I was reading Fuchsia Dunlop’s autobiography, Shark’s Fin & Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China. Each chapter ends with a recipe, or helpful mini-guide to some aspect of Chinese cookery, which is how the lure of trying some of them out set in. Those recipes reminded me of a series of posts on reading Chinese menus. One of those posts told me, amongst other things, of a shop which sells a good brand of Sichuan chili-bean paste, as recommended in Dunlop’s blog.

Then, a few days ago, I was heading out to meet a friend at the National Portrait Gallery for afternoon tea when I realized I would be passing by Chinatown in central London. Chinatown, where that shop was, and shouldn’t I stop in as long as I was going to be passing by? As long as I was buying one ingredient, I bought others, including a large package of Chinese flour-and-water noodles. (In addition to being useful, the translation on the back charmed me: “Extra addition of meat and vegetables are suggested for palatable enchancement.”)

And that’s how we ended up cooking Xie Laoban’s Dan Dan noodles (p. 46) for dinner tonight, even though it involves no chili-bean paste. It was richly spicy-hot, but easier to eat because it was not also temperature hot. The noodles, fried mince, and pickled vegetables were cooled by the room-temperature oily sauce. The kitchen now smells beautifully of sesame and chili.

“Noodle” is such an odd-looking word, the more I think of it. Perhaps it’s because the available rhymes are still more ridiculous: oodle; kaboodle; poodle. (“Feudal” is close enough for most poetry, but not quite so silly-looking.)

How fitting, then, that its etymology is surmised, but not certain. Is it a derivative of knödel, dumpling in Middle High German, which itself might come from the same room as “knot”? Does it come from the same root as minute, by way of the Ladin language from the Val Gardena, whose word “menùdli” means “a small dough piece in soup”? The OED does not know and neither do I. It is a small knot of a mystery.

*© S. Worthen 2009