Where Whitehead's Philosophy Meets Chinese Food Culture
by Xie Bangxiu (Wuhan, China) and Jay McDaniel (Arkansas, USA)
A Whiteheadian Reflection On Hot-and-Dry Noodles
Jay McDaniel (Arkansas, USA)
Dear Xie Bangxiu,
I have read your description of hot-and-dry noodles and how to make them in the column on the right, and I especially appreciate your invitation to come enjoy them!
Yes, I would like to come enjoy the noodles. I am almost able to eat them off the screen, but they would taste even better if I could use my tongue. I offer three Whiteheadian reflections on Hot-and-Dry Noodles so popular in Wuhan.
Glad for Mistakes
First and most importantly, I am grateful for Li Bao’s mistake. So are other Whitehead-influenced thinkers. We are glad Li Bao knocked over the oiler and spilled the oil on the noodles. Process thinkers believe that mistakes can be one of the most important things in life. To be sure, there is value in repeating predictable patterns as inherited from our predecessors, such as a common way of making noodles. But sometimes our best attempts to repeat the existing patterns fall short. We make a mistake and the mistake opens the door for novel possibilities. A healthy society is one in which people can strive for excellence, but in which they can also make mistakes, be forgiven for them, and then encouraged to make something creative out of the mistake that was made. A mistake-free society would be a dead society. This means that young children need to be trained, from the very beginning of their lives, that it is all right to make “mistakes” and that mistakes are an opportunity for creativity.
Comfort Food as Sacrament
Second, we process thinkers appreciate the way in which food can become associated with feeling. In Whitehead’s philosophy the act of eating food is a kind of feeling; the activity of tasting something is feeling the food with the tongue. But there is really so much more to eating than tasting. There are the memories associated with the tasting; the feelings of comfort that come along with the memories; the relationships with other people that are associated with the feelings. You know that in Whitehead’s philosophy “the many become one” at every moment of our lives. Certainly the many become one in the act of eating: many memories, many thoughts, many pleasures, many hopes.
One of the pleasures associated with eating is comfort. Indeed in the West we speak of some kinds of food as “comfort food.” These are foods to which we turn in times of stress, when we seek comfort from a hard day or a hard life. The comfort is psychological as well as physical.
Comfort food can be a kind of sacrament: as comforting to a person as the listening of a good friend or the kindness of a stranger. When people travel to foreign countries, one of the first things they miss is their comfort food. They long for a food which is comfortable to their stomachs but also comforting to the heart. A healthy nostalgia becomes part of their lives, and the very taste of their comfort food becomes, for them, a kind of felt religion. Not a belief system but rather, as it were, a feeling system.
Other experiences can be part of this feeling system: familiar smells, familiar sounds, familiar landscapes. In Western Christianity people share bread and wine as a special ritual called “communion.” In a certain sense hot-and-dry noodles can also be enjoyed as a kind of “communion.” The holiness lies in the food, to be sure, but also in the feeling.
Culinary Novelty as Stretching the Imagination
Still, I must admit I miss the taste of the hot-and-dry noodles. This takes me to my last reflection. It is simply that the very idea of eating them provides a kind of lure for feeling for me. I have never had them. They are familiar to people in Wuhan, but novel for me. There is a joy in entertaining novel possibilities, even if they are not actualized in physical terms. I like the idea of hot-and-dry noodles. I like the idea that people in Wuhan like to eat them. I like to picture Li Bao in my imagination. These ideas and images become part of an imagined world in which I now dwell, bigger than the place where I live. Emily Dickinson is famous for saying that the brain is bigger than the sky, because it contains more memories and ideas and images. But in a way the brain is a kind of sky, too: spacious in its capacities to include things. Thanks to you, my sky now includes hot-and-dry noodles.
You know that we Whiteheadians like the idea of widened imaginations. We think that wide hearts and wide imaginations are good for everyone. Their width can include experiences both actual and possible. Hot and dry noodles are, for me, a possibility, but for you an actuality. Still, in their way, they taste good even as possibilities. You are a language teacher. You know that words can stretch the imagination. And you know that images of food can do it, too. Both are food for thought.
Let's eat. You start with the actualities; I'll start with the possibilities. Both are refreshing.
Hot dry noodles (热干面 pinyin rè gān miàn), also known as reganmian, is a traditional dish of Wuhan, the capital of the Hubeiprovince in central China. Hot Dry Noodles has a history in Chinese food culture for 80 years, and it is unique because the noodles are not in soup like most other Asian style noodles. It is the most significant, famous and popular breakfast food in Wuhan, often sold in street carts and restaurants in residential and business areas. Breakfasts such as Hot dry noodles are available from as early as 5 am, and usually appears on night markets as a snack during late night times in Wuhan. The noodle could be prepared in minutes and affordable, therefore it becomes the most popular breakfast choice. Hot dry noodles restaurants stand all over the city. Typical hot dry noodles contain soy sauce, sesame paste, pickled vegetables, chopped garlic chives and chili oil. Hot dry noodles, along with Shanxi's knife-cut noodles (刀削面: Daoxiaomian), Liangguang's yifumian, Sichuan's dandanmian, and northern China's zhajiangmian, are collectively referred to "Top five noodles of China" by People's Daily, and rated No.1 in the list titled in "China's Top 10 famous noodles" by Business Insider in 2013. (Wikipedia)
Guò Zǎo and Hot-and-Dry Noodles: A Glimpse of the Food Culture of Wuhan, China
Xie Bangxiu (Wuhan, China)
Within the diverse and colorful food varieties and customs in China, the breakfast food types and customs in Wuhan take on unique local features and styles.
“Guò Zǎo”: A Unique Custom
The natives of Wuhan name “to have breakfast” as “to guò zǎo”. The term “guò zǎo” first appeared in Hankow Zhú Zhī Cí  composed by Ye Diaoyuan during the Daoguang Emperor Period of the Qing Dynasty. At that time, in order to go to the market in Hankou early every morning, people would buy something to eat on their way to the market, eating while walking in a hurry. Up to this day, the natives of Wuhan, men and women, old and young, seldom cook and have their breakfast at home; instead, they are comfortably used to going out to the street to “guò z o”, or as we call it, to have breakfast. With the accelerated pace of modern life, the custom of “guò-zǎo-ing” in Wuhan mounts without a stop. Everyday in the morning, in the streets and alleyways in Wuhan, busy and booming breakfast stores jam-packed with customers, people busy eating at the breakfast stores, the flow of people eating their breakfast while walking on their way, easy “guò-zǎo-ers (breakfast eaters)” on buses… all these constitute a unique landscape of the culture in Wuhan.
“Zǎo Diǎn”: Rich in Diversity
The natives of Wuhan refer to the food and drink they have for breakfast as “zǎo diǎn”. And the food types of “zǎo diǎn” in Wuhan are of ample varieties, diverse flavors, delicious tastes, and cheap prices. The most typical types of local “zǎo diǎn” food include miàn-wō (面窝a kind of fried rice-flour cake), dòu-pí (豆皮), rè-gān-miàn (热干面hot-and-dry noodles), mǐ-jiǔ (米酒rice wine), shāo-maì (烧卖steamed pork dumplings), tāng-bāo (汤包steamed dumplings filled with minced meat and gravy), shuǐ-jiǎo (水饺dumplings with soup), tāng-yuán (汤圆glutinous rice balls with soup), and so on.
Hot-and-dry Noodles: Food becomes a Feeling
Hot-and-dry noodles are one of the various types of zǎo-diǎn food preferred by the natives of Wuhan, so that many of them show special preference to them and will have them for breakfast every morning. Many people from other places, after staying in Wuhan and having it for breakfast for some time, feel deeply impressed by them and keep them in mind ever since. For many of the natives of Wuhan and people from other places staying in Wuhan for some time, hot-and-dry noodles are no longer just a type of zǎo-diǎn food, but have also become a sort of feeling: when thinking of them, people might fall into nostalgia; while eating them, people might feel them so savoury that they are loath to part from them.
Its Origin: A Beautiful Mistake
Hot-and-dry noodles originated from an accident, a mistake. It is said that in early 1930s, there was a vendor, named Li Bao, who made his living and supported his family by selling bean jelly and noodles with soup in the Changdi Street of Hankou. One day, it was extremely hot, but lots of his noodles were left unsold. Being afraid that the rest of the noodles might spoil and turn sour, Li Bao put the noodles into a pot with boiling water, cooked them for a while, and took them out from the pot, had the water drained, and spread them on the board. But accidentally, he knocked over the oiler on the board and had the sesame oil poured on the noodles. Seeing this, Li Bao could do nothing but mix the oil with the noodles thoroughly, and then re-spread them on the board. The next morning, Li Bao put the noodles mixed with oil on the board into the pot with boiling water, heated them in it, took them out of it, drained water out of them, put them into the bowl, put in seasonings he used to mix in the bean jelly, and mixed the noodles with seasonings, making them hot and suffusing an exquisite aroma all around. People rushed to buy, and ate with good relish. When asked what noodles he was selling, he blurted out, calling them “hot-and-dry noodles”. Since then he sold that kind of noodles as his speciality, having absorbed many people to taste and eat such specially made noodles. And quite a few people came to him, taking him as their teachers and learning how to make the so-called hot-and-dry noodles.
1. Getting the noodles ready: Boil a pot of water, put the noodles into the pot and boil them to 80% cooked, take them out of the pot, pour some cooking oil (preferably sesame oil) on the noodles and mix them well, spread them on the board to get them cooled.
2. Getting the seasonings ready: Mix the sesame paste with sesame oil into thinner paste, respectively chop the scallion, ginger, garlic, pickled radish, pickled tuber mustard, and sour green beans, etc. into small pieces.
3. Heating the noodles: Boil a pot of water, put the prepared noodles into a colander, put it into the boiling water to heat the noodles (for half a minute or so), take them out of the pot and drain the water out of them, and put them into a bowl.
4. Putting seasonings in the noodles: Put in the well-prepared sesame paste or smashed sesame, put in proper amount of cooking oil, salt, soy sauce, monosodium glutamate, garlic pieces, scallion pieces, etc., and according to personal taste, put in a little vinegar, black pepper powder, chili sauce or other vegetables or pickles such as chopped pieces of parsley, of pickled tuber mustard, of sour green beans, of pickled radish, or of pickled vegetables.
5. Mixing the noodles well: Keeping the noodles "hot" and "dry" is essential in making the hot-and-dry noodles, so when the noodles are taken out from the pot twice, water in the noodles must be drained out. The sesame paste is the most essential among the seasonings, so it’s necessary to put enough amount of it into the noodles. It is necessary to mix the noodles with seasonings well when they are hot, so that the sesame paste can stick to all the noodles, like ants climbing along the trees. Only after all these are done can the noodles be in their best to eat.
Eating the Noodles: Enjoying the Balance.
Hot-and-dry noodles are better to be eaten together with something fluid, such as boiled water, gruel, rice wine, milk or soya-bean milk, etc., drinking while eating. In this way, the aromatic flavor of the hot-and-dry noodles and the fresh taste of the drinks can bring out the best in each other, achieving not only the complementarity of dryness and fluidity and the synthesis of acid and alkali, but also the balance in nutrition. Isn’t it a type of enjoyment?
Although I am not a native of Wuhan, I’ve lived in Wuhan for about ten years, and the hot-and-dry noodles have become one type of my favorite breakfast food. Being not used to going out to “guò-zǎo”, I’ve learned to make hot-and-dry noodles at home, meanwhile, I will cook something fluid (such as soup, porridge, rice wine or soya-bean milk, etc.) to go with them, and in addition, prepare a plate of seasonal melon or fruit. Now, a home-made breakfast with the hot-and-dry noodles as staple food is ready! What do you think about it? Would you like to come and share with me?
 Zhú Zhī Cí: referring to occasional poems in the classical style devoted to local topics in ancient China.
 Hankou: a district of Wuhan, a flourishing market at that time.