There are very few pieces of New Orleans culture that haven’t been championed, dissected, and repackaged the world over. Care is about the only thing forgotten in the city, with scholars and armchair obsessives cataloguing the history of the city’s cultural and culinary traditions.
But even in a world where clueless corporations feel comfortable causing internet aneurysms with spins on regional classics and every brass band slab and parade chant has been painstakingly transcribed, one dish remains stubbornly rooted within city limits. So little is known about the history of the takeout staple and hangover cure that people within the city can’t even agree on how to spell it. But I’m going to jump on that delicious grenade and say outright: I’m talking about yakamein.
The dish has floated around the United States, gaining as many variations in its recipe as it has in its name. Examples of newspapers and cookbooks publishing “yet-ca-mein” how-tos abound in the early 1900s, suggesting that the dish was birth from Chinese workers immigrating to cities in the late 1800s. And while it popped up regularly throughout the U.S., it really seemed to take hold in New Orleans’ African-American community. There was a theory floating around that the yakamein was invented after soldiers in New Orleans returned home from the Korean War, but references to the dish in films, newspapers, and La Choy cookbooks pre-dating the war put the kibosh on that neat narrative.
One of the earliest known recipes for yakamein was characteristically vague. A writer for Portland’s Oregonian basically forward the idea that any soup with enough Chinese ingredients was yakamein in a 1914 response to a reader’s letter.
“Little strips or minced balls of chicken-meat, duck-meat, goosebreast, Chinese pork, Chinese ham (different flavored from ours) and various sorts of fish go with Yaka Mien. Bamboo sprouts, Chinese celery, Chinese mushrooms, green bean sprouts, and different Chinese spices and flavorings enter into composition of many different variations in serving Yaka Mien,” they wrote. “Chinese soy is, of course, to be served with the noodles in any case. The meats are boiled, stewed or fried according to the ordinary rules for meat cookery, the difference being in form and seasoning. Some of the seasonings are unattainable by the ordinary American cook.”
Helpful, right? It’s been over a century since that recipe was published and the rules and story behind the noodle soup are no less vague.
What is known about yakamein is this: The dish that is served with the city is made of beef broth, meat, green onions, a hard-boiled egg, and noodles. Frequently, it contains soy sauce for a bit of salt and some sort of kick to the broth, be it a creole seasoning blend or hot sauce. Some places go so far as to serve it with ketchup. Just about everywhere that sells it does so cheaply and with the idea that it will keep you full or sober you up. And there’s still plenty of places to grab a great styrofoam cup of the stuff in town, even if it hasn’t made the leap to coastal cities and high-end restaurants like other regional fare.
For the quintessential take on the dish—likely the best balance of price and taste—seek out chef Linda Green. The locally loved “Ya-Ka-Mein Lady” pops up at big events throughout the city with devout followers in tow. But if you don’t feel like tracking someone down for a cup of hot noodles, her food can typically be found at the Ogden Museum’s After Hours event on Thursdays.
To eat yakamein in the sort of digs where it was meant to be found, head over to John & Mary Food Store on Orleans Avenue for their bright red and pork-centered version of the dish. And if you chicken out, their menu is extensive. If you don’t want to get too far from the Quarter, the Rampart Food Store is locally renowned for giving folks a ton of food for not a lot of money. It follows that their yakamein recipe is on point.
Man Chu Food Store’s famous purple exterior calls to fans of their excellent chicken wings at most hours of the night, but the counter that typically deals in wings, fries, and fried rice also serves a mean yakamein. Try it if you can pull yourself away from the house specialty.
And while the recipe hasn’t quite traveled, that doesn’t mean chefs within the city aren’t down to put a high-end spin on the dish that’s helped them out of a few jams. The $18 daily edition of the dish at Rampart Street’s Meauxbar upgrades the typical cuts of beef to braised short ribs and other painstakingly prepared proteins. The resulting dish has a much darker broth and more Instagram-friendly bowl than the stuff found at lunch counters.
The city can’t agree on the spelling or the history of the dish. It only vaguely agrees on what goes in it. But just about everywhere in town agrees that you need some of it in your stomach. Take a look at our map below for a rundown of where to grab it.
Header image courtesy of Jo del Corro | Flickr