Oodles of Noodles.
Fans of Marco Polo may believe the myth that the explorer brought pasta to the Italians, but the history of noodles is much older than that, and it begins in China. Textual references from China’s East Han Dynasty appear as early as the first century A.D., but a preserved bowl of long yellow noodles, discovered sealed and upside down at the Lajia archaeological site in Central China, dates back 4,000 years. Those ancient noodles were made from millet, a grain that has been cultivated there for more than seven millennia. Today, millet has long given way to wheat or even rice flour, and the variations on the noodle are as varied as the regions and peoples of this vast nation. Here are a few you should be looking for on your next trip to China:
Never mind Peking duck; if there’s anything that’s quintessentially Beijing, it is this dish. Zhajiang mian are thick, wheat-based noodles common in the north. But in Beijing, cooks have their own particular preferences for the fried sauce that gives them their name. The chewy wheat dough is contrasted with a rich, simmered topping composed of diced pork belly or sometimes ground pork, fermented yellow-soybean paste (typically rather salty), mushrooms and dark soy sauce. The ingredients are cooked together and then served over the plain noodles. But then diners add some crunch: freshly sliced carrot, cucumber and spring onions. Whether you’re strolling in one of Beijing’s old hutong neighborhoods or sitting down in a modern five-star hotel restaurant, you can find this dish — and price is no measure of what’s best.
Lanzhou is the capital of the northwestern province of Gansu, an area dominated by the Hui people, one of the 56 ethnic groups officially recognized by China. These wheat noodles are always made fresh to order and generally you’ll see them prepared right out in the front of the shop. The soft, pliable dough is rolled out quickly and folded, stretched, and folded back on itself again, while the noodle-makers use all their fingers as if playing cat’s cradle with yarn. At every stretch the noodles become thinner and, with a jump rope sort of motion, the maker slaps them against the floured work surface. It’s an amazing display of deft noodle work followed by an unceremonious tossing of the finished product into a rolling boil. No pork here, but rather beef and lamb for the meat, plus a selection of vegetables such as onions, potatoes, eggplant and carrots, and often cumin for seasoning.
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The name “dandan” comes from the pole — balanced by a hanging pot at either end — which street vendors slung over their shoulders as they carried this dish through the neighborhoods. This is Sichuan cuisine, so expect some heat. Chili oil permeates the meat and blends well with zha cai and ya cai — a pickled mustard leaf’s lower and upper parts, respectively — which are all served over a bowl of fresh noodles with only a small amount of soup, enough to make it easy to mix everything together. Sichuan peppercorns have a numbing quality to them, more like black pepper than the fire-like chili peppers, but the two combined are not for the faint of heart. Fried soybeans sprinkled over the top give the dish a bit of a crunch.
Like martial arts meeting culinary arts, chefs wield a sharp blade to carve these noodles. “Hand-cut” or “knife-shaved” noodles of Shanxi Province require serious skill. No rolling pins or flattened dough here. The maker holds a large mass of dough in one hand while he deftly flicks the curved blade repeatedly across the long side so that the pieces practically leap into the boiling water. A talented chef can fling as many as 200 noodles into the pot in one minute. While the noodlemaking process is standard, how they’re eaten can range from beef soups to being served with sauce and vegetables.
But these are merely the four most famous noodle dishes in China. There’s no need to stop here! Pian Er Chuan noodles are the signature dish of Huangzhou. This soup may remind one of ramen, with pork, bamboo shoots, and potherb mustard (mild, leafy greens also known as mizuna). Henan hui mian or stewed noodles go back over eight centuries for the people of Henan. These braised wheat noodles are also hand-pulled and made almost an inch wide. They’re served with stewed mutton (though beef or even seafood is possible) and a bit of kelp in a broth made by boiling goat bones for hours.
Not every noodle is wheat. Crossing the Bridge noodles, typical of Yunnan Province, are made with rice noodles. The story goes that there once was a scholar studying for exams on a small island linked to land by a bridge. By the time his wife brought him his meal each day, the soup and noodles were cold. By putting a fine layer of oil on the broth, however, she insulated the dish so that by the time she crossed the bridge it would still be warm. A steaming hot bowl of chicken soup is served along with sides of ingredients — sliced meat, pork kidney, chicken, fresh fish, tofu, leeks, green bean sprouts, quail eggs, cilantro and green onion, and of course, a bowl of noodles. Diners cook the ingredients in the soup before eating, similar to hot pot or shabu-shabu. Whether you’re crossing the bridge in Yunnan or crossing the street in Beijing, you’ll find a noodle that suits your taste.
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