Food

A primer on the noodle dishes you need to eat across China

Aug 14, 2018

Depending on where you are in China, asking for the local noodle dish may get you a wildly different result each time. Ingredients, preparation style, and visual look vary from region to region, giving foodies something new to discover in each city.

There’s nothing better than chowing down on this remarkably versatile dish, and learning how each region’s culture and tradition have shaped their favorite bowl.

Here’s a primer on some of the most common noodle dishes you can find in China. Slurp’s up!

But first: Understanding north vs. south

Noodles are regarded more as a staple in northern and central regions in China, compared to rice in the south. This is because the temperate climate up north makes it tougher to grow rice.

That’s why northern-style noodles are generally made from wheat flour, as well.

The further south you go, the more likely you’ll find noodles made from rice flour or even mung bean starch.

A second difference: in northern and central China, the people prefer to mix all the ingredients—noodles, sauce, minced meat and vegetables—into one hot bowl to carry around and eat.

In southern China, you are more likely to find the noodles with just seasoning in the bowl, similar to how the locals eat their rice. Extra ingredients like dumplings or beef brisket are in separate plates to share with others.

Beijing: Zhajiang mian (Mixed sauce noodles)

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How it is eaten: This ubiquitous dish usually consists of thick wheat noodles slathered with  simmering stir-fried minced pork or beef, with fermented soybean paste.

Cultural trivia: The zhajiangmian got its official seal of approval from none other than Empress Dowager Cixi. Folklore has it that during a trip to Xi’an, her royal eunuch had smelled the fragrant aroma from a noodle restaurant and recommended the dish to her. She was so impressed by the taste that she ordered the chef to follow her back to Beijing to cook for her, granting the humble zhajiangmian an audience in the capital city.

Tips on eating: Stir it well! Make sure you toss the noodles so they get evenly soaked with the savoury sauce. Otherwise your noodles will be pretty tasteless in some parts, and overly salty in others.

Chengdu: Dandan mian

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How it is eaten: Fittingly for a Sichuan dish, the base sauce is a spicy blend of chili oil, preserved vegetables, minced meat, sichuan peppercorn and scallions. The thick noodles are boiled and then placed on top of the sauce in a bowl. Mix it thoroughly and taste the fiery goodness with every mouthful.

Cultural trivia: “Dandan” refers to the long pole used by street vendors to carry their makeshift stalls around. Locals view it as an appropriate name for this cheap but delicious noodle dish.

And surprisingly for such a spicy noodle dish, Chengdu natives say they love to eat it as breakfast.

Tips on eating: If you cannot take the spice, there is a milder, sweeter version in which sugar is added and the noodles are cut chunkier, called “tianshuimian” (sweet water noodles).

Kunming: Guoqiao mixian (Crossing-the-bridge rice noodles)

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How it is eaten: You will get a bowl of boiling-hot broth alognside another bowl of uncooked or lightly cooked ingredients like meat, egg, bean sprouts, and rice noodles. Pour the ingredients into the broth, let them cook further to your liking before eating.

Cultural trivia: Probably the noodle version with the best back story. Legend has it that a scholar’s wife was preparing food for her husband, who was studying hard on a small island linked by a bridge.

She found that traditional preparation made the noodles soggy and the ingredients cold. So she made the broth extra hot, separated the ingredients and brought them to her husband, who would then mix them together.

Tips on eating: How flavourful the dish is largely depends on what ingredients you have. So it would help if you had seasoned the meats beforehand, or include a bit of seafood, to make the soup base tastier.

Xi'an: Biang biang mian

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How it is eaten: The wheat noodles come in uneven shapes and length, doused in chili oil, light soy sauce and vinegar.

Cultural trivia: Popularly known for the extra complex Chinese character for “biang,” which has a staggering 43 strokes. And the character doesn’t even carry any deep meaning—it is simply the sound made by the chef when he creates the noodles, by pulling the dough and slapping it on the table.

"Biang biang mian" on a signboard.
"Biang biang mian" on a signboard. / Photo: Shutterstock

Tips on eating: Do it like the locals, who like to carry the bowl of noodles out of their houses and chat with their neighbours while eating, keeping the community spirit tight.

Guangzhou: Hor fun (flat rice noodles)

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How it is eaten: This chewy rice noodle is usually stir-fried with savoury soy sauce. It can be combined with fried eggs, slice beef or sliced fish cake for a heartier meal.

Cultural trivia: By no means the only kind of noodles originating from Guangzhou (others include egg noodles and rice vermicelli), this one has however travelled far around the world.

It has become a staple dish in the Southeast Asia countries like Singapore (char kuey teow),  Thailand (pad thai) and Vietnam (pho), all of whom have their own takes on the way they cook and flavor the noodle.

Tips on eating: Don’t leave the noodles standing, or they will soak up all the sauce or soup base and get soggy. Once it is served, eat it quick.