Have You Eaten Yet?

I was enjoying the view of Hong Kong’s glittering skyline from the men’s room of Felix Bar. If fact, given the price of food and drink in this Hong Kong landmark establishment, the view from the marble urinals might be only reason why you might want to visit this place.

I suppose you could get the same view from elsewhere in the bar but in here it was rather different. More quiet, less rushed one could say. Allowing for more contemplation as one attends to the business at hand.

“Have you eaten yet?”

Huh?

With a broad grin the young man at the marble urinal to my left repeated his question: “Have-you-eaten-yet?” Given where we were and what we were doing, the question seemed odd, confusing even.

“No”, I replied, “they tell me the food is rather crappy here, and way over-priced”. I thought by being abrupt, I’d also squash all other possible intent to his question.

“No, no, no”, he said, now no longer smiling but laughing. This time he asked: “Ni Chi Le Ma?”.

Now I was really confused. If I could make no sense of the English version, what possible reason could he have for thinking I’d understand the Chinese version? Hell, I could not even tell whether he was speaking Cantonese or Mandarin.

“It is our way of saying: ‘Hallo, how are you?’ By asking if you have eaten yet, we enquire about your wellbeing. It is not an invitation to dinner”.

Ashamed at my abrupt manner, I could only grin – business at hand completely forgotten.

If you have not eaten yet, anywhere in South East Asia, chances are very good that your next meal will involve noodles of some sort. Be it in a soup, a stir-fry, hot pot or a salad, noodles are pretty much a staple in this part of the world, and have been for a very long time.

Udon Noodles with Pork Belly and Crab Sticks

In 2002 archaeologists found a bowl of noodles at the Lajia excavation site along the China’s Yellow River. It is estimated that these noodles are over 4 000 years old, and tests revealed that two types of millet were used to make them.

These days noodles are made from wheat flour (‘miàn’, or as known in the West,  ‘mein’ or ‘mien’), rice flour or mung bean starch (fěn).

A variety of processes are employed to produce noodles. Perhaps the easiest way is to roll up the dough and then cut strands of noodles to the desired width. To produce extruded noodles the dough is put in a special mechanical press and forced through holes to produce long strands.

For peeled noodles, the dough is shaped into a loaf from which noodles are sliced or peeled off. If a small ball of dough is rolled out in long thin strands, kneaded noodles are produced.

Pulled noodles are produced in a most spectacular and entertaining manner. A Large ball of dough is stretched, twisted, slapped, folded, stretched, twisted, slapped, folded … over and over.

With each cycle, as if by magic, the dough splits to form rope-like strands, which multiplies into thinner ones with each run of the process. Provided that it does not break or gets cut, you end up with one enormously long noodle.

If you are a master noodle puller, you can stretch a small amount of dough a very long distance it seems. In 2009, Li Enhai, a Chinese chef, pulled a noodle of 2,852 meters from just one kilogram of flour and won himself a place in the Guinness Book of Records for having made the longest noodle… ever.

The importance of noodles is well reflected in the customs and belief systems of the Chinese. Noodles should never be broken or cut into short pieces for it is believed that long noodles symbolize longevity. No wonder noodles are the food of choice on young children’s birthdays.

It is perfectly acceptable to slurp your noodles since you are showing your chef or host, just how delicious the noodles are. On a more practical level, by slurping you suck in air, which helps to cool the noodles.

Legend has it that once, a long time ago in Yunnan, a young scholar retired from his home to a small island to study for his imperial exams. Every day, his wife would cross the bridge to the island to bring him food. It was a challenge to keep the food hot, so she would slice all the ingredients thinly and add some fat to the stock. The fat would form a thin layer on the surface of the broth which helped to keep it hot, so that, when she got to her husband, she only had to add the thinly sliced ingredients and thin rice noodles to the stock, and stir it through so that everything would cook right there. And so was born, according to the legend, the signature dish of Yunnan: ‘Across the bridge noodles’.

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