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La-Mian: A Noodle Story


Lamian dough – heftier to work than it looks.

It’s been incredibly exciting seeing the recipes coming in from traders for the Greenwich Market Cookbook, everything from Arapina‘s wonderful Greek biscuits and pastries, delicate & fragrant & redolent with her family’s history in Asia Minor, to Pig Dogs & Brisket’s deep and dirty southern-style mac & cheese. But as well as being an inspiration, the global nature of the market has also brought along some difficulties.The La-Mian and Dim Sum stall is a quiet legend in street food circles – they used to work from Brick Lane but are now permanent fixtures in Greenwich – and from the moment the project started, I knew we had to get them on board.  Lui Zhongyi and his wife Kelly make a wonderful array of food, but they are most famous for the hand-pulled noodles which Zhongyi pulls and stretches with a theatrical zeal quite at odds with his serious persona. Of course, he’s not really dour at all – he just isn’t so comfortable with the English language and as it was his culinary secrets we were after for the book, this was a problem. Enter the amazing Jessie Levene! Jessie is a polyglot, and a greedy one at that (I mean that as a compliment). Having spent 3 years in China, writing a column on regional foods and blogging about her experiences, she not only speaks great Mandarin but also has a real wealth of knowledge about the context of different Chinese dishes. So, thanks to Jessie we will have some of Zhongyi & Kelly’s domestic recipes in the book, but in the meantime she has also very generously given us some background about la-mian in general and some of her wonderful photos of noodle pullers in action in China. Here they is, because the second best thing to eating la-mian is reading about them:


La-mian (literally translated into English as ‘Pulled Noodles’) are a truly visual eating experience – fresh wheat dough pulled by hand into long, even strands, served in a plain beef broth. Perhaps this doesn’t sound all that special, but it must be seen to be believed, and in China, La-mian are usually made within eyesight of the diners. Through a magical and mind-boggling process of twisting, folding, pulling and loud slapping of the dough onto the work-board, the chef creates perfect noodles from raw dough in mere minutes. He or she also makes it look ridiculously easy, which it certainly is not.

La-mian comes from the city of Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu Province, in China’s north west region. Lanzhou is on the borderlands of Han China, meaning that it’s population is a lot more ethnically diverse than in the major cities on the east coast. One of the largest ethnic groups here is the Hui Muslim minority, and it is most often Hui chefs who one can find making La-mian across China. La-mian restaurants in China are usually pretty basic affairs, but are often open later than many other eating places, making them particularly convenient for a midnight snack. They’re also amongst the few restaurants in China where pork is not on the menu – Hui Muslims keep halal, and choice of meat at La-mian joints is usually only beef, chicken or lamb.

La-mian itself is a cheap, filling and delicious meal. The finished dish itself isn’t that much of a looker – just plain white noodles in a clear soup, topped with sliced cooked beef and fresh coriander. But it’s the visual spectacle of the making of the noodles, right in front of you, which makes La-mian so special.

Man pulls noodles!

Man pulls noodles!

Check out Jessie’s blog recounting her adventures around the world at http://jessielevene.com/.