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September 15, 2019

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The north noodle, south rice divide

The notion of noodles being a staple diet of Chinese people who live in the north of the country and rice for those residing in the south is folklore in China.

The idea originated from the production of wheat and rice, which are mostly grown in the north and south respectively.

Jiangnan, or south of the lower reaches of the Yangtze River, is renowned for being the “land of fish and rice,” given that rice has been growing in the Yangtze River basin for thousands of years.

Yet people in Jiangnan share the same passion for noodles made with wheat flour from the northern provinces. But on the other hand, noodles made with rice flour are not admired as they are in places like Hunan and Yunnan.

In Shanghai and its neighboring provinces of Jiangsu and Zhejiang, noodles are enjoyed as comforting breakfast and a quick lunch. Benbangmian is the name for Shanghai-style noodles, while subangmian refers to the Suzhou style, which is actually where the Shanghai style evolved from over time.

Benbangmian and subangmian may look similar, but there are some subtle differences in the making and flavor of the noodle dishes.

Subangmian is more traditional and classic, it uses only the super thin noodles known as longxumian and serves two types of soup broth: The white soup made with bones of chicken and pork, and the red soup stewed with the bones of an eel and shells of shrimp with high-quality soy sauce.

Typical toppings include stewed meat, pork trotter, baoyu (deep-fried fish with sweet glaze), braised duck and assorted mushrooms. In different seasons, special toppings are served in limited quantity for a limited time, like the sanxiamian (three-shrimp topping made of fresh river shrimp roe, brain and meat — it’s among the most expensive noodle dishes) in the spring and hairy crab meat and roe in the autumn.

The essential quality of subangmian is fresh toppings, generous soup and al-dente noodle.

Meanwhile in Shanghai, benbangmian can be more flexible and diverse in flavor. The base of the noodle can simply be a bowl of yangchunmian, a plain soup noodle made with lard, soy sauce and chopped scallion, then topped with small plates of home-style dishes like braised pork chop, stewed vegan chicken (it’s made with soy protein), babaolajiang (a simple stir-fry of pork and vegetables) and pork shreds with preserved vegetable.

Yangchunmian is also served alone as a quick breakfast staple.

Benbangmian uses both thin and slightly thicker noodles. The toppings are stir-fried after placing the order to ensure freshness, like pork liver and intestine, fresh river eel, shrimp and more. One common feature of Shanghai-style noodle topping is its bold flavors and rich sauces.

For example, the classic pork chop noodle is a large piece of pork chop served on top of soup noodles. The bone-in pork chop is marinated in seasonings and deep-fried with coats of egg white and starch, then braised in rich sauces.

Similarly, baoyumian is topped with a fillet of river fish that’s deep-fried and then soaked in rich, sweet and savory sauces to absorb the flavors.

Xuecai, a pickled potherb mustard vegetable, is enjoyed across China as a side dish for congee or an ingredient in stir-fries.

Stewed pork meat is a topping that’s popular in both Shanghai and Suzhou-style noodles. The pork belly meat, with both fatty and lean parts, is stewed in a pot for three hours with rice wine, soy sauce, salt, scallion and ginger until it’s soft and tender. With the bones removed, the pork belly meat is sliced thickly and chilled in the fridge. When serving the dish, the meat is topped on the hot noodle soup.

Eel, a river delicacy, also makes a classic noodle topping when it’s stir-fried in a rich, sweet sauce.

Shanghainese stir-fried noodle is another local specialty, it’s made with chewier and thicker noodles complemented with green vegetables and pork, though the dish uses a lot of oil in the cooking to bring out the flavor.

Shanghai temples serve vegan noodle dishes with toppings made of bamboo shoot and mushrooms, among other vegetables.

Noodles mixed with scallion oil is a simple Shanghainese comfort food, the scallion oil is made with lard and seasonings to give a highly fragrant flavor and attractive color.

The more upmarket noodle houses serve expensive dishes like boneless yellow croaker noodle, hairy crab roe and paste, stewed chicken soup and even matsutake mushroom, while the common and rustic noodle houses serve toppings made with inexpensive cuts of meat like offal and vegetables that can be preserved for a longer time.

The yellow croaker noodle is a rich soup stewed from the bones of fresh fish. The meat is lightly sautéed with some xuecai for extra flavor.

An even more extravagant noodle is knifefish noodle, which is only available for a limited time before the Qingming Festival. The Yangtze River knifefish is highly priced due to its scarcity and its burst of umami flavors. The noodle, made with a stewed knifefish soup, has the surprising flavor of the fish yet at a more affordable price tag.




 

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