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Noodles, up close and personal, in Shenzhen
An expert noodle maker from China's northwestern Qinghai province finds success in the boomtown of Shenzhen
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That satisfying bite of a freshly made noodle can be found at Qinghai La Mian, a hole-in-the-wall noodle joint in Shenzhen. Owner Ma Long moved to the southern metropolis from Qinghai province five years ago to open his own noodle shop. His family now owns over 20 noodles shops in Shenzhen. We visited Ma recently to get some tips on making the perfect, northwestern-style, Chinese noodle dish, and to hear his story -- a typical one of China's enterprising generation.
Ma Long looks older than his 26 years. No stranger to gruelling work, Ma left home at the age of 13 to make a living, first panning for gold in rivers in his native Qinghai province during the summer months and then collecting Chinese medicine in the wild during the rest of the year. When he saved enough money, Ma followed in his uncle's footsteps and relocated to Shenzhen five years ago with his sister (left) and opened his own Qinghai La Mian noodle shop in Zhu Zi Lin district after two months' training under his uncle. Ma imports all the wheat flour, soy bean oil and beef and lamb from Qinghai.
"I serve my customers what I would feed my family. Because we are Muslim we cannot eat or work at local Han restaurants because they serve pork. The added costs of importing our food from so far away means we don't make much money after all our costs are taken into account."
Ma Long's noodle shop uses over 60 pounds of wheat flour a day and his shop is open from 7 a.m. to 1 a.m., seven days a week. He and his cousin will knead the dough daily for over an hour and then wait another hour for the gluten in the dough to settle.
Ma is able to make six different styles of noodles that are served in over a dozen different ways. When starting a new batch of noodles, Ma first twists and stretches the dough to break down the gluten. Only wheat flour can be used to make pulled noodles to give the right amount of chewiness.
Twisting the dough creates dough fibers along the length of the dough rope that make it possible to pull it into noodle strands later.
The noodles are then stretched, bounced off a table and twisted repeatedly, creating an increasing number of noodle strands. With eight stretches of the dough, 256 strands of noodle are created each with the thickness of spaghetti. Qinghai people prefer thicker noodles, "I don't like noodles that are too thin, it feels like there's nothing to bite," says Ma's cousin, Ma Fulin.
The basic Lanzhou noodle dish is beef broth noodles. Thin pulled noodles are immersed in slow simmering beef broth and chunks of beef are added to the noodle soup.
One of the more interesting Qinghai dishes is stir fried mian pian. A thin piece of flattened dough is cut in long strips then divided into square pieces and boiled in water. They’re taken out and stir fried with tomatoes, zucchini, onions and your choice of beef or lamb.
Another favourite Qinghai noodle dish is dao xiao mian or peeled noodles. A lump of dough is formed into a long loaf and strips are peeled off the loaf with a special peeling knife directly into boiling water. The peeled noodles can then be stir fried or served in beef broth with other meats and vegetables.
“Southern Chinese say they won’t feel full if they don’t eat rice, but for Qinghai people like me, I won’t be full unless I’ve had noodles. I eat noodles at every meal since I could eat solid food as a baby,” declares Ma.
Ma Long’s favorite noodles are broad noodles stir fried with cumin, beef and lamb and julienned potatoes and capsicum. This dish reminds me of my mother. Back in my hometown, the mothers, grandmothers, aunts and sisters cook at home while the men go out and work in the fields.
Ma Fulin recommends ding ding fried noodles. Broad noodles are cut into one-inch sections and stir fried with an array of vegetables and meats.
Although there isn’t an English menu in his restaurant, don’t fear -- there are photos of every dish he serves on the walls of his small restaurant so foreigners will have no problems ordering. It’s a bargain as well; no noodle dish at Lanzhou La Mian costs more than 12 yuan (roughly US$1.50).
How to get there:
Take the Shenzhen Metro to Zhu Zi Lin station, exit B2. Turn right and follow the bend of the road up Jin Zhong Street 金众街. You can’t miss the orange façade of the Lanzhou La Mian restaurant where Ma Long will be outside pulling noodles and greet you with a wide smile.