Pot-lid noodles are a specialty of Zhenjiang, where shopkeepers insist their particular cooking method makes a difference.
In the city of Zhenjiang in eastern China, shops cook noodles with an unusual feature: a small wooden lid floating in the water.
Known fittingly as pot-lid noodles, or guogaimian 锅盖面, the dish has been around for 300 years. Locals take pride in the unconventional cooking method. The lid, typically made of fir, dances on the surface of the water while the noodles cook underneath.
“If there’s too much water and it starts boiling, it might overflow,” says Zhou Heluan, who leads a local association that promotes pot-lid noodles. “The lid stops the water from flowing out.”
Zhou also says the lid imparts a wood-like aroma to the noodles.
While many people swear by it, the truth is that the addition of the lid is a gimmick. Most people can’t really taste the difference, and the noodles can be made completely without the lid.
But the people here are proud of it because it’s a big part of the city’s culinary identity.
“People are a reflection of their environment, and in Zhenjiang, we like Zhenjiang pot-lid noodles.”
“There are many different types of noodles in the country, and they all have special features,” Zhou says. “People are a reflection of their environment, and in Zhenjiang, we like Zhenjiang pot-lid noodles.”
How Zhenjiang came to embrace cooking noodles with a lid
Records of pot-lid noodles date back to the 18th century. Local lore goes that the Qianlong Emperor visited a restaurant while he was in town.
The shopkeeper, understandably nervous about receiving such a special guest, accidentally dropped a sandalwood lid in a pot of boiling water.
When the emperor tried the noodles cooked in the pot, he was impressed and asked the chef about the secret.
Since then, the lid has become an indelible feature of noodle restaurants in Zhenjiang.
The noodles themselves, though, are quite standard. They’re made with wheat, eggs, flour, and water. An alkaline powder is added for a bit of chew.
Common toppings include diced pork, vinegar, soy sauce, garlic, scallions, and river eel.
(Read more: What the royals of China’s last dynasty ate)
The dish is also a legacy of Zhenjiang’s role in trade between northern and southern China.
Wheat is not native to Zhenjiang, where rice is the main carb consumed.
Instead, the ingredient was brought down from the north by merchants traveling along the Yangtze River, which bisects Zhenjiang.
“This city was a meeting point for north and south.”
“This city was a meeting point for north and south,” Zhou says. “Roads leading to the port were full of vendors selling pot-lid noodles.”
Today, there are over 10,000 noodle shops in the city, each specializing in its own unique flavors.
But one thing you won’t miss is a small wooden lid floating in the water.