Up until the end of 2019, Wuhan, the city in Central China’s Hubei province, was best known for its vibrant food scene. Re gan mian or hot dry noodles — a spicy and sesame sauce-covered noodle dish — is almost synonymous with the region and widely popular across China. Things changed dramatically as the new coronavirus began to spread.
On January 23 this year, the Chinese government locked down Wuhan, banned public transportation, and blocked all highway exits. Two weeks later, the government expanded the quarantine to the entire province‘s 58 million people. As fear of the virus spread, healthy immigrants from Wuhan and Hubei were being shunned and sometimes even evicted in other Chinese cities. Meanwhile racism toward Chinese communities continues to grow rampantly around the world.
In NYC, restaurants located within the city’s Chinatowns reported plummeting sales following the coronavirus panic. But at Flushing’s New World Mall, Heat Noodle — despite the fear and misinformation — is still serving a wide collection of Hubei cuisine in New York, including Wuhan’s famous hot dry noodles.
Da Xiong, a Wuhan native and the photographer-turned-restaurant owner of Heat Noodle, estimated that the foot traffic at New World Mall has slowed down between 60 to 70 percent since the Chinese New Year. But he still believes he has a loyal group of diners. “Some people came to the diner and supported us,” says Da Xiong.
Most people come to Heat Noodle for its hot dry noodles. “It’s actually very easy to make,” says Da Xiong, who is also the chef at Heat Noodle. “It’s all about the noodles,” he adds. The noodles for Wuhan’s signature dish are made with flour, eggs, plus a pinch of baking soda for the al dente texture, and pre-cooked till they’re almost done. The actual preparation process is quite simple: dip the cooked noodles into boiling water for seven to eight seconds, drain them, and add soy sauce, gravy and sesame sauce. Just like the name suggests, the dish is served hot and dry.
In Wuhan, local customers are tasked with another important duty: stirring the noodles. This takes skill and practice. “You need to do it as quickly as possible,” says Da Xiong. “otherwise the sesame sauce will dry up.” To make the noodles more accessible in New York, the dish is served pre-stirred, topped with pickled radish and string beans. A few drops of hot sauce helps spice things up.
This simple and heavy dish is the soul of Hubei’s breakfast culture and is called guo zao (“过早”, which literally translates to “a morning quick bite”). Instead of eating breakfast at home, people go to food stands and street carts to have a proper breakfast. The tradition has existed for centuries: historically, Wuhan is one of the most important transportation hubs in China, with the Yangtze river and five major railways running through the city. Workers at the docks used to gather to eat before they started the day, and this habit has led to a lively breakfast scene that continues even today.
“You can see Hot Dry Noodles at every corner of the city,” says Da Xiong.
While some other New York noodle places offer hot dry noodles on their menu as well, Heat Noodle is one of the few places that prominently features the dish and serves other lesser known Hubei foods. Mian wo (面窝), for instance, which translates to “flour nest” is a deep-fried dough that somewhat resembles doughnuts in shape and taste. Ou jia (藕夹, or stuffed lotus roots) is another Hubei delicacy. They are essentially deep-fried mini sandwiches made with sliced lotus root and minced pork—crispy on the outside and tender inside. The Hubei province once had about 1,000 lakes (it lost many to land reclamation), and is China’s largest lotus root producer.
None of these items are especially common in New York or even in Chinese cities outside of the province. After all, Hubei cuisine has never achieved the same hype as the foods from Guangdong, Sichuan or its neighbor Hunan. In the tri-state area, Hubei chef Peter Chang’s Mama Chang (D.C.) and Peter Chang (Connecticut) are some of the few restaurants that specifically highlight food from that region.
To accommodate non-Hubei consumers, Heat Noodle presents two sets of menus: one for Hubei specialties, and the other for generic spicy noodles.
The hot dry noodles and Hubei snacks, however, have created a major following for Heat Noodle since it opened last July. The restaurant has now set up two WeChat groups — the groups have more than 600 participants — where staffers occasionally list secret menu items like a sweet soup made with egg and warm rice wine, and deep-fried sticky rice balls stuffed with diced pork.
After the new coronavirus outbreak, business for Chinese restaurants in the U.S. took a significant hit due to the drastic decrease of visitors across American Chinatowns. Rumors about Flushing having multiple unreported coronavirus cases also quickly circulated among local residents, creating fear and panic.
Since January 23, Heat Noodle’s WeChat groups have become a place for solidarity and emotional support. Da Xiong held a mini fundraising event in the WeChat groups, and for each bowl of noodles sold, Da Xiong agreed to donate one dollar to Hubei for medical supplies. The fundraiser generated about $3,000 between cash donations and noodle sales.
“Some even directly wired me money online,” Da Xiong adds.
People’s fear is waning, he says, as reports of the virus’s spread slowing down have emerged. But it will take time for Heat Noodle, and other Flushing restaurants, to recover from the ongoing virus outbreak and the anti-Chinese sentiment. The Wuhan noodle shop owner is optimistic about the future of the restaurant.
“It’s futile to worry about it,” Da Xiong says. “The most important thing to draw people in is still making good food.”
When he’s not planning his next meal, Tony Lin makes videos and writes about food and the world around him.