The Long History of the Noodle (plus a Dumpling recipe!) via The Land of the Five Flavors

As Thomas Hollmann suggests in his book The Land of the Five Flavors: A Cultural History of Chinese Cuisine, the noodle looms large in Chinese food. Below is an excerpt from the book in which he examines some of the basics of the long, glorious history of the Chinese noodle. Likewise, the dumpling and its many variations have also been staples of Chinese cuisine and as a special bonus, we’ve provided you with a dumpling recipe (see below) from The Land of the Five Flavors:

It is impossible to envisage Chinese cooking without noodles. They have a long tradition: no other country in the world can look back on a history of four thousand years of noodles. Interestingly, the earliest archeological find of noodles did not occur in the core regions with a reputation for inventiveness, but in the far western province of Qinghai.

Researchers excavating a settlement there in 2005 found a clay bowl with surpris­ing contents: thin noodles made from a millet-based flour, up to 50 centimeters long, and slightly resembling spaghetti. The find site, Lajia, has been famous ever since.

This does not mean that noodles have a continuous history dating back four thousand years, for the next evidence of noodle consumption is not until the Han dynasty. Yet the arguments for the exis­tence of noodles in that period, which are based solely on written sources, are not entirely convincing. The term used for pasta at that time covered bakery prod­ucts as well.

Through the ages, flour has always been the main basis of dough. Although products from ground wheat and rice grains have a larger market share today than in the past, flour produced from mil­let, buckwheat, and yams is also still used.

Mung bean starch is used to make very fine glass noodles. Other in­gredients may include salt, oil, baking soda, and various flavorings and colorings. Eggs have increasingly been used as well for approximately the last 500 years. Production methods for noodles vary greatly. There are at least five different techniques for achieving the right length and thinness.

There is also a long tradition in China of filled noodles resembling Italian varieties such as tortellini, ravioli and, most commonly, mezza­lune. Written sources suggest they may date back as far as the Han dynasty, but the early records are not absolutely clear, and the oldest detailed description dates back to the end of the third century.

Dumpling Recipe

On the other hand, food remains excavated from a Tang period grave in Astana (Turfan Oasis) show that in the eighth century various forms of dumpling with different fillings were eaten in the northwestern border zones of the kingdom.

In keeping with the many forms of noodles, and their possible fil­ings, many ways exist for their preparation. The main methods, aside from adding them to soups, are steam­ing, boiling, and frying. Different cook­ing processes can also be combined. Fried noodles, a standard ingredient of Chinese cooking, are usually steamed or boiled before they reach the pan. Some­times this affects the terminology. The semicircular type of dumpling called jiaozi, for example, is known under three different names (zheng-jiao, shuijiao, guo­tie), depending on whether it is steamed, boiled, or fried. The term wonton , also known in the West, derives from an An­glicized version of the Cantonese pro­nunciation () of the terms yun­tun (“cloud swallowing”) and huntun (etymology unknown). The term dim-sum has a similar derivation (dimsam = dianxin or “tidbits”), but it has a broader semantic spectrum and cover other delicacies aside from filled pasta.

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