The real zing: Why Chongqing's spicy noodles are good on a hot day
Chongqing's noodles are spicy, but are still popular with residents on hot days, writes Richard Macauley
"Liang mian! Liang fen! Suan la fen!" screams a 60-year-old woman in a residential community tucked away on a busy road in Chongqing.
It's the middle of the afternoon, lunch was a few hours ago, and the temperature is reaching its peak for the day, between 40 and 45 degrees Celsius. There's no wind to provide relief.
The residential community is a relic from an earlier period: steep stone steps must be scaled to reach it, lush green trees surround each building and the songs of the birds drown out any traffic noise. There is still more hill to climb, but this pit stop, halfway up, contains about 12 squat apartment blocks, and enough peckish residents to warrant a shout out.
The concrete walk-ups contain basic homes filled largely with elderly residents who remember when Chongqing was a different place. It is the elderly, still at home in the middle of the afternoon, who are first out on the street when they hear the calls of the bangbang woman.
A bangbang woman, or man, is someone who earns a living from the bamboo pole they wear over their shoulder. Men add rope to their bamboo pole and carry out day labour, sometimes helping on building sites and other times waiting outside department stores to offer assistance to shoppers carrying newly purchased washing machines and other white goods to their cars.
The woman shouting the names of her dishes has two buckets draped from her bamboo pole: one contains cold wheat noodles, rice noodles, and chunks made from rice starch; the other contains the various ingredients required to whip those ingredients into a delicious dish.
Both liang fen (made from rice starch) and liang mian (made with wheat noodles) use a similar base and, when mixed together by the customer, offer something cool in the mid-summer heat. In Chongqing, that coolness still comes with plenty of raw, chopped chillies as the base.
Suan la fen (sour and spicy rice noodles) stands by itself in this category. It's served hot and, unlike the other two dishes, comes in a soup instead of relying on chilli oil to lubricate the noodles. Suan la fen relies on its sour taste that comes from the addition of extra vinegar, not to mention plenty of coriander, to deliver refreshment. This is not to suggest the dish is not spicy; its broth is dark red in colour, thanks to a base of mashed chilli peppers.
"Liang fen and lian g mian are the most popular two summer dishes in Chongqing," says Jiang, a street vendor who sells hers outside a hospital in Shapingba, Chongqing's traditional student district. When pushed on the question of which of the three dishes is most popular, Jiang says that it is impossible to say.
"Liang fen has more ma [the mouth-numbing sensation that comes from the Sichuan peppercorns]; liang mian has more la [spice]," she says, adding that different people opt for different tastes. "Some people even choose not to add any spices at all," she says, although the majority will happily let her add chillies to their dish.
Making liang fen is a very fast process indeed. The cold fen are placed into the plastic bowl that will be served to the customer, and it is then a case of adding myriad ingredients that add such complexity to the simple jelly-like starch. Typically these include soy sauce and vinegar, salt, MSG, ground Sichuan peppercorn, chilli paste, preserved vegetables and peanuts. Finely chopped spring onion is typically sprinkled on the top.
" Liang fen, or perhaps liang mian, are my favourite dishes to eat on a really hot day," says Coco Huang Xingyuan, originally from Jiangxi province, but who works as a legal assistant in Chongqing. " Liang fen and liang mian are cold dishes, which is good to eat when the weather is hot; suan la fen is in a hot soup, so I don't go for this on really hot days."
Making liang mian requires the same process but with two crucial differences. Apart from the difference in the noodle (liang mian is made with typical wheat noodle rather than rice noodles) this dish also includes sugar and, as Jiang explains, has a flavour that concentrates more on red chillies and less on ground Sichuan peppercorns that can leave the mouth numb.
Wei Wei, a graphic designer who has lived in Chongqing for several years, and who is originally from Yibin, Sichuan, a place famous already for having some of the spiciest noodles in the region, explains that her favourite of the three dishes is the wheat noodle-based liang mian. "Chongqing summers are so hot," Wei says. "Liang mian is the best dish to eat if you want to cool down."
For Wei, the spicy nature of the dish, compounded with the heat of the summer, is not an issue. "My other favourites, hotpot or traditional local dishes, are all served hot, and they are spicy too," she says. "Liang mian is spicy, but it's served cool. And compared to other food in Chongqing and Sichuan, it's not actually the spiciest dish around."
Suan la fen, a popular summer dish thanks to its surprisingly refreshing nature, is the least convenient to find. Because of the hot broth required to make the dish, it is less commonly carried through populated areas by bangbang women, and it is more likely to be found in small shopfront establishments in commercial centres.
Small restaurants serve suan la fen to diners, who perch on plastic stools outside, although some have space indoors for just a few seats. The dish is made by first making a chicken or pork broth in which the rice noodles are cooked to order.
Meanwhile the customer's bowl is filled with a selection of peanuts, fried soy beans, vinegar, soy sauce, chilli oil, sesame oil and sugar. Once the noodles are ready, they're placed in the bowl and some of the broth is added. Coriander tops the finished dish, as much for colour as to add complexity to the flavour.
The idea of eating spicy food on a hot day may appear counterintuitive to those not used to an environment in which spices influence almost every dish.
But Huang says that eating spicy dishes at the hottest times of the hottest days of summer is not a recipe for discomfort.
"Eating such spicy food in the heat does make you sweat a bit, but it's not uncomfortable," she says. "Normally, I like to add plenty of vinegar, and I add even more in the summer. It gives it a refreshing kick, which is what you need when the weather is pushing 40!"
Where to find it
The bangbang vendor can often be found at Songlin Lu, Chongqing University Campus A, Shapingba, Chongqing.
Jiang works outside the hospital at Xiaolongkan Xinjie, Shapingba, Chongqing.
The most famous suan la fen shop in Chongqing is Lao Nong Min, Three Gorges Square, Shapingba, Chongqing.