I'm sitting in my car, tearing open packets of soy sauce and hot sauce with my teeth. I splash both sauces across my bowl of dark broth, noodles, chopped beef, boiled egg, and scallions. One bite and I get it. This is New Orleans, and this is yakamein (also known as “old sober”), a powerfully seasoned, spicy noodle soup that's purported to cure even the nastiest of hangovers.
Thanks mostly to the tireless efforts of chef Linda Green, known around the city as the “Yakamein Lady,” this irresistible Creole amalgamation is becoming increasingly easy to find.
In the years since Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, Green has cooked yakamein into a popular resurgence, ladling out her soup to the likes of the late Anthony Bourdain; winning an episode of Food Network's Chopped; and garnering profiles in publications such as the New York Times and Rolling Stone.
Since that first day in my car, I've had the pleasure of slurping down several cups of Green's noodles, along with a half dozen or so other excellent versions from places around the city. As I began work on my own recipe for the dish, I couldn't help but ask myself where this fusion of Creole, Asian, and soul food cuisines came from.
After calling around and doing some initial research, I contacted Winston Ho, a University of New Orleans graduate student researching Chinese American history in New Orleans and an expert on the history of this dish.
Ho has documented what he describes as the “Chinese-American origin theory” of yakamein, explaining to me that he has “menus and photographs from almost fifty restaurants that served yakamein around the country over the past 120 years.”
His earliest example is a New York City Chinese restaurant menu from 1904 that offers “yet quo mein (noodle soup with pork).” Ho theorizes that yakamein “is an improvised noodle soup, which the Cantonese created in the late 1800s from whatever ingredients they could find in North America—spaghetti noodles instead of Chinese noodles for example.” So Cantonese restaurants in cities across America (including San Francisco, New Orleans, New York, and Baltimore) were the first to serve yakamein. And some of these places still have Americanized noodle dishes descended from the original Cantonese noodles—such as “yock” or “yock in a box” in southeastern Virginia, among others. The name, spelled many different ways, loosely translates as “an order of noodles.”
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Ho is quick to point out that the original Cantonese soup would've been very different from what you can find now in soul food places across New Orleans (yakamein made with Creole spices and a soy sauce–heavy broth and finished with hot sauce). “Creole yakamein and Chinese yakamein are completely different from each other and don't taste or look anything alike. Most Chinese now and in the past would consider Creole yakamein too salty.”
When asked about the Chinese influence in New Orleans food in a 2009 interview by chef and food writer Gisele Perez, the famed chef of Dooky Chase's Restaurant and “Queen of Creole Cuisine” Leah Chase echoed Ho’s theory, explaining that Chinese and African Americans commingled their food traditions while living side by side. Yakamein became a dish influenced by the many cultures of the great city of New Orleans.
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And so yakamein spread and evolved, from Chinese restaurants in the once-bustling New Orleans Chinatown to their Black patrons and then to Black-owned Creole and soul food bars and restaurants.
One such establishment, Bean Brothers Bar, is where Shirley Green, Linda Green's mother and culinary inspiration, sold her yakamein. Shirley passed her closely guarded, wildly popular recipe to Linda. And Linda in turn has served it up for countless others at the jazz festival, in local museums, and at surprise events outside her home. Her efforts have immensely widened yakamein's mysterious appeal.
Linda—who has shared her recipe with only her daughter—continues to guard the family secret. Since not everyone can just walk down the street and order a bowl of yakamein, I quilted together a recipe from my many samples of her version and the variations I tasted in restaurants all over New Orleans, so you can try your hand at making your own.