Thursday, October 25, 2007

Mee Sua and Ah Chuo Pah and Ah Chuo Moo

I am dedicating this posting to two amazing characters who played an important role in my Foochow Sibu days. They contributed a great deal of joy and happiness to my family while living along Kung Ping Road which was later renamed Brooke Drive by the local government.

Our little community there was a wonderful set up with several different skills which made living and social development very vibrant and interesting.

Opposite our house were five houses which were home to more than ten families. The furthest away was Ah chuo Pah (Uncle Ah Chuo /Ting Huat Chuo), the second house on the right was home to Mr. Lau (at present the well known transport tycoon) and his growing family of boys. Next to his house was a smaller wooden house which was home to Mr and Mrs. Cheng. Mr. Cheng suddenly passed away, living behind a grieving widow and seven children. But they stayed on because the rental was so small at 25 ringgit for the whole house of four rooms. Then there was the long house with ten units which was home to ten families. And furthest on the left was a sort of semi detached house on stilts. This was home to two families.

This was my town "village" and we children grew up together ,scraping our knees while learning to ride bicycles, flying kites, playing marbles, eagle and chickens,etc. There was so much space and so much freedom and so little inhibition.

We were free to go in an out of each others homes without fear of predators or criminal tendencies of adults, unlike today . Mothers have to be on their toes twenty four hours a day on a look out for their children just in case a kidnapper is on the loose.

My favourite neighbour was this family of mee sua makers. The lived on the first floor of their house. The ground floor was their factory and their backyard and front yard the place where they would pull their long mee sua or noodles for drying in the sun.

The Ting family worked very hard as their day started at two or three in the morning when they would start kneading their wheat dough for the noodles. Ah Chuo Pah would twirl the long threads of noodles on two sticks and allow the noodles to dry slowly in their boxes. When it was about nine in the morning, he would take these noodles which were between two sticks out to the sun and stick them onto the wooden frame. He would pull slowly the noodles until they are long enough, and so slim that they were like threads. These noodles looked like a thin piece of cloth hanging from two sticks, drying in the sun. The whiteness of the noodles in the sun was a remarkable sight. Sometimes when the clouds form over the yard, we could see the anxiety on the faces of the Ah Pah and Ah Moo. They had to make sure that the noodles were dry before the afternoon rain came down in a deluge.

When the noodles were dry enough, Ah Pah and Ah Moo would collect them and bundle them up like long hair, and tied them up with red strings. These noodles were ready for sale.

Salty, fresh and fragrant. Mee Sua is definitely a huge part of the Foochow culture.

Chinese noodles have a long and well-established history. It was recorded as early as in Eastern Han Dynasty, which was over 1,900 years ago, that noodles were originally called "cakes", with "water boiled cake" being the ancestor of Chinese noodles. According to Liuxi's "Shi Ming" ("Meaning of Names"), "cake" was a generic name of any food made out of the combination of water and flour, including water boiled flour strips or flour blocks.

From the initial period of Eastern Han Dynasty, Southern and Northern Wei Jing Dynasties to the later Tang, Song, Yuan, Ming and Qing Dynasties, there were written records about noodles throughout the history of China. There was not a unique name of noodles in early times: in addition to the commonly used "water boiled noodle", "boiled cake" and "soup cake", the food was also called "shuiying bing" ("water concoction cake"), "bu tuo", "bo tuo" and so forth. It was not until Sung Dynasty did "mian" ("noodle") become the formal name of the food. In the shape of long strips, noodles came in a variety of forms such as cold noodle, warm noodle, plain noodle and fried noodle. There are also a variety of amazing noodle making methods such as twisting, paring, stirring, brushing, rubbing, pressing, rolling, leaking and pulling. In addition to being an inexpensive and satiating staple food, Chinese noodles can also be presented luxuriously. It was mentioned in historic records that many government officials and wealthy people enjoyed noodles and would serve the food to important guests.

In Tang Dynasty, the most prosperous period in the history of China, "soup cake" and "cold noodle" were demanded in the imperial palaces during winter and summer respectively. In Yuan Dynasty, "hanging noodle", which could be persevered for a long period of time, was introduced, while in Ming Dynasty, with the superior skills of the noodle makers, "hand-pulled noodle" was brought to the light. All these noodle making techniques have contributed considerably to the evolution of noodles. "Five-spice noodle" and "Eight-treasure noodle" were the classics created in Qing Dynasty with "E-fu Noodle" being the most innovative appeared in Ganlong period. In fact, Chinese noodles had been developed to a mature and stable stage in Qing Dynasty with unique tastes and flavors established in different provinces, such as the 5 most famous noodles of China: Dan Dan Noodle of Sichuan, E-fu Noodle of Guangdong & Guangxi, Spicy Mincemeat Noodle of northern China, Pared Noodle of Shanxi, and Hot Dry Noodle of Wuhan. Cultural exchange and development between the East and West had also added splendor to Chinese noodles and the noodle making culture.

Chinese noodles is the ancestor of all noodles. They are not only world-renowned but also exert far-reaching impact on noodle culture round the globe. Spaghetti was the example of a transformation of Chinese noodles: it was Marco Polo, an Italian diplomatic agent, who learnt the techniques from China in Yuan Dynasty and let the people evolve and thus had the new type of noodle created in the country. Another example in 1912, the traditional techniques of making Chinese noodles were brought to Yokohama, Japan, from China and Japanese ramen was then introduced. Japanese ramen was initially called "Dragon Noodle" implying it was a food eaten by Chinese people-The people who are descendant of Dragon.

Culture of Noodles

The major ingredient of noodles is wheat flour. Although rice and congee used to be the staple food items for Chinese people, after the appearance of noodle, however, the food was as important as rice to the population. Noodle has become the staple food for people in the north. For southern population, although rice is still for major consumption, noodle has become an important food item in their menu.

Noodles in the north and south are vastly different. In the south, egg noodles with plain flour being the major ingredient are primary. Using yolks of duck eggs instead of hen eggs, the noodles are thin and pliable. There are raw noodle, dry noodle, and the popular fine dry noodle and shrimp-eggs noodles are pupolar. In the north, noodles are made of wheat flour usually without the use of eggs. Instead, lye is used to make the noodles more digestible as a staple food. Compared with those made in the south, noodles in the north are boarder, softer and more pliable. When you go into a shop in the north asking for "mian" (the word could mean flour or noodle in Chinese), they will give you flour. But if you are in the south, processed noodle will be offered.

Population in the north rely on noodles as their staple food to fill their stomachs, therefore quantity is weighed more than quality. They also do not care much about the ingredients for serving with noodlel. Noodles are always served with raw onions and raw garlic mix with soy sauce. The soup is also relatively oily and salty. On the other hand, the southern population, who rely heavily on rice as their staple food, is more concern on the noodle quality. Moreover, noodles are always served as side dishes and nicely presented in small bowls.

Traditional noodles are delicately hand-made. From flour mixing, beating, pulling and cutting, every step is done manually. But interestingly, noodle making techniques are uniquely different in the north and south. Ramen, a kind of hand-pulled noodle, is famous in the north. To make it soft and pliable is not an easy task: one does not only need to have a pair of strong arms but also have good skill to control the force to press on the dough. To the contrast, making of southern noodles requires gentle yet firm forces so that the finished products are crisp but not fragile. The critical part is the ‘bouncing' bouncing. The noodle maker's bouncing on the bamboo by using his body weight to evenly flatten the dough. The dough can then be cut into thin strips.

Among all special Chinese noodles, the most unique type ought to be "E-fu Noodle" (or "Yi Noodle"). Yi Noodle can be served dry or with soup. It is a creation of Scholar Yi Bingshou's chef during Ganlong time in Qung Dynasty. Yi Noodle is made in both southern and northern China with Fujian and Jiangxi provinces doing it most impressively. The noodle is special because it does not require mixing of flour with water but with beaten eggs. After a process of boiling, cooling, drying and frying, it becomes the semi-finished product. Due to its unique making techniques, Yi Noodle can be served in a variety of ways, making it superior among other noodles and become one of the must-haves in banquets.

Introduced in Sichuan in 1841, "Dan Dan Noodle" is another well-known noodle round the world. The name came from how the noodle was sold – it was carried to the street for sales with a bamboo ("dan"). People lived hard lives back at the time. A peddler named Chen Baobao used a bamboo to carry the noodle for sales on the street to earn a living. Although noodles were precious food for aristocrats in ancient times, Dan Dan Noodle was not served to the rich but the general public. Initially, the noodle was sold in bystreets and pipe alleys. It was coarse and cooked only in boiling water with chili pepper sauce, soy sauce and a little bit of pickle added in the soup, tasted hot and spicy for satiation. It was not until later when the noodle was brought into big restaurants and hotels and eventually became a dish in banquets.

In Hong Kong, the popular "Wonton Noodle" is made with raw noodle, which was originated in Guangdong. Hen eggs or duck eggs are the major ingredients of raw noodle. Hen eggs can make the noodle more crispy while duck eggs can add flavor to the finished product. Good raw noodle is called rice thread vermicelli, which is thin and turns yellow when it is cooked. In addition to being pliable but not too hard or too soft, it is most important that the noodle does not carry the taste of lye.

Stories of Noodles

Besides the different noodle cultures between the north and south, there are unique meanings and stories behind each type of noodle.

"Longevity Noodle" is a type of traditional Chinese noodle. As its long shape symbolizes longevity, the noodle is a must-have at every birthday banquet. In ancient times, having Longevity Noodle symbolized a wish for new born baby boys' living long lives and the custom has been passed on from generation to generation. It is a ritual that a piece of noodle has to be swallowed without cutting either by mouth or using a pair of chopsticks. In addition to meaning to live long lives, eating the noodle also represents showing of respect for the elderly. In a legend, it is said that Emperor Wang became immortal on the day of Winter Solstice in Han Dynasty. Since then, the noodle, also named "Winter Solstice Noodle," has been consumed every Winter Solstice Day to symbolize respect for the elderly. In fact, there are many stories about Longevity Noodle, and the aforesaid is just one of the many versions. (Extracted from "Anecdotes of Famous Chinese Food")

Vermicelli served on birthdays is called "Birthday Noodle." Vermicelli made in Fuzhou City is the most famous and it carries a variety of names: that given to children at their weddings are called "Happy Noodle", that to be consumed by pregnant women are called "Blessed Noodle", that presented to friends are called "Peace Noodle", and that for the sick and the elderly are called "Health Noodle." A legend said vermicelli was a very thoughtful birthday gift presented by Empyrean Fairy to her Queen Mother for her birthday. Because of this legend, noodle makers all worship Empyrean Fairy's statue in their homes. There are various kinds of Fuzhou vermicelli such as egg vermicelli, dragon-beard vermicelli and rice thread vermicelli. (Extracted from "Anecdotes of Famous Chinese Food")

Another example is the aforesaid "cold noodle", which was originated by Wu Zetian, the only female emperor of China. It is said that Wu's beauty got her chosen into the imperial palace as a scholar when she was 14. Having to leave Chang Jianfeng, her lover since childhood, for the palace, Wu and Chang went to a restaurant for noodles before they parted. It was a very hot day. Wu came up with a bright idea and created the tender and delicious cold noodle with the restaurant owner. It happened that the day was also Wu's birthday. In order to serve as a memorial to what happened, she would order the chefs to make cold noodle on her birthdays. This custom remain unchanged until the last day of her life. (Extracted from "Anecdotes of Famous Chinese Food")

There is another story behind Shaanxi's Qishan Noodle, which is also called "Harmony Noodle." It is said that in Western Zhou Dinasty, Emperor Yin seized Emperor Zhou in a castle of Youli because of his jealousy of his achievement. When Emperor Zhou was released and returned to his hometown, the local people noticed his very bad condition caused by the tortures and thus offered him plenty of food to help him recover. To express his gratitude to these people, Emperor Zhou personally made noodle with the ingredients brought to him to serve the crowd. When they ate up the noodle, they poured the soup back and cooked more noodle with it. This way of eating noodle without drinking the soup is called having "Harmony Noodle." (Extracted from "Stories of Famous Food")

It is said "World noodles are in China." The profound knowledge behind Chinese noodles cannot be summarized in just a few words. But it is certain that noodles are founded and evolved in China. Different types of noodles can be cooked and served in a variety of ways. With each type of noodle possessing its own history and culture, Chinese noodles are no doubt world-renowned.

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