There’s a noodle on my mind, soupy and wet. I can eat them everyday, once, twice, even thrice. Chinese noodle, that is—the ancient food invented by an unknown individual who existed 2,000 years ago, during the Han Dynasty.
“Don’t you ever get tired of pancit?” my flummoxed wife asked. “Nope!” I replied decisively. Pancit! Ahh. My delight is in the details.
When it’s served, my eyes widen and I smile. I salivate a bit. My mouth anticipates those bouncy round strips, smooth and moist, settling in my mouth so I can chew its maligat texture with all the flavor of whatever condiments enhance it. Tender to the chew. Smooth on the throat. Easy on the tummy.
My noodle awakening is full of values and character. It introduced me to the allure of ancient Chinese culture. It all started in 1948 at Ma Mon Luk, a Chinese noodle restaurant in Quiapo, a block away from the basilica of mass-hypnosis devotees of the Black Nazarene.
While enjoying my first bowl of noodle at Ma Mon Luk, the “Chineseness” was overwhelming. The mami chef behind the glass-encased cubicle was totally Chinese—white skin, narrow eyes, black hair kept fixed by shiny pomade and a busy expression on his face. Mami chef wore a dirty-white camisa chino, looking sweaty, thanks to broth vapor and smoke from boiling cauldrons and siopao bamboo. In front of him were shelves with rows of noodle bowls and stacks of precooked (asado) cuts of pork and chicken which he took and cut into strips using scissors that sounded clip-clip-clippity-clip.
When an order came, mami chef took a bowl with one hand and ladled boiling broth with the other to blanche the bowl’s contents. The second ladle from another cauldron was the clear soup. The final touch was the sprinkling of minced, fresh and aromatic chives. The bowl came with a piece of asado siopao. The waiter was also totally Chinese, although shorter and more well-built than the mami chef. He was also white-skinned and narrow-eyed, with thick, black hair flattened by shiny pomade. He wore a crumpled white shirt, an alert expression on his face, and a pencil perched on his ears for writing orders.
As soon as I finished eating, the waiter hollered to the cashier his strange, funny and exotic Chinese phonetics. My bill when I approached the cashier: 40 cents for mami, 20 cents for siopao.
Ma Mon Luk had its own distinct smell—a smell that blended the broth vapors of boiled bones, cold precooked meats, the sweat of mami chef and day-old shirts of waiters, and tables wiped with wet trapos.
Man Mon Luk had its own sound. The clanking of plates, glass, bowls and spoons as the tables were being cleaned. The waiters hollering to the cashier the amounts to be charged when customers approached the cash register. There was order in chaos. They were all part of mami-eating delight. All these tactile properties are not referred to as odors and noises. It was called the Ma Mon Luk ambiance.
Mecca for comfort food
In the ’50s and ’60s, Ma Mon Luk was the mecca for comfort food for the working class and university populace in Manila, including congressmen and senators, and hungry journalists whose fingers were still numb from typing serial news breaks on the capture of Communist politburo members through lightning raids led by defense secretary Ramon Magsaysay.
My work assignments as an advertising creative director in Bangkok and other Asean cities widened my noodle repertoire. I became a lover of pad thai in the sidewalks of Bangkok. Pad thai are flat noodles sautéed in sesame oil, sugar, fish sauce, dried chili seeds, tofu, togue, red chili sauce, ground peanuts, raw string beans and squeezes of lemon. The pad thai I eat in the sidewalks is the same as the pad thai eaten by the elite and royal staff at the king’s palace.
Kiew tiew wet noodle soup is best at the noodle vendor around the red light district of Phat Pong. The noodle soup is chili hot in clear broth with sugar, fish sauce, chili powder, meatballs and kangkong shoots. It’s a delicious repast late in the night—I enjoy the same kiew tiew that those live sex show performers take after their act.
Pho is the noodle soup I enjoyed on the side streets of the Saigon public market. Vietnamese noodles have a clear soup with bits of chicken, lots of togue, red chili sauce, squeezes of lemon, and smothered with aromatic basil and cool mint leaves.
The ramen noodles I took on the side street of Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo was the closest to Ma Mon Luk.
During my work stint in Thailand in the ’70s, Sinology was the zeitgeist, caused by a plethora of Taiwan and Hong Kong classical movies featuring ancient Chinese civilization. I watched a lot of them and I marveled at the principles of Chinese warfare, which featured flying swordsmen and acrobatic warriors.
There was a lot of mysticism, sorcery, political intrigue, caste distinction, plus the strict adherence to Confucian social ethics. The wisdom, scientific knowledge and technology of an old, ancient Chinese civilization was simply awesome.
Imagine! The noodle that I love today is the same noodle eaten by the masons and stonecutters who built the Great Wall of China. It’s also the same noodle that the flying swordsmen ate after fighting and floating on top of trees in the magical movie “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.”
Someone said that the man who invented the noodle brought more happiness to mankind than the scientist who split the atom. I know. I’m one of the people he made happy.