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April 24, 2007 - Guyuan, China

Steam & Flour

Mien Dian Noodle Making

One of the key benefits of being some-what of a rarity in the area - by that I mean my laowei persuasion - is being able to make some, well, particular requests. This doesn't necessarily mean being a pain in the ass or making life difficult for somebody, it just means I can get away with things that most people would raise eyebrows at when at home.

Recently I made one of these requests. Namely that I would teach a bit of English in return for a noodle-making lesson - at my favorite noodle shop none-the-less.

And I can tell you who made out on that little deal. Me, myself and I - not for any lack of English teaching but rather for the fun I had making noodles. Well, one kind of noodle, yuan mien tiao tiao - a cold noodle served with cilantro, a dollop of la jiao, vinegar and sesame seeds.

I arrived at 8AM and proceeded to start the day with a good laugh for everybody - at me climbing through the small shop window as doors were locked.

I was tasked with filling a huge steel wok, big enough for me to sit in, already simmering over a coal hearth with cold water. Meanwhile Xiao Mei - the head noodle (ouch, sorry) - spread 25 kilos of yuan mian on the sheet-metal sheathed table. As soon as the water was near boiling we ladled it out onto the wrist-deep flour spread out across the table. Three of us attacked this pile with short smooth wooden pins, quickly flicking the clumped dough in circles. I began wondering at this point why the three small women didn't have ogre shoulders.

As we gathered the dough first into small piles, then into large balls and finally stacks of steaming dough rolls the size of my thigh, Xiao Hua went to clean the steamer baskets. Each log sat for a few minutes before it was kneaded smooth - flipping each end into the middle with a little twist-flourish and then pressed flat with the flat of your palm. I clumsily maneuvered the 10 pounds of dough next to two women half my weight and I had barely finished one before the remaining four or six had been finished. Splitting each into smaller sections they were twirled out on the cold metal into wrist-thick ropes. A quick pinch-roll-smack later they lay as a pile of small pancakes. The pinch to separate an apple-sized ball, a roll to round them up and a smack against the table.

The second person deftly rolled each pancake with two-small rolling pins - roll, roll, flip, roll, roll, flip, roll, roll - into a larger flatter pancake. The third person - me - took over the easiest job, guiding these dough pancakes into a hand-cranked noodle press for a final pass.

End product? An an eighth-inch thick, 18-inch oblong sheet of noodle dough.

Now washed, the steamer baskets were stacked high with these sheets, five stacks of ten to each. The water in the massive wok was at a rolling boil by this point and the steaming began. Setting the top on the tower of baskets, we cleaned the table and chopped vegetables for the next hour.

Two hours after I had arrived we pulled the baskets off of each other amid dense clouds of steam. The small kitchen was engulfed in the thick, earthy smell of flour and every surface was covered by cooling noodle stacks. A quick walk outside to open the shop and pull open the kitchen windows sent a heavenly smelling plume out over the sidewalk.

Within minutes the first customer arrived. Amid much laughter from the cooks and surprise from the customer I fed a few newly-steamed sheets from the nearest stack, sent it through the noodle press to be cut into crisply square noodles and finally into a plastic bag atop the scale to be weighed. A small bag of special seasonings dropped in with the noodles and the first order of yuan mien tiao tiao went out at 10:15.

Fortunately I didn't get in the way too badly - at least I was cause for entertainment during the process, we stopped every few minutes as I was goaded for photos - and I left in that much more awe. Yuan mien tiao tiao is only one of the noodles on the menu.

Next up?

Yuan mian ro ro!

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