It comes with many spellings: Yakmein, Yaka mein, Yak-a-mein, and even Yak a Men are just a few. It is also often referred to as “Old Sober” for its supposed hangover curing properties. Although found in restaurants and take-out joints, NOLA’s unique Asian/Soul Food hybrid soup known as Yakamein is also a street food staple at parades, fairs, and festivals. Like many other quintessential New Orleanian foods, Yakamein comes surrounded by myth and debate. It’s a spicy noodle soup that is generally made with a beef and soy sauced based broth; spaghetti noodles; some sort of protein such as beef brisket, chicken or shrimp (or all three); onions and/or chopped scallions, and a hard-boiled egg sliced in half. Cooks often add or have available on the side Creole or Cajun seasoning, Old Bay Spice, or some signature combination spices. Additional soy sauce, Worchester sauce, hot sauce, and even ketchup are often added as condiments, or snuck into the broth, depending on the chef’s own signature recipe.
No one is quite sure how or when this Asian inspired soup made it into the African American cuisine and community of New Orleans. One story has the soup returning with servicemen from Japan after WWII or the Korean war (accompanied with their Asian war brides) where it was introduced then adapted into becoming a distinctive fusion dish. Another story traces Yakamein back to Chinese immigrants in the 1800s who came to Louisiana to work first on plantations then later on, the railroad lines often side by side with African Americans. The name does have Asian roots. Mein is the Chinese word for noodle, while the phonetic “Yaka” remains a bit of a mystery in Chinese, Japanese and Korean cuisines. The food obsessed RiceBall has written a pretty comprehensive blog post on the subject here. Leah Chase, one of the grande dames of New Orleanian food history also has a pretty comprehensive take on Yakamein as well:
No matter the mysterious origins, a hot sloppy soup might not seem the easiest to transport and eat on the street. Yet, Yakamein is well loved on parade routes served in Styrofoam containers slurped with plastic spoons and forks. A handful of bills at about $6 dollars gets you a belly full. Linda Green, simply known by many as the “Yaka Mein Lady”, is the most well known parade and festival Yakamein purveyor. Look for her on the neutral ground near parade routes, at official New Orleans festivals, and where ever else there’s a big old NOLA style celebration. You can also follow her on twitter @oneofTEAMBREEZY.
Yakamein: A little bit funky, a little bit fusion, and a whole lotta NOLA.