Speeding noodles to China's tables with US technology

Seven centuries after Marco Polo informed Europe of the delicacy of China's noodles, a West-East flow of noodle know-how could ladle new ingredients into China's soup bowl.

If all goes well, US technical assistance will have helped China produce and test its own version of the instant noodle. China should get an opportunity to make and taste this quick mixing wonder.

The reason? American promoters of instant noodles and bread products are working to encourage China to buy more US wheat. China's production is limited. If the noodles catch on, China would follow in the footsteps of Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea.

The $64,000 question: Will this instant exercise in fast-food technology appeal to China's economy, customs, and palate?

With American assistance, China this summer opened two wheat-using pilot plants. The Americans express hope China will build more plants.

The Foreign Agricultural Service of the US Department of Agriculture and a private agricultural group, US Wheat Associates, together gave $80,000 in aid to start an instant noodle processer in Shanghai. The two groups gave $400,000 for an advanced bakery in Peking that can produce up to 1,500 bread loaves per hour.

Already China is the ''No. 1 importer'' of wheat from the United States, according to US officials. Since the late 1970s, purchases have shot up to the point where US wheat constituted 8.55 million tons of the 13.2 million tons of wheat imported by China from July 1981 to June 1982. By contrast the expected spurt of wheat purchases by the Soviet Union has been first blocked altogether and now slowed by the January 1980 to April 1981 US grain embargo. Soviet purchases of US wheat were 6.1 million tons in the latest reported period, October 1981 to September 1982.

This is not the first time that foreigners have embroiled themselves with China's steaming noodles. Now, as in the past, these entanglements can be risky.

Even Marco Polo got into hot water after reporting he ate noodles during his many travels in China. Just as Marco's contemporaries often disbelieved his tales of the Orient, a number of modern European scholars have concluded the Venetian explorer fudged a bit on his culinary exploits. According to their research, Chinese historical records give no evidence the Venetian adventurer ever set foot on, let alone ate on, Chinese soil.

But the Venetian adventurer did win fame for his 13th century accounts of tasting Chinese noodles. It is still a cherished legend that he invented spaghetti by introducing noodles to Italy.

Whatever history's final verdict on Marco and his noodles, the instant variety may sink or float in China depending on its ability to save time by feeding quickly, thus increasing work efficiency and production. Remember that the old-style noodle must be carefully boiled in a food stand, restaurant, or home. This seems well suited for traditional rural areas, where it long provided a ''rice bowl'' for the millions so employed.

Officals of the US wheat industry and the Department of Commerce express hope that larger, modern Chinese cities will require office and factory workers to be fed quickly. So far the extent of Chinese interest in new types of food production is unclear, US Wheat Associates' Wilson concedes.''We don't really know what they plan to do with the products. . . .'' The same questions hang over the future of Western-style bakery-produced bread. The Peking prototype aims to show this bread speeds meal preparation.

''For years we expect traditional Chinese products like Mantou will be their primary bakery product,'' says Mr. Wilson. '' We do not expect the Chinese to emerge as bread addicts overnight.''

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