| Arts & Culture
Food Remembering My Chinese Heritage Through Re Gan Mian
Before I knew it, I finished my re gan mian, and I was filled to the brim with Wuhan, now a place no longer foreign to me.
The deep, nutty denseness of thick paste made from roasted sesame seeds. The stiff, chewy consistency of dry noodles cooked twice over. The vinegary, crunchy saltiness of pickled vegetables in every bite. The rich, subtle spice from a liberal dash of chili oil. These flavors flood my tongue when I think of hot dry noodles, or re gan mian ( 热干面) . Considered one of “the top ten noodles of China,” according to the Chinese Ministry of Culture , the iconic dish can be found almost everywhere in Wuhan, from street vendors to small shops to large restaurants.
However, “even in Wuhan, a lot of people don’t necessarily like it,” says Yong Chen, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, who researches Sino-American food and has family in Wuhan. Still, Chen tells me over Zoom, “When it comes to finding something that’ll provide that symbolic significance [for the city], nothing works better than re gan mian.”
It’s this exact reason the dish is one of the most popular breakfast foods in the city . It’s this exact reason the noodles became a symbol of solidarity after Covid-19 struck Hubei , the province in which Wuhan is located, in December 2019. And it’s this exact reason I began my quest to find the perfect replication of the dish in my current place of residence, Los Angeles, far from my Hubei-native parents and the Chinese city they taught me to call home.
When I was twelve years old, my parents abandoned me in China for two months. At least, that’s how it felt. My dad accompanied me to Beijing, but from Beijing, I was on my own for the thirty-minute flight to my mom’s hometown in Wuhan. Upon arrival, I was met by a grandfather whose face I didn’t recognize and an aunt whose voice I had never heard. That night, I shared a bed with a cousin whose name I barely knew.
For weeks, I didn’t speak a single word—in Chinese. Instead, I threw countless tantrums in English. I cried into half-empty bowls of rice I could never finish due to my picky eating. I picked fights with my cousin and my aunt for no reason other than that they were strangers to me. One day, my aunt took me to eat re gan mian. This dish, she told me, is a specialty of Wuhan. I couldn’t get this anywhere else. I obediently dug in but predictably put my chopsticks down about halfway through.
She told me we couldn’t leave until I finished my bowl, and we sat there in a stalemate for what felt like hours. Then, after letting out a sigh, my aunt began to tell me stories. She told me about the riverbank she and my mother used to visit and the pranks they would pull on their brother—including the one that led to a permanent scar. She told me about my mother’s time at Wuhan University and her early married days living with my dad in Wuchang, the southern section of the city.
My aunt’s stories of my mom’s childhood breathed life into the place that, until then, had felt so foreign to me. Before I knew it, my bowl was empty, and I was filled to the brim with Wuhan.
Ever since, the dish always evoked warm feelings of home and family for me. As a second-generation Chinese American, sometimes I felt like my love for re gan mian was my deepest connection to China. Still, I didn’t actually know anything about it beyond these personal sentiments. I would often reminisce about it fleetingly and wonder about its origins, but the thoughts would disappear soon after they appeared.
Then, the pandemic took over the globe. My mother had traveled back to Wuhan for Lunar New Year and was unable to leave the city. Asian elders who looked just like my grandparents feared for their lives amid a continuous barrage of violent attacks. In the face of the tragedy surrounding me, I needed a reprieve. My mind sought a return to the happy memories of Wuhan from my childhood. My heart craved any connection to China, as if emphasizing my Chinese background would validate my community’s humanity in the eyes of a nation and a leader that associated my city with sickness.
I took the state of the world in 2020 as motivation to learn more about re gan mian, my community, and myself.
The details of re gan mian’s origin story seem slightly contested. However, at the heart of it remains Bao Li ( 李包) , a food-stand vendor in the 1930s who sold noodles near Hankou in Wuhan. Some say he tried cooking noodles for his business the night before in order to serve his dishes faster the next day. Others say he accidentally ruined the batch and did his best to salvage what he could. All versions then report him coating the noodles in sesame oil and leaving them out overnight to dry.
Like a true businessman, Bao Li proceeded with confidence despite the uncertainty of his new preparation method. The next day, he finished cooking the parboiled noodles, garnished the dish with various condiments, and presented his invention with a marketable name for his customers to remember when they came back demanding more: re gan mian.
My heart craved any connection to China, as if emphasizing my Chinese background would validate my community’s humanity in the eyes of a nation and a leader that associated my city with sickness.
According to Chen at UC Irvine, Bao Li’s noodles are likely the single most recognized food associated with Wuhan. Once people in the city could venture outside again after the initial onset of Covid-19, many went straight for a comforting, filling bowl of re gan mian. Though it is popular locally, its international reach is limited, especially when compared to other signature regional Chinese dishes. Next to the unique performance behind Lanzhou’s la mian and the strong numbing spice accompanying Sichuan’s dan dan noodles, Wuhan’s re gan mian doesn’t seem to have any outstanding characteristics to draw an outsider’s attention.
My search for re gan mian in Los Angeles County reflected its modest popularity outside of Wuhan. Upon googling the dish in the area, the number of restaurants serving the city’s speciality could be counted on one hand. When I called to ask about ownership, hoping for some sort of kindred connection, the people I spoke to were evasive, likely untrusting of my broken Chinese. Somehow, my effort to explore my heritage only shone a light onto the areas of my identity where my Chinese culture had worn away after twenty-seven years in the West.
Desperate to chase any hint toward the flavors that lived in my memories, I decided to make a few in-person visits regardless. Though the re gan mian was delicious at every stop of my journey—whether served on shiny plastic plates or in heavy-duty ceramic bowls or Styrofoam take-out boxes—none of them tasted quite like the dish in my memory; they didn’t have the ideal level of spice, nor the correct sesame-paste-to-noodle ratio.
My hope started to dwindle. Did the re gan mian I treasured from my childhood—the Wuhan I thought I knew—even exist? Was it something I romanticized in my mind? Would I ever be able to connect my past feelings toward the dish in Wuhan with my present in Los Angeles?
When Bao Li developed the dish we now know as re gan mian, China was suffering from poverty and war. The nation faced internal conflicts between Communist and National parties on top of external attacks from Japan. As a result, re gan mian is emblematic of the times: It does not include fresh vegetables or meats that might require refrigeration. Instead, it is garnished with affordable and readily available ingredients like garlic, scallions, and pickled vegetables.
Throughout the twentieth century, China was highly reliant on manual labor . In Wuhan, a port city resting between two rivers, countless workers sought nourishment for their hard day ahead. Re gan mian was not only easy to make, but also rich in calories, so it quickly became a favorite breakfast food for these laborers looking for something that could sustain them through the whole day. Today, it still offers strength to the weary office worker, the hard-working student, and the homesick immigrant.
In a last-ditch effort to find that same re gan mian from my youth, I purchased four distinct brands of instant re gan mian online. I became intimately familiar with each ingredient, neatly packaged the same way despite the different brands, as I repeated the process of boiling, tearing, and mixing four times over. While each carried its own unique flavor, not a single one inspired that Ratatouille moment in me. At first, I was struck with disappointment. On the surface, my quest failed. I’m still alone on the West Coast, far from my family in Florida, and lacking the comfort of Wuhan on my taste buds.
However, my disappointment also allowed my desperation to clear. Once I realized the fruitlessness of my task, I also came to understand that my pursuit of re gan mian was focused on the wrong goal. In actuality, it doesn’t matter which restaurant I visit. None of the dishes will ever pass my standards as long as I’m judging solely based on flavor.
At the end of the day, noodles are just noodles, and I’m the only one who can mix the ingredients together with my emotions. The nutty tang of sesame will never carry the essence of home unless I forget about the technicalities and just let these memories take hold. I had forgotten; I was too wrapped up in the feeling of “right” or “wrong” on my tongue.
Now, empowered by the knowledge of Wuhan’s history and my family’s past, I remember. As long as the re gan mian in my bowl continues to evoke my mother’s laughter, my father’s wisdom, and my grandmother’s ashes, then it’s a good dish. As long as the food makes me feel like I’m eating side by side with my family in Wuchang, laughing together and trading stories, then it carries the warmth of home. And as long as I share this feeling like the dishes shared communally at the center of a Chinese dinner table, then I can share this home of mine with anyone else who needs it.