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Lamian Broth Boiling

Lamian Broth Boiling

My love affair with Chinese street food began at the lamian stall on a tree-lined alleyway, across from the school where I taught English in Danyang, a “small” town of 800,000, near Shanghai.

With the first chewy slurp of lamian (拉面)—hand-pulled noodles—served to me in a rich meat broth, I was addicted.

To create this delectable dish, wheat dough is expertly stretched with a few flicks of the wrist into long, thin noodles—a move that would be at home in a Looney ‘Toons cartoon—then dropped into a cauldron of boiling mutton, or beef, broth.

The noodles are a Hui dish from Lanzhou, a town in Gansu Province in western China. The Hui are ethnically Han but converted to Islam, different from the Uighurs, China’s other large Islamic minority, who are of Turkic descent.

After 4 minutes the cook scoops the noodles and broth into a deep bowl, which he tops with a few tender chunks of fatty, braised meat. The dish is garnished with fresh scallions and cilantro, providing a sharp contrast to the oily richness of the broth. However, a bowl of lamian is never really complete—at least for my spice-loving palate—without a generous dollop of lajiao, which is the roasted chili condiment found on nearly every Chinese restaurant table.

Hand-Cutting Daoxiaomain

Noodle Maestro at Work

During my first few weeks in China, I didn’t understand the mysteries of the simple street-side restaurant, as many resembled open-air houses rather than places of business. Toward the back of these “restaurants”—or even on the sidewalks in front—I often saw men lounging on string beds, which made the deciphering of home or restaurant all the more difficult. I feared embarrassing myself by walking into someone’s private kitchen.

But at my neighborhood lamian stall, the elder son, with his hennaed-hair and white cap, would stand at a metal table just off the street, flicking the dough and impressing those who passed. This was clearly a restaurant.

The husband and wife team were in charge of the broth, continually simmering large joints of meat and spices from early morning till their late-night closing, while their youngest son took my payment and served the food. Although I was thousands of miles from Lanzhou, the diaspora of the Hui and Uyghurs to affluent eastern China (and, thankfully, to the US) has made this dish a staple throughout this vast country.

Like all great street eats, lamain is cheap. In 2002, a large bowl of lamain sold for a mere 2 yuan (USD $0.29). Six years later the price had risen to about 5 yuan (USD $0.73), mostly due to China’s rocketing food prices. But at least for the visitor, a hearty bowl of lamian is still one of the best deals around.

It’s easy to spot a lamian stall in China. Just look for a poster of Mecca taped to the wall, the white-capped chefs, and the show-boating of the noodle pullers. Or, as I have done when craving the dish and not knowing where to look, ask any passerby, “Lamian?” while make a pulling gesture with your hands—it’s instantly understood.

Daoxiaomian

Daoxiaomian

These stalls often serve other tasty dishes like daoxiaomain—irregularly shaped, hand cut noodles originating from the Shanxi province—or chaomian, stir-fried hand-pulled or cut noodles in a meaty tomato broth…kind of like a delicious spaghetti bolognese!

I have rarely found a broth that rivals that of my local noodle haunt in Danyang, where the combination of flavors, from cassia to pepper and garlic, mitigated any need for the still-ubiquitous MSG. But though that broth was a far cry from some lesser lamian broths I’ve since slurped, each time I eat lamian I savor the chewy noodles and the artistry of the pasta-pulling.

Menu Decoder:
lamain (拉面)—hand-pulled noodles in a meat broth (5 yuan = USD $0.73)
daoxiaomian (刀削麵)—thick and chewy hand-cut noodles served either in a beef broth (6 yuan) or stir fried with tomato and cabbage (8-12 yuan = USD $1.17 – $1.75)
chaomian (炒麵)—stir-fried, hand-pulled or hand-cut noodles in a beef or tomato based sauce (8-12 yuan = USD $1.17 – $1.75)

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