What is Yakamein and Why Should You Try It?
A New Orleans Food Story
*This is an article that I wrote for a now-defunct online publication, NolaDefender. This was about 5-7 years after Katrina and the city was still fighting its way back, so understandably, restaurants and corner stores have returned since this was written. However, most of it still stands true in terms of the history of yakamein. Y’all will learn more as you read it. Also, here is a link to an article from BBC about Chef Toya Boudy (formerly Ms. Diva Dawg), and her yakamein recipe, included in her cookbook, Cooking the Culture. They discuss the history and how it influenced Chef Toya, (recipe included). Most people who visit New Orleans have never had yakamein but it is a dish worth trying and making. Do you think you would give yakamein a try?
This piece has been updated lightly.
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Ya-Ka-Mein Say What?
Ya-ka-mein is a New Orleans dish that has been around for centuries. However, people are unsure where it came from or how it started. The dish is a hot and spicy, soy-based soup with noodles, (usually spaghetti), beef, and a hard-boiled egg. Though popular in the past, this dish started to die out after Hurricane Katrina. The local corner stores, which had a difficult time returning after the storm, were usually where this dish was served.
My first experience with ya-ka-mein was quite interesting. Staring down into a pot full of brown liquid, soy sauce wafting through the air. The spaghetti noodles, beef, and green onions absorb the flavours of the broth. Spooning out the soup, something is bobbing like a buoy in the muddy waters of the Mississippi; a hard-boiled egg. The egg was not enjoyed on this day, which may mean I’ve never had a true taste of ya-ka-mein. Despite that, the soup mixture explodes on the tongue, surprisingly delicious. For the dish to be simple yet tasty, it is a wonder more people do not know about this. Intrigued, the search for the origins of the mysterious ya-ka-mein begins.
When talking to most locals, the pronunciation is ya-ka-meat, though, the t is rarely ever heard. It sounds more like ya-ka-mee. Non-natives tend to pronounce it
ya-ka-mein, which gives the locals a laugh. An alternative, the easier-to-pronounce name for the soup is Old Sober. This refers to claims that it is the best hangover cure, usually prepared at the end of Carnival season to usher in Lent.
The history is fuzzy but it comes down to two scenarios. The first scenario: African American vets from the Korean War brought back the dish after having a taste of the food in the Pacific and recreated it with available ingredients. The second scenario: when Chinese workers came to New Orleans to help build the railroads, the construction crew cooks had to satisfy both the African and Chinese workers.
Most people seem to agree with the former statement of the origins but that may never be validated.
The latter statement seems to hold some weight simply because where most ya-ka-mein can be found in the city. Chinese restaurants around the city serve ya-ka-mein with a slightly different spelling but the more common location is a corner store. Corner stores that serve food in African-American neighborhoods seem to be the best place to get ya-ka-mein. Manchu on N. Broad has been deemed the best place to get a good bowl of Old Sober.
Besides the corner store, the next best place for ya-ka-mein is street vendors. Street ya-ka-mein usually has a home-cooked feel and taste. Donna Bentley, from Bentley's Meals on Wheels, says, "I tried ya-ka-mein from other places and it was never to my liking so I added some secret spices to make it my own that I only know about. My husband doesn't even know what I put in there." Most people come to Bentley's Meals on Wheels specifically for Mrs. Bentley's ya-ka-mein but it is only served on Tuesday nights and Sundays. Even the cast and crew of the hit HBO series, Treme, have taken a liking to it. "They usually wipe me out," Mrs. Bentley states. The Bentley's Meals on Wheels is usually located in front of Bullets Bar and Lounge on A.P. Touro.
Ya-ka-mein is more associated with street food than anything else. Usually found at second lines, it got a more mainstream introduction when served at the first Jazz Fest held in Congo Square in the 70s. After the second year, it was no longer offered, but, in 2005, the Ya-ka-mein Lady, Linda Green brought it back to the Fest.
Though its inclusion at Jazz Fest makes it more accessible, it still is on the verge of dying. Most corner stores after the storm have not come back and probably will not for various reasons. However, there has been an increase in street vendors who specialize in ya-ka-mein, but, they are sometimes hard to find. With that being the case, ya-ka-mein is returning to the days when it was passed down orally. It can be found in some cookbooks and on websites but mainly, this is a dish that is verbally passed down.
Like many other New Orleans dishes, the recipe for ya-ka-mein differs depending on the cook. It is not considered true ya-ka-mein if it does not include the hard-boiled egg. The egg is usually cut in half and placed on top or in the middle of the soup.
Ya-ka-mein is mostly served with the ingredients mixed but, when home-cooked, it is customized to each individual’s liking. The noodles and broth will be served in a bowl while the meat, seasoning, egg, and vegetables will be added to taste.
Some may question the validity of ya-ka-mein as a New Orleans dish, yet, it is like most New Orleans dishes; a mixture of different cultures blended to make something new. Ya-ka-mein is a blend of Chinese and African-American cultures with most associating it with Chinese food. Although, it is more an African-American dish than anything else.
The history of ya-ka-mein may be a mystery but this dish should not be. It is slowly on the verge of dying out. It would be a major loss to New Orleans culture and this city has lost too much already. Food needs to be preserved as well as history. Ya-ka-mein deserves to be grouped with other significant dishes native to New Orleans.