Three years ago I published my first post on this blog, focusing on a topic that has fascinated me for more than twenty years–Lanzhou hand pulled noodles and “secret” ingredients. Over the past three years that post has been far and away the most-viewed post, with quite a few new views every day. To be sure, Lanzhou-style pulled (aka beef noodles) lanzhou lamian 兰州拉面 lanzhou niurou mian 兰州牛肉面 continue to captivate newbies and drive obsessive DIY cooks crazy.
That first post was a very basic entry into the world of Lanzhou-style pulled noodles and issues with noodle pulling that home cooks would certainly encounter. Today I’d like to take you a little further down that rabbit hole and explore what makes Lanzhou noodles unique–and how Lanzhou noodle shops in Philadelphia compare. I’ll close with reflections on my own experiences in noodle pulling (which I’ll confess, is not quite perfected), and suggestions on ways to accomplish decent results with typical US all-purpose flour.
New video sources and a newly published book
Quite a lot of new videos have been uploaded to YouTube on the topic of “Lanzhou noodles” since my first post. Some of them (especially Chinese language videos) are very good–I’ll highlight these below. Other bits of information are gleaned from a book I acquired in Beijing last year: Lanzhou Flavor: the Story of Beef Noodles, by Bing Yan《兰州味道 牛肉面的故事》作者：燕兵 (2016). That author and his work is also featured in a beautifully filmed 2-part Chinese language documentary on the history and tradition of Lanzhou pulled noodles, which can be viewed on YouTube: Part 1, and Part 2.
Before I talk about how our Philly “Lanzhou” pulled noodle shops are quite different to noodle preparations in Lanzhou, I’ll first say that I am a huge fan of Philly’s offerings. Currently we have four pretty decent restaurants… for a list of those shops with notes and links to more information, see the bottom of this post.
At our local noodle shops each bowl is expertly pulled to order, with noodles thick or thin, topped off with dark and deeply flavorful soup, interesting cuts of meat (usually beef, pork, and lamb), nice chewy blanched Shanghai choy cabbage, and chopped aromatic herbs of cilantro and green onion. Tableside, customers can add their own optional flavors of chile oil, vinegar, and sometimes even suancai pickled mustard greens according to their tastes. Part of the reason I like our Philly options so much is that these are very similar to noodles I used to enjoy in Guangzhou (Canton) hole-in-the-wall joints as a student in the 90s–a perfect lunch. That said, those presentations of “Lanzhou beef noodles” are quite different to how it they are commonly seen in China’s northwest, and in Lanzhou itself.
In Lanzhou, noodles are king. Wheat products are the base for every major food staple of the region, but while pan-fried and oven-baked breads and pies are enjoyed as snacks and specialty treats, noodles are meals, any time of day.
Multicultural influences perceived in the “ideal bowl”
In his book, Bing Yan posits that the perfect bowl of Lanzhou noodles is a culmination of cultural mixing between three cultures: Tibetan cultural zones to the south produce the best meat for slow cooking to top this dish: yak, not beef! (but in Chinese yak is thought of as a kind of beef). That, combined with Han spices and Hui noodle pulling techniques result in the ideal bowl. I’m a little skeptical that cooking techniques took on ethnic dimensions in this way a hundred years ago, but
many in China do associate Hui (Chinese Muslim) culture with wheaten foods of the northwest, including the tradition of noodle pulling. Lanzhou is situated at the center of the Hui heartland, and that city has long been a meeting point for different cultures between Turks, Mongols, Han, and Tibetans. The person widely credited with standardizing the dish of “Lanzhou beef noodles” was a Chinese Muslim noodle seller in the early 1900s named Ma Baozi 马保子. He started as a street vendor selling “hotpot noodles” (热锅子面) and over time became a local hero in food. His combination of flavor lives on with the standard “five colors” that are deemed necessary for proper Lanzhou noodles today (see below).
Outside of Lanzhou, “beef noodles”, or “Lanzhou lamian” restaurants often have green awnings signifying that they are halal. Noodles at these places would only be using beef/yak/mutton for their soups and toppings. That connection to Hui or Muslim Chinese culture is not present with Philadelphia’s “Lanzhou” restaurants, where pork is a common add-on possibility.
Five colors of Lanzhou beef noodles
In Lanzhou, an ideal bowl of noodles is appreciated through five colors: Clear 清 refers to the finest beef bone broth being clear and not cloudy (this also means that soy sauce and sugar are not in the soup!). Yellow 黄 refers to the off-white or pale yellow color of the noodles after they take on alkaline seasoning, i.e. from penghui solution. White 白 refers to the obligatory pairing of boiled daikon slices to accompany beef. Green 绿 refers to chopped aromatics of cilantro and green onion and/or other vegetables as toppings. Finally Red refers to the chile oil that is dolloped onto the top of the soup broth. This chile oil is loaded with floating sesame seeds as well, and is sometimes spiced with other aromatic seasonings. All of these toppings come direct from the kitchen. Often the only table condiment that is optional is black vinegar, which is a popular addition at the table.
Meat choices and soup
Yak of the Tibet-Qinghai plateau (adjacent to southern Gansu) is supposed to be the superior “beef” for inclusion in this dish. Beyond the animal, bones are a key part of
building the broth, as is beef liver. That said, most mainstream shops use tough cuts like tendon, which slice or cube nicely after 3-4 hours of simmering.
Meat and bones are simmered together with a variety of traditional Chinese spices like fennel seed, star anise, white pepper, cassia bark, Sichuan peppercorn (huajiao), bay leaves, and caoguo pods for 3-4 hours. Fresh ginger is also generally included, as are other dried medicinal roots. Every shop has its own recipe.
Further explorations into the problems of pulling high-protein (and high-gluten) dough
Penghui 蓬灰 is an elusive ingredient for us in the U.S. Perhaps because it is difficult to obtain in the U.S. and even around China, it is largely thought of as the secret ingredient in making Lanzhou-style noodles. Penghui is the favored alkali of noodle makers in Lanzhou, and it influences noodles in at least three ways: the alkali turns the noodles to a pale yellow, it strengthens the noodle texture (especially for low-gluten doughs) and enables noodles to be pulled extremely thin. If too much is used, a sulfuric flavor can be detected in the noodle.
Penghui originally comes from a plant called jianpengcao 碱蓬草 (Suaeda glauca) that grows in the highlands of Alashan (north of Lower Gansu, in Ningxia and Inner Mongolia). After this plant has been charred in a pit for several hours it is compressed into a dark crystal block. That is later processed with water to make a solution that noodle pullers use on mixed dough. Most people use the “quick dissolving” version (速溶蓬灰). That can be found at shops in Gansu Province (and even on TaoBao). You can see images of this plant, the crystal block, and the solution made from it in this very informative video broadcast from the CCTV Military Science Channel.
Can you pull noodles without penghui? Yes, you can. Penghui (or any alkali) is not required for noodle pulling–though it helps provide a nice texture while giving noodles elasticity. Alkali like Penghui actually help toughen dough, and should be applied after the dough has been properly processed to a pullable state.
“You need to first break the dough’s strength before adding strength back in”
Problems with pulling tough noodle dough have more to do with flour than any “secret ingredients”. As I stated in my last blog post on this subject, typical U.S. all-purpose flour is much higher in protein (and therefore gluten) than typical NW Chinese flours. This makes them much harder to pull than low gluten flours. Interestingly, Chinese noodle chefs talk about higher protein flours as superior. That said, noodle shops in China have machines that break the dough down to the right consistency to make for pliable dough before adding penghui. See this process in action again in that 2015 video from CCTV Military Science Channel.
Now, moving across the ocean to North America… check out the following short video from Ryan Ding with the noodle chef Brock Li (of Vancouver’s Legendary Noodle). He implies that the flour in North America is of higher quality, and “machine strength” is required to break it down before adding salt and alkali to add strength back later (see video from 1:45-2:45):
In his book, Bing Yan also discusses the types of wheat used in Lanzhou tradition. He points out the best flour of all is the “monk’s head” style (i.e. bald), a local variety of wheat which is produced in small yields only (implying that most wheat flour used for lamian in the NW is not quite as good). In Yan’s book, and in video interviews with chefs (like above), people link “quality” with higher protein content in the flour, and they also say more protein can mean less penghui is required to provide a nice mouthfeel.
With that in mind, I review three methods for pulling noodles at home:
(1.) Pulling without alkaline additives. Believe it or not, it is possible to pull noodles without alkaline additives at all. Uyghurs in Xinjiang and home cooks around China employ this technique with a coil-resting method. In this technique, the gluten in the flour is encouraged, and not ripped and torn like it is in Lanzhou pulling traditions. That means to say, that the pleasant mouthfeel of Xinjiang-style pulled noodles has more to do with maintaining the elastic structure of the gluten in flour. Essentially, a super long noodle is rolled by hand, coiled on a plate and covered with oil, and then thinned again (at least once) before boiling. I previously posted on this type of noodle, and highly recommend trying this method. It is a LOT easier to get started with than the Lanzhou method–and the noodles taste great. This method is also used in other parts of China, and can be witnessed in the following video from La, taken in 2007 in Shaanxi:
(2.) Pulling noodles from a sliced piece of noodle. This method is for a a low-gluten noodle dough (a method employed by many home cooks in Gansu and Shaanxi). This is kind of in between the methods of #1 and #3. After the dough is mixed and rested, it can be rolled flat with a rolling pin and cut into strips. Those strips, one by one, can be pulled long and thrown into boiling water. You can see this performed in the home visit documented in Corine Tiah’s video project:
(3.) Pulling noodles from one block of dough. This is the method witnessed at restaurants all over China, and even at a few in North America. It is so impressively fast. The requirements here are a dough that has been abused to the point were gluten has been broken down and the dough is almost like taffy. That is easier to do with a low-gluten flour, and even then in my experience this happens only after about 40-50 minutes of aggressive twisting and tearing (by hand). I’ve tried a mix of flours and settled on the ones posted and explained at Mark Rymarz’s site. I will say that while it was very rewarding and enjoyable to be able to pull noodles like they do at restaurants in China, the flavor and mouth feel of my experiments have not been great. I have found better results with the method #1 above, and I tend to stick to that if I want to be sure of a good result.
That said, I am still “in training” for the Lanzhou-style pull, and my next experiments will include getting the dough to that taffy consistency before testing alkali waters (as the chef above says, “you have to break the strength before adding it back.” One such alkali water that I expect to experiment with (available from Chinatown markets) is pictured to the left, FYI.
Go out and try a bowl of hand-pulled noodles in Philadelphia!
- Nanzhou Hand Drawn Noodle House 美味兰州手拉面 (1022 Race St.) This is a great bowl of noodles. The taste is adapted for broader Chinese clientele, but the stock and noodles are delicious. You can see the guys in the kitchen pulling noodles, but you have to go up to the kitchen counter to see.
- Spice C Hand Drawn Noodles 林記蘭州手拉麵 (131 N. 10th St.) also does a delicious bowl of noodles. One thing I really appreciate here is the boxes of pickled mustard greens on each table along with other condiments. You can add as much as you like! This isn’t necessarily a Lanzhou tradition, but it is yummy. Again, you can see them pulling through a window to the kitchen. This place experiments with “spicy Sichuan” soups for its noodles.
- Ochatto (3608 Chestnut St.–previously named Chattime, see my post on here) This University City spot is perfectly situated for Penn/Drexel student lamian cravings. It is a great bowl of noodles, and is the only place in Philly where the noodle chef comes out in public to pull noodles to order, right next to the sushi chefs.
- Authentic LanZhou Hand-Pulled Noodles (aka Henan little kitchen) 蘭州拉麵 (河南小吃)(935 Arch St.—just under Chinatown Arch). This restaurant with two signs with different names on opened new last year. Their specialties seem to be more mutton hui mian than pulled noodles. I confess I haven’t yet tried their pulled noodles, partly because there are so many other unusual things on their menu. Their liang pi, or “凉皮” cool skin noodles, popular in Northwest China, are delicious.