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Soup of the Silk Road

A good bowl of Lanzhou la mian conjures its Silk Road roots. La mian translates from Chinese as “pulled noodle,” which refers to the athletic technique used to make the ribbons of pasta. It is also the name of an aromatic beef soup made with these smooth and slightly elastic noodles. A blend of spices and herbs—cumin, star anise, turmeric, and fresh cilantro—gives the broth a vibrant flavor and subtle whiffs of distant trading posts in India and the Mediterranean.

La mian (pronounced “la mee-en”) originated among the Hui people of China’s northwestern Gansu province during the Tang Dynasty (618 to 907 C.E.). In that era, the provincial capital, Lanzhou, became an important commercial hub on the trade routes that brought Buddhism and Islam, along with an array of new spices and culinary customs, to central and eastern Asia. Over the centuries, la mian developed as a traditional food of Hui Muslims, who remain the prime purveyors of the dish.

“The Lanzhou la mian you see today was invented in 1915 by a Hui Muslim named Ma Baozi,” says Ma Xian, who runs Ma Baozi Niu Rou La Mian, a famous noodle shop in Lanzhou. Eventually, the dish became synonymous with the city.

La mian migrated eastward during the 20th century, and these days, pulled noodles are a staple of China’s working class in nearly every major city, eaten as an inexpensive snack at any time of day. In Shanghai and Beijing, hundreds of la mian shops stay open from daybreak to well past midnight.

The noodles are made by hand, in a familiar sequence of maneuvers and sounds that can be witnessed in alleyways all over China. The chef, dusted in wheat flour from belt buckle to skullcap, often puts on a show in his shop’s front window.

He slams a ball of dough onto a steel table, rolls it into a flour-coated cord, stretches the cord, twirls it like a jump rope, and smacks it on the table’s surface. With a magician’s adroitness, the noodle maker pinches the ends of the cord together to form a loop, then spins the loop vertically, causing the dough to coil around itself into a long braid. He smashes the braid on the table, sprinkles it with more flour, and stretches it out to its original length.Then he twirls, loops, and spins it again. As he works the dough, its proteins bind, adding strength and elasticity. And each time he repeats the steps, he builds a more complex structure of fibers along the length of the braid. He does this again and again, and with every repetition the strands double in number—8, 16, 32, 64—and become thinner and thinner. A dozen quickly executed repetitions can produce thousands of delicate, threadlike noodles.

La mian

From shop to shop, chefs incorporate different ingredients into their recipes. “To make the noodles elastic, you need to use an ashen powder made from peng cao, a grass that grows on Gansu’s high plains,” explains noodle maker Wang Chen Xiang, as he slaps and stretches dough in an old shop in Shanghai. “And the thing that makes the beef stock delicious,” he says with a smile, “is that it’s not made from beef at all. The best soups only use the meat of a yak—every good la mian seller knows that.”

In Lanzhou, find the Ma Baozi Niu Rou La Mian noodle shop on Zhangye Lu near Xiguan Shizi (the Xiguan crossing). In Shanghai, try a classic version of la mian at Lanzhou Niu Rou Mian, 215 Maoming North Road, between Weihai Road and Yan’an Middle Road. A

Lanzhou La Mian
Recipe loosely adapted from Ma Baozi Niu Rou La Mian

1 pound dried Chinese wheat noodles
2 1⁄2 pounds beef, cut into large chunks (brisket or rump cuts work well)
2 medium carrots, peeled and cut into 4 pieces
1 medium daikon radish, peeled and cut into 4 pieces
2 thumb-size knobs of ginger, peeled and smashed with the side of a knife
2 white onions, quartered
4 star anise, whole (optional)
1 4-inch strip of cassia bark (optional)
1 tsp whole black peppercorns
3⁄4 tsp ground cumin
3⁄4 tsp ground turmeric
4 tbsp soy sauce
Salt to taste
Chinese black vinegar
Red chili flakes or Chinese red chili sauce (la jiao jiang)
1 bunch of cilantro, washed and chopped (Do this just before serving.)
1 bunch of spring onions or chives, washed and chopped

1. Cook the noodles in boiling water until tender. Drain and set aside.
2. Place the beef in a large pot of boiling water and cook for two minutes or until foam appears.
3. Drain the water and rinse foam from the pot.
4. Put 12 cups of water in the pot and add all the ingredients except cumin, turmeric, soy sauce, salt, and toppings.
5. Bring to a boil. Skim off any foam from the surface, lower the heat, and simmer for two to three hours or until the beef is very tender.
6. Strain the stock and return only the liquid to the pot, setting the beef aside.
7. Add the cumin, turmeric, and soy sauce, and salt to taste. For a strong curry flavor, add more cumin and turmeric.
8. Put the cooked noodles into four large bowls. Slice the beef and place the meat on the noodles. Add a dash of Chinese black vinegar, and a sprinkling of red chili flakes or a splash of chili sauce.
9. Spoon the stock into the bowls and top with generous amounts of cilantro and spring onions or chives.

Photos by Liao Yusheng and Stephen Ting. This article appeared in the November/December 2010 issue.