A Trip to Taiwan's Magic Noodle Mountain
If you want the best noodles in Taiwan, you'll have to take a long cab ride into the jungle-covered mountains south of Taipei, where a group of "noodle masters" stomp and hand-pull dough into long strands of starchy perfection.
When I went to the Chia Te Bakery, an unassuming storefront on an eight-lane (or was it ten-lane?) road in central Taipei selling the best pineapple cakes in Taiwan, I was the one customer in the shop who was clearly only buying for myself. To be fair, I was also the only foreigner there. As I stood in line with two single cakes—one with pure pineapple at the center of its buttery, crumbly shortbread pocket crust, the other with pineapple plus a cooked egg yolk—everyone around me held onto what could only be described as "banquet-sized" boxes piled so high they couldn't see in front of them to pay. It occurred to me that, rather than enjoying the baked goods on their own, they were getting enough for an entire family—possibly even an extended family no longer living on the island but demanding a near lifetime supply from their visiting aunt or cousin. Then of course, there are those who would never spend a minute waiting in line at Chai Te, because they swear by the pineapple cakes from Shun Chen.
But that is the way of the Taiwanese: Everyone, from the most lauded local chef to the lowliest cab driver, has an opinion on the best place to get delicacies like pineapple cake, shaved ice, gua bao buns, and beef noodle soup. The only female cab driver I encountered in Taiwan refused to take me to the beef noodle place where I was supposed to meet up with friends, instead chauffeuring me to another one nearby, which she proclaimed "number one in Taipei—that other one only number three!" Meanwhile, the people who were responsible for my being in Taiwan at all—a London-based streetfood outfit by the name of Bao—took me outside the city, on an early morning drive into the jungle-covered mountains south of Taipei, to a place even the taxi drivers didn't know about—a place I immediately christened magic noodle mountain.
How did I end up in the middle of the jungle outside the Taiwanese capital with a threesome from the UK who've won numerous street food awards for their fluffy, pork belly-filled bao buns? Well, these three young chefs—the UK-born siblings Ting and Shing Chung and the Taiwanese Erchen Chang—had become the toast of East London with a permanent Bao Bar at the Netil Market in Hackney and a roving market stall everywhere else. But they wanted to do something to introduce their growing hoards of fans to the wonders that could be had in a fairly unknown part of the world. (Ting and Shing's parents are from Hong Kong, while Erchen was born right in Taipei.) So they paired up with German-born, London-based entrepreneur Florian Siepert, who had recently founded Opentrips, an interactive travel website with the groundbreaking idea of allowing anyone to propose and design trips.
For the moment, we were all concentrating on getting to a destination none of us knew. Even Erchen, the sole local, had enlisted the help of her mother to find the place as we all piled into cabs in front of the southernmost station of Taipei's Wenhu line. After the drivers received their instructions, we zipped along a highway. As the industrial buildings began to drop away and the highway narrowed, we turned up a small road at an incline. What followed was a series of hairpin turns, as we drove through villages next to rushing rivers and past tiny mountain shrines.
At last we pulled up on a gravel road with a steep incline on one side and a path up a hill on the other. At the top of the path was a topsy-turvy structure that seemed to be different heights on different sides. In the foreground, hanging over what looked like a patio in front of a series of wooden sheds, were long, silky, cream-colored skeins, swaying softly in the barest possible perception of a breeze. These were not, it turned out, the product of a thousand silkworms they were not. This was Shihding Hsu's Handmade Noodle Company, and these were his noodles, drying in the sun.
We had been promised a chance to have at the noodles, pulling them out to make them thinner, longer, and springier, but for now we remained cautious: They were certainly pliable, but it also looked as though they could snap at a moment's notice. The smiling owner had us gather around as he explained the noodle-making process. He spoke not a word of English, but Erchen was on hand to translate:
Step 1: The Si Fu (noodle masters) mix flour with salt water and a little bit of old dough from the previous day for deeper flavor. More salt will eventually create a springier texture, but will need to be leached out of the noodles in ice water after cooking them.
Step 2: Wearing plastic bags on their feet, the Si Fu knead the dough by stomping on it until all the air is squeezed out. They then place a big piece of wooden board on top of the dough, continuously stepping and kneading until it is smooth. Eventually, they form a big section of dough into a round, thick disc.
Step 3: The Si Fu brush vegetable oil on the surface of the dough and cut a spiral through it. They unroll out the spiral and then roll the cut dough so that it has round edges, taking on the shape of a giant snake.
Step 4: The dough is fed three times through a machine that stretches it even thinner. The Si Fu employ a sprinkle of cornstarch and rice bran to stop the rolls of dough from sticking to each other.
Step 5: The dough is woven around two metal rods and left to proof for at least half an hour before it can be stretched.
Step 6: The first stretch requires two people, each one pulling the rod on either side. Afterward, the dough is left to proof for another hour. The second stretch is more intensive, and can be done until the noodles are the right thickness and bounciness. Of course, this is impossible to judge unless you are a Si Fu.
Step 7: Leave out to dry. Noodles can be dried both indoors or outdoors.
Step 8: Take down the rods and unweave the skeins of noodles. Cut the noodles and gather them into a bundle like a knot of yarn. (The best way to do this is to wind from palm to elbow and back again, thereby keeping the noodles in a loop around your arm.)
Step 9: When ready to cook, boil a pot of water, and have a separate bowl or pot of cold or ice water on hand. Noodles only need a few short minutes of cooking to create the chewy, springy texture we know as al dente. Once those minutes are up, transfer the noodles directly to the cold water and let them soak for at least ten minutes. This relieves them of the extra salt that was put in at the beginning, and keeps them from cooking any longer.
With our fascination and hunger growing, we were invited to pair up, and take the noodles into our own hands. Hsu took a couple of strands from one of the skeins and blithely began jumping rope with it, showing us just how firm his noodles were, assuring us that we should put all our strength into pulling; the noodles wouldn't break.
What proceeded was a mad tug-of-war, as each of us seized a metal rod and walked backwards away from each other, pulling with all our might, Hsu in the background urging us to put our back into it. The noodles were surprisingly firm, making them much harder to stretch than expected, like budging open a warped wooden door stuck in its frame. We leaned further and further back, allowing the weight of our bodies to exert force on the noodles, giving little thought to what would happen if they did indeed snap and one of us went rolling down the mountainside, hitting purple banana trees on the way. It was easy to see why Hsu and his men, while small, had upper body strength to rival that of a varsity rowing team.
Of course, such a tough workout left us quite hungry. Luckily, the gregarious noodle makers had prepared us a feast. We were treated to a dish of Scotch eggs—or rather, the fried noodle version of them. There was a festive looking plate of cold noodles in three different colors (plain, pale green made with green tea, and a lovely light pink made with fermented rice) and doused in thick, viscous peanut sauce. Then came a huge, murky pot of steaming chicken noodle soup we couldn't resist dipping our spoons directly into.
At some point in our feeding frenzy, we looked over and saw a circle of men we recognized: Our trusty taxi drivers had been lured out of their cabs by the sights and smells of this noodle Smorgasbord, and were happily slurping away at the next table. As it turned out, after they had dutifully waited an hour for us, we had to wait for them to finish their midday meal.
We didn't mind, of course; it was part of their continuing education as it had been part of ours. The taxi drivers had to sample the wares of Shihding Hsu's Handmade Noodle Company so they could tell the next person who got into their cab, "You want some of the best hand-pulled noodles in Taiwan? Have I got the place for you…."
Shihding Hsu's Handmade Noodle Company, 3 Si Fen Zi, Wu Tu Village, Shi-Ding District
This article was originally published on MUNCHIES in September 2014.