A rhythmic sound echoed through the restaurant-lined street of northwest China, emanating from several directions, their cadences briefly synchronizing before dissolving again. I reflexively turned my head in the direction of the nearest thud to see a chef working in front of his store, swinging a thick rope of dough between his hands.
The noodles were as wide as a belt
He lifted the wire and, firmly, deftly, slapped it several times against the counter, each deft movement coinciding with a thudding thud. As he continued to slam it, the dough stretched and elongated the length of his wingspan. Pinching the center of the wire, he then slit the dough down the middle to form a loop, before nimbly tossing it into a pot of boiling water.
Curiosity piqued by this display, I approached the chef to request a serving and, a few minutes later, nestled in a bowl of thick noodles dipped in hot chili oil and vinegar and sprinkled with spring onions and of garlic. The noodles were as wide as a belt and almost as long as one too, their firm texture providing a satisfying and substantial bite. It turns out that the slapping technique generates a chewy consistency that absorbs the rich flavors of the seasonings.
Here in Xi’an, the capital of China’s Shaanxi Province and one of the oldest cities in the country, the art of pulling noodles is so closely tied to that clicking sound that the distinctive sound has ended up inspiring the curious name of this dish: biang biang noodles.
The character “biang” is onomatopoeia, intended to mimic the sound of dough hitting a counter. It’s also more complex to write than any character in the Chinese language, with a whopping 58 strokes (although, depending on who you ask, that number might vary slightly). Given all the thought it takes to write it down, I was surprised to find that the character doesn’t actually exist – at least, not according to official dictionaries. This is because the character is entirely a folk creation. Upon closer examination of the symbol, I realized that it is also made up of many distinct elements that together paint a picture of Xi’an’s rich history.
The Chinese character of silk is hidden for example in this complex biang diagram. Xi’an was the eastern terminus of the Silk Road, the ancient vast network of East-West trade routes that facilitated the exchange of goods, ideas and technology for centuries. Along these routes, horses were not only a primary form of transportation, but were also traded as a commodity. It is therefore logical that the biang character additionally contains the symbol of the horse and seems to pay homage to the important historical role of these animals in the region. On either side of the horse symbol, the Chinese character meaning “long” or “length” also appears; whether interpreted as a reference to the Silk Road or noodles, both seem appropriate.
It’s unclear exactly how the complex biang character was born, but his creation is steeped in legend. A widely told story attributes it to a young scholar of the Qin Dynasty (221-207 BC) who did not have enough money for his bowl of biang biang noodles and proposed to invent a character. instead of payment. Today there are fun poems and puzzles people can recite to help remember the many traits of the complicated character.
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“[They’re] kind of a mnemonic of how to write it, “said Jason Wang, whose family is from Xi’an and owns New York City restaurant chain Xi’an Famous Foods.” But [the riddles are] also just eccentric. It’s just for fun. I think the people of Shaanxi have a good sense of humor. “
The mystery of the figure, coupled with the shape of the noodle – whose sheer circumference sets it apart from the predominantly thinner noodle varieties in China – has given the biang biang a permanent place among the so-called “eight curiosities” of the province of China. Shaanxi, as Wang refers to them. These are regional inclinations and customs that have always been common among residents of Shaanxi, but which may have confused foreigners. Among them, the practice of building houses with a half-roof, the habit of squatting on stools, and a tradition of eating noodles as wide as belts.
“It’s kind of like this self-derision, but in a positive way. And it’s just part of the culture,” Wang said.
In 2005, Wang’s father, David Shi, began cooking this culinary “curiosity” in what was then a small bubble tea store in New York City. Its food products, rather than drinks, began to regularly attract a loyal following. Over the years, Wang and Shi have made their tiny restaurant into what is now an empire of eight restaurants across the city, specializing in their hometown dishes.
There is a lot of pride in our traditions and in our heritage
“There is a lot of pride in our traditions and in our heritage,” Wang said. Over the years, their restaurants have not only attracted other immigrants from northwest China, but increasingly diverse customers as well. “Food isn’t just for people who know it. It’s for people who want to know it and want to try it.”
Today restaurants like Xi’an Famous Foods that specialize in regional dishes like liangpi (‘Cold skin’ noodles), spiced cumin lamb burgers and – of course – biang biang noodles give international diners an increasingly nuanced and sophisticated understanding of Chinese cuisine. While many Chinese restaurants abroad serve familiar Cantonese dishes like dim sum or Shanghai-style dishes like braised pork belly and xiaolongbao (soup dumplings), Shaanxi is a region whose flavors have not seen as much global representation. In fact, for many diners who have never set foot in China, Xi’an Famous Foods may be their first taste of Shaanxi cuisine, known for its powerful and complex aromas, partly influenced by sour food and spicy from Sichuan province. the southwest and the savory cuisine of neighboring Shanxi province to the northeast – as well as its wide array of noodles and lamb and mutton dishes.
Wang believes that the increase in tourism (before the pandemic) and the expansion of the Chinese diaspora have generated growing international interest in China’s various regional styles of cuisine. Travelers enjoy certain dishes in China and want to experience them in their home country; simultaneously Chinese students and immigrants go abroad and seek the flavors of their hometown. The result has been a growing awareness of the multiple regional differences in Chinese cuisine.
There is a growing awareness of the multiple regional differences in Chinese cuisine
“Sichuan cuisine has become much more popular,” said Sarah Leung, who lives in New York City and has recreated many regional recipes for her family’s Chinese food blog The Woks of Life. In recent years, restaurant chains like Malubianbian and Haidilao have brought the famous Sichuan-style hot pot numbing spice to hundreds of places around the world. Another well-known establishment, Shimiaodao, serves Yunnan Province’s “crossing the bridge” noodle dish in locations across North America, showcasing the flavors of this Chinese region to overseas diners. “It was interesting to see that [development], to see more people become aware of these foods, ”said Leung.
Now, biang biang noodles can serve as a similar entry point for international eaters to experience the food specialties of northwest China.
Another chef who offers Shaanxi-style cuisine is Chao Zhang, owner of London restaurant Xi’an Impression and its sister restaurant Xi’an Biang Biang Noodles. “People are more and more globalized than before,” he told me. After moving to London for school, Zhang ended up opening his own restaurant in the capital. “I felt really, really nostalgic for the food,” he recalls.
In centuries past, Shaanxi biang biang noodles were little more than a humble local dish, mostly eaten by short-time workers who didn’t have the opportunity to artfully pull thin noodles. Compared to other varieties of northwest China’s noodles, biang biang were less well-known outside of Xi’an. But they were a heartwarming staple and loved by locals, for whom the backstory and written character were common knowledge.
As a Xi’anais, you will talk about [biang biang] all the time when you are a child and your grandmother will tell you stories about it
“As Xi’an, you will talk about [biang biang] all the time when you’re a kid and your grandmother will tell you stories about it, “said Ruixi Hu, who founded Lost Plate, a travel agency that runs food tours around Xi’an.” You know how to write the character from the start. “
In recent years, biang biang noodles and its associated folklore have become more widely known across China, in part due to social media interest in the compound biang character. “Internet really helps [with] get more and more publicity for interesting things, interesting cuisines, ”Hu said.
Now the dish crosses land and sea from its humble beginnings to reach the hearts and mouths of diners around the world – a breakthrough that, to many, has been as unexpected as it is delicious.
“The food from my hometown was brought to the UK – it’s my dream actually,” Zhang said.
Committed to recreating the dish as he grew up with it, Zhang explains that biang biang noodles can never be made ahead of time and that shortcuts are not an option. “It’s the only noodle [from Shaanxi] it’s always done by hand, ”he said.
Pulling these noodles by hand is, after all, a profession that requires practiced skills.
Wang seconds this. “It’s freshly made, it has to be freshly made,” he said. “We’re not far enough in the technology field yet for robots to be able to create this stuff.
Pulling these noodles by hand is, after all, a profession that requires practiced skills – something that the noodle shop in Xi’an cooks that, shaping its dough outside in the open, continually reminds people of it. passers-by. As they demonstrate the art of age-old technique, the repetitive “biang” sound easily crosses the auditory hubbub of busy pedestrian avenues. It is the constant direct line of the urban symphony, its mastery of pedestrian senses is second only to the pungent smell of chili oil in the air, summoning hungry diners from everywhere.
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