Chinese noodlemaking: an acrobatic art

One of the culinary treats of my China trip was watching a Chinese chef make noodles completely by hand -- no knives, no machine, just swingling the dough back and forth in an acrobatic manner until he was holding a long tassel of many strings of perfect noodles.

What he did, actually, as I stood there fascinated, was to take a round piece of flour and water dough and loop it back and forth from one hand to the other, stretching it and folding it as he formed more strands until the dough was divided evenly to make the correct noodle size.

When he held up the armful of long, perfect strands of noodles, there was a round of applause from everyone watching.

Although it was in the Orient that I saw my first noodle-swinger, there are Chinese cooks in this country who are also adept at this technique. It is part of the basic repertoire of any well-rounded northern Chinese master chef and many of our Chinese-American restaurants have these trained-in-China people on their staffs.

But most Americans have not heard of making noodles this way, perhaps because they haven't explored the wide range of Chinese noodle recipes.

In China there are small noodle restaurants everywhere, with long menus listing dozens of noodle dishes, prepared in different ways with various ingredients and seasonings. OFten there will be a line at a favorite or popular noodle shop, since the Chinese are very fussy about them.

We had many kinds in China, but in Canton we had the most wonderful ones at a place called the Shan Ho, where they are a specialty. The restaurant is in an old building, so nondescript we were sure we were at the wrong address until we climbed several flights of stairs to the dining rooms for foreigners.

There were to round tables with white cloths and handsome dark carved chairs along the walls. The view was lovely from our particular room.

The name of the place, Shan Ho, comes from ho fan,m the Cantonese name for flat rice noodles, and they are said to be made using only water from the springs of the nearby White Cloud Mountain.

Noodles are served at the end of the dinner, and then four or five dishes are presented, each with different toppings.

Certainly this restaurant has brought noodlemaking close to perfection and it is easy to see why many Cantonese who live outside China make pilgrimages just to enjoy the noodle dishes of the Shan Ho. I will probably never taste noodles like these anywhere else in the world. They are difficult to describe, but they were light, delicate, and very thin. They are unusual by Western standards, but absolutely delicious.

One of the noodle dishes had a very light sauce of vinegar and Tabasco-like hot pepper, another with bamboo shoots had a sweet-and-sour taste.

We were also served noodles in a pork dish, in a chicken dish, with duck, and with greens. As I said, noodles are the star of this restaurant and they are served last. So before we caught sight of a noodle, we were served some superb food, excellent as a dinner by itself.

Karen Lee, a teacher of Chinese cooking from New York, was in my group of food writers and chefs touring China. She had made the reservations by phone from our hotel and although she had requested we have no soup, one was served, anyway. The Chinese feel soup is very important and should be served at every meal. It was an excellent Fish Maw soup and was served as a first course.

Next came a dish of fresh fish and shredded leeks, perfectly cooked. The Chinese prefer freshwater fish to saltwater fish because it is more delicate. Then there were tender frog's legs stir-fried with ginger and an elegant fresh crab dish with scallions. And I can't forget the roast duck, crispy and flavorful.

The reason Karen Lee had suggested that we skip the soup was because on this particular night we were trying to visit two restaurants in order to get an idea of some different places in a short time.

After such a fabulous meal some of the group were not too eager to go on. But the second restaurant scheduled for the evening was the Snake Restaurant where specially raised snakes are displayed in the window to prove the freshness of the meat and where such dishes are served as Five-Snake Soup, Snake Meat Balls, and Clear Broth of Big Mountain Snake. It is a kind of food the Cantonese like very much, but it is definitely for the adventurous diner.

To get back to the noodles, we were served them many ways in China -- hot and cold, spicy and bland. They range from fresh to dry and pure wheat to wheat with eggs; shapes are from fine threads to ribbons. Chinese noodles are always long, a symbol of longevity, and the Chinese love swishing and tossing them in steaming broths or tasty sauce, relishing the texture as well as the flavor. Chinese seasonings are very interesting and quite different from the pasta dishes most Americans know.

There are spicy Chinese noodle combinations with fermented black beans, garlic, and ginger and cold noodle dishes with sesame sauce and shredded chicken. More elaborate cold noodle combinations have shrimp, pork, and Chinese vegetables.

In Peking I asked a cab driver if he could take me to a noodle shop and he showed me a small cab driver's restaurant guide with names in both Chinese and English. He pointed to one named Jengi which he said was not typically Chinese, but he said they had "cool" noodles there. I drove by the restaurant and stopped to look at the menu on the blackboard but didn't have time to sample. Maybe on my next China trip.

There are recipes for noodles in soups, with curry, and in some parts of China the noodles are pan-fried first until they are crisp outside and soft inside.

If you are ever eating alone in a Chinese restaurant in the United States (or in China, too), and all you want is a light meal, one of these self-contained, composite noodle dishes with a meat or vegetable topping makes a fine meal with a bowl of soup, and it will be inexpensive.

Even though all Chinese cooks prefer freshly made noodles, very few bother to make them at home. Basically simple, noodlemaking is none the less a demanding art. In the United States, Chinese markets always have them and many large supermarkets in big cities sell them.

If you have not tried some of the Chinese noodle recipes, you're missing a treat, and an inexpensive addition to your daily meals. Here is one recipe for your to try. Cold Noodles with Spicy Sauce 1 whole chicken breast 4 ounces fine noodles 1 1/2 tablespoons sesame oil 1/4 cup sesame paste 3 tablespoons water 2 tablespoons hot pepper oil (optional) 3 tablespoons light soy sauce 3 Tablespoons red wine vinegar 2 Teaspoons sugar Salt to taste 1 teaspoon salt or to taste 1/4 cup peanut or vegetable oil 2 tablespoons chopped garlic

Bring abot 6 cups water to boil and cook chicken breast about 15 minutes. Do not overcook. Remove chicken and bring water to boil again. Add no salt but add noodles, stirring occasionally until tender, about 7 minutes. Cool noodles under cold water until separted. Drain and sprinkle with sesame oil. Set aside.

Make sauce by spooning sesame paste into bowl and adding water gradually, stirring with chopsticks. Stir in remaining ingredients.

Arrange noodles in serving dish. Shred chicken and arrange neatly on them and pour sauce over all. Serve cold.

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