China A to Z: N is for Noodles

Noodle country

Pasta is reputed to have its origin in China, then brought to Italy by Marco Polo. I do not pretend to be a historical scholar who can verify or deny this. What I can say is that in the places I have been in China noodles are everywhere.

This surprised me at first, but I have been told that there is a line somewhere and north of the line the staple food is noodles and south of it is rice. I guess I have never been south of the line. Rice is often available, but noodles are way more common in the places I have traveled.

Fresh Noodles

Since I buy and use packaged noodles at home they never occurred to me as a “fresh” food. But in China many places make the noodles fresh.

Machine made noodles coming out.

Dinner and a show: In Tai’an we had hand made noodles, freshly made when we ordered! Really delicious and fun to watch.

Noodle restaurants

Noodle restaurants tend to not be overly fancy, my favorite one in Weifang was in a food court area of Walmart Shopping Plaza. They used chopped peanuts, sesame and cilantro to flavor the beef noodle soup. I always asked for “bu la” (not spicy), but I think I was an anomaly. Many places rely on the hotness to cover a lack of other flavors.

This sidewalk noodle shop in Chongqing is typical of the more simple places to get a quick, filling meal. My son did the ordering (I still had pretty bad jet lag) so these were not “bu la”. They were pretty good anyway. There was a flavoring I couldn’t place, reading up afterwards I think it was a Chonqing area specialty.

Noodles are a good option for travelers not used to local food: the boiling makes it nearly impossible for nasties to get to your tummy.

Noodles for dessert?

Chinese meals don’t follow the same salad-soup, main course, dessert formula we have in the west. Usually a meal at a restaurant is ordered by dishes to be shared family style. They will order a combination of cold dishes and hot dishes, savory and sweet, spicy and bland. The dishes are brought to the table as they are ready. Meaning that the cold ones usually come first. They do  not serve noodles (or jiaozi or rice) until after all of the main dishes are out and consumed. They call these dishes zhŭ shí (主食), or staples, and use them to finish off a meal.

A courtesy tip:  you might not want to eat too much zhŭ shí (主食), as it can signify to the host that you didn’t enjoy the rest of the meal.

At my son’s 25th birthday (on my first visit to China) I was surprised that after the birthday cake they brought out noodles. Everyone was stuffed, but James had to eat noodles, a tradition that leads to a long life.


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