As a child, each time I was called to dinner by my grandparents and greeted with a bowl of hot noodles, I would eat until my stomach felt like it had doubled in size.
“难得吃一会,” my grandmother would say. It’s still one of the only things I know how to say in Shanghainese. The translation rests somewhere in the overlap between a hard earned chance to eat, and a justification for an occasional craving.
She would make the entire family bowls of noodles on each person’s birthday. According to tradition, serving someone longevity noodles bids them a long life of wealth and prosperity. For all I was concerned, longevity noodles were the secret to a long life (to me, they still are.)
Over time, the tradition of having a bowl of longevity noodles on my birthday began to fade. For my younger sister, cake became the symbolic birthday tradition. If we did nothing else to celebrate a birthday, there would always be cake.
After I moved to Santa Cruz in fall 2020, I made myself a bowl of longevity noodles for my 20th birthday. And another for my 21st. It’s a bittersweet return to tradition, two years in the making. The savory hot broth is comforting and while the warmth reminds me of family, it also reminds me that the inability to share food with others is often isolating. Alienating, even.
I’ve always known food as something to be shared, so the loss of food in its communal form has made eating feel monotonous. Hunger, once welcomed, feels almost burdensome. Because I can’t physically share food with everyone, I’m choosing to share in another way.
A childhood favorite of mine, this is my family’s take on 烂糊面, which translates literally to overcooked noodles. (I’m not a longevity noodle purist, I believe all noodles consumed on one’s birthday count, even if it’s instant ramen.)
- Noodles (if you’re picky, the kind we’ve used for the past 15 years is the thin Taiwanese DragonMall Wu-Mu dry noodles. You can get them thin, medium, or wide.)
- Dried shiitake mushrooms. The drying and aging process brings out the signature shiitake flavor even more.
- Baby bok choy. If you can’t find baby bok choy, you can use regular bok choy, but the older leaves may have a more bitter taste.
- Chicken Bouillon powder. The Lee Kum Kee brand is best, but any will do. You can technically substitute this with salt, but it won’t be the same.
- Optional seasoning: Dried shrimp, dried and salted bamboo shoots.
- Optional egg (hard boiled, poached, fried, or however you like your eggs.)
- Start by soaking dried shiitake mushrooms in a jar or bowl of water. The longer the soak, the stronger the flavor of the broth. I like to soak mine overnight. (Note: save the water for later!)
- Break off and rinse bok choy leaves. You can choose whether or not to cook the center, but my grandparents would often save it just for me.
- Bring water to a boil in a pot, with heat on high.
- Add shiitake mushrooms, including the water you soaked them in. This may bring the water to below boiling but that’s alright.
- Add bok choy.
- Add seasoning: at least a teaspoon of chicken bouillon powder (or salt). If you have dried shrimp and bamboo shoots, you won’t need to add as much bouillon/salt. Most importantly: adjust to taste!
- Once the water is at a full boil again, it’s time for the noodles. After you put them in the pot, you can turn the heat to medium. Stir occasionally.
- At one point, the broth may start to get thicker. You can choose to add more hot water, but you might have to add more seasoning as well.
- When the noodles are close to done, I like to start frying an egg to place on top of the noodles. Whether or not the yolk is runny is up to you.
- Cook until noodles are the preferred consistency. I like mine on the softer side, so I cook them for longer, but I can’t tell you what to do. (Overcooked is more true to this recipe’s form, though).
- Serve and enjoy.
- I’ve never been good at measuring out and counting just how much of each ingredient I use when cooking, so you’ll have to rely on your own intuition for measurements.
- If you want an extra kick, you can season with white pepper at the end.