Nobody in New Orleans seems to know where yakamein comes from, but everyone agrees on its most magical property: It’s a beloved hangover cure. Called “Old Sober” for this reason, the soup is a mix of spaghetti, chopped beef, green onions, and chopped hard-boiled eggs, drowned in a tangy beef broth, spiced up with hot sauce and soy sauce, and sprinkled with liberal amounts of Creole seasoning. (More adventurous versions have been known to include alligator.) There are as many versions of the dish as there are corner stores and grandmothers who make it, but in essence, yakamein is a comfort food, particularly for the city’s black community.
There are several explanations for the dish’s origins. Some say it was born from the nostalgic cravings of World War II or Korean War veterans, who wanted to re-create the kinds of noodle soups they’d enjoyed during their time in Asia. That explanation seems unlikely, however, considering that there had been variations on a noodle dish called yat gau mein in American Chinese restaurants since at least 1900, according to cultural historian Andrew Coe. A more likely explanation is that New Orleans’ version of the dish was born from a culinary conversation between Creole cooks and the Chinese railroad workers who came to the city in the 1800s.
Historically, you’d be hard-pressed to find yakamein in a restaurant, instead picking up a steaming cup at the city’s famous second lines and festivals. Nowadays, however, the dish is making its way onto the menus of sit-down restaurants, offering a take on classic New Orleans flavor to those not lucky enough to know a Creole grandma or frequent a favorite corner store.
There’s serious competition for the title of queen of yakamein, but no story about the dish is complete without a mention of Ms. Linda. Called “The Yakamein Lady,” Ms. Linda cooked for New Orleans public schools for 25 years, while she also sold her signature yakamein in steaming, meaty bowls from food stands at Sunday second lines. When Hurricane Katrina shut down most of New Orleans public schools in 2005, Ms. Linda began cooking full time, opening a catering company and eventually winning Creole cooking contests. Ms. Linda continues to peddle her soup around New Orleans, but her stand is always on the move, typically appearing amid the brass-band bustle of city festivals.
Travelers lucky enough to catch Ms. Linda are guaranteed an ultimate yakamein experience, but if you miss her, never fear: The city is brimming with corner stores wafting the scent of beefy broth, and each is a unique experience. Wherever you choose to partake in yakamein, one thing is certain: If your experience in New Orleans involves any kind of nightlife, you’re going to need to get acquainted with Old Sober.
Need to Know
Yakamein is a real made-from-whatever's-in-your-cabinets kind of dish, so curious eaters should feel free to attempt a rendition of their own. The noodles can be spaghetti or udon, and the sauce on top can be soy, ketchup, or hot. As for the seasoning, every chef has their own, but some recipes recommend a combination of paprika, onion, garlic, cayenne, thyme, and oregano.
Where to Try It
John and Mary's Food Store3238 Orleans Ave, New Orleans, Louisiana, 70119, United States
This corner store includes New Orleans, Chinese, and Vietnamese take-out. At the Venn diagram of all of them: yakamein.
Ms. Linda at the Odgen Museum After Hours Website925 Camp Street, New Orleans, Louisiana, 70130, United States
Ms. Linda typically serves her yakamein outside the museum every Thursday from 5:30 p.m. to 8:00 p.m.