It is early but everyone is alive. Chongqing’s famous hillside stairway alleys are hustling with people, barkers, animals, and shirtless porters carrying cargo with bamboo sticks. Climbing these stairs necessitates a constant meandering, hopping, traversing, colliding; it is early but you feel alive too.
Shouldering these paths are vendors of all stripes. You know it’s a food joint if it’s enveloped in a cloud of smoke, a noodle joint in a cloud of steam. I am searching for a noodle place with enough customers so that I can see the variety in their meals and then point to the bowl that looks best.
This dark stair alley bottlenecks and opens out onto the main drag, chaos of a greater breadth and caliber. We are now playing with rushing fifteen-ton trucks and stacks of fat boxes reaching for the birds. None of this captivates, though, as everything blurs in my periphery and I zone in on a noodle place across the street.
A large man hunches over a tiny table, slurping up a potent concoction of noodles shining in the sun. I gesture towards it, take a seat, and watch the wheels turn.
Stations! A young woman in yellow crocs stands before a giant stainless-steel pot. She oversees the noodles, boiling them in individual colanders. She’s got three going at once and looks half asleep while executing her job precisely and mechanically.
The next woman prepares bowls with the ingredients of each respective order, each waiting for a sweet marriage with nests of hot noodles. She’s piecing together my bowl and – my god! – in goes a full ladle of chili oil! A large dash of Sichuan numbing peppers – dry little devils that make eating fun and visceral – make the cut, sinking one by one into the bright orange oil. I only see this woman’s back and how her arms are waving wildly, reaching and grabbing for anonymous bottles and spoons of various spice and throwing them into the bowls with a flourish, like a manic witch dancing over her bubbling cauldron. She then gingerly places three pieces of lettuce into each bowl, positioning them with purpose and care.
The noodles are ready! Noodle lady lifts one strainer from the boiling water and heavily shakes it, heaps of starchy water pour through. She quickly drops them into the bowls – one two three pow pow pow – and now the spotlight moves to the Boss of the Operation.
A humorless woman with a sagging face and sharp eyes, the Boss commands the territory of four pots, each with choice special ingredients. I’ve ordered, I think, chickpeas and shredded beef marinated in more chili oil. Two big spoons of chickpeas roll onto the mountain of steaming noodles. A dollop of that beef piles on top, pushing everything down with its heft. Chopped scallions are tossed in like confetti. And then the Boss turns.
The bowl is practically thrown at me, set hastily on the table; the thing slides across the wet surface and stops right under my face.
The restaurant becomes silent, downtown Chongqing moving on mute. My noodles and I stare at each other. It is my job to mix these worms all together, slathering each one with the due flavors. We aim for homogeneity in color.
With chopsticks I start stirring everything around, lifting bottom up and back and forth. But these noodles are too goddamn heavy, staunchly tied together so that I can only pick up the entire oil-dripping blob! My hand is cramping! It’s a titanic fight and the wooden chopsticks feel dangerously strained under the pressure.
They taste of smoke and inferno, of earth and salt. The chili oil takes on the harsh flavor of deception; at first it’s mild but the aftertaste kicks the back of your throat and burns all the way down and up again. The beef is slightly sweet, pairing nicely with the innocuous mushy chickpea. Those gingerly-placed lettuce leaves are perfect conveyers for any excess sauce. Everything in this bowl of mine belongs absolutely where it is.
A powerful breakfast, noodles that squash all challengers swiftly and without ambiguity. I am hunched over a tiny table shoveling these noodles into my mouth, I inhale them, I destroy them, it is like a cheap thrill magic act called, Watch the Noodles Disappear. I scan the joint with a mouth and chin dripping with chili oil and all patrons would relate to the words above, each with a waterfall of noodles hanging out of their mouths.
I walk out into the street chaos, into the steaming Chongqing morning. I am dizzy with happiness and I don’t feel anything when someone rushes by and suddenly pushes me into the wall. It’s probably what the numbing peppers are for.∗