My mother’s Chinese name is Hu Dongduo (胡冬朵; Winter Blossom) and her English name is “Dawn.” In the early years of my mother’s life, noodles were the food of celebrations and family gatherings. During the early years of the Cultural Revolution, Chinese noodles, for my mother, were a food of love and comfort that came from a place of scarcity and ingenuity. After my mother’s family was exiled to a “May 7th Cadre School” for re-education in Xinyang, Henan Province, however, Chinese noodles were then used as a food of maltreatment and correction. After my mother moved to the United States, Chinese noodles represented a food that was greatly changed but nevertheless slightly less unfamiliar to her. After Chinese immigration to the United States became more widespread, however, Chinese ingredients became more widely available; noodles then became a window to life at home in China. For Dawn today, noodles have now become the food that she most associates with love and comfort. While Chinese noodles have meant different things to Dawn over the course of her lifetime, the noodle has played a significant role in times of trial, scarcity, unfamiliarity, happiness, and abundance.
My mother’s favorite Chinese noodle dish is called da lu mian (打卤面), which translates to “Noodles with Gravy.” While da lu mian is common in Northeast China and can be prepared with simple ingredients, the dish holds a special significance to my mother because the recipe was taught to her by her grandmother. Dawn’s grandmother’s da lu mian takes the form of a “beautiful dish” that is comprised of “pork, mushrooms, black wood ear (tree fungus), golden needles, shrimp, fried wheat gluten, and egg drops” that is eaten together by the family on special occasions like Lunar New Year banquets. Because the dish takes many hours to make, its preparation was truly a labor of love. Kept in our family for many generations, da lu mian has now become our family’s version of chang shou mian (“long life noodles”), or “birthday longevity noodles” as they were called in my home growing up. This dish was enjoyed during family celebrations in China before the Cultural Revolution hit, and it survived the brutality of Chinese history intact.
During the early years of the Cultural Revolution, Dawn’s experiences with noodles were influenced by scarcity but also punctuated by ingenuity and culinary innovation. While there is a saying in Chinese culture that “Not even the most skillful wife can make a stone soup” (qiao fu nan wei wu mi zhi cui. 巧妇难为无米之炊), my mother told me that Aunt Shuwen could do exactly such. For example, one of Dawn’s most memorable food experiences was a homemade noodle soup that Aunt Shuwen prepared during the Cultural Revolution, when proper ingredients were often hard to obtain. Because meat was in limited supply and therefore strictly rationed, it was often hard to gain access to protein in Cultural Revolution China. Since Aunt Shuwen had good guanxi (good “relationship”) with the butcher, however, she was able to gain access to marrow bones, which were not rationed. On a bitterly cold Beijing winter day Aunt Shuwen made soup with cabbage, bone broth, and handmade noodles. To accompany the soup, Aunt Shuwen toasted the mantou, or plain Chinese steamed buns, to a golden brown color on her spotlessly clean cast iron range. The family then all sat down together at the table and ate noodles. My mother said that she can remember the broad smile on Aunt Shuwen’s face to this day when everyone sat down at the table to eat the noodle soup that Aunt Shuwen had practically made from stone.
When I asked my mother how she first learned to cook Xi Hong Shi Ji Dan Mian, another dish that utilizes quite limited ingredients, she told me that it was a neighborhood grandmother who showed her how to make the dish. Because her parents were sent to a labor camp in Beijing for being “intellectuals” (professors), my mother found herself living alone in the family’s apartment building at the age of seven. Her neighbors were the children of other intellectuals who had been sent away. Since one child still had a grandmother there, however, this child’s grandmother taught each of the children how to cook noodles because noodles were the “easiest” dish to make. Consisting of “scallions,” “tomatoes,” and “water,” this version of Xi Hong Shi Ji Dan Mian (“Ji Dan” means “egg”) might sometimes contain “an egg” depending on each day’s rations. Since eggs in China were rationed, my mother said, having even one egg for the Xi Hong Shi Ji Dan Mian was a treat. While such scarcity was common during the Cultural Revolution, the story of how my mother learned to cook Xi Hong Shi Ji Dan Mian showed how she was able to find comfort and sustenance in noodles amidst a challenging set of circumstances.
In Xinyang, Henan Province, however, noodles were a food of meager subsistence that the occupants of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences May 7th Cadre School, including my mother, were forced to eat on Sundays. Made with an unorthodox mix of “pumpkins boiled by water and salt” as the “sauce,” these noodles were noodles of punishment according to my mother. They were hard to eat, my mother said, because you could “taste” the strong dislike that went into preparing them. The sense of loathing that was integrated into the noodles themselves (in combination with them being extremely bland) made them hard for the occupants of the labor camp (including my mother) to physically swallow.
When my mother first moved to the United States, Chinese noodles served as a food of unfamiliarity. While noodles reminded my mother of home, the first Chinese noodle dish that my mother had in the United States made her feel even more out of place. My mother’s first experience with a noodle soup in the U.S. was at the Yenching Restaurant in Harvard Square. According to my mother, it was like the chef had used “beef stew” to try and create a noodle soup. Moreover, instead of being fully “integrated” together like the ingredients of a good Chinese noodle soup, my mother remarked that it was possible to “separate” the individual ingredients like the “cabbage” and the “noodles” quite easily. Lastly, my mother described the noodles themselves as “semi-cold and half-hearted.” After Chinese immigration to the United States increased, however, authentic Chinese noodle dishes then became available in restaurants. Moreover, the ingredients required to make them became more readily available on store shelves. During our interview, my mother said that as Chinese immigration to the United States increased, restaurants and stores could “afford to be authentic.” This change made it so traditional Chinese foods began to coexist with Americanized ones.
With changes in modern Chinese lifestyles, Chinese noodles have evolved significantly for my mother over time. When my mother first learned how to make Xi Hong Shi Ji Dan Mian 48 years ago, she was living in China through a time of great uncertainty and scarcity. Noodles were also still frequently made by hand. When her and I cooked this dish a couple of days ago, however, our Chinese-American Xi Hong Shi Ji Dan Mian contained a comparative abundance of ingredients: three eggs (two poached, one made into egg threads), two whole tomatoes, a quart of chicken broth, sesame oil from Japan, seaweed from South Korea, white pepper from Southeast Asia, and fang bian mian (ready-made dried ramen noodles) from Taiwan. Access to such ingredients would have been considered unimaginable during the period of agricultural scarcity and rationing that coincided with the Chinese Cultural Revolution. While the circumstances surrounding Chinese noodles in my mother’s life have changed in significant ways throughout, noodles have now fully returned to becoming a food of love, comfort, and celebration for her.
Link to Video: https://youtu.be/ILwrXIdu3Ow