I’m pleased to say that my abysmal stint in Changsha ended on a very high note, thanks to a young friend named Zhou Qiaoting. How we became friends is a story in itself that I’ll save for another day.
My single, deep disappointment, after four weeks working in Hunan province was that I hadn’t experienced the local cuisine, and the reasons were many and varied, some valid, some not. This changed a few days before I returned home on a most memorable evening with Zhou Qiaoting.
We set out, in the hot rain, sharing an umbrella, up a narrow lane just off Jianxiang Road, to a tiny noodle restaurant operated by three brothers whose resemblance to the young banjo player in the movie Deliverance is uncanny. The noodles are made outside on a small counter adjacent to a large cauldron of steaming soup.
We took a seat on small plastic stools and selected a noodle dish from the photos on the wall. First came a small bowl of broth from the big cauldron. Something made from chicken stock, lightly perfumed with five-spice powder and a few shreds of cilantro. Piping hot soup on a piping hot rainy night. It was divine.
In between slurps, I watched one of the brothers stretch, twine, and whirl a ball of fresh dough into long noodles at his outdoor counter and shortly thereafter two bowls of steaming noodles were plunked in front of us, dressed with an array of vegetables, a mild sauce, and some unknown bits of meat. It was slippery work trying to grab the noodles with chopsticks, but I had four weeks of hunger providing a dexterity I don’t usually possess. It was so good, I groaned – repeatedly.
The meal was successfully restorative, not just to my furnace but also my temple, and with a lighter mood did I return home, inspired to try my hand at something akin to the Noodle Shop’s offering. A simple noodle, a simple broth, a simple herb, and five-spice powder – the perfume of Hunan.