When I moved to Nanjing two and a half years ago, I had a dream of befriending some folks at a noodle shop who would teach me how to pull noodles.
I thought that would be a useful and fun hobby. Back when I lived in China from 2000-2002, I took lessons from a chef who taught me how to carve fruit and vegetables into decorative flower and animal shapes. That was a fun and quirky skill, but not especially practical. I hoped this time around living in China I could learn to make Chinese noodles instead.
During my first fall here I discovered several decent noodle places in my neighborhood, and a favorite was run by a friendly family. I was planning on asking them to teach me, but they suddenly moved away. None of the other families running noodle shops in my neighborhood seemed very friendly, not wanting to engaging in conversation besides taking my order. I kept waiting to find the right place because I wanted these noodle lessons to emerge from a friendship first.
Over the months, I gradually forgot about this plan. Then last spring I started going to a Xi’an noodle place downtown. Their youpo mian 油泼面 is delicious. Youpo means “throw the oil on,” and it’s a noodle dish flavored with a little oil in the bottom of the bowl sauteed with garlic, and topped with soybean sprouts, wilted leafy greens, cumin, red chile, and green onions. You stir it at the table so the oil lightly coats the noodles. The noodles have oil “thrown on” or tossed on them instead of being chao, or fried in oil.
Here is another beautiful bowl of youpo mian I had in Xi’an with the ingredients composed on top.
The family in this Xi’an noodle shop is so friendly. They are from Xi’an themselves and we talked lots last spring about how my parents were going to visit soon, and I was going to take them to Xi’an for 5 days. The man said, “In Xi’an, over there, you just walk down the street and it’s fun — 走路就好玩” It’s true because Xi’an has great street life, and his comment became our trip motto “you just walk down the street and it’s fun”.
This fall when I returned from my summer travels, their faces beamed when I showed up for a bowl of noodles. “Where were you? We missed you!” One night in September as my friend and I ate bowls of noodles after a lengthy Belgian happy hour, she encouraged me to ask them if they could teach me in their free time. “Can we teach you? Can we? Of course!” And that was that. So far I’ve had 3 lessons.
One of my lessons was in the early morning to learn how they make their dough. They use this machine to mix the flour, salt, and water. They use the same dough for all of the different shapes of noodles, but for each designated shape, the dough rests for different amounts of time at different temperatures.
We started with dao xiao mian 刀削面， the wide cut noodles in my photos above. These are the noodles that food writer Jonathan Gold describes as “fettuccine on steroids.” They’re thick, chewy, and slightly irregular, which gives them a good mouth-feel. The dough is formed into a log, and then refrigerated a several hours until firm. Then the log of dough is placed on a wooden board so that you can prop it on your shoulder to cut the noodles.
This is the tool for cutting dao xiao mian. The blade is curved on the top left end of the tool. You could use a paring knife, but this tool slides along the dough to cut the noodles more evenly. Apparently you can only buy this tool in northwest China. When one of his breaks, he has a friend back home in Xi’an send him a new one.
We were practicing over a metal work table, but to make real noodles to serve, this kind of noodle is cut directly over a pot of boiling water, made to order.
I’ve been taking these lessons with my student Huang Xiaoming (Jessica) because she loves working with dough. She grew up making noodles with her mom in the simple homestyle way, rolling dough out flat then cutting it into strips. She has made those simple homestyle noodles in my home in Nanjing several times for student parties. So she’s been really excited about joining me on these days. She also helps translate a bit for me when the vocab gets too technical.
Here she’s practicing and making a pile of noodles.
After practicing with the dough, we made our own daoxiao mian to eat ourselves. We cut the noodles directly over the boiling water in a huge pot the size of a cauldron. I made these noodles myself!
For another lesson, we made chemian 扯面, the super-wide noodles from northwest China that are rolled out wide and pulled gently. You start by forming the dough into smaller logs about an inch and a half wide and a little over a foot long. These logs are dusted with cornstarch and placed in a cool spot next to a cold open window to chill slightly. You can see a whole tray of these logs resting under wax paper.
Once you are ready to work with the chilled log of dough, roll it out a little with your hands.
Then it is rolled out with a slim Chinese rolling pin to stretch further.
It’s rolled out into a strip about 2 inches wide.
Then the strip is pulled gently a few times to stretch out. These are not la mian 拉面 which are the famous thin pulled noodles. These che mian are only pulled gently, and are still very wide. Both la 拉 and che 扯 mean pulling, but la mian 拉面 and che mian 扯面 are pulled in different ways.
Here Jessica is showing off one very long noodle.
The che mian are so long and wide that only 1 or 2 noodles fit in a large bowl of noodle soup. Here is the che mian that I made, in a classic tomato and egg soup.
I look happy with my bowl of che mian!
And Jessica looks happy too.
The family at the noodle shop won’t accept payment for these lessons. They won’t let us even pay for the noodles we eat at the end of our lessons (because they say we shouldn’t pay for noodles we make ourselves). In the Chinese style, we’ve tried throwing money down and leaving, but they grab it and stuff it in our bags and pockets before we can get out. It’s very Chinese. I’ve found that in these situations it’s usually more appropriate to give a gift for lessons instead of money. So I bought them an expensive knife at a good knife store as a “Thanksgiving present to thank them for being my teachers.” They accepted the gift, so I feel good about it.
I’m not sure if they’ll teach us how to make the thin pulled noodles, the lamian 拉面. They are quite difficult and require many, many hours of practice. The husband and wife at the noodle shop can make them, but they haven’t even taught their other staff in the kitchen how to make them. He said we can keep coming to practice these shapes we’ve already worked on, but he’s not sure if he’ll teach us lamian. So we’ll see. I’m simply grateful for the experience I’ve had so far.