“The skill is useless, to be honest,” says the owner of one of Hong Kong’s last bamboo noodle shops. But he’s still determined to keep it going.
In southern China’s Guangdong Province and Hong Kong, egg noodles are a popular dish, usually served with wonton or beef brisket.
And in the early 20th century, some enterprising street vendors came up with a novel way to make them in big batches: by jumping on bamboo poles like a seesaw.
It was an energy-efficient way to apply a lot of pressure to a large volume of dough. The poles were readily available, often used by the street vendors to carry buckets of equipment.
Pressing on the dough smoothed it out and ensured chewier noodles.
“When bamboo noodles were invented, it was one of the best ways to make noodles,” says Lee Sai-leung, the owner of Kwan Kee Bamboo Noodles in Hong Kong. “They were the tastiest.”
Kwan Kee in the Cheung Sha Wan neighborhood of Hong Kong is one of the last shops that still makes noodles this way. The recipe came from Lee’s grandfather, who used to make bamboo noodles in Macau.
“He’d walk the streets with a pole and hawk his noodles,” Lee says. “I don’t know how he did it, but he’d have everything in these two baskets.”
Using his grandfather’s recipe, Lee and his brother opened up Kwan Kee in 2010.
“It was a really simple formula with ingredients and their percentages,” Lee says. “We still had that piece of paper, so I told my brother, ‘Hey! I think grandpa’s noodles are good!’”
The dough is made from flour, eggs, and alkaline water, which gives the noodles their distinct springiness. All the ingredients are carefully weighed before mixing. “We don’t eyeball anything,” Lee says.
The bamboo pole comes in during the kneading process. Because the dough is tough, jumping on the pole makes it easier to shape.
“Theoretically, you could do the same thing with a metal pole.”
“Theoretically, you could do the same thing with a metal pole,” Lee says. “But metal is not flexible enough, so your dough might end up being really tough.”
Making bamboo noodles is a laborious task, and not everyone is up for it. Many interested hires come from noodle factories, where they’re more used to working with machines than their hands.
(Read more: The Chinese noodle that’s thin as a thread)
Lee recalls one potential hire fainting in the bathroom after 15 minutes of jumping on the bamboo.
“He was burnt out,” he says. “I knocked on the door to check on him, and he gave me very weak replies. He obviously didn’t take the job.”
Bamboo isn’t required to make egg noodles anymore. Most places use machines to mold the dough.
Lee is very frank about the tradition’s beak future. “There’s no job mobility in bamboo noodle making,” he says. “The skill is useless, to be honest.”
But Lee still wants to preserve the art form, if anything because it’s good marketing.
“When customers see the noodles being made in person, they feel comfortable eating it,” he says.