Ya-ka-mein is one of New Orleans’ best-kept secrets. The beef noodle soup has been a staple among the city’s African-American community for as long as anyone can remember, but its origin is a mystery.
Often called Old Sober for its restorative qualities, ya-ka-mein simply consists of chopped beef, noodles, green onions, hard-cooked egg, and broth made from a unique blend of spices. While it is typically made with beef, other proteins like pork or shrimp are also common.
You won’t find it in many restaurants; rather, the comforting dish is more commonly sold as street food at second lines, festivals, or corner stores in neighborhoods like Central City, where Linda Green grew up.
Known around New Orleans today as The Ya-Ka-Mein Lady, Linda uses a secret recipe that has been passed down through several generations of women in her family. She recalls that when her great-grandmother made the dish, the aroma was so enticing that everyone would come to her house with a bowl in their hands. Her mother sold the magical elixir at Bean Brothers Corner, and Linda followed in her footsteps by selling it at second lines and eventually at festivals.
“I have that old school flavor,” Linda says. “It’s really about the juice…Once you do all your other components, like your egg and your spaghetti and your green onion and your meat, you just put it in a bowl, but once you put that broth on top of it, it’s all over with.”
The exact origins of ya-ka-mein remain a mystery to this day, but as with many Creole dishes, it seems to be the result of cultures blending together. Some believe that African-American soldiers returning home from either World War II or the Korean War craved a similar dish and used what was available to them in New Orleans to recreate it. Others believe it could have been created prior to both wars, when Chinese laborers came to New Orleans in the 1800s to build the railroads and formed a bygone Chinatown.
The latter is a theory that Chef Leah Chase of Dooky Chase Restaurant believes to hold some merit. “They just mixed those cultures and did whatever they had to do to survive,” she says.
Regardless of how the New Orleans version of this soup actually came to be, it is generally accepted as having taken root in the African-American community. Today, ya-ka-mein can still be found in corner stores throughout New Orleans. Linda sells her original recipe at festivals throughout the year.
In addition, the dish is found in several Chinese restaurants, spelled yat kai mein, yat gaw mein, yat gat mein, and a host of other variations. It has also made its way onto the menus of fine dining establishments, including Ralph’s on the Park, which offered a version of the dish for some time, and more recently Meauxbar, which creates different daily preparations.
“It is really interesting to see what people do with food,” Leah says. “Nobody should have a claim on food, because you can take the same food, do it your way, and it’s a whole different thing.”
Whether served in a Styrofoam cup at Jazz Fest or on the menus of modern restaurants, ya-ka-mein has a legacy as one the most delicious comfort foods in New Orleans.
- 1 pound boneless chuck roast
- 1 (5-ounce) package Ms. Linda Green’s Ya-Ka-Mein Seasoning*
- 1 pound spaghetti, cooked according to package directions
- 2 bunches green onions, chopped
- 4 hard-cooked eggs, peeled and quartered
- Soy sauce
- Garnish: boiled shrimp, hot sauce, ketchup, boiled cauliflower, boiled broccoli, boiled carrots
- Place chuck roast in a large saucepot, cover with water, and heat over medium-high heat. Once at a low-boil, reduce heat to low, and simmer until roast is cooked, about 15 minutes. Remove roast from cooking liquid, and set aside. Reserve 8 cups cooking liquid.
- In a large saucepot, stir together reserved cooking liquid and Ms. Linda Green’s Ya-Ka-Mein Seasoning. Simmer for 5 minutes, stirring frequently. Once seasoning mixture has dissolved, remove from heat, and keep hot.
- Once beef is cool enough to handle, carefully chop into bite-size pieces; set aside, and keep warm.
- Divide cooked spaghetti among 8 large bowls; top with beef, green onion, and 2 egg quarters. Ladle 1 cup broth mixture over each, and top with a dash of soy sauce. Garnish with boiled shrimp, hot sauce, ketchup, or boiled vegetables, if desired.
- *Ms. Linda Green’s Original New Orleans Ya-Ka-Mein Seasoning is available at neworleanssoulfood.com. If not available, season cooking liquid with 1 teaspoon Creole seasoning and 3 tablespoons beef base. (We used Better Than Bouillon Organic Beef Base.) Be sure to taste and adjust the flavor