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December 9, 2010

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Gran's noodle house a lasting local legacy

IN Ningbo, grandmother is called "ah niang." The word isn't too strange to Shanghainese as Ningbo, a coastal city in Shanghai's neighboring Zhejiang Province, is the ancestral home to many local people.

In downtown Shanghai there is a noodle house on the quiet Sinan Road, just off Nanchang Road, which is famous because of its founder - Ah Niang, a Ningbo native grandmother who spent her whole life serving home-made noodles.

The small restaurant with only 10 tables is famous for its specialty yellow croaker noodles (US$3), a delicious Chinese noodle dish with fresh yellow fish garnishing a nutritious fish broth.

When Ah Niang managed this noodle house, she got up everyday at around 4:30am to begin preparing the noodles.

It is said that she went to the market to pick up the fresh yellow croaker and let the fish soup cook from very early in the morning to achieve its delicious taste.

"Added flavoring such as salt and seasoning was kept to a minimum, to maintain the original taste and keep it healthy," says Nie Yixia, a frequent customer at the noodle house, who says she can taste the difference between nutritious soup cooked over a long time and instant soup loaded with flavoring.

Like many other customers, Nie liked to order bamboo shoots and pickled vegetable to garnish the soup.

"It's a little bit sweet, which is the typical ben bang flavor," she adds. Ben bang means Shanghainese-style food.

Besides the signature yellow croaker noodles, there were other typical ben bang dishes such as mushroom noodles, eel noodles and shrimp noodles.

In 2008 the restaurant closed. "I remember one day I went there as usual for a bowl of Ah Niang's yellow fish noodle and found the restaurant was closed," says Liu Hongbin, a 30-year-old local who has been eating Ah Niang noodles since childhood.

Liu later learned that Ah Niang had passed away.

"I was so sad to hear this bad news. Ah Niang was like my grandmother, preparing yummy home-made noodles and talking happily with us," adds Liu.

There are many regular customers who share similar memories of this old grandmother.

"I remember every time I went there, Ah Niang would greet us even though she was busy taking orders, counting money and supervising the waiters and cooks," remembers Nie. "She would give me an extra bittern egg for free every time."

But good news came one year later when the restaurant re-opened on the same road, only 100 meters away from the original location.

It was in March last year when Ah Niang's grandson decided to continue Ah Niang's business with other family members. The newly re-opened noodle house immediately restored the previous levels of good business.

Customers need to wait for a seat at busy times and sometimes it is even too crowded to stand outside. Plus, reservations aren't taken.

More options such as fried rice have been added to the menu, but older customers find it hard to get the old feel of the place back.

"I found the quality of food, especially the noodle soups are not as good as before," says Liu. "The service is not good either."

Compared with before, there are less toppings and the noodles aren't as soft.

Many new customers who go there with high expectations are disappointed.

Maybe people are still yearning the old grandmother who would chat with her customers and provide home-made noodles from the heart.

Open: 7-9:30am, 11am-2pm, 5-7:45pm

Address: 36 Sinan Rd (close to Nanchang Rd)


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