Chinese food has been the rage recently in urban cities. I don’t mean those “American-Chinese” restaurants which commonly serve overly sweetened and sauced fried chicken. Authentic Chinese food has almost no resemblance. Traditional Chinese dishes are often hidden away on Chinese-language menus in Chinatown, and they have the most exotic and alien names, like Fuqi Fei Pian (literally “Married Couple’s Slices of Lung”), Mapo Tofu (literally “Pockmarked Old Woman Beancurd”), and Xiao Long Bao (literally “Little Dragon’s Dumpling”). I can add 100 more such dishes to this list, but I’ll highlight one of my favorites: “Liang Pi”, the name translates as cold skin noodles. Squishy, chewy and glassy noodles bathed in amorous, spicy, savory sauce, and topped with slivers of cucumber and green onion, Liang Pi is one of the most popular street foods in Western China.
The first time I encountered the Liang Pi was at Xi’an Famous Foods in Midtown Manhattan during a family trip to New York. To my surprise, we were surrounded by young students and professionals in the restaurant, and much more non-Chinese customers than I’m used to seeing at most Chinese restaurants. I guess many of them may have never heard of Xi’an, a city in Western China and even home to the terracotta warriors. Yet they all know the city’s signature foods, thanks to Xi’an Famous Food where the traditional Chinese food has been made hip to young customers. Did I mention that there were hip-hop songs in Chinese playing in the restaurant? Liang Pi can be difficult to make, due to making the noodle’s unusual appearance and texture. The Liang Pi is made by washing wheat flour to separate starch and gluten, with starch water is steamed, then cooled and sliced into long thin noodles, and the remaining gluten solid is cut into cubes of seitan. Then these two main ingredients are mixed with a medley of green vegetables served on a paper plate. The spicy aspect of the dish comes from a considerable amount of chili oil, with vinegar to add a sour taste.
All for just over 4 dollars is tempting and I like to think of it as a simple evening lunch. At first sight, I was expecting a bowl of noodles submerged in soup. Instead, the only “soup” in the plate was the robust chili oil with vinegar and distinct spices like star anise and maybe a little cinnamon. I was trying something new and unusual. I usually get a bowl of noodle soup but this one was peculiarly different. The noodles had a dark orange color outside, but stirring and flipping the bouncy noodles revealed a fractal of colors: green, orange, blood red, and transparent white. In addition, started hitting the noodles with my spoon, creating vibrations within the noodles. I even got some hot chili oil into my eye as a result!
The noodles resemble glass and feel like rubbery skin when you bite into them. In order to digest this noodle, you would need to chew it many times. Slurping the noodles would send a blaze of hot chili oil down your throat and that satisfying “slur ffpp” noise. While slurping, I noticed my mouth had become a giant balloon ready to explode. Xi’an Famous Foods had made the noodles incredibly long because of the Chinese belief that long noodles correlate to a long life. The noodles had the heat to tickle your tongue. The soupy sauce had a pungent, distinctive flavor in which went great with the cold noodles. The puffy seitan was like spongy tofu, absorbing most of the chili oil around it. Chewing the seitan would burst a stream of “soup”. The cumin and pepper really started to bring the fire to your entire mouth. The clean crisp of the vegetables and aroma of the parsley clears the fire and allows you to slurp again. After the heat was extinguished by the vegetables, the afterburn felt like a blizzard on a burning house inside my mouth.
Right then, I couldn’t think a time when I had cold noodles that tasted better. Food is an important part of a culture. For my parents, who came to America to pursue better opportunities, authentic Chinese food is important not only because of is familiar tastes but also because of the memories it carries. For me, who grew up in Brookline and always feel far more Bostonian than Chinese, authentic Chinese food brings me closer to the root that’s actually quite foreign to me. Liang Pi is probably one of those very special foods I would eat with special people such as family and friends. I feel this is part of who I am.
Next time we stop by New York City, I will take my closest friends to an authentic Chinese restaurant like Xi’an Famous Foods. I would also love to suggest Liang Pi to my teammates on my swim team next time we have a travel swim meet in New York. I will take them to a food adventure with me. That way, I give them a chance to try some authentic Chinese food and wish them a long life.