FLAVOR OF THE MONTH/REAL CHINESE
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.