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 noodles are emblematic of both the city itself and the Hui Muslim people of the arid northwest, and they are so important that they are subject to government price controls. Served in clear broth and often eaten for breakfast, Lanzhou lamian has steadily acquired popularity and fame and can now be found at restaurants around China.

 

By Adam B. R. MoormanFortismere School, London

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 noodles are emblematic of both the city itself and the Hui Muslim people of the arid northwest, and they are so important that they are subject to government price controls. Served in clear broth and often eaten for breakfast, Lanzhou lamian has steadily acquired popularity and fame and can now be found at restaurants around China.

Terminology

The full name of this dish is Lánzhōu qīngtāng niúròu lāmiàn 兰州清汤牛肉拉面, which can be broken down as follows:

  • Lanzhou—the city that gives the dish its name
  • Qingtang—the clear broth in which the noodles are served
  • Niurou—means “beef,” which is thinly sliced and floats in the broth
  • Lamian—a combination of the words for “pull” and “noodles,” which describes the hand-pulling technique for making the noodles.

The best translation for the dish is “Lanzhou hand-pulled beef noodles.” In the city itself, they are simply called niurou mian—beef noodles. Outside Lanzhou, the most common name is Lanzhou lamian (Lanzhou hand-pulled noodles) which, in the eyes of local residents, is a term used only by outsiders (Shixun Zhongguo 2011).

Origins

Although there is debate over when and where the noodles actually originated, most accounts converge around the year 1915, and the figure of Mǎ Bǎozǐ 马保子. This Huí 回 minority Muslim chef is universally recognized as the creator of the Lanzhou lamian available in restaurants today. His work popularized lamian and established its 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, loading them onto on a shoulder pole, and carrying them 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.

Popularity

The popularity of Lanzhou lamian is so integral to Lanzhou life 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 (Financial Times 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). The most popular restaurants usually have long queues and waiting times, and they 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.

Lanzhou lamian is a dish as simple as it is flexible that can be eaten at any time of the day, but it’s especially popular for breakfast (CCTV 2012).

Lanzhou lamian has become a well-loved dish throughout China as well, and nowadays restaurants can be found nationwide, identifiable by the ubiquitous signs advertising: zhèngzōng Lánzhōu qīngtāng niúròu làmiān 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 in Qinghai Province 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 (Chemers 2010).

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 correct proportions in order to bring out the perfect taste and mouthfeel (kǒugǎn 口感).

The five characteristic features of Lanzhou lamian are recorded in an easily remembered saying that is displayed in many restaurants: yi hong, er lü, san bai, si huang, wu qing. 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: the red chili oil, the green coriander leaves, slices of white Chinese radish, yellow noodles made with local wheat, and a clear broth. (Zhongguo Gansu wang 2009)

Preparation

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. In a typical restaurant, the sole duty of the lāmiàn shīfu 拉面师傅, or “pulled-noodle master,” is to make the noodles fresh for each customer. 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 early in the day, sitting on the stainless steel table that acts 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, 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) that are then tossed into boiling water. When they are ready, they are put into a bowl that 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 Chinese Central Television (CCTV) culinary documentary series A Bite of China (Shéjiān shàng de Zhōngguó  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.

The Little-Known Favorite

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.

Further Reading

CCTV. (2012). Zhushide gushi 主食的故事 [The story of staple foods] (Season 1, episode 2). In Shejian shangde zhong guo 舌尖上的中国 [A bite of China]. Beijing: China Central Television.

Chemers, Brandan (2010). Morning, Noon or Night: Lanzhou lamian Noodles in Beijing. The Beijinger. Retrieved December 15,, 2014, from http://www.thebeijinger.com/blog/2010/12/16/morning-noon-or-night-lanzhou-lamian-noodles-beijing

Financial Times. (2007). Observer: As clear as mud. Retrieved January 18, 2015, from http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/b7fc5a0e-2a8f-11dc-9208-000b5df10621.html#axzz3xlqmQk70

Hua Shangde滑尚德. (2007). Lanzhou niurou mian wanzhongde fengbo 兰州牛肉面, 碗中的风波 [Lanzhou beef noodles, storm in a bowl]. Gansu Daily. Retrieved December 15, 2014, from http://eat.gansudaily.com.cn/system/2007/07/23/010420310.shtml

Kang Zhiyu; Wang Jianjun; & Shang Xunwu. (2007). Score system study for hand-extended noodle quality based on HMW-GS index in wheat flour. Agricultural Sciences in China, 6(3), 304–310.

Lander, Nicholas. (2013). The ancient art of noodles. The Finanical Times. Retrieved January 9, 2015, from http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/2/42b069ce-1fe4-11e3-8861-00144feab7de.html

Lanzhou lamian yuanwei xibei youyu minzu zhaodai gaoji binke zhifengwei shipin 兰州拉面原为西北游牧民族招待高级宾客之风味食品 [Lanzhou hand-pulled noodles were originally a food reserved by nomadic herders of the northwest for receiving honored guests]. (2011). Retrieved December 15, 2014, from http://wenku.baidu.com/view/9aaa9f300b4c2e3f572763be.html

Moorman, Adam. (2011). For the love of lamian. The Beijing Review. Retrieved October 3, 2011, from http://www.bjreview.com/print/txt/2011-09/30/content_394755.htm

Shixun Zhongguo 视讯中国. (2011). Lanzhou niuroumian 兰州牛肉面 [Lanzhou beef noodles]  (episode 6). In Xunmeng sichouzhilu寻梦丝绸之路 [In search of dreams on the Silk Road]. Retrieved December 15, 2014, from http://v.youku.com/v_show/id_XMjg3NDQ0NDÚ.html?from=y1.2-1-103.3.2-2.1-1-1-1

Xinhua News Agency. (2012) Brief introduction to Lanzhou city. Retrieved December 19, 2014, from http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/special/2012-10/11/c_131899953.htm

Zhongguo Gansu wang 中国甘肃网. (2009). Yiqing, erbai, sanhong, silü Lanzhou niuroumian de lishi yu zuofa “一清二白三红四绿” 兰州牛肉面的历史与做法 [One clear, two white, three red, four green—a history of Lanzhou hand-pulled noodles]. Retrieved December 14, 2014, from http://www.gscn.com.cn/pub/special/2009zt/lznrm/bnls/2009/05/21/1242889926421.html

Zhongguo Gansu wang 中国甘肃网. (2014). Lanzhou lamiande lishi 兰州拉面的历史 [A history of Lanzhou hand-pulled noodles]. Retrieved December 16, 2014, from http://story.gscn.com.cn/system/2014/01/10/010569632.shtml

“Zhonghua diyi mian” niuroumian中华第一面”牛肉面 [“Number one noodles of the Chinese People” beef noodles]. (2010). Retrieved December 14, 2014, from http://www.itravelqq.com/2010/0806/52524.html