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

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


It’s almost Lunar New Year and Johnny Mui finally smiles.

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.

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 Scallion Lobster Yi Mein, also known as longevity noodles.

“Every Lunar New Year, almost every table would ask for our longevity noodles,” he says. “Good appearance and better taste, they also symbolize luck.”

This year, Lunar New Year falls on January 22, but the celebrations span several days, collectively known as the Spring Festival. Traditional rituals, including food, are full of symbolism.

Longevity noodles symbolize a long life. According to tradition, the chef is not allowed to cut the noodle strands and each strand must be eaten whole, without breaking it before eating it.

But that’s where the consensus ends.

Ask people of Chinese descent what types of noodles to eat and you’ll probably get different answers.

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A worker prepares noodles at the Aberdeen Yau Kee noodle factory in Hong Kong on January 13, 2023. Credit: Noemi Cassanelli/CNN

Longevity Noodles: Lunar New Year’s Lucky Dish

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 throughout the year, especially on special occasions like birthdays and during the Spring Festival.

Hop Lee’s Lobster Longevity 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 drips out. it’s so delicious. Even my son loves it, he asks me to make the dish for his school parties,” Mui says.

At Xi’an Famous Foods, a humble Flushing, New York restaurant that in less than two decades has become a successful chain serving Northwest Chinese food, CEO Jason Wang has his own take on Chinese noodles. longevity, which grew up eating. In his opinion, any noodle that extends in length counts.

“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 and wide belt-shaped noodles.

“The more traditional way is to simply put aromatics like spring onions and garlic, along with freshly ground red chili powder on top of the noodles, brown in vegetable oil, and dress with soy sauce and black rice vinegar. We call these hand-chopped, hot-oil-sealed, spicy noodles,” 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 think of as longevity noodles.

But regional cuisines, such as Xi’an dishes, have been emerging and diversifying the options in recent decades.

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

“The exact type of noodles varies, but the idea remains ‘long noodles for long life’, and any long noodles will do the trick.”

Johnny Mui, owner and manager of New York's Hop Lee restaurant, says lobster yi mein is his most popular Lunar New Year dish.

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

“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, second-generation director of the family. business.

As for why e-fu noodles are a popular choice 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’s also unique in that e-fu noodles are deep-fried, which sets them apart from other noodles in northern China.”

So now that the question of what counts as a longevity noodle is settled (short answer: almost any noodle as long as it’s, well, long), one 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 BCE), who told his ministers that he heard that if one had a long face, one would have a long life.

Since he couldn’t change the length of his face, the emperor decided to eat long noodles because the word noodles sounds similar to the word 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.

We asked two food historians for their opinions on the folktale, and they don’t buy that story.

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

“It was the era that laid the foundation and techniques of modern noodles. But to say that Emperor Wu was the reason we have longevity noodles, I would say that is ridiculous internet heresy.”

Chen Yuanpeng, a professor at Taiwan’s National Dong Hwa University who specializes in the history of Chinese food, decided to consult his colleagues, too, when asked by CNN Travel to share his thoughts 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). They are both experts in Chinese noodles; no one knows how longevity noodles came to be and the history,” Chen says.

Workers remove longevity noodles from shelves after they have dried in the sun at a factory in Thailand.

The professor says that he spent several days reviewing old texts and books. Eventually, he found a script highlighting the conversation between Emperor Wu and his minister, Dong Fangshuo, in one of the historical texts of the Dunhuang bianwen, a series of melodic folk tales written during the Tang Dynasty (618 to 907) to spread the teachings. of Buddhism.

“In the bianwen, the discussion about the length of the face between Emperor Wu and his minister ended with no mention of noodles at all. The correlation between noodles and long life was probably added and fabricated later,” Chen speculates.

“But we can’t dismiss the story, even if it was probably just a myth. It has been shared so many times that many believe it; it has also become part of the longevity noodle culture and history, which has been documented for over 1000 years.”

Even the ways longevity noodles are consumed vary greatly by location.

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

During 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 longevity noodles, but “prosperity toss,” a mix of shredded colorful vegetables and raw fish, is a more popular Lunar New Year dish.

When eating longevity noodles, care must be taken not to bite or break the strand.

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

“On the north side of China, some people still follow the old way of eating longevity noodles,” Zhao says.

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

He adds that long-lasting noodles must have the length and toughness to survive a forceful tug of chopsticks.

So now that we’ve established that longevity noodle styles vary wildly and their backstory is murky at best, surely everyone agrees on when they should be eaten.

No. While longevity noodles, no matter the type, are a popular Lunar New Year dish among Chinese communities in North America, some argue that they’re 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 has longevity noodles during 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 braised noodles with minced meat, mushrooms, and an egg) as longevity noodles for my mother’s birthday last year. I have always associated longevity noodles only with birthdays, but not Lunar New Year.”

On the other hand, Zhao says 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 must eat noodles,” he says.

“The traditional custom is to eat 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 big days for children, adults, and the elderly, respectively.”

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

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

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