Tracing globalization with noodles

Nearly all of the restaurants in the Asian immigrant business districts of Southern California’s San Gabriel Valley will serve some kind of noodle dish. Hong Kong-style cafes, the ubiquitous jack-of-all-trades diners of the SGV, serve macaroni in soup and spaghetti in cream sauce as well as traditional Cantonese noodle stir-fries and the occasional Thai-inspired noodle creation. In Vietnamese restaurants, found all over the middle portion of the Valley, you will find the much loved noodle soups, but also noodle salads, noodle wraps, and deep-fried noodles. There are enough varieties of Asian noodles available in the SGV that one could probably eat a new noodle dish every day and not exhaust the options for several years.

Noodles vary, in many senses. Thanks to the flow of people and foods since antiquity, noodles are now found on every continent, though by most accounts they originated somewhere in Eurasia. They tare thick or thin, long or short, and sometimes even stuffed, rolled, or crimped.

Noodles also occupy every global socioeconomic niche, from the $110 bowl of ramen at Tokyo’s tony Fujimaki Gekijyo restaurant to the cheap instant noodles peddled by multinational conglomerates to the developing world’s poorest consumers.

How did noodles come to be so ubiquitous and so varied? From very different perspectives, two recently released books tell the story of noodles in the context of the global spread of people and ideas. Jen Lin-Liu’s On the Noodle Road seeks the origin of noodles on the old Silk Road, while Frederick Errington, Tatsuro Fujikura, and Deborah Gewertz’s The Noodle Narratives look at how prepackaged instant noodles have become different kinds of staple foods in Japan, the United States, and Papua New Guinea.

On the Noodle Road documents Lin-Liu’s travels across Eurasia in search of the ancient origins of noodles. On the old Silk Road, what she calls the “Noodle Road,” she hoped to find the ur-noodle, the one noodly ancestor of all the world’s noodles. What she found was that noodles actually descend from bread. She discovered that noodles are basically boiled bread dough, and that bread came to China overland from the Middle East, where humans first cultivated wheat. In some parts of her journey arduous journey from Beijing through Tibet and Xinjiang into Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Iran, Turkey, and finally to Italy, baked dough was far more common than boiled dough, though in every place she found a cook to make her some variation of noodles.

Lin-Liu found patterns among the many noodle dishes she ate on her travels. Squares of boiled dough appear in both central China and Kyrgyzstan. Boiled or steamed dough stuffed with meat and vegetables, such as Han Chinese jiaozi, Tibetan momos, Uighur chuchura, Turkish mantı, and Italian tortellini, appeared all across the Noodle Road. Some of the noodles she found evoked dishes from even further away. In Shanxi province, not far from Beijing, she tried cold buckwheat noodles in a vinegar sauce, reminiscent of Japanese soba, and saw a chef extrude dough through a grater into a wok, much like how Central European cooks would make the small egg noodles known in Germany as spätzle. At the end of each chapter, Lin-Liu includes some of the recipes she learned from her hosts, adapted for cooks in North American kitchens.

Lin-Liu has a keen eye for how the foods that she eats on her journey are made. She describes ingredients and techniques in great detail, but she also takes note of the social conditions under which the cooks on her journey prepare the food. She spends much of her time in home kitchens, an exclusively female sphere in many of the cultures along the Noodle Road, and learns about the different ways in which men and women fit into the process of food production. In China, for example, even men who cooked for a living insisted that their wives cook at home. In parts of Central Asia, men would not be involved in cooking at all.

I wonder whether these gendered food preparation practices will change with the times, as they did in mid-20th century Japan. In The Noodle Narratives, Errington, Fujikura, and Gewertz explain how instant noodles came out of Japan’s postwar economic boom and the social changes that it created. Momofuku Ando invented instant noodles in 1958 as a way for time-pressed, economically struggling Japanese workers to get a quick meal. This period of rapid development led to the restructuring of Japanese households, and consequently the restructuring of the who, what, and how of cooking and eating. Unmarried men, often living alone or in corporate dormitories, turned to instant noodles as they needed to make meals for themselves but lacked the gendered cooking skill set. Married women also turned to instant noodles, as they often had to work outside the home and had less time to prepare meals and snacks for their families. At that point, the health detriments of consuming large quantities of a high-fat, high-sodium food like instant noodles were not as well understood, and in any case were less important than filling the stomachs of hungry workers.

Corporate instant noodle makers continue to market them to time-pressed, impoverished populations around the world. In Papua New Guinea, Nestlé targets the “bottom of the pyramid,” those urban consumers who no longer hunt, gather, or farm but do not have access to higher quality food in the market, either. Likewise, in the US, the Nissin Corporation that Ando founded focuses on “heavy users” of instant ramen: college students, prisoners, and Latinos. Though “heavy users” sounds like a  direct and unnerving parallel between ramen consumption and drug addiction, this is perhaps unintentional. The corporate use of the term is not necessarily about the addictive characteristics of the noodles themselves (see Michael Moss’ Salt Sugar Fat for a thought-provoking discussion of this). Rather, “heavy users” is synonymous with “bottom of the pyramid;” it refers to those who rely on instant noodles as a staple because of their lack of choice and purchasing power.

Like Lin-Liu’s book, The Noodle Narratives provides recipes, albeit of a less formalized sort. Perhaps the most interesting recipes are those for “spreads” consumed in American prisons, concoctions made from combining packaged foods bought from the prison commissary. Prisoners use plastic trash bags to mix instant noodles with canned chili, tortilla chips, pickled sausages, mayonnaise, and other ingredients to create unique, shareable meals that break with the monotony of institutional grub. Some spreads are meant to recreate dishes from the outside world: noodles in hot sauce reminiscent of Asian take-out, or noodles with peanut butter and Kool-Aid to mimic the flavors of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. The average reader, highly attuned to food and nutrition, might wince at these combinations of highly processed, unhealthy foods, but for the prisoners they are a taste of autonomy and normalcy that they cannot otherwise get.

Having read such stark descriptions of how the food fits into the lives of the Japanese, American, and Papua New Guinean working poor, the reader would assume that the authors would end the book with a scathing tirade against instant noodles. That is not necessarily the case. Narrowly avoiding fatalism, the authors reluctantly conclude that instant noodles have their place in the stomachs of consumers, and that to some extent they should be embraced for their ability to fight world hunger. As it stands, fresh fruits and vegetables are out of the reach of many of the world’s poor, and instant noodles are among the limited options that they have at their disposal. Instead of demonizing ramen, the authors argue that we ought to find ways to make them more nutritious and less detrimental for the health of the people who depend on them.

Noodles have come a long way since the first pieces of boiled dough to be eaten in Central Asia. They have spread around the world and spawned many forms, from circles and squares stuffed with meat to rectangular blocks of wavy strands that reconstitute in the matter of seconds. Like nearly everything we eat, they are both globalized and globalizing, in that they are both cause and consequence of the movement of people and the things they eat.

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