FLA­VOR OF THE MONTH/REAL CHI­NESE

NewsChina - - CONTENTS - By Jack Smith

Dur­ing my col­lege days in Bei­jing, stu­dent ac­com­mo­da­tions were still ba­sic to the ex­treme. In­ter­na­tional stu­dents, in­clud­ing my­self, who couldn't af­ford to eat out much, had to find in­ge­nious ways to avoid sub­sist­ing on in­stant noo­dles and flesh-pink, shrinkwrapped lun­cheon meat sausages of du­bi­ous prove­nance. My much-missed roommate bought a rice cooker in which he taught me to make Tai­wanese chicken noo­dle soup. I in turn taught him the finer points of French fries, cala­mari and home­made ham­burg­ers in the com­mu­nal, cock­roach-in­fested dorm kitchen.

But once or twice a week, we would take our hard-scraped food al­lowance, and treat our­selves to a res­tau­rant meal. A fa­vorite among the many lo­cal op­tions swiftly emerged. While it served the same eclec­tic hodge­podge of re­gional cuisines un­der the catchall ban­ner of “home­style cook­ing,” one par­tic­u­lar fea­ture made this eatery stand above the crowd.

In the cen­ter of the main din­ing area, a low-ly­ing plinth topped with stain­less steel bore a spec­tac­u­lar mound of ver­mi­cel­lithin, syrup-golden noo­dles in­ter­wo­ven with jade green beans and curls of fatty pork.

“Sti­fled noo­dles” or men mian is a clas­sic of North­west­ern Chi­nese cui­sine, most com­mon in Shanxi and Shaanxi provinces – China's noo­dle heart­lands. Un­like most prepa­ra­tions of noo­dles, how­ever – boiled or fried – sti­fled noo­dles are lit­er­ally steamed in their own juices, pro­duc­ing a dry, fla­vor­ful and ex­tremely mor­eish del­i­cacy that, at least to a hun­gry stu­dent, is good, cheap com­fort food.

Opin­ions dif­fer on the ideal way to pre­pare sti­fled noo­dles, but most clas­sic recipes in­volve fine-grade wheat noo­dles, fatty pork and string or French beans. These lat­ter two are first sim­mered in a thick, rich sauce com­pris­ing light and dark soy sauce, cook­ing wine, co­pi­ous vol­umes of gar­lic, gin­ger and scal­lion, star anise and su­gar. Once the pork and veg­eta­bles are tender, the noo­dles are heaped atop them, and the wok tightly cov­ered to al­low the noo­dles to cook in the steam pro­duced by the sim­mer­ing sauce. The whole lot is tossed to­gether just be­fore serving, when din­ers can stir in fer­mented black bean sauce or aged Shanxi vine­gar ac­cord­ing to taste.

While I adore noo­dles in all their forms – in­clud­ing a less-than-au­then­tic bowl of Sin­ga­porestyle ver­mi­celli on oc­ca­sion – sti­fled noo­dles is my go-to on a cold win­ter's night af­ter a hard day at the of­fice. The starches ab­sorb the rich umami fla­vor of the sauce as well as the oil from the fatty pork, with the beans adding crunch while cut­ting through the aro­matic fra­grance of the star anise. My pref­er­ence is to stir a glug of chili or se­same oil into the fin­ished dish to moisten it, but the per­fect bowl of sti­fled noo­dles is a tes­ta­ment to the fine art of Chi­nese cook­ing – sim­ple in­gre­di­ents, and a range of fla­vors and tex­tures, per­fectly bal­anced.

Small won­der then that, even as a grown-up salary­man, I still han­ker for this iconic din­ner­time treat of my mis­spent youth.

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