Taking my time with you mian kao lao lao (莜面栲栳栳)
Updated: Dec 4, 2019
The oat noodle I have in the mountains is white and chewy,
Give you a mouthful of flavor,
Fill your belly substantially,
And energize you for a productive work.
Naked oats and Chinese yam
Are both good food of the peasant family.
Popular folk song about the Guyang oat noodle.
I made oat noodles, all from scratch, no shortcuts. Nowadays, it seems everybody wants to have excellent meals cooked in 15 minutes, which perhaps is possible to achieve, but it makes me wonder what happens to all those other recipes that are more complicated and require time, skills and patience. Should we forget about them altogether? My in-laws sure seem to think so. “This is delicious but just tremendously laborious, it takes so long to prepare” is a phrase I have heard one too many times over the past few months when presenting them with a somewhat out of the ordinary dish; as if rapid was a sine qua non prerequisite for getting a great critique.
Convenience is important, and I keep a stock of cans with tuna, sardines, beans, corn and jars with tomato sauce, marmalade, mayonnaise in my pantry for quick-fixes but, when I have the time, I also get great pleasure from making a homemade crust for a spinach and goat-cheese pie, palmiers baked with fresh mille-feuille dough, handmade noodles, a classic ragù alla bolognese, long-simmered stocks using roasted bones and vegetables. This is food that tastes better than what is served in restaurants or is sold ready-made in stores. I also need to be able to revisit dishes that are unforgettable to me. If I don’t make them then who will? My cravings are so intense, so urgent, almost uncontrollable.
The first time I tasted something made out of oat flour was during our trip to Pingyao (平遥 Píngyáo). It is a peasant, simple and cheap ingredient, but I was so surprised about how good it tasted when transformed into noodles of diverse form and length or was rolled out into dumpling skins. Its texture being chewy, bouncy, almost meaty. These are things that are hard to find outside of Shanxi, Inner Mongolia or Gansu, not to mention in Chinese restaurants abroad.
And so, I set out to go and find me some oat flour. I kneaded the dough, rolled each little lump into small sheets, then with the help of my index finger I shaped them into cylinders and placed them concentrically in the steamer one next to the other, starting from the outmost part and working towards the center, until I arrived at the nucleus. It was something else, even when still uncooked.
As I opened the bamboo basket all the steam swirled upwards and outwards in dense clouds only to then diffuse and unveil the light-brownish rustic honeycomb hidden in its interior. Next, I got this whiff of sweet roasted nuts and porridge, it almost felt as Sunday morning. The noodles are often used as a starch in a soup, stir-fried with vegetables and meat or eaten straight away with a dark Shanxi vinegar sauce with garlic, green onions and coriander; or one made out of tomatoes. I decided to use neither. Instead I went for a spicy sesame sauce with coriander, cracked peanuts, green onions and garlic, like the one I used to get at my favorite hot pot restaurant. I pulled one of the honeycomb cells with my chopsticks to unstick it from the other cylinders and bathed it in the dip. I kept dipping and dipping until there was nothing left.
The meal, yes, took me about two hours to make, but I didn´t mind neither the time nor the effort it required. Seeing it in front of me made me want to give myself a pat in the back. Am I still the only one who thinks all this stuff is worth making?