The earliest written records from any culture talking about noodles date to the East Han Dynasty, about 2000 years ago. Recent archaeological excavations have uncovered actual 4000-year-old noodles at a site in Qinghai in remote western China. These are not to be confused with Ramen noodles, which are a staple in many college dormitories and may last longer than even Twinkies.
From National Geographic:
A 4,000-year-old bowl of noodles unearthed in China is the earliest example ever found of one of the world’s most popular foods, scientists reported today. It also suggests an Asian—not Italian—origin for the staple dish.
The beautifully preserved, long, thin yellow noodles were found inside an overturned sealed bowl at the Lajia archaeological site in northwestern China. The bowl was buried under ten feet (three meters) of sediment.
During the Song Dynasty (960-1279 CE) – the height of Silk Road trade and cultural exchange, cities like ancient Chang’an (today’s Xi’an) hosted 24-hour noodle shops! Even today, noodle stands and quick-serve restaurants can be found in most every neighborhood all across East Asia.
Noodles are such an important part of everyday Chinese life, that legend has wound its way around them:
- To cut a cooked noodle is considered unlucky, as long noodles represent long life and respect for the elderly.
- “Cold noodle” was invented by China’s only female Emperor to commemorate the love she had to leave for life in the palace.
- “Harmony noodle”, where you eat the noodles but save the broth for cooking more noodles in, celebrates the release of Emperor Zhou from political prison and his gratitude to the residents of his hometown.
Many Names, Many Kinds of Noodles
There are three main families of Chinese noodles, based on the main ingredient: wheat flour, rice flour, or starch. Within each noodle family there are many varieties; as much diversity as you’ll find in the pasta aisle of your local supermarket. Depending on the part of China where each noodle type is commonly used, it may have different names from different dialects.
How noodles are used in everyday eating will also differ depending on the region in China. In the north, with its colder and drier climate, grew wheat as its main source of carbohydrates. You may not think of bread as a common Chinese food, but the further north you go the more bakeries become common, and thick wheat noodles are often the basis for many meals. In fact, the word “mian” means both “flour” and “noodle” in the north. While in the south it is understood just as “noodle.”
In the south, rice is plentiful, plus beans and tapioca, so carbohydrates come from a wide range of sources. Wheat-based products had to be imported from the north – so were comparatively more expensive – and so wheat noodles became more of a novelty or luxury item, with more experimentation leading to new dishes. Southerners might say northern noodles are uninspired. Northerners might say southern noodles are too pretentious. But that won’t stop them from enjoying a meal from any part of the country.
No matter what you call them, or how you prepare them, Noodles are just as much a staple of Chinese cuisine as rice.
Humbly submitted for your consumption,
—Mee Magnum (“Chop! Chop!”)