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.”
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