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[Eat It]: Guangxi Rice Noodles

From whole grains of rice to freshly steamed noodles, and in the middle of a notorious tourist trap no less. A look at Jun Xiang Wei.
2014-11-12 11:35:44
Eat It is a regular feature that cuts to the core of a given restaurant's menu, highlighting a specialty, favorite, or otherwise good thing to eat.

Jun Xiang Wei does a good bowl of rice noodles.

Never mind that it’s in a glorified paper cup. Never mind that it’s on Nanjing Dong Lu, tourist trap par excellence. It’s an unlikely location for a countryside grindstone and a sophisticated operation that turns whole rice into fresh noodles, much less one that claims all of its ingredients come from a nature reserve in Guangxi province. But it’s there and it’s 18rmb.

At my most excited and nerdy, I have some shallow thoughts about how this shop ties together a bunch of modern China issues.

Food safety: The whole process, from grain of rice to freshly-cut noodle, is done behind glass. Of course, it’s not what’s happening in the kitchen that gives you cancer (it’s in the fields, the factories…) but it gives a sense that nothing too shady is happening back there.

Heritage: Putting rice through two grindstones is slow and boring, especially for the guy whose job it is (at least it’s rigged to a motor here). It’s undoubtedly more efficient to replace him with a shiny machine. I’ll be damned if I can tell the difference between a rice noodle that was made using a grindstone and one that was not. But I like the idea that there is a grandpa up there on the third floor of the Shanghai Number One Food Store, perched on a stool, slowly ladling rice and water through a set of stones. It’s an antidote to life in Shanghai.

The whole process is done by hand, in fact. Rice + water --> rice paste --> rice paste spread around a pan like a crepe --> steamed rice sheet --> cooled rice sheet --> stack of rice sheets --> knife --> slices of rice sheets = noodles

People are fascinated to watch it. I’m fascinated to watch it. They take pictures, then line up at the counter to pay. In fact, it’s nothing extraordinarily rare. The same process is happening every time you eat cheung fen (or chang fen) at dim sum, the one that’s a soft sheet of rice noodle wrapped around something—hopefully youtiao or shrimp.

But put this process on display, and it’s showing off some of China’s wonderful culinary heritage. People are interested. That is a good thing, as China has such an amazing food culture but is in this development stage that puts a lot of old cooking methods in peril. Can we thank the CCTV series A Bite of China for this interest? Could this shop have existed before then? Is this just an elaborate southern Chinese song-and-dance but basically the equivalent of watching the guy who pulls the la mian? All fun and pretentious questions to ask while you stand in line.

Fast food: There are more KFCs in China than America (4,563 vs 4,491 at the end of 2013). People want fast food. Most of the Chinese chains suck. Have you been to Wishdoing? Dicos? Phew. This noodle place isn’t going to replace KFC. But it is supposed to become a chain, according to the owner. The level of branding – celebrity endorsement! – makes that believable. Too much for a single shop. This is the first store of this brand, and it’s only been open since late July. They are testing the waters with this one. It would be nice to see a chain that shows off food safety and heritage spread across the city, and beyond.

Blah blah blah. How does it taste?

Nice. It tastes nice. The noodles are very soft, and sometimes still warm from the steamer. The toppings are all better than the corner Guilin mifen places. There is roast pork, roast duck, braised pork and they’ll put all of them on. There’s always fried peanuts, and sometimes fried soybeans. There are proper sour pickled beans and a salted chili paste. To my taste, the whole thing is best with a splash of clear white vinegar, which they used to offer. Shanghai has taught them to use the mellow and brown Zhenjiang vinegar instead. Close enough, I guess.

There’s one other consideration, which is whether you want your noodles with or without soup. It’s nominally a duck broth but is mostly the same dishwater, spring onion and MSG concoction you find at the cheaper end of the spectrum. Good clear broths are not cheap. Cheap clear broths are not good. Skip the soup.

A few other notes: You pay at a little stand to the right of the kitchen and serving area, if you’re facing the area where they make the noodles. They describe the noodles without soup as "石磨拌粉" (shimo banfen). They sell passion fruit juice to drink, which is nice because it has fresh passion fruit seeds in it to crunch on, though it is awfully sugary. There’s a Beard Papa on the second floor, where you can grab a nice cream puff for dessert.

For a listing of Jun Xiang Wei, click here.