When we first arrived in Beijing last summer I was a little surprised at the extent to which we were finding ourselves eating a lot of noodles and not so much rice. Various people, Chinese and not, told me that noodles are eaten more widely in Northern China, while rice is more common in the South. With 3 months tenure in South China, I would concur that rice is more a staple down here in Guangdong Province. The hotel and restaurant employees take their meals in the hotel canteen and they always have a large mound of rice with some greens (usually bok choy), some egg (typically scrambed with tomatoes or peppers), and one or 2 meat dishes. Most of the lunch trays at the No. 1 canteen where we are taking more and more of our lunches look about the same.
However, noodles are still widely consumed here. When it comes to my own tastes, there is a time for rice and a time for noodles, but in a head-to-head contest, noodles reign supreme. So, imagine my enthusiasm for the canteen now that I have discovered dao xiao mian – shaved noodles. You walk up to the noodle window and place your order. One of the chefs is hand-pulling noodles while the other picks up a brick of dense noodle dough and, using a knife, shaves many, many pieces of fresh and chewy dough into a sieve within a cauldron of boiling water. He then throws in a few lettuce leaves. In a moment or two he dumps the whole mess into your bowl with a little bit extra water. You can tell him what meat and how much should be added. Or, if you are like me, you skip the meat, splash in a little soy sauce and add a generous spoonful of red pepper paste, then take it to your table to enjoy hot, fresh spicy noodles. You can also buy a fried egg at another window to add to the bowl if you are feeling the need for some protein. The whole thing (less egg) is 3 rmb – about 45 cents.