In the late nineties Dave and I lived in Shanghai, and for about a year I commuted by train to Nanjing, where I spent Mondays through Fridays sifting through stacks of pre-Communist era archives. I quite liked my research, but I can't say I enjoyed those Monday morning and Friday evening train rides, when I'd be squeezed into a too-small seat and surrounded by folks shouting - to be heard above the din of tinny music and propaganda piped into the car - into their mobile phones. At least there was always conversation to distract me.
Queries from seat-mates would follow a predictable arc. Where are you from? How old are you? Are you married? How many children do you have? (A sharp intake of breath would always follow my answer of "None.") What's your work? What's your husband's work? What's his salary, and yours?
(In China, this is not an invasion of privacy. It's conversation.)
Then, "Can you eat Chinese food?" And "What's your favorite dish?"
"Jiaozi, shuijiao. Or daoshao mian," I'd reply truthfully, referencing the love of boiled dumplings and hand-cut noodles I'd developed when I taught English in Sichuan province in the mid-eighties.
Then the name-calling would begin: "Tulao-er!" (Bumpkin!) And then, "Nei shi nongmin cai!" (That's peasant food!)
Most of my fellow passengers were businesspeople from Shanghai, China's most cosmopolitan city, occupied by millions of urban sophisticates. (Or so Shanghai ren believe - or did then, anyway.) And many were old enough to remember, or had heard about from their parents, the lean years of the pre-Deng Xiaoping era, when meat was a luxury and noodles or rice occupied the center of the table.
In 1997 Shanghai rice was what you ordered at the end of a meal, and only if you were still hungry after feasting on fish, meat, and vegetables. Noodles, buns, or dumplings were everyday food, a snack or quick lunch or breakfast - certainly nothing to be considered on the level of Shanghai's famous cuisine (excepting Shanghai's own xiaolongbao).
There I was, living in China's greatest city, naming the staples of the rural hinterlands - lumpy dough balls and irregularly shaped noodles shaved from a crude block of dough - as my favorite Chinese foods. Obviously I was crazy. Or a bumpkin.
(I'm proud to say I never backed down - and recall with amusement that after some good-natured back and forth, a few of my fellow passengers admitted that they, too, were huge dough lovers).
I remembered all this last month on Taiwan, where Dave and I ate a lot of dumplings and noodles, the kind of dumplings (thick-skinned, stuffed with pork studded with so many Chinese chives it was often green) and noodles (made with nothing but wheat flour, water, and salt and hand-cut into substantial, ropey strands) that transported us right back to Sichuan.
It was as if a long-dormant craving had been awakened. Here in Malaysia - anywhere in Southeast Asia, really - we're surrounded by noodles. But there is something about the weight and heft, the texture and mouthfeel, and (when they're made with really good flour) the flavor of of mainland-style wheat dough that hits a chord with me. It's a chord a rice flour noodle will never hit.
Away from China for so many years, I'd forgotten.
So, on Taiwan we ate shuijiao and daoshao mian (and other wonderful wheaty treats, like scallion pancakes and shuizhen bao - more on those to come) every chance we got. One day we ate them for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. And woke up the next day eager for more.
Our day of all-dough piggery ended around 9:30pm, with a bowl of zhajiang mian from a stall on Da'an street run by 'Old Beard' (that's what the sign says). We'd just finished a plate of boiled dumplings at a stall up the street and were plenty full, but when we spied the pile of uncooked noodles as thick as my pinky finger next to Old Beard's boiler we knew we had to stop.
This is the kind of place where, when the noodles are running low, Old Beard or his helper (above) run into the back of the shop and whipup another batch quick as you please, rolling out and cutting the dough by hand.
And those noodles are fantastic, as satisfying a wheat noodle as a wheat noodle lover could wish for. For zhajiang mian, Old Beard crowns a mound of them with slightly sweet, slightly salty chili-bean sauce, sliced pork, and shredded cucumber. Pickled mustard and pickled scallion greens with chili are there on the side, to add as you wish.
On Taiwan, my inner bumpkin surfaced. I embraced it. And I don't care if Shanghai's most cosmopolitan denizens - and the rest of the world - knows it.
I. Am. A. Bumpkin.
Old Beard's Noodle Stall (noodles served a number of ways), Da'an Lu, a short walk from the train line's Da'an Station. Late afternoon till 10-ish or so.