Art of the noodle

OCT 29, 2015
It is hard to overstate the influence of Chinese cuisine, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the history of the humble noodle. Although the Italians have also claimed credit for inventing the carb staple, the dispute was surely settled in 2005 when a 4,000-year-old bowl of noodles was discovered in Lajia, in northwestern China.

Chinese noodles, however, cannot boast 4,000 years of continuity and the next evidence of noodle consumption is not found until the Later Han Dynasty (25-220 AD), approximately Roman times. While wheat had long existed in China, it only became widely cultivated during the Han Dynasty, when it replaced millet as the preferred cereal of the Chinese diet.

The proliferation of wheat noodles and dumplings truly blossomed during the cosmopolitan Tang Dynasty (616-907 AD), when restaurants and food stalls popped up around the bustling markets of the great capital of Chang’an (modern Xi'an) to meet the demand of travellers arriving at the terminus of the Silk Road. Here, pieces of unleavened flatbread served with soup – known as tang bing, or literally “soup cakes” – began to evolve into something resembling the modern noodle as innovative restaurateurs attempted to add texture by folding them into different shapes, cutting dough into strips or pulling and stretching them into fine threads.

The noodle was soon adopted by the Sinosphere – Korea, Japan, Vietnam and then throughout South-East Asia – becoming an icon of Asian cuisine. To those entrepreneurs, envoys and exchange students who visited the Tang capital, the dainty threads of cooked dough they experienced must have seemed as revolutionary as molecular gastronomy does today. Noodle-making represented a high level of culinary sophistication and food-processing technology, and the travellers would take the art home with them to revolutionise their own cuisines.

Noodles are treated with the respect they deserve at Chinese fine-dining restaurant China Tang, where executive chef Albert Au Kwok-keung is ever-passionate about the art of noodle-making. Before earning three Michelin stars for The Eight in Macau in 2014 (making him the world’s youngest three-Michelin-starred Chinese chef), Chef Au had already demonstrated his skills at the illustrious 2007 state banquet at the historic Beijing Hotel in the Chinese capital, where he served former heads of state Hu Jintao, Wen Jiabao and Li Peng – a defining moment in his career.

One noodle dish he particularly enjoys preparing is yue meen “fish noodle”. He nostalgically recalls his parents making this old-school Teochew (Chiuchow) dish when he was a child. Although Chaozhou is geographically within Guangdong province, the Teochew are linguistically different from the Cantonese, with a very distinct culinary culture. “Teochew people are even more family-oriented than other Chinese; we enjoy cooking at home,” says Chef Au, who began his culinary career at the age of 14. “Both my parents are really good cooks, and that’s where I picked up my kitchen skills.

“Fish noodles are something that we Teochew used to prepare for festival days. People don’t do it at home any more as it’s quite a time-consuming and luxurious dish. The traditional method requires pounding conger-pike eel, horse mackerel and other types of fish caught around the Shantou area with a rod, but I use a blender nowadays.” Chef Au uses a half-and-half ratio of pounded fish and wheat flour, kneaded together and then cut into strips.

Traditionally, fish noodles are stir-fried with slivers of pork and chives, but Chef Au continues a seafood theme with his contemporary fine-dining version at China Tang. For the sauce he uses the tomalley of Shanghai hairy crabs – the white, creamy milt of the male crabs for its unctuousness, the amber roe of the females for their rich umami taste.

Hairy crabs are known more for their roe than their flesh so Chef Au uses bigger red crabs from the Shantou area for the meat. “The Teochew love to serve them chilled, and they are known for their sweetness,” he says. Fried scallions and a bed of bean sprouts add crunch to the dish.

When Chef Au isn’t actually cooking, the noodle dish he says he’d always go for is that Cantonese classic, a bowl of wonton noodle soup. The term huntun (wonton) was coined during the Tang Dynasty, but the quintessential Cantonese variety with plump prawns probably came later.

“I’m pretty much a wonton expert, in my humble opinion,” Chef Au says. “I’ve done a spell at Mak’s Noodle [Hong Kong’s pre-eminent wonton specialist] and other renowned wonton shops. Since the Qing Dynasty, the Mak family has been making the best Guangzhou-style ‘swallowtail’ wontons, and the outstanding wonton places in Hong Kong all still belong to members of that clan. I can usually tell which line of the family made a bowl of wonton noodle by taste, and whether it was made by a male or female.”

The noodles are made mostly with the whites of duck eggs, with just a little   yolk, and an alkaline lye solution is added for that al dente chewiness, similar to Japanese ramen. “We Cantonese like our wonton noodles thin and bouncy,” says Chef Au. “It has to jump in your mouth, and the wonton wrapper [made from the same dough] needs to be thin, a gossamer-like skin around the plump shrimp-and-pork mixture. The character of dried flounder has to come out from the broth, with a hint of white pepper.”

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Chinese noodles is the way in which they have evolved. Historically, it was not uncommon for every province and even each village to use a distinct type of noodle. And with each noodle type, new dishes were created, with different dishes coming to be associated with particular regions and towns – just as was the case with pasta dishes on the other side of the world in Italy. And though these alternative forms of noodles may have vastly different histories, there is one thing that unites them – for those who are serious about noodles, there is no substitute for tradition.

Words by Johannes Pong
Photography by Andrew J. Loiterton