A noodle vendor at Hubu Alley, a famous breakfast spot in Wuhan.

In Wuhan, finding solace in a bowl of hot dry noodles

Feb 14, 2020

Before Wuhan became the epicenter of a deadly virus outbreak, a food lover would have relished waking up in the city to try its iconic breakfast. Here, locals have a saying—food is like a party—and it surely will be once again.

If you’ve heard of Wuhan as of late, you probably know it as ground zero of the coronavirus outbreak that has sickened thousands and killed hundreds. But before all this came to pass, food lovers would count their blessings to wake up in Wuhan.

Flanked by China’s two great rivers—the Han and Yangtze—the city is the capital of Hubei Province. The region’s food is one of the 10 primary schools of Chinese cuisine, and among Wuhan’s greatest contributions is its breakfast. If the Chinese saying for passing the holidays is guonian 过年, then Wuhan has guozao 过早, to pass the morning, to describe breakfast.

A dumpling seller at Hubu Alley, a street in Wuhan famous for its breakfast.
A dumpling seller at Hubu Alley, a street in Wuhan famous for its breakfast. / Photo: Robert Ng/SCMP

On the streets, one can tuck into a round of dumplings, some crispy stuffed yuba skins called duopi 豆皮, and savory rice flour donuts called mianwo 面窩, and end the whole affair with a bowl of reganmian 热干面, or hot dry noodles.

The noodle dish is Wuhan’s most famous export, so tied to the city’s identity that natives who emigrate often open hot dry noodle shops wherever they settle. In 2013, the state mouthpiece People’s Daily named hot dry noodles one of China’s top five noodle dishes (no small feat because there are a lot of noodle dishes in China).

Dwight Howard of the Los Angeles Lakers dives into a bowl of hot dry noodles during his China tour in Wuhan in 2018.
Dwight Howard of the Los Angeles Lakers dives into a bowl of hot dry noodles during his China tour in Wuhan in 2018. / Photo: ImagineChina

And when the coronavirus broke out in Wuhan, a widely circulated cartoon showed the quarantined city personified as a bedridden bowl of hot dry noodles, with other regional Chinese dishes cheering it on.

“It’s a very basic dish,” says Jing Wetzel, a Wuhan native who runs Zheng Cafe, a Chinese restaurant in Seattle. “There’s not much technique with this; just put it all together and mix it. But it’s all about the flavors being balanced, not too salty, sour, or sweet.”

(Read more: The Chinese chef selling $30 fish noodle soup in New York)

The dish calls for alkaline noodles that are cooked and tossed in sesame oil. The alkaline gives the noodles their notable chew and rich eggy aroma. Every morning, street vendors in Wuhan secure a delivery of fresh noodles to serve to hungry customers who clamor to them for a quick breakfast fix.

A hot dry noodle stand in Wuhan.
A hot dry noodle stand in Wuhan. / Photo: Shutterstock

Just before serving, the noodles are reheated in boiling water and then topped with a spicy soy and sesame paste sauce. Spicy pickled radish and pickled long beans are added. When mixed, there is just enough sauce to glaze the noodles, but barely any, hence the hot—and especially dry—noodles.

“It’s always kind of sloppy, it’s in this paper bowl, and when they pour the sesame sauce over, it always leaves a mark on the side of the bowl, like a drip mark.”

Jonathan Lio

“They make the dish fresh for you when you order it,” says Jonathan Lio, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Chicago who’s been working in Wuhan on a medical exchange. “It’s always kind of sloppy, it’s in this paper bowl, and when they pour the sesame sauce over, it always leaves a mark on the side of the bowl, like a drip mark.”

It became his favorite dish in Wuhan, and even though he’s not able to travel to the city anymore because of the coronavirus outbreak, he still craves the dish from time to time. “It grows on you,” Lio says.

On the street, hot dry noodles are often served in paper bowls.
On the street, hot dry noodles are often served in paper bowls. / Photo: Alamy

Hot dry noodles, along with many other Wuhan breakfast staples, are meant to be enjoyed on the street, shared in the presence of chatty neighbors, boisterous families, and gregarious vendors. There’s a saying in Wuhan, Wetzel says: “We treat food like a party.”

“When you eat at these vendors outside, it feels more real than if you sit at home and eat the same dish.”

Jing Wetzel

“When you eat at these vendors outside, it feels more real than if you sit at home and eat the same dish,” she says.

“When you eat at these vendors outside, it feels more real,” says Jing Wetzel.
“When you eat at these vendors outside, it feels more real,” says Jing Wetzel. / Photo: QQ

But the coronavirus has turned this once bustling city of 11 million into a ghost town. Food stalls have shuttered, store shelves are bare, and residents fear venturing outside. While hot dry noodles are among the easier street dishes to recreate at home, many other breakfast items, particularly the fried ones, are harder to make at home under confinement.

(Read more: The other Chinese city famous for its breakfast)

A popular legend surrounding hot dry noodles’ origins tells of a noodle vendor who accidentally poured sesame oil onto a large batch of already cooked noodles.

Rather than throw them out, he decided to serve them and called the dish reganmian, hot dry noodles.

Whether true or not, the story is a reflection of the region’s ingenuity, a mistake birthing one of the nation’s most beloved dishes. It is a quiet reassurance that this place which taught China how to pass the morning will surely pass this epidemic as well.

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