Ping An Mien
The passing down of family recipes may just be the best illustration of the impact that food has on society. Across all cultures, cherished family recipes are passed down from generation to generation. Sadly, I’ve always felt that my kitchen has been the exception. That is, until I remembered ping an mien.
Ping an mien means “peaceful noodles” in Chinese. In Chinese, ping an means peaceful, and when wishing someone bon voyage, one says, zhu ni yi lu ping an, or, “I wish you a peaceful journey.” Within my family, this dish is prepared on birthdays, or, fittingly, when one is leaving to go somewhere far away.
Since Andy’s departure back to New York was fast approaching, I decided that I wanted to do something special to send him off, so I asked my mother for specifics on making ping an mien. I returned home with a sheet full of Chinese words I couldn’t read, and headed to Clement Street, outer San Francisco’s answer to Chinatown.
Crumpled notes in hand, I dragged Andy to the Richmond New May Wah Supermarket, where I implored him to use his rusty Cantonese skills to ask about a number of things. First, the cooking wine: there was an entire aisle full of cooking wines (see above), and my mother had specified a certain kind. After that, the noodles: they were to be only the thinnest kind I could find, and had to be salted. Then, the biggest challenge: the chicken. My mother had specified a specific kind of chicken be used: It needed to be free-range, from Canada, and sold with the head still on. Normal chicken, with its flaccid, underused muscle tone and high fat content, would result in an oilier, less flavorful soup base.
An ongoing set of negotiations between Andy and a grocer (in Cantonese) and between me and the same grocer (in Mandarin) ensued. I walked out with what I believe to be the correct chicken, at the expensive price of $9.99, as my mother had forewarned. I truly don’t believe that I would have found the correct chicken if I hadn’t had the written Chinese description, Andy’s broken Cantonese and my own subpar Mandarin skills.
It wasn’t until I unpacked the chicken at home that I realized with horror that my mother’s vague instructions weren’t going to cut it (pun intended). I have had no formal butchering experience and generally buy chicken…well, not whole. Every time a bone cracked I winced; every time I saw the chicken’s long claws, I shivered. The gore factor was so high that I questioned whether I could actually eat this when I was finished making it. I found myself wondering what to do with the remaining chicken feet, neck and butt. Wailing, I nearly phoned my mother about it until I realized it was well past midnight back in Texas.
After simmering the chicken in a pot, I added the cooking wine, some ginger, some salt and rehydrated dried shiitake mushrooms. Within 20 minutes, the aroma of the drunken, gingery chicken broth begun to fill the house. In fact, the smell of the broth was so enticing that I found myself unable to fall asleep, yearning to slurp broth by the bowlful.
The next morning, I reheated the pot, boiled the eggs and prepared the quick-cooking noodles. In each bowl, along with the broth, I included at least one piece of chicken, one shiitake mushroom, one bundle of noodles and an egg. It is customary for the person traveling to receive two eggs, and for everyone else to receive only one, and for good luck the traveler is required to take at least one bite out of every item in the soup.
“It looks so ethnic,” Andy said, laughing, when he first saw the end product, “but it is delicious.” Indeed, the complexity and depth of the chicken soup is unparalleled to any other, with the elements of shiitake, ginger and cooking wine all adding dimensions of flavor. It is the ultimate in chicken soup.
Over the phone later that night, I compared notes with my mother. Apparently I’d used the wrong noodles; I was supposed to use xian mien, a variation of the noodles I’d used that were even thinner, made in China (rather than Japan) and more heavily salted for added flavor.
Well, I thought, there’s always next time.