Sat, Jan 12, 2019 - Page 13 News List

Unraveling history in noodles

In Guanmiao, a handmade noodle tells stories of the district and its longtime residents

By Davina Tham  /  Staff reporter

In December, locals fill up on steamy guanmiao noodles in a traditional preparation of sharkmeat nuggets and bamboo shoots slathered in a thick gravy, left. Dry mixed guanmiao noodles with braised pork, right, are another delectable option.

Photo: Davina Tham, Taipei Times

It’s eight in the morning on New Year’s Eve, and Yang-Hsing nan (楊幸男) is the only person on the Hochin Guanmiao Noodle (合進關廟麵) factory floor.

Workers, all 15 of them, have been sent home to usher in the new year with family. Only the sprightly Yang, who is in his 70s, turns up to watch over the factory. After all, it’s not too different from home — the business that he set up in 1974 is based on a trade he learned from his father-in-law and is now run by his two sons.

Yang is a man who believes in the next generation. He gestures to a stylish packet of noodles with seasoning — a novelty for the noodle manufacturer.

“At first I didn’t want to [add seasoning], but my son said that if we don’t, we wouldn’t be able to keep up with the times,” he says.

The noodles remain a homespun tradition, mixed from flour, salt and water and sundried over two and a half days, during which they are turned over in their bamboo sieves every two hours.

DAVID AND GOLIATH

The noodle-making industry is not without its dramas. There is a sense of David and Goliath about the competition that traditional noodle-makers face from conglomerates.

The answer is to insist on retaining the unique sundried characteristic of guanmiao noodles, says Yang Chin-lung’s (楊欽龍), Yang Hsin-nan’s eldest son.

“The sundrying process is what gives the noodles a particular flavor and fragrance,” Yang Chin-lung says.

Corporate competitors know all too well the value of the guanmiao name, even as they seek shortcuts to the time and labor-intensive traditional method of making noodles.

Yang notes that some noodle products using the guanmiao brand — which cannot be trademarked, as a place name — are made in other parts of Taiwan and only partially sundried, with the process finished off through baking or frying.

It becomes even more difficult to keep the business afloat when the weather becomes a liability.

Yang says that climate change and extreme weather patterns can cause rains that last for two or three weeks, halting production at the factory.

“What can you do then?” Yang says.

To keep up demand, Yang is courting Din Tai Fung (鼎泰豐) and Tu Hsiao Yueh Tan-tsai Noodles (度小月擔仔麵), famous restaurant chains that have visited Hochin’s factory in their search for noodle suppliers. Netting a partnership with one of these prestige brands would be a big catch that will keep Hochin and its employees well-fed.

He is also trying to improve marketability without sacrificing quality. For example, while some customers — especially Japanese — like that guanmiao noodles are exposed to the elements during the drying process, others have expressed concerns about hygiene. To assuage these concerns, Yang installed golf range netting above the open-air drying area in his factory to keep out airborne pests and birds.

Hochin and other guanmiao noodle producers have started introducing noodles flavored and colored with ground turmeric, red quinoa and even mango and pink dragonfruit, in a bid to amplify the visual, flavor and health quotients all at once. But for locals who grew up on the staple, nothing will replace the original noodle.

A BRIEF HISTORY of GUANMIAO NOODLES

Guanmiao noodles (關廟麵) — named after Guanmiao District (關廟) in Tainan where they are made — have been a staple of the region for generations.

Yang says that locals would bring the noodles with them when they traveled, or give them to friends and relatives. The noodles made ideal gifts as they kept for a long time and were tasty, cheap and simple to cook.

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