Note: This post originally appeared in my other blog in a slightly different form
In the last post, I documented my love for the Lanzhou Zheng Zong Niu Rou La Mian shops which can be found all over Shanghai (but especially the one on Hainan Xi Long). As promised, Here is a bit more of the science and history of this saving dish. Making hand-pulled noodles requires an exceptionally supple dough; in practice this is usually achieved by the addition of kansui (jiang shui, or 鹼水), an alkaline solution of potassium and sodium carbonates, or a powdered base for same. Historically, however, the noodles were actually made supple by kneading lye from wood ash directly with the wheat flour. According to this article, "lye-kneaded wheat noodles" have been found in only three places in the world: Lanzhou, Gansu province, China; Chiang Mai, Thailand, and Okinawa. This practice probably was developed in China and introduced to the other two venues by Hakka travelers. Lanzhou is the only place in China where the practice persists. There, the lye is derived from burning mugwort grasses (peng cao) in a hole and extracting solidified rock-like mugwort ash (peng hui , 蓬灰) by a dripping method. The traditional use of peng hui can be seen in this video.
Lanzhou beef noodles as we know the dish is said to have originated with Ma Baozi (马保子,1870-1955), a member of the Hui nationality, in Lanzhou at the end of the Qing Dynasty. He first sold his noodles of the street, and achieved such fame fame for their tastiness that in Lanzhou they became known as "Ma Baozi Beef Noodles." In 1919 he opened his first "bricks and mortar" shop. Today, there are around 1,000 beef noodle shops in Lanzhou. The traditional characteristics of Ma Baozi Beef Noodles are said to be "one clear, two white, three red, four green, five yellow" (一清、二白、三红、四绿、五黄), a reference to clear soup, white daikon radish, red chili oil, green cilantro and yellow noodles. (The use of an alkali imparts a yellowish tint to the noodles, which use no egg.)
I'm indebted to Sunny's Sohu Blog for the picture of the Ma Bao Zi restaurant at the top of this page. I learned a lot about Lanzhou and the background of Lanzhou la mian from her post. Please visit it for more tempting photos of the restaurant and its wares.