When I was really young, before starting elementary school, I used to live with my grandparents in a small town in southwest China. In their province of ShanXi, everyone was a fan of noodles, all kinds of noodles. From flat hand-made noodles to hair-thin noodles, noodles cooked in meat stew to stir-fried noodles, they were the highlight of any meal. But my grandparents’ favorite was the spicy flat noodles mixed in homemade chili oil.
On Saturday mornings, my older cousin and I would get up extra early and patiently sit by the door, waiting for our grandpa who was out buying freshly made noodles and chili oil from the local shop. Every time, he would bring it back in a styrofoam container in a plastic bag, and he would open the lid of the container and smell the chili oil and mutter “this is it!” My cousin and I would stare at his every move, mesmerized, while he used chopsticks to separate every strand of noodle and mix it with chili oil. And the entire apartment would be permeated with a indescribably rich and heartwarming fragrance. Of course, to say the least, the taste was something I could never forget.
I have not been back to that town in ShanXi province since my family immigrated to the States 14 years ago, and my grandparents passed away more than 6 years ago. Needless to say, I have not tasted those chili oil noodles since, until I had the chance to visit again for my cousin’s wedding after graduating from college. Being back in that same town, walking the sidewalks of the same streets and seeing familiar faces pulled me back into memories of my childhood, memories of my grandparents. Suddenly I was craving those chili oil noodles, so I asked my cousin to buy some from an authentic place. Though the taste was very similar, the entire experience was not the same. There was no styrofoam container, no chili oil seeping over the plastic bag, no anticipation by the doorstep, and grandpa was not there. I knew that in a way, the rich details of my childhood can only live on in my mind.
Nevertheless, I wanted to venture out to remake this childhood favorite dish of mine. I did not have the skills to make flat noodles from scratch, so I used store bought noodles. I’m sure there are ingredients in that chili oil that I left out as well. But at least, this was my best effort at re-creation. While it’s not an exact replica, just like the present can never be an exact replica of the past, it reflects a culmination of every bit of experience that went into the life I have now. And that, is all we can ask for.
Chili Oil Noodles
- bok choy
- 2 green onions, sliced
- ginger, grated
- 3 cloves of garlic, minced
- 3 Tbsp soy sauce
- 2 Tbsp Chinese black vinegar
- 1 pinch of salt
- 1 Tbsp chili flakes
- 2 Tbsp canola oil
Bring a pot of water to a boil and place noodles inside the pot. Boil for 7 minutes, or until it’s soft and cooked through.
Meanwhile, mix together soy sauce, black vinegar and salt in a large bowl.
Drain noodles into the bowl with the sauce. Try to leave all the water out.
With the remaining water in the pot, bring it to a boil again and place bok choy in the water. Blanch for 3 minutes and turn off the heat. Drain bok choy and place it on top of the noodles.
Heap green onion, ginger and garlic on top of the bowl of bok choy and noodles. Finally, heap chili flakes on top.
Heat up canola oil over high heat until simmering and pour the oil directly over the heap of chili flakes and other spices. There should be a splattering sound of oil cooking the spices and chili flakes. Mix thoroughly the sauce (on the bottom) and spices into the noodles and bok choy. Enjoy!