Never in my thirty something years of being Chinese have I experienced such a surge in everything Chinese. On the 2nd day of the New Year, Naomi and I went and visited her Mum, as is decreed by the Keepers of Chinese Custom (on the First Day, you visit with the husband’s family, on the second, with the wife’s), and then went out for dinner at The Cathay, at a Chinese noodle restaurant called Mian Mian Ju Dao (map), which means “All Kinds Of Noodles Also Have” in Singlish.
The waitresses all sported Northern Chinese accents, and a friend of Naomi’s Mum’s from Tsingtao (Qingdao) managed to impress us with her ability to pick out from which part of Northern China some of the waitresses were from. So clever, these Northern Chinese. And skilled too.
Being brought up in a Singaporean-Chinese-Anglo-Protestant (SCAP) family, I’ve only ever known Chinese tea as the stuff you drink without milk and sugar, but this year, I was treated to a gentrified ceremony of tea imbibing for an entire afternoon, accompanied by such usual New Year’s delicacies as pineapple tarts and melon seeds.
It was the eating of the melon seeds that made me sit up and realise that we were riding the great yellow tide: we used a made in China melon seed sheller to shell the melon seeds when we’d have previously just used our front teeth to crack the damn things to varying degrees of success. I know they’ve sent a man to space and have had millions of toys and food products recalled, but a melon seed sheller is a sure sign we’re in the epoch of a great Chinese empire.
That evening at Mian Mian Ju Dao, the waiter asked what type of noodles we’d like served with the noodle dish we each ordered. Just like in a pasta restaurant, I thought. But pasta restaurants don’t do noodles in one great unbroken strand, known as Yitiaomian, or One F***ing Long Noodle in Singlish. This one unbroken strand was skillfully coaxed out of a lump of dough by a noodle maker and into the tub of boiling soup stock, under the watchful eyes of a master noodle maker, who was also the master dumpling maker.
There was also a type of noodle called Maoerduo (Cats’ Ears), which are essentially little pieces of dough pinched out by the noodle-maker’s fingers (and jagged fingernails, judging from the grooves on the noodles), and the usual La Mian (pulled noodle) and another I forget the name of, but which consists of noodle pieces sliced from a lump of dough held at about shoulder height and aimed at the pot of boiling stock like a shoulder launched anti-tank weapon.
As I gobbled my Xinjiang Noodle with bits of chili and lamb in a thick sauce, I remembered reading somewhere about there being 56 different Chinese nationalities, of which ours (Han), with our 20 over dialects and languages, is only one. Or was that the number of flavours of Baskin Robbins ice cream? Or Heinz baked beans?