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I’m asked almost daily why I chose to move to New Orleans, this northernmost Caribbean city, and my reasons vary from comical to outlandish to introspective.
Depending on the day and my mood and how much I feel like sharing, it was the cool breeze from the Mississippi River on a prickly summer’s day; or the hidden streets that wind their way through the French Quarter towards yet-undiscovered but soon-to-be-favorite restaurants; or blind faith; or simply fate. Depending on who’s asking, it’s none of the above—or all of the above, and then some.
Nevertheless, every answer is true, and today, I say it’s because of yakamein.
Of mysterious origin and with no written recipe to be found, yakamein consists of hot beef- or chicken-based broth that’s vigorously spiced with Creole seasoning (typically, the specific blend is guarded by the family) and poured over any available noodle (usually spaghetti) and cooked meat (beef, chicken, pork or seafood), then garnished with a hard-boiled egg, sliced green onions, and chopped cilantro or parsley. Depending on your preference, the finishing touch comes from ketchup, hot sauce, or soy sauce.
While the ingredient list is simple, the soup is salty, spicy, and fragrant from its special blend of seasonings (paprika, garlic powder, and cayenne pepper); the guidelines for making it exist in memories and lore rather than cookbooks.
Yakamein has, for decades, been a staple in New Orleans’ mom-and-pop corner grocery stores and in its African-American kitchens. It’s the family dish, with the whispered secret ingredient, created by grandmothers and mothers and relatives twice removed watching over large pots of broth bubbling on stoves, to be served to a crowd of hungry mouths.
It’s the $6 street food that you slurp heartily from a plastic spoon as you gingerly hold the steaming-hot Styrofoam cup it comes in. It’s the second line food that you try to keep from spilling as you jubilantly clap, bop, and sashay down streets overflowing with revelers feasting, sometimes mourning, to the piercing beats of a brass band. It’s the healing remedy that you crave in lieu of the hair of the dog. It’s good news, bad news, sunny day, rainy day, any kinda day food.
Like most New Orleans dishes, the recipe for yakamein varies from cook to cook and, like the city itself, is the result of different cultures that have melded to create something entirely new. Its origin is hotly debated: While one theory claims that it was introduced by African American soldiers who fought in the Korean War and returned home with a desire for the noodle soup dishes they had grown accustomed to overseas, another professes that the dish originated in New Orleans’ now-extinct Chinatown (the product of Chinese immigrants who adapted their customary noodle soup to serve to the local Creole clientele).
An alternate version, yat gaw mein, is found in Baltimore and Philadelphia, and consists of thick wheat noodles in a brown gravy, served with either meat, chicken, or seafood, thickly sliced onions, and a hard boiled egg. Yat, yet another version—this one specific to Virginia—consists of noodles in a ketchup-based sauce. But yakamein, however murky the nexus of its creation might be, is New Orleans born and bred.
The dish has become increasingly difficult to find, as many of the corner stores that specialized in it did not reopen their doors after Hurricane Katrina. And outside of the local population, yakamein is not well known; visitors seeking to eat their way through the usual New Orleans food suspects track down gumbo, crawfish, and po’boys instead. With the demand for yakamein dwindling, the dish nears extinction.
But you can still find it. Like at Eat Well Grocery, an unassuming building on Broad Street that opens early and closes late and caters mostly to construction workers (but call first to make sure that they’re serving it that day). Or at Manchu Food Store, painted bright purple on the corner of Esplanade and North Claiborne. If you can see past the the rows of illegally parked cars and shrug your shoulders at the long line, their yakamein is well worth the wait. And if you’re really industrious and serious about your yakamein search, you can track down Miss Linda, the Yakamein Lady. With a recipe passed down from her great-grandmother, she is single-handedly bringing yakamein back to our eager mouths.
And one day, if you’re really lucky, when you least expect it, the wafting aroma of peppery broth will reach your nose wherever you stand and bring you, running with cash in hand, to chase down what is now a rare sight on the streets of New Orleans: a yakamein street vendor.
It’s not ramen, it’s not pho, and it’s not just a soup. It’s not like anything you’ve ever had before. It’s simply yakamein, and it’s simply New Orleans.
And as for the name, as one of my dear friends recently instructed, “It’s not Ya-ka-mein, it’s yaka-meiin. Say it like there’s music in your voice.”
I moved to New Orleans so that I could be told exactly that.
For the soup:
- 2 1/2 to 3 pounds boneless chuck roast
- 8 to 9 cups water
- 2 teaspoons Creole seasoning
- 1/2 to 2/3 cups soy sauce, plus more to taste
- 1 tablespoon ketchup, plus more for topping if you like
- 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
- 1 1/2 tablespoons hot sauce, plus more to taste
- 1 pound spaghetti (ramen, or udon), cooked according to package directions
- 1 bunch scallions, trimmed and sliced
- 1 bunch parsley or cilantro, chopped
- 5 hard-boiled eggs, cut in half
For the Creole seasoning:
- 2 1/2 tablespoons paprika
- 2 tablespoons salt
- 2 tablespoons garlic powder
- 1 tablespoon black pepper
- 1 tablespoon onion powder
- 1 tablespoon cayenne pepper
- 1 tablespoon dried oregano
- 1 tablespoon dried thyme
What's your favorite one-place-only dish? Drop us hints in the comments below!