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Noodles: A Street and Home Food

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Rice, Noodles, and Other Grain Foods

Winter Volume: 1999 Issue: 6(4) page(s): 13, 14, and 29

Chinese writings describe the growing of wheat 2,700 years before Christ with inscriptions on bones and tortoise shells from the Shang Dynasty (1751 - 1122 BCE). They tell us that wheat was grown in Henan with stone mortars grinding it into flour. The flour may have been used to make noodles, were probably used to make batters for pancake-type dishes, and similar foods. Some say noodles and wheaten foods are even older as do Harold Corke and Monisha Bhattachara in a chapter in Asian Foods; itself reviewed in Flavor and Fortune in Volume 6(3) on page 22. They advise noodles were used circa five thousand BCE, but not in their modern-day form.

Noodles originated in the north of China and were made by hand. As we now know them, manufacture probably was in full swing at the turn of the century. During the Han Dynasty (206 BCE - 220 CE), there are reports of large scale milling, something needed to manufacture noodles. Making and consuming them expanded considerably during the Tang Dynasty (618 - 907 CE). There are records at that time of their manufacture and their being cut into strips. It is also in Tang times that their association with long life came into being.

Drying noodles did not become popular until the Yuan Dynasty (1271 - 1368 CE). In the following dynasty, that of the Ming (1368 - 1644 CE), the name used now, mein, evolved. Then and now, noodles are not just made from wheat. Rather, they can be and were made from a plethora of plant flours and starches alone or in combination; and they were and are used in multifarious forms.

Many dozens of tons of wheat products are used each and every day of the year. Miskelly and Moss report that forty percent of the total flour consumption in the Asian world goes into making noodles, China the largest producer and consumer of wheat. While other countries use wheat flour primarily in baked products, the Chinese use it mostly for noodles and steamed breads with minimal use in pastry foods and almost none in baked breads.

Noodles in China are not extruded as are the pasta products of most other countries. Rather, they are cut or pinched from a ball of dough, some are then rolled; or they are made from a batter and pushed into boiling water or stock. The Chinese adore all kinds of noodles and evaluate them based upon their texture and their color.

There are many noodle types, and though some say Marco Polo brought them home to Italy, they had been made there long before he, his father, or his uncle went to China. What China does deserve credit for is inventing egg noodles.

White salted noodles are the most popular in the north and yellow noodles preferred in the south. Some are thin, others thick, some wide, still others flat, some are squares or rectangles, others circles and ovals, some hollow and others solid through and through. Some are made with or without twisting, some tossed in the air, some rolled, some stretched before or in water, others in oil. The Chinese make them not only with or without egg, but also with or without other flavorings such as fish, shrimp, and crab.

These days though most noodles are made commercially, but ones made by hand are considered better. You can buy them this way in stores or on the street. Fresh noodles can be cooked or raw, packaged or unpackaged, found straight or in skeins or tangled bundles. Go to any market in China or a Chinese supermarket in other countries and look for them. They are in heaps or packages awaiting the customer who will take them home and prepare them in one of a million different ways.

The newest noodle craze is instant noodles. Though made in China and elsewhere, they are considered an inferior product made only for convenience. They are made plain or flavored and with an envelope of dry seasonings and more. They re-moisten quickly and cook in a moment or two and then the items in the envelope, which can be flour, oil, salt, an alkali such as potassium carbonate, dried vegetables, spices, chili oil, etc., are added.

According to preparation technique, most noodles are considered a filament type product. Some of the most beloved other varieties are cut from a sheet of dough and called 'cat's ear noodles' or 'fish-flour noodles.' In the Yunnan province, they are known as 'across the bridge noodles.' Cat's ears are made from rolled dough cut into one inch squares then pinched between thumb and forefinger or mechanically bent before drying, or they can be pinched from a more batter-type ball of dough. I once saw a woman cut them off the dough ball with a pair of chopsticks and deftly put them into a boiling kettle of soup in one swift motion. I tried and failed, so her husband made me a special tool with a metal plate across the bottom with holes in it. The next morning, they taught me to force the dough through the holes somewhat akin to making spaetzle. The main difference was this device weighed about ten pounds and was almost two feet in length.

The most popular flours used for making noodles (in alphabetical and not order of importance or use) are: amaranth, arrowroot, barley, buckwheat, corn, job's tears, millet, mung and other beans including soybeans, oats, white potato, rice, sorghum, sweet potato, wheat, and yam. Their regional use varies. One example is lots of buckwheat is preferred mixed with wheat flour in the north, more wheat than buckwheat in Shanxi province, and all wheat called 'rollers' are preferred in some more southerly areas in the Gansu Province.

Noodles of all types are loved in the Fujian Province especially those made with sweet potato or yam flours. People there like them in soup and as wrappers for dumplings. In the latter form, they like the dough mixed with powdered pork before rolling. Those who live in Hunan like theirs every way as long as they are topped with a spicy sauce. There are so many specific regional ways that books are filled with them.

Jiaozi, a closed noodle wrapper sealing meat or vegetables in a dumpling skin are popular everywhere as are the open kind called wrapping shumai. Thicker dough is preferred in the north, thinner wrappers in the south. In soups everyone calls them hun tons which westerners recognize as their beloved 'won tons.' Noodles are endemic to China and are used plain, in soups, covered with sauces, fried, steamed, or boiled.

Soup noodles are a popular snack throughout China with some of the dough put into the soup to boil, the rest fried and put on top. Everywhere Chinese people can be found eating noodles. They are in noodle shops, restaurants, or at street-vendor carts. They are eaten as pot-stickers, consumed hot or cold, wet or dry, plain or fancy; matters not as long as they are good.

Noodles are not just for food. They are taken when visiting graves of a deceased family member or friend and used as an offering, especially on the 24th day after a new moon. They have important places with the living, as well. After the birth of a child, especially a boy, the mother's family sends the new mother wheat flour noodles along with a chicken, eggs colored red, and other foods. At birthdays, a plate of very long thin noodles are served to wish the celebrant a long life. There is a wonderful story of an elderly missionary in Fuzhou who received two such symbols, two hundred-year eggs and piles of dozens upon dozens of noodles of exceptional length, both to wish him good fortune and an even longer life.

One way to make noodles is with wheat starch and rice flour. They are steamed in sheets, then cut into squares or strips and cooked on the spot. These are prepared for workers on the streets of Hong Kong and Taipei late at night. The sheets are filled with beef or shrimp then rolled and steamed while they wait; the strips are put into water with other foods they choose, cooked, and served as soup. These are also served as a dim sum item.

Wheat flour noodles cut into large squares are the wrappers for egg-rolls and spring-rolls. Translucent noodles made of mung bean flour are popular and known as either green noodles or cellophane noodles. Experts make noodles as fine as the hairs on the head by stretching and pulling a rope of dough, doubling it over and twisting, then repeating and repeating the process. This requires considerable technique and energy, and frequent dipping of the pulled threads into flour so that the strands do not stick together.

The recipes that follow use various types of noodles. We hope you will enjoy them. Check the index listings at www.flavorandfortune.com for others, as well.
Shao Bing
3 cups glutinous flour
1 cup hot water
1/2 cup cold water
dash of salt
1 teaspoon corn oil
2 Tablespoons white sesame seeds
1. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F.
2. Put flour in a bowl and add the hot water. Stir until it holds together somewhat then add the cold water and the salt and mix well.
3. Grease another bowl and set the dough in it and let it rest covered for about half an hour.
4. Roll the noodle dough into a strip about four inches wide. Then fold it over into four parts. Do this three or four times until the dough is supple and smooth.
5. Roll into four separate five-inch long pieces, cut each into five parts, and sprinkle them with sesame seeds before rolling into a somewhat thick circle. Bake for five minutes on each side.
Note: These can be served plain or with any dish.
Pot Stickers
1 batch of shao bing dough made with half cup of corn oil in place of the cold water
1/4 cup ground pork
1/4 cup minced shrimp
2 Tablespoons minced scallions
dash white pepper
1 teaspoon light soy sauce
1 Tablespoon sesame oil
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1 egg, separated
2 Tablespoons corn oil
1. Make the noodle dough with oil not cold water as directed above. After it rests, roll it thinly and into sheets and cut them into three-inch circles. Reuse the cutting to make more circles, as needed.
2. Mix pork, shrimp, scallions, white pepper, soy sauce sesame oil, garlic, and the egg white thoroughly but quickly making the filling. Too much mixing will make it tough.
3. Take one tablespoon of filling and put it in the center of the circle. Then dip a finger into the yolk and use it as sealant on one half of the edge of a circle.
4. Pleat two-thirds of the outside of the circle and stick it to the other half where you put the yolk. Complete until all filling and dough is used.
5. Heat oil and fry the pot-sticker dumplings on one side. Add two tablespoons water, cover the pan and simmer on low heat until all the water is absorbed. If your pan is not large enough, do in two batches. The pot stickers are best if they do not touch each other in the pan but are nonetheless very close.
Rice Noodles with Meat
4 ounce package rice noodles
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1 Tablespoon corn oil
1 scallion minced fine
1/4 pound ground pork
1 teaspoon each light and mushroom soy sauces
1 Tablespoon cornstarch
1/2 cup minced oysters
2 Tablespoons minced coriander
2 teaspoons black bean paste with garlic
1 teaspoon chili paste with garlic
1. Soak the noodles in hot water for half an hour, then drain and mix with the sesame oil and put into a serving bowl.
2. Heat corn oil and fry scallions one minute.
3. Mix pork, soy sauces, cornstarch, and oysters and add to the scallions. Fry for one minute then add coriander, and the two sauce pastes and cook another two minutes.
4. Pour pork/oyster mixture over the noodles and serve.
Note: Boiling broth can be added to make this dish into a soup.
Beef and Egg Noodles
8 ounces fresh egg noodles
1 teaspoon sesame oil
2 Tablespoons corn oil
1/4 pound ground beef
1/4 pound flank steak, cut into slivers
4 fresh shiitake mushrooms, sliced thin
1/2 red pepper, seeded and sliced thin
1/2 green pepper, seeded and sliced thin
1/2 small onion, sliced thin
2 cloves garlic, minced fine
1 Tablespoon oyster sauce
1 Tablespoon dark or thick soy sauce
1 square fermented bean curd, mashed
1 Tablespoon fermented black beans, mashed
2 Tablespoons cornstarch mixed with two tablespoons cold water
1. Boil noodles for about three minutes, check if tender but firm, if not boil another minute until they are. Drain and toss with the sesame oil.
2. Heat corn oil and fry both types of beef for two minutes. Then add the mushrooms, peppers, onions, and garlic and fry for two minutes more.
3. Add the oyster and soy sauces, the bean curd and the mashed black beans and stir-fry another minute.
4. Add the cornstarch mixture and cook until it clarifies, about a minute, and serve.
Bow-tie Noodle Snack
1 package of twelve square egg roll wrappers
3 cups corn oil
1 cup powdered sugar
1 Tablespoon five-spice powder or other seasoning
1. Cut the wrappers into four strips and cut a slit of about two inches the long way in each of them.
2. Take one end of each strip and put it through the slit to make a bow-tie.
3. Heat oil until about 325 degrees F and deep fry a few at a time until each is light tan in color; then drain and cool them. Repeat until all are fried and cooled.
4. Mix sugar and five-spice powder and dust over the bow-ties just before serving.
Sesame Noodles I
2 ounces mung bean noodles, soaked in hot water
1/2 pound cooked boneless skinless chicken breast, shredded
1 cucumber, cut in very thin strips
1 carrot, cut in very thin strips
4 ounces bean sprouts, heads and tails removed
1/2 cup snow pea pods with strings removed, cut into thin strips
1 Tablespoon sesame paste
3 Tablespoons hot tea
2 Tablespoons sesame oil
1 teaspoon chili paste with garlic
1. Boil two cups of water and cook the noodles for five minutes. Remove, cut into six-inch lengths and put on a very large serving platter, spreading them out, covering the entire plate.
2. Put the chicken on these noodles leaving an inch all around the edge.
3. Do the same for the cucumber, then the carrots, then the bean sprouts, leaving an inch of the previous food uncovered around the entire plate. Then top with the pea pods in the center.
4. Mix the sesame paste and hot water until mixed well. The add the oil and the chili paste. Just before serving, pour this sauce over as much of the ingredients as possible.
5. Toss at the table then serve or allow diners to help themselves.

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