese takeout is almost always fried in the shape of an omelet, the traditional Chinese version called "fu rong dan" (foo r-ohng dan) can also look like a bowl of steamed eggs and is usually topped with soy sauce or scallions instead of gravy. Like chop suey and General Tso's chicken, this item isn't usually found on the menus of local restaurants in China, but it is actually more commonly made at home to share family style. 

7. Moo Shu


Ruocaled on Flickr

Not to be confused with the "indestructible Mushu" from the Disney movie Mulan, moo shu is traditionally a dish that features wood ear, a type of fungus that is typically dark brown in color and spongey in texture. It also can be cooked with pork, egg, cucumber, and mushroom. Although originally based on a traditional Chinese dish containing wood ear, the American-Chinese takeout item nowadays usually replaces wood ear with cabbage or bok choy, since wood ear is not sold in most American grocery stores. Although moo shu maybe very well-recognized in the US, the traditional Chinese version "mu xu rou" (moo shoo roh) is quite a rare find on menus of a local Chinese restaurant and is actually more commonly made in Chinese households. 

8. Kung Pao Chicken

Kung Pao Chicken @ Rice & Noodle @ Montparnasse @ Paris

*_* on Flickr

Kung pao chicken just might be the most beloved Chinese takeout entree of them all. Unlike most of the other items on this list, the original Chinese version of kung pao chicken is actually quite popular at fast food restaurants in China. The Chinese words for kung pao chicken are "gong bao ji ding" (g-ohng b-awe jee ding), named after a former Sichuan governor who went by the title of Gong Bao. Sichuan is the Chinese province from which kung pao chicken originates, and it is also known to be the spicy food capital of the country. Traditional kung pao chicken includes a lot of red chili peppers and cooking wine, and cashews or peanuts are an absolute must. On the other hand, the American-Chinese kung pao chicken may or may not have nuts, and the sauce is usually more sweet than spicy, often swapping chili peppers for orange juice and cooking oil. 

Traditional Chinese foods and American-Chinese takeout surely have their differences, most likely to accommodate different taste preferences. However, the two countries have undoubtedly influenced each other in terms of flavor. The next time you order takeout, surprise your friends with fun facts about your favorite Chinese takeout items and enjoy this beautiful fusion of American and Chinese cuisine.