The Chinese have a saying that sums up their attitude towards education. This saying consists of 4 chinese characters forming a proverb that has come to be synonymous with the sacrifices that Chinese parents go through to ensure that their offsprings have the best education that money can buy. I promise that this is not an anthem to The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, a controversial book that had recently been published in the United States. I am merely recounting an eating adventure and the story that brought to mind this ancient Chinese saying.
This Chinese saying goes like this: Záguōmàitiě (Zha Guo Mai Ti-air)
It roughly translates into this: Melt all your iron to sell. It is more figurative than literal, I guess because the action of putting together all your iron utensils, pots and pans, melting them and then selling them to pay for your child’s education is an image that is difficult to conjure up in this modern era where we simply go out to purchase what we need to be thrown out when we’re done with them. More over, iron was a very important material in ancient China, good for making weapons to defend the country from marauding foreigners, not for selling off to pay for your child’s school fees.
It is always difficult to explain proverbs, let alone Chinese ones which are usually 4 characters long. Sometimes, I wonder how an ancient culture managed to reduce the meaning of something so important and potent into only 4 characters. It takes a lot of reduction to come to the essence of the subject, much like a jus reduction, I think. Chinese people tend to speak in proverbs which can be construed as speaking in riddles, I guess because if you didn’t understand the essence of a proverb and used it incorrectly and out of context, you could be perceived as very rude or worse, stupid. I remember having to learn off by heart a book full of proverbs and their meanings in my Chinese classes at school. My prowess in this difficult language would be in my ability to use these proverbs correctly in an essay. And oh boy, what errors I made even when erring on the conservative side!
“So what has this got to do with today’s post?” you ask. Well a story can’t be told in 5 words, so I ask for your patience.
A long long time ago, round about 300 years during the Qing Dynasty, so the story goes, there was a very ambitious young man who studied very hard for the prestigious Chinese Civil Service Exams that a male scholar of any calibre has to sit in order to bring honour and respect to his family, and a guaranteed civil service job. This said young man although very intelligent and industrious failed each time to pass this examination. His parents would not consider the idea of his giving up the opportunity, egged him on, fed and loved him until their deaths.
The young man matured and got married and had children of his own. In all that, he still persisted and sat the exam annually only to fail repeatedly. He became despondent, suicidal and depressed. Guilt ridden and feeling that he was neglecting his family in pursuit of his own interests, he announced several times of his desire to call it quits. But his grown children having watched the sacrifices that their grandparents had made in order to ensure that their father passed his exams did not allow their ageing father to give up. So the man’s family found him a secluded refuge on an island where he could peruse his books undisturbed. His devoted wife who understood that a scholar has to be nourished would prepare her husband’s daily meals, cart the dishes in a bamboo basket and bring them on foot to her beloved. This journey entails crossing over the bridge that connected the island refuge to the mainland and by the time the bamboo basket arrived at the scholar’s quarters, the food had all turned cold.
This angered the husband. (Ingrate, you think and yes, I agree but the story does not end here…) Her husband’s anger spurred the wife to experiment with ways of bringing food that would remain hot through the journey. She discovered that if she made a broth and boiled it to the maximum before packing it up to be delivered, the broth would still be hot on arrival. The broth would contain meat, vegetables and rice vermicelli known as mi xian which is a type of noodle made from ground rice. But on arrival, she discovered that the noodles had congealed to a mushy mass and the broth had gone cold as before, making the dish inedible. She despaired for days and had to endure her husband’s wrath yet again. Then it occurred to her that if she did the same thing with the broth – boil, boil, boil til it became bubbly hot but left the ingredients til after she’d arrived at the island before adding them to the broth, the broth would indeed preserve its warmth. What a discovery, kawan kawan, for today this noodle soup is eaten in memory of this scholar and the love that his wife had for him.
The story goes on to depict that the husband finally understood the sacrifices that his wife had to make in order to bring him this hot noodle soup. Whilst slurping his noodles, tear drops started to form and to mingle with the soup. He brushed his anger aside and ate his soup and noodle with much humility and gratitude, finally appreciating the sacrifices that his family had made for him. That year, he passed his exams, an old man.
Some believe that the nutrients in the broth which is a stock made from several types of meat – pork, beef and chicken – was what made him pass his exams finally. Others like to say that he finally came to understand the love between a woman and a man, thus reinforcing the saying that behind every successful man stands a woman…….with a bowl of nutritious soup in this case.
This is how the noodle soup looks:
This soup noodle dish is aptly named “Crossing over the bridge Noodles from Mengzi” Mengzi is the region in Yunnan where this dish derives.
The general ingredients of Meng Zi Guo qiao mi xian are:
- a raw quail egg
- ham slices
- chicken slices
- coloured vegetables
It starts off with a broth that has been boiled to a 100 degree Celsius which is then transferred to an earthen pot.
The dish is cooked in front of you by an attendant in the restaurant. She adds the quail egg first and gives the broth a stir. Then this is followed by the meat slivers – in our case, pork, chicken and beef. There is a type of Yunnan cured ham that usually goes into this dish but this ham is unavailable in France and the chef of this resto has had to substitute the cured pork with the fresh version.
The vegetables go in finally before the noodles:
The grand finalé:
My eating companions that day were mny, a fellow blogger and Naomi san a fellow foodie who just cannot resist her gohan. We were all delirious to find in Paris this delicious eatery – simple, compact and yet so authentic. We didn’t have to cross any bridges to get here only a couple of streets from métro St Ambroise.
Situated in the 11th arrondissement, this little Yunnan eatery is a perfect little place I know I’ll be heading towards again when the winter months set in. For now, I will dream of slurping the noodles from this soup that is a labour of love with a history of at least 300 years.
Guan Guan Yuan, 14 rue de la folie Mericourt 75011, tél: 01 43 55 09 82