With a few droplets of dark red chilli oil floating on the top, accompanied by stars of chopped greenish onion and curly parsley, and the shining springy noodles sitting at the bottom of the clear beef soup that gives out a wonderful aroma, the Lanzhou Lamian (Lanzhou beef pulled noodle) is the city’s pride.
For many of those who were born and raised in Lanzhou, the Lamian can be served as breakfast, lunch, supper and snack. The Lamian to Lanzhou people is as the pho to the Vietnamese: a major specialty, a daily necessity and a panacea for all cravings of food. But compared to pho, Lamian involves higher level of craftsmanship, and it takes more than a few years in cooking school to be a good Lamian chef.
More than a century ago, Lan Zhou Lamian was invented by a guy named Ma Baozi, a Hui (a Chinese muslin minority, most Hui people in China has the family name of Ma). Ever since then, the skill of noodle making has been passed down more like a family heritage rather than knowledge accessible to all. Most Lamian restaurants in Lanzhou are ran by families: the 29 –year-old cousin is the cash, the 15-year-old nephew is the waiter, three brothers work in the kitchen ( one making the dough, one pulling the noodle, one boiling the noodle and spicing it up) , the mother and sisters are responsible for inventory management and the father oversees the cash flow. Each family has its own Lamian formula, and rumors say that poppy seed is one of the secret ingredients. But truth will never be known unless one could shove his way into this hotel California with a secret that he will never be allowed to tell.
Though the Lamian recipes differ from one family to another in details, common industry standards exist. The most commonly known one is the “five-colour criteria: one red, two green, three white, four yellow and five clear. It means that in a proper bowl of Lamian, there are presences of red chili oil, green herbs, white radishes and yellow noodles; at last, the soup should be filtered to crystal clear, leaving nothing but the unforgettably rich flavour.
Another highlight of the Lanzhou Lamian is the shape of the noodles. Officially there are nine distinctive modes of noodle shapes that fall into three families. In the cylinder-shaped noodle family, there are “thick, thin, secondary thin , tertiary thin, and needle thin”, based upon the thickness of the noodle; In the flat-shaped noodle family, there are “ big wide, wide, and chives leave”, based on the width of the noodle; finally, the “buckwheat” is a type of noodle that has three edges like the buckwheat seeds.
Over the past decades, the Lanzhou Lamian spread to all over the country, but all of my experiences of Lamian outside of the province have been disastrous—the noodles were too soft, the soup tasted like dish washer, the beef was too scarce and the radish too many. Most of them could not make more than one type of noodle and many of them have never heard of the “five-color criteria”. They may still be called Lan Zhou Lamian. Yet the best noodle can only be found in Lanzhou.