Snapshots from Asia: Why Are Italian Noodles So Much Pricier than Chinese Ones?

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Wandering the streets of Hong Kong, I stumbled upon a sight I’d usually expect to see at a farmers’ market—a fresh noodle store. Unlike the oftentimes too-pricey-for-a-grad student handmade pasta, these noodles were much more affordable. At an average of four nests of noodles for sixty-five cents (each nest feeds one!) it made me wonder: what makes Italian pasta so much more expensive? Is it the ingredients? Or could it be that pasta-making is far more laborious than Chinese noodle-making? Are the two processes very different?

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History is littered with stories of how the string-like food made from unleavened dough came about. Some claim that Marco Polo introduced noodles to the Italians on his return from China (now debunked), and that these same noodles followed the Arabian conquerors to Sicily during the 10th century.

Carvings found in an Etruscan tomb depict all the utensils needed for pasta-making: a water jug, rolling pin, cutting wheel, and even a table with raised sides to keep water and flour from sloshing over when mixed. And in 2005, the world’s oldest noodles—radiocarbon dated to some 4000 years old—were found in an upturned, earthenware bowl in China. I’m no expert, but why can’t noodles be invented independently by different cultures?

If you look at the base ingredients that go into the making of noodles (millet, wheat, rice, buckwheat, mung beans, potatoes, yams, acorns, tapioca) people clearly used whatever they had on hand. Beyond pulverizing the crop into flour and mixing in water to form a dough, the next step in noodle-making (rolling and cutting or simply hand-pulling before dropping into boiling water) should not have been too far off.

It is nearly impossible to get a noodle-maker to divulge his dough recipe, but from the recipes available, it appears that pasta and Chinese egg noodles are made from similar doughs—with one exception.

The Chinese noodles occasionally include kansui, a mixture of sodium and potassium carbonate originally taken from Lake Kan in Inner Mongolia. This alkaline liquid (pH value of eight, about the same as an egg white) gelatinizes the protein in the starch, giving the noodles a springy, chewy texture.

Pasta is made by rolling the dough out thinly before cutting it into ribbons or forming it into shapes. The Chinese do the same with their egg noodles, though they bring a number of interesting methods to the table. One is the dying art of bamboo-beating, which gives a superior “elastic band” bounce to the noodles (sans kansui). Called jook-sing noodles in Cantonese, the dough is pummeled by a man riding upon a giant bamboo pole.

In another method, the cook works with an egg-free dough (just flour, salt, and water), pulling and twisting the dough into strands to create la-mian or hand-pulled noodles. Each time the dough is looped onto itself, the number of strands doubles, so one loop creates two strands of noodles, two loops creates four strands, and 12 loops would create 4,096 strands of fine noodles. A third method creates what is called dao-xiao mian or knife-shaved noodles. The cook holds on to a ball of dough, and, deftly angling a sharp blade, sends slivers of noodles flying into a waiting pot of boiling water.

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Since neither the ingredients nor the methods set handmade pasta apart from Chinese egg noodles, could presentation be affecting the final selling price? The little streetside store I stumbled upon, with it’s plastic bag-lined boxes and beaten-up baskets, could hardly compete with the charming wood bench and glass displays of the farmers’ market pasta stalls. The much lower prices, however, did allow me to down my weight in noodles while visiting. (My fave, besides the ubiquitous wonton noodles, were noodles tossed with savory, dried prawn roe, with a hearty dollop of oyster sauce mixed with a dash of fragrant sesame oil.)

As usual, the lucky people in the Bay Area need not go all the way to Hong Kong for noodles—not even for the rare, bamboo-beaten ones.

The jook-sing and hand-pulled noodles at King Won Ton on Irving Street, San Francisco have been getting a lot of positive buzz, and definitely make my list of must-eats for the next time I’m in the area. Meanwhile, I’m contenting myself with mee hoon kuih or hand-pinched noodles. Requiring far less skill, fancy equipment, or moves (just pinch off tiny blobs of dough, stretch them between your fingers, and toss them into boiling broth), they’re a noodle my noodle doesn’t have to think too hard on. And they’re delicious.

About the author: Wan Yan Ling can usually be found in the kitchen procrastinating on "real work" or online tracking down obscure recipes. Ling thinks eating alone is no fun, and she still believes in hand-mixing.

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