Beijing Noodles

One thing I learned in China is that there is no such thing as Chinese food. China is a vast country. Each of its many regions has its own distinct cuisine. “Chinese” food is like “American” food. What kind of food are you talking about? New York pastrami? Chicago pizza? New Orleans red beans and rice? Creole? Cajun? Soul? The possibilities and combinations are endless.

Beijing is famous for noodles. Naturally, we had to try some. Our friends Stepan and Judith took us to a famous noodle shop across the road from the Pearl Market. We had to cross a pedestrian bridge to get there. That bridge was the only way to get across the road alive. Pedestrians in China are at the bottom of the traffic food chain. They have NO rights at all. I often wondered if a Chinese driver’s license is also a pedestrian hunting license. The trick to crossing streets, I quickly learned, is to wait on the corner for a group of Chinese people to gather. When they move, you move. Fast!

Thanks to the bridge it was an easy stroll to the noodle shop, with great views of the city and a small hutong. Hutongs are old-style Beijing neighborhoods. They go back to the days of the Mongols. On different occasions I was told that the word “hutong” means “lane” or “well.” Either one works. Houses were built around courtyards. A well provided drinking water for the families who lived there. Hutong streets are narrow, crooked lanes that wind between the houses. Most hutongs have been replaced by modern high rises. The ones that remain are prime real estate. They look like slums from the outside. Inside, they’re beautifully maintained. Imagine living in a house that goes back to the days of Marco Polo and Kubilai Khan!

We’re inside the noodle shop. A blast of hot air and noise greets us as we open the door. Waiters are running back and forth with large trays piled high with bowls of different sizes. Everyone is talking at once. If you want to be heard, you have to talk LOUD! We sit at a round table on narrow benches that resemble sawhorses. They’re surprisingly comfortable. The menu is posted on wooden plaques hanging from the walls. This shop, I’m told, has been here for two hundred years. I wouldn’t be surprised if the menu has been here just as long.

There’s a more conventional menu for foreigners. The waiter throws one at Judith. She can speak Mandarin, although she can’t read it. There are some English words and pictures of the various dishes. It all looks good. Judith knows what to order. She yells at the waiter. He yells back and nods. Off he runs to the kitchen. Doris and I sit back and enjoy the wonderful bustle of the place. Well, we don’t sit too far back. Otherwise, we’d fall off our chairs.

The waiter is back. The show he puts on is as good as the food. He’s carrying a huge metal tray, the size of the biggest pizza pan you ever saw. There’s a large bowl of noodles in the middle, surrounded by smaller bowls containing the various dishes we’ve ordered to add to the noodles. The waiter picks up the smaller bowls one at a time. With a great flourish, he quickly empties them into the noodle bowl, one after another. Then, with a pair of chopsticks that look to be a yard long, he mixes the noodles with the “fixin’s.” He hoists the noodles into the air, lets them fall. Hoist, fall. Hoist, fall.

Now we’re ready to eat. With the speed of light, he takes those enormous chopsticks and deposits noodles into our bowls, which he slams on the table in front of us. Then he’s off to another table where someone else is screaming for a waiter.

We feast on wonderful Beijing noodles. Judith tries to tell me what she ordered to add to the noodles, but I can’t hear her over the noise. Besides, I’m too busy slurping noodles. There’s a technique to eating them. You raise the bowl to your mouth. Grab some noodles with the chopsticks and shove them in. It’s like shoveling coal into a furnace.

I am so stuffed. I cannot eat another bite. Is there any place in America where I can find noodles as good as these? I don’t know, but I’m going to be looking.

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