Oodles of noodles
Updated: 2012-05-21 09:42
By Ye Jun (China Daily)
China, and especially Shanxi province, is a place where noodles aren't just a culinary staple - they're a cultural institution. Ye Jun reports in Beijing.
There's perhaps nowhere in the world where people love their noodles like in Shanxi province.
Locals say the world's best noodles come from China, and China's best noodles come from Shanxi, chef Hao Jinyang says.
Hao is a native of Shanxi's provincial capital Taiyuan and executive chef at the noodle bar of Red Chamber Chinese Restaurant, China World Summit Wing Beijing.
Shanxi people can't go without noodles, even at the most lavish banquet where tables are piled with rare and pricey delicacies.
"It's simply not a meal without noodles," Hao says.
While noodles are made everywhere in the country, Shanxi's are the most diverse, arguably because its people are most obsessed with the staple.
Taiyuan hosts an annual flour-food festival, which includes a noodle-making contest.
Hao won a 2008 competition at a Shanxi culture festival in Taiyuan with his award-winning "dragon and phoenix noodle". The dish - more a work of art than a meal - features different-colored noodles arranged in the shape of a dragon and a phoenix.
Shanxi claims a 2,000-year history of making the staple. China, the Middle East and Italy all claim to be the birthplace of noodles.
The earliest ancient writings about noodles are from China's Eastern Han Dynasty (AD 25-220). But archeologists unearthed 4,000-year-old noodles in Qinghai province, buttressing China's claim. (Presumably, these 4-millennia-old dough ribbons were too stale to eat.)
Today, Shanxi is home to four types of noodles - knife-cut, knife-picked, chopstick-picked and hand-stretched, Hao says.
Virtually any vegetable or meat can be made into sauce for Shanxi noodles. The most common are diced pork with aubergine, tomato with egg, fried bean paste and fried pork.
Dalumian, or "noodles served with an assorted sauce", is a traditional Shanxi specialty that has become popular nationwide. The special sauce, or lu, is made with dried daylily buds, egg, black fungus, leek, tofu slices and sometimes pork.
In addition to wheat, Shanxi people use soybean flour, sorghum, oats and buckwheat to make noodles. These grains are believed to be healthy and nutritious.
Shanxi people are known to be thrifty and practical. In the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties, Shanxi's merchants spread their businesses across China and became famous for setting up private banks.
The creativity Shanxi people show in noodle-making parallels their innovativeness in doing business. Shanxi noodles' national acclaim stems partly from the fact that local businesspeople set up so many restaurants around the country.
Hao says Shanxi developed a standardized noodle-making performance in 2006. The Shanxi restaurant Noodle Loft became one of the first eateries in Beijing to set up a noodle bar, where customers can watch noodle-making stunt performances.
Noodle Loft's chefs make noodles using chopsticks, scissors and knives. A chef tosses a single noodle into a boiler several meters away and then serves the noodle, which fills a whole bowl.
The Shanxi restaurant Kairui Haomen Shifu contains a stage for noodle-making tricks. A chef holds a gob of dough overhead and chops noodles from it while riding a wheelbarrow. Another chef stretches the noodles so thin that they can be ignited with a lighter like candlewicks.
It's hard to say exactly why Shanxi people adore noodles so much. One reason might be that the area mostly produces grains.
But Shanxi isn't the only place where hand-stretched noodles are produced.
Gansu province's capital Lanzhou, Beijing, Henan province and the Xinjiang autonomous region all have their versions.
The primary differences among them is in the dough's preparation, says Liang Dawei, a noodle chef at 1949 The Hidden City's noodle bar.
Making Shanxi noodles requires letting the dough sit at least four hours after kneading, before stretching, he says. Lanzhou noodles require hundreds - sometimes thousands - of kneads, lasting more than one hour, explains Liang, who's from the city.
People in South China sometimes make noodles with egg and flour to make them softer. They're pressed with a wooden or bamboo rod and then cut.
Hand-stretching requires pulling and folding the noodles repeatedly, making the dough strips thinner and thinner.
Thick noodles require five folds, while thin ones require seven. A particularly skilled chef can do 15. But after 10 folds, the noodles become so slender that they can only be deep-fried and will dissolve if boiled.
After the 12th fold, noodles become thin as hair and can be lit.
Liang's 12-seat noodle bar serves 150-180 bowls - all of them hand-pulled - a day. It takes about five months to master the skill, he says. Stunts take an additional three years.
But dough isn't the only thing that makes noodles from different places unique. How they're served also varies among regions. Beijingers prefer noodles with fried soybean paste and diced pork. Xinjiang noodles are thick and ideal for frying or serving cold.
Lanzhou stretched noodles are usually served in soup. Henan's stewed noodles are typically made with lamb soup, and slices of tofu and kelp.
Shanxi noodles are best boiled and served in soup or with sauce.
But like other dishes from other cuisines, Shanxi's noodles need to update and innovate to ensure their contemporary appeal.
Hence, Hao's noodle bar has created fish-shaped noodles served with mushroom sauce. He also makes noodles with soybean and sorghum flours, which are believed to be healthier than wheat.
Liang's joint serves hand-pulled noodles with traditional Hong Kong-style braised beef and beef tendon - which demands more than eight hours of braising. They also conjure new combinations, such as Wenchang chicken with broad noodles.
"We try to make the menu as simple as possible," 1949 The Hidden City's executive chef Wilson Lam says.
"But chefs do a lot of work to guarantee quality. Ingredient choices are crucial."