We’ve all been there: you get a sudden craving to make some stir-fried chow mein. You open your pantry to discover that you only have packs of spaghetti. Then you think, “Can I use spaghetti instead of chow mein? Meh, it’ll be fine!” as you proceed to make your stir-fried noodles with spaghetti. Then, as you take your first bite, there’s just something… different… about your noodles. You can’t quite put your finger on it, but you know it has to do with that darn spaghetti!
Is it actually possible to substitute spaghetti for chow mein noodles?
Yes, it is possible to substitute spaghetti for chow mein noodles by boiling it with a small amount of baking soda. The baking soda alters the pH level of the spaghetti, giving it a similar texture and flavor to chow mein noodles. They can then be used in any dish that calls for chow mein noodles.
When I was developing my Panda Express Chow Mein recipe, which uses the spaghetti + baking soda trick, I’ve found that for every 4 cups of water, you need about a tablespoon of baking soda. But I can’t take credit for this; it has been commonly employed by housewives in Japan for a couple of decades for when they needed chow mein noodles in a pinch.
But how exactly can just a little baking soda added to my pasta water transform it into chow mein noodles? Put on your learning caps, boys and girls, because we’re going to find out how!
What makes chow mein noodles so special?
I can’t be the only one that’s lived out the above scenario multiple times, so what exactly is that missing element? What makes those chow mein noodles so perfectly suitable for stir-frying, while the spaghetti noodles just feel kind of limp and lifeless in the same dish?
There are two important elements that noodles have over spaghetti: texture and flavor.
Texture is a very important part of Asian cuisine, especially in Chinese cooking. There are entire dishes made where the joy of the food comes not in the flavor, but in the texture and mouthfeel of the ingredients. Having grown up in a Chinese household, it’s easy for me to understand this value placed on food texture, but for most of my non-Asian friends, they just couldn’t understand.
While some textures are very undesirable in American food, like soggy, slippery, slimy, rubbery, etc., these textures are often the hallmark of a particular Chinese dish. Take Chinese meatballs, for instance.
Chinese meatballs are quite different from their Italian brethren (Hey look, another Chinese to Italian food comparison!). Whereas a good Italian meatball should be tender and loose, while being juicy and flavorful inside, a good Chinese meatball needs to be flavorful and bouncy. Yes, you heard me right, bouncy!
What does this texture actually feel like? It’s kind of like biting into a softer version of those rubber super bouncy balls. No, I’m not joking! If a Chinese meatball does not have this bounce, it is a failure.
So the Chinese take food texture to the extremes, and noodles aren’t safe from the textural voodoo that Chinese chefs love to experiment with. Chow mein noodles have two textural qualities that work for it: 1) a slight springiness, and 2) a slippery mouthfeel (this is more pronounced when the noodles are served in soup, and less so in a stir-fry).
So when you take a bite of your spaghetti chow mein, it’s that springiness that you’re not feeling that makes it feel ever so slightly “off”. But what is the second missing element when you substitute chow mein for pasta?
It’s the flavor! It’s hard to tell, but plain chow mein noodles have a distinct taste. To me, it’s kind of like an eggy taste. It might be hard to notice it, but if you eat a strand of plain spaghetti and a strand of plain noodle, I think you’ll know what I’m talking about. Although pasta and noodles are made up of mostly the same ingredients (flour, eggs, water), the noodles have a special ingredient that both changes the flavor and the texture. This ingredient is called kansui.
What the heck is kansui?
Kansui is a special liquid made from lye, which is high in alkaline (the opposite of acidic). Small amounts of kansui are added into the dough of the chow mein noodles to raise the pH level. This alters the consistency of the noodles, as well as giving it that distinctive springy texture. It also gives those noodles that bright yellow hue that they all have.
It is speculated that the reason why kansui was developed and added into noodles was because of a particular type of noodle that was made in parts of Inner Mongolia. The noodles from that region were much more like chow mein we know today, and the people of ancient China seemed to prefer that texture and flavor. They found that the lakes where they Mongolians drew water from to make the noodles were higher in alkaline.
How exactly does kansui work?
Because of the raised pH levels that kansui introduces to the noodle dough, it blocks the development of gluten. Gluten is the tiny network of proteins in bread flours that allows the dough to trap air and rise. Without gluten, bread would be more like flat, dense loaves, rather than being soft, airy, and light. Without the development of gluten in the noodles, they can be stretched much easier and also alters the texture.
If you’ve ever seen videos of Chinese masters hand-pulling noodles, you can see them stretch out hundreds of strands of noodles with a couple of flicks of their arms. If the noodles still had a strong gluten network, the dough would pull and fight back on them, rather than being slack and essentially stretching under its own weight.
So let’s recap a bit. Spaghetti and noodles are essentially made of the same ingredients. Noodles are made with kansui, which is an alkaline, and is the secret to their unique texture and taste.
And THAT’S where the baking soda comes in! Because baking soda is an alkaline, it works very similarly to kansui. Since the alkaline water is worked directly into the dough of chow mein noodles, adding a bit of baking soda to boiling spaghetti won’t achieve a 100% exact replica of it. You’ll get about 80% of the way there, which is not bad at all to me!
However, some say that using baked baking soda (no, that’s not a typo), is actually more effective. Baking the baking soda intensifies the alkaline properties of the baking soda, and when it’s added to water, you get an even closer texture and taste to real chow mein noodles.
Spaghetti CAN be substituted for chow mein, and it’s DEAD simple!
Next time you find yourself in a pinch, use this little trick instead of driving down to the local grocery store. You’ll also be doing yourself a favor by getting rid of two excess pantry staples in one shot!
Make sure you check out some of my noodle recipes! I know you’ll absolutely love them!