Sunday, October 3, 2010

The world's most insanely beautiful noodles

Chinese noodles... we've all had them. Depending upon who makes them, they can be good, they can be lousy, they can be soft and silky, they can be soggy or doughy, they can be snappingly chewy, and they can be slithery conduits for sauce or soup. Noodles can easily make or break a dish, but you almost never hear the word "glorious" applied to what in fact is little more than strings of flour and water. 

Pulled noodles, though... now those are my idea of perfectly glorious food! But what's the big deal, right? After all, what are noodles anyway but flour and water? 

It's just not that simple, at least not when it comes to what the Chinese call lamian (pulled noodles) or shoulamian (hand-pulled noodles). Pulled noodles are truly extraordinary. They're totally different from any other noodle that I know of because of the artistry involved in shaping them and the resulting texture. (See the embedded video below for an almost 10-minute performance by Chef Tony Wu as he turns a blob of dough into thousands of threadlike strands, with Chef Martin Yan narrating.)

And yes, this is artistry in my book. This takes talent. This takes practice. And this takes the right ingredients.

If you've never seen them made or you've never enjoyed a ridiculously sensuous  mouthful of these delicate strands, I fully understand your skepticism and envy the moment when you take that first bite, because if you love noodles, you'll get a rush of pure joy. 

A skein of noodles in the making
It takes a master to pull these off (that was a pun, folks), and masters of this caliber are few and far between, especially outside of China. Let's first talk about why these pulled noodles are so perfect and some of the secrets I've been able to glean as to how they are made, and then come back to a video of a noodle master at work.


Pulled noodles are so great because the repeated pulling and twisting of the high-gluten dough results in an extremely resilient noodle. Water is added to the flour, it's kneaded until it's very smooth, and then it's left to rest until the dough becomes as soft as a baby's bottom. You can see how soft the dough is when the chef in the video starts pulling the dough, as the ends keep coming off, but that soon ends as the dough toughens up.
Chefs Yan & Wu having fun


Note that the chef keeps pulling away, but always in the same direction. The reason for this is that the gluten has been rudely startled out of its nice floury stupor and has come alive, ordering up all of its tiny protein strands into extremely tensile threads, and by carefully folding the dough back on itself in one direction, the strands get lined up, and then the noodles allow themselves to be pulled longer and longer and longer, all the while stretching out their tense little gluten muscles. So, when you bite down on them, they fight back a bit, and that is my idea of a wonderful noodle. Another thing is, all that pulling ensures that the surface of the noodle gets covered with little crags and jaggedly bits.


Why is that important, you may ask. Well, unlike rolled noodles that are soft and smooth and have the texture of silk sheets, those bumpy surfaces on lamian cradle droplets of sauce and soup, making each mouthful a mind-blowing combination of flavors. See, you don't have to slurp up your soup with a mouthful of these noodles - they're toting all those flavors on their own, thank you very much. And if you get a lusciously rich meat sauce on them with tiny nuggets, say, of garlic and ginger? What happens is that all those flavors are going to have a big party in your mouth, so you've got textures, tastes, aromas, mouth feel, and pure bliss, just from a mouthful of noodles.


Dragon whisker noodles
So, we have all the reasons for why the noodles do what they do, but what allows them to be pulled so perfectly? What are those secret little knacks that no one wants to mention? The answer to this eluded me for years. I talked to folks from Shanxi province up in the cold Chinese north where these noodles came from, but nothing was revealed. I read Chinese cookbooks, tracked down Chinese websites, and searched around for the longest time trying to ferret out the answer. And it wasn't until about a year ago that I finally landed a few of those precious ah-ha moments.

What happened was that famed Chinese chef Martin Yan came to our area last October and hosted an event called the Noodle Fest in Celebration of Autumn Moon. What's even better, we had a chance to meet and eat with this completely charming and personable t.v. host. The food and the wines were, as to be expected, more than simply fine, located as we were in his Yan Can Cook restaurant in the South Bay. There were little lessons on fruit and vegetable carving that warmed up our appetites and made us happy to be there. These alone should have been enough.

But then we had a fabulous demonstration of Shanxi province's bizarrely beautiful pulled noodles. Performing the honors was the astounding Tony Wu, executive chef of Fortune House Seafood Restaurant in Burnaby, B.C.

After watching Chef Wu at work, I figured out at least four secrets to pulled noodles: To begin with, they have to be made with Chinese high-gluten flour, which is a totally different animal from American bread flour. Chef Yan told a story about trying to bring Chinese noodle flour into the States and getting lots of grief from Customs, so that was clue number one.
Try this flour


Many of the Chinese flours I've tried have been of uneven quality, and about the best that I have found for Chinese dough is actually a Korean brand with a polar bear as the trademark; it comes in a white bag with green on it, and there's an illustration of a bowl full of dough and bread fixin's (see the photo on the left). I've used this flour for lots of Chinese noodles and breads, and it's the best I've found by far insofar as gluten count and quality of the product are concerned. The same brand also offers a flour with blue on it, and that's the low-gluten variety, so don't pick up the wrong kind.


The second secret has to do with moisture, I think. Watch the video below and see how Chef Wu skillfully pulls and winds the skein of noodles - it's a pretty wet dough to begin with that dries and toughens as the pulling gets going. Filtered water would be a good idea because at least in my area we have terribly hard water, and all those chemicals wouldn't do the dough any favors.

Water is important in another way, as well. Chef Yan pointed out that California's air is notoriously dry, and so the dough quickly becomes brittle if water isn't added at critical times. You can see Chef Wu occasionally dipping a hand into a pan of water, which drips down onto the dough and turns it supple again. Flour is scattered over the dough only at the end when he's ready to turn the dough into noodles, and then the dough is dipped in the flour at regular intervals so that the strands take on a bit of the flour and stay separate.
The finished noodles, fine as threads


A third key that Chef Yan mentioned was that the dough is twisted one way and then twisted in the opposite direction the second time around. That makes sense. In this way the dough strands stay more or less straight, because if the dough was twisted in only one direction, the strands would soon tighten up into an angry coil that nothing could ever untie.


Finally, even pressure is used in the pulling. And towards the end, when the strands are much more brittle, this careful monitoring of how much and how little pressure to exert on the dough appears critical.


Anyway, that's what I gleaned from watching these delightful chefs at work.
I'm still working on the ingredients, which seem to be little more than the flour, water, and some salt. I haven't discovered any secret additives yet. If I do, you'll be the first to know... (And if you happen to have any lamian secrets to share, please post a comment!)



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11 comments:

  1. Dear Carolyn, I have been reading your blog for the last couple of hours and it is amazing! So many good recipes and stories, it is a delight! 很高兴!Thank you! There are so many dishes I'd like to try now!

    As for the 拉面 noodles, it has been a running project of mine to pull them myself - although up to now, it hasn't worked out (after 6 attempts and hours of kneading, adding water etc). I searched the web back and forth for some videos or recipes, the best ones so far have been: Lukery Marz' pages on hand pulled noodles, and Chef Tomm's recipe for the Kitchen Aid, adapted from Luke.
    Perhaps now you will give it a try?
    My problem is getting the basic flour, since in Europe flour types are different still... Who knows.. perhaps ONE day?...

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  2. This is just the most wonderful note ever, Kattebelletje! Thank you so much for everything that you've written; it means a lot to me.

    I have tried making lamian many times, and have come *close* to success, but nothing worth writing about. There is some secret that I'm not yet aware of, but I do want to work on it, as these noodles are just too fun to ignore.

    I checked out your blog, and you are quite accomplished! If I may, I'll post a link on my page. (That Beggar's Chicken looks amazing.)

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  3. Well I want to thank you! I haven't finished half of what you have written and you have done so much research (esp eating around!) My blog is kind of lagging behind at the moment since I started writing on the Chinese pantry and Chinese stores at my (in Dutch) blog http://tokowijzer.nl, which takes up more time than my kattebelletje-blog at the moment.

    I majored in Chinese here in the Netherlands and, like you, did lots of interpreting and translation work. Now working as Chinese subject librarian at Leiden University.

    Do check out my food pictures at Flickr (http://www.flickr.com/photos/kattebelletje) , esp from the cooking course in Chengdu last year... there is just so much to learn about Chinese food! I am really intrigued by your writings on Jiangsu and Anhui cuisine etc., the worst food I've had was in Anhui but that was in the 80s so should give it another try! Thanks for all the inspiration you've given me with your blog!

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  4. Hi Carolyn,

    I am amazed by your blog. You are so generous in sharing all your recipes. I am from Malaysia and we do have a lot of different fresh noodles available here.
    Regarding the lack of gluten in the flour that is available in the US, why don't you add gluten powder into it to get the extra gluten, also for the extra 'stretchness', or 'bite' in the noodles for wan tan mien, I found out that the cooks here add egg and what they call 'kan sui'. I hope this help you in your experiment.

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    1. Hi there and thank you so much for your kind words. You made my day!

      Excellent suggestions, and I thank you for those, too. I can see from my writing that I was not very clear at all about the differences between Chinese and American flour. American flour is actually much harder than Chinese flour; it has a higher gluten content and so becomes too tough to turn into noodles with good texture.

      I have found that using 2 parts all-purpose flour and 1 part pastry flour (all fine white flours, by the way) will give you pretty much the same gluten as Chinese flour.

      Wonton noodles have more "bite" to them, I believe, from the addition of eggs and alkali, which also turns them that lovely yellow hue. Salt, too, helps to make the noodles firmer.

      Thanks again for your kind note and great ideas. It has spurred me to continue with my experiments!

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    2. I have learned a lot from your detailed website regarding bao zi and mantou making. Sorry if this is redundant, when you say 2 parts all-purpose flour and 1 part pastry flour - does this apply to any brand of American flour? Unfortunately the Asian markets around me do not stock the Korean bread flour (Gompyo Daehan brand with polar bear) but only Korean Gompyo all-purpose flour. In order to make mantou, I used Gompyo AP and pastry flour (made from Gompyo AP flour with corn starch) which tasted great for my taro mantou. I was thinking of trying Gold Medal AP flour with Arrowhead Pastry flour - would that give me the same gluten as the Chinese flour you're referring to? Thanks again for your help. Or the alternative would be to use Gompyo AP flour with the Arrowhead pastry flour.

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    3. Yes, American AP flour and pastry flour appear to have basically the same gluten content, regardless of the brand.

      I would think that Gold Medal AP plus Arrowhead pastry flours would be perfect. But if you added pastry flour to Korean AP, the gluten level would be way too low for breads and noodles.

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  5. I have tried endlessly to do this, with no avail. The recipe definitely matters. There is a lot of BS out there on the internet, especially with some people recommending low gluten flour, stating that all flours in Asia are low gluten. This was because I think he went to the Korean market and saw all their flour was low gluten, not knowing that Chinese flour can be as low as 5% and as high as 14%.

    At my local Chinese supermarket, I cannot find high gluten Chinese flour. The highest is flour for dumplings, which is under 12%. What is the difference between Chinese "gao jing fen" and American bread flour (12%-14%) or any type of American/European high gluten flour (14+%)?

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    1. I'm going to have to do more research on that for you. Like I wrote up there, I spoke with Chef Wu about this, and he said it was just regular Chinese flour with some salt and a touch of baking soda. I've used something similar to make biangbiang noodles (I've never been able to master lamian so far!), and they turned out wonderfully. My experience with biangbiang noodles was mainly to have lots of patience. The dough really has to rest at least three times in order to relax the gluten. That was the big secret for me. If I get more info, though, I'll be sure and post it!

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    2. I am assuming your conversation was in Chinese.

      Did he say "baking soda" specifically or did he just use the Chinese term for "alkaline", 碱? Traditionally it is to use 蓬灰 aka penghui, soda ash, mugwort ash, and sodium carbonate, not baking soda which is sodium bicarbonate.

      By "regular flour" do you mean all purpose? Because in the video Martin says it's high gluten and somewhat special.

      In any case here is the video tutorial for la mian from a Shandong chef. In his recipe he tells to use zhong jing fen (all purpose flour), and not gao jing fen like the other examples I gave. He goes through the recipe, kneading the dough and pulling. However, following his recipe I could not get the dough to a proper consistency.

      https://vimeo.com/156098316

      Perhaps you can understand and explain his tips and detailed information, because my Mandarin is lousy.

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    3. Zombie, send me an email: madamehuang [at] gmail. I'll take down your post and my reply in a couple of days, as I really don't want to go into the details here.

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