What is ya-ka mein and where did it come from? The first half of that question is easy: it's a spicy beef noodle soup with sliced green onions and a hard-boiled egg half. Regular spaghetti plays the part of the noodles. Ya-ka mein, also known as Old Sober, is New Orleans African-American street food, not restaurant food. You can hear more about it on this week's episode of The Splendid Table, as Jane and Michael Stern introduce Lynne Rossetto Kasper to the obscure dish. The show aired this weekend but you can catch the discussion online. You can also listen to the entire show if you'd prefer.
As for the second part of that question -- where did it come from -- there are many theories, and Jane and Michael Stern present two of them on The Splendid Table. Our own opinion, based on nothing more than it seems right to us, is that ya-ka mein is a New Orleans soul food variation of the inexpensive and filling Cantonese-American dish known as yat gaw mein, which is a simple dish of noodles in soup or sauce, offered with a choice of meats (beef, chicken, pork, etc.) and garnished with sliced green onions. The New Orleans twist is the spicy, rather than mellow, broth, and the hard-boiled egg.
Yat gaw mein is found on Chinese-American menus all over the country. In places like New York and California (where there are many Chinese-Americans) that's how it usually appears: yat gaw mein (mein is the Cantonese word for noodles). But in much of the US, you'll see it listed as yatca mein, yakka mein, etc., because that's how it sounds.
There's precedent for this African-American adoption and transformation of a Chinese restaurant staple: St. Louis' St. Paul, which is an egg foo young patty sandwiched between slices of white bread, and garnished with mayo, pickle and onion, although St. Pauls are still prepared in Chinese restaurants, unlike the New Orleans ya-ka mein. But, come to think of it, where did the St. Paul get its name from?