I’m sitting on a rickety plastic stool. I’ve fallen off this stool seventeen times in the last year. I’m shit at sitting in stools. I’ll leave China without ever mastering the skill. I do my best. Life is hard. A tower of fried rice noodles lands in front of me. I lean forward, shifting the impossibly fragile ass–to-stool balance, and lovingly serenade the noodles with vinegar. It begins—my weekly reunion with the divine noodles, the only food in the world that I would ever repeatedly risk breaking my ass and the subsequent public embarrassment for. I’ve told their story here: https://tloebchina.wordpress.com/2014/12/28/stuck-in-ambrosia/
The chef, a tireless middle-aged woman with that Indira Ghandi-esque shock of white hair, sits down at a table next to me. She pulls a baleful of chives out of a bag and sets them on a cutting stone. She leisurely begins to chop.
“How much longer you got here, Mr. Luo?”
“Three months, more or less. How about you, boss?”
She laughs, as though the thought of leaving her corner stall is the funniest joke she’d ever heard. “Probably longer than that.” She says. “I swear to you boss, I’m going to miss your noodles more than anything else. Far, far more than any living thing.”
“They don’t have Er Si (Are-Suhh—these particular noodles) in the USA?” We’ve had this conversation seventeen times in the last year.
“Boss, they don’t even have Er Si in most parts of China. I’ll tell you what. If they did… If we opened up this place in the middle of New York City, we could get $15 for a plate like this. I’m serious.”
“How much is that in Renminbi?” She asks, never drawing attention from the task of chopping chives.
“A hundred, more or less.” She laughs, because 100 Renminbi for a plate of her simple noodles is too much too handle—like when a you tell a kid to guess your age and he says 1,000 years old and thinks he’s blown your comedic mind.
“A hundred for these!” She holds up a fistful of uncooked Er Si—uncooked, it resembles shredded paper. “That’s… that’s stupid.”
“I’m telling you. No one has even seen Er Si before. You… we open up a little shop and do exactly what you do now. Fried Er Si and Er Si soup. We don’t even have to charge $15—a hundred. We could charge like $10—sixty RMB. I’m telling you, just the fact that people in New York have never heard of it will mean they’ll buy it. Er Si, LLC. Er Si Limited.” She tossed some cut chives into a ceramic bowl.
“How much would the stall be?”
“I don’t know. Maybe $15,000 a month. So, 100,000 RMB” She roars with laughter, waving the imposing cleaver back and forth. “100,000 for a place like this. For a month! My god.”
“No, smaller than this. No seating, either.” No stools.
“Wow. Pshh. Where would we even get the money? You’re rich, right? You have the money?”
“No, I don’t even have enough for one week. We’d go to the bank.”
“Ha!” She motions across the street, where the Yunnan Rural Credit Union and their floppy disks and nice, but incredibly robbable security guard are located. “The bank doesn’t even have that much money.”
“Yeah, well boss, we wouldn’t get the money from that bank.”
No, we wouldn’t. We’d get it from a much less robbable, less nice bank.
“And then we’d open more Er Si stalls. And we’d have them all over the country. You wouldn’t even need to cook anymore.” She scooped up the last bit of chives with the blade of the knife and shook them into the bowl.
“I don’t know, Mr. Luo. You sound like you’re a little bit crazy. Er Si Limited, it’s too much. Why would I want to have a restaurant and not cook?”
“You’d be rich!”
She laughs, dismissingly. I finish off the last of my vinegar-soaked delicacy—the boss’s crispy hypothetical golden ticket to prosperity. I lovingly rub my belly. And, as one does at the close of any satisfying meal, stare longingly at the thick, lonely, barren oil on my plate and recline. A mistake. I slide off the stool and land ass-first on the dusty concrete.
“Fuckin’ stool.” I gripe in my native language. “Boss, you gotta get some new seats. It’s dangerous out here.” I advise from my position on the ground.
“Mr. Luo, if I got new seats, we’d never get to see you fall off.” She cackles.
I think she has a point, a point at my expense, albeit still a point.
All that stuff I said above, I was only really barely joking. Obviously, the boss isn’t going anywhere. She’s got kid(s) (shhhh), can’t speak a word of English, and, more importantly, seems pretty damn happy. But, if I could somehow weasel her recipe and synthesize it for the American palate with stuff like Maltodextrin and Yellow 6 Lake, success is a given. Fast, cheap, and exotic noodles from a part of Asia that’s pretty close to Tibet, has trend dripping all over its oily curls. There isn’t even an English Wikipedia page for Er Si. In fact, the only page, the Chinese page, is five sentences long—with 20% of those sentences explaining that drinking cold water after eating Er Si can cause diarrhea (not necessarily true—sometimes hot water is enough). No one knows about this stuff, and it should be the most popular noodle in the world.
But, the boss is right about the stools. It wouldn’t be the same without them. It certainly wouldn’t be the same without the cigarette bong offered as a courtesy to guests. Or the dust. It definitely wouldn’t be the same with health-code regulations. The ingredients, that the boss or her friends probably picked—those couldn’t change. Shit, everything good about this is un-replicatable. What’s more, the thought of having an Er Si LLC on every corner, the thought of Er Si having a Wikipedia page, the thought of writing a blog about Er Si—it seems like a betrayal.
You can’t recreate anything. Especially not this.