Beloved the world over, noodles are the ultimate comfort food and are a staple in Chinese cooking and culture. Although the origin of the noodle is somewhat debatable, with the Italians, Arabs and Chinese all laying a claim, the earliest written record of noodles is from a book dated to the Han dynasty in China (206 BC – 220 AD). These noodles were made from wheat dough and were widely produced and consumed during the Han dynasty. A fascinating fact is that in 2005, Chinese scientists found a 4000-year-old bowl of noodles preserved at an archeological site along the Yellow River, by far the oldest known remains of noodles, which would seem to end the debate.
Of course, a well-known legend has it that the Italian explorer Marco Polo brought noodles back with him from his adventures in China in the 13th century, thereby “introducing” them to Italy, where they eventually became the Italian version of pasta. However, a little digging shows this tale is most likely inaccurate, since before Marco Polo’s return from China there were already references to macaroni and lasagna in Italy, and Polo himself described the noodles he found in China using pre-existing Italian words for noodles. In any case, if the Chinese noodle did in fact make its way to Italy, it probably did so long before the 13th century and Polo’s journeys.
Even with all the debate about the origin and proliferation of noodles and pasta, we can certainly all agree that that the Chinese have perfected many forms of the delicious dietary staple. There are an incredible variety of Chinese noodles, from which are made a wide array of amazing dishes that do not necessarily resemble the Americanized chow meins we are used to seeing in the US.
Chinese noodles are made from unleavened dough and can be moist (fresh) or dried. They are usually boiled, but they can also be fried in oil until crispy. There are wheat noodles, or “mein,” made from flour, water, and sometimes salt. There are egg noodles, which are like wheat noodles but a bit chewier due to the addition of egg or lye-water. Then you have rice noodles, or “fun,” made from rice flour, salt, and water, which can be thin or thick and come in stick form or wrapper form. Finally there are the “glass” or cellophane noodles that are thin and clear and made from plant starch, like mung bean cut with tapioca starch.
Chinese noodles cook very quickly, sometimes taking only 30 seconds and not longer than 5 minutes to cook. Many are made with a machine nowadays, but in certain stores and in some Chinatowns the world over you can still find them hand-pulled, where the dough is stretched and pulled into shape.
Within the main types of noodles you will see a wide range of regional variations in ingredients, shape, and manner of production and creative interpretations just as you would with any preparation or cuisine. And in addition to being an important staple in all regions of China itself, Chinese-style noodles and their variations have made their way to neighboring countries and regions such as Singapore, Korea, Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Thailand, and Cambodia, and are widely consumed all over the world among oversees Chinese populations.
In Chinese culture it is tradition to eat noodles on the Summer Solstice, so for June 2016 we present a dish we call “The Long Day,” which is an homage to the popular Singapore dish of Chili Crab, a Soft Shell Crab Singapore-style noodle with chili garlic glaze, ginger, crispy onion and lemongrass. This dish uses a fresh, locally made lo mein style noodle rather than the traditional glass noodle, which is a bit thinner than the familiar chow mein noodle. It may not be strictly traditional, but we like to have fun with our food. And with Chinese noodles, variety is the spice of life!