Wherever You Go, When Local Food Won’t Do, Always Order The Chow Mein

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Last month, I spent two weeks touring the Emilia Romagna region of Italy. The area—encompassing the cities of Bologna, Parma, and Modena—is called the “food valley” and is famous for its abundance of regionally designated products like Prosciutto de Parma, Aceto Balsamico di Modena, and, most famously, Parmigianino Reggiano.

Since I was in the country to sample these products, I focused all my meals on them. And reader, I mean all. I ate breakfast lunch and dinner that featured one of those three ingredients for 13 days straight. Since the area is also famous for tortellini, in general, and a dish called tortellini en brodo (in broth), in specific, those little morsels of deliciousness also featured heavily in my menu. No lie, I ate tortellini 18 times in two weeks. That doesn’t include all the tortelli, torteloni, and agnolotti that I wolfed down.

The point is: On my summer vacation, I ate a lot of pasta. So when I got to Milan—outside of the region I was sent to research, without the time to dive into the local food scene, and having already returned my rental car—I decided, “You know what? I’m going to pass on Italian food today.”

I was curious what Milan might have on hand—just as I’m always intrigued about international options outside the United States, in countries where local food is the nine-times-out-of-ten default. So I wandered the streets looking for… something else. Anything really.

After a few minutes, with my hunger increasing rapidly, I spotted a Chinese restaurant. It was a refuge from the North Italian fare that is my heritage and my one true love but which my eclectic Americanized palate had somehow managed to overdose on.

Suddenly starving, I burst through the double doors like the man in that impossible-to-solve “albatross” riddle—panting and eager to be relieved of my burden (which in this case was simply being hungry in Italy and not wanting pasta). I sat and opened a menu that I had no hopes of understanding in Cantonese and only marginal hopes of ferreting meaning from in Italian. I scanned a few pages before seeing two words I could make sense of. Twinkling diamonds, gleaming up at me, refracting a warm and comforting light that immediately calmed my hunger pangs: Chow Mein.

I was flooded with joy. Sure Chow Mein is technically pasta (and predates Italian pasta), but it didn’t matter. The flavor profile is different. It was the change I needed. I ordered it immediately (with pork, obviously, because I have taste buds). And let me tell you: It. Was. Exquisite.

Steve Bramucci

The noodles had been pan-fried until slightly crispy, as the dish is traditionally served in Hong Kong. There was a certain gelatinous slickness to the vegetables—a sign that animal fat is being rendered off in either a broth or while sautéing. There were bean sprouts and cabbage and carrots and spring onions, all left raw enough to have some bite to them.