Ya Ka Mein
Ya Ka Mein. This meal is also known by any mispronunciation of the name and we can go into that if you want. Ya Ka Mein can be gussied or gutsy and all forms in between and it can be found everywhere from Canton, China to North Rampart, New Orleans. It can be served from the back of a pickup truck or a High brow place like Ralph’s on the Park. Once to eat it, you either ‘get it’ or you don’t. Ya Ka Mein is a study in esoteric and existential galactic food. It’s cookin’ and it’s cuisine. I get it.
There are others that ‘get it’ as well: Sara Roahen, author and food writer, has been commissioned by The Southern Foodways Alliance to document its history and development. Also counted amongst Ya Ka Mein’s disciples and missionaries is Linda Green (The YaKaMein Lady), Chip Flanagan, Maurice J. Haynes and myself.
The whisper on the street is that it was an Asian dish adapted to and by the African American soldiers coming back from Korea, World War II or some other such meetings of these two cultures. In reality that myth is discredited by a 1936 pamphlet put out by the “La Choy” company, which specialized in canned bean sprouts, mixed ‘Chinese’ vegetables, bottled soy sauce etc. all for the American palate of the times. In this pamphlet the dish is called Yet-Ca-Mein and its recipe is mirror image of what is found in New Orleans today.
Let me start by telling you just what the basic ingredients of Ya Ka Mein are. Basic stock (chicken, beef, pork, shrimp etc.) Pasta (vermicelli, fine noodles, ramen), Animal products (same as stock basics) and garnished with thinly sliced green onion and boiled egg. From there you can add vegetables, soy sauce, garlic, sesame or anything else that lifts your skirt.
Where can you get the hoi polloi version of this marvel? Asian operated convenient stores in less affluent neighborhoods; although many of the old favorite places have been the victims of hurricanes and urban gentrification, there are still a handful of joints to be found. Look for a place that has on their outside signage (besides the usual Po Boys, Breakfast, Lunches) the words: Chinese Food. That’s an indication it may be had.
I go to the ‘Orange House’, a smallish dive store a short walk from where I live; it’s run by a Vietnamese family and I was told that theirs was the best because they make their chicken stock from scratch. I was also told that the Chinese use spaghetti and the Vietnamese use noodles which they consider makes theirs a superior dish. Po Boy’s advice: you need to get some!