Cilantro

Yakamein (New Orleans Noodle Soup)

April 27, 2016
1 Rating
Photo by Martine Boyer
Author Notes

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. —Martine Boyer

  • Prep time 35 minutes
  • Cook time 4 hours
  • Serves 10
Ingredients
  • 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
In This Recipe
Directions
  1. For the soup:
  2. Place the beef roast in a large stockpot. Cover with water, and then add the Creole seasoning. Place over medium-high heat, bring to a simmer, then reduce the heat to low and simmer for 3 to 4 hours, until the beef is tender. Remove the beef to a large bowl and allow the beef and stock to cool for 20 to 30 minutes.
  3. Remove beef from stock and shred or chop the cooled meat, removing and discarding any large chunks of fat. Skim the fat from the top of the stock. Add the soy sauce, ketchup, Worcestershire sauce, and hot sauce to the stock, tasting as you go and adjusting the seasonings if needed. Once you’re ready to serve, reheat the skimmed stock over medium heat until simmering.
  4. To serve, divide the spaghetti and meat among 10 bowls. Top each with scallions and half an egg, then ladle some stock over the top. Garnish with a handful of chopped cilantro or parsley. Serve with hot sauce, ketchup, and/or soy sauce.
  1. For the Creole seasoning:
  2. Combine all ingredients together until well combined. Store in an airtight container for up to 3 months.

See what other Food52ers are saying.

  • Zuri Wright
    Zuri Wright
  • loubaby
    loubaby
  • Mark Spiegel
    Mark Spiegel
  • Pilar
    Pilar

10 Reviews

Zuri W. August 31, 2018
"mysterious origin"??? wow gentrification is VERY real. Black veterans post Vietnam war made this dish. No mysterious origin. Do some research prior to sharing something.
 
Mark S. June 14, 2019
Speaking of research, this from Atlas Obscura:

"There are several explanations for the dish’s origins. Some say it was born from the nostalgic cravings of World War II or Korean War veterans, who wanted to re-create the kinds of noodle soups they’d enjoyed during their time in Asia. Others speculate that the dish was born from a culinary conversation between Creole cooks and the Chinese railroad workers who came to New Orleans in the 1800s."

Let's not be so quick to criticize especially with something like this.
 
Zuri W. June 14, 2019
“Let's not be so quick to criticize especially with something like this.” Nothing you said was included in the article. All that was said was a mysterious origin. Which takes away from the immigrants and veterans stories. Let’s give people their credit in history. I know giving credit where it’s due isn’t your peoples strong suit but y’all are gonna learn to stop trying to rewrite history. My family had made this dish for years due to my family having a long history of serving this country.
 
Mark S. June 14, 2019
“Nothing you said was included in the article. All that was said was a mysterious origin. Which takes away from the immigrants and veterans stories.”

Which was why I specifically referenced the several possible origins of the dish. References which also mentioned the immigrants, people of color and veterans who may have had a hand in its creation. Filling in the record is not rewriting history. The fact that your family made it does not mean it belongs to them.

And just so you know, you don’t know anything about “my people”, a phrase which has been seen by some as an insult term. You also don’t know that I am degreed historian with a specialty in African history. I was willing to give the author of this article the benefit of the doubt, assuming they were uneducated not racist. I tend to do that with people until they show me otherwise. How about you?
 
Zuri W. June 14, 2019
When did I call them racist in my original post? 😭🤣 I said more research should have been done by the author prior to posting. Something we both have learned in college. Never said it belonged to my family either. But continue to give me the “benefit of the doubt” by assuming my uneducated.
 
Mark S. June 14, 2019
Please explain this:

“I know giving credit where it’s due isn’t YOUR PEOPLES strong suit but y’all are gonna learn to stop trying to rewrite history.”

For most of my life I’ve been told that racism is not defined by the sender but by the receiver. So, is this racist or just anger? (there I go again, giving people the benefit of the doubt.)

And I did not call you uneducated. I called the writer of the article uneducated.
 
Pilar March 10, 2020
Well, Vietnam is unlikely. As Wikipedia states:
The origins of yaka mein are uncertain, and there are at least two propositions: Some sources, including the late New Orleans chef Leah Chase, have claimed that yaka mein originated in New Orleans’s now extinct Chinatown that was established by Chinese immigrants brought from California during the mid-19th century to build the railroads between Houston and New Orleans and work in the sugar plantations of the American South. It was during this period that the Chinese noodle soup adapted to local Creole and Chinese clientele.
Regardless of its North American origins, by the 1920s yaka mein was already known common in other parts of North America. In a 1927 article published in Maclean's magazine, the author indicated that "yet-ca mein" consisted of noodles or vermicelli boiled in rich stock, divided into individual bowls and garnished with sliced hard-boiled egg and sliced and chopped cooked meats. The author indicated furthermore, the other noodles dishes served in disparate fashions may also be collectively known as yet-ca mein.
In the movie, Whipsaw, from 1935, starring Myrna Loy, a character in New Orleans, places a phone order with a Chinese restaurant, for, among other things, Yaka mein. This mention supports the origin story cited by Leah Chase.
 
Pilar March 10, 2020
Incidentally, the Chinese word for "noodle" is "mein" or "mian"; the Vietnamese for "noodle" is "bún".
 
Mark S. March 11, 2020
Hey Zuri,

It's been nine months since I replied to you. What frustrates me more than anything is the tendency of people to run away and hide under the bed when I refute their arguments. They never apologize or admit they may have misread my comments. Somehow I thought you might be different. Wrong again.
 
loubaby May 1, 2016
This soup sounds really good. I am serving a Pho For dinner tonight.... Will try this next.... Thanks'