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Northerners like their noodles chewy


This is the first of a three-piece series about Chinese noodles - from the north, the Yangtze River Delta and the south. While the focus is on the distinctive cooking styles, different regional traditions will also be explored in each article.

For many Chinese, nothing beats digging into a bowl of lip-smacking noodles. Yao Minji looks at how people from around the country have created very different types of irresistible noodle dishes.

In China, one of many traditions is to have noodles to celebrate someone's birthday. The longer the noodle, the better as this represents wishes for a long life.

In many Chinese regions, a similar tradition is practiced when welcoming a newborn baby. Again it's done to wish for longevity. This is mainly because noodles have been a staple food for Chinese people going back at least 1,900 years, according to historical records.

In 2002, the world's oldest-known noodle was found in China, at the Lajia Archeological Site in northern China's Qinghai Province. The noodles, found in an earthenware bowl, were made of foxtail and broom corn millet and have been proven to be 4,000 years old.

Even today, noodles remain the most important staple food and source of nutrition for northern Chinese, most of whom eat noodles far more frequently than rice that is more popular in southern China. Since ancient times, northern China has grown more wheat while the southern soils are more suitable for growing rice.

Qi Shi, a 33-year-old Shandong Province native working in Shanghai, says: "Every time I go back to visit my parents, my first meal is always my mom's homemade noodles topped with stir-fried tomato in heavy sauces. The noodles in Shanghai, and generally in the southern areas, are often too soft and tender, just not chewy enough for a northerner like me."

The tomato noodles he misses so much is a common dish that many northeastern Chinese can make in 10 minutes. The first step is to boil wheat noodles in water, then rinse the noodles with cold water to keep them firm. Stir-fry some eggs and add tomatoes and water. Add salt and starch just before presenting. Pour the stir-fried eggs and tomatoes onto the noodles and, presto, a meal is served.

The simple household dish shows the essential differences between northern and southern noodles. The northern Chinese noodles are mostly made of wheat, while rice noodles are popular in the south.

Though it varies and there are exceptions, many northern-style noodles are cooked like the tomato noodles. The key is the tough texture of the noodle, which is usually wider than the thin noodles preferred in the south.

In the south, the selling point of noodles is often the soup base, loaded with tasty ingredients and cooked for hours to squeeze out more flavor and fragrance. The noodles are added into the soup much later in the process and usually overcooked so that they are tender.

Many northerners like Qi find it difficult to get authentic northern-style noodles in Shanghai. It is not easy, especially since most of the authentic ones are found in small eateries.

There are four most widely known northern-style noodles - Lanzhou lamian (hand-pulled noodle) from Gansu Province, zha jiang mian (fried sauce noodle) from Beijing and dao xiao mian (sliced noodle) from Shanxi Province. Hubei Province is often considered in the central area of China, but its specialty re gan mian (hot dried noodle) is so famous that we also included it on the list.

Dao xiao mian (刀削面)

Dao xiao mian, or sliced noodles, is very different from other noodle in terms of shape. The noodles are short, thick and irregularly shaped as they are cut off from the dough into the soup by knife.

There are a variety of toppings for dao xiao mian, with the most common ones pork and sweet bean paste. Vinegar is also an essential element since Shanxi Province is the most famous place in China for making vinegar.

San Jin Xiao Chu is a small eatery in Shanghai that provides typical Shanxi dishes including dao xiao mian.

Another specialty from the province is donkey meat, which tastes much like beef. Most dishes are sweet and sour, due to the heavy use of vinegar.

A dinner for two will cost around 70 yuan.

San Jin Xiao Chu 三晋小厨

Venue: 2/F, 131 Hubei Rd

Tel: 6322-6800

Lanzhou lamian (兰州拉面)

Lanzhou-style lamian restaurants are one of the most commonly seen eateries around China.

Many of these places also feature chefs who make the hand-pulled noodles on the spot. It is a simple and enjoyable process.

The chef continues to twist and stretch the dough and then folds it into strands.

The thickness and wideness of the noodles depend on how many times they fold it.

The noodles chew very well after the twisting and stretching by hand.

The fresh taste of the wheat flour is also preserved in the finished dish, often served in beef or mutton broth.

Due to the large Hui (who are Muslim) ethnic population in Lanzhou, most of these eateries, at least the authentic ones, have been opened by Hui people. They serve halal food, with no pork dishes.

It is relatively easy to find Lanzhou lamian restaurants in Shanghai and the dishes are inexpensive.

Dunhuang Loulan Halal Noodle Shop is best known for its beef-broth noodle, with very tasty soup and tender beef.

Most dishes are less than 10 yuan (US$1.6), and a dinner for two will cost around 30 yuan.

Dunhuang Loulan Halal Noodle


Venue: 2212 Zhongshan Rd N.

Tel: 5290-4792

Zha jiang mian (炸酱面)

Zha jiang mian, literally meaning fried sauce noodles, is a specialty of the capital, with a lot of varieties.

As the name suggests, zha jiang mian refers to pre-boiled noodles topped with zha jiang, a sauce made from stir-frying minced pork, sliced vegetables and yellow sauce, which is a salty fermented soybean paste.

The typical Beijing recipe is to fry minced pork with green onions, ginger and garlic. Turn down the heat when the diluted yellow sauce is added.

The great smell of the fat from pork is brought out by the oil and the yellow sauce, which also adds a shiny gloss to the meat.

The sauce is put on top of the pre-broiled noodles and accompanied with all kinds of sliced vegetables.

Shanghai's Feng Sheng Hutong is a small eatery specializing in Beijing dishes.

In addition to zha jiang mian, the eatery also has great authentic jing jiang rou si, or sauteed shredded pork in Beijing sauce.

It is shredded pork and specially made sauce - a mix of yellow sauce, sweet bean sauce and some other ingredients - that is rolled in a thin and crispy pancake, similar to Peking duck.

A dinner for four will cost around 240 yuan.

Feng Sheng Hutong 丰盛胡同

Venue: 416 Jinghui Rd, Minhang District

Tel: 5111-7711

Re gan mian (热干面)

Re gan mian is a specialty from Wuhan, capital city of Hubei Province. It is a common breakfast option usually served by street vendors, seen on many corners around the city.

The noodles, mixed with soy sauce and sesame paste, are topped with pickled vegetables, chopped garlic chives and chili oil. It is one of the most popular fast-food options in Wuhan, and is often too spicy for those from outside the area.

Such stands are very difficult to find in Shanghai, but Cai's Noodle serves rather authentic re gan mian.

One serving of the noodle at the stall is around seven to 10 yuan, depending on the toppings.

Cai's Noodle 蔡式武汉热干面

Venue: 223 Changli Rd, Pudong


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