Written by Sofia Chang
Graphic by Catherine Liu
The first time my parents met, my mother picked my father up at the train station; he was coming home from school for the winter holiday. She’d already heard all about the neighbor’s son, the kid with the goofy glasses who studied engineering in the faraway Shaanxi province. When my father got off the train, they exchanged nervous greetings before my father proclaimed, “God, I could really go for some guoqiao mixian right now.”
My parents, both Yunnan natives, first fell in love over a bowl of Yunnan-style guoqiao mixian – colloquially known as “crossing-the-bridge” noodles. When my dad eventually had to go back to school 1,400 kilometers away, he would often make himself this dish in his college dorm kitchen because it reminded him of my mom. All these years later, to my parents, the dish still tastes like first-date butterflies.
Of all the Chinese dishes we ate growing up, my family cherishes guoqiao mixian the most. Hailing from my parents’ native province of Yunnan, this simple dish exemplifies the rich stories, unique flavors, and innovative techniques behind traditional Chinese cooking.
Ask any Yunnan native about crossing-the-bridge noodles, and they’ll bring up the legend behind the dish. In the version I heard growing up, during the Qing dynasty, there was a young scholar who studied at an isolated island for the imperial exam. Every day, even during the harshest winter storms, the scholar’s wife crossed the bridge to bring her husband his freshly-cooked lunch. But by the time she arrived at the island, the noodles she’d packed had turned soggy, and the broth was cold. The scholar only picked at his food and then threw himself back into his studies. His wife watched helplessly as her husband became thinner and weaker, unnourished by the food he ate each day.
Then, she came up with an ingenious idea. She prepared a steaming bowl of broth with a glossy layer of fat on top and packed the noodles and toppings in separate containers. When she crossed the bridge and reached the island, she poured the ingredients together. The fat atop the broth kept it insulated, and the warm broth cooked the other ingredients. Each day, she’d cross the bridge with this delicious lunch, and the scholar regained his health, eventually passing the imperial exam with flying colors. He credited his success to his wife’s delicious cooking, and this dish would eventually evolve into today’s crossing-the-bridge noodles.
Today, when served authentic crossing-the-bridge noodles, you will first receive a bowl of piping-hot broth made from chicken, pork, or duck stock, with a rich layer of fat on top. Fresh rice noodles are served on the side. Then comes my favorite part: a cutting board heaping with every topping you can imagine: chicken strips, pork, bean curd sheets, chives, mushrooms, seasonal vegetables, and more. Just as the scholar did in the legend, you should add the meat first, then the vegetables and noodles, and finally any sauces or seasonings you prefer. (As you transfer the rice noodles from its original bowl to the bowl of broth, it might almost look like the noodles are crossing a bridge – yet another reference to the dish’s name.) The heat of the broth will cook the ingredients to perfection, and after a few minutes, it’s ready – time to dig in!
Savory, fragrant, and delicious, crossing-the-bridge noodles are the signature dish of the Yunnan province. On almost any street corner, you can order a bowl, usually for just a few dollars. In fact, just this year, my uncle opened his very own noodle shop in Yunnan’s capital, Kunming, where he serves traditional crossing-the-bridge noodles with dozens of customizable toppings.
My uncles, aunts, and grandmother at the grand opening of “Shang Wan,” my uncle’s new noodle shop.
In China, people love trying “local specialty” foods, and this noodle dish is a huge cultural export from the otherwise relatively isolated and poor province of Yunnan. In my mom’s words: ”If you’re from Yunnan, as soon as you come home, you have to eat a bowl of guoqiao mixian. This is our local pride, and it reminds us of the taste of home.” In Chinese: “这是家乡的口味。” In the States, an authentic bowl of crossing-the-bridge noodles is hard to come by, so growing up, my parents taught us to make the dish from scratch. It’s not quite as good as the version you can get down the street from Grandma’s apartment in China – but it’s still pretty damn good.
When I dig into a bowl of crossing-the-bridge noodles, I think about all the ways this dish embodies its name. Of course, there’s the touching legend about the scholar’s wife, who faithfully crossed the bridge each day to bring her husband lunch. For my parents, this dish bridged the 1,400-kilometer distance between Yunnan and Shaanxi when they first started dating. And for me, crossing-the-bridge noodles help bridge the gap between my American nationality and Chinese – or more specifically, Yunnan – heritage. Truthfully, I can’t always understand my grandma’s Yunnan dialect. I haven’t had the chance to visit my family in China in years, and I often struggle with feeling like I’m not “Chinese enough.” But every time I eat this simple noodle dish, it always tastes like home.