Cultural historian Cheng Pei-kai: The ancients loved a good bowl of swamp eel noodle soup

Cultural historian Cheng Pei-kai enjoys a refreshing bowl of swamp eel noodle soup in Zhenjiang, Jiangsu province. He reflects that this local dish continues to be made by nameless chefs in a simple shop frequented by unassuming diners. But there’s nothing simple about that broth — simmered down with generations of humble cooking, it’s nothing short of heavenly.
A hearty bowl of swamp eel noodle soup.
A hearty bowl of swamp eel noodle soup.

(Photos: WeChat/玉茗堂前)

This hole-in-the-wall is simple and plain. It sits among a row of utility stores, provision shops, liquor and tobacco stores, and grocery marts. The locale looks like one of the new shophouse districts built in the late 1980s. The shopfront has a black wooden signboard with the words ”野生长鱼汤面” (Stewed Wild Swamp Eel Noodle Soup) painted in bright red.

My friend said, “We’re here! This is the place! We come here whenever we are free. This place serves the best swamp eel noodles in Zhenjiang. Have a taste and you’ll know what I mean.” What will I know? Did he mean I’ll not eat eel noodles elsewhere after tasting this one?    

Although the shop faces the street — perhaps it was still early in the morning, not yet eight o’clock — there were no cars on the road aside from the two cars we came in. But the store was already crowded and packed with customers. Some of them made straight for the four or five folding tables on the sidewalk with their noodles. They happily huddled over their hearty breakfast in the gentle breeze of late spring.

A bowl of swamp eel noodle soup makes for a good local breakfast in Zhenjiang.

We arrived there as a group of seven or eight people. While we were not in suits, our attire was clearly different from the local diners. What’s more, we came in two cars and seemingly made a grand entrance and commotion as if foreigners had invaded the territory. Some of them quietly shifted seats, emptying two tables for us, making us rather embarrassed.

“There’s no need to move, really,” my friend told them. “It’s okay, we’ll wait.” “It’s fine, we’re almost finished with our meal, you can have a seat,” they replied.

My friend explained that the people who ate here were mostly from around the neighbourhood. People from elsewhere would not come here just for a bowl of noodles early in the morning. I suddenly felt that these provincial folk have stayed humble and simple all this while and are modest and courteous to outsiders. This is unlike some Hong Kongers who have long been immersed in the treachery of the metropolis and have covered their fear with indifference, treating outsiders with discrimination and unwarranted hatred.

The shop mainly sells eel noodle soup, but you can also order the dry noodle version — what the Cantonese call lo mein (捞面) — with a bowl of eel soup. All the diners in the shop were enjoying eel noodles. While the menu also includes other dishes like pork liver noodles, shredded pork noodles, and pork kidney noodles, I’m pretty sure that if anyone ordered them, they’d be told that those dishes were not available and to come back for them the next day. 

A hearty bowl of dry eel noodles.
A bowl of dry lo mein-style eel noodles.

In the fairly large open-concept kitchen, the four people manning the shop were in clear view. With a ladle in hand, an old man in his 60s commandeered two big woks about half a metre in diameter. The brownish-yellow wild swamp eels simmering away in a rich and yellowish broth looked absolutely delicious. Beside him, another middle-aged man was cooking noodles in an even bigger wok around one metre in diameter. I didn’t know why his wok needed to be so big at first, until I saw that he could make five to six servings of noodles at one time. Ah, this was for efficiency so that the hungry diners could be fed pronto. The remaining two people were busy playing a supporting role, taking care of the orders, toppings, and plating.          

Many ways to skin an eel

Swamp eels (黄鳝) are known to the local people in Zhenjiang as changyu (长鱼, lit. “long fish”) in the regional dialect of the Huaiyang region, and is this is quite an apt description of the fish. Unlike normal fish, swamp eels are slim and long. Their body shape is somewhere between that of a water snake and a pond loach, but they are slimmer and much more elegant — beauty pageant material, if you ask me.

The Chinese term for eels — shanyu (鳝鱼) — is easy to pronounce but troublesome to write. Look up the ancient Chinese dictionary and you will find that there are five different ways to write the word shan (鳝) — 蟮, 蟺, 鳝, 鱓, and 鳣 — and all of them refer to eels.

The first two variations with the “虫” (worm) radical can refer to both an earthworm or an eel. Of the remaining three words, 鳝 emerged much later and did not exist during ancient times.

The word 鱓 appeared in the Classic of the Mountains: North (北山经) chapter of Classic of Mountains and Seas (《山海经》approximately 4th century BC): “Among them are mostly slippery fish shaped like shan (鱓).” Eastern Jin dynasty Chinese historian Guo Pu annotated the text as: “Shanyu (鱓鱼) is shaped like a snake. It takes on the pronunciation of the word shan (善).” In the Discourse on Forests (说林) chapter of Huainanzi (《淮南子》), the word 鱓 is also used when describing the similarity in shape between eels and snakes. The same goes for the chapter on forests (说林) in Han Feizi (《韩非子》), where the word 鳣 is used.

Observably, whenever the ancient people talked about eels, they would either use 鱓 or 鳣. They clearly knew that eels look like snakes and that the pronunciation of the word is shan.   

Delicious dry eel noodles.
Delicious dry eel noodles come with a bowl of eel soup.

Whether it is called shanyu or changyu, I ate a bowl of heavenly stewed wild swamp eel noodle soup that day, along with a small bowl of the dry version that my friend portioned out for me. What a satisfying meal that was!

The noodles made by the Zhenjiang people are chewy and closer in texture to the ones served in northern China. I heard that the dough is kneaded with a gigantic rolling pole, which gives it a firm texture. The swamp eel was fresh and tender and did not taste muddy at all. In fact, it left such a refreshing taste in my mouth. The eel meat was chewy but not tough. And eating it, I was reminded of Southern Song dynasty Chinese poet Xin Qiji’s poem The Partridge in the Sky (《鹧鸪天》): “... On the winding roads through the mountains is a wine house. The flowers in the city worry about the wind and rain, but the wild flowers in the fields are resilient, blooming one after another.” 

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