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Nine Famous Noodles You Need To Know



There are almost as many famous noodles in China as there are cities in which to eat them, and they’re all good – believe me, I’ve tried most of them.

Traditionally, five noodles were named as China’s Five Famous Noodles, considered the pinnacle of noodle eating. They were Shanxi’s hand cut noodles dao xiao mian 山西刀削面, Beijing’s zhajiang noodles zhajiang mian 北京炸酱面, Guangdong and Guangxi’s fried noodles, Sichuan’s dan dan noodles dan dan mian 四川担担面 and Wuhan’s hot, dry noodles re gan mian 武汉热干面.


Earlier this year the China Ministry of Commerce and the China Hotel Association expanded this list of five to China’s Top Ten Noodles but caused no end of controversy when the list failed to include, for example, any of Shanxi Province’s hundred types of noodles. What? No cat’s ear, willow leaf or scissor-cut noodles? And how about the noodle dishes of China’s far west?None of them made the list either. 

It got me thinking – which noodles would I list as the best, and why? Here are nine favourites I’ve chosen from all over China.

Continue reading “Nine Famous Noodles You Need To Know”

‘Cold Wontons’ Noodle Shop – One of Shanghai’s Best Noodle Joints

The sign on the door said simply: “Cold Wontons.” Hardly an appetising name.
My Chinese friend had described it to me like this: 
“Near the corner of Changhua Lu and Changping Lu there are two noodles shops on opposite sides of the street – one does hot noodles. One does cold noodles. Neither have a name. But they’re really, really good. You should go.”
“Cold Wontons” turned out to be the de facto name of this totally nameless noodle joint in Shanghai’s Jing’an District, undistinguishable – from the outside at least – from other noodle joints in the area. 
But what every customer knew is that this place cooked very authentic, very high quality Shanghainese cold noodles. The cold wontons? Just a side dish. Lord knows how it came to be spelled out in fat red Chinese characters on the door.
I walked in and tried to order at the small cashier’s desk near the door, behind which was seated a lady in her early sixties with a wide smile and very permed hair. She spoke barely a word of Chinese, and not even a skerrick of English. This was a Shanghainese noodle joint, and Shanghainese was the language spoken. I failed to understand a thing she said.
The menu, otherwise known as the jiàmùbiǎo 价目表 or price list, was pinned to the wall behind her, and detailed all the dishes or toppings available to eat with cold noodles – fried pork cutlets, spicy meat, spicy sauce, bean sprouts, white chicken. You chose a topping, a bowl of cold noodles, and as many side dishes as you liked, and paid at the counter before taking a seat.
My friend had told me what to try – the eel noodles, specialty of the house.

The only problem for me and my very Australian-accented Chinese was that the ‘eel thread cold noodles’ – shànsī lěngmiàn 鳝丝冷面 , a dish of fine eel slivers, sounded exactly the same to the cashier as the ‘three thread cold noodles’ – sānsī lěngmiàn 三丝冷面, a totally different dish of shreds of bamboo shoot, pork and green pepper.

Our confused encounter went like this:

“I’ll have the eel thread cold noodles.”

“Three thread cold noodles?”

“No, no, eel thread.”

“Yes, I understand, three thread.”

“No! No….EEL thread.”

“Huh?”

I was obviously struggling until a customer, bilingual in Chinese and Shanghainese, came to my aid. 
“What do you want to eat?” he asked.
“I want the eel noodles” I told him. He smiled.
“And how many liang of noodles do you want? Two or three?”
“Three” I said, feeling hungry (a liang 两 is a Chinese measure of weight, about 50g, often used for noodles and also dumplings – a standard serve is two to three liang).
He turned to the cashier and in rapid Shanghainese told her what I wanted. 
“Aaah!” she said, smiling even more widely. She clearly approved of my choice. Or maybe she was just pleased to get me out of the queue and into a seat.
Clearly I needed assistance with every step of my lunch, and so the cashier assigned a matronly aunty to help me. She took my ticket from me and passed it through the small window to the staff in the glassed-in kitchen, a metre away.
Then while I waited she interrogated me with the help of the bilingual customer, who, like the relaxed Shanghainese gentleman he was, had come out for lunch in his pyjamas.
“How long have you lived in Shanghai?”
“Are you married?” 
“How many children?”
At my answer – two daughters – the aunty, our translator and everyone else in the cramped space made appreciative noises.
“How come you can’t speak Shanghainese?”
A fair question. But after four years of struggling with Chinese, Shanghainese still eluded me.
Then, thank goodness, the noodles arrived.
Slivers of sweet ginger. Pieces of tasty, soft, oily eel. Shreds of bamboo shoot. Little wilted, caramelised pieces of scallion. All swimming in the most marvellous sweet, oily, gingery, soy braised sauce.
And the noodles – fine wheat noodles, a little flat rather than round, cold and firm to the bite, served in a dish with a splash of light brown vinegar in the bottom and a slick of sesame sauce on the top.
Aunty came and sat next to me, and told me I could eat the two dishes separately or mix them together. Up to me.
I tried the eels first – soft, salty, sweet and gingery all at once with the wonderful richness of the eel. Magnificent. Then I tried it mixed with the cold noodles, and the firm bite of the noodles gave each mouthful a contrast in textures. Amazing.
All around me conversations in Shanghainese were being carried out to the enjoyable slurp of really great noodles.

On my next visit I had more time to study the menu and figure out the other noodle toppings and extra dishes available.
From front to back:
dòuyár lěngmiàn 豆芽冷面 – shreds of green pepper and pork with bean sprouts 3 yuan
ròuwán 肉丸 meatballs 5 yuan
dàpái 大排 big crispy fried pork chops 7.5 yuan
sùjī 素鸡 white chicken 2 yuan
Sides:

lěng húntun 冷馄饨 cold wontons 4 yuan/liang

hébāodàn 荷包蛋 fried egg 2 yuan

sāndélì 三得利 suntory beer 3 yuan san
kělè 可乐 cola 2 yuan
I tried the three thread noodles just for fun (nice, but not as good as the eel noodles) and the cold wontons. The wontons, at least, were utterly fabulous, full of chives and pork and served firm and cold with vinegar and sesame sauce. 
Aunty even let me give my ticket to the kitchen all by myself.
Cold Wontons (um, not it’s real name)
379 Changhua Lu, near Changping Lu, Jing’an District, Shanghai
Signature dish: shànsī lěngmiàn 鳝丝冷面 eel thread cold noodles

Order as ‘shan si liang liang’ for two liang of noodles (18 yuan) or ‘shan si san liang’ for three liang of noodles (20 yuan) 

Open 7 days. No phone.
冷馄饨
上海市静安区昌化路379号, 近昌平路。

Back on the Trail of The Best Beef Noodles in Lanzhou 兰州最好吃的牛肉拉面

I’m on a mission: to find the best hand-pulled beef noodles (niurou lamian 牛肉拉面) in Lanzhou.

Actually, hang it – in all of China, but Lanzhou is the obvious place to start – I mean, it’s the home of niurou lamian, the world famous noodle soup dish with the heady aromatic broth, mind-blowing la jiao chili paste, coriander, and fine slices of beef, so full of spice and flavour it will satisfy you every day for a year.

As long-time readers of this blog will know, finding the best of anything is no easy feat, and I have previously tried and failed to find Lanzhou’s best lamian, but you know, I’m no quitter. I’m back again to give it another shot.

Lanzhou is a sprawling big, busy, dirty city, the capital of staggeringly beautiful Gansu Province, home to the thousands of Hui Muslims with whom this dish is synonymous, and also home to thousands of lamian restaurants. It also happens to be on the ancient Silk Road, where our route westward to Kashgar is taking us.

 Luckily, after our last trip to Lanzhou (and on the advice of several people since) I knew that the best noodles in the city were reportedly at Mazilu Niurou Mian, so with empty bellies and a raging hunger we jumped in a taxi and asked the driver to take us to the closest Mazilu restaurant.

‘Really?’ he said, looking crestfallen. ‘It’s just over there!’ pointing to the other side of the huge intersection where we had flagged him down.

‘I thought it was near the White Temple…’ I said.

‘There is one there too’ he replied, nodding.

‘Just how many Mazilu restaurants are there?’ I asked.

‘Fifteen!’

‘Well, just take us to the best one. Or…um…the original one.’ Original is always good, in my books. The taxi driver, by now mistaking me for someoe who could actually speak Chinese, reverted to a broad local dialect as he continued.

‘Well, the original one is by …..(unintelligible address) and there’s also a good one right next to…(another unintelligible location). Which one do you want?

‘Let’s just go to wherever you think has the best lamian‘ I said, by now acutely aware that we had circled a whole block without deciding on a destination.

‘Well, if you want the best, and you want my opinion, then we’ll go straight to Wumule. It’s a laozihao

Just like crack cocaine those words are. Crack cocaine. The best lamian. Laozihao.

Laozihao 老字号 means ‘time-honoured brand’ and for a Chinese foodie it’s the equivalent of the German wurst shop that’s been making sausages the exact same wonderful way for 110 years, or the artisanal cheesemaker who learned to make the best chevre from a traditional recipe. Laozihao denotes quality and a definite pride in food-making, usually with a long and distinguished history.

‘So what are we waiting for?’ I said to the driver. ‘Go!!’

我正在执行一项任务:找到兰州最好吃的牛肉拉面。这项任务可不简单,我还没开始就已经筋疲力尽失败了。兰州有数千家拉面店,但是我们上次去兰州的时候得知,最好吃的牛肉拉面在马自禄牛肉面。我们跳上一辆出租车,告诉司机我们要去最近的牛肉面店。
你确定吗?它就在那里!"他说着指向宾馆环形大路口的另一边。

我说:"我觉得应该在白庙附近。"

"那里也有一家。"

"一共有多少家?"我问道。

"十五家。"他回答。
好吧,带我们去最好的那家。或者去最老的那家。"
"好的,最老的那家靠近(听不懂的地址),还有一家比较好的靠近(另一个听不懂的地址)"
"我们就去你觉得最好的拉面店。"
"好吧,如果你们想去最好的店,那么我们就去吾穆勒蓬灰。它是一家老字号。
就像诸如可卡因那般有吸引力的字眼,老字号就是最好的拉面。
我们还等什么?出发!



We drove westwards along the very high and fast-flowing Yellow River for half an hour away from Lanzhou’s centre and towards its western outskirts before pulling up alongside a nondescript building with floor to ceiling glass windows fronting the street. 

‘Here it is!’ the driver said, and deposited us on the footpath just as a stream of Hui Muslims, white caps in place, came out of the front door. Their surprise at seeing us was obvious, but they also seemed delighted that we had made our way to their far-away lamian restaurant.

Inside, the restaurant was light and airy and had all the signs of a great place to eat: queues for the cashier, queues for noodles, queues for tables, and crowds of happy-looking diners leaving through clouds of steam billowing from the kitchen. 

我们沿着奔腾的黄河一路向西行驶了半个小时,远离了兰州市中心到达城市的西郊一座拥有落地窗户的难以形容的大楼。"我们到了。就这里。"
我们在回民的众目睽睽下跳下出租车,白色的小毡帽涌出大厅。显然他们惊讶于我们的好奇,但也很开心我们找到了他们地处偏远的拉面店。
饭店里面既明亮又通风,所有的一切都表明这是个用餐的好地方:等待买单的队伍,等待面条的队伍,等候空桌的队伍,还有兴高采烈的食客们,在离开时从厨房冒出的蒸汽中穿梭而过的身影。我们一边站在柜台前摩肩接踵的人群中,一边试图弄懂菜单。有位老态龙钟的老人负责收银,他的儿子则负责点单。




I was swept along on a human tide towards the front counter, battling the crowds of people and at the same time trying to decipher the blackboard menu before it was my turn to order. 

All I could make out under pressure was:

Noodles – small, medium, large 6, 8, 10 yuan 面条小碗,中碗,大碗,分别是6元,8元,10元。
Small dishes – 2 yuan 小菜-2
Cold roast beef – 58 per jin 冷切牛肉每斤58

And then all of a sudden, I was next. Behind the counter was a 180 year old man manning the cash register, and his younger and sprightlier son taking orders.

‘Hey!’ said the son with a big smile. ‘What will you be having?’ and without drawing breath he went on to say ‘How about four bowls of noodles and 200g of beef? Done?’ Done.

‘Beef over there!’ he said, pointing to a heavy-set woman off to one side with a huge cleaver in her hand.

‘Noodles that way!’ he beamed, pointing to the lengthening queue at the noodle kitchen.

‘Small dishes behind me!’ he said, pointing over his shoulder to the separate kitchen for pickles and vegetable dishes. 

"嘿!你们吃什么?"儿子满脸灿烂地说到,然后紧接着又说:"四碗面加四两牛肉,怎么样?"

就这么办。

"牛肉在那边取!"他指着一个拿着切肉刀的敦实的妇女说道。
"面条在那边拿!"他满脸笑容地指向面条厨房处的长长的队伍。
小菜在我身后那里拿!"他边说边指着后面专做咸菜和蔬菜的厨房。我们在托盘上装满牛肉,萝卜干,黄瓜和豆角后,耐心地在面条柜台等我们的面。




My hand filled with several small white tickets, one for each component of my lamian meal. For the best lamian you can’t just dump everything in a big soup bowl, you have your spicy noodle soup accompanied by dainty plates of side dishes with pleasing, contrasting tastes and textures designed to offset the searing heat of the noodles. Noodles, beef slices, cold dishes and pickles.

But not in that order….no point in first collecting a huge steaming bowl of scalding-hot noodles only to carry them around the restaurant while you collect assorted sides from the ‘small dishes’ counter and ‘beef’ counter. No, no, no.

Roast beef first, sliced with that huge and heavy cleaver into wafer thin slices, weighed on old-fashioned scales and tipped onto a small plate.

Next: small dishes – a smorgasbord of small plates filled with a variety of spiced pickles, vegetables or finely sliced liver, all served cold. I filled our tray with sides of fuchsia-pink radish dressed with garlic, vinegar and coriander, and crunchy cold cucumber with chili and sesame oil.

Lastly – time to nab a table, leaving the small dishes there alone, and join the snaking queue at the window of the noodle kitchen right in the restaurant’s centre.

Regular customers call out their orders from way back in the line – ‘extra thick noodles!’ ‘more lajiao!’ ‘no coriander!’

老食客在后面的队伍中大声喊:"面粗一点!""辣椒多一点!""不要香菜!"


Inside the kitchen the noodle-pullers, three on one side of the central cooktop and four on the other, work in steamy conditions at a fierce pace pulling noodles, while the last cook in line ladles boiling hot broth into bowls with spoons of radish, scallions, lajiao and lastly hot noodles added at lightning speed.

I took my bowl, swimming with chili oil and smelling incredible.

I took my seat and prepared to sweat, just like the diners all around me.

The first mouthful of smooth soft noodles went down easily until the chili suddenly hit me. I began to sweat. My nose ran. My cheeks flushed. I kept eating.

Those noodles were excellent – full of flavour, rich and oily, the broth savoury and aromatic.
All around me noodles were being slurped, sipped, and sucked down noisily with great satisfaction. Trickles of sweat poured from faces on all sides. I crunched on my side dishes to relieve the heat.

Between mouthfuls of hot soup I noticed a large gold plaque on the wall: 

‘Lanzhou Best Niurou Lamian: 2012’ 


So that was it – the odyssey was over and I had finally found Lanzhou’s best lamian.  What a relief….at least until next year, when the lamian committee will assign a new title. Oh well, looks like another trip back to Lanzhou is on the cards. Anyone care to join me in August 2013?


厨房里面,七位拉面师傅正紧张有序地工作着,同时用长柄勺将热腾腾的肉汤舀进装有几小勺萝卜干,香葱,辣椒和热气腾腾的面条的碗里。
我拿到了飘着红辣椒油的面条,香气扑鼻。

我们找到了座位,做好了大汗淋漓的准备,四周座无虚席。

我吸食了一大口面条,很爽滑直到辣椒后劲突然上来了。我开始流汗,鼻子也通了,脸颊绯红。
但面条真的超棒满口香郁醇厚爽滑,肉汤口感十足,香气四溢。
周围的人都在淅沥呼噜地吸面,喝汤。
我抬头看到墙上有块匾:2012年度兰州最佳牛肉拉面。就是它我终于找到了兰州最好地拉面。虽然有些偏远,但执着的美食家们总会发现它,有时你为了找到最好的食物得走得更远些。

Wumule Penhui Beef Noodles
2012 Winners of Lanzhou’s Best Lamian 
吾穆勒蓬灰牛肉面 

七里河区北滨河西路2168号(近黄河水岸怡园黄河楼)
1268 Bei Huang He Zhong Lu, Lanzhou

Ph 13919893333 

Saucepan Lid Noodles 镇江锅盖面

It’s the Holy Grail for foodies, that rarely attained combination of a tasty, memorable, inexpensive meal in a place that no-one else seems to have discovered except you and the local neighourhood customers, who all want to keep it that way. Sorry about that.

Thanks to a Sunday afternoon walk with Sue Anne Tay (who owns the great Shanghai Street Stories website and knows the old neighbourhood of Hongkou like the back of her hand) I was introduced to this noodle shop on Kunshan Lu, where they served the best ban mian, noodles mixed with sauce. On the day we visited the taste of their Zhenjiang noodles blew me away with spicy complexity, and when Sue Anne told me they make fresh noodles every day on the strange wooden contraption at the front of the shop with a long green bamboo pole attached, I wanted to see it.

Sadly, that hot afternoon the noodle-maker had finished for the day and the other staff were taking advantage of the lull between lunch and dinner to drink beers and nap on the wooden platform above the kitchen, shielded only by the overhang of the banner menu. There was no noodle making to be seen.

So yesterday I returned, and wouldn’t you know it, I arrived mid-batch just as the noodle maker was bouncing up and down on the bamboo pole like a teeter-totter, squeaking like mad.

What was it all about? The noodle dough is made from buckwheat flour, and just like the Japanese version, soba, the dough needs to be rolled with a heavy hand and layered before being cut with a very sharp knife into ribbon-like noodles. Doing it this way with a bamboo pole seems like way more fun than sweating away with a rolling pin, and the noodle maker bounced up and down for an hour until all the dough had been worked.
Once the noodles are cut, they’re cooked a handful at a time in a boiling pot of water, then served one of two ways – as tang mian – soup noodles with broth, or ban mian – mixed with a combination of sauces. 
Try this amazing sauce combination – chili oil, sesame seeds, roast peanuts, soft boiled peanuts, coriander, roasted chilies, finely chopped pickles, nubbins of spiced pork meat and tiny cubes of fiery spiced potato. These noodles – with a nutty bite thanks to the buckwheat – will knock your socks off. You can also add toppings like pork chops, meatballs, tea eggs or spicy meat if you need a bigger meal.

I still haven’t explained the quirky name of the noodle shop, Zhenjiang guo gai mian 镇江锅盖面, or saucepan lid noodles. Do you remember Emperor Qianlong? He lived about three hundred years ago and according to my limited knowledge did nothing much but travel up and down the countryside coaxing unexpectedly amazing cooking out of humble circumstances.

First he cajoled a peasant into delivering the extraordinary and tasty Qianlong Yu Tou Tang (Emperor Qianlong’s fish head soup), a culinary revelation I experienced in Hangzhou. For a three hundred year old recipe involving fish heads it’s pretty damn fine.

Then there’s this one, Saucepan Lid Noodles.

The story goes that Emperor Qianlong stopped on his horse one day at the house of a peasant in Zhenjiang town, and asked for some local buckwheat noodles. In his embarrassment and consternation at having the emperor suddenly drop in on him, the peasant got completely flustered and tried to put the small saucepan lid on the big pot of noodles, and it promptly fell in. To his amazement the noodles tasted better than before and the emperor, impressed, bestowed the name of guō gài miàn 锅盖面 or saucepan lid noodles.

I like the sound of this Emperor Qianlong. He just rides his horse everywhere, has peasants rustle up ordinary food (which turns extraordinary under his imperial influence), then bestows special names to make the peasants feel better for dropping lids in cooking pots. I think I need to find out what other dishes he’s been involved in and taste those.

I quite fancy myself as a modern day Emperor Qianlong you know, roaming the countryside to bring you great noodles with interesting names. Just without the horse. And the mastery of spoken Chinese. And the robes.

Zhenjiang Saucepan Lid Noodles

Zhenjiang Guo Gai Mian 
184 Kunshan Lu, Near Zhapu Lu, 
Hongkou District Shanghai
镇江锅盖面
上海虹口区昆山路184号近乍浦路
Open 7 days for lunch and dinner
Noodles 6-10 yuan/bowl, extra charge for pork chops, tea eggs or spicy meat toppings.


Are These Shanghai’s Best Noodles?

This Old Place Noodle Restaurant 老地方面馆

When hunting down good, cheap street food in Shanghai, you only need one tool – I’m going to call it the Queue Quotient, and here’s how it works.  The length of the queue is usually – and reliably- directly proportional to the quality of the food, (the longer the queue, the higher the quality) and inversely proportional to the price of the food and unfortunately, the establishment’s cleanliness.  
When you’re looking for good eats, search for a long queue like this one and try and ignore the Shanghai Food Safety Inspection smiley face looking glumly at you from the wall. I’ve found it to be a completely unreliable indicator of the likelihod you’ll spend the night following your meal in the bathroom.
Case in point is This Old Place Noodle Restaurant (lăo dìfang miàn guăn 老地方面馆) on Xiangyang Lu.  Frequently listed on Chinese website Noodle Top Ten lists in Shanghai, along with my favourite noodle joint Ah Niang Noodles, you wouldn’t give its simple drab shopfront a second glance outside of opening hours, but walk past during the brisk lunchtime rush and the queue starting at the tiny shopfront and snaking down the street gives you a pretty good indication of their food’s popularity and safety.
Through the tiny doorway the restaurant is a single low-ceilinged room with four circular formica tables seating eight apiece on miniature plastic stools designed for those tending to the small of bottom. In the minute space between the tables another ten or so customers can cram themselves, crowding the seated diners like seagulls around a newspaper-wrapped piece of fish, waiting for a morsel to drop or a seat to open up.  The owners live upstairs, reached via a ceiling trapdoor and an aluminium ladder wedged against the far wall.
The room, plainly decorated with an old television, is managed by an eagle-eyed waitress with an extraordinary memory and the build and demeanour of a hospital matron, who conducts the room like a symphony. Patrons stand up, sit down, swap seats, and generally try to make life confusing for her but she can singlehandedly memorize the entire room, able to recall exactly in what order each customer was seated, takes orders around the room in turn, and delivers forty correct mealsan hour without a single error.
Most customers are here for just one dish – the zhá zhū pǎi miàn 炸猪排面 – noodles with a deep-fried pork chop. Not just any pork chop, this super-special pork chop is dipped in Taikang Spicy Sauce before being deep-fried in a crisp golden batter. The spicy sauce tastes like chili-infused worcestershire – tangy, vinegary, sweet and a little hot. The accompanying noodles come in a light-flavoured broth which you can have with or without a tangle of seaweed.
The crunchy pork chop is a surprisingly good fit for the simply flavoured silky smooth noodles, either as a side dish or mixed into the broth.

I tried another house specialty on the suggestion of a Chinese friend, the huángshàn gān miàn 黄鳝干面or eel noodles. They were incredible – short oily pieces of fried eel and scallions mixed with a deep dark rich peppery sauce atop a bowl of fine, thin wheat noodles. I loved it.
Other house specialties, all noodle dishes, include fried liver noodles and scallion oil noodles .

Through the twelve by twelve inch serving hatch in the dining room is the cramped kitchen, staffed by two female cooks using giant pincer-like chopsticks to swirl noodles, fry pork chops, dip sauces and make bowl after bowl of noodle soup at a cracking pace. I’m not sure how I would be able to keep up with the relentless long queue of hungry customers, but they do so with patience and good grace.
The thing I love most about Lao Difang, other than the wonderful flavoursis that they have resisted all pressure from their customers to enlarge, expand, modernize or franchise. Many complain about their early closing time but as the proprietor says – ‘We need to have a life too! We like to relax in the evenings!’ Well said. Get there for lunch or run the risk of missing out!
This Old Place Noodle Shop

老地方面馆
233 Xiangyang Lu near Yongkang Lu Shanghai
上海襄阳路233号,在永康路附近
Open seven days, last orders 6.30pm but will close earlier if sold out.
More Noodle Adventures in China:
Yunnan – Crossing the Bridge Noodles
Xian – Hand-cut noodles
Xinjiang – Lady Style Noodles
Langzhou – Niu Rou La Mian
Shanghai – Master of Noodles

The Best Lanzhou Lamian in Lanzhou

Ask any Chinese person what the city of Lanzhou is famous for, and they immediately give the same two answers:
1. Lanzhou lāmiàn 兰州拉面, the city’s famed spicy hand-pulled beef noodles served in clear broth (also known by many as niu rou mian – beef noodles), now sold as far afield as Singapore and Vancouver.
2. Smog. One of the rootin-est pollutin-est cities in China, Lanzhou unluckily sits between two long, low mountain ranges lying side by side, trapping smog very efficiently between them.
Lanzhou. My last stop before returning to Shanghai, and an inadvertent one at that. We’ve run out of time to train it all the way back to from west to east as planned, so as a compomise we’re spending a day and night in Lanzhou before flying home. Everyone is tired of travelling and just wants to relax and chill out, but I can’t get noodles off my mind – I have to eat some really good lamian before I get on that plane.
A clear sunny day in Lanzhou. There’s a whole mountain range behind those tower blocks, but you’ll have to take my word for it.
The problem for the casual visitor of course, is not how to deal with the smog, because I have plenty of practice with that back in Shanghai, but in a stay of less than 24 hours, how to find the best Lanzhou lamian in all of Lanzhou. Not as easy as you’d think. 
I first turn to my trusted Lonely Planet China, now conveniently loaded onto my Kindle so I don’t have to lug 0.8kg of guidebook everywhere. Inconveniently though, the script is so small I can’t read anything except the title of each chapter, and the script magnification feature (so clever!) only works on 1/8 of a page at a time (so annoying!).
Lonely Planet describes Lanzhou as “a major transportation hub…most travellers use it as a springboard to other places” Not high on the tourist agenda perhaps, but for the travelling eater like myself, an essential stop. 
For eating, they recommend you choose from a student bistro, an upscale teahouse, The Boston Coffee Shop or an eatery serving mutton hotpot and decorated with Beijing Opera masks. Hmmm…to my knowledge, none of them serve the most famous dish of Lanzhou, and I’m beginning to think the Lanzhou LP writer may have been looking to springboard to other places.
I decide to do what I always do in these situations – I ask a local taxi driver. Now, my taxi driver is around fifty and wearing short-sleeved blue pyjamas, made from the thin pale blue cotton favoured by hospitals, and spectacles so thick and flat they look like they were cut directly from a window pane. It turns out this is the standard spectacle style for Lanzhou’s male population, although they are so alarmingly large and vertically flat they look like they need their own set of windscreen wipers.
I ask him what he thinks about Lonely Planet’s choice of restaurants. He glances over at my Kindle while doing 70 km/h on the wrong side of the road. “Those places? Rubbish.” he says emphatically.

“Where do you like to eat lamian?” I ask. “What’s the best place in town?”

He doesn’t even hesitate. “Maziluniuroumian.”

“What?”

More slowly this time. “Ma-zi-lu-niu-rou-mian” Mazi Lu beef noodles.

“Write it down for me?”

“No need!” he says – “It’s right here!” as he points to a small lane to our left which we whiz past at high speed on our way to the White Cloud Temple. “Everyone knows where Mazi Lu is!” he reassures me. “And it’s where I eat. It’s good.”

Against my better judgement we do not stop the car immediately and disembark there and then because, in all fairness, it’s only nine in the morning and we’ve just finished breakfast. I pace around the White Cloud Temple for two hours, failing to allow the Buddhist ambience to calm me. Who can be calm when there are noodles waiting?

It’s already eleven when the search for the mythical taxi-driver noodle heaven begins. Passersby many and varied help in the quest by pointing me in the right direction – back to the laneway I glimpsed from the taxi window. I stop at every second shop and ask for ‘Mazi Lu’. Everyone seems to know it and they gesture me on further down the lane. The problem is that I don’t know if the place I’m looking for is large or small, at ground level or higher, and whether it will have a sign I can read, or any sign at all.

Less committed and more hungry members of my travelling party stop at every single restaurant in the lane and enquire if this one will do? Please. Second-rate noodles we can get anywhere – the best noodles in Lanzhou we can only get here. Half an hour later and just when I’m beginning to give up hope, I see it. A broad street frontage, understated, with wide tinted doors and a knot of people milling around outside. It looks very promising.

Mazi Lu translates as ‘Bandit’s Fortune’. I’m feeling very, very hungry and I have that feeling of an impending Major Food Discovery. Underneath the large and easy to read sign is a small notice in Chinese. 
“Closed for renovations until November 1st” 
No!! I peer through the tinted doors and see the empty shell of the restaurant, the floor covered in bags of concrete and stacks of tiles. The knots of people look on sympathetically because they too have travelled far to eat here. Not as far as me, but still.
I ask one of the assembled men whether Mazi Lu is indeed Lanzhou’s best lamian restaurant. 
“Definitely!” comes the cheerful response.
“And the second best?”
He pauses and thinks for quite a long time. 
“Mazi Lu’s second location. That would be the second best lamian.”
There’s a second location? My flagging spirits take a flying leap. “Is it far?”
“Not far. No more than an hour by taxi.”
At this point I would like to be able to report that my travelling party immediately settled in for an hours’ taxi ride in the direction of Mazi Lu Number Two. I cannot. There were some undignified complaints, reminders about the younger members being close to fainting etc, and I was forced to find my helpful friend and ask again.
“OK. What is the third best lamian restaurant in Lanzhou? Within ten minutes’ walk. Or maybe the fourth best.”
“Hmmm…I think it would be Ma Mang Cai. Five minutes tops.”
This choice was confirmed by several other random strangers I polled on the way. (To keep the peace I stopped asking “What is your favourite lamian restauarant in Lanzhou?” and replaced it with “What is your favourite lamian restaurant around here?”) They all said Ma Mang Cai. So we were all, to a man, extremely pleased to walk through their doors some two hours after our short walk to lunch had begun. 
Ma Mang Cai looked the business. The restaurant was dim,  lights switched off to save electricity. There were long communal red tables in rows filled with the last of the lunch crowd. By the door sat a cashier with a small book of coloured tickets, and towards the back of the restauarant was a huge open kitchen billowing with steam and filled with strapping young noodle makers. It smelled like beef, like spice, like noodles.
Let me just spend a minute describing Lanzhou lamian, in case you’ve no idea at all what it is. Lā means to pull, and miàn means noodle. 
Some hours before, prepare your dough. Water, flour, a little oil, a little salt. Nothing more. Have a strong youth mix and then knead the dough for some prolonged time, about an hour and a half. Let the dough rest quietly under cover for at least an hour.
Then, using your best bones of lamb or beef or both, make an aromatic broth. Reserve wafer thin slices of beef for a garnish. Chop some coriander. Have lajiao (chili paste, made from roasted chilies) at the ready.
At the customer’s order, prepare the noodles as requested. Thin, like spaghetti. Thick, like spaghettoni. Broad and flat, like fettucine. Take a lump of dough, roll it into a cylinder with your hands and a little oil.
Now grab each end and pull hard, spreading your arms as wide as they will go. Without letting go of the dough bring your arms back together and allow the single thick strand to twist on itself like a piece of wool. 
Pull again, twist again, repeat. Eventually you have twenty or so fine long strands, and after you stretch them a final time whack them hard on the table to help separate the strands and get rid of any loose flour. Then straight in the pot.
When cooked, take a bowl and fill with clear beef broth. Add sliced radish, the cooked noodles, a ladle of  oily lajiao chili paste, a handful of coriander, and a small garnish of beef slices.  Then eat and enjoy.

Lamian are often served with various side-dishes – pickled green chilies, shredded carrot tossed with chili oil, shredded potato with vinegar and chili, extra slices of beef, and pickled cabbage.
The noodles, after all that, are extraordinarily good. The first bite of the firm slippery noodles goes down easy, followed by the intense and building heat from the chili oil and paste. After a few more slurps of soup you are sweating like mad, and the spicy carrot and pickled chili side dishes taste positively cooling. The radish, bland and soft, gives some relief from the unrelenting heat but it’s hard to stop eating because the noodles are perfect, with exactly the right amount of al dente bite.
I look up, my face dripping with sweat and my nose streaming. There is an official looking gold plaque on the wall that reads ‘Gansu Province Best Beef Lamian 2005’. 
Hah! I’ve discovered it at last. Lanzhou’s third (or fourth) best lamian. A wave of intense post-noodle satisfaction spreads over me, and it looks just like this.

Travels on the Silk Road

How to Make Soba Noodles

Lessons for a novice, from a soba chef
Cool, slippery soba noodles dipped in a delicate sauce – the perfect summer food for a hot and steamy Shanghai day.  Now I know buckwheat soba noodles are Japanese, not Chinese, but I’m living in a pretty international city here, with friends from every part of the world. Yesterday my youngest daughter was invited to a soba-making birthday party for a seven year old Japanese boy. I can’t imagine any seven year old Australian boys volunteering to learn the art of soba for a birthday party, but I’m all for it.  
Making my own noodles is something I would never have attempted two years ago, but now I think, why not? How hard can it be? Apparently very difficult if you want to be a Japanese soba master, but for the average noodle lover, like me, the aim is to make something edible vaguely resembling noodles, see the techniques in action, and subsequently learn to respect the noodle art of the true masters. Was I the only mother at the party more interested in soba-making than the kids? Possibly. But at least someone was paying attention..
Soba noodle making requires nothing more than buckwheat flour, wheat flour, water, a rolling pin, and a really, really huge knife. If a seven year old can make soba, I guarantee you can too.
  • Start with buckwheat and wheat flour in a ratio of 4:1
  • 400g buckwheat flour
  • 100g wheat flour
  • Add 200-250ml of cool water a little at a time, mixing first with your fingertips, then incorporating the water into a firm dough
  • (If you don’t an have an exquisite enormous red and black lacquer soba bowl like this one, don’t worry, a regular bowl is A-OK)
  • Now knead your little heart out, because a lot of kneading is required to get the dough to ‘the consistency of a baby’s ear’

  • Press the dough into a disc and place on a floured table
  • Roll into an oval, and then into a large square sheet 2mm thick, dusting with flour as you roll
  • Dust the dough sheet again when finished
  • Fold the sheet of dough in half, again, and again, making a rectangle eight layers thick
  • place the rectangle on a large cutting board, with a second, smaller board on top (the soba chef has a special board with a right-angled lip, but any small wooden board will do)
  • Line up the board along the long edge of your folded dough rectangle, and steady it with the fingertips of one hand

  • Take your wafer-thin, super sharp soba-kiri knife (failing that, any thin, long, sharp-bladed knife will do)
  •  Shift the top board sideways by 2mm and slice through the eight layers of dough, making eight long straight soba noodles
  • Continue, using a slight rocking motion with your knife to shift the board another 2mm before every cut

  • Separate the noodles into bunches and place on a tray
  • Bring a stockpot of unslated water to the boil
  • Have a large bowl of cold water, and another large bowl of iced water at the ready
  • Cook the soba in batches for 60-90 seconds
  • Scoop the noodles from the boiling water using a strainer scoop, and plunge into cold water, ‘washing’ the noodles vigorously (this removes starch from the surface so they have the required slippery texture)
  • Scoop out of the cold water and plunge into iced water, washing again
  • Drain, and serve on a bamboo mat or plate

  • Serve with a small bowl of dashi and soy, with finely sliced scallions, and grated fresh wasabi
  • Plunge your noodles into the sauce mixed with condiments of your choice, and slurp noisily into your mouth!
For a more technical approach, try this soba tutorial.
For a lovely account of meeting a soba master, and some more home-cooking tips, I really enjoyed reading Betty Hallock’s LA Times story, Making Soba Noodles the Easy Way.

Crossing the Bridge Noodles

To be perfectly honest, I’ve been out-noodled. After nearly three weeks on the road with noodles for breakfast (standard Chinese hotel fare) noodles for lunch (favoured street food of Yunnan) and sometimes even noodles for dinner, I am kind of at my annual noodle limit, and it’s only April. Normally, I love noodles, but that’s when I’m eating them in addition to other foods. There’s one noodle dish though, that I had been dying to try ever since I arrived in Yunnan, probably Yunnan’s most famous dish. Once I ate Crossing the Bridge Noodles, I told my noodle-fatigued family, that will be it. Promise.
Crossing the Bridge Noodles, (Guò Qiáo Mĭxiàn  过桥米线), like so many famous Chinese dishes, has a story attached. Legend goes that an Imperial scholar, distracted while studying for an important exam, exiled himself to a pavilion on a small island. Every day, his wife would walk over the bridge to the island with his lunch, but it often got cold on the way. She discovered a simple solution to the problem – if she covered the broth with a layer of oil it retained the heat much better, and she could then add the noodles to the hot broth once she arrived. The dish is named in her honour.
Experiencing a meal of Crossing the Bridge noodles is as much theatre as it is sustenance. Having ordered and paid at the front door (13 yuan ($2) for noodles with the works), we take our seats in a giant and busy restaurant. The walls are lined with checkered pink and white tiles, and dozens of diners slurp noisily at every table. Around the outside of the dining room are assorted stations, where the white-coated waiters rush to and fro to bring the various components of the meal. There is the soup station, issuing forth bowl after bowl of hot soup through a hatch in the wall; the noodle station, where small bowls of rice noodles are stacked in precarious towers on a counter; and the meat and vegetable station, with piles of tiny platters of bok choy, shredded tofu, cooked chicken pieces, slices of pork, and scallions wait to be delivered.
The waiters, about twenty or so, rush back and forth with great speed, balancing huge trays and giant soup bowls as they weave between tables, yelling orders at one another all the while. Our waiter, a very young man in a very, very grubby white coat, brings a veritable tureen of boiling broth to begin with, one for each of us, made with chicken bones and pork and covered with a thin layer of oil. The soup is scalding hot, hot enough for the restaurant to have signs warning diners to ‘Mind The Soup’ on every wall, but no steam rises because the oil traps it within. 
Next comes an enormous tray with six separate small dishes and bowls. A tiny, freshly cracked raw quail’s egg. A platter of meats – slices of pork as thin as a petal, slivers of pink sausage, and chunks of cooked chicken. A saucer of scallions. A bowl of cold white rice noodles. A saucer of bok choy, 3 leaves. A dish of pickles. 
He theatrically demonstrates the technique needed for a perfect bowl. First, the quail egg goes in, mixed quickly. Next, the meats, to allow time for them to be properly cooked by the broth. Thirdly, the greens go in, and the finely shredded tofu, followed by the scallions. Last, very last, go the noodles, swirled around until the strands separate. The pickles stay separately, added as desired or eaten on their own. There is a dish of ground dried chili, and bottle of vinegar and one of soy on the table too, to be added to personal taste.
This giant bowl of noodles is a highly satisfying meal, hearty, tasty, and filling. I’m enjoying it as much as the little girl at the next table too, by all accounts. She can hardly see over the bowl, but deftly lifts the noodles with her chopsticks and slurps them into her mouth in one long, continuous schlluuuurrrp. Highly recommended, even if you think you couldn’t possibly enjoy one more noodle dish ever.
The Brothers Jiang 
Jiang Shi Xiong Di
Dongfeng Donglu, near Beijing Lu
Kunming, Yunnan
Read all of my Yunnan posts here:

Tiger Leaping Gorge Day 1: All in the Altitude
The Nakhi of Lijiang: Of the Cosmos and the Stars
Street Foods of Yunnan: Bugs, Bark and Dragonfly Nymphs
Yunnan: In Pictures