Friday, September 10, 2010

2:30 is a Great Time for Noodles

The human body is truly an amazing organism. I’ve heard stories of people who have lost their ability to see, but whose bodies adapted by becoming more sensitive to the small noises, smells, and textures that would have otherwise gone by unnoticed.

As foreigners living in a Muslim city, our senses have adapted in other ways.

From up to two rooms away, I can identify the thwack of freshly pulled noodles slapping against a countertop. The thunk of a knife chopping a cantaloupe in half. The scraaape of a cooking pot being taken out of a cupboard.

Recognizing these sounds is crucial to our survival here. Guests in local homes are expected to be able to eat on command. And while there are ways of avoiding eating a full portion (only eating when the host is in the room, putting part of your own meal on someone else’s plate, etc.), there is no getting around the fact that sooner or later, you have to eat something.

Normally this isn’t a big problem – after all, there is no need to visit more than a couple of houses in one day. But this week is the end of Ramadan. Our Muslim friends have spent the last month fasting from food and drink during daylight hours, and now it’s time to party! During the next few days, anyone can knock on anyone else’s door and expect a warm welcome, complete with tea, snacks, and a hot meal.

Since K and I just moved into a new house, we decided that this would be a great time to meet our new neighbors. Knowing that there are at least 7 or 8 Uyghur families in our apartment building, we decided to plan carefully. We had a light snack instead of breakfast and lunch, and planned on visiting neighbors between 1 and 4 p.m. in order to avoid mealtimes. That way, we could just drink tea and pick at snacks on the tables, visiting a lot of new houses without having to eat too much or stay too long.

Our plan started off well – we were in and out of our first house in just fifteen minutes, with only a few mouthfuls of melon and a cup of tea. But the second house wasn’t quite so easy. Our hostess was excited to tell us that they had only just finished eating, and immediately brought us two bowls of noodles so we wouldn’t miss out on the meal.

I should probably mention that Uyghur noodles are basically like homemade spaghetti, with a little bit of sautéed lamb and green pepper thrown on top in place of sauce. The noodles – a fairly tasteless tangle of starch – are the main event, and the more the better.

Luckily, bowl number one wasn’t too big (about half of an American portion), so we polished them off with no problem and headed to our next house. A few quick introductions and melon slices later and we were on our way again. The next house we hit another snag; the woman who answered the door was alone, and dressed very conservatively, which is usually the sign of a big feeder. Sure enough, within a few minutes of being seated in the living room, we hear the telltale thwack, thunk, and scraaape coming from the kitchen – noodles and melons. K and I did our best to wolf down a full-sized portion of noodles, plus a couple of slices of melon and several cups of tea, thanked our hostess profusely, and headed out again.

Our last stop was a big family gathering. Almost immediately upon entering, the grandma of the family brought out plates heaped with dumplings, rice, and fruit. K and I didn’t budge. So she brought out a second plate – more fruit, meat pancakes, and bread. Full teacups were pushed into our hands. “Eat, eat,” urged the family members.

We eat our share from the edges of the rice and sipped our tea slowly. The grandma reappeared, this time with two bowls of noodles. “Here, I made these for you,” she said with a twinkle in her eye. We both did our best to smile as we took the bowls, which were full to the brim. “You eat so slowly!” one of the girls remarked, watching us mechanically shoveling noodles into our mouths. “Don’t you like it?”

Eventually we excused ourselves, narrowly missing another round of dumplings and rice, and went home to rest. In just three hours, we had each eaten three helpings of noodles and half a melon. I decided to skip dinner.

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