Photos: Jia Li
St. Cavish goes to Lanzhou to learn the art of hand-pulled noodles.
I know a lot about la mian.
There are four ingredients in hand-pulled noodles: flour, water, salt and penghui
. Penghui was originally an ash made from burning mugwort, a grass that grows on the arid hillsides of northwestern China, where la mian originates. In the 1990s, Lanzhou University identified and refined this essential component of hand-pulled noodles, without which the noodles could not be pulled. It is potassium carbonate, and it is safer than the traditional method, no matter what they say in Lanzhou. There are nine thickness of Lanzhou la mian, when eaten in Lanzhou, and I can name all of them. Despite seeming eternal, the current form of Lanzhou la mian was invented in only 1915. I have met, interviewed and eaten the noodles of the inventor's great-grandson, himself an old man. The key to pulling noodles is to align the strands of gluten in a single direction, so they extend, not break, when pulled. You can tell if a la mian shop is run by a Lanzhou native or a Qinghai impersonator by their chili sauce. The flour must be high-gluten.
I know all of this about hand-pulled noodles, and more.
And still, I am a noodle school dropout.
On my first day at Peak Happiness Hand-Pulled Noodle Training Institute
, I bounded up the six flights of stairs in a drab suburban Lanzhou building with childish excitement. I changed into the work uniform and meekly entered the practice room. All around me, vocational students in their orange-lined chef jackets and paper hats alternated between tearing at and kneading large quantities of cream-colored dough. The room smelled vaguely like eggs from the penghui mixed with water, an alkaline liquid that relaxes the dough at the same time as giving it a distinctive chewiness and its characteristic flavor.
Coming here had been a dream since the first time I saw noodles pulled by hand, at a fancy hotel brunch. The chef grabbed both ends of a long tube of inert dough, and with a wide, decisive motion, pulled them into life. He slapped them onto his table and casually tossed them into a pot of boiling water. It was magic.
I’ve watched the process hundreds of times since that first encounter. I’ve learned the hows and whys of the process. I’ve seen masters and apprentices and beginning students do it. And I’ve never felt anything less than awe. I had to learn for myself.
Over the course of the next week, I was coached by Master Ding, a man as thin and willowy as a finely pulled noodle, and berated by Master Liu, a stout braggart who looked more like the 50-pound sacks of flour stacked on the floor. We’d start with a pound of flour and a bowl of water, making a well on our work tables to hold the water, and then go through the intricate process of kneading, tearing, cupping and twisting the dough until it felt like it had given up, like gum chewed too long. Ding would sporadically supervise, rescuing those of us who were lost in the maze of steps with a few presses of his palm on the dough, leaning in hard against the table, his left foot extended backwards while kneading with his right hand and vice versa, and then triumphantly hold the dough in front of his chest, and with a single elegant motion, raise his arms out to his sides, the dough following. Liu’s strategy was different. He would come in some time after Ding, gathering up the dough from four or five students and body-slam it onto the stainless-steel tables with a thud. He kneaded with both hands curled into fists and he pulled like he was ripping the noodles out of the dough. He was a roughneck showman, a noodle shop superstar with all the coarse edges of a man who had spent a dozen years working a physically demanding job.
The days passed like this, turning flour into dough and dough into noodles with varying degrees of success. We would break for lunch — always noodles — and then continue into the early evening: knead, tear, cup, twist, pull. Halfway through the week, an electric buzz ran through the classrooms. It was the day of the test and eight of the students would be participating. Admissions worked on a rolling basis with new students coming every day and older students graduating whenever they could pass both the practical and theory tests. We all raced upstairs to the kitchen where the worktables had been shoved together and eight mounds of flour had been arranged on the tabletops.
New friends offered encouragement to the students hoping to pass the exam. Some psyched themselves up like athletes, jumping in place. Others stood in silent fear. A test administrator looked at her watch and signaled that it was time to start.
The students would have eighteen minutes. In that time, they had to make four different thicknesses of noodles. The girls from the office hovered with clipboards and digital calipers to assess their handiwork. When they finally began, everyone worked at double-speed, mixing and kneading as fast as they could, sprinkling on a little extra penghui here and there to make the dough extra pliant, flipping and pounding the dough as if it had done something awful to them. Seventeen minutes later, out of all that violence, noodles began to emerge. The students laid out their fine noodles, their fine no. 2 noodles, their leek-leaf noodles and their standard wide noodles for all to see. Ding and Liu stood off to the side, their faces betraying nothing. The rest of the crowd leaned in, nodding approvingly or shaking their heads in disapproval at their classmates’ noodles. The office girls, the administrators, walked counter-clockwise around the small kitchen area, measuring and inspecting and teasing the individual strands apart. “Qualified” they’d announce with no formality, for those who had passed. “Not Qualified” sent several of the students into despair, as they silently mashed up their noodles and leftover dough into a single mass. Everyone filed back into the classrooms. The flour and water came out again, and we all started from scratch.
The days passed like this for most students, alternating between practice and tests, always with fingers crusted in dough and smelling vaguely of penghui. I was lucky. Principal Li, a young-looking guy in his early 40s who started the school initially to solve a shortage of trained cooks for his own chain of 300+ noodle restaurants, had arranged a few special trips for me. Peak Happiness was already a large company and now they were trying to expand their control over the entire supply chain. Li organized a driver to take me the three hours outside of Lanzhou to the company’s cattle farm, and then, in a surprising and gory twist, to the company’s halal slaughterhouse, where we watched the operations. Back in Lanzhou, Li took me to Wumule, one of Lanzhou’s better-known noodle shops, on the northern bank of the Yellow River, for their famous beef.
On other days, I made my own field trips, interviewing government officials, noodle shop owners, and La Bingnan, a philosophical master chef in his 50s who described the feeling of working the noodle-pulling station as that of being in a waterfall, with the noodles passing through his hands like water. Secretly, I’d sometimes walk out of the school and down the street to Chen Ji, a down-and-dirty Lanzhou institution, where customers grabbed their bowls of noodles and then squatted on the street to eat.
I still failed. I failed not because I couldn’t grasp it. The process of making hand-pulled noodles is intricate and demanding but it’s not a mystery; in all their experience, neither Ding nor Liu nor Principal Li had seen a student who could not grasp it, given the right amount of time. Time. And patience. That’s what I lacked.
After ten days, I had learned more about hand-pulled noodles and the Lanzhou la mian industry than I ever needed to know. But suburban Lanzhou is a boring, boring place to pass the time, even for a noodle geek like me.
The day I dropped out, I walked into Principal Li’s office with a couple bottles of his favorite craft beer and told him I had to go. He wasn’t surprised. No non-Chinese has ever done the full course and received the government qualification, and he clearly didn’t expect me to be the first. I walked into the practice rooms. The students were kneading a 50-pound mound of dough, practicing with the quantities they’d be expected to make in a restaurant. They leaned into the batch of dough, hands formed into fists, feet planted firmly on the floor. I turned and walked down the stairs, headed back to Shanghai.