These days, when it comes time to eat, I catch myself asking my own self 「呷麵或呷飯?」, which I loosely translate as 「am I in the mood for some noodles or rice?」, as the first question of my “What to eat?” decision process. Clearly, this is a sign that I’ve lived in Taiwan for a long time already, or as I prefer to view it, a sign that I am becoming Taiwanese, 😱! Someday, I may post a listicle of all those Taiwanese traits that have crept into me, but for now, that’ll just be another draft sitting on the back-burner.
So what’s it gonna be, noodles or rice? Usually, it’s been noodles, in particular Ah-Wan Yanshuei I Mien 阿萬鹽水意麵, tucked in the old Sanmin Street 三民街. The neighborhood is not flamboyantly touristy by any means, but it has some palpable history and good food to be found. Somehow, the atmosphere reminds me a little of the Wanhua area in Taipei, albeit, less crowded. If only it didn’t take me 20-30 minutes to bike there, amidst crazy scooter traffic and pollution, I think I’d hang out more often in that area. Wait, bike 20-30 minutes (and add 20-30 minutes for the way back!) for a simple bowl of noodles, do I have that much time to spare or are those noodles just crazy good?
But first, let’s talk about those Yanshui i mien. The characters 「鹽」and「水」respectively mean 「salt」and「water」, so up until recently, whenever I’d pass by a 鹽水意麵 stall, I’d simply assume that it referred to the method of cooking the noodles, i.e. in salted water. A straight-forward name for a simple dish, a no-brainer, right?
Actually, not at all. It turns out that 「鹽水」refers to the Yanshuei district in Tainan county. A place you may have heard of it for its unique and explosive Yanshuei Beehive Fireworks 鹽水蜂炮煙火, taking place yearly during the Lantern Festival which marks the end of the Chinese New Year.
Somehow, I managed to read through the restaurant’s blurb from the guidebook and failed to connect the dots, although it should have been obvious with a sentence like 「創始人黃萬枝本身鹽水人出身」, meaning「the founder Huang Wan-Chih born in Yanshuei」. So it took some googling on the origin of the i mien, and some additional reading for me to face-palm-head-bang-on-the-keyboard myself real hard when I realized that 鹽水 was the name of a place. Seriously, my brain is such a mystery sometimes…😣
Confused in translation aside, here’s the short story of the i mien 意麵 🙂 . Under Koxinga’s reign (1661-1662), when Tainan used to be the capital of Formosa, early migrants from Fuzhou who had settled in Yanshuei, came up with the i mien 意麵 which they made from flour and fresh eggs. The lack of water in the recipe made the dough especially hard to knead so it was originally called li mien 力麵, with the character lì 力 symbolizing the physical effort during the kneading process. This demanding labor had the cooks utter “i!” and so progressively, the noodle’s name became known as i mien (the “i” is to be pronounced as the English letter “e” 😉 ). Back then, they simply drizzled the noodles with some pork fat, added some blanched vegetables, and voilà. Technically, I guess this makes the Yanshuei i mien an authentic Made in Taiwan dish!
According to the guidebook, Ah-Wan, a Yanshuei native (not someone born in salted water, eh 😂), is the one who introduced Kaohsiung to the Yanshuei i mien, 50+ years ago. Everyday, in the early morning, he prepares a new batch of noodles, made with duck eggs, and gets ready for the hungry crowd who will start pouring in in the mid-afternoon.
<rant> Seriously, what is the deal with those places opening in the middle of the afternoon? Is there a cultural logic to it? Me want noodles for lunch, not mid-afternoon snack 😭 </rant>
On my first visit, I had not read the shop’s description yet, so wasn’t aware that the noodles were made in-house, but it was clear that there was something special to it. The texture was pleasantly tender, and I was surprised to actually sense the taste of eggs, reminiscent of fresh Italian egg pasta.
I like places like Ah-Wan (besides their odd schedule), with a simple menu, easy to browse, so easier to decide. The i mien noodles can be enjoyed in three ways: dry 亁, in soup 湯, or thick soup 羹. The dish is seasoned with some fried shallots oil, and garnished with bean sprouts, ground marinated pork and a few slices of lean pork meat, so simple, yet so good! For an extra protein boost, they have some marinated eggs or small Hsinchu meatballs 新竹貢丸.
If my memory doesn’t fail me (not a guarantee), Ah-Wan is actually the first place where I’ve eaten some Yanshuei i mien, and I must say that I was converted on the spot. However, not being a feasible solution for my now frequent i mien cravings, I’d really like to find a closer-to-home spot on par with Ah-Wan’s standard.
On one evening, I reasoned myself to scavenge for food in the vicinities of my habitat, and stopped to eat at a Yanshuei i mien stand spotted at the Guanghua night market, which left me satiated but also underwhelmed. Hence, I now continuously keep an eye out for some potential i mien contenders, the search is on! To be continued. 😘
Additional Reviews+Photos: pixnet/marukoharuko, pixnet/americangod
Menu: Chinese only (give Pleco some thought）
Business hours: 15:30-22:00 (closed each month on the 17th, of the lunar calendar 😯 )