In Europe, it is believed that pasta originated in Italy, but the Chinese are convinced that the world's oldest noodles were prepared in the Middle Kingdom.
A common misconception regarding the Chinese diet is that it consists purely of rice, more rice and even more rice. However, in addition to rice, noodles made from wheat flour are also served at the Chinese table, both in the northern and southern parts of the country.
In Europe, it is believed that pasta originated in Italy, but the Chinese are convinced that the world's oldest noodles were prepared in the Middle Kingdom. One proof of this is that the poet Shu Shi had written an ode to noodles dated about 300 BCE.
The ode is said to be so detailed that it was used as a reference for Chinese food culture during that time. If poems have been written about noodles already during that time, then perhaps Chinese noodles are a cultural treasure and invention.
Origin of noodles
Any talk about the origin of Chinese noodles, however, has to begin with grains. In China, millet was traditionally the staple grain. Wheat had to be imported. Millet was prepared for cooking by breaking the grains, steaming them. The Chinese did not know what to do with the wheat, as it was foreign to them.
Wheat was thought to be the poor man's food, or as a back-up, in case there was a shortage of millet. At this point, the Chinese haven't yet realized that wheat can be ground into flour. When wheat was steamed, it had such a bitter taste that eating it was barely worth the effort.
All this changed when the Chinese were introduced, thanks to the Silk Road, to a mill that could grind wheat into flour. It didn't take long for the Chinese to invent several tasty ingredients, when they realized that ground wheat was so versatile. The wheat flour dough can be shaped into plates, filled dumplings and noodles of different widths.
There are four signature Chinese-style noodles: dandan noodles in Sichuan Province, beef noodles in Lanzhou, zhaijiang or fried sauce noodles in Beijing and daoxiao or knife-peeled noodles in Shanxi Province.
Long life noodles
In China, many cooks prepare the noodles themselves, and they see it as no more of a bother than peeling potatoes. Wheat flour and water is mixed to make dough, and sometimes egg is added to the mix, too.
They even make noodles, called vermicelli, from rice, and they often use something similar to the pasta machines used by the Italians to make noodles of different sizes. Another gadget resembles a giant garlic press, which presses the noodles out of tiny holes to make long noodles.
A special kind of noodles, called lā miàn, is prepared by stretching the dough. Making these noodles have become almost an art form. The dough is stretched lengthwise between both hands. The ends are folded together and the dough is stretched again and again, becoming thinner and longer.
Making lā miàn noodles takes speed and skill, as the dough needs to remain intact and the noodles have to be kept separate from one another. The longer the noodles are, the better, because in China, noodles symbolise long life—a person celebrating his birthday is served what is called "long life noodles", cháng shòu miàn.
The story of this tradition dates back to the Han Dynasty (206 BCE - 220 CE) and the very superstitious Emperor Wu. One day, he was chatting with his ministers when the topic of longevity came up. Emperor Wu mentioned that the longer the person’s face is, the longer he or she would live. A very smart minister, Dongfang Shuo laughed. Others were confused and asked Dongfang Shuo why he was laughing.
Dongfang Shuo answered: “An ancient man once lived to 800 years old. How long must his face be!” People thought his argument was well-founded. The longevity could not be based on the length of a person’s face. But another way could be found. In Chinese, the word for face and for noodles is the same.
A reciprocal gift
For those Chinese cooks who have no time or desire to make their own noodles from scratch, the grocery store always has fresh noodles for sale. There are also dried noodles available off the shelf, but they should be used only if fresh noodles are not available.
For those of us who are amateurs, or just plain lazy, there are always instant noodles. While they can't compare to the real thing, in the spirit of international cultural exchange, let's think of instant noodles as the Chinese kitchen's reciprocal gift to the West, thanking for wheat grains and the flour mill that allowed them to make noodles out of wheat flour.
Here is a delicious recipe from China.org that uses noodles:
Fried Noodles with Shredded Meat
250 grams ready-made wheat noodles
100 grams shredded pork
15 grams shredded bamboo shoots
15 grams shredded mushrooms
8 grams (1 1/4 tsp) soy sauce
3 grams (1/2 tsp) salt
60 grams (4 tbsp) cooking oil
6 grams (1 tbsp) corn starch
Boil five cups of water in a pot. Put in the noodles and cook for 6 to 10 minutes. Take them out and rinse with cold water to cool off the noodles. Mix the noodles with 5 g (1 tsp) of cooking oil.
Put the remaining oil in a wok and when the oil is 135-170ºC (275-340ºF), put in the noodles and stir-fry till the noodles appear golden yellow in colour. Take them out and drain off the oil. Spread them out on a plate.
Heat the oil left in the wok and put in the shredded meat, bamboo shoots and carrots. Add 50 g (3 tbsp) of water, then the salt, and soy sauce. When the sauce starts to boil, add the corn starch to thicken the sauce. Spread the sauce on the fried noodles and serve.