Chinese food is certainly one of the most popular cuisines, and if you live in the United States, Americanized Chinese food doesn’t always resemble traditional Chinese food as closely as we may think.
However, many of these dishes are similar and designed to replicate traditional Chinese dishes, so it should be said upfront that actual Chinese food tends to be lighter and healthier than the Americanized versions.
Lo mein and chow mein are two of the most popular Chinese food noodle dishes, both in the United States (or internationally outside of China) and within China itself.
However, unless you grew up in a family or culture with Chinese heritage with an emphasis on learning about the nuances of Chinese cuisine, you may not know the difference between chow mein vs lo mein.
In this guide, we will discuss the delicious world of chicken chow mein, pork chow mein, or whatever your favorite type of chow mein is, vs chicken lo mein, pork lo mein, and all the similarities and differences between chow mein vs lo mein.
We will look at:
- What Is the Difference Between Chow Mein vs Lo Mein?
- What Is Chow Mein?
- What Is Lo Mein?
- How Do I Know If I’m Eating Chow Mein or Lo Mein?
- Which Is Healthier, Chow Mein Vs Lo Mein?
Let’s get started!
What Is the Difference Between Chow Mein vs Lo Mein?
Chow mein and lo mein are both Chinese noodle dishes.
The reason that many people have the question: What is the difference between chow mein and lo mein is because there is certainly some overlap with these dishes, and even the terms can be confusing if you are not a native Chinese speaker.
Lo mein and chow mein both include the root word “mein,” which means “noodles,“ which makes sense since both lo mein and chow mein are noodle-based dishes.
When comparing the difference between chow mein and lo mein, most people assume the difference is solely in the type of noodles used because lo mein dishes have silky, smooth, wiggly noodles while chow mein noodle dishes have a crisp noodle texture.
However, it is not actually the type of noodle that differs between lo mein vs chow mein but how the noodles are prepared in these dishes.
Indeed, although most people think that the difference between chow mein vs lo mein is the noodles themselves, both of these noodle dishes generally use Chinese egg noodles, which are flour noodles that have egg added to the recipe.
Lo mein uses fresh egg noodles, but chow mein can be made with either fresh egg noodles or dried egg noodles.
There are other distinctions between chow mein noodles vs lo mein noodles in terms of the overall dishes, but before we break down all of the differences, let’s look at each dish individually.
What Is Chow Mein?
Chow mein noodles are typically fried, but there are actually two ways to prepare a chow mein noodle dish.
With steamed chow mein, the chow mein noodles are first flash-fried and then stir-fried in a wok or other pan while other ingredients like meat and vegetables are tossed in, and then the entire dish is coated in a light sauce.
With crisp chow mein, which is what most people are familiar with, the chow mein noodles are pressed flat while they are fried, which creates a pancake-like noodle disk, and then the vegetables and meat are layered on top of this fried noodle pancake.
In either type of chow mein noodle preparation, the noodles and chow mein dishes are ultimately intended to be the “star” of the dish, with the vegetables, meat or protein, sauce, and any other ingredients taking a backseat and serving as just accouterments rather than equal players or star players.
One way this plays out is because the chef preparing the chow mein dish cooks the noodles first on their own, using one of the preparations (steamed chow mein noodles vs fried chow mein noodles) and then adding the other ingredients.
To this end, chow mein noodle dishes use sauce very sparingly.
Rather than dousing the noodles in a lot of sauce and creating a loose, saucy noodle dish, chow mein noodles only use a little bit of sauce so that the noodles remain crisp and light with their fried texture and do not become soggy and silky like traditional pasta dishes.
What Is Lo Mein?
While “chow mein“ means “fried noodles, and “lo mein“means “tossed noodles“ or “mixed noodles.“
Lo mein can be likened to a dry variation of a traditional Chinese noodle soup, not in the sense that lo mein is “dry,“ but it is less brothy than a real soup yet has the same ingredients.
Lo mein dishes have noodles tossed with vegetables and some type of protein. Chicken lo mein is very popular, but there is also pork lo mein, beef lo mein, tofu lo mein, shrimp lo mein, and other forms of seafood lo mein noodle dishes.
When preparing lo mein noodles, the chef fully cooks the noodles by boiling and draining them just as you would when preparing Ramen, pasta, udon noodles, etc.
After the noodles are fully cooked, they are added to a wok with the vegetables and proteins and tossed together.
To replicate the texture of a soup, the chef drowns the lo mein ingredients that are in the wok in a savory sauce as they cook, melting all of the flavors together and creating a thick, saucy melange of noodles, protein, and vegetables with a heavy coating of sauce.
Once everything is heated through and uniform in temperature and coated in the sauce, the dish is served, and the chef may even add additional sauce to finish off the lo mein noodles.
How Do I Know If I’m Eating Chow Mein or Lo Mein?
If you don’t have a menu in front of you, say you are at a Chinese food buffet or served Chinese food at someone’s home, and you don’t know if you are eating lo mein or chow mein, here are a few tricks to help determine if you’re eating chow mein vs lo mein:
- With chow mein, the noodles are distinctly crispy if it is the crispy chow mein noodles preparation or oily if it is the steamed chow mein noodle preparation.
- With chow mein, the proportions are such that you will have more chow mein noodles and smaller amounts of protein and vegetables in the dish.
- With chow mein, the sauce will be applied more lightly so that it does not weigh down or overshadow the crispy noodles, whereas lo mein noodles are bathed in a sauce or doused in a thicker and heavier application of sauce.
To help you know if you are eating lo mein vs chow mein, here are a few tricks to look for:
- With lo mein, your dish will be much saucier, and the noodles will be silky and chewy rather than crispy.
- With lo mein, the noodles are not greasy, but there is much more sauce than with chow mein, where the chow mein noodles will be drier because there is less sauce.
- With lo mein vs chow mein, there is much more protein and vegetables with the noodles rather than having more noodles with a sparring amount of protein and vegetables.
Which Is Healthier, Chow Mein Vs Lo Mein?
So, what is the difference between the chow mein nutrition facts vs lo mein nutrition facts? In other words, is lo mein healthier than chow mein, or is chow mein healthier than lo mein?
Of course, it is pretty difficult to give specific lo mein nutrition facts or chow mein nutrition facts because it all depends on the proteins used, the vegetables, the sauce, and whether it is the steamed or crispy chow mein noodle preparation, but as a rough approximation, here are the nutrition facts for a 1-cup serving (200g) of beef lo mein as per the USDA:
- Calories: 258
- Total fat: 5.5 g
- Total carbohydrates: 32 g
- Fiber: 2 grams
- Sugar: 4.2 g
- Sodium: 716 mg
- Protein: 19.5 grams
Here are the nutrition facts for a 1-cup serving (220g) of chow mein with meat (non-specified) as per the USDA:
- Calories: 295
- Total fat: 12.3 g
- Total carbohydrates: 24 g
- Fiber: 3.5 grams
- Sugar: 3.3 g
- Sodium: 779 mg
- Protein: 23 grams
In general, lo mein is typically considered healthier than chow mein. This is because the noodles are not fried, so there is less fat and less saturated fat.
The chow mein vs lo mein calories are also higher, again because of the fried noodles and the fact that the noodles are the star of the dish, whereas lo mein has more of a balance of protein and vegetables as well.
However, depending on the lo mein sauce, lo mein tends to have more sodium and potentially more sugar, particularly in American lo mein dishes.
Both chow mein and lo mein are high in sodium and carbs.
Keep in mind that “fast food Chinese” tends to have even higher calories, and the portion sizes will be large.
For example, the chow mein at Panda Express has 500 calories per serving
P.F. Chang’s lo mein dishes range from about 330 to 450 calories depending on the protein used, but it is important to note that they consider the dish that you are given to contain two servings, so if you eat the whole thing, the lo mein calories you consume will be twice as high.
Overall, neither lo mein nor chow mein are particularly nutritious or good for you, but having either dish occasionally or in small portions isn’t going to kill you or derail your weight loss goals.
Looking to compare other foods? Check out our comparison guide to cottage cheese and Greek yogurt here.