Eating fresh rice noodle rolls is a quintessentially Cantonese experience: Diners walk to a street-food cart at 7 a.m., wait in line, customize their stuffing, and witness as a cook turns rice milk into thin layers of steamy, nearly translucent rolls — right in front of them.
This kind of cheung fun (or changfen in Mandarin), called stone mill noodle rolls (sek mo cheung fun, or shi mo changfen in Mandarin), is an iconic street-food form of what’s served in dim sum restaurants, and an everyday delicacy for Cantonese people. But what’s wild about these particular cheung fun is where they’re served: the streets of Manhattan’s Chinatown, 7,000 miles away from the Guangdong province of China, the hometown of the dish.
It’s a dish that’s rarely seen outside of Guangdong. Plenty of Cantonese food has become popular around the world, but the stone mill noodle roll is underrepresented, even across mainland China. It’s uncommon in Beijing, Shanghai, and most parts of modern-day China, and even the traditional cheung fun scene in Guangdong itself is diminishing as the government takes active measures to regulate unlicensed street vendors. In 2010, the capital city, Guangzhou, passed legislation to target nearly 300,000 street vendors, and similar policies were carried out across the province.
Chinatown, though, is witnessing a boom of Cantonese street cheung fun. Over the last year, at least three cheung fun shops opened in Chinatown. It’s now sold in New York bakeries, grocery stores, street carts, and most recently, dedicated cheung fun shops that draw lines of locals every morning.
The core audience is Cantonese expats, but tourists, non-Cantonese Chinese people, and Westerners have also taken notice of the snack. One bowl of noodle roll takes about three minutes to cook, but on weekends, some shops’ wait times for a bowl can be as long as 40 minutes.
It’s a scene that has many Guangdong natives shocked. Stella Deng — a Guangdong native who grew up in Shenzhen, where cheung fun carts are much less common — says she hadn’t seen such a dense and vibrant cheung fun scene for years.
“It is incredible,” she says.
Cheung fun has been around New York for some time, better known in the form served at dim sum restaurants. The long noodles come stuffed with fillings such as pork, but at dim sum, they’re usually premade, heated up in the kitchen, and not as thin.
In contrast, the newer entry, the stone mill noodle roll, excels in its simplicity and freshness, which gives it the qualities of a perfect street food: It’s tasty, fast, convenient, and a balanced combination of carbohydrates and protein. It’s also well-liked in part because the making of a stone mill noodle roll is a lively performance. Cooks grind raw rice into rice milk; pour the milk onto a shallow, square-shaped metal tray; scatter stuffings — like minced pork, beef, or shrimp — on the milk; steam the tray for a few minutes; and scoop the consolidated rice layer into soft, jiggly noodle rolls. This cooking method gives the noodle tender texture and extra flavor from fresh rice, but it also makes the dish far more labor intensive.
The most popular cheung fun places tend to be known for grinding their own rice for the batter, like Joe’s Steam Rice Roll and newcomer Yi Ji Shi Mo Noodle Corp, which opened at 88 Elizabeth Street seven months ago. “We grind the rice all by ourselves, no additives at all,” says Windy Wu, the manager of Yi Ji Shi Mo. The tiny shop is a three-person operation: There’s a cook who grinds rice with their own stone mill in the morning and operates the steamer, an assistant who runs errands, and Wu, the cashier and manager.
Wu’s family moved to New York from Kaiping, a small Guangdong city with one-tenth of New York’s population. “Before we opened our shop, I saw people lined up in front of the food carts,” Wu says, “and I knew we could make the business work here.”
Just blocks from Wu’s shop, there are at least four other stone mill cheung fun joints, in addition to dozens of Cantonese restaurants serving regular, non-stone mill noodle rolls. Despite competition, each noodle roll place has its own specialties.
The Cheong Fun Cart, on the same block as Yi Ji Shi Mo, offers dried shrimp rolls; the salty, chewy seafood stuffing provides a different texture than fresh shrimp rolls. Right across the street, the renowned Deluxe Food Market has a discrete cheung fun counter behind its deli meat shelf, serving rice rolls stuffed with Cantonese mashed fish (yu hua or yu wah, which literally translates to “fish slippery”). The saleswoman, who doubles as a cook, can also make vegetarian rolls with chopped cilantro, a rare yet refreshing option that goes nicely with the slightly sweetened, less salty soy sauce.
Chang Lai Fishballs & Noodles, a food cart at Grand and Bowery streets, offers both stone mill rolls and “piggy rice rolls” (zhu chang fen/jyu cheung fun). The jyu chang fen, pre-steamed, no-stuffing rice rolls, look like Korean rice cakes, but they’re often served with soy and peanut sauce. The rolls can be ordered alongside curry fish balls, making for another classic Cantonese snack duo.
As at most cheung fun places in Guangdong, rolls can be customized at all the Chinatown spots. Upon request, the cheung fun chef will add a raw egg into the rice milk before steaming it. At Yi Ji Shi Mo, different stuffings, like char siu, beef, and shrimp, can be mixed in, too.
Despite the food’s ties to Guangdong, American elements seep through in these places, too. Chinese-American spice Sriracha is a popular addition to the Chinatown noodle rolls, but foreign to many Guangdong locals. Peanut sauce is also a common item on Chinatown rice roll menus, but in Guangdong, it’s mainly used for Chaoshan noodle rolls, a different kind of noodle from the Chaozhou and Shantou area. There, the noodles are thicker and contain more seafood stuffing, as well as sesame and peanut sauces.
Still, there isn’t one particular rice roll in New York that features more “authentic” Cantonese flavors than the rest. Instead, the eclectic collection all together exudes a genuine sense of Cantoneseness. After all, in Guangdong, cheung fun stuffing can be many things, from pork liver to beef tripe to youtiao, the fried dough. The variety here speaks to the trust that restaurants and carts have in New York’s diners to try unconventional options.
But to people like Deng, stone mill noodle rolls are more than just a snack — they’re a unique dining experience closely tied to her Cantonese lifestyle. When the California resident visited New York recently, she was excited to get a shrimp noodle roll from a cart in Manhattan with an extra egg, for nostalgic reasons. “That’s what I ordered when I was on my way to primary school,” she says.
When he’s not planning his next meal, Tony Lin makes videos and writes about food and the world around him.