(CNN) – It’s almost Lunar New Year 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 picking up.
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 in 2018.
“Every Lunar New Year, almost every table would order our longevity noodles,” he says. “Looking good and tasting better, they also symbolize luck.”
What are Longevity Noodles?
This year, the Lunar New Year falls on January 22, but the celebrations are held over several days, collectively called the Spring Festival. Traditional rituals, including food, are full of symbolism.
Longevity noodles symbolize a long life. According to tradition, the chef cannot cut the noodle strands, and each strand must be eaten whole, without breaking it before eating.
But that’s where the consensus ends.
A popular dish in China, longevity noodles can be thick, thin, flat or crispy, but they are always long. In Hong Kong, where fried e-fu noodles are king, one factory has increased production by 30% to meet Lunar New Year demand.
At Hop Lee, longevity noodles are synonymous with yi mein, also known as e-fu noodles. These chewy and fluffy Cantonese egg wheat strands are dried, fried and eaten all year round, especially on special occasions like birthdays and during the Festa Major.
Hop Lee’s Longevity Lobster Noodles recipe has been passed down for decades. Yi mein noodles are braised with seasonings and shiitake mushrooms. Lobsters are stir-fried with fermented salty black beans, eggs, minced meat, ginger and scallions.
“Then we put the lobsters on top of the noodles and the juice runs out. It’s so delicious. Even my son loves it – he asks me to make the dish for his school parties,” says Mui.
“Our biang biang noodles are definitely among them,” says Wang.
Made with wheat flour and water, the dough is stretched and cut into long, flat, wide belt-shaped noodles.
“The most traditional way is actually to put aromatics like scallions and garlic, along with freshly ground red chili on top of the noodles, stir-fry them in vegetable oil, and dress them with soy sauce and vinegar black rice. We call them spicy. Hand-cut noodles heated in hot oil,” Wang tells CNN Travel.
The first Chinese immigrants to the United States were predominantly Cantonese, which explains why yi mein is often what many Chinese Americans consider longevity noodles.
But regional cuisines, such as Xi’an dishes, have been popping up and diversifying the options in recent decades.
“Yi mein are Cantonese noodles, so they are different from what we would eat, but the symbolism of longevity is shared,” says Wang.
“The exact type of noodles varies, but the idea remains ‘long noodles for a long life,’ and long noodles serve that purpose.”
Johnny Mui, owner and manager of New York’s Hop Lee restaurant, says lobster yi mein is his most popular Lunar New Year dish.
“We are busier before the 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 of the second generation of the family. . business
As for why e-fu noodles are a popular choice for Cantonese, Tang says it comes down to quality.
“In the Guangdong region, people use e-fu noodles to treat their family and friends on special occasions because they are considered better; more steps are required and the ingredients are better. It is also unique because e-fu noodles are deep-fried, which sets them apart from other northern Chinese noodles.”
The origins of longevity noodles
So now that the question of what counts as a longevity noodle has been settled, short answer: pretty much any noodle as long as it’s, well, long, an important question remains: Who decided that eating long noodles can prolong life?
Most, if not all, blogs and websites trace the history of longevity noodles back to Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty (ruled 141-87 BC), who told his ministers that he had heard that if one had a long face, one would have a long life.
Since he could not change the length of his face, the emperor decided to eat long noodles because the word for noodle sounds similar to the word for face in Chinese. The custom then spread beyond the palace to the rest of the country.
Long noodles symbolize a long life in Chinese culture.
Guo Bin / Xinhua / ZUMAPRESS.com
We asked two food historians about their views on the folktale, and they’re not buying that story.
“The Han Dynasty was the time when the development of China’s noodle culture flourished,” says Zhao Rongguan, a prominent scholar in China who has been writing about Chinese food history and culture for the past few years. four decades
“It was the era that laid the foundations and techniques of today’s noodles. But to say that Emperor Wu was the reason we have longevity noodles, I would call it a ridiculous internet heresy.”
Chen Yuanpeng, a professor at Taiwan’s National Dong Hwa University who specializes in the history of Chinese food, also decided to consult his colleagues when CNN Travel asked him to share his take on longevity noodles.
“I called Mr. Wang Renxiang (a Chinese archaeologist specializing in food culture) and Mr. Naomichi Ishige (Japanese food historian and anthropologist). Both are experts in Chinese noodles; neither of them know how the longevity noodles and history,” he says. Chen.
Workers remove longevity noodles from racks after they have been dried in the sun at a factory in Thailand.
Brent Lewin/Bloomberg/Getty Images
The professor says he spent several days going through old texts and books. Finally, he found a script highlighting the conversation between Emperor Wu and his minister, Dong Fangshuo, in one of the historical texts of Dunhuang bianwen: a series of melodic folktales written during the Tang Dynasty (618 to 907) to spread the teachings of Buddhism. .
“In the bianwen, the discussion about face length between Emperor Wu and his minister ended without mentioning noodles at all. The correlation between noodles and long life was probably added and fabricated later,” he speculates Chen.
“But we can’t dismiss the story, even if it was probably just a myth. It’s been shared so many times that many believe it; it’s also become part of the culture and history of longevity noodles, which has documented for the longest time. more than 1,000 years.”
How to eat longevity noodles
Even the ways in which longevity noodles are consumed vary greatly by 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 noodles) as a longevity noodle, but the “prosperity toss”, a mix of colorful shredded vegetables and raw fish, is a more popular New Year dish. New Lunar
When eating longevity noodles, be careful not to bite or break the thread.
China Visual Group / Getty Images
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 of the year, are eaten on New Year’s Eve for good luck.
“In the northern part of China, some people still follow the old way of eating longevity noodles,” says Zhao.
“When the noodles arrived, the guests would stand up. They would grab some noodles from the bowl, throw them theatrically over their heads with a pair of toothpicks, bring them to their faces, and eat them all at once with a happy face. It’s a way of expressing their gratitude to the host.”
He adds that long-lived noodles should have the length and tenacity to survive a strong toothpick pull.
Why are they so popular in North America?
So now that we’ve established that longevity noodle styles vary widely and their backstory is murky at best, surely everyone can agree on when they should be eaten?
No. Although longevity noodles, regardless of type, 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 come as no surprise, given the size of the country and its many regional cuisines and traditions.
“I don’t think my family had longevity noodles during the Lunar New Year,” says Chen, whose family moved to Taiwan from Tianjin in northern China.
“But I did make a bowl of da lu mian (Northern-style stewed noodles with minced meat, mushrooms, and an egg) as longevity noodles for my mom’s birthday last year. Always I have associated only longevity noodles with birthdays, but not the Lunar New Year. . . ”
On the other hand, Zhao says that noodles are still a popular Lunar New Year custom, especially in northern China.
“Longevity noodles are part of the traditional culture of Chinese celebrations… During the important Lunar New Year festival, of course we have to 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 (of the lunar month), which represent the big days for children, adults and people big, respectively.”
As for why many Chinese Americans primarily associate the tradition with the Lunar New Year, Zhao offers this theory: “When people move away from their ancestral roots, they may not feel their identity for the rest of the year. year, but during festivals, the love for their culture would explode.
“Often, the degree of continuity and symbolism of one’s own culture in a diaspora community would exceed that of the local one”.