No-knives edict led to one of China's non-rice favourites
In parts of northern China, where wheat is the dominant crop, noodles supersede rice. Wheat-flour-based noodles have featured in Chinese literature since the Han dynasty (206BC-AD220), and come in all shapes and sizes. One type, the chewy, randomly shaped knife-cut noodles, or dao xiao mian, is said to be the result of a happy accident.
Legend has it that during the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368), a Mongolian emperor forbade all Han Chinese to possess knives, fearing an uprising. One kitchen knife was allotted to every 10 families. One day, a man was sent out to borrow a knife from their neighbour, so she could cut her dough into noodles.
Someone else was using the knife, so he made his way home empty-handed. On his way, he caught his foot in a thin sheet of metal, and when he freed himself, he took it home as a substitute for the knife. At home he saw the pot of water for cooking the noodles was already boiling. His wife was not amused with that measly scrap of metal. She asked: 'How can I cut with such a small piece of metal?'
He snapped back: 'It can't cut, but it can shave.' The wife held the large clump of dough in her hand, balanced the rest on her forearm, and pared short shards of dough into the boiling water, and thus was born this classic Shanxi dish.
About 700 years have passed and it is still one of the region's most famous dishes. The most skilled chefs shave off relatively uniform lengths, widths and thicknesses, in willow leaf shapes , with the blade moving so quickly that it never seems to separate from the dough.
Recently, however, some restaurants have made it into a spectacle: cooks balance the dough on their heads, holding a blade in each hand and slicing alternately at lightning speed so the noodles appear to be 'snowing' down.
Knife-cut noodles' floury density and rough edges make them perfect for soaking up sauces, which vary according to season but are usually richly flavoured, often with a touch of vinegar.
To try knife-cut noodles, go to Sha Tin 18, where they are served in a dark, glossy sauce of soy and vinegar with pork belly.
Sha Tin 18
Hyatt Regency Hong Kong, 18 Chak Cheung Street, Sha Tin, New Territories, tel: 3723 1234