22 April 2012

Wherein the author takes a journey to a more distant land

It's been almost a month since I went to Guangzhou for work and I'm still somewhat stymied by an inability to capture my exact impressions of the trip. I don't want to do the whole blow-by-blow because that's remarkably boring and there's no real voice in there.

So I'm going to start backwards and end up all over the place.*

Ever since I've returned from China I've been making really good noodle dishes. Stir fries have given me a lot of trouble in the past. They'd smell super good and end up tasting bland. The meat would seem dry, the vegetables somehow both burnt and undercooked. I credit this turn around directly to an old woman, an old man, and a propane stove on the back of a bike.

The last evening I was in Guangzhou, I went to a pedestrian district. I'm not sure what it's called, but it's by the Changshou Lu metro stop. I had been there a couple days earlier, and was absolutely in awe of it. There was weird random food and just weird random stuff everywhere. Barber shops with lines out of the door at 10:30 PM, little stalls that seemed to sell nearly-exclusively kitchen sinks open at the same hour. A small crowd seemed to gather when I ate some stinky tofu--the project manager whom I was traveling with and who spoke perfectly adequate Chinese told me that those gathered had never seen a white person enjoy it.

But this night I was by myself. I wanted something more substantial than stinky tofu or octopus on a stick (both compelling options). I was also limited by the fact that I'd have no idea how to order something complex. My vocabulary literally was 'hello' and 'thank you'. So I wandered around hoping to see a cart that caught my eye. There, at least, I could point at things I wanted.

My prayers were answered by a bike with a propane stove on the back. I cautiously made my way forward, said hello to the old woman operating the stand, and pointed to some thin rice noodles. That was the cue for the old man operating the burner to superheat some oil in a wok and crack an egg into it. I had succeeded.

Now the old woman took to pointing. Green onions. I nodded. Bean sprouts. Nod. Unidentified chopped meat. Nod. The ubiquitous dried hot red peppers. Vigorous nodding. They all ended up in the wok. Some dark sauce was spayed all over the concoction and literally, probably within two minutes, I was handed a heaping styrofoam container of noodles. I handed over 20 yuan, having no idea how much such a thing would cost. I got the vast majority of it back. Those noodles probably cost me all of $1.

I walked back the subway station and ate them just outside it, watching the people walk by. They were absolutely delicious. Deeply, deeply satisfying, slightly greasy, and outright tasty. But my moment of enjoyment was shattered when I checked my phone and saw that I only had a borderline chance of catching the last subway back. Shit.

I was a 30 minute subway ride from my hotel. I'd have no idea how to walk back, even if I wanted to. And the cab drivers are notorious for not speaking any English. I didn't have the name of my hotel written in Chinese, which is really the most basic piece of travel advice any traveler in China should know about. I'd be kinda fucked.

Luckily I was not fucked, made the train, was the only white guy on it (just like every other time I took it), made it back to the hotel, and ate my noodles. And since then, I've been making those noodles at least once per week.

But I didn't even talk about half of what happened.

*Just like someone driving in reverse on the highway.


  1. How are you making the noodles? Presumably you had to guess at some of the ingredients? Can you give me a recipe of what exactly it is that you make and how you make it - I'd be interested in trying it out.

  2. It's really easy and the guesswork is minimal. I start by taking thin rice noodles (which I get in Chinatown) and soaking them in lukewarm water. At this point I chop the green onions and the meat. I give the noodles about 10 minutes and then start heating some oil in a wok. When the oil gets really got, like 500 degrees hot, I crack the egg in. It cooks instantly and spatters everywhere so be careful and have a wooden spoon ready. I scramble the egg and throw in the vegetables. Once those seem cooked (this happens really fast), I throw in the meat. Because the meat is chopped really finely it also cooks nearly instantly. Then I throw in the noodles, stirring things around a bit. They should get soft if they aren't already from the soaking. I think squirt in some soy sauce and siriacha. I'm not so calculated about the amount, I just do enough so it looks covered without swimming. I think turn off the burner, give it a good stir, and dump it in a plate.

    For a variation you can substitute the soy sauce with tamarind concentrate, fish sauce, and sugar for something a lot like pad thai.