Long Live the Noodle
Longevity noodles – which take 14 hours to make – are steeped in ancient tradition. As the modern food industry has transitioned to mass production, these remaining traditional operatives are worth their weight in gold
Text and Photos Brent Lewin
It’s just after midnight in the Ban Pong district of Ratchaburi, in what might appear to most as a sleepy town. An hour and a half west of Thailand’s capital city, Bangkok, it’s best known for its nearby traditional floating market. Long after the daily influx of tourists has subsided, a handful of worn-down factories come to life as techno music erupts from loudspeakers, and a group of Burmese migrant workers dons aprons in preparation for the night’s work. Throughout the empty alleys, or sois, as they’re called in Thailand, the sounds of thumping music and laughter spill out over the high walls of the various compounds in the area. What may sound like an electronic music-inspired dance party is actually the sound of workers across the city creating one of their primary exports: longevity noodles.
Egg noodles, or yi mein, have been a staple food in parts of the world for over 2,000 years. In 2005, China unearthed a 4,000-year-old bowl of noodles, suggesting that the staple dish originated in China, according to a report by National Geographic. However, it wasn’t until the Tang Dynasty (618–907) that longevity noodles, or shou mein, became popular. These wheat noodles became one of the most sought-after foods in Asia owing to their length, which came to symbolise longevity – one of the most revered ideals in Chinese culture, along with happiness and prosperity.
As such, the noodles were often served on special occasions, such as birthdays. Before consuming longevity noodles, people would use chopsticks to admire their length. Tradition also dictated that to cut a strand of a longevity noodle would mean risking a shortened lifespan.
Wheat noodles in Japan, or udon, were adapted from the original Chinese recipe by a Buddhist monk in the 9th century. It’s believed that longevity noodles were first introduced to Thailand by the Japanese after their occupation during World War II.
Twenty-nine-year-old Mongol Jenweerawat, part owner of Tiantiamhenghuat, one of the 11 longevity noodle factories in Ban Pong, explains: “Japan had a military base near Ban Pong during the occupation while they were building the Kwai Bridge in the nearby town of Kanchanaburi. It’s believed that the troops introduced these noodles to our village to cater to the Japanese troops’ tastes.”
Longevity noodles are different from normal noodles, which are straight like spaghetti. The main difference is that they are handmade in a process that takes 14 hours.
– Mongol Jenweerawat, part owner of Longevity Noodle factory Tiantiamhenghuat
Jenweerawat’s family business has been making longevity noodles commercially from recipes handed down over generations since the 1960s, the majority of which are supplied to Chinese restaurants in Bangkok’s Chinatown. “Longevity noodles are different from normal noodles, which are straight like spaghetti,” says Jenweerawat. “The main difference is that they are handmade in a process that takes 14 hours.”
In an era where the food industry has transitioned from traditional handicraft to mass production using machinery, companies like Tiantiamhenghuat are an outlier staying true to the craft.
The longevity noodles of Ban Pong are created from wheat flour, salt water and yellow food dye. The process begins daily at midnight so that by dawn, approximately 600 kilograms of noodles are ready to dry in the morning sun. To start the process, labourers add the ingredients to industrial mixers to create a stretchy yellow dough, which is then shuttled on carts inside the factory. Here, they are coated in palm oil so that they don’t stick together, and are then placed into baskets. The dough is then kneaded, stretched and cut up to create one long, thin noodle in the shape of a figure of eight – another nod to the noodle’s linkage with longevity. The yellow colour is popular in Thailand, and is associated with wealth by ethnic Chinese.
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As the techno music continues to pulsate through the factory, the workers seem to keep to the steady beat, wrapping the thinned-out noodles onto two horizontally secured bamboo sticks. By the time all the noodles have been wrapped around the bamboo, the sun is beginning to rise over Ban Pong. The workers transfer the noodles outdoors, where they are draped over the wooden sticks to bask in the sun. As they dry like wet laundry hanging on racks, the workers run chopstick-like rods between the strands of noodles to ensure that they don’t stick together. “The noodles then hang for around three hours in the sun to dry,” Jenweerawat explains. “If it’s cloudy, we might wait all day, and if it rains, we have to abandon the process and start from scratch the next evening!”
Once completely dried, the noodles are removed and steamed in sterilisation tanks to add moisture. Jenweerawat adds that “without this step the noodles would be hard and break in their plastic packages”. Jenweerawat may now play a more “hands-off” role as supervisor of the operation, but his many years of late-night mixing, cutting and hanging the noodles have earned him the title of “expert” in the art of making longevity noodles. “I learned the process from my grandfather when I was 13 years old. Orders flooded in around the time of Chinese New Year, and I had to pitch in. By the time I was 16, I was working a few hours a night and still managing to get up by 6am to get ready for school,” he shares.
Jenweerawat admits that handmade noodle-making is very hard work. “There was a time when if we could’ve done something else that’s not so tiring we would have, but this was all we had. My father has tried a few different business ventures, but they didn’t work out. I can’t complain. Now our company has grown, we employ workers. This business has allowed us to earn a decent living, build a big house for our family, send four kids to university – all of this because my grandfather learned a skill.”
Jenweerawat’s passion for the traditional craft leads him to wax lyrical about the art of making longevity noodles. His mantra is: “If it’s made by machine, the taste will be inferior, the texture won’t feel right. Nothing can compare to handmade.” However, when asked about his own longevity noodle consumption, Jenweerawat seems to suffer from years of overexposure. “I’ve been around these noodles for more than half my life. I used to eat them regularly but now I can’t bring myself to eat them. I’m just crossing my fingers that I will still enjoy a long life!”
For more stories and photographs from this issue, see Asian Geographic Issue 127, 2017
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