Wednesday, January 17, 2001
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Posted on: Wednesday, January 17, 2001

Chinese played prominent role in popularity

By Joan Namkoong
Advertiser Food Editor

Large-scale commercial production of noodles was well under way in Han China by about A.D. 100, Wheat-milling technology was imported from the Middle East. Shiu Hsi, a third-century writer, recorded that noodles "were an invention of the common people (of China), though some of their cooking methods come from foreign lands."

Noodles flourished because of their versatility: They are easily made from a variety of raw materials, inexpensive, filling, cook quickly, may be eaten hot or cold and can be stored for a long time when dried.

Marco Polo has been credited with taking the concept of noodles back to Italy from China in the 13th century. By this time, rice was the staple food for most of China; 30 percent of the grain being consumed was wheat and millet, mostly in the north, and noodle shops were already specializing in dishes served with vegetables or meat, according to Marco Polo’s accounts of his travels. But historians have proved otherwise: noodles most likely originated in Central Asia and existed in both Asia and Europe independently. And some historians question whether Marco Polo ever made it to China.

Noodles are known as "mian" in Mandarin or "mein" in Cantonese. In Japanese, the "men" refers to noodles; it’s "mee" in Thai, "pancit" in Filipino, "kooksoo" in Korean and "mee" in Singaporean, Indonesian and Malaysian.

Noodles can be categorized into three groups:

wheat flour noodles such as egg noodles, chow mein, somen and udon.

rice flour noodles such as rice vermicelli or "long rice" and rice sticks (the noodles used in Vietnamese pho).

vegetable starch noodles such as mung bean thread or cellophane noodles, shirataki (yam noodle), dang myun (potato starch noodle), harusame (potato and cornstarch noodle).

When you think of the staple of the Chinese table, you think of rice. But that’s only true of southern China. In the north, where cold winters and short growing seasons made wheat one of the staple grains, noodles and bread play a more prominent role.

In the south, noodles made of rice flour (rice sticks or long rice) are considered noteworthy, whereas in the north, it would be noodles from wheat. Southerners consider noodle dishes a snack or a quick lunch, and rarely would rice and noodles be eaten in the same meal.

Noodles symbolize longevity, and birthday meals always include a dish of long noodles. And slurping is a compliment to the chef.

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