Let’s go down the list.
Crisp noodles, the kind that’s super crunchy and deep fried to a crisp (sorry for the pun), is often found in cans on grocer shelves. Is it a Chinese-American restaurant invention? We think so.
Pan-fried noodles, or soft noodles, are noodles cooked al dente and then pan-fried in a shimmering layer of oil to crisp up the noodles’ exterior. The objective is to add texture, taste, and encourage sauces to cling to the noodles’ surface a little longer without getting too soggy.
Bird nests are pan-fried noodles created in a clump that looks like a bird’s nest. Some restaurants deep-fry bird nests for extra crunch. Stir-fried dishes are piled up on bird nest noodles; the nest is not mixed into the dish. The presentation is fun but serving the dish isn’t quite as entertaining.
Hong Kong style noodles generally means thin pan-fried noodles. There are lots of restaurant interpretations for this style.
When any of the noodles above are paired with a stir-fried dish, the combination is usually called chow mein, like the Tomato Beef Curry Chow Mein pictured below. Chow mein translates to “cook and mix” commonly referring to cooking over high heat. In Cantonese, mein, is pronounced meen as in seen.
Lo mein, means “mix or toss noodles.” Noodles are boiled in water, drained well, and then added directly to the stir-fried dish (no pan-frying) and tossed. Lo mein dishes are usually a little less saucier so that the noodles don’t get so soggy.
Pan fried noodles can be used with any stir-fried dish. The more saucy a dish, the more moisture the noodles will absorb. Some like their noodles with a little dry with more chew (less sauce) while others enjoy their noodles softer and saucier. Make it the way you like.
Recipe: Pan-Fried Noodles
Dry spaghetti or “regular cut” fresh egg noodles give the best results. For Hong Kong style chow mein, use thin spaghetti and thinner cut fresh noodles. Cooked noodles may be pan-fried on the stove top or in the oven.
- 1/2 lb. dry spaghetti or 1 lb. fresh pasta
- vegetable oil
- Boil pasta: bring a large pot of water to boiling and add pasta, breaking dry pasta to fit into pot. Keep heat on high and stir pasta occasionally to keep the strands from sticking to each other or the pot. Cook pasta until al dente following package instructions. Cook fresh pasta for 2-3 minutes for after the water returns to a boil. Drain pasta well.
- Pan-fry on the stove top or griddle: if pan-frying on the stove top, heat a generous coating of vegetable oil on high heat in a large sauté or frying pan, wok, pancake griddle or flat top. Add only enough cooked pasta to create a thin layer; pasta may need to be pan-fried in batches depending on pan size. Reduce heat to keep pasta “frying” in the oil but not burning. Frequently loosen the noodles with chopsticks or two forks to prevent the noodles from clumping. When the bottoms of the noodles are golden brown or to your liking, flip over noodles, add 1-2 teaspoons oil and cook until desired crispness, wiggling the noodles frequently. Remove and drain on paper towels.
- Pan-fry in the oven: if pan-frying in the oven, preheat oven to 350º F. Generously coat a large rimmed baking sheet with vegetable oil and place in oven for 3-5 minutes, until oil is shimmering. Thinly spread cooked pasta on top. Bake until bottom side is golden or the way you like it, then carefully flip over noodles. To prevent clumping, stir and separate noodles a couple of times before flipping and also afterwards. When both sides are done, remove pan from oven and transfer noodles to a paper towel-lined dish.
- Pan-fried noodles can be made earlier in the day and kept at room temperature. When ready to use, separate and scatter noodles over top of stir-fry and toss to mix.