For something that can seem so simple, Chinese noodles are deceptively complicated. I guess that makes sense when they’ve had around 4000 years to evolve: to morph as they slipped their way into China’s diverse geographical regions, getting taken over by its multitude of cultures in the process.
One of the most important things to know about Chinese noodles is how they differ from north to south. With a culinary border largely drawn by the Yangtze River, the region to the north is a predominantly wheat-growing area, while to the south it’s rice. So noodles in the two diverse regions are traditionally made from those respective ingredients.
The country has a deep and loving infatuation with noodles. Go a day without eating a bowl of them, and the average Northerner is sure to complain: “Wo bu shufu le!” (I feel uncomfortable!) Walk down the street in cities like Beijing or Xi’an and you won’t need to go far before you hit a quick and cheap noodle house, pumping with happy diners and the slippery sounds of slurping.
I spoke toChef Wang, senior instructor at Beijing New East Cuisine School, about his own favourite noodles, anticipating a mention of some obscure speciality. But his answer was two of China’s most common noodle dishes, Beijing’s zhajiangmian and Guangdong’s stir-fried rice noodles with beef (gan chao niu he). When pressed for reasons, his response was nostalgic. “Zhajiangmian because that’s what I ate from when I was a child growing up. It represents the feelings of the old Beijingers. Gan chao niu he, because that’s what I ate while I was at school.”
As a visitor to China, talking about these ubiquitous staples is as much an exercise in vocabulary as it is a study of the country’s geography. They can be rolled, pinched, pressed, pared, cut, twisted, slapped, spun, stretched, squeezed, sliced, snipped or shaved, only to then be steamed, braised, boiled, stir-fried, pan-fried, deep-fried, stewed, dried or roasted. Such diverse methods, of course, result in an inexhaustible variety of shapes and textures – long, short, wide, narrow, thick, thin, round, square, ear-shaped, knobbly, fat, fine, flat or flaked. I could go on.
Now if you wanted to travel to China with the purpose of trying its most popular noodle dishes, you could just base yourself in the cuisine hub of Beijing. But I’ve never met a Chinese person who hasn’t said a given dish is much better back in its hometown.
"One of the most important things to know about Chinese noodles is how they differ from north to south."
So this would mean a trip to Sichuan to try its dan dan mian. These thin, firm noodles are dressed in a mince sauce that is simultaneously spicy, salty and a little tangy. In neighbouring Chongqing, you’ll also find the sweat-inducing Chongqing xiao mian, another thin noodle dish, which is covered with a pungent layer of chilli oil.
Shaanxi, home to many of China’s most beloved noodle varieties, would be your most filling stop. Some of the most interesting noodle-making techniques can be found here, including the wonderfully textured dao xiao mian, which are skilfully made by a blade slicing quickly through a large mass of firm dough, casting the noodles directly into a bubbling pot of broth. There are also perhaps the largest noodles you could fill your mouth with, the belt-like biang biang mian, which get their name from the sound they make when the chef slaps them on the counter to stretch them.
The list could go on. People from Shanghai would be offended if I didn’t mention the yang chun mian, as would Wuhan locals about their sesame-paste-smothered re gan mian. Henan folk would be outraged if their hui mian, chewy noodles cooked in a heavy lamb broth, were overlooked.
But one noodle variety that I believe most Chinese people would push all visitors to try would be Lanzhou’s niu rou la mian, or beef pulled noodles. The wonderful simplicity of these noodles comes from their underlying complexity. A skilled la mian chef can easily pull a lump of dough into noodles ranging from “hair-thin” (5mm strands) through to chewy 4cm-wide belts.
Chef Yang Tianwei, an instructor at Beijing’s Tangren Meishi culinary school, heartily agrees. “La mian requires a lot of skill and labour to make, and this can’t be replaced by a machine. It has been a major historical dish for many people from northwestern China and its Hui people,” he says. “What’s more, you can now find it all over the country. La mian’s texture fully embodies the spirit of noodles.”
Get ready to bask in a Chinese food bounty like no other as Adam Liaw's brand-new series Destination Flavour China starts from Wed, 28 Nov at 7.30pm on SBS, with an encore Sun 9.30pm on SBS Food (Channel 33) and then after broadcast via SBS On Demand. Join the conversation #DestinationFlavour on Instagram @sbsfood, Facebook @SBSFood and Twitter @SBSFood. Check out sbs.com.au/destinationflavour for recipes, videos and more!
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"Translating literally as ‘fried sauce noodle’, this classic home-style dish is popular with peasants and nobility alike. With thick fresh wheat noodles, pork and bean sauce, it’s kind of like a Beijing bolognese." Adam Liaw, Destination Flavour China