The secret’s in the name.

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While China is known for its longstanding history of rice production, China is also the largest producer and consumer of wheat in the world. But China is massive, and not all regions of China are suitable for growing wheat. It’s the environment of the fertile North China Plain that’s most conducive to wheat farming. For this reason, many of the dishes from Northern China are heavily noodle based, while the cuisines of Southern China depend on rice as their predominant grain.

Today, countless iterations of Chinese dishes inundate the contemporary American food scene. Whether you’re walking through the lantern filled streets of Chinatown in Manhattan or D.C., or whether you’re driving through Panda Express, you can count on seeing chow mein and lo mein somewhere on the menu. “Chow mein” simply translates as “fried noodles” and “lo mein” translates as “tossed noodles,” and these vague names allow for thousands of variations that bear the same names.

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But don’t be mistaken: chow mein is never lo mein, and lo mein is never chow mein. While the difference in taste and texture of the noodles might make you think that different kinds of noodles are used for each of the dishes, it’s actually only a matter of how the same noodle is prepared. Chow mein is always made with noodles that are cooked and then fried before other vegetables and meats are added to the noodles. The fried noodles then cook with the other components so the flavors marry, the fried crispy noodles soften slightly in the sauce, and the fried taste of the noodles permeates the whole dish. This gives chow mein it’s characteristic chewy texture and fried flavor. Lo mein, however, is not fried and is added to stir-fried vegetables and proteins near the end of the cooking process. This makes for softer noodles, and it allows the flavor of the other components to stand out without any fried flavor masking the spices and seasonings in the rest of the dish.