It never snows here in Kunming, China. In fact, it has probably snowed more in my native New Orleans in the past few years than in Kunming. Yunnan Province is just a border away from the sweltering heat of Southeast Asia, and in the jungles of Vietnam, Laos, and Myanmar, snow is as rare as democracy. So when I woke up this morning to a white winter wonderland, I knew that I had to somehow tie the delightful, enchanted day in with food.
In my native Louisiana, when the weather begins to turn get cold, people start to say that it’s gumbo weather. Gumbo is the perfect warm, spicy, nourishing stew for the cold. Well in China, gumbo weather means hotpot weather! Hotpot is a creation of Sichuan province, a province known for its excruciatingly spicy food and love of meat. Hotpot is also popular in Mongolia, where it is even more meat-heavy than in Sichuan. So when the weather in Kunming turned cold this week, I knew that it was time for a hotpot night.
Alright, so the title of this article is a bit misleading, especially if you follow Food Ergo Love. After all, you know that I have written about eating bugs (here and here) and other odd things. And while I certainly would be delighted to eat ants, if prepared properly, this article is actually about a noodle dish whose Chinese name is 蚂蚁上树 (mayi shang shu), which translates to something like ants climbing up a tree. I tried this dish tonight at my favorite local hole-in-the-wall, Qian Yuan, home of one of the best three dishes I have ever eaten in my life (this dish is not one of them).
蚂蚁上树 is a traditional dish from Sichuan Province, a province known for its sour and extremely spicy flavors. Hot pot is probably the most famous dish from Sichuan. My noodle dish tonight is designed for its clever visual appeal, and its quite bold, spicy, sour flavors. The preparation is relatively simple. Pork or beef is ground (mine tonight was pork), and marinated in some vinegar, soy sauce, and sesame oil. At the same time, cellophane noodles are soaked and softened. Then, green onions, garlic, ginger, and chili peppers are stir-fried at extremely high heat. The meat is added, then the noodles. As the dish is poured onto the plate, the bits of ground meat cling to the noodle strands, causing the appearance of ants climbing up twigs or branches.
My dish tonight had two slight variations from the traditional preparation. First, it used rice noodles instead of cellophane noodles. This is not surprising, as rice noodles are quite popular in Kunming. Second, it used pickled chili peppers rather than fresh ones. However, I am not completely sure how the chili peppers are prepared in Sichuan, so I am only guessing that they were different. One disappointment tonight was that the manner in which my noodles were prepared and poured onto the plate, did not cause the bits of meat to look like ants on twigs. It seems as if the cooks — usually very skilled at this restaurant — had an off night, or were a little sloppy. Hey, as someone who spent years working in kitchens, I can tell you that it happens sometimes. C’est la vie.
But on to the flavor. The dish had the characteristics flavors of Sichuan cuisine. The sharp acidity and pungent element of the garlic and green onions was accentuated by the sour tartness of the vinegar (and there was probably some rice wine in there too, if I had to guess). The chili peppers made the dish extremely spicy, to a degree that most Westerners would find unbearable, but to which I have become accustomed by living in China. My mouth was in pain and on fire, but it hurt so good. The ginger added a sharp but slightly-sweet element, and the starchy noodles balanced the other acute flavors. It tasted quite good, but I wonder how much better it might be in Sichuan.
So, while the presentation on my 蚂蚁上树 was not quite as it should have been, the flavor was far above average. And it is a shame about the presentation, in my opinion. Chinese cuisine is ancient — thousands of years old — and Chinese chefs have developed flavors, colors, textures, and presentations that delight the senses. Many dishes have themes, such as ants climbing a tree, and engage the mind and the eyes as much as the taste buds. I only hope to be able to try this dish again in Sichuan, and see how it is really meant to look.
味千拉面. It means thousand flavors ramen. The ramen part refers to Japanese noodles, but not the cheap ones that college students buy for one dollars a crate. These are the real deal, freshly-made noodles served in a giant bowl of soup. The concept is very simple, and found all across Asia: noodles, meat, and vegetables, in a savory broth. It is a filling, complete meal. It is tasty. It is cheap and readily available.
So when my friend insisted we have lunch at 味千拉面, I nonchalantly consented. More noodles, I thought. I live in Kunming, China, the world capital of noodles. I have noodles for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. More noodles for lunch? Sure, why not. Noodles, noodles, noodles. Well, slap me with a soba! I was delighted to find that the noodles at this restaurant were not only great, but I enjoyed everything about the place. But before I get ahead of myself, let me briefly describe the restaurant and the company, because it is the last place I ever expected to have such a great dining experience.
The English name for the company behind 味千拉面 is Ajisen Ramen, which, in turn, is owned by Shigemitsu Industry Co., Ltd., based in Japan. If you are a follower of this blog, then you probably know how I feel about corporate, franchised food. In fact, that is why I had avoided this place before, despite the recommendations of friends, both Chinese and Western. Well, I openly admit that I was wrong about Ajisen Ramen. Despite being a corporate chain, it was really, really good, not only the food, but everything about it.
The first thing I noticed was how accommodating the staff was. Now keep in mind that all restaurant staff in China are overly accommodating by Western standards. Some Chinese patrons really abuse these brave souls, but they keep calm, friendly, and attentive. Well, the staff at Ajisen Ramen were so accommodating, that they acted almost ludicrously subservient. I am certain that this is because it is a Japanese company.
While all Asian culture emphasizes politeness, self-control, courtesy, and humility, Japan is especially known for its politeness and hospitality. These servers constantly bowed and smiled, and when our server accidentally forgot to bring a drink we ordered, she profusely bowed and apologized as if she had brought shame upon seven generations of her family. I felt bad, and I told her, “Mei guanxi! Mei guanxi!” which means, “No problem! No problem!” I felt like royalty being waited on like this.
The restaurant was extremely clean, even by Western standards. It was tastefully decorated, and the chairs and tables were modern, sleek, and comfortable. The menu displayed large, glossy, full-color photography, and each dish was described fully (in Mandarin Chinese, of course!). Everything about the restaurant was efficient, professional, and hospitable, which is, I suppose, describes Japan as a country. But this is not a restaurant review. As the title of this article suggests, this is about the best piece of meat that I have ever had. So, on to the food.
I ordered ramen with duck meat, a duck egg, and vegetables. My dining partner ordered ramen with a cut of pork called, in Chinese, 猪软骨, which translates literally to pork soft bone. It is known in English as the same. This is a cut of pork from the inner part of the ribs, where cartilage joins the spine to the rib bones proper. Thus, it is cartilage, and not a true bone. Humans have this cartilage too. Because it is essentially soft protein, it is edible, and many Asian cuisines make use of it. The cartilage and the meat that it is attached to, are meant to be eaten as a unit. And as I found out today, there is a very good reason for this.
Overall, my ramen soup was very good. The duck meat was rich and winey, and the broth was savory and tangy, with a nice flavor of garlic. The noodles were plump and tender, but not overcooked. If I had stopped there, I still would have enjoyed my lunch. But then my dining partner offered me a taste of her soft bone pork, and it rocked my world. It was – at least as I perceived it at the time — the best piece of meat that I have ever had in my life. But how? How could it possibly be that good? It came from a corporate chain of restaurants. And while the rest of the food was good, it was not at the level of this pork.
It must have been in the stars that day. Something, some sort of cosmic convergence, took fresh and good, but not excellent, food, combined it in some sort of witch’s brew, and produced a stellar, supernatural gift of love from the universe. Because that piece of soft bone pork rib somehow expressed the luscious, fatty, savory flavor of a fine, aged, European cheese. I do not know how else to describe it. Imagine the highest-quality, ripest, most well-crafted Camembert or Brie that you have ever tasted, add a bit of tanginess and animal fat flavor, and multiply it by ten. Then add to it the very essence of osso bucco, and throw in a hint of the world’s best foie gras, and you might come close to this pork.
I just cannot understand it. I do not want to go back and order it, because I know it can never be the same. It will be a disappointment. I do not attribute the perfection of that pork to the cooks, or the restaurant, or the recipes, or the suppliers, or even to the pig itself. No, I think it was simply one of those rare moments of epiphany, where, by pure chance, or maybe fate, multiple factors happen to come together to produce something truly excellent. And that is why I just know, if I go back and try that dish again, it will not be as perfect, or even as good. It cannot be. The culinary gods smiled upon me that day, and blessed me to be at the perfect place, in the perfect time, with the perfect culmination of ingredients, skill, cut of pork, and something indefinable, inexplicable.
And in my opinion, that is one of the greatest and most beautiful things about gastronomy. It is always possible, with ingredients, knowledge, and skill, to make delicious food. But sometimes, every once in a while, the very hand of God reaches down and touches a dish. It is rare, but at those moments, in that dish, there is a spark of the divine.
Update: I went back to 味千拉面 just to see if the meat could ever be as good again. And while the food was very good the second time, alas, the soft bone pork was just not the same. Sure, it was tender and delicious, but it did not reach the spiritual heights to which it ascended last time. I guess that supports my theory in this article. Go figure.
Growing up, I had a neurotic aversion to people making noises when they ate. I think it came from the sound my father used to make when eating bananas. It was a moist, squishy sound, and it drove me crazy. Throughout much of my life, it was like I had wolf ears. Eating around people, I was assaulted with a wicked symphony of chewing, smacking, squishing, slurping, chomping, and sucking. Try as I might to ignore it all, something in my brain heard these sounds and triggered feelings of despair and anger. My friend, who also has such a reaction to smacking sounds, phrased it this way: “If I lived in the Old West, I think I would have shot someone by now.”
So imagine my chagrin when I moved to mainland China, a country where loud eating noises are the norm. Eating in China — especially dining out — is a rather bizarre experience for the Westerner. I plan to eventually write a blog article about all of the etiquette at a formal Chinese dinner. But in this short post, I want to focus mainly on the slurping of noodles. Dining in China is a much louder experience than dining in the West, and that includes voices, eating noises, kitchen noises, and the volume of the overall environment.
Noodles are extremely popular all over China, but especially here in Yunnan, which is in the south. In Kunming, noodles usually come with some sort of meat or tofu, onions, and garlic, and are served in some sort of vinegary, spicy broth. The proper way to eat noodles is with chopsticks. It may seem counter-productive to eat a soup with two sticks, but in China, the broth and other ingredients are more of a flavoring for the noodles, which are the main feature. Many people (including me) like to drink the broth after finishing the noodles, but it is secondary to the noodles themselves.
So, how does one eat noodles in China, and look like a pro? Well, the first thing is the mixing. When your noodles arrive, whether in a broth or dry like lu mian, all of the other ingredients will probably be piled on top of the noodles. Thus, you should mix the noodles and the ingredients around until they are evenly distributed. Then, use the chopsticks to grab some noodles, and pull them up out of the bowl. Put them in your mouth, so that noodles are hanging from your mouth into the bowl. Last step: slurp! Yes, the proper way is to slurp them up noisily into your mouth. If a really long strand or two remain, bite them off and let them fall back into the bowl.
As you can imagine then, lunch at a noodle house is a very noisy affair! Imagine dozens of people, all simultaneously slurping noodles furiously, as if their very lives depended on it. This would have driven the pre-China me crazy. But, we humans tend to adapt to our environments. After the constant, traumatic, exposure therapy I faced day and night, I guess my brain finally relented. Slurping no longer bothers me. In fact, I rather enjoy it, because it is something that you could never get away with in a Western restaurant.
So what sort of moral or philosophical lesson can I draw from noodle-slurping? Well, I think that all of the noise, especially the slurping, in a Chinese noodle house, represents the view of the Chinese culture that food is something to be enjoyed by all of the senses. Food, therefore, is an inherently sensual thing. Eating in a noodle house, or in another sort of Chinese restaurant, is a full-sensory experience. The colors, the smells, the taste, the feel, the noises — they create an environment that elevates food from mere nutrition, to something that permeates your entire body. And I really agree with that. Food is so much more than protein, carbohydrates, and fat. Rather, it is an important part of life that is to be enjoyed with the entire body.