The Law of Chinese Noodles
In 1958, my paternal grandmother, Li Xiuwen, came to live with my family in Riverdale, a neighborhood in The Bronx. ''Nai-nai'', as we called her, had been born and raised in China, in Guilin, to be precise, a city in the southwestern province of Guangxi. I remember that we had to wait years for Nai-nai, who had problems securing a visa, to arrive. I also remember that when she did finally get here, noodles—which had been a frequent dinnertime staple for us—were banished, so to speak, to the bottom of the soup tureen. It didn't take long for me to realize that our home was too small for both my grandmother and my beloved noodles.
Like many traditional Chinese, Nai-nai dismissed noodles as snack food, unsuitable for a proper dinner table. The only exceptions were at birthday parties (where noodles are a symbol of longevity) and related celebrations, and at banquets, where noodles might appear at the end of the feast as a last-chance offering in case diners hadn't gotten enough to eat. The closest Nai-nai came to sitting down to a meal of noodles was on those mornings when, tired of her usual congee (rice porridge), she would whip up gee ma wot mian—a dish usually made with rice noodles, for which Nai-nai substituted wonton wrappers cut into strips with scissors. She also made exceptions when we ventured into Chinatown, where we would literally empty the dim sum trolleys of their caches of fresh hand-rolled rice noodles, commonly known as silver pin noodles.
During those years, the Buddhist maxim ''There is no Chance; there is only Law'' could well have been applied to our kitchen. Nai-nai was the principal cook, and dinner was a set piece, the inevitable product of the fan-cai principle of Chinese cuisine—with fan, in its broadest sense, referring to any grain or grain-based food, and cai to any cooked vegetable, meat, or fish. Due, however, to her loyalty to custom, her sense of regional pride, or perhaps her old-fashioned suspicion of all processed foods, Nai-nai preferred fan in the form prescribed by the term's narrowest interpretation: boiled rice. Only on the rare occasions when my mother presided at the stove might the evening meal consist of noodles—and when it did, it was spaghetti alla carbonara. Nai-nai permitted Italian noodles at the table because they were, well, Italian, and unlike Chinese noodles, they did not subvert her Law.