Whenever people talk about staples in Chinese food culture, they always think of rice, while noodles are often left in the shadow. However, the traditional saying “North Noodles, South Rice” demonstrates the equal significance of noodles in Chinese cuisine.
Growing up in Shanghai, China, I was fortunate to have experienced the extensiveness and profoundness of Chinese food culture, either through traveling or exploring regional restaurants within the city. I must say, the variability of noodle types and flavors across different provinces never ceases to amaze me. While I may not be an expert of all types of noodles, I am eager to share my thoughts on the diverse types of Chinese noodles that I had tried.
Since there are way too many types of noodles, I will only delve into the ones that I personally love and have frequent cravings for. This is not a complete list of all types of noodles consumed in China, but I hope you enjoy (and salivates during the read)!
Shanghai-style Noodles (本幫面):
For me, the most familiar type of noodles is certainly the Shanghai-style noodles (本幫面). The noodles are fine and thin, often consumed with either clear broth (白湯) or soy sauce broth (紅湯). Of course, if you like dry noodles (乾麵) like I do, scallion oil noodle (蔥油拌麵) is also the classic and will certainly grasp your taste buds.
The centerpiece of Shanghainese noodles is no doubt the various toppings (澆頭) that you could choose from. Braised pork chop (紅燒大排), Babao chili sauce (八寶辣醬), shredded pork with pickled veggies (雪菜肉絲), and smoked fish (熏魚) are the go-to for the locals. Personally, my favorite is the spicy stir-fried crawfish noodles (小龍蝦麵) or the cold noodles with sesame paste (麻醬冷麵) during summer.
Cantonese Wonton Noodles (廣式鮮蝦雲吞麵):
During my time in Hong Kong, I rarely craved this quintessentially Cantonese dish. However, after moving to New York, I definitely miss the umami flavor of the soup stock, which was slowly cooked with shrimp roe, flounder, and pork bone.
The noodles used are super fine and thin, which are made with just flour and eggs without any drop of water. The dough is pressed out with bamboo sticks and stretched into ultra thin noodles. They are called zhu sheng noodles (竹升麵), which literally translates into bamboo noodles. The noodles are more crunchy than chewy. As for the wontons, the skins are silky and smooth that they just slip through your lips perfectly. The filling is made with shrimp, pork, and importantly leek shoot. Well-made fillings will retain the crunchiness of fresh shrimp even after being cooked.
My partiality for thicker noodles explains why biangbiang noodles are one of my favorites. Originated in Shanxi Province (陝西省)–well-known for the variability of its noodle types–biangbiang noodles are famous partly due to the onomatopoeia in its name. The name came from the making process where the dough would hit the working surface, making the sound “biang biang,” and stretches into the desired noodle shape.
More importantly, the toppings are so flavorful that they blend with the thick and chewy biangbiang noodles perfectly. The cooked noodles are topped with garlic, scallions, ginger, and essentially la jiao mian (辣椒面), a special mixture of chili and spices. The heated vegetable oil is then spilled all over the seasoning. Finally, the noodles are topped with a variety of choices, such as stir-fried tomatoes and eggs (番茄炒蛋), braised lamb or beef brisket (腊汁肉), stir-fried bell pepper and shredded potatoes (青椒土豆絲) and so on.
Changde Beef Rice Noodles (常德牛肉粉):
The dish is not as well known as the other ones. In fact, I didn’t even know its existence until my dad asserted, after his business trip, that this is “Zhong Guo Di Yi Fen (中國第一粉),” which means the best rice noodles in China. Changde is a city in Hunan Province known for their spicy dishes.
The noodles are made with rice flour so they are less chewy than the ones made with wheat flour. Nonetheless, the smoothness and elasticity of the rice noodles impress me. The broth is slowly stewed with ox bone and beef tallow, and its richness always compels me to finish the entire bowl. For the toppings, there are usually two choices, namely braised beef brisket and spicy beef brisket. With the perfect ratio of fat and lean meat, the beef brisket and broth create a harmonious experience for your taste bud.
Lanzhou Beef Noodles (蘭州牛肉麵):
The simple appearance of the dish does not do justice to its true scrumptious taste. In Mandarin, there is a famous saying that capitulates the essence of this humble but flavorful noodle dish: “Yi qing er bai san hong si lv wu huang (一清二白三紅四綠五黃)” (English translation: No.1 clear, No.2 white, No.3 red, No.4 green, No.5 yellow). Accordingly, the “clear” refers to the broth; the white refers to the daikon slices; red for chili oil; green for scallions and corianders, and finally yellow for the bright and shiny colored-noodles.
What I love the most about this dish is the freedom to choose the thickness of your noodles. There are several sizes to choose from: if you like cylindrical noodles, you can choose from san xi, er xi, xi, and mao xi (三細, 二細, 細, 毛細). If you like flat noodles, choose from da kuan, kuan, or jiu ye (大寬, 寬, 韭葉). If none of these fits your taste, qiao mai leng (蕎麥楞) must be the one. It is my personal favorite. (See above image for differences in thickness.)
Chongqing Street Noodles (重慶小麵):
Last but not least, Chongqing street noodles (the authentic one) will make your mouth water! For Chongqing locals, the street noodles are commonly consumed during breakfast times. Topped with a freshly fried egg, the pungent noodles help the locals start their days energetically.
According to the official “Chongqing Street Noodles Cooking Guide,” the entire cooking process is comprised of 20 steps and 14 types of seasonings. The seasonings are the key to a good bowl of street noodles, which include soy sauce, vinegar, ginger water, garlic water, MSG, chicken extract, vegetable oil, Sichuan peppercorn, crushed peanuts, sesame, sesame paste, pickles, chopped green onions and chili oil (油辣子). The classic topping is chickpea and minced pork. You could also add some beef, chili pork intestines, pork chop, etc. No matter how sumptuous the toppings are, the dish is still called xiao mian (小麵), which directly translates into “little noodle,” implying its friendliness toward all social classes.
Every time I finish a bowl of noodles, I am always imbued with enormous respect toward all the work behind each delicious bowl. From noodles to stock, from from seasonings to toppings, every single step is crucial to creating the perfect, authentic Chinese noodles.