If you are not familiar with the food and cooking of Yunnan Province in China, you are not alone. Even in China, many people are just beginning to discover the exotic and exciting flavors of that remote and mountainous region.
That said, one dish from Yunnan, Crossing the bridge noodles (过桥米线), has already won the hearts and minds of noodle enthusiasts across the country.
The dish comes with a story of love and ingenuity. Once there was a scholar who studied for the imperial exams on an isolated island. His loving wife would cross the bridge every day to bring him lunch, often times his favorite rice noodles. Keeping the noodles from getting cold and mushy after the long walk could be challenging, but she discovered a few tricks to accomplish that: by keeping the cooked noodles separate from the broth and adding them right before eating would retain their fresh and lively texture; by covering the broth with a layer of fat on top would keep it hot for a longer time, and hot enough to cook vegetables and thinly sliced meat or fish when they are mixed in.
Her method of making fresh rice noodles started to spread beyond her little village and eventually became an iconic dish of the region named in her honor.
Having a giant bowl of crossing the bridge noodles is highly satisfying and immensely fun. First you choose your favorite toppings, from a large selection of ingredients typically including pork, chicken, seafood, vegetables, mushrooms, quail eggs, pickles, and various sauces. Then you add them, in sequence with protein going first, to a piping hot broth to cook them. And finally, mix in the cooked rice noodles and slurp loudly!
The success of the dish relies on a rich stock, traditionally made by simmering chicken, duck, pork bones, and ham for hours.
You could certainly do the same. Or, you can follow my “one-hour” chicken stock recipe below using chicken wings and a pressure cooker.
Chicken wings, with the right balance of meat, skin, and bone, produce a full-bodied rich stock with great flavors and gelatin. By making the stock in a pressure cooker, the sealed and extremely hot interior does a great job extracting the flavors and keeping the aromas inside the stock instead of evaporating into the air.
If science-driven books such as “Modernist Cuisine” or chefs like Heston Blumenthal recommend the pressure cooker method, you follow.
Crossing the bridge noodles (过桥米线)
Makes 2 servings
14 oz (400 g) fresh rice noodles or 7 oz (200 g) dried ones
4 cups chicken stock (recipe to follow)
7 oz (200 g) thinly sliced pork, chicken, or fish, or any combination of them
1 oz (30 g ) Virginia ham, thinly sliced
4 oz (115 g) tender vegetables, such as baby Chinese broccoli, baby bok choy, spinach, or watercress
2 oz (60 g) mushrooms (I use beech and hen-of-the-woods mushrooms)
1 tablespoon chopped Zha Cai (Sichuan pickled vegetables)
Chile paste or any seasoning of your choice
Salt and freshly ground white pepper
Chicken stock (makes 6 cups)
2 lb (900 g) chicken wings
6 cups water
1 scallion, cut into 4 sections
One 1-inch ginger, crushed
2 teaspoons white peppercorns
2 bay leaves
2 tablespoons Shaoxing wine
To make the chicken stock:
- Place the chicken wings in a stock pot. Add enough water to cover them. Bring to a boil. Remove the wings from the water and rinse under running water to remove any impurities.
- Add the chicken wings to a pressure cooker. Make sure you follow all safety measures and precautions when using a pressure cooker. Add 6 cups of water. Bring to a simmer. Remove any impurities that rise to the top. Add the rest of the ingredients for the stock. Place the lid on and cook over medium-high heat until full pressure is reached. Reduce the heat to just enough to maintain the pressure. Cook for 1 hour.
- Let the stock cool. Remove the lid when it’s safe to do so. Strain the stock through a fine sieve. Remove the chicken fat on top and reserve.
To cook the noodles and assemble the dish:
- Cook the noodles in boiling water as per instruction on the packet. When the noodles are just cooked (do not overcook), remove them from the water and drain well.
- Add 4 cups of chicken stock to a pot. Bring to a boil. Add the sliced ham and simmer for 5 minutes. Season lightly with salt and pepper. Pour some of the reserved chicken fat (or vegetable oil if you prefer) on top.
- Divide the stock and ham into two large warm bowls. Add the toppings in the following sequence: meat and fish (and allow time for them to cook properly), vegetables, mushroom, pickles, and noodles. Season to taste. If you prefer, you can briefly cook the meat and fish in the stock on stovetop during Step 2.
- Stir and slurp!
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