Flipping the Noodle Boat

Beijing Duck House

Feast. Crispy duck with green onion and black bean sauce. Eel with sticky rice. Market steamed fish. Garlic green beans. Spicy eggplant. Chicken chow-mein.


This special night out was in celebration of Chinese New Year’s- where part of the similar band of friends from “NorCal reunion” get together, eat Chinese food, reflect on how we’ve failed our New Year’s resolutions from a month ago, and have apparently been “reborn” in the Chinese one, and strive again to go for whatever goals we wanted to get at. This time around, there aren’t any mismatched goals placed in a hat, nor were there mugshots to go with it, but nevertheless, Chinese New Year is a fun time to implement some fun food rules. Of the small group of friends, my sister’s former roommate was the one who was the most deeply entrenched in Chinese tradition (the foods we’re supposed to eat, and the traditions that are applied to those foods in order to avoid the deadly curses of bad luck). The rest of us are relatively white washed in these traditions; as long as something edible is ordered, it’s all good.

First dish of the night was the crispy duck. This is traditionally served with a black bean sauce on the side, with length-wise sliced scallions and fresh cucumber. The order goes: tortilla/bao, slather black bean sauce, fatty duck, fatty duck skin, scallions and cucumbers, eat. If you’re fancy/a fatass like me, you can ditch the tortilla and sub in two slices of fatty duck skin above and below.

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Eel with sticky rice reminded me of a huge plate of…endless unagi sushi. It was some serious noms. Garlic green beans and spicy eggplant were pretty good, but nothin’ fancy. Great flavor to give our taste buds enough variety.

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Warm Sushi replacement?

The steamed fish was done traditional style- steamed, and then with hot oil + soy sauce + scallions + ginger, poured over the top. In order to eat this dish successfully without bringing bad luck to your friends and family, the fish cannot be flipped. This means after devouring the fillet on one side, one is not allowed to flip the fish to get at the meat on the other side; one would have to delicately pick the spine off the fish. Apparently this practice was analogous to “flipping” the metaphorical fishing boat, as fishing in Chinese cultures was a way of obtaining noms, and prosperity usually meant continuous catches during the year. Not flipping the fish eased the superstitious mind, and had the potential promise to never leave one’s family hungry.

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Calm seas today.

Usually I pick the fish carcass straight up, mangle up the spine bones and suck all the marrow out of them. (I was probably a cat in my previous life). This dispels all worries about flipping anything.

We finish off the dinner with a noodle dish (any kind of noodle would do); the rule here is that one is not allowed to break the length of the noodle when eating it, as traditional noodles were made by a constant pulling action, their length symbolizing longevity. I’m not exactly sure if the length of the noodle has to be preserved when scooping it from the communal dish; I guess there just has to be a conscious effort to not break it in any way or form.

All the Chinese food fests made me recall videos and live demonstrations of hand-pulled noodles (and how difficult an art it was). There’s delicacy to it, and a bit of science. We explore.

I know pulling noodles requires a high-gluten content within the flour, the strength and length of the formed gluten chains is how these noodles end up superbly long. According this this nifty blog, the traditional Beijing method involves just high gluten flour (特制粉 tè zhì fěn) in Chinese), water, and salt. According to the blog (again), the requirements for the dough are:

1. An increased water to dough ratio. (Gluten does not exist until water is added flour; water allows a bond to form between glutenin and gliadin).

2. Addition of salt. (The addition of salt strengthens the gluten network; positive sodium ions and negative chloride ions bind to charged portions of the glutenin proteins and to prevent repulsive forces. This results in stronger binding).

3. Continual kneading. (This develops gluten, a protein that gives dough and bread its elasticity. Continual kneading allows elongation of gluten chains, and further allows side-to-side bonds to form. The addition of fat and sugar weakens gluten-to-water network, resulting in more breakages; something you don’t want in noodle-pulling).

A photo explanation from Harold Mcgee’s “On Food and Cooking.”

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When water meets flour meets hands.

Seems legit. The rest of noodle pulling, I’d imagine, comes from years of experience, a good temperament, a run-in with a noodle master, and perhaps alot of free time. I guarantee you, it’s not easy.

This is an excerpt from Harold Mcgee’s “On Food and Cooking.” It’s about controlling gluten-strength. It’s fairly extensive, I have to say. Any one of these applications can be applied in noodle making, for all sorts of interesting combinations, textures, and flavors.

“There are a number of ingredients and techniques by which the baker controls the gluten strength and consistency of doughs and batters.

They include:

The kind of flour used. High-protein bread flours produce a strong gluten, low-protein pastry and cake flours a weak one, durum semolina (for pasta) a strong but plastic one.

The presence in the flour of oxidizing substances - aging and improving agents — which can increase the end-to-end linking of glutenin molecules and thus dough strength (p. 529).

The water content of the dough, which determines how concentrated the gluten proteins are, and how extensively they can bond to each other. Little water gives an incompletely developed gluten and a crumbly texture; a lot of water gives a less concentrated gluten and a softer, moister dough and bread.

Stirring and kneading the flour-water mixture, actions that stretch and organize the gluten proteins into an elastic network.

Salt, which greatly strengthens the gluten network. The electrically positive sodium and negative chlorine ions cluster around the few charged portions of the glutenin proteins, prevent those charged portions from repelling each other, and so allow the proteins to come closer to each other and bond more extensively.

Sugar, which at the concentrations typical of raised sweet breads, 10% or more of the flour weight, limits the development of gluten by diluting the flour proteins.

Fats and oils, which weaken gluten by bonding to the hydrophobic amino acids along the protein chains and so preventing them from bonding to each other.

Acidity in the dough, as from a sourdough culture, which weakens the gluten network by increasing the number of positively charged amino acids along the protein chains, and increasing the repulsive forces between chains.”

Reference and Photo Credits

Mcgee, Harold. On Food and Cooking (epub). Scribner. 2004. 822, 840.