James Beard Publication of the Year 2017

Swamp Eels and Noodles: An Auspicious Start to A New Year

Swamp Eels and Noodles: An Auspicious Start to A New Year

Longevity noodles in Shanghai

The dining room felt like a sauna: hot and steaming, people a little too close for comfort. My family usually avoids eating out for breakfast. With the fans humming, people pushing, and utensils clacking, the morning became stressful before the day even began. Yet here I was, nestled between my grandparents and a stranger, waiting hungrily for my birthday noodles.

Longevity noodles have been a Chinese birthday tradition since the Tang Dynasty. Their seemingly endless strands symbolized hopes for a long and prosperous life. However, beyond this simple requirement, there were no strict rules to follow. Any bowl of noodles could be deemed longevity noodles, whether they were stir-fried or boiled, sauced or plain, thick or thin. There was also less rigidity in what was considered breakfast food. Noodles instead of eggs and toast? Why not?

Mama’s Noodles had been open since 7 a.m. and by 9 a.m., the most popular options were already sold out.

“Two swamp eel noodles and one pork liver noodles,” our server recited, sliding the orders down the communal table. Each order came with a bowl of perfectly coiled noodles sitting in broth and a separate plate of protein.

My stir-fried swamp eel, known as chao huang shan, was a local favorite of the Jiangnan region. These sinuous creatures can be found at any roadside market. Not only is their meat incredibly tender, but their curved musculature, like ribbed pasta, make them eels perfect for carrying thick sauces. The dish’s distinctive dark, glistening appearance comes from the generous use of garlic, rice wine, sugar, and soy sauce. Since mine were paired with noodles, the dish was called huang shan mian.

Looking at the bowl, I felt an uneasy dread in my stomach. What was this year going to bring and what was it going to take? I emptied the eels into the pristine broth, watching the two colors, like ying and yang, swirl to become one. There was only one way to find out. Closing my eyes, I took a deep breath and slurped.

Everything, from the taste to the texture, came together beautifully. The noodles were dense and resistant, gently tugging and pulling against my teeth. The stir-fried eels, rich and decadent, were salty but had the lingering sweetness found in Shanghainese cuisine. Whenever a bite felt heavy, the acidity of the rice wine kicked in. There was no need for tea or water. The broth itself, although slightly savory from the sauce, was refreshing enough to clear the palate.

The uneasiness—or maybe it was hunger—in my stomach settled. Staring into the murky broth, I was surprised by how much a single bowl represented an entire year. It was going to be a year of twists and turns. Some days would be sweet; others would be sour. Though I still could not see the bottom, I was no longer scared. Taking another slurp, I felt the noodles whistle through my lips: a sound of triumph in a new age.

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