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Eight years ago, when I arrived back in New York City after living in China for a year, I not only missed the chaos of living in close proximity to 1.5 billion other people — well, in reality, my town was a “village” of just eight-hundred thousand — but I also craved delicious bowls of my favorite street food, lamian.

I had lived on these hand-pulled noodles, and sometimes suspected that the rumors of opium-laced broth were true, as during winter nights, there was little that could take my mind off that delicious meal.

I Googled lamian immediately on my return, assuming that surely, in New York City, there would be an abundance of options. I was thrilled at the prospect of introducing friends to the wonder of lamian.

I was, however, shocked to find that in 2002 the search “lamian+new york” returned no results, so I spent the better part of a year on obscure sites and expat forums.

About six months later I found a brief mention of a hole-in-the-wall that served hand-pulled noodles. Lamian wasn’t specified, but I was hopeful.

I trekked downtown with a hungover friend in tow. We were the only non-Chinese in the restaurant and the other patrons regarded us with a look of surprise, especially when I used my rusty Chinese to order. I requested  lamian, but was corrected by the waitress, nui rou mian (beef noodle soup). The meal was tasty, cheap, and a close approximation, but it lacked the depth of flavor I was hankering for.

About that time, another American teacher, a friend I’d meet in China, called and casually mentioned a new cookbook, The Food of China. “The food actually tastes Chinese,” she noted. I quickly ordered the book and was drawn to the recipe for cinnamon beef noodle soup. While the recipe didn’t specify lamian, the combination of flavors looked right. One test and I was proven correct — I’d found my lamian!

There are now lamian restaurants throughout New York; however, I find many of the broths weak imitations of the first lamian I fell in love with. So here’s the recipe from The Food of China that I believe captures the complexity of flavors I’ve been searching for but can’t always find.

Although about.china.com has thorough instructions on how to hand-pull noodles, my level of coordination isn’t up for the task, but with this recipe I have mastered the broth.

Lanzhou Lamian (Cinnamon Beef Noodle Soup)

Serves 6

1 teaspoon oil

10 scallions, cut into 1″ pieces

10 garlic cloves thinly sliced

6 slices of ginger smashed  with the flat side of a cleaver

1 1/2 t chile bean paste (Togan Jiang)  *****need photo

2 cinnamon  sticks (primarily use cassia in China)

2 star anise

1/2 cup light soy sauce

2 lb chuck steak, trimmed and cut into 1 1/2 inch cubes

thick wheat noodles

chopped scallion and cilantro for garnish

Heat oil in large saucepan. Stir-fry scallions, garlic, ginger, chile bean paste, cinnamon and star anise until fragrant (1 mintue). Add soy sauce and 9 cups of water. Bring to a boil and add beef.Simmer covered for 1 1/2 hours, until beef is tender. Skim foam from surface of broth to remove impurities and fat. Remove ginger and cinnamon.

Cook noodles in broth, serve topped with chopped meat, scallions, cilantro and lajiao.

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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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