Mardi Gras

Yakamein Is the Best Way to Recover From Mardi Gras

And the best person to serve it to you is Chef Linda Green.

March  1, 2022
Photo by Getty Images

There are many things Chef Linda Green can make for you—shrimp and crabmeat dressing, crawfish macaroni and cheese, gumbo, bread pudding—but there's only one dish so consistently attributed to her that it earned her her own epithet: Yakamein.

It's a salty, umami-rich soup filled with noodles, hard-boiled egg, a choice of meat and dusted with chopped green onions, is a hybrid of Black American and Asian-American cooking. When you finish a cup, the list sips are often filled with the broth's seasonings that settle in the bottom. And it's fair to say that culinary experience, while available in various places across the United States, has been perfected by New Orleans' own Linda Green, the Yakamein Lady.

"They have people out there that do yakamein now because of me," Green said. "And I'm fine with that. Everybody fries chicken, there's nothing wrong with that. It doesn't bother me. But one thing I do know: They don't have the flavor I have."

For years, the origin of that flavor has been hotly debated, but most agree that yakamein (pronounced "yah-kuh-mane") combines the culinary heritage of Asian and Black American kitchens. The Southern Foodways Alliance has pegged its beginnings as possibly lying with the Chinese immigrants who once settled in New Orleans' now-erased Chinatown neighborhood in the 19th century.

"African-Americans took it and put it in their kitchen, and what we did, we put our spices and herbs into it," Green said. "It was always in the Black kitchen."

Wherever it originated, yakamein has also been served across the United States, including places like Virginia, where it's called "yak" or "yock."

In New Orleans, it was often considered "a poor man's dish," Green said, available at Black-owned corner stores and bars throughout the city. At the end of a night, a bowl of yakamein and a pile of fried chicken or fried fish was the move of choice when it was time to stop drinking and rebalance, earning the soup the nickname "Old Sober."

"My grandmother used to make yakamein, and the rumor was so high that the neighborhood used to come and bring their bowls by my mama's and when she'd get through making the yakamein, everybody would help prepare it and everybody would sit on the porch," Green remembers. The popularity of her family's recipe earned them a spot inside family friend's bars.

That Green has a recipe is a relative rarity: Research by the Southern Foodways Alliance indicates that no formally-published versions existed until recently. The dish made the jump from bar room to street food by the mid-1990s, a change largely attributed to Green.

"I brought it out there on the second-line route," Green said, referring to the parades held on most Sundays in New Orleans by social aid and pleasure clubs, the mutual aid societies created by the city's Black community. The parades are hours-long dancing affairs with brass bands, and for participants, it's easy to work up an appetite, so they're often followed close behind or met at planned stops by drink and food vendors ready to take advantage of a hungry crowd.

"It just got popular for people all over the city," Green said. "They not only liked it, they loved it. That's how I became Miss Linda the Yakamein Lady. ... I tell you what, baby, I sell it all out on one stop." Through the years, that popularity has only grown. Green says she's cooked for the likes of Anthony Bourdain, Jon Bon Jovi, Willie Nelson, Carmen Elektra, Nas and Snoop Dogg.

My mother "would sit me down and talk to me, and she'd tell me, you can cook for looks if you want, but you better cook for taste. I said, why ma? And she said, because if you cook for taste, they're gonna come right back to you," Green said. "I don't ever worry about people coming back."

Green can reliably be found selling her yakamein at the annual New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, as well as other regular festivals around the city and pop-ups in her Central City neighborhood. These days, her yakamein can come with almost any kind of protein: shrimp, beef, chicken, oyster, alligator, duck, smoked sausage, crawfish, crawfish sausage or pork chops. But what it's really about, she says, is "the juice," her term for the broth that forms the base of her soup.

"Once you put the juice into the cup," she said, "it flavors everything in that cup. That's why a lot of people love yakamein. ... The seasoning I put in the yakamein, everything that seasoning go into turns delicious." While Green has shared versions of her recipe in the past, the recipe for the yakamein she sells remains a protected trade secret. But she has shared it with her family.

"On the second-line route, at the festival—they know this is their legacy," Green said. "They know this."

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Chelsea Brasted

Written by: Chelsea Brasted

Reader, writer, cheeseburger lover.