Long Live the Noo­dle

Text and Pho­tos Brent Lewin

Asian Geographic - - Picturesque -

It’s

just after mid­night in the Ban Pong district of Ratch­aburi, in what might ap­pear to most as a sleepy town. An hour and a half west of Thai­land’s cap­i­tal city, Bangkok, it’s best known for its nearby tra­di­tional float­ing mar­ket. Long after the daily in­flux of tourists has sub­sided, a hand­ful of worn-down fac­to­ries come to life as techno mu­sic erupts from loud­speak­ers, and a group of Burmese mi­grant workers dons aprons in prepa­ra­tion for the night’s work. Through­out the empty al­leys, or sois, as they’re called in Thai­land, the sounds of thump­ing mu­sic and laugh­ter spill out over the high walls of the var­i­ous com­pounds in the area. What may sound like an elec­tronic mu­sic-in­spired dance party is ac­tu­ally the sound of workers across the city cre­at­ing one of their pri­mary ex­ports: longevity noo­dles.

Egg noo­dles, or yi mein, have been a sta­ple food in parts of the world for over 2,000 years. In 2005, China un­earthed a 4,000-year-old bowl of noo­dles, sug­gest­ing

that the sta­ple dish orig­i­nated in China, ac­cord­ing to a re­port by Na­tional Geo­graphic. How­ever, it wasn’t un­til the Tang Dy­nasty (618–907) that longevity noo­dles, or shoumein, be­came pop­u­lar. These wheat noo­dles be­came one of the most sought-after foods in Asia ow­ing to their length, which came to sym­bol­ise longevity – one of the most revered ideals in Chi­nese cul­ture, along with hap­pi­ness and pros­per­ity.

As such, the noo­dles were of­ten served on spe­cial oc­ca­sions, such as birthdays. Be­fore con­sum­ing longevity noo­dles, peo­ple would use chop­sticks to ad­mire their length. Tra­di­tion also dic­tated that to cut a strand of a longevity noo­dle would mean risk­ing a short­ened life­span.

Wheat noo­dles in Ja­pan, or udon, were adapted from the orig­i­nal Chi­nese recipe by a Bud­dhist monk in the 9th cen­tury. It’s be­lieved that longevity noo­dles were first in­tro­duced to Thai­land by the Ja­panese after their oc­cu­pa­tion dur­ing World War II.

Twenty-nine-year-old Mon­gol Jen­weer­awat, part owner of Tianti­amhenghuat, one of the 11 longevity noo­dle fac­to­ries in Ban Pong, ex­plains:

“Ja­pan had a mil­i­tary base near Ban Pong dur­ing the oc­cu­pa­tion while they were build­ing the Kwai Bridge in the nearby town of Kan­chanaburi. It’s be­lieved that the troops in­tro­duced these noo­dles to our vil­lage to cater to the Ja­panese troops’ tastes.”

Jen­weer­awat’s fam­ily busi­ness has been mak­ing longevity noo­dles com­mer­cially from recipes handed down over gen­er­a­tions since the 1960s, the ma­jor­ity of which are sup­plied to Chi­nese restau­rants in Bangkok’s Chi­na­town. “Longevity noo­dles are dif­fer­ent from nor­mal noo­dles, which are straight like spaghetti,” says Jen­weer­awat. “The main dif­fer­ence is that they are hand­made in a process that takes 14 hours.”

In an era where the food industry has tran­si­tioned from tra­di­tional hand­i­craft to mass pro­duc­tion us­ing ma­chin­ery, com­pa­nies like Tianti­amhenghuat are an out­lier stay­ing true to the craft.

The longevity noo­dles of Ban Pong are cre­ated from wheat flour, salt wa­ter and yel­low food dye. The process be­gins daily at mid­night so that by dawn, ap­prox­i­mately 600 kilo­grams of noo­dles are ready to dry in the morn­ing sun. To start the process, labour­ers add the in­gre­di­ents to in­dus­trial mix­ers to cre­ate a stretchy yel­low dough, which is then shut­tled on carts in­side the fac­tory. Here, they are coated in palm oil so that they don’t stick to­gether, and are then placed into bas­kets. The dough is then kneaded, stretched and cut up to cre­ate one long, thin noo­dle in the shape of a fig­ure of eight – an­other nod to the noo­dle’s link­age with longevity. The yel­low colour is pop­u­lar in Thai­land, and is as­so­ci­ated with wealth by eth­nic Chi­nese. pre­vi­ous spread Workers mix wheat flour, food colour­ing and salt wa­ter to make dough (top left); a worker ar­ranges a line of dough on a flat bas­ket (bot­tom left)

right Workers ar­range longevity noo­dles to dry

The process be­gins daily at mid­night so that by dawn, ap­prox­i­mately 600 kilo­grams of noo­dles are ready to dry in the morn­ing sun

Once com­pletely dried, the noo­dles are re­moved and steamed in ster­il­i­sa­tion tanks to add mois­ture. Jen­weer­awat adds that “with­out this step the noo­dles would be hard and break in their plas­tic pack­ages”.

Jen­weer­awat may now play a more “hands-off” role as su­per­vi­sor of the op­er­a­tion, but his many years of late-night mix­ing, cut­ting and hang­ing the noo­dles have earned him the ti­tle of “ex­pert” in the art of mak­ing longevity noo­dles. “I learned the process from my grand­fa­ther when I was 13 years old. Or­ders flooded in around the time of Chi­nese New Year, and I had to pitch in. By the time I was 16, I was work­ing a few hours a night and still man­ag­ing to get up by 6am to get ready for school,” he shares.

Jen­weer­awat ad­mits that hand­made noo­dle-mak­ing is very hard work. “There was a time when if we could’ve done some­thing else that’s not so tir­ing we would have, but this was all we had. My fa­ther has tried a few dif­fer­ent busi­ness ven­tures, but they didn’t work out. I can’t com­plain. Now our com­pany has grown, we em­ploy workers. This busi­ness has al­lowed us to earn a de­cent liv­ing, build a big house for our fam­ily, send four kids to uni­ver­sity – all of this be­cause my grand­fa­ther learned a skill.”

Jen­weer­awat’s pas­sion for the tra­di­tional craft leads him to wax lyri­cal about the art of mak­ing longevity noo­dles. His mantra is: “If it’s made by ma­chine, the taste will be in­fe­rior, the texture won’t feel right. Noth­ing can com­pare to hand­made.” How­ever, when asked about his own longevity noo­dle con­sump­tion, Jen­weer­awat seems to suf­fer from years of over­ex­po­sure. “I’ve been around these noo­dles for more than half my life. I used to eat them reg­u­larly but now I can’t bring my­self to eat them. I’m just cross­ing my fin­gers that I will still en­joy a long life!” ag

Left A worker rests after a night shift in Ban Pong

Pre­vi­ous spread Workers prepare to move dough in bas­kets (top right); a worker stretches and wraps dough around bam­boo sticks (bot­tom right)

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