Sunday, December 27, 2009
Yunnan bridge noodles
Lijiang's old town is adorable--canals run along the side of tiny alleys, red lanterns hang from all of the ancient buildings and Naxi women chill out in the town square. The adorableness is not lost on the Chinese; Lijiang is a major China tourist attraction. After my disheartening foodie experience (cheap ingredients, high prices) in Pingyao, another town popular with Chinese tourists, I was apprehensive about my first meal in Lijiang.
To be fair, though, I'm apprehensive about most meals in China these days, as I've found that not reading or speaking Chinese can be a major roadblock to getting what I want and at a fair price. Find someone who doesn't know the rules to charades and try acting out the word "broccoli" to get a sense of what I'm talking about.
I was delighted when we wandered into a row of restaurants on the outskirts of the old town that were filled with teenage girls milling about in their blue and white or red and blue tracksuit school uniforms. (They had mostly disappeared by the time I took the picture above.) It was far enough outside of the main town that the tourists were gone, a girl was washing her hair with a coffee cup over the canal, and overall, the scene seemed promising for lunch.
Of course there was no English menu, so we went inside and just pointed at random ingredients that we liked. I have found out the hard way that if you point at a piece of beef you will end up with a plate of beef and nothing else, sometimes even no seasoning. Even worse, sometimes if you point at five ingredients they will think you want five dishes, each one made from just one of the ingredients. So I pointed at the pork and then waved my arms frantically over the entire vegetable section in a way that I hoped conveyed that I wanted a delicious assortment of veggies.
The Yunnan province, of which Lijiang is a part of, is known for a noodle dish (过桥米线) sometimes called across-the-bridge, crossing-the-bridge, cross-bridge or over-the-bridge noodles. You get the idea, it's about getting from one side of a bridge to the other. The story behind it is that a man would go somewhere far from home to study for his exams. Every day his wife would cross a bridge to bring him rice for lunch and every day it would get cold before she got there.
The ingenious woman decided to start bringing a bowl of hot soup with a layer of fat on top of it instead. Once she arrived, she would add fresh ingredients like vegetables and rice noodles to the soup, which was still hot due to the layer of fat on top. The vegetables and noodles would cook in the soup and the scholar would never have to settle for a lukewarm lunch again. Of course he passed his exams and became a rich man, and commemorated his wife's exertions by naming the dish she made after the journey she made over the bridge to deliver them to him every day. She was probably livid that he named them after the bridge and not her--at least I would be.
I had no idea that this meal was a specialty of the region, or even that we had wandered into a place that served it. I just pointed at a few ingredients and hoped for the best. Because of the touristy nature of Lijiang I had expected to get an overpriced, underwhelming meal. So imagine my delighted surprise when we were served two giant bowls of bridge noodles, brimming with fresh vegetables, a plate of ham and green onions and a giant bottle of Dali beer (they didn't have water, so what can you do?) for ¥37, about $5.40. And in keeping with Lijiang's reputation of perpetual springtime and nice weather, the sun was shining and I even managed to get a bit of color over lunch.