…I Remember it Well
In the Midwest, in the 1970’s, my Mom did the cooking and the recipes were basic, inexpensive, and simple to prepare. We ate a lot of meat (mostly fried), potatoes, and pasta. Vegetables for the most part were from a can, sometimes frozen. I dearly loved round steak night (the one with the mushroom gravy, not the stupid one with tomatoes), and hamburger helper night. I loved Rice-a-Roni (The San Francisco Treat!) and Kraft Macaroni and Cheese.
We ate ethnic food, too, as home cooks and the country as a whole were coming to grips with a new modern global reality. We didn’t have a taco restaurant yet in Cincinnati that we knew of, but we had taco night (just add a packet of spices into your sauteed hamburger and onion and served on crispy corn shells). We did have pizza places, but it was way more fun to grab Chef Boyardee Pizza kit and try to convince ourselves that our version was better…it wasn’t.
But the most exotic of all was Chow Mein night. We did not have local Chinese takeout restaurant close to my suburb, and at this stage in my life I had rarely eaten “real Chinese food” though we occasionally went to a Chinese restaurant where we dined in. And I’m sure we only dined in so my parents could partake in rum drinks. Classy. In other words, we didn’t know jack shit about Asian food. Therefore, when my Mom pulled out the twin cans of La Choy Chicken Chow Mein and the box of Minute Rice, I was in culinary heaven.
I liked the magic of something so good coming from a can. I liked Minute Rice. (I didn’t know there was any other kind for a long time.) I liked soy sauce and liberally adding more to my serving. And I loved the can of crunchy noodles we loaded on the chow mein…and snacked on while Mom was “cooking.”
La Choy still makes the two-can Chow Mein dinner. Their website says Chicken Chow Mein is the most popular flavor. The 42 oz. cans (that is the vegetable can drained and rinsed at 28 oz. plus the chicken/sauce can at 14 oz.) is supposed to make three servings (without rice) at 100 calories each. Practically diet food…if your diet and your blood pressure can handle a single serving containing 63% of your daily sodium intake.
Looking at the ingredients today, there’s nothing in the flavoring that is remotely Asian (Chow Mein is an American invention, but it is still supposed to be an homage to Asian cooking). The ethnic part is halfheartedly represented by the Asian vegetables. More on that in a bit.
I’m not the only person to remember this meal fondly, and if you google La Choy Chow Mein you see plenty of reminiscences and revisits. I had to try it for myself.
Let’s get cooking.
First things first. You have to separate the cans. La Chow operates like pull tabs have not been invented.
Next up the pour the chicken and “gravy” from the little can into a saucepan. It looks like this:
…And it tastes very similar to Campbell’s chicken noodle soup broth cooked down to a richer flavor. I don’t know if I would call it Asian if I hadn’t opened the can and my brain was pre-determined to make this taste Asian. The salt concentration was intense, but in small drops, the flavor was very enjoyable. That’s science. Because it shouldn’t be enjoyable.
Can two is the vegetables, which require a good rinsing. The can boasts six different vegetables, but it appears to be 95% sprouts. As I kid, I distinctly remember more baby corn and water chestnuts because those were the best most exotic vegetables in my youth. I asked my Mom about this. She said she added additional cans of water chestnuts, bamboo shoots, and baby corn. This was before recycling, btw.
To get an idea of what was in my can today, I pulled out all the corn pieces I could find. I found four 1/4 inch pieces…maybe if I glued them together I’d have one mini corn. Let’s take a look:
The plate has all the corn and all the water chestnuts I could find. For three servings, one lucky duck gets two pieces of corn! Except for the water chestnuts and bamboo shoots, all the vegetables were mushy and except for the celery, tasteless. Which is why it gets dumped into the brown chicken
We ate this over Minute Rice back in the day. There is no way I’m going to buy Minute Rice, so the first thing that brings this dish kicking and screaming into the 21st century is real rice. And to show how global I am now, my bag of rice came from the Mexican section of the grocery (where it was on sale), and I own a rice cooker.
Finally, (I had to wait nearly 20 minutes for the rice to cook, OMG!) I was able to sit down and try the 1970’s.
First, I pulled out my La Choy noodles which have 0g Trans Fat! The noodles are”Inspired by traditional Asian Cuisine, as noted on the package. This seems true…Not! But just like back in the day, I can’t stop snacking on them.
And how does it taste to my sophisticated adult palate? It tastes like salt. It sure doesn’t taste Asian unless there’s a crispy noodle or soy in the bite. And soy is about the last thing I wanted to add because the salt was killing me. There are no distinct flavors except for the celery, even the chicken just blended it. The chicken, which according to the can is thigh meat, has an okay texture, which is a big deal when you’re dealing with canned food. The sauce also has some sugar in it, which is part of why it tastes good, but it also makes the mixture stick to the pan if you’re not watching it.
Eating La Choy Chow Mein today was like visiting a high school friend. It was wasn’t as great as I remembered or as bad as I thought it would be. As a kid in my time, La Choy was a great introduction to Chinese and other Asian takeout I’m familiar with now. I’m a bit surprised that this product is on the shelf in 2017 given our access and familiarity to ethnic foods and I’m curious to why it holds on. My guess is cost. At under $4 a can, even with some add-ins, it’s a cheap meal that still tastes all right.
Sadly, though, I’m tossing the uneaten portion from today’s experiment into the trash. #Sodium