Longevity noodles: What are they and when are they eaten?

Longevity noodles: What are they and when are they eaten?


The Lunar New Year is almost here, and Johnny Mui is finally smiling.

After staring at empty tables for the past two years due to the pandemic, the owner of New York restaurant Hop Lee says business is slowly recovering.

Mui joined the 48-year-old Chinatown establishment in 2005 as an employee — after losing everything to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans — and took over the place in 2018.

These days, he’s busy talking to suppliers to make sure he has all the necessary ingredients to meet the demand for one of Hop Lee’s most popular Lunar New Year dishes: Stir-Fried Ginger Lobster Yi Mein – or longevity noodles.

“Every Lunar New Year, almost every table would order our longevity noodles,” he says. “Looking good and tasting better, they are also symbols of luck.”

This year, the Lunar New Year falls on January 22, but is celebrated over several days – collectively known as the Spring Festival. Traditional rituals, including foods, are filled with symbolism.

Longevity noodles symbolize long life. According to tradition, the cook cannot cut the noodle strands, and each strand must be eaten whole – not broken before eating.

But that’s where the consensus ends.

Ask people of Chinese heritage what kinds of noodles to eat, and you’re likely to get a variety of answers.

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A worker prepares noodles at the Aberdeen Yau Kee Noodle Factory in Hong Kong on January 13, 2023. Credits: Noemi Cassanelli/CNN

Longevity noodles: the lucky dish for the Lunar New Year

At Hop Lee, longevity noodles are synonymous with yi mein, also known as e-fu noodles. These chewy and spongy Cantonese egg wheat strands are dried, deep-fried and eaten all year round, especially on special occasions like birthdays and during the Spring Festival.

Hop Lee’s lobster longevity noodle recipe has been passed down for years. The yi mein noodles are braised with seasoning and shiitake mushrooms. The lobsters are stir-fried with fermented salty black beans, eggs, minced meat, ginger and scallops.

“Then we put the lobsters on top of the noodles, and the juice drips down. It is so delicious. Even my son loves it – he would ask me to prepare the dish for his school parties,” says Mui.

Over at Xi’an Famous Foods – a humble Flushing, New York City restaurant that has become a successful chain serving northwest Chinese food – CEO Jason Wang has his own take on longevity noodles, which has grown he up eating. In his opinion, the count of any noodle is extended in length.

“Our biang biang noodles are definitely among them,” says Wang.

Made with wheat flour and water, the dough is pulled and cut into long, flat and wide noodles like a belt.

“The most traditional way is actually to put spices like shallots and garlic, as well as freshly ground red chili powder on top of the noodles, toss it with vegetable oil and dress it with soy sauce and rice vinegar black. We call these Spicy Hot-Oil Hand-Plucked Noodles,” Wang tells CNN Travel.

Early Chinese immigrants in the United States were predominantly Cantonese, which explains why yi mein is often what many Chinese Americans consider longevity noodles.

But regional cuisines, like dishes from Xi’an, are popping up and diversifying the options in recent years.

“Yi mein are Cantonese noodles, so they’re different from what we’ve eaten, but share the symbolism of longevity,” says Wang.

“The exact type of noodle varies, but the idea remains ‘long noodles for a long life,’ and any long noodle serves that purpose.”

Johnny Mui, owner and manager of Hop Lee Restaurant in New York, says lobster yi mein is the most popular dish for the Lunar New Year.

Hong Kong’s Aberdeen Yau Kee Noodle Factory, established in the 1950s, is ramping up production ahead of the Spring Festival. During this time of year, the factory owner says demand increases by 20% to 30%.

“We are busiest before Lunar New Year because there are more parties and gatherings at this time, and people eat e-fu noodles, or longevity noodles, on these occasions,” says Tang Pui-sum, director the second generation of the family. business.

As for why e-fu noodles are popular for Cantonese, Tang says it’s all about quality.

“In the Guangdong region, people use e-fu noodles to treat their family and friends on special occasions because they are considered better – it takes more steps to make, and the ingredients are better. It is also unique because e-fu noodles are deep fried, which sets them apart from other noodles in northern China.”

So now that the question of what is a longevity noodle has been settled – short answer: pretty much any noodle as long as it is, well, long – an important question remains: who decided that eating long noodles can extend your life add to human life?

Most – if not all – blogs and websites trace the history of longevity noodles back to Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty (who ruled from 141-87 BCE), who told his ministers that he had heard that if a man had a long face, he would. long life.

Because he could not change the length of his face, the emperor decided to eat long noodles because the word noodle was similar to the word face in Chinese. The custom then spread beyond the palace to the rest of the country.

Long noodles symbolize long life in Chinese culture.

We consulted two food historians for their thoughts on the folklore – and they’re not buying it.

“The Han Dynasty was the time when the development of Chinese noodle culture flourished,” says Zhao Rongguan, a prominent Chinese scholar who has been writing about Chinese food history and culture for the past four decades.

“It was the era that laid the foundations and techniques of today’s noodles. But to say that Emperor Wu is the reason we have long-lived noodles, I would say is ridiculous internet heresy.”

Chen Yuanpeng, a professor at Dong Hwa University in Taiwan who specializes in Chinese food history, also decided to consult his colleagues when asked by CNN Travel to share his opinion on longevity noodles.

“I called Mr. Wang Renxiang (a Chinese archaeologist who specializes in food culture) and Mr. Naomichi Ishige (a Japanese food historian and anthropologist). Both are Chinese noodle experts; it is not known how far longevity noodles and the story about it have come,” says Chen.

Workers remove long-lived noodles from racks after drying them in the sun at a factory in Thailand.

The professor says he spent several days scouring old texts and books. Finally, he found a scripture that highlighted the conversation between Emperor Wu and his minister, Dong Fangshuo, in one of the historical Dunhuang bianwen texts – a series of melodious stories written during the Tang Dynasty (618 to 907) to teach Buddhism. to spread.

“In the bianwen, the discussion about the length of the face between Emperor Wu and his minister ended without any mention of noodles at all. The correlation between noodles and longevity was probably added and made later,” says Chen.

“But we cannot dismiss the story – even if it was just a myth. It has been shared so often that many believe it; it has become part of the culture and history of longevity noodles, which has been documented for over 1,000 years.”

Even the ways in which long-lived noodles are consumed depend greatly on location.

They are also eaten in other Asian countries that celebrate the Lunar New Year, such as Vietnam, South Korea, Singapore and Malaysia.

During the Lunar New Year, South Koreans prefer to eat japchae (Korean stir-fried glass noodles). Their longevity noodles, called janchi-guksu, are reserved for weddings and birthdays.

Chinese communities in Singapore and Malaysia often use misua (wheat vermicelli) as longevity noodles – but “prosperity toss,” a combination of colorful chopped vegetables and raw fish, is a Lunar New Year dish.

When eating longevity noodles, care must be taken not to hit or break the thread.

Although Japan follows the Gregorian calendar instead of the Lunar calendar, they also have a custom of eating noodles for the new year. Toshikoshi Soba, or soba noodles are eaten year-round on New Year’s Eve for good luck.

“In northern China, some people follow the old way of eating longevity noodles,” says Zhao.

“When the noodles arrive, the guests would stand up. They will take some noodles from the bowl, theatrically pull them up over their heads with a pair of chopsticks, bring the noodles to their faces and slurp them in one go with a happy face. It is a way of expressing their gratitude to the host.”

He says long-lived noodles should have the length and tenacity to survive a strong chopstick pull.

So now that we know that noodle styles vary greatly in longevity and that their backstories are murky at best, surely everyone can agree on when to eat them?

It’s not. Although longevity noodles – of any kind – are a popular Lunar New Year dish among Chinese communities in North America, some argue that they are not even a traditional Spring Festival food in China.

This should not come as a surprise, given the size of the country and its many regional cuisines and traditions.

“I don’t think my family would have longevity noodles during the Lunar New Year,” says Chen, whose family moved to Taiwan from Tianjin in northern China.

“But I made a bowl of da lu mian (northern-style braised noodle with minced meat, mushrooms and egg) as longevity noodles for my mother’s birthday last year. I’ve always only associated longevity noodles with birthdays but not Lunar New Year.”

On the other hand, Zhao asserts that noodles are still a popular Lunar New Year custom, especially in northern China.

“Longevity noodles are part of the traditional culture for Chinese celebrations … During the important Lunar New Year festival, we must, of course, have noodles,” he says.

“The traditional custom is to have dumplings on the first day and noodles on the second day (of the Lunar calendar). Then, we eat noodles on the 7th, 17th and 27th day (of the lunar month), which represent the big days for children, adults and the elderly respectively.”

As for why many Chinese Americans associate the tradition with Lunar New Year, Zhao offers this theory: “When people depart from their ancestral roots, they may not feel their identity for the rest of the year, but with during festivals, the love that would explode in their culture.

“Often, the level of continuity and symbolism of one’s culture in a diaspora community would exceed that of the local culture.”

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