Friday, April 23, 2010

Hand-pulled noodles and Niuroumian

M's birthday was last month but she had the misfortune of her birthday falling on the day before she took the HSK, the Chinese language proficiency test. There was a bit of drama about it all, as the test had just switched to a new format and there wasn't any clear information about what the test would be like. Amid all the stress, we were trying to decide what to do to celebrate when I came up with a great idea: Noodle Party. For those of you who don't know, M is crazy, yes I mean actually insane, about noodles. She gets it from her parents, who are also crazy about noodles. We ended up having the party on the day after, since we could celebrate her finishing the HSK (and consequently her M.A.). (UPDATE: We just found out yesterday, she passed!  Cue the 'Pomp and Circumstance')

In keeping with our desire to learn how to make our favorite comfort Chinese foods from scratch, we decided to try our hand at Niu rou mian (Beef noodle soup). We happily invited 20 of our closest friends here in Beijing, then promptly realized we were in way over our heads, as is so often the case.  That week, while she crammed for the HSK and made sure to get enough rest, we also had to learn how to make our own noodles and niuroumian from scratch.  Personally, I'm a bit suspicious of all of this, because somehow between the learning and then the leftovers, M got to eat noodles everyday for almost two weeks, which is just about her own private heaven on earth. 

Luke Rymarz was a huge help in learning how to pull noodles.  I appreciate how the engineering background in him really comes through in his recipes and their corresponding recipes.  Ironically, we had a hard time finding flour with the right gluten ratios.  I asked several old ladies at supermarkets, but they seemed surprised that we wanted to pull our own noodles.  I find it strange that the (much-contested) inventors of noodles have so relegated old-fashioned noodle pulling to the work of street vendors and high-class tourist traps.  The one thing I learned about pulling this kind of noodle? (Cue Kungfu Panda Canto-Duck accent:)The secret ingredient is(/Cue Kungfu Panda Canto-Duck accent)...elbow grease.  Seriously, these noodles take like an hour to knead, and all that for just two bowls.  I'll grant that they're delicious, but if you count labor cost, they're crazy expensive.  There's got to be a better way (other than chemical additives that increase stretchiness), since the typical bowl of noodles here sells for about a dollar.  I'll get back to you on that one.

The night of M's party, several of our friends showed up early to get a headstart on kneading.  Since, well we knew we'd knead the help...
N, being the stud that he is, finished first.  Not sure who that creepy guy next to him is, though.

For the first half the night, M was our resident pulling expert.  Somehow, I don't have the precision necessary to keep dozens of strings of dough separate.  Mine would just stick together like a horribly maimed dough harp.
Like the apron?  I found this green beauty at a local market.  "Cpih and Adle", those crazy rascals, were favorites of M growing up.

We almost always forget to take decent pictures of the food, since we're usually doing way too many other things at once (that and we've already wolfed it down it by the time we remember); this is one of the only shots we have of the niuroumian and the hand-pulled noodles.    Trust me, this was a lot better than it looks.

For the niuroumian, M got some help from a couple of posts over at Eat Drink & Be Merry.  Mr. B Merry doesn't exactly post ratios for his sauces and spices, so we just splashed them in at random.  We're hoping to go back and make it soon, though, with measurements; we can perfect this madness.

We had our hands full that night, what with all the kneading, boiling, and cooking that needed to be done, thankfully, a true noodle master showed up:

This man right here (who you might also recognize as the genius behind the bloomin' onion) is a straight up noodle shifu.  He walked in, took charge, and laid down the law on these unsuspecting balls of dough.  In no time at all, he was able to get all but one of the balls of dough ready for noodle-pulling.  Then, in a flurry of motion, a whirlwind of ninja-like proportions, he pulled them into awesomness.

As for the one wayward batch of dough?  That was made by our friend H, who rather than use our newly purchased (and specifically for this purpose, I might add) gram scale, decided to dagai ('approximate') it.  It was a sad day when we had to throw the 'dagaimian' in the trash, but alas, they were beyond saving, even by the Noodlemaster.  It felt oddly like putting the runt of the litter down;  M might have actually shed a tear over the loss of noodle life.

CC was ever so kind as to make a birthday trifle, and CH had the foresight to purchase these beautiful candles.  Fortunately, several people were so carbed out on the noodles they couldn't finish the trifle.  More for me!

I'm really bad at estimating food amounts.  At the end of the night, only about a 1/3 of the 2 pots of niuroumian and 1/3 of the gigantic bowl of zhajiangmian had been used up.  Hence, the week of leftovers.

The thing we had the most left of was the braised beef shoulder (I drank all the broth first), which went really well with some fresh cilantro and green onions, a drizzle of crackling hot oil, and some freshly ground sea salt.  M also had the good sense to make green onion pancakes to wrap it in, and we gave ourselves contented pats on back and belly.

The niuroumian is actually surprisingly easy to make, especially seeing as we got several meals out of it.  The main thing is it has to simmer for several hours to really be any good; definitely worth it, but takes a bit of planning.  Alternatively, I've heard that housewives in Taiwan put their niuroumian in crock pots, spend the day out (most likely playing mahjong), and come home to a one pot wonder of beefy goodness.  We'll get back to you on that one.

There's a Chinese tradition of eating one long noodle for birthday (you know, the longer the noodle, the longer the life).  However, in a sick twist, the really long noodles at restaurants are supposedly made with glue-like (potentially life-shortening) additives.  Here's hoping that our homemade noodles will score us some points on the longevity front.  After all: so many noodles, so little time.

Happy Birthday M!


DP said...

wow! Looks and sounds like so much fun! I'm impressed!

Tawny said...


Sariah said...

Wow you guys are so cool. I'm not daring enough to try something like that. Look at you all grown up and cooking and trying to make stuff from scratch. Phooey, I want you guys to live near me so I can have fun cooking with you. I still need to work up the courage to try donuts. I developed a donut fetish, I think when I was pregnant with Gwynneth.

We miss you guys. So excited to get to see you in July.

Lena said...

wow, this is my favorite post so far. looks delicious!

Happy Belated Birthday, M! And YAYYY MA!

Victoria said...

okay, so i'm ages to this party (literally), but man, I'm so sad I missed out on the noodle party. i should've timed my trip better. looked amazing. who doesn't love noodley goodness?!?!

i miss you guys :(