Wednesday, Jul 26, 2017, 8:36 PM CST – China

Outside In

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Yes, But Is It Pasta?

Coming to China, I found myself in another adoptive country seemingly set on feeding me to bursting. At home, a family meal is never over quickly, with each person around the table trying to fatten up everyone else. In my house, it’s a challenge to spend less than an hour at the dinner table. What can you do? We’re Italian. The happy look I see on Mom’s face when I hand back an empty plate is an expression I recognize in the faces of cooks here in China. Both Italians and Chinese are happiest after a good meal – and the similarities between the two cultures don’t end there.

 Sharing is the focus of traditional Chinese meals. Be it home cooking or a meal out, many dishes are shared from the center of a round table. The guests reach over each other to scoop up spicy tofu, pass around the soy-slathered eggplant, laughing and chatting all the while. This way of eating not only creates a buzzing atmosphere, it optimizes the opportunities to taste absolutely everything on offer!

One thing is certain, whether you’re beside Hangzhou’s West Lake or on the Amalfi coast, when the noodles arrive steaming at the table, be prepared for your dining companions to turn into animals. There is nothing more anticipated – or satisfying – than a scalding bowl of sauce-soused carbs.

As an Italian, this forces me to reflect on which is better – Italian pasta or Chinese noodles? Italian pasta, commonly made with flour and eggs, is nowadays typically store-bought in its dried form. In China, most noodles are fresh, and can be easily knocked together with wheat or buckwheat flour, rice flour or any other form of starch – potato included. Please don’t ask me which I prefer. Though I miss a good plate of penne pomodoro, I fall in love with every new noodle dish I taste in China. It’s in my genes. Just like the vast assortment of pasta shapes found in Italian markets, China has its own seemingly limitless collection of noodle styles. On my quest so far, I have slurped up many different types, each one competing to be better than the next.

Daoxiaomian – knife-sheared noodles – are flat and finger-width, hand-shaved from a large slab of dough with a special hook-shaped knife (or a cleaver in the home). Their edges are rough and lengths irregular, giving them a rustic feel, which reminds me of my grandmother’s homemade pappardelle. With artful rolls of her mezzaluna knife, she would quickly slice wafer-thin dough into long strips. Paired with her famous oxtail and tomato sugo, the pappardelle went down a storm. I was recently served a daoxiaomian dish that so resembled that oxtail pasta, I just about hugged the waitress. Served in a beefy tomato sauce with seasonal vegetables and peppery seasoning, all it needed was a few gratings of parmigiano reggiano and I’d have been right at home!

The passion expressed for skilled pasta-making in Italy is seen in equal profusion in China. Even in student canteens I have watched in awe as lamian – pulled noodles – are stretched to order behind the countertops. In 10 seconds, an unappealing lump of dough is manipulated into five perfectly proportioned servings of spaghetti-like, milk-white noodles. The dough is first rolled and ripped into short, thick tubes, which are separated, stretched and thinned between the chef’s fingers with an “accordion playing” hand action.

Fentiao – starch noodles – can be made of sweet potato or bean starch, and are popular in the south of China. Glassy, thick and chewy, they constitute a go-to dish on a cold winter’s day. One particularly choice serving style is to cook the noodles simply with garlic and soy sauce, kicked up a notch at the eleventh hour with a splash of vinegar. Though a little tricky to maneuver with chopsticks (they’re slippery rascals), the satisfaction obtained by slurping them up can make restaurants specializing in this delicacy unusually silent, at least in terms of conversation.

One thing, though, that is off-putting to an Italian, is an over-saucing of their beloved pasta (it’s a common gripe when visiting a ristorante outside of Italy). No matter how tasty, noodles can look less than appetizing, at least to our eyes, when served swimming in a sea of oil. Olive oil is used sparingly in Italian cooking, but in China, many dishes are turned stoplight-red with a deluge of chili, sesame or peanut oil. It doesn't look great, but trust me, it tastes wonderful. Though after a bowl of oily noodles, I do find myself longing for a crust of bread to mop up the oil, again, Italian style – why waste a single drop?

A Chinese friend recently invited me to taste “crossing the bridge” rice noodles, a dish with origins in Yunnan Province that has taken the rest of China by storm. This noodle soup variant’s rich broth hides under a thick layer of hot oil – an innovation, the story goes, of a dutiful wife who used it to keep her scholar husband’s noodle soup hot as she crossed a bridge to the island where he studied every day.

This enterprising lady understood, like all Italian mothers and grandmothers, that the best way to keep the family happy is to feed them well with what they love – and serve it piping hot!

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