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Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Biang Biang Noodles from Xi'An Famous Foods! #noodsathome

Some years ago, our son Matt and his wife Weina took us to Flushing, New York and introduced us to Shaanxi Chinese cuisine by leading us to a noodle shop, Xi'An Famous Foods -- 

We ordered these scrumptious, fat, spicy noodle dishes for lunch.  Being new to the use of chopsticks, we had some trouble managing the slippery noodles, and our poor lips, tongues, mouths and throats stung from the hot, peppery spices.  But we never forgot the amazing taste experience.

Just this last Sunday, we were reminded of the experience when CBS Sunday Morning featured Xi'an Famous Foods and its CEO, Jason Wang, who explained the cuisine and introduced the audience to the pulling of the unique Shaanxi noodles -- Biang Biang noodles, or:

As it happens, the character, "biang" --

-- is, on the one hand, one of the most complicated characters in traditional Chinese, but also is not recorded in official Chinese dictionaries.  Modern, simplified Chinese does not have this character, and simpler characters are often substituted.

Bi├íng contains within it the characters for speak, horse, grow, moon, heart, knife, eight, roof, and walk, plus a few extra strokes.  It is written with more than 50 strokes.  Some have said that it has been used as a weapon to deter tardiness at a college in Chengdu, the capital of Southwest China's Sichuan province.  According to a local newspaper, students who were late for classes would have to write the character 1,000 times as punishment. Wang Sijun, the instructor who is said to have developed the punishment during a visit to Shaanxi, is reported to believe that it is also a way to promote Chinese culture among students.

Some say it's a mimetic word, echoing the sound noodles make when slapped on a chopping board, or the sound when a person slurps noodles. Other scholars think the sound of biang originates from the sound of a wooden stick beating clothes.  Despite having no definitive origin, this character is still widely used throughout China on restaurant signs, menus, and as a game to challenge Chinese people's writing ability. The closest thing to compare it to might be the made-up supercalifragilisticexpialidocious in the movie "Mary Poppins." Both have an unknown origin, their own Wikipedia page, and follow the rules of their respective languages; and although both have a distinct definition, are often used in a joking way.  Some say that it expresses the idea of someone falling down and feeling surprised, just like the first time Homer Simpson bumped his head and exclaimed, “Doh!” 

According to this website China Simplified, there was once a young Chinese student wandering past a Shaanxi noodle shop around lunchtime. He heard people inside saying “biang! biang!” and feeling hungry entered to see for himself.  ​The student watched the cook pull long strings of noodles and serve fresh bowls to satisfied customers. Excited, he asked for one. After scarfing down the bowl, he realized he had no money to pay the bill. Sensing trouble with the cook, the student thought fast.

​“What do you call your noodles?” asked the student. ​
​“Biang biang mian,” replied the cook.
​​“Do you know how to write the character biang?”
The cook scratched his head, having never thought about it. ​
​“Then I’ll teach you how and my noodles are free!” ​

Before the cook could protest, the student grabbed some paper and wrote a character so complicated that everyone in the restaurant burst into applause. Grinning at being taken so wittily, the cook tore up the student’s bill.

But we digress.

The important thing is that we could order meal kits from Xi'An Famous Foods and prepare our own Shaanxi noodle dishes!  Only three days after we ordered a kit, it showed up on our front porch, and we set out, with some trepidation, to prepare the dish.  Here, Kathy shows the ingredients, along with an excellent cookbook that is also published by Xi'An Famous Foods:

This kit was for a spicy beef noodle dish, so Kathy set about boiling water to cook the noodles (in the big pot at the front in the photo below) and heating the spicy beef and sauce in the pan in the rear:

All the accoutrements were ready, and it was time for us to pull and slap the noodles.  There is no way to explain the process, other than to show you.  So here is a video of Kathy looking quite expert in pulling and slapping the biang biang mian.  An even more entertaining video is this one from Rachel Ray's cooking show!

With the noodles slapped, pulled and split, we threw them into the pot of boiling water and kept them moving so that they wouldn't stick to the pot:

While the noodles were cooking -- only a few minutes -- we set up our bowls to receive the noodles, the spices and the garnishes:

The noodles are they come!

They settled into the bowl and took the garnishes --

-- and the sauces, and now they are ready to slurp!

We're not saying they are unspicy...

...but, Boy! Do they taste rich and zesty and just as we remembered from our visit to the noodle shop with Weina and Matt!

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Snow Hike at Brady's Lake

Wow, it's been over two weeks since we last posted a blog entry!  A lot has happened since then:  New Year's; Covid-19 getting worse; news of vaccine; skiing; an insurrection; pending impeachment.  We're breathless and exhausted.

Still, we need some exercise, and today we looked for a different hike nearby.  As it happens, Brady's Lake beckoned to us from the nearby State Game Lands:

We walked over and took our usual selfie at a relatively unremarkable trailhead.  Behind us, the trail (really a forest road) stretched north along the shore of Brady's Lake:

It has been cold long enough here in the Pennsylvania Pocono Mountains, that many lakes are frozen solid.  The ice fishermen are out in droves on the weekends, and, even today, a weekday, we saw a few hardy souls out on the ice, enduring the cold and wind for a nibble or two:

Along our trail, we noticed that some trees had unexplained markings of blue or red paint.  These trees had so much paint that they could have been their own piece of artwork:

Parts of our trail had 2-3 inches of snow, but some areas were nearly bare, exposing what, this summer, had been tall grass:

To our right, uphill from the lake, we saw large swatches of land where most of the trees had fallen.  While we assumed it was due to logging, too many fallen trees had been left on the ground, and we wondered if this area had been the victim of a tornado or other heavy winds.  In any event, the scene was stark and invited a study in black-and-white:

After about 1.5 miles, we came to a road or path leading left toward the lake.  From her GPS, Kathy deduced that the path would take us to the lake shore, and we decided to make that our destination.  About a quarter mile along our hike to the lake, we encountered a shallow stream and had to hop across it.  The stream was so shallow that parts of it had iced over -- but in swirled patterns reflecting the currents of the little stream:

After admiring the frozen art in the stream, we picked our way across --

-- and reached the shore of Brady's Lake, where David posed on a rocky promontory:

We drank some hot tea, relaxed a bit, enjoying the winter view, and then returned the way we had come.

When we got back to the trailhead and parking lot, we decided to continue on across the dam that forms the lake.  As we crossed the dam, we got a better view of some of the ice fishing shacks:

Fishermen have crossed the ice to get to their favorite fishing spots, but so have other predators.  This one could have been a large wild cat or very large fox, leaving its single-file tracks in the snow dusting the top of the lake ice:

The Brady's Lake Dam was built in 1915, then rebuilt in 2007.  The new dam structure is impressive in its engineering, and, indeed, seems as much an example of outdoor art as some of the most impressive fountains in New York City:

Continuing across the dam, we encountered a few small islands that probably host duck nests in the Spring, but now are simply splotches of inanimate color on the surface of the lake:

Our hike was only 3.5 miles, and took a couple of hours with photo stops, rests to drink tea, and various pauses to enjoy the scenery.  It wasn't cold or windy enough to make us uncomfortable, and, once we had gotten about a half mile under our boots, we had warmed up enough to enjoy the hike without discomfort.  We drove out the 3.9 mile forest road, through the Game Lands, and another 9 miles back to our Pocono cottage, happy that we're able to hop out to a huge, wild playground whenever we have a chance.  It's very important to take these opportunities for recreations and mindfulness in a time of historic stress and anxiety.