Last weekend we sat squeezed together on a bench in a narrow lane, eating noodles out of cardboard containers balanced on our knees. It had begun to rain. It’s only April but it had the taste of summer rain: warm, fragrant, heavy. We were deep inside the maze of little lanes known as Tianzifang 田子坊. The place was packed full of tourists. We sat out of the way of the sea of umbrellas, blinking rain and steam out of our eyes.
Where tourists abound in Shanghai, so does overpriced Western food. We could have picked anything: waffles, sandwiches, New York style pizza, Chicago style pizza, spaghetti Bolognese. We’d taken a bus and changed subway lines three times to get here. But when you’re tired and hungry and your feet ache and it’s starting to rain, there is only one thing that will do.
When I learned that cōngyóu bànmiàn 葱油拌面 (literally spring onion oil mixed noodles) existed in the world, I knew they would become a big part of my life. The dish consists of a bowl of fine hand-pulled noodles tossed with spring onion-infused oil, dark soy sauce (the thicker, less salty kind), and strips of spring onions (scallions, if you’re American) that have been fried until dark, bittersweet, almost crisp and caramelised.
This is the Shanghai version of cacio e pepe: simple, satisfying, beautiful. Like with most Italian pasta dishes, the magic lies in the noodles-to-sauce ratio. Here, the ratio usually sits it an excellent 7:3. A modest amount of sauce, and an unspeakably huge amount of noodles.
The chef spoons the oil and the crispy onions over a thick wad of noodles. You use your chopsticks to mix it all together yourself. Then you demolish them. With practice, you learn not to regret it. You learn to think of those fried spring onions as a real, genuine part of your daily vegetable intake. You learn to prioritise happiness.
Cōngyóu bànmiàn are sometimes called ‘bànmiàn’ for short. At breakfast and lunchtime (and dinner, if you’re me) people shout these two short syllables across counters and tabletops all over Shanghai. The sharp falling tone of each word makes me want to say them louder, to give them more oomph, a bit like saying a swear word. Sometimes the lady at the cashier knows what’s up before the second syllable has left my mouth. She nods, serious and businesslike. Girl’s gotta get her bànmiàn.
It’s become a kind of ritual. I ride my bike there after class, I order my noodles, I collect my chopsticks from the little chopstick washer and dispenser that hums pleasantly in the corner, and I sit at the bench full of people eating alone. More than half are eating bànmiàn.
Back in Wellington I do things alone all the time during daylight hours. I work, I eat, I write, I go for walks. But at night, things change. At night, aloneness in a public space means strange looks and unwanted attention. It means knowing the quickest, safest route. It means pretending to talk on the phone and gripping your keys tightly in your pocket.
But here, maybe like all big cities, aloneness is part of the city itself. I never feel unsafe. I walk long distances with my earphones in, never once needing to cross the road to avoid someone. I ride my bike through the quiet campus without glancing behind me. I order my noodles and eat them in peace, and for a little while, I don’t feel like an outsider anymore.
Today there were three downpours. The first coincided with me needing to get to class. I stepped out of my building and wondered if I would actually make it; I had never seen so much water fall out of the sky, never heard it make so much noise. Rain streamed down the sides of my umbrella and splashed me in the face. Bikes and scooters tore through the water, small waves breaking against the footpath. In between downpours the air smelled like mud and crushed flowers.
It rained again as I walked to my closest dumpling-and-noodle joint called 豫申园 for dinner. It’s not my favourite but it’s the cheapest, which counts for a lot when you live in a Shanghai on a student budget. The road was splashed across with pink and green from the neon lights above the street. Steam, or smog, seemed to be rising from it.
I could smell my noodles before they reached me: warm, bitter, a little sweetness mixed with the sharp smell of soy sauce. Like all best foods, bànmiàn are messy. They’re impossible to eat with any degree of restraint or attractiveness. Another benefit to eating alone is that the only person you can splatter with soy sauce is yourself. With each bite I feel increasingly powerful and glorious.
The man next to me devoured his bànmiàn alongside a plate of six fluffy, crispy, soupy shengjianbao 生煎包. This is a level of Shanghai hardcore I have not yet reached. But I’m getting there.
Each time I’m at a new place where the menu is only in Chinese, I take a picture of it on my phone and later look up the words I don’t know. This is how I discover new ways to eat.
葱, cōng, is one of my favourite characters. It’s complex and messy but also elegant, made up of twelve short strokes that fit closely together like a cluster of leaves. Or like the dark shreds of crisp onions left in the bottom of the bowl. When 葱 is combined with 绿, lü, which means ‘green’, it becomes ‘lush green’: bright green, verdant. A colour you see everywhere in New Zealand. A colour you don’t see here. Except in the food: handfuls of this colour sprinkled over dumplings, into bowls of noodles, over pieces of dough being kneaded and rolled out by the old man in the white cap. I can taste it.
I'm Nina (明雅). I write poems and make zines and eat dumplings.