At the back of the hill

Warning: If you stay here long enough you will gain weight! Grazing here strongly suggests that you are either omnivorous, or a glutton. And you might like cheese-doodles.
BTW: I'm presently searching for another person who likes cheese-doodles.
Please form a caseophilic line to the right. Thank you.

Wednesday, July 02, 2014


One of the frequent inclusions in a bowl of late night goodness is cubed gelled pig blood, along with fried pork skin. Obviously that ain't gonna work for most of us pale-complected folk. Sure, if we were British, we'd happily eat it -- the English consume such things as black pudding and fried sliced haggis, along with Spam and baked beans in a can, so they're genuinely out there with their own cuisine -- but the overwhelming majority of Wasps worldwide are North Americans. The strangest parts of the pig that we are accustomed to are Vienna Sausage and fake tofu.
Plus surgical sutures, and Spam.

Cart noodles -- chejai min (車仔麵) in Cantonese -- originated in fly-by-night food stands in Hong Kong, and as the authorities over the years strove to raise hygiene standards while simultaneously finding a way to get illicit food-entrepreneurs onto the official tax roles and off the streets, the quality improved and the variety expanded. The common nickname for their offerings had been 垃圾麵 ('laap-saap min'; garbage noodle), which in the tortuous accents of mainlanders from who-knows where beyond 羅湖 ('lo-wu'; the most traversed border crossing between HK and 'that other place') became 嗱喳麵 ('naa-chaa min'), which doesn't signify anything but is a baby-talkish phoneticisation.
Now it's simply cart noodle.
It's also soul-food.

In the fifties and sixties, even as late as the seventies, the food scene in Hong Kong at the lower economic levels often involved small carts, and hardworking gentlemen ready to run like the dickens if the cops showed up to shut them down. Their regular customers knew them, and would warn them if a raid was likely. "Gotta go, return the bowl next time!"
The authorities frowned on free-lance road-side cooking.
Despite having their own favourites locally.
When off work, and at home.

Some of the people who went into the cart-noodle business had doubtful antecedents, and were surprisingly deft with the cleaver. You might not want to know how that came about. Salt of the earth types, trying to make an honest living.

Rice noodles, the fundament of the dish, are easy to prepare; just a hot-water bath for a minute or two and they're tender. Fried weird stuff keeps for a few hours, and strange cullings from the slaughterhouse are always cheap. The people who lived in the jam-packed housing estates and worked in the factories weren't looking for high-cuisine, they just wanted sustenance. But, being Chinese, and more particularly Cantonese (ie.: "zest-obsessed"), they demanded something with oomph. Good oomph. Lay on the flavour!
By no means necessarily nutritious.
Something with texture and taste.
Often lacking in English cuisine.
See aforementioned beans.

Noodles. Broth. Protein. Toothsomeness.

The kind of thing which you eat while pensively reading the newspaper, or quickly prepare before your favourite fifty part soap-opera with all the weeping women starts.

[Favourite fifty part, weeping women: Chinese soap-operas can be divided into three types: Hong Kong made productions, in which five generations struggle, get married, commit grand larceny, have affairs, and generally carry on with vigour and rambunction. 
Taiwanese series: a slice of emotionally unstable life in contemporary times, involving money, cheating spouses (male), mahjong, and strange clothing or make-up. Mainland stories: period costume, vast armies, historical characters or plots, and epic scenery chewing. All three types incorporate righteousness (whether demonstrated or lamentably missing), family drama (that's where the weeping comes in), and food. Weeping and food can be said to be the constants of good entertainment. Everyone likes to see dinner and emotional wreckage.]

You might take a coworker with kissable soft cheeks and dreamy eyes out for a snack, or head over to an eatery with tiddly friends after a night of carousing. Also super-delicious after a long day at work.
Comforting. Casual. Slapdash happy food.

Sik faan, y'all.


The earliest types combined curried fish balls, pork blood cubes, and fried skin in a simple broth, often with one or two chunks of turnip (蘿蔔 'lo baak') or a stalk or two of vegetable - either Chinese broccoli (芥蘭 'gaai laan') or little white cabbage (小白菜 'siu baak choi').
Competition and an operatic sense of gustativity increased the number of choices. At present, with most of the places that serve quick dishes now located indoors, the variety is enormous.

What might be called meat:

魚丸 'yü yeun'; fish balls.
炸魚蛋 'jaa yü yuen'; fried fish balls.
墨魚丸 'mak yü yuen'; cuttlefish balls.
魚片 'yü pin'; sliced fish.
魷魚 'yau yü'; cuttlefish.
牛丸 'ngau yuen'; beef meatballs.
豬肉丸 (貢丸) 'chü yiuk yuen' ('gung yeun'); pork meatballs.
紅腸 'hong cheung'; cervelaet.
煙肉 'yin yiuk'; bacon.
豬紅 'chü hong'; gelled pork blood.
豬皮 'chü pei'; pork skin.
豬大腸 'chü taai cheung'; pork chittlin.
豬肝 'chü gon'; pork liver.
雞中翼 'gai jung yik'; chicken wing.
雞翼尖 'gai yik jim'; chicken wingtip.
牛柏葉 'ngau baak yip'; beef tripe.
牛腩 'ngau laam'; sliced sirloin.
燒賣 siumai.
雲吞 wonton.
蟹柳 'haai lau'; surimi.

Noodle choices:

河粉 'ho fan'; rice noodles.
公仔麵 'gung jai min'; instant noodles.
粗麵 'chou min'; Shanghai noodles (thick wheat-flour noodles).
伊麵 'yi min'; yee-mien.
烏冬 'wu dung'; udon.

Sauce-additions and soup stock:

沙嗲汁 'saa de jap'; satay sauce.
咖喱汁 'gaa lei jap'; curry sauce.
清湯 'ching tong'; clear stock.
牛腩汁 'ngau laam jap'; beef broth.
酸辣湯 'suen laat tong'; hot and sour soup.
麻辣湯 'maa laat tong'; over the top peppery soup.


芽菜 'ngaa choi'; bean sprouts.
芥菜 'gaai choi'; mustard green.
芥蘭 'gaai laan'; Chinese broccoli.
小白菜 'siu baak choi'; small bokchoi.
蘿蔔 'lo baak'; Chinese turnip.
冬菇 'dung gu'; black mushroom.

Frequent garnishes:

韭菜 'gau choi'; garlic-chives (almost always added).
芫茜 'yuen sai'; cilantro.

Most of the time customers will have three or four things they want in their noodle soup, a vegetable will often be added on the assumption that you won't mind if the bowl looks a little more full and visually appealing, and there will be a few gratuitous condiments on the table.
If you cannot make a choice, simply go with what the proprietor recommends.

特別 'dak bit'; special, unusual, unique; often the best offerings. 
招牌 'jiu paai'; house specialty, or what they're really famous for. 

[Thus: 特別粉, 招牌粉 ('dak bit fan', 'jiu paai fan') house special noodles.]


Casual snack noodles are a way of life. People will make this at home, when they don't feel like cooking. All you need is something rather like stock or broth, rice flour noodles, and take-out (燒味 or 滷味) nearby.
Some fish balls, a few slices of roast duck or pork, maybe something unmentionable in polite society, ginger, and a stalk or two of gailan.
Heat it up, then sit in front of the tube watching trashy teevee.

Later, you might change back into street clothes and go out.
See what the heathens down on Polk Street are up to.
Wander across Nob Hill with a pipe.

Everything tastes better with hotsauce.
Especially wearing pajamas.
Remember that.


An explanation of the sauces & stocks used:

沙嗲汁 'saa de jap'; satay sauce. This was invented by the Javanese shortly after both peanuts (from Africa) and New World crops (such as chilies) were introduced by the Portuguese and Dutch four centuries ago. At its simplest, it is toasted or fried peanuts ground fine, mixed with a little sugar and chili, and cooked to a thick gloop. The Chinese know two versions: old-school Chinese satay sauce (usually 沙茶醬 'sa chaa jeung') was brought back by Fujianese (Hokkienese) returning to home, and has a pronounced dry shrimp and fish-paste saveur. Hong Kong has been exposed to that, but what they are more familiar with is the intensely peanutty version introduced by the Hokkien refugees from Indonesia who settled in North Point after the fifties and sixties -- called 沙爹醬 ('sa de jeung'). It's rather similar to what you will find in Holland, but not very much like the anemic Thai interpretation or the shallow Singaporean-Malay style. It can be spicier than other South-East Asian types, which makes it perfect as a cooking ingredient. Note that both 沙茶醬 and 沙爹醬 are pronounced the same in Hokkien ('sa-te cheo'), but not Cantonese. Yet their fundamental sameness despite differences is recognized.

咖喱汁 'gaa lei jap'; curry sauce. Pretty much the same as "Portuguese Sauce" (葡汁 'po jap'; molho português), which is a Maccanese commercial preparation consisting of coconut milk, starch, and curry powder. Chinese curry powder usually contains, in order, the following (among others): chili powder (辣椒粉 'laat jiu fan'), turmeric (薑黃 'geung wong'), star anise (八角 'baat gok'), Chinese cinnamon (cassia, 桂皮 'gwai pei'), dried ginger (乾薑 'gon geung'), Szechuan pepper (花椒 'faa chiu'), and clove (丁香 'ding heung').

清湯 'ching tong'; clear stock. A cooking stock made by first blanching pork and chicken bones, rinsing them, then simmering them in water for a few hours. Blanching and then rinsing yields a clearer cleaner broth, with less or no scum that needs skimming off. Often some roasted dried flounder (左口魚 'jorhau yü', 大地魚 'daaidei yü') or dried shrimp (蝦米 'haa mei') is added for a bit of depth. Sometimes the broth is made entirely from chicken, but that is rare.

牛腩汁 'ngau laam jap'; beef broth. Basically beef bouillon made with lean meat.

酸辣湯 'suen laat tong'; hot and sour soup. A chicken stock zipped up with a splash of vinegar, some Szechuan bean sauce (豆瓣酱 'douban jeung'), a generous amount of white pepper, and a little dry chili.

麻辣湯 'maa laat tong'; over the top peppery soup. Originally a mildly spicy broth, nowadays increasingly often a barely edible liquid that includes diluted hot sauce in copious amount.

Final note: You will have wondered, perhaps, why beancurd is nowhere mentioned as a possible ingredient. That is because Hong Kong people do not consider it a fit inclusion. Happy warm noodle snacks do not contain tofu. Adding it causes nightmares.
Unless you are a vegetarian or a Berkeleyite.
In which case you shouldn't be here.
This post is not for you.
So very sorry.

NOTE: Readers may contact me directly:
All correspondence will be kept in confidence.

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  • At 12:37 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Che chai mien rocks!
    Especially with fish balls and spam.

  • At 6:22 AM, Anonymous Potted Meats said…

    Need more info on Spam and other canned meat compounds, please.


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