How many millennia would it take for our favourite cousin the chimpanzee to invent noodles? What first gave someone the idea? Obviously a product of an economic system with time on its hands, division of labour, and a history of dough or starch making. Dough balls or their starchy equivalents, made from pounded cereal or roots, are found across the basic foodstuffs of the world, baked, boiled or fried. Whoever thought of flattening them out and cutting them to ribbons, or extruding them through some primitive colander to create long pliable worms which when dried would keep for ages?
The Chinese naturally make first claim. They would and why not? Earliest finds of noodles are reputed to be 4000 years old. It has been tradition to suggest that Marco Polo brought the idea back to Italy from Cathay but it’s more likely that the Italians already had pasta by that date. Either way, noodles are a simple, flexible, economical and convenient form of carbohydrate that is eaten daily in many forms by hundreds of millions of people.
Our word ‘noodle’ is apparently German, the Chinese call it ‘mein’ (wheat noodle) or ‘fun’ (rice noodle). The most ubiquitous form of noodle is probably ramen, the dried wheat noodle bought in packets for pennies with its own instant soup mix as a quick lunch snack. Invented in Japan after the war it is common worldwide and gives our own pot noodle a much more interesting provenance than it deserves. Packaged ramen is not necessarily healthy; the noodles contain saturated fats, salt and lye water, (a form of caustic soda used in food processing) and the soup base often includes monosodium glutamate.
Noodles are eaten in a variety of forms, as soup, in sauce, or fried, and usually in combination with meat, fish and vegetable. Historically wheat or millet noodles, dumplings and buns were a staple food north of the ‘rice-line’ which divides China climatically along the Yangtse; rice and rice noodle displaced them in the hotter, wetter south.
Chow Mein with Duck and Chinese mushroom
Basically chow mein is a mixed fried noodle dish, similar to fried rice. There is a ‘Hong Kong’ version where the noodles are fried until they are crispy on one side, and a ‘soft’ noodle version where they are stir fried or braised. It can be made with combinations of chicken, duck, prawn, squid, pork, char siu (red-coated barbecued pork), mushroom, onion, bean sprout; ‘mixed meat’ or ‘special chow mein’ invariably includes a selection of them. Unlike fried rice all ingredients are shredded to matchstick or baton shapes.Read more