Yi Mian: The Long Life Noodle Filled with Nostalgia and History

Jess Eng: “Towards the end of our eight-course meal, after stuffing ourselves silly, a mountain of yi mian arrived, steamy and fragrant. But even then, the sheer amount of noodles never seemed to faze us — we slurped it all up. (Julianna Eng )

I once believed that noodles could help me live forever. It wasn't so long ago when my grandmother repeated noodle myths from the Han dynasty around the dinner table in San Francisco’s Chinatown. She'd order heaping plates of yi mian (伊面), known as e-fu noodles, and twirl the generous noodles with her spoon. "Long noodles mean long life, so don't waste!" she'd say as she scooped another serving onto my plate. 

Her words stuck with me. Every holiday dinner at Chef Hung’s in Chinatown, my sister and I scanned the menu, determined to hunt down our favorite yi mian dish (we were trying to live forever). Fortunately for us, it was instantly recognizable on the list, garnished with juicy lobster and stubby mushrooms, and rolled off our youthful tongues. Even when yi mian was not on the menu, grandma would wave down a waiter and send in a special order. And wherever we went, the restaurant came up with the ingredients. Like magic. Towards the end of our eight-course meal, after stuffing ourselves silly, a mountain of yi mian arrived, steamy and fragrant. But even then, the sheer amount of noodles never seemed to faze us — we slurped it all up.

illustration of a woman wrapped in noodles with bowls of noodles around her
Besides loving yi mian’s taste, I embraced these noodles for another, less taste-related reason. I wanted to believe my grandma. I wanted to become the oldest person to ever live. (Julianna Eng)

As I got older, I gravitated toward these springy noodles every chance I could. For their addictive texture and seasoning, rigorous packaging process, and as I learned recently, the dough’s secret ingredient: sodium bicarbonate, or soda water. After adding this secret ingredient to the dough, strips of dough are boiled, deep-fried, and pressed into round cakes for instant cooking. Today, you’ll find yi mian, the supposed ancestor of Momofuku Ando’s instant noodles, lining the shelves of Chinese grocers and atop of every table during Chinese New Year. Holiday or not, I seized any opportunity to get my hands on yi mian.

Bowl of yi mian
Today, you’ll find yi mian, the supposed ancestor of Momofuku Ando’s instant noodles, lining the shelves of Chinese grocers and atop of every table during Chinese New Year (Jess Eng)

Besides loving yi mian’s taste, I embraced these noodles for another, less taste-related reason. I wanted to believe my grandma. I wanted to become the oldest person to ever live. And I believed I could do it, if I followed my grandma’s advice. After many years of hearing her same stories, told with authority and reassurance, I can recount four different myths claiming to know yi mian’s origins and its connections to longevity.

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My grandmother’s favorite myth goes all the way back to the Han Dynasty. Embracing my face with her two hands, she told me stories of Emperor Wu, who joked that the length of one’s face, specifically the distance between a person’s nose and upper lip, determined one’s longevity. As she explained, because the Chinese pronunciation for face (liăn) sounds similar to the character for noodles (miàn), people started to associate noodles with a long life. Like the Han people two thousand years ago, I too keep this association close to me.

Bowl of long life noodles and illustration of Chinese characters
‘Long noodles mean long life, so don't waste!’ she'd say as she scooped another serving onto my plate. (Jess Eng)

After telling me about the connection between longevity and noodles, she dived into her yi mian specific myths, including one that features a court official with the surname 伊 (Yi). She enjoyed telling me this story because the main character embodied characteristics she wanted me to have — gratitude, responsibility, and honor — points she made sure to emphasize throughout her story. That Yi’s people sent him gifts of long noodles to show appreciation for his leadership. That he deep fried the noodles to preserve his surplus and redistributed them to his people. That the families named the dish e-fu noodles (伊府麵), which translates to Yi family noodles, to honor him. The cult of yi mian was born, with my grandmother’s myths to thank for the introduction. 

My grandma, who once beamed with passion telling me myths, now refuses to indulge in the same narratives. In her older age, she chooses practicality over myth, and as a result, I rarely rehear her stories as I did when I was younger. However, even without story after story around the dinner table, the magic of her noodle myths continues to linger. Now, these stories drum up a series of questions: Will people still associate yi mian with longevity in one thousand years? What will yi mian taste like then? What if chefs embrace mistakes while cooking, instead of striving for perfection? These questions, spurred by my grandmother’s myths, contain no answers. But they have opened up the once intimidating, whimsical future of noodles to me.

These days, I’ll often crave a bowl of springy yi mian noodles. I’ll hear my grandmother’s voice, commanding me to eat more noodles to ensure my long life. I’ll picture a glistening mountain of noodles, twice-cooked and stir-fried to perfection. I’ll remember the legendary characters who shaped yi mian into the mythological noodle I know today. With San Francisco as my home base, I’ll never be too far away from delicious long-life noodles on Clement Street or Noriega Street and in Chinatown. But these fleeting noodle myths must find new homes, new brains to disentangle their meanings, and I’m prepared to let them soar.