Let the noodles take care of themselves. Just roll the dough into a thick sausage, fold it in two, lift it in the middle so the ends droop and stretch under their own weight, and repeat. Always keep one finger in the folded loop, keep the ends of the dough touching the table, and don’t hesitate. Sounds easy – until you’re looking down at another bulk of uneven doughy strands, most of them snapped, and you realise that you probably need to watch the master one more time.
The master in this case is Mr. Wu, an expert in the northwestern Chinese craft of hand-pulled noodles, or lamian. For two nights, the CFL Academy kitchen was filled with intense aromas and eager eyes watching Mr. Wu work his magic. And just like a magician revealing his tricks to the audience after the show, Mr. Wu insists there is nothing particularly special about lamian. The process of hand-pulled noodles is easy, as long as you listen carefully and watch closely – but just because an illusionist explains his tricks doesn’t mean you’re able to perform them.
There is even something slightly magical and mysterious about Mr. Wu’s life that adds to the showman’s mystique. He used to live in a cave and work as a shepherd, now he dishes out over 500 bowls of Lanzhou-style beef lamian every day from a tiny Beijing restaurant with big queues.
Mr. Wu explains, though, just as he insists that making lamian is not so difficult, that his story is not so exceptional. Mr. Wu is from rural Gansu province in northwestern China. After the birth of his second child in the early 1990s, he and his wife were struggling to make ends meet. Ultimately, they decided that their best chance was for him to try his luck in Beijing. He went with no idea what exactly he was looking for, but he once got talking to a friend about how they missed the taste of food from their home province, since there were no good restaurants serving Gansu-style food in Beijing. This friend therefore suggested that Mr. Wu should start one himself, and he even lent Mr. Wu money for it. Mr. Wu had no experience in making lamian noodles, so he hired a distant relative to be his chef and teach him the skill. After six months, the student had apparently surpassed the master and the rest, as they say, is history.
From early in the afternoon Mr. Wu, his wife and his Mandarin-English interpreter were busy chopping vegetables in the CFL Academy kitchen. There was intrigue and discussion about almost every ingredient – the German radish was strangely black, and they were surprised to find the fennel they asked for was the bulb of the plant, not the leaves.
In the workshop kitchen several hours later the air is thick with aroma. One whiff is delicious, from the richly flavoured beef broth simmering in the corner; the next whiff is an unpleasant one, of rotten eggs.
If the art of pulling noodles seems magical, the magic potion is potent and pungent. It’s an alkaline solution that Mr. Wu calls ‘ash’, from the traditional Gansu method of burning a particular plant and using the ashes. Similar to lye, it gives the dough an unpleasant smell, but more importantly a ridiculous rigidity and stretchiness, like it was suddenly made of something other than flour and water and was able to be pulled past breaking point, yet not break. This is the secret ingredient – but as we learned earlier, simply knowing the secrets doesn’t mean you can pull off the trick.
Hand-pulled noodles are the Italian pizzas of Chinese cooking. Like a theatrical pizzaiolo tossing dough in the air, the lamian master attracts as much attention for their performance as their tasty product – chefs often work at the front of lamian restaurants, commonly even in a window to pique the interest of passers-by on the street – and Mr. Wu did not disappoint the two dozen people who had eagerly anticipated this show.
After a communal session of making and eating jiaozi dumplings, smartphones and cameras were unanimously drawn in earnest once Mr. Wu started slapping, stretching and stringing out his first batch of lamian, standing on a box that had to be brought to make sure he was at a familiar and comfortable height above the table. The dough is cut into chunks, rolled into long rolls, twirled and slapped against the bench and then the triangular movements Mr. Wu assured us are not that difficult would start. Again, it sounds easy.
Fielding the umpteenth question about a specific part of the process – what precise proportions of flour and water, how do you measure the correct weight of the dough, how long should you leave this or that, which hand do you move first, etc. etc. – Mr. Wu answered it all in one fell, beautiful swoop: ‘All this cooking is for fun, not for suffering.’
It’s a nice summary of his approach to lamian, something he is clearly passionate about and keen to share with others (not just those at the workshop but the dozens of apprentices he has taught, many of whom have gone on to their own lamian success). It was also a reassurance that one day the steamy, beefy bowls swimming with deliciously tender lamian noodles we enjoyed could be made by our own hands.
You don’t understand how a magician does a card trick straight after you see them do it. But once they explain the technique, slow down the movements, it’s only a matter of time before you could do it yourself if you wanted to.
Sure, Mr. Wu magically turns dough from a singular blob into dozens of uniformly sized noodles – of whatever shape and thickness the customer asks for – in the space of a minute. He has done it tens of thousands of times. But he too must have once looked down, frustrated, at the uneven pile of scraps he had just made, before they got unceremoniously clumped back together to try again.