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.
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.”
lěng húntun 冷馄饨 cold wontons 4 yuan/liang
hébāodàn 荷包蛋 fried egg 2 yuan
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.
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.
‘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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
|This Old Place Noodle Restaurant 老地方面馆|
“Where do you like to eat lamian?” I ask. “What’s the best place in town?”
He doesn’t even hesitate. “Maziluniuroumian.”
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.
- 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!