Proposed change in law could keep International District noodles fresh

Tim Louie is the fourth-generation owner of Tsue Chong Co., a noodle and fortune cookie company in Seattle's International District. (Photo by John Stang.)
Tim Louie is the fourth-generation owner of Tsue Chong Co., a noodle and fortune cookie company in Seattle’s International District. (Photo by John Stang.)

The state’s health regulations on noodle storage temperatures caught noodle-maker Tim Louie by surprise last summer.

Tim Louie is the fourth-generation owner of Tsue Chong Co., a 99-year-old International District company that makes fortune cookies and noodles. It has been making fresh rice noodles for Seattle restaurants for 30 years.

Then last summer, a King County health inspector told Tim Louie the rice noodles could not be stored in temperatures above 41 degrees (about refrigerator temperature) and below 135 degrees. Current law has a four-hour window in which food can be kept between those two temperatures.

That was news to Louie and 2,000 years of Chinese tradition.

At a loss, the 54-year-old reached out to a high school friend for help and now the Washington Legislature seems set to create some flexibility in the state’s noodle rules.

This is a story about noodles and temperatures and the Legislature. But first, let’s go back to 1917.

1917 was the year that Gar Hip Louie moved to Seattle from southern China. He set up a factory — the Tsue Chong Co. — with a hand-cranked machine to provide wheat-based noodles of the city’s Chinese restaurants. His son, Fat Yuen Louie later took over, and Fat Yuen’s wife Eng Shee added fortune cookies to the factory’s production.

Fortune cookies are not really Chinese in origin. They popped in the late 19th or early 20th centuries. Maybe from Japan. Maybe San Francisco. Maybe from Los Angeles. It depends on who tells the story. But fortune cookies took on a Chinese vibe.

“It’s a fun product,” said Tim Louie, Gar Hip’s great-grandson and the current owner of the Tsue Chong Co.

The company passed on to Fat Yuen’s sons Henry and Ken. Henry Louie is Tim’s father.

About 30 years ago, Tsue Chong added rice noodles to its repertoire. Today it produces 17 different types of noodles.

Tsue Chong makes those rice noodles — three parts water and one part of rice — on the third floor of its International District building, keeping and shipping them to restaurants at room temperature, somewhere in the 70-degree range.

That violated the current laws on food storage. But long refrigeration would turn the noodles rock hard.

Louie says that he had the noodles tested in a lab and found no health threats from rice noodles stored at room temperatures.

So he called Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos, D-Seattle, a schoolmate of his from the Class of 1979 at Seattle’s Franklin High School.

I approached her out of a state of helplessness,” he said. Both Tomiko Santos and Sen. Bob Hasegawa, D-Seattle, represent the same southeastern Seattle 37th District. The two legislators introduced the same bill in the House and Senate.

The bills would order the Washington Board of Health to use scientific data to rewrite the allowable storage standards for Asian rice-based noodles and Korean rice cakes. The bill sponsors added Korean rice cakes to the bill after additional research.

According to the bill report, Asian rice-based noodles have ingredients that provide a preservative effect. While they are delivered to the restaurants at room temperature, they aren’t served until they are steamed at 130 degrees or more for several minutes. Korean rice cakes are steamed at 275 degrees between 5 and 15 minutes.

When Louie testified in front of the House Health Care & Wellness Committee on Tomiko Santos’ bill, Louie was not nervous but did not know what to expect.

“I was happy how they made it very comfortable for a first-time person,” Louie said.

A representative for the Washington State Board of Health also testified in favor of the change.

The bills each easily made it out of the House and Senate committees. Hasegawa’s bill — “Concerning certain cultural foods” — easily passed the Senate unanimously, 49-0.

The Senate bill easily went through the House committee stage, and is now awaiting a full House floor vote and is on the calendar for Tuesday.

But the political machinations of getting a bill through both chambers of the state legislature were not Louie’s primary interest.

“I’m just happy that the politicians, especially Rep. Santos and Sen. Hasegawa, listened to me,” Louie said.