February 8th, 2012
There are an endless number of delicious things to eat in Kunming. There are dishes of meat cooked with dried hot peppers and Sichuan peppercorns, vegetables cooked with slivers of the region’s famous ham, hot-pots full of exotic mushrooms, and hundreds of other intriguing dishes. But what most of us in Kunming eat day in and day out are noodles. Kunming is a city fueled by noodle soup. It’s eaten for breakfast, lunch, and dinner by businessmen, school children, construction workers, shopkeepers, minority peasants in town to sell handicrafts, and expats like us. Walk down a small neighborhood street anywhere in the city at almost any time of day and you’ll see half a dozen noodles shops packed with people slurping down warm, nourishing noodle soups.
There isn’t a lot of variety in these soups. They start with a basic pork broth to which is added some ground pork, pickled vegetables, ground chili paste, cabbage, and noodles of whatever variety the customer wants. There are rice noodles as thin as angel hair pasta or as wide as hankerchiefs, all of which tend to soften and break apart in the soup, the better to be scooped up with a spoon. And there are wheat noodles, made with egg, that range from a thin spaghetti-like shape to wide, toothsome noodles twice the width of linguini, which keep their chewy texture no matter how hot the broth, the better to be eaten with chopsticks.
There are, of course, some outliers. In a neighborhood to the west of the city, where our friends Mark and Maya live, there are noodles stalls that sell bowls of chicken broth-based noodles spiked with bright fresh chilis, both major departures from the city’s standard fare. And local friends have told me that they make theirs at home by adding a spoonful of freshly rendered lard to hot water, in lieu of making a broth, then add pieces of tomato and some pea greens to the soup. But most of the noodles stalls are distinguished not by the kind of soups they make but by the quality of their broth and the relative amounts of the chili, pickle, and meat that they use.
My favorite version of this soup comes from a small storefront in the narrow alleyway at the end of our street that serves a richer, more flavorful broth than any of the other stands. The proprietors, a handful of women who rotate through the kitchen at different hours of the day, are particularly well-known for their shaguo mi xian or “sandpot” rice noodles, which are cooked in a clay pot with a short handle that can be put directly over the flame and then brought to the table still bubbling and spitting. I order mine “not spicy” and with wheat noodles, then season it myself at the table with a little bit of chili and some dark vinegar. It’s the perfect lunch, dinner, snack, or even breakfast.
Recipe: Kunming-Style Noodles Soup
Photos: Josh Wand (2), Georgia Freedman