Abstract: Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu Province, is home to one of China’s best-known noodle dishes: Lanzhou lamian. Created over a century ago, these hand-pulled beef noodles are a simple yet delicious regional specialty emblematic of both the city itself and the Hui Muslim people of the northwest. Lanzhou lamian have steadily acquired popularity and can now be found at restaurants all around the country. But this renown does not extend abroad, and English language writing on lamian remains scarce.
Citation: Cheung (2021). Berkshire Encyclopedia of Chinese Cuisines. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing Group.
Keywords:Lanzhou; noodles; Hui Muslim; beef; Northwest China
Any figures or illustrations or illustrations included here are not finalized for publication. Advance publication date as per post date. Copyright Berkshire Publishing Group.
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Lanzhou lamian is a popular noodle dish with origins in Lanzhou, Gansu in the northwest of China. Although commonly known as “Lanzhou hand-pulled beef noodles,” the full name of the dish is Lanzhou qingtang niurou lamian (兰州清汤牛肉拉面), which can be broken down as follows: Lanzhou is the city that gives the dish its name. Qingtang is the clear broth in which the noodles are served. Niurou means beef, thinly sliced, floating in the broth. Lamian refers to the combination of “pull” and “noodles,” which describes the hand-pulling technique for making these noodles. Not surprisingly, in the city itself, they are simply called niurou mian—beef noodles.
The exact origins of Lanzhou lamian are open to debate. Some sources claim the noodles date from the Tang Dynasty (618–907 ce), but there is unfortunately no way to verify this. Others state that the Lanzhou lamian we know today actually originated during the Jiaqing period of the Qing dynasty, around 1799 ce, in Henan Province. At that time, the noodles were sold from a cart in the streets of Huaiqingfu (怀庆府), in today’s Boai County, by an itinerant peddler. From here, a Dongxiang (东乡) nationality Muslim named Ma Liuqi (马六七), who lived and worked in Huaiqingfu, is believed to have brought them to Lanzhou, the city with which they have since become associated (Zhongguo gansu wang 中国甘肃网 2014).
Alternative sources claim the noodles were first created around 160 years ago, as a food served to honored guests by the nomadic herders of China’s arid northwest. The same sources claim the first restaurant to serve them in Lanzhou during the Qing dynasty was named Yueyang lou (月阳楼), translated as “Sun and Moon Inn” (Unknown author 2011).
Although there may be debate over when and where the noodles actually originated, most accounts converge around the year 1915 with the figure of Ma Baozi (马保子). This Hui (回) Muslim chef is universally recognized as the creator of the Lanzhou lamian available in restaurants today. His work popularized lamian and established their identification with both the city of Lanzhou and the Muslim inhabitants of the region.
Ma was a poor man who made his living by cooking pots of beef noodles at home and then loading them onto a shoulder pole to be carried around the streets of Lanzhou to sell to hungry customers. Ma’s breakthrough came when he began to serve the noodles in a clear, stock-rich broth made from beef and lamb livers. The broth proved a great success, increasing Ma’s sales to the point that he could open his own restaurant, where it became the custom to give customers a free bowl of the broth as they waited for their noodles. Over time, the clear broth has become an indispensable part of the dish. Lanzhou natives claim that one look (to gauge clarity) and one sip (to gauge taste) are sufficient to judge the quality of the lamian served at any given restaurant (CCTV 2012; Hua 2007).
Popularity in China
The popularity of Lanzhou lamian on both a local and national scale is undeniable, and easy to verify. In fact, so integral to Lanzhou life is the dish that the local government imposes price controls, and any rise in the cost of a bowl of lamian can cause considerable resentment and protest among the local population (Kaczynski 2007).
Lamian restaurants abound in Lanzhou. In 2012, there were over one thousand Muslim-run lamian restaurants in the city, serving in excess of a million bowls a day (CCTV 2012). To put this into context, Lanzhou has a population of 3.6 million people, 159,000 of whom are Hui Muslims (Xinhuanet 2012). These figures give an idea of both the ubiquity of the dish, and also its strong association with the Hui community, the main purveyors of lamian.
Lanzhou lamian has also become a well-loved dish throughout China, so much so that in 1999 the central government officially recognized it as one of the top-three fast-food dishes in China, giving it the title “Zhonghua diyi mian (中华第一面),” or “The number-one noodles of the Chinese people,” (Unknown author 2010). Nowadays, restaurants can be found nationwide, identifiable by the ubiquitous signs advertising zhengzong lanzhou qingtang niurou lamian (正宗兰州清汤牛肉拉面), or authentic Lanzhou lamian, often accompanied by an inscription in Arabic. This authenticity, however, is not guaranteed. If pictures of the lush grasslands of the Qinghai-Tibet plateau or the Xining Great Mosque adorn the walls, the proprietors are probably not from Lanzhou. In fact, many Lanzhou lamian restaurants around China are actually run by Hui or Dongxiang nationality Muslims from neighboring Qinghai Province (The Beijinger 2010).
Lanzhou lamian is a dish as simple as it is flexible, and can be eaten at any time of the day, though particularly for breakfast (CCTV 2012). In fact, some restaurants do all their trade in the morning, and may well close after lunch, as beyond that point the clear broth is past its best (shixun zhongguo 视讯中国 2011).
The most popular restaurants usually have long queues and waiting times, and may be so busy that diners have no choice but to sit wherever there is a free seat, with little chance of finding a table to share with friends.
Appearance and Ingredients
Lanzhou lamian is a dish characterized by simplicity, in both composition and presentation. There are only a few ingredients, but these must be fresh, of high quality, and added in their correct proportions in order to bring out the perfect taste and mouth-feel (kougan 口感). The success of the dish rests on achieving this simplicity through the delicate balance of the ingredients.
The five characteristic features of Lanzhou lamian are recorded in an easily remembered saying that is displayed in many restaurants: yihong, erlü, sanbai, sihuang, wuqing. This literally translates as “one red, two green, three white, four yellow, five clear,” and identifies the key ingredients of the dish by their colors Zhongguo gansu wang 中国甘肃网 2009):
- Yihong (一红): The chili oil floating on the surface should be a deep red.
- Erlü (二绿): The coriander (cilantro) leaves and garlic shoots should be bright green.
- Sanbai (三白): The thin slices of Chinese radish should be pale white.
- Sihuang (四黄): The noodles should show the characteristic yellow of the local wheat.
- Wuqing (五清): The broth should be as clear as possible.
This saying details all that needs to be included in an authentic bowl of lamian. All other additions are superfluous; indeed, the appeal of the dish lies not in the complexity or sophistication of the ingredients, but rather in their freshness and the overall balance between them.
Especially important to the success of the dish is the flour used for the noodles, which must come from high-quality wheat that may be difficult to obtain outside the region (Kang, Wang, and Shang 2007). The noodles gain their characteristic flavor, elasticity, and texture from the addition to the dough of a particular kind of locally produced soda, called penghui (蓬灰) (CCTV 2012; unknown author 2010).
Similarly, the noodles would not be authentic without the characteristic chili oil, which must be prepared in a way that does not affect the clarity of the all-important broth. The chili is first fried over a low flame with sesame seeds and a mix of aromatic spices, which creates a hot red oil. If the flame is too low, the chili flavour will not infuse the oil; if it is too high, the chili will burn and blacken. The goal is for the chili oil to float on the surface, leaving the broth clear, and yet clinging to the noodles as they are pulled out of the soup by the diner’s chopsticks (Unknown author 2010).
Preparation of the Noodles
The most iconic and eye-catching element of Lanzhou lamian is the way in which the noodles themselves are prepared. The job of making the noodles is a highly skilled one, and requires extensive training and practice. In some family-run restaurants, this is a skill passed down from generation to generation.
In a typical restaurant, the sole duty of the lamian shifu (拉面师傅), or “pulled-noodle master,” is to make the noodles fresh for each customer, working swiftly and efficiently. Many restaurants configure their kitchens to be visible from the dining area, allowing customers to watch the lamian shifu at work.
The process of preparing each serving of noodles is quick, taking only a few minutes. Normally, there is a large block of noodle-dough, prepared earlier in the day, sitting on the stainless-steel table which serves as the workstation of the lamian shifu. He first cuts off a piece, and begins to knead and roll it, turning it into a long cylinder. This cylinder is then pulled so that it lengthens and thins, before being stretched and slackened and allowed to spin, coiling around itself the way a telephone cord does. He repeats this process several times, allowing the dough to rest in between. When making an order, he stretches the dough again before finally using his fingertips to separate out many individual strands, pulling and thinning them until they become a long string of noodles (Lander 2013; Moorman 2011). These are then tossed into boiling water. When they are ready, they are put into a bowl which is full of the clear broth, and the remaining ingredients are added on top. Although best observed live, this process is also neatly captured in the popular CCTV culinary documentary series “A Bite of China” (Shejianshangde Zhongguo 舌尖上的中国).
The great skill of the lamian shifu lies in his ability to prepare noodles of different thicknesses and shapes. Every restaurant offers a number of different styles of noodles, and diners specify which kind of noodles they want, meaning the lamian shifu must prepare each individual order to the customer’s exact specifications.
Although there are differences between individual restaurants, the main noodle styles are as follows, all variations in terms of thickness and shape (Zhongguo gansu wang 中国甘肃网 2009):
- Dakua (大宽) “big wide”: These are thin, flat noodles with a width of up to two fingers.
- Jiuye (韭叶) “chive leaves”: These are also thin and flat, but about a third of the width of
- Erxi (二细) “number two thin”: These are the thickest of the rounded noodles, thicker than spaghetti.
- Xi (细 ) “thin”: These rounded noodles are comparable to spaghetti.
- Maoxi (毛细) “hair thin”: These rounded noodles are about two-thirds the thickness of spaghetti.
Although simple, lamian is a delicious dish that manages to balance tradition and simplicity so successfully that it has become a banner for the city of Lanzhou, and especially its Hui Muslim community, earning fame and plaudits all around China. Bearing in mind this popularity, it is curious that lamian remains so little-known outside China, especially when compared to the countless Chinese dishes that have become household names overseas. Hopefully, this article will go some way in remedying that.
Acknowledgements: I am very grateful to Stephen C. Riner and Daemon Borek of DAS Bookworks Xi’an for their comments on earlier drafts.