WHETHER made with flour in the north or rice in the south, Chinese noodles are a staple of the daily diet. A simple bowl of noodles can be comforting on a cold day, nostalgic to an elderly person reminiscing about youth or just a plain tasty dish when hunger strikes. And by noodles, we aren’t talking here of those tasteless instant brands. True noodles in China go back thousands of years, possibly starting with the Han Dynasty (AD 25–220). In Chinese, noodles are called mian tiao, with mian translating as “flour” and tiao meaning “strips.” Thick or thin, dry or in soup, noodles can be made of wheat or rice flour, or with any kind of starch, such as mung beans and oats. Each type of noodle says something about regional traditions and culture. Passed down from one generation to the next, recipes that embody the true heritage of noodles are mostly nowadays in rural and remote areas.
Gong mian (palace noodles)
Gong mian is a traditional noodle of Hebei Province. Its origins have been traced back to the final years of the Han Dynasty (AD 25–220). In those days, gong mian was made only for the royal court, hence the name. The thin, hollow and white noodles are made with fine wheat flour in a complicated process that involves more than a dozen steps. The noodles, which dry in the shade, can be made only by hand. Served hot or cold, the noodles come in a variety of dishes. For locals, these noodles are an everyday staple. Cheng Huangang, 33, runs the largest gong mian factory in Wuqiao County in Hebei. It started out as a small family business that he inherited from his father and then expanded when he returned to his hometown in 2007 after graduating from Suzhou University. Cheng’s gong mian is made in 13 steps that take 14 hours — and that’s not counting the 72 hours it takes to dry the noodles. They come in two thicknesses: 0.7-0.9 millimeter and 0.9-1.1 millimeters. The thinner noodle is ideal for soups while the thicker version is perfect in stir-fries. This noodle has come to be called Cheng’s gong mian. “The difference between our gong mian and others is that we add three steps in making them,” Cheng said in an interview with Shanghai Daily. “We can produce 2,000 tons of flour products annually, and we produce more handmade noodles than in the past because we renovated the process to improve efficiency and we hired more skilled workers.” It’s not an easy tradition to hand on. “As an inheritor, it’s my responsibility to keep the craftsmanship alive,” Cheng said. “It’s not only the production techniques, but also the wisdom and culture of noodle-making. We are developing new brands and techniques to continue the traditional heritage into the future.” Cheng’s gong mian can be purchased through his official taobao.com online store called 广结膳缘.
Hollow hanging noodles Hollow hanging noodles are a specialty of Zhangjiashan in Shaanxi Province. They date back to the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644). These noodles are very thin — almost like silken threads — but the microscopic center is hollow. To achieve this structure, skilful masters require 20 hours to complete 18 steps. Because of its superior tenacity, these noodles don’t break down easily when cooked in hot, rich lamb or beef broth. Zhang Shixin (1947-2014) came to be called the “grandpa of hanging noodles” after he was featured in the second season of the popular “A Bite of China” television series. The episode was subtitled “Heart’s Message,” Zhang certainly captured hearts of viewers across the nation overnight. In a blog posting after Zhang’s death, Chen Lei, director of the episode, recalled his first meeting with the noodle maestro: “On a hillside that faces the sun, there were two cave houses. A kind grandma wearing an apron welcomed us inside, where Zhang was sitting. He wore a navy blue jacket and hat of the same color, simple and neat. I asked him if he could make hanging noodles, and his eyes suddenly sparkled. ‘I hung my first rack of hanging noodles when I was 15,’ he told me. ‘I know everything about making hanging noodles.’ He then explained the process in detail for half an hour, telling me how the recipe was handed down from his ancestors.” The show brought instant fame to Zhang and his family, and hanging noodles became a highly sought-after dish. Franchise noodle house Xibei Oat Noodle Village is the place go for an authentic version of the noodles.
Longxu mian Also known as “dragon beard noodles,” longxu mian originated in northern China about 300 years ago. The noodles are as fine as strands of hair. When the noodles were served to the emperor in the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), they were fried. But nowadays, longxu mian are also served in soups. They are a version of hand-pulled noodles, with chefs repeatedly performing the basic movements of pulling and folding. Traditional longxu mian need to be pulled into 14 strands, comprising more than 16,000 threads.
Skilled chefs today often perform this art at customers’ tables, adding dance moves while pulling the dough ever thinner. Dried longxu mian can be found in most supermarkets in China. There are also modern new variations, such as carrot and spinach noodles.
Jook-sing noodles Jook-sing noodles, or zhusheng mian originated in Guangdong Province and are a common staple in the Pearl River Delta. The noodles are thin and often used to cook fresh shrimp wonton or soy-fried noodles. The noodle’s name means “bamboo noodles” because chefs use bamboo poles as rolling pins to press the dough as thin as paper. The process can take one to two hours. A major difference between jook-sing noodles and other classic noodles is the use of duck eggs in the dough instead of water, giving a brighter yellow color and firmness. A small amount of water containing baking soda is also used in making the dough. Making jook-sing noodles is complicated. Only a few restaurants still make them the traditional way by hand. Most jook-sing noodles served in restaurants are made by machine. Packages of the those noodles can be found in supermarkets in Shanghai. But if they aren’t handmade, they aren’t quite the same. Jook-sing noodles served in a small restaurant called Zhu Yuan (Bamboo Garden) were also featured in the second season of “A Bite of China.”
Qiuchuan gong mian
Qiuchuan gong mian, also known as “cable noodles,” originated in Changshan in Zhejiang Province. In Changshan, these noodles are a must-have when celebrating birthdays because they symbolize longevity and prosperity. The noodles are hung in the traditional manger but the process for making them is different. Qiuchuan gong mian uses flour, salt and water to make the dough, and the whole process has to be finished within one day, so they can be made only on sunny days for hanging. The locals often eat these noodles with hot, spicy oil and poached eggs, or serve them with a dipping sauce made from oil, chilies, green onion and soy sauce. Qiuchuan gong mian can made only by hand. The step of hanging the noodles on long chopsticks to stretch takes five hours to complete, according to Yang Shuhua, a noodle maker in Qiuchuan Town. The noodles need to be stretched to a length of 1.9 meters.
Yang said he started learning the craft when he was 19 and has been making noodles for 31 years. He and his wife make 5,000 kilos of gong mian every year. In Qiuchuan, there are more than 60 families and workshops producing these noodles, according to the local newspaper. “The income is good, but the craft of making the noodles is difficult, and it’s possible that the art will be lost in the future because few young people are willing to learn it,” said Xu Momin, a noodle maker. Qiuchuan gong mian can be purchased on Taobao.com by searching.