"Don't you ever get tired of eating noodles?"
First of all, no. Secondly, how could you?! The world of Chinese noodles is vast and varied - for every one you try, there’s probably another hundred out there waiting to be discovered once you’ve factored in the local variations specific to each little town. You’ve got thick noodles, thin noodles, wide noodles, narrow noodles, hot noodles, cold noodles…okay you get the point. Despite their many unique characteristics, the uniting factor between all noodle dishes is that each use their ingredients to create a full, balanced meal in a bowl. Yes, carbs, I know. But if you don’t care about that…full, balanced meal in a bowl! I haven’t met many noodles that I didn’t like in China, but these are the five that I find myself constantly coming back to.
Beef noodles - Niú ròu miàn (牛肉面)
If you walk out blindly onto any Chinese street and ask the first person you see, "Where are the noodles?", there is a high likelihood they're going to point you in the direction of the nearest niú ròu miàn joint. Therein lies a whole other can of worms, or dare I say, bowl of noodles. There are shitloads of different beef noodles. The most common one out there is Lanzhou niú ròu miàn - a Muslim style of the dish from Lanzhou, Gansu province that uses halal beef in a clear broth with thin, hand-pulled noodles, green onions, cilantro, ginger, and a spice mix that varies by chef and region. The particular niú ròu miàn in the above photo is a different take altogether, with bok choi, crunchy dried soy beans, and enough chili paste to clear out 20 years of sinus build-up. As a spice connoisseur, I prefer to crank up the scovilles, but the beauty is that there is a niú ròu miàn out there for everyone!
Oil-splashed pulled noodles - Yóupō chěmiàn (油泼扯面)
This is another nationally popular bowl from Shaanxi province called yóu pō chě miàn…or is it? Etymology is often a problem in China, with the origins of names and how certain dishes are classified often shrouded in mystery without much standardization. Or maybe my laowai ass is just confused. Probably the latter. These noodles are also referred to as biángbiáng miàn, with biáng essentially being an onomatopoeia for the sound the noodles make when they’re being pulled and slapped against the counter in the kitchen. However, my favorite Shaanxi restaurant - ran by a family from Shaanxi - tell me they are different. Everything else I read tells me they are one in the same. Fortunately, semantics are not the important thing here. The wide, belt-shaped noodles of yóupōchě miàn combined with the robust Shaanxi spices, chopped garlic, and oil work together to make this quite a strong, filling dish. These strong flavors are balanced by some refreshing bok choi, sliced green onions, and bean sprouts. These pair very nicely with another Shaanxi delicacy, ròujiāmó!
Buckwheat noodles - Qiáomài miàn (荞麦面)
It took me a long fucking time to track down the actual name for these and I’m still not sure if it is correct. Once again, there was debate amongst my Chinese friends on the true name for these. I’m going for the simplest iteration, which is buckwheat noodles. Some of you may already be familiar with soba - Japanese for buckwheat. These might possibly be my favorite noodles on this list. It doesn’t get any fresher than this - they put the buckwheat dough into the noodle machine, which empties directly into the boiling water. They’re ready in 5-10 minutes, strained, and tossed with fresh onion, soybeans, bean sprouts, cilantro, and a mixture of soy sauce, sesame oil, rice vinegar, and chili paste. This is a filling, nutritious meal that’s going to set you back a staggering 10 yuan, or $1.56. If someone told me I had to eat them every day, well, it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world.
Cold noodles - Lěng miàn (冷面)
This is yet another type of noodle that is more of a broad category rather than a particular dish, but here I will be talking specifically about the Korean buckwheat noodles, served in an almost ice-cold, vinegary broth. They make the list because Northeast China gets a lot of Korean immigrants, so you will have no trouble at all finding these lěng miàn (naengmyeon in Korean) on any big street. These are a unique entry on my list in that they are, as the name suggests, served cold. It doesn’t sound that appealing if you’ve have limited noodle experience, and I must admit that I was skeptical myself the first time I had them. They are delightfully refreshing on a hot summer day and usually contain shredded cucumber, thinly sliced beef, apple or pear slices, a halved hard-boiled egg, and sesame seeds. My favorite variety have a spicy sauce added to the broth that gives each bite of these chewy noodles a bit of a kick that balances out the other more delicate flavors.
Lanzhou fried noodles - Lánzhōu chǎomiàn (兰州炒面)
Lanzhou is back on the list for another regional speciality that is also our only fried entry - we gotta have one! I do avoid most fried noodles due to the amount of oil used, but some days it’s hard to resist a hearty bowl of comfort noodles. You can find these at any of the same Muslim restaurants that also make Lanzhou niú ròu miàn - a blue sign with a halal symbol out front is always a safe bet. The noodles are about your average size, fried up with beef, onions, red bell peppers, green onions, and sometimes celery in an oily tomatoey sauce. They are not particularly spicy, but as with any restaurant in China, there is always a tiny bowl of chili paste at your table if you want to kick things up a notch. My go-to place for these also make halal ròujiāmó, substituting beef for pork, and it is a wonderful hangover combo meal.
Noodle Top Tips
Eating actual noodles in actual China the first few times is quite the experience, before it becomes pretty much part of the daily routine. I’ll leave any first-timers with a few tips and clarify some common etiquette norms, for example, to slurp or not to slurp?
Slurp. It is completely acceptable to noisily slurp your noodles. I don’t do so myself, but I have seen taxi drivers clear entire bowls in three or four 100-decibel slurps.
You don’t need to daintily sip your noodle broth with a spoon, despite what you read in a lot of online culture guides. Pick up that bowl and go to town.
If you’re a noodle noobie, take some time to chew. Especially with the Korean lěng miàn, those buckwheat noodles can be very chewy. You don’t want to be known as the laowai who died their first week in China from choking on noodles.
Do not stick your chopsticks upright into the noodles when at rest. This is considered bad table manners as it resembles funeral incense sticks. Rest them on the edge of the bowl instead.
As a general rule of thumb, pretend your chopsticks are an extension of your fingers. It’s rude to point and wave them around at people, particularly restaurant staff.
Now, go forward and chi fan!
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If you found these noodle tips helpful, then you might enjoy my new travel guide, written for anyone embarking on their first long-term adventure abroad. You don't need to be the host of a travel show or a trust fund kid to have some incredible experiences abroad. After 5 years of travel through 12 different countries - and living in 4 of them - I've tried to encapsulate everything I've learned into this short guide for anyone who wants to hit the road long-term.