What is a noodle? “Noodle (n): a food paste made usually with egg and shaped typically in ribbon form” (Merriam-Webster). It is more difficult than expected to formulate a modern definition for the noodle as there are so many factors that are at play and are not included in the Merriam-Webster dictionary definition. There are so many varieties of noodles in the world, ranging from rigatoni to Lo mein; noodles are the product of globalization. As the noodle became more popular over time and spread across regions, different types of noodles came to life. Noodles began to vary in composition as some were made with rice, while others with various types of flour. They began to take different shapes and thicknesses as well as being cooked differently. The sharing of new ideas that resulted from globalization have definitely played a factor in changing the making and cooking of noodles, which changed the definition of the noodle. The Italians, for example, started to boil noodles (Demetri) while the Chinese utilized techniques like stir-frying to cook their noodles (Zhang and Ma). In addition, different recipes were formed using the various ingredients that were available to chefs in their regions and over time, these new recipes became an integral part of the country’s cuisine and were passed on from generation to generation. A clear example of this occurred after tomatoes were introduced from the New World; they originally were thought to be toxic but after the misconception was shattered, they were used for cooking and began to play a huge role in many of the pasta dishes we see today (Demetri). Thus, when thinking about the definition of the noodle, it is a food that has changed the most with time as new ideas were developed. Noodles are particularly versatile as they can be made and cooked with a variety of ingredients. This quality allows noodles to become easily adopted in to a country’s palette as it can be cooked with the regional ingredients of that country. Noodles can be made of certain ingredients to best complement the flavor of the dish. For example, dried pasta, made purely of durum wheat and water, is used to absorb the sauce while fresh pasta, which is usually made of flour and eggs, is used for more light and seasonal sauces (Demetri); they are thus used to cook different dishes. Noodles have been praised all over for this trait and became popularized all over the world. As a result, in order to fulfill the worldwide demand for them, they have evolved to become mass produced. Many people believe that these noodles are not authentic. However, the origin of these noodles are still linked to the traditional methods of making noodles. Pasta that has been mass produced in Italy, for example, is still kept to “time-tested production methods” (Demetri) to guarantee the pasta’s quality. A similar instance in China is the creation of instant ramen noodles which was derived from a Chinese tradition, the Yi noodles (Zhang and Ma). Although these mass produced are sometimes viewed in a negative light, I believe that these have become a distinct part of the food culture of both Italy and China; through mass production, these noodles have become more accessible to even more audiences and thus, can continue to be used to synthesize new recipes.
As a result of these observations, I believe that noodles are a true product of collaboration and culture because the noodle recipes that are developed by families are passed on over time down the family lineage, and thus, are able to become a part of the culture. This is evident in both Chinese and Italian culture. For instance, in China, the long-life noodles carry a special meaning of longevity with every bowl (Durack), while the Italians value the family coming together and making pasta (Two Greedy Italians). Therefore, I think that one definition of a noodle cannot be isolated as every individual will have a different definition of the word “noodle.” Thanks to their versatile nature and delicious taste, they are able to become adopted within many family’s traditions and cultures and therefore, adopt meaning that is unique to everyone’s identity and their family background. For example, 물냉면 (mul-naengmyeon) is a popular noodle dish in Korea, typically made of buckwheat, and deliciously accompanied with a chilled beef broth. This dish is also serves as an example of a product of collaboration as there are so many different varieties that exist. For example, the noodles in 냉면 (naengmyeon) can be made from sweet potatoes, arrowroot starch and kudzu rather than buckwheat (NamuWiki), and can also be served two ways, either with the cold broth I mentioned earlier, 물냉면 (mul-naengmyeon), or mixed with a spicy sauce (비빔냉면 [bibimnaengmyeon]). The 물냉면 (mul-naengmyeon) is a dish that is something that is particularly fond to me and my family and it was the first dish that came to my mind when I thought of the word “noodles.” 물냉면 (mul-naengmyeon) is a dish that originates in Pyongyang because it is usually served cold and with ice, and in the past before ice machines, North Korea had a lot of ice. The dish was served in the winter time (as that’s when there was the most ice) and there is also a Korean saying “이열치열,” which signifies “fight hot with hot,” meaning that eating a hot dish when it is hot outside will help you feel cool (and the reverse logic applies as well). My maternal grandmother was born in North Korea when Korea was an united country, and she had moved down to Seoul right before the Korean War. Unfortunately, she was never able to go back, which was always very difficult for her, as she missed her family members very much. Thus, 물냉면 (mul-naengmyeon) became a very special dish for her that she would make for my sister and I; she always would talk about how much comfort she felt whenever she would eat the noodles. As a result, whenever I eat the noodles, I also feel a sense of comfort and connectedness to my roots as I have always associated these feelings and memories with the dish while I was growing up. As a result, when I began to eat 물냉면 (mul-naengmyeon) with some of my friends from college, I was able to learn more about what the noodles meant to them; we all had different feelings associated with the dish due to our different experiences growing up and our family background. That being said, many of us agreed that this dish is particularly special as it is associated with the hope that one day, the Koreas will be united once again. This is a prevalent sentiment among many people who identify as Koreans, since the drawing of the 38th parallel and ceasefire tore many families apart, and many of us would like the two units to unite again. I think this insight made me also realize that the definition of the noodle is also constantly modifying over time. Even in my personal experience, the way I view 냉면 (naengmyeon) has changed a bit. A recent example of this change was after the leaders of North and South Korea ate 냉면 (naengmyeon) together at the Summit; this created a nationwide spark of eating these noodles in Korea as people celebrated the two Korea summit (BBC). After I saw the nationwide phenomenon and the peaceful lunch shared between the two leaders, it made the noodles even more special, because it solidified my personal hope of unification of the two countries.
Subsequently, I think that it is difficult to isolate one definition of a “noodle.” I believe that everyone’s family background, values and personal experience affect what they think a noodle is. These stories are what makes noodles special over time, since noodles are able to be embody memories and feelings that we are reminded of every time we eat them. Even mass-produced noodles, like ramen, have become an essential part of the culture as they are a dish that can evoke feelings of love and connectedness, even for people who are thousands of miles away from home. We tend to associate certain memories and sentiments with food and the noodle is able to play that role for people of diverse backgrounds because it is versatile. Also, the definition of a noodle is not solidified; it is fluid and able to embody many different meanings for everyone.
Therefore, when I was trying to isolate one pure phrase to define “noodle” with, I was perplexed as it is quite complex. I created this image below with each of the letters made from a different picture of a different noodle and arranged them in a “fluid” way in order to represent the always changing natures of both noodles and our identities. I was hoping to show that noodle dishes in whatever form and of whatever ingredients are able to play a role in everyone’s unique identities because of the meanings we give to noodles. They are able to embody different meanings because there are an endless amount of ways noodles can be cooked; there is no “right” way to cook noodles or just “one” noodle dish. In this way, this aspect of noodles parallels identity. Identity is not something that is one thing or the other; we are also able to embody and embrace multiple identities. Noodles and identities are quite intertwined; our identity shapes the way we view and give value to noodles while noodles provide a way for us to celebrate and cherish our culture and family background.
Demetri, Justin. “History of Pasta.” Life In Italy, www.lifeinitaly.com/food/pasta-history.asp.
“Korean Summit Sparks Cold Noodle Craze.” BBC News, BBC, 27 Apr. 2018, www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-43918330.
“Long-Life Noodles.” Noodle, by Terry Durack, Pavilion, 2001.
“냉면.” 냉면 – 나무위키, NamuWiki (나무위키), namu.wiki/w/%EB%83%89%EB%A9%B4.
“Noodle.” Noodle, Merriam Webster, www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/noodle?src=search-dict-hed.
“Two Greedy Italians.” BBC Two Greedy Italians – Italian Family Lunch, www.youtube.com/watch?v=_v4gFyYM4Hs.
Zhang, Na, and Guansheng Ma. “Noodles, Traditionally and Today.” Journal of Ethnic Foods, vol. 3, no. 3, 2016, pp. 209–212., doi:10.1016/j.jef.2016.08.003.
**photo credits given when you press the photo