For those with a yen for Ya ka Mein
The world is filled with abundant egomaniacs, too many pyromaniacs and, in certain parts of New Orleans, our own born-and-bred ya ka meiniacs. Some worry that the latter, fervent devotees of Ya ka mein, that spicy, oh-so-salty street-food soup, is a diminishing group.
Once found in almost every African-American kitchen, this Asian-sounding dish lost favor among many, although it can still be bought once a year at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and along some second-line routes, thanks to local chef Miss Linda. Her version of this soul food dish made her the winner of a 2012 Food Network “Chopped” episode. But even she, the queen on this iconic soul food dish, never followed any kind of a written recipe for ya ka mein, having learned how to make it at her mother’s knee.
Ya ka mein is much like gumbo, in that there are as many versions as there are cooks. Believed to have been created either by immigrant Chinese working in Louisiana’s sugar cane fields or railroads, or by returning African-American troops bringing it with them from Korea, this dish, made of shredded beef, salty broth, spaghetti, loads of chopped green onion and a hard-boiled egg, has long been known as one fabulous hangover remedy.
But now this lowly dish is getting a high-level makeover. In Tampa, Florida. And one former New Orleanian is showing the soon-to-open Cajun-Creole restaurant there how to do it.
Toni Haynes was actually born in Abbeville, La. The daughter of a sugar engineer father and a teacher mother, she grew up in a household where her father was the master chef.
“He would make these elaborate meals and all mother would do was set the table and arrange the flowers,” she recalled. “She never did learn how to cook.”
Ya ka mein was not in her father’s cooking realm, however. Nor was it in Toni’s who, following in her father’s foodie footsteps, became a well known caterer when she moved from the bayou to the Big Easy. When she relocated to Tampa several years ago, she continued her career there, teaching others all about Louisiana cooking.
So when Suzanne and Roger Perry, owners of two successful Tampa restaurants -- Datz, a comfort food spot, and Datz Dough, a bakery -- decided to open a third, call it Roux and focus on New Orleans cuisine, it was a no-brainer to ask Toni Haynes to help design the menu. Having canvassed their thousands of Facebook followers about what they thought should be on the Roux menu, the Perrys were swamped with requests for, unsurprisingly, Crawfish Monica, gumbo, jambalaya and BBQ Shrimp. But Ya ka mein?
“We googled it,” Suzanne Perry says. “And we thought, this is really a fun dish. Street food really fits our personality.”
So it was back to New Orleans for Toni to check in with others about their versions of the dish. A tasting was held, a recipe concocted, and then it was time to try it out on real customers. Surprise, surprise -- or maybe not -- when this strange-sounding soup was placed on the Datz menu, it sold out. Of course, the Perrys did not dish up their version in a Styrofoam cup a la New Orleans. Oh no, in Tampa, Ya ka mein has gone mainstream, upscale, seriously trendy. Who knew?
Since recipes for Ya ka mein are hard-to-impossible to come by, here’s Toni Haynes' version, family size. It may be a tad more elegant than the street version, but its roots are definitely New Orleans.
Ya ka mein; aka Hangover Soup
Beef Chuck 4 lbs
Salt and Pepper 1-2 teaspoons
Vegetable Oil 3 oz
Beef Stock 16 oz
Chicken Stock 16 oz
(chopped celery, onion and
green pepper) 16 oz
Garlic minced 1 tablespoon
Worcestershire Sauce 3 tablespoons
Kitchen Bouquet 2 tablespoons
Soy Sauce 3 oz
Ketchup 8 oz
Hot Sauce 2 tablespoons
Heat oven to 350 degrees.
Season meat well.
In a skillet, heat oil to shimmering. Brown meat well on both sides. Remove and place in hotel pan in 350-degree oven.
In the same skillet, add Trinity Mix, and cook 20-30 minutes until just beginning to brown.
Add garlic and cook 1 minute.
Add chicken and beef stock, Worcestershire, Kitchen Bouquet, soy, ketchup and hot sauce. Simmer 10-15 minutes.
Pour over meat in pan and cook 3 hours until very tender and able to shred.
Remove meat from pan and shred.
Reduce stock slightly. Add a little instant roux if desired and check seasoning.
Serve over cooked angel hair pasta. Garnish with chopped green onion and half a hard-boiled egg. Serves 8 to 10.
Sharon Litwin is president of NolaVie. Email her at [email protected]