This centuries-old noodle-making technique is a show-stopper, but will it survive?
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Dinner and a show
It was late afternoon in the small neighbourhood of Cheung Sha Wan in Hong Kong’s Sham Shui Po district, and a performance was about to commence. The star: Alan Lee, owner of Kwan Kee Bamboo Noodles. A crowd gathered outside the noodle shop, watching through the window in fascination as Lee prepared to knead the dough for his jook sing noodles, also known as bamboo noodles.
In the small kitchen at the front of his shop, dough in place, Lee secured a large bamboo pole to a loop on his workbench. Then he sat on the other end of the pole, bouncing up and down, like on a seesaw.
The trick, he said, is to leverage your weight to knead the dough until it’s perfectly pressed into a thin bed. This is what gives the noodles their ‘elastic-band bounce’.
A tradition born from resourcefulness
Jook sing noodles originated in Guangzhou, China, during the early 19th Century when street vendors used poles from the region’s bamboo forests to carry equipment for their noodle stalls. The vendors realised that their bamboo poles also made for efficient rolling pins and began using them to flatten large quantities of dough. “It was the older generation making use of natural resources,” Lee explained.
A local favourite
Bamboo noodle-making has been a tradition in Lee’s family for generations, with his grandfather selling the noodles as a street vendor in neighbouring Macau in the 1920s. Lee and his siblings opened Kwan Kee – named after Lee’s wife, Kwan – in Macau and Guangzhou in the 1990s, and eventually in Hong Kong in 2010.
Today, Lee’s is one of only two surviving noodle shops in Hong Kong that make jook sing noodles in the traditional manner; most restaurants in Hong Kong and China have abandoned the time-intensive preparation method in favour of machine pressing, making authentic jook sing noodles difficult to find.
The family recipe
Faithfully recreating his grandfather’s recipe, Lee makes his jook sing noodles fresh daily. After mixing the noodle dough – 50 eggs combined with flour – Lee puts it through a noodle machine to flatten it, making it easier to press with the pole. The bamboo kneading process takes between 30 to 40 minutes.
A taste of nostalgia
Despite the labour involved, Lee is determined not to let this centuries-old tradition be killed off by technology.
“It would be quicker to knead the dough by machine like other [noodle shops] do. We could make a larger quantity and earn more money this way,” Lee said. “But the noodles lose their vitality if you knead the dough by machine. They’re just not the same.”
Many of Lee’s regular customers grew up with traditional bamboo noodles, and it reminds them of their childhood. Lee wants to preserve these flavourful memories. It’s a “taste of nostalgia,” he said. “These are the noodles that we ate growing up and grew to love.”
The end of a legacy?
Keen to keep the tradition alive, Lee has been teaching his 21-year-old son the technique of riding the bamboo pole. But he has doubts that his son will carry on the family business.
“I taught him for two years, but he’s young and wants to go out and explore the world before taking over the family business,” Lee said, with a hint of sadness in his voice.
“No-one is willing to be a bamboo noodles expert anymore,” he added.
But Lee’s determination to preserve the elaborate preparation technique is paying off. Famous Chinese singers Eason Chan and Nicholas Tse are both fans of his noodles, and they’ve helped Lee attract customers from mainland China and beyond.