November 27, 2021
If one were to trace the origins of the noodle, they would end up in the largest of all Asian countries - China. Noodles are one of the most important traditional staple foods in Asia. Typically made from unleavened wheat dough and are stretched, extruded, or rolled, and then cut into varying shapes, noodles account for approximately 20%–50% of the total wheat consumption in Asia. The noodle has the capability to adequately reflect the history, regional differences, social changes, traditional values and cultural identity of China.
Zha jiang mian is a specialty of Beijing. These “fried sauce noodles” from the Shandong province are made with chewy, thick wheat noodles and topped with zha jiang sauce, a rich mixture of ground pork and fermented soybean paste. Along with dan dan mian, dao xiao mian, and beef noodles, these constitute some of today’s signature Chinese noodles.
Noodles have been closely interwoven into the Chinese society and their culinary practices for the longest time. A 4,000-year-old bowl of noodles unearthed in China is the earliest evidence ever found of one of the world's most popular foods, indicating an Asian origin for the staple dish. The earliest Chinese noodles were shaped into little bits, formed with bread dough and are called mian pian. This type of noodle still exists today in China. Based on old poetry from 300 BCE, written by poet Shu Shi, we see that noodles have been a staple fixture in Chinese homes at that time.
By the time of the Han Dynasty in early 200AD, noodles were present all over Chinese culture. It was commonly known as cake or gao, and appeared as sheets or strips. With time, Chinese noodles started being made with wheat flour, rice flour and sometimes mung bean starch. By the Song Dynasty (960-1279 AD), we saw the emergence of noodle shops at all major Chinese cities, and eventually it spread to Korea, Japan, and other Southeast Asian countries through Chinese influence.
Noodles are still a big part of Asian cultural celebrations and festivals today. Chinese people have many customs, which essentially reinforce “human nature” and “worldly common sense” in the symbolic meaning of noodles. Noodles hold a unique value of traditional culture.
Noodles are a symbol of longevity in Chinese culture. They are as much a part of a Chinese birthday celebration as a birthday cake with lit candles is in many countries. Since noodles symbolise longevity, it is considered very unlucky to cut up a strand. For newlyweds who are moving into their first home, noodles with gravy symbolises a “flavoured life”. To anticipate good weather on Lunar New Year, they feast on dragon whiskers noodles.
Historically sold on the streets of Sichuan, dan dan mian also has a rich story to tell. These noodles have derived their name due to its history of peddlers carrying the pots and stoves on their shoulders using a bamboo pole (dan) in order to sell the noodles. This story is used as a life lesson to teach children about the importance of hard work and good service, and the role they play in becoming prosperous.
Through its integral role in food culture and what it symbolises, it is evident that noodles have come a long way since its origin, with signature dishes influenced from different regions in China.
However, even with traditional dishes still present, we also see that there has been an evolution in the way noodles are being made in modern times. Through creativity and hard work, we see many variations of noodle dishes today, such as ramen noodles and instant noodles.
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