This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in July 2016.
Lanzhou is a desert city in the Western Chinese province of Gansu built alongside the Yellow River. Many say that the city’s beef noodle soup is the best in China, and most will swear the secret is in the hand-pulled noodles. Some believe it’s the clear soup—combined with slices of turnip and clean cuts of tender beef raised in farmlands just outside of Lanzhou—while others are obsessed with the sauce that’s thrown inside the bowl: a piquant mix of chilies and peppercorns that both numbs and activates the tongue.
Regardless of the reason, the numbers speak for themselves: There are more than 20,000 Lanzhou noodle soup stores across the country, and that’s a conservative estimate at best. There is no centralized chain or monopoly over the shops; the Lanzhou noodle reputation is bolstered by hundreds of individual entrepreneurs and it’s an economy that thrives on the debate of what makes a good bowl of soup. Noodle shops are so popular that many of them sell out of food well before the afternoon hits. Nearly every Lanzhou local has an opinion on which shop is the best, and there is rarely any consensus.
“We get in the store at 4 AM every day and will have the soup ready by 5:30 AM,” Miming, the head chef of popular beef noodle soup shop 1915, tells me. The shop’s name refers to the year when a Muslim man of Hui descent named Mabaozi invented the dish and popularized it among the Hui people. In accordance to tradition and religion, most noodle restaurants are strictly halal, but these days the beef noodle industry has saturated markets far beyond the Hui Muslim community.
The dish is so loved and so popular that in the dusty city of Lanzhou, it’d be difficult to go a day without seeing multiple beef noodle stores. “There’s at least five to six shops every couple of blocks,” Miming says.
At 9 AM, 1915 is already filled to the brim with patrons. Lanzhou beef noodle soup is traditionally a breakfast food. Hungry customers slurp down giant bowls before work starts. A bright sheen of red from the chili sauce covers the top of the soup, and everyone has a preferred type of noodle: thin, thick, super-thin, flat.
“The noodles are the most important element and the hardest part to master,” Zhaohong Li says. “We teach nine different types.” Li is the headmaster of what he claims is the largest beef noodle soup school in Lanzhou. He started off with just one beef noodle soup shop, and today he has 400 to 500 restaurants, mainly scattered across Northern China. He also owns four beef factories in the town of Wuwei that houses nearly 6,000 yellow cows, raised and killed when they’re one-and-a-half years old.
In 2011, he started up a noodle school and in five years, they’ve trained nearly 3,000 students in the art of noodle-pulling. Each season sees anywhere from 40 to 100 students.
Noodle school holds classes three times a day, seven days a week. You stand there with your classmates and pull dough, at least 100 times a day. Students aren’t given recipes; the secret to success lies in rote repetition. There are three different course lengths: 15 days, 30 days, and 40 days. Tuition includes housing and food. Most people are Chinese nationals, though Li says that in recent years an influx of foreigners have come in pursuit of the perfect noodle. The school also teaches soup basics, pickling, and beef stewing techniques.
“We’ll have over 20 different types of herbs in the broth,” he says. “And our flour is custom-made and imported in from Henan. They have different levels of elasticity depending on what we request.”
But while these other components are no doubt important to Lanzhou beef noodle soup, truly, it’s the texture of the noodles that makes the dish such an international sensation.
It’s not easy. Noodles must be pulled without breaking, and the secret to their signature elasticity is a desert plant called penghuicao, known as halogeton in English. The plant is roasted, compacted, and then dissolved into potassium carbonate. It’s mixed in, in small quantities, with the flour and water. Students knead, pull, and rhythmically string the dough through their fingers until long and uniform noodles form, like magic, in between their palms. A final whack of the noodles on the table stretches them out to at least twice their length.
I give the noodle-pulling a try. The first attempt is a miserable failure.
“You need to pull them faster,” Xiao Yu, a student from Xinjiang, instructs me. “It’s OK, everyone fails at the first try.”
Students crumble their noodles back into a clump of dough and start again. They do this over and over again.
They ask me how much Italian pasta costs in the States and balk at my answer, grumbling at what they deem is a great injustice. A bowl of Lanzhou beef noodle soup averages about $1 USD and intensive training is required before one can fluently pull noodles.
I follow in their repetition. Long after the class is over, I am still there with a handful of students who have taken pity on me and remain to help me with technique.
“Keep your fingers straight.” “The dough is too dry.” “You’re holding it wrong.” “Try again.”
Nearly 20 tries later, my noodles are passable. Sort of.
“Our final exam is 23 minutes,” Li says. “Students need to make noodles from flour and water and pull them in 23 minutes to pass.”
It’s a tough craft to master, and for most students, being able to quickly pull noodles goes far beyond just bragging rights.
“My dream is to go back to Iowa and open a Lanzhou beef noodle soup restaurant there,” student Henry Lin says. Lin grew up in China but currently resides in the US. He has enrolled in the 15-day program to learn the basics of noodle pulling. Most of his peers have similar ambitions. A great chunk of them come from other northern Chinese provinces—Xinjiang, Qinghai, Beijing, Inner Mongolia, Shandong.
People in Northern China, after all, have a stronger affinity to wheat than folks in the South. The Northern diet is mainly composed of meats like lamb and beef paired with all sorts of noodles. Beef noodle soup just happens to be the permutation that made it big.
For Li, his hope is that his students will be able to think outside the Lanzhou beef noodle soup paradigm and create different variations based on what’s available in their respective hometowns.
“Someone should pair Texan barbecue with these noodles,” I joke.
“Someone should,” Li concurs. “That’s what Lanzhou beef noodle soup is, really. It’s just meat and noodles.”