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Noodles Unwound: China's Most Popular Styles of Noodles

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In China, the north-south divide is usually represented by the Yangtze River that bisects this enormous country. But Asia’s longest river could also be said to be a culinary partition. In the mountainous, rain-soaked south rice is the staple grain whereas on the drier plains of the north wheat has long been prodigiously harvested. This has led some scholars to assert that distinction in the diet has cultivated the personality differences inherent to the north and south China, the northerners being more independent and analytical, whereas southerners are more interdependent and holistic on the whole as rice growing requires more cooperation. However, food has influenced character-types what a first-time traveler is likely to notice is that up north you’ll be served a steaming bowl of noodles, whereas down south rice will accompany your food.

Yet this is something of a superficial generalization, perceivable yes, but not exactly accurate as it neglects the nuances, regionalisms, and cross-pollination that informs the many dishes on Chinese dinner tables. To get to grips with the myriad of gastronomic traditions it is helpful to follow the humble noodle to its blurry origins in China.

Though many civilizations along the fabled Silk Road claim to have invented noodles, scribes of the Han dynasty were the first to document what was fast becoming a Han China staple dish. Over successive dynasties, the consumption of noodles evolved and spread throughout the Celestial Empire where different regions interpreted and molded noodle consumption to fit local mores and tastes. 

Today in China we see rice noodles widely enjoyed in the south, hand-pulled noodles consumed in the western regions, varieties of wheat noodles eaten across the traditional homeland provinces of Shanxi, Shaanxi, and Shandong while culinary meccas like Shanghai and Hong Kong – young cities developed as economic hubs – making noodles their own.

Indeed you could noodle about the Middle Kingdom for several months and not sample every form and flavoring. It would be impossible to list all noodle types below, but here’s a choice list of regional favorites you have to slurp up.

Lanzhou Pulled Beef Noodles

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Originating in the northwestern city of Lanzhou, the capital of an ethnically diverse Gansu Province, Lanzhou Pulled Noodles, or Lanzhou Lamian, are traditionally made by prayer cap wearing Hui Muslim Chinese. Today Lanzhou Lamian’s delicious varieties of fried and soup noodles have become something of a Chinese McDonald’s, available almost everywhere, offering a fantastic and individualistic meal if you’re on your own or in a rush.

Guilin Rice Noodles

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Another variety of noodles that has become ubiquitous in Chinese metropolitan areas, Guilin Rice Noodles traditionally hail from the mountainous southern province of Guangxi, an area renowned for its striking karst mountain scenery. Usually served in a broth, Guilin Mifen restaurants also offer a variety of condiments ranging from chili peppers to diced spring onions to vinegar and other sauces. Again, an easy to find and highly enjoyable fast food dish often found near transport hubs.

Shanxi Noodles

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We get to the heart of the matter with Shanxi Noodles. This Chinese heartland is Han-dominated, who, as culinary instructor Sophia Du of The Hutong in Beijing explains, “prefer to use rolling pins and knives rather than hand-pull noodles.” The results are really heart warming, sumptuous and stodgy, the ideal meal to get one through a long cold northern winter's day. The classic topping comprises a subtle blend of egg and tomatoes and a light dash of Shanxi’s most famous condiment, vinegar, ensuring the sour taste that is synonymous with jin cuisine. 

Biang Noodles

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Located between Shanxi and Sichuan, Shaanxi Province’s signature noodle dish is predictably sour and spicy, as it absorbs influences from both its neighbors. Restaurants can be identified by the Biang character, which comprises 58 strokes in its traditional form, making it one of the Chinee language's most complex. Given the thick, belt-like pasta and rich flavor which it represents the complex Biang seems an appropriate insignia.

Dandan Noodles

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We enter spice country here, namely sisters Sichuan and Chongqing, whose tradition of eating noodles incorporates their love of chili peppers and peppercorns. The quirky name comes from the carrying pole street vendors used to deliver the noodles, particularly in hilly Chongqing. The noodles are often served in a broth with preserved vegetables and mustard stems. Sesame paste is sometimes added to take the edge off the spice and provide some consistency.

Which of these delicious variations would you like to try?

 


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About the author

Thomas grew up beneath heavy clouds in the South Wales suburbs. After reading too many books, he decided to see for himself what this weird world had on offer. Now an itinerant traveler, writer and photographer usually lost somewhere in East Asia, he prints his musings in a number of notable publications and has contributed to several guidebooks including Rough Guides China and Dunhuang: A City on the Silk Road. When he's not wandering, he can sometimes be found practising mandolin in Beijing.

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