Some families have legacy recipes for Sunday meatballs, sugar-dusted Christmas cookies, or extra-flaky biscuits. My family has something even more special: ping an mien.
Ping an mien means “peaceful noodles” in Chinese. In Mandarin, ping an translates to “peaceful,” and when sending someone someplace far away, you say zhu ni yi lu ping an, or “wishing you a peaceful journey.” It's made with a whole chicken simmered with ginger and rice wine, served with boiled eggs, dried Chinese mushroom caps, and thin, delicate noodles. My mother, born and raised in Taipei, learned to make this from her Fujianese mother, who brought the tradition over to Taiwan in the 1940s. In my family we make this dish for birthdays, and when someone is leaving to go far, far away.
I didn’t give ping an mien much thought until the summer of 2007. That’s when my boyfriend, Andy, told me he wanted to leave his job and our airy San Francisco apartment for a 13-month graduate program in New York. Objections, arguments, sleepless nights: I doubted we’d be able to make it work with separate lives (and rents) on opposite sides of the country. In the end, we agreed to give it a try.
I wanted to do something special to send him off, and remembered ping an mien. I was a novice cook back then—I’d never made anything as complicated as chicken and noodle soup. But for some reason, last time I’d visited my mother in Texas I'd asked for directions. So, with a sheet of paper full of Chinese words I couldn’t read crumpled in my jacket pocket, I dragged Andy to San Francisco’s largest Chinese supermarket, after convincing him to use his rusty Cantonese to help me ask for ingredients.
First, the rice wine. There was an entire aisle full of cooking wines, and my mother called for a specific type. After that, the noodles, the thinnest I could find, and they had to be salted. The biggest challenge was the chicken: It needed to be free-range, from Canada, and sold with the head still on. Normal chicken, with its flaccid, underused muscles and high proportion of fat, would result in a weak, greasy soup base. It simply wouldn’t do.
After a long set of negotiations between Andy and a grocer in Cantonese, and between me and the same grocer in Mandarin, we left with what I believed to be the correct chicken (it cost $9.99, an extravagant price for me in 2007, just as my mother had warned).
It wasn’t until we got home and I unpacked the chicken that I had the sinking feeling that my mother’s vague instructions weren’t going to cut it (so to speak). I always bought chicken as parts, conveniently boned and skinned and laid out in plastic-wrapped trays. But this! I caught sight of the unfortunate bird’s long claws and shivered. I attacked it with a cleaver and winced when I heard a bone crack. What would I do with the feet, neck, and rubbery tail bump? My mother didn’t specify anything about those parts. I wondered if I’d even be able to eat the finished soup, after seeing it in raw, jagged pieces. I wanted to call my mother, but it was well past midnight in Texas.
After simmering my victim in a pot, I added the cooking wine, ginger, rehydrated Chinese mushrooms. After 20 minutes, a drunken, gingery aroma began to fill the house. It was impossible to sleep—I was already craving a bowl.
Next morning I reheated the pot, boiled the eggs, and prepared the noodles. In each bowl, I included at least one piece of chicken, a mushroom, one bundle of noodles, and an egg. It’s customary to slip two eggs into the bowl of the person you make the dish for. Then he or she has to take a bite of every item in the bowl for luck.
“It looks so ethnic,” Andy said. He was laughing, looking down at the pale-skinned drumstick in his bowl. He slurped the broth. “But it's delicious.” I decided then and there that ping an mien is truly the ultimate chicken soup.
That night I compared notes with my mother over the phone. I’d used the wrong noodles! They were supposed to be xian mien: The ones I bought were too thin, apparently, and mine were from Japan, not China. I wasn’t supposed to hack off the chicken’s feet at the ankles, but at the hock joint. “Why are the mushrooms in your noodle bowl served upside down?” she asked when she saw a photo. But when she said I used the right chicken, I could tell she was impressed.
Seven years have passed since then. I’ve both made and been on the receiving end of ping an mien dozens of times. My mother taught me another version with dried fish and pork ribs. Sometimes the correct noodles are hard to find and I’ll use the Japanese ones, but our peaceful noodles are always there, most recently when I was back home for an extended stay after leaving my longtime job as an editor to pursue freelance writing. Andy and I had ping an mien the night he moved back into our apartment a year after leaving; I slurped a bowl on my 30th birthday.
Then there was that time, three Thanksgivings ago, when I ate ping an mien before heading to the Houston airport. My mother and I had gotten into what would end up being a months-long fight about my weight, and in my anger I bumped my return flight to California three days early. After I was all packed she handed me a bowl, and I fought tears, as well as feelings of anger, shame, and pride, as I gingerly ate small bites of every element: chicken, mushroom, noodles. She’d slipped two eggs into my bowl. I knew I’d be back.
Photos by Susannah Chen