Once upon a time, perhaps last week, or even last night, at your local dim sum restaurant there was an UGLY DUMPLING . . .
This ugly dumpling was ugly in its OWN ugly way.
Poor thing! Though the dumpling tried its best to be noticed by wrinkling its brow, standing up tall, or even wearing pleated pants, sadly it remained “uneaten and ignored.” But as fate would have it, along came a cockroach whose heart swelled with love, who wept upon seeing the ugly dumpling. It extended an arm (or a leg) in friendship, promising to show the dumpling “the beauty of the world.”
Pardon my burp, but I’ve just polished off a bowl of warm, steamy ramen — really hits the spot on a rainy Spring afternoon. Just like Janet, I love noodles at any time, any place; even just seeing the word “noodle” makes me happy.
Whether you’re talking about ramen, pho, guksu, pancit, lo mein, wonton, udon, yakisoba, saimin, japchae, chow fun, dandan, somen or any form of pasta — it’s all good. There’s nothing more comforting or satisfying than slurping up those long chewy strands of goodness with gravy, sauce or soup.
It’s almost like every time I eat a noodle dish I’m tasting part of my childhood — a savory bowl of saimin with teriyaki barbecue sticks at the Fred Wright Park carnival, Crispy Gau Gee Mein from Waimalu Chop Suey, cold guksu with my two grandmas at Seoul Inn, somen salad at beach picnics, or the wonderful Chinese noodles with char siu and vegetables my Auntie Ellen always made for family holiday potlucks. And how could I forget those simple but restorative bowls of chicken noodle soup my mom ladled out whenever I was sick?
Since March is National Noodle Month, I thought it would be fun to look at two recently published noodle picture books. Both are steeped in Chinese culture, both feature a young girl named “Mei” learning about noodles from an elder, and in both stories noodles are an important part of a birthday celebration. Grab your chopsticks and let’s start slurping!
Imagine a sumptuous Chinese banquetwith thirteen enchanting fairy tales on the menu — centuries-old stories of gods, ghosts, noblemen, monks, peasants, farmers, and merchants all motivated by some aspect of food — having or not having it, growing, cooking, relishing, transforming it.
Each tale is served alongside a tempting recipe and lovingly flavored with gorgeous folkloric illustrations (a visual feast in itself), making this literary banquet something to savor with family and friends across generations time and again.
This is the third in the literary cookbook series following Fairy Tale Feasts (2009) and Jewish Fairy Tale Feasts(2013) by Jane Yolen and Heidi Stemple, books that have my name written all over them, as they explore and illuminate the fascinating connections between stories and food. As Jane Yolen says in her Foreword for Chinese Fairy Tale Feasts, the ability to make things up, to tell stories, distinguishes us from other animals:
And the connection between food and stories is profound and clear. Both are infinitely changeable, suiting the needs of the maker and the consumer.
I’m absolutely delighted to welcome Vancouver-based author, poet, champion noodle slurper and chopstick twirler Alan Woo to Alphabet Soup today!
Alan’s debut picture book, Maggie’s Chopsticks, illustrated by Isabelle Malenfant and published by Kids Can Press, has been receiving glowing reviews and well deserved blog love ever since its release in August.
In this charming, lyrically told story of self discovery, young Maggie learns how to use her new chopsticks as family members scold, laugh, and offer conflicting advice. She watches as each demonstrates the “right” way: Grandma’s “click-clack-clicketing” scrabble and shovel; Mother’s quick, sharp, flip, flop; Brother’s strong, sure grip; Sister’s graceful dancing sticks. Maggie tries and tries — twirling, circling, holding closer to the top, nearer the bottom, but they still say she’s doing it wrong. It’s only with Father’s gentle reassurance that Maggie finally finds her right way and is reminded that since each person is unique, it shouldn’t matter what other people think.
Hungry young readers will easily identify with Maggie’s struggle to master a new skill, enjoy meeting her colorful family, and cheer her victory. And yes, like me, they’ll likely drool at how Isabelle Malenfant, with her warm palette of vibrant reds and oranges, has set the family table with tantalizing Chinese food (cha siu bao! ha gau!), and love the winsome cat who licks its chops while waiting patiently for a piece of shrimp.
Last year, when I first read The Great Wall of Lucy Wu, the wonderful middle grade novel by Wendy Wan-Long Shang that recently won the 2012 APALA Asian/Pacific American Children’s Literature Award, I noticed something interesting in the Acknowledgements:
No acknowledgement would be complete without recognizing my sources of support: my mom, who told me I could do anything; my dad, who made me believe writing was in my blood; my husband, who wrote ‘writer’ on our tax forms and has never (never!) once wavered in his support; our three beautiful, funny children; my amazing extended family; Fairfax County Public Library; A&J Restaurant, which makes absolutely inspirational bowls of soup. Get the Shanghai-style wonton soup.
Is there anything more exciting than a writer who cites soup as a source of inspiration? If you’ve read the book, you know it opens with a restaurant scene and contains many food references, including a reverential beef noodle soup as well as homemade dumplings. Yum!