Calling time on Taiwan's handmade noodles
- 13 January 2014
- From the section Business
Noodles have been around for thousands of years, but one of the oldest ways of making them is dying out.
Hand-pulled string noodles, called mian xian in Mandarin, have been made for around 2,000 years.
Until the 1960s they were still made in the traditional way in Taiwan, being pulled by hand and then hung to dry like laundry in the sun, but now machines have largely taken over.
Today only about 50 noodle makers are thought to remain in Taiwan.
"Handmade noodles taste better; they're smoother and more chewy," says Lin Zheng-yi, a man in his early 50s with a thin frame but whose arms have been toughened by pulling the stretchable strands every day.
"I've never thought about making noodles by machine. I wouldn't know how and besides, machines cost money.
"But I don't want my son to do this. It's too much hard work and you can't make much money."
Noodles are not only an important staple food in Taiwan, but are also eaten on special occasions such as birthdays and weddings, because they symbolise something that is long-lasting.
Yet because the work is labour-intensive and hard, few young people want to go into this trade.
In Mr Lin's village in Changhua county, central Taiwan, there used to be 10 families who made noodles the traditional way when he was growing up - now his family are one of only two left.
Long working hours
He grew up watching his grandparents and parents make noodles by hand and quit his job in the city more than a decade ago to come back to his home town to carry on this work.
His long working day begins at dawn by mixing flour, salt and water - one of only two steps that involve machinery.
He kneels to flatten the dough after it is taken out of the mixer, and patiently lets it rise.
Then he takes a knife and cuts big chunks, flings them one by one over his shoulder and slaps them hard on the floor, as if he is trying to kill a snake.
But the dough is still the width of a hand so he uses both hands to pull it from one end to the other to make it longer.
Then it is put through the slots of a machine, but it only gets the dough so thin - the crux of the work will need to be done by hand.
Mr Lin grabs the ends of six twirled-up ropes of dough thinned out by the machine and skilfully winds them in a figure-of-eight shape around two bamboo poles stuck horizontally into notches in the wall.
He then puts the noodles on a rack and leaves them to lengthen for about an hour; then they are ready to be pulled.
Putting one stick through handles attached to the wall, he grabs the other pole and pulls the noodles away from the wall, walking backwards.
He releases to keep them from breaking and pulls some more. This is repeated until the noodles are about 4m long.
After putting them back on the rack to lengthen for an hour, the noodles are taken outside, shaken in an up-and-down motion like bedsheets to make them thinner, and put up on frames to hang in the sun.
By now, they're just a millimetre thick.
Covered with flour
Having good weather is crucial.
It is best if there is some humidity to allow slower drying, but it can't be too humid, because the noodles will take too long to dry.
Noodle masters also need to know exactly how much water and salt to add to the flour, based on the weather conditions each day.
"The money we earn is earned in a hard way. We have to watch the weather," says Mr Lin.
"If it looks like it's going to rain, we have to quickly take the noodles inside - otherwise all our efforts are wasted.
"Every part of the process is hard. The hardest part is shaking the noodles before hanging them up to dry - it takes a toll on the back."
By midday, the courtyard is full of drying noodles. Mr Lin, his wife and mother are covered with flour on their face, hands and clothes. So is their home, including the furniture, radio and pictures.
When one set of noodles is nearly dry, they move it to a shadier part of the courtyard and bring out another set.
Although his family begin working around 05:00 each day and don't finish till 19:00, they make only $100 (£61) a day. The noodles are sold for only $2 to $3 per bag.
Mr Lin says he cannot imagine a world without handmade noodles. He believes this ancient tradition will live on, somehow.
"If my children want to do this, I won't object," Mr Lin says. But they express no interest.
After all their hard work, Mr Lin's family sit down for a meal of oyster and noodles. The noodles are not mushy, like the machine-made ones, but flexible, chewy, and delicious.
But there is no telling whether this product of hard work and patience will survive the changing times.