My tastebuds have been blazing for traditional foods lately. The yat ca mein story (not that there is one, because the history of the dish is very unclear) has been a point of interest for us since years ago in New Orleans. The dish itself, composed of spaghetti noodles, beef, ham, boiled egg, and green onion in a soy beef broth, has elements of Oriental cuisine and American black soul food. So entangled are the influences of both, that the true origin is unknown. Sure, there is the Chinese ya ca mein, but this American variety is a different dish. In the outlying areas of New Orleans (those outside of the French Quarter), you can find yat ca mein at corner grocery stores, some soul food restaurants, and some Chinese restaurants. Either it came from Asian store owners in black neighborhoods, or by black cooks copying Chinese cuisine (this is an over-simplified analogy, but who knows... I've never read the book, though there are several references to 'Gumbo Tales' by Sara Roahen who imagines the evolution of the dish as well as a few other New Orleans classics).
Years ago, Chef K and I participated in a charity event for Meals on Wheels (sometime around 2000, I'm guessing). The theme of the event was "A Night Out in Old New Orleans." Although some chefs seemed to have no regard for the theme when deciding on their contribution, we intended to present 'Yat Ca Mein.' Of course, we added some extra touches (moreso on the Asian side) with the addition of cilantro, shrimp (I think), and taking the time to actually make a nice refined broth instead of the traditional bouillon cube or beef base type. Yat ca mein has a reputation as a hang-over cure, and we had a lot of interest develop over the course of the evening in that aspect of it. Even Paul Prudhomme himself rolled up to our table before the event on his little scooter contraption. He looked over our set-up with quiet curiosity, then said in his typical soft-spoken gentleman's voice, "You know... that this dish originated in New Orleans." Actually, we were not sure on that since we researched it and found very very little info (the world wide web was a little less broad 8 years ago... especially for such a colloquial subject). We were hoping that it did originate there. Our only 'facts' came from the musings of the older cooks in the New Orleans kitchens that we spoke too. Even Chef Mike's mom, who had been cooking on the Riverboat Natchez from many years back, said that yat ca mein was a 'ho dish.' That is not to imply that it's perfect for Christmas or after plowing your garden, but that it's hang-over curing properties were taken advantage of by those women who had been up cavorting in inappropriate ways all night before. Apparently, you put a stereotype upon yourself if you allowed yourself to be seen eating it. Another woman from our own kitchen, Mrs. Denise, learned to make yat ca mein from her older sister who in turn learned it from working in an old store located in the uptown area many years ago. Mrs. Denise taught me how to make it.
True to form, yat ca mein is spelled in many variations and is sometimes painted onto the sides of corner stores along with other regional ingredients and dishes. I personally have stuck to my preferred spelling partly because of the New Orleans meaning of the word 'yat.' It's slang referring to the accents in the surrounding areas... mainly the shortening of certain words and phrases... "where yat?" is short for 'where are you at?' or 'where you at?' (which is not grammatically correct either way, go figure). There is also the text message version... y@?
An internet search today reveals many more hits on the subject of yat ca mein. It's not only known in New Orleans, but there are many references to 'yock a mein' in Virginia (still prominent in black communities and referred to as 'yock'). At one point back in 2000, we had sent an email to Tom Fitzmorris (famous New Orleans food critic and author) asking him about the history of yat ca mein. His reply was (and I still remember it to this day), "I cannot think of a dish less worthy of serious research than this one." Well, time is passing Mr. Fitzmorris and we are watching you. At some point in time, you will feel the need to document the yat ca mein story if for no other reason than to preserve some piece of New Orleans food history. At that moment, we will throw that back in your face. It does deserve serious research, afterall... just as much so as king cakes and po-boys do.
Ok, enough of the historical ramblings... on to the actuall dish and what's in it. This is incredibly simple and you still have time to cook a pot and hook yourself up on New Year's day morn when your head is screaming from the worst headache ever. If you can manage to operate a microwave, there will be hope in 2009.
You can start with about 2.5 liters of water in a pot with some beef bouillon. Have the lady behind the deli counter at the grocery store cut a couple of thick slices (about 12mm) of both roast beef and smoked ham or seasoning ham if you're living in such a part of the USA that sells such a thing. If you have access to a pot roast, this will work even better. Dice both of them up and put them in the broth. Add soy sauce to saltiness. Boil about 4 eggs, then chop them. Slice one bunch of scallions. Put half of the eggs and the white half of the scallions in the broth. Simmer and skim for at least an hour (longer is better). Serve with spaghetti noodles and garnish with more of the chopped egg and scallion.
Maybe it's the combination of liquid, fat from the meat, the salt and msg, and the stomach coating feel of the boiled egg. Not sure, but it's pretty good when you're not.
Vary this recipe in whatever way you wish. Other 'sometimes added' ingredients are worcestershire, onion, mushroom... I like to cook the spaghetti with a little sesame oil in the water, and cilantro is always nice, and a squirt of sriracha can really help sweat out your blues. I once had a yat ca mein in New Orleans that had an inch of grease floating on top. That was nasty, and it has since pushed me towards making it on the healthier side. Besides, excessive grease is really not always the best in a hang-over situation. Here is a great picture of typical yat ca mein the way it is served in New Orleans... this one actually looks pretty damn good.
Have a happy, safe, and hang-over free new year.