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.
1. Oat Noodles, Shanxi
Oat noodles (yao mian 莜面) are a Shanxi province specialty, nutty-tasting and steamed in an intriguing honeycomb shape. The individual noodle tubes can be pulled apart and dipped in a tomato and garlic sauce in this famous noodle dish, kao lao lao 烤栳栳. These oat noodles are unique in all of China, both in flavour and in taste.
Read more about Shanxi’s foods here
2. Laghman, Xinjiang
Laghman is the Uyghur way of saying pulled noodles, known as la mian in other parts of China. These thick hand-pulled wheat noodles are topped with a hearty stew made from seasonal vegetables – usually tomato, celery, eggplant, potato and spinach – and mutton, with added chilli.
Read more about Uyghur foods here
3. Crossing the Bridge Noodles, Yunnan
The best name for a noodle dish, ever, goes to this DIY noodle hotpot from Yunnan. Guo qiao mixian 过桥米线 consists of a tureen of simple broth is served with cooked rice noodles, sliced cold meats, sausage, chives, scallions and bean sprouts, and a single quail’s egg. You add all the ingredients to the soup to make a delicious meal.
The dish derives its name from the wife of a Chinese scholar who crossed a small bridge each day to bring him his lunch. Lucky devil.
Read about the most famous Crossing the Bridge noodle restaurant in Kunming here
4. Mi xian, Guangxi, Guizhou, Yunnan
If I had to choose a favourite amongst these nine noodle dishes, this would be it. Found in Yunnan, Guangxi and Guizhou provinces, you could map these neighbouring lands with borders marked by small local differences in how this dish tastes and what toppings are used.
The base is a tangle of cooked rice noodles topped with broth. The toppings then add flavour, texture and colour to the dish. Choose from minced savoury pork, sweet braised pork belly, sliced cold beef, scallions, coriander, peanuts, chopped pickles, chilli and occasionally great shattering pieces of pork crackling.
Watch the dish become more sour, more pickle-y and more spicy as you head from west to east through Yunnan to Guangxi then to Guizhou.
5. Dan Dan Noodles, Sichuan
Fine wheat noodles, clear broth, and a sauce made from an intriguing combination of minced pork, mustard pickles, sichuan pepper and scallions is what makes dan dan mian 担担面 so special.
Hailing from Sichuan province, where it is usually served in a soup, variations of dan dan mian have spread across the world, often including sesame paste sauce but no broth.
More: Ten must-try foods in Sichuan
6. La Mian, Gansu
Originating with Hui Muslims in the capital of Gansu Province, Lanzhou pulled noodles (literally la mian 拉面) are one of the most popular street foods in all of China. If you eat la mian at the source, it comes like this: A bowl of beef broth filled with freshly pulled wheat noodles covered by a camouflaging slick of chill sauce and oil. Served alongside are cold beef slices and various vegetable accompaniments including pickled pink radish.
It’s a fiery experience.
Read more on Lanzhou’s award-winning la mian restaurant here
7. Pot Lid Noodles, Jiangsu
These buckwheat noodles from Zhenjiang in Jiangsu Province (you might know it as the home of Chinkiang black vinegar) have a markedly different taste and texture to wheat noodles – they are dense and chewy with a definite bounce. You can add to them whatever takes your fancy – tiny cubes of potato, chopped salty sour pickles, finely diced sweet pork, sesame seeds, boiled peanuts, chillies fresh and dried. No matter what you add, the real star of this dish is the noodles themselves.
Read more about how these noodles are made here
8. Hand cut Noodles, Shaanxi
If you have ever seen these noodles being made you will know the skill and dexterity involved. A block of dough held up near the shoulder over a steaming pot of boiling water, and a sharp knife shaving long strips of dough into the pot. These knife-cut noodles are known as dao xiao mian 刀削面 and are served stir-fried with a thick sauce, or in soup topped with spicy beef and vegetables, like this.
Read about dao xiao mian in Xi’an here
9. Flag Flower Noodles, Qinghai
Flag flower noodles – qihua tang mian 其花汤面 are so delicate and pretty floating in a simple soup with spinach, peppers, tomato and white pepper.
They come from far-off Qinghai Province, but can also be found in Shanxi where they are served with a sauce rather than in soup. I love them because they are cut by hand and very unique – certainly not what you first think of when you think of noodles.
Top Ten Dishes of Qinghai – here
Here’s to noodles – I love them all and this list of nine has only barely scratched the surface!