More than Just a Rice Noodle: A Closer Look at Er Kuai 饵块
The English language differs from Mandarin in so many ways that it is often difficult to give precise translations from one to the other. Ideas and concepts embodied in certain words in one language sometimes do not exist in the other, or have slightly different connotations. In my time studying Chinese I have always found that one of the ways in which English falls dramatically short of Chinese is in the dearth of English words used to describe certain foods. This is true for mushrooms, for example. In Chinese, different types of mushrooms have distinct names. If you are at a restaurant and want a certain type of mushroom, you need to ask for the specific type by name. This makes sense- mushrooms are incredibly diverse and since Chinese people eat far more mushrooms than, say, Americans, the Chinese language encompasses more words for expressing the differences between different mushrooms.
Another food group for which the English language fails to capture its variety is that of the “Rice Noodle.” Before I lived in China I never knew how many distinctions of rice noodles (and noodles in general!) could exist.
There are Mi Xian, Mi Fen, Fen Si (these actually are not technically rice noodles but are made form other starches such as mung beans or sweet potato), Er Kuai, Er Si and probably even more varieties of “rice noodles” that I have yet to discover. Each type is distinguished from the others by the method by which it is made, texture, and shape.
Here in Xizhou, one form of rice noodle reigns supreme over all others. That is the Er Kuai. Now, both the Er Kuai and Er Si are local specialties in Dali, but the Er Kuai is much more distinctive looking. The first character in the word Er Kuai, Er 饵, actually means ear, hinting at the body part Er Kuai most closely resemble. These rice noodles are made very differently from most types found in China. The standard process by which rice noodles are made involves the grinding up of grains of rice into rice flour. The rice flour is then used to make noodles of various kinds.
Where the Er Si and Er Kuai production process diverges from the norm is in this very first step. Instead of grinding rice into flour and starting from there, rice is instead soaked overnight and then steamed and dried repeatedly until it approaches something closer to sticky rice. Then this “sticky rice” is fed into a grinder that produces a thick, almost paste-like blob which is then fed into various machines that give the Er Kuai its distinct shape.
Some Er Kuai are flat, round, tortilla type wraps. Some are shaped into thick blocks to be cut up when cooked. Some of the Er Kuai substance is also shaped into traditional looking noodles to become Er Si, a local breakfast dish.
Common ways of eating Er Kuai include grilling it (one of the tortilla type Er Kuai), spreading a sweet and spicy sauce on it, and wrapping it around a fried dough stick (youtiao 油条). My personal favorite, however, is to eat the pieces of Er Kuai that have been cut from one of the blocks. You don’t eat these Er Kuai on their own, but throw them into any meat or vegetable dish to add a delicious chewiness.
At the end of the day, there are many ways to eat this unique take on a rice noodle, and there is no better place to try out all of the possible options than here in Xizhou. Any visitor to the Linden Centre and Xizhou should make trying this local dish a priority!
In the hopes of spreading educational material about various types of noodles available in Asia, I am linking the Serious Eats Guide to Shopping for Asian Noodles here: http://www.seriouseats.com/2014/08/asian-noodle-shopping-guide.html
I am also sharing a link to former Linden Centre employee and total foodie Leah Sprague’s blog post where she shares beautiful pictures of Er Kuai and Er Si here: https://leahsprague.wordpress.com/2017/07/17/xizhou-food-guide-ersi-rice-cake-noodles/
Be sure to check out the rest of her Xizhou food series for incredibly beautiful shots of Xizhou eats!