The secret to stretchy hand-pulled noodles is a Chinese desert plant

Aug 13, 2020

Penghuicao grows in the arid region of Gansu, and it’s a key ingredient in hand-pulled noodles.

Every day in Lanzhou begins with a bowl of noodles.

Hand-pulled noodles, or lamian 拉面, are a local favorite in this northwestern Chinese city. The noodles are incredibly al dente and served in a savory beef broth with chili oil and thin slices of beef and turnip.

Every day in Lanzhou begins with a bowl of beef noodle soup.
Every day in Lanzhou begins with a bowl of beef noodle soup. / Photo: Patrick Wong

Chefs make a show out of pulling the noodles, performing the act behind plexiglass as customers watch the dough become two, then four, then eight, then 16 strands of noodles and so on.

Those who have attempted to make the noodles at home find that one of the hardest parts is getting the texture of the dough right and making sure it’s stretchy enough to pull. So we went to a noodle school in Lanzhou to see how it’s done.

The secret ingredient is penghuicao

Hand-pulled noodle dough is made with flour, salt, water, and a synthetic ash called penghui .

The ash is what gives these noodles its signature elastic texture and traditionally came from a plant called penghuicao.

It would be roasted and compacted into a stone, and then boiled for three hours. The water would then be incorporated into the dough.

A student pulls noodles at the Dingniu noodle school in Lanzhou.
A student pulls noodles at the Dingniu noodle school in Lanzhou. / Photo: Patrick Wong

The main derivative is potassium carbonate, which increases the chewiness of the dough, but this method isn’t really used anymore.

Nowadays, there’s a synthetic, instant version of the ash, which is used in most noodle shops across China.

“Penhui makes the noodles more elastic,” says Fan Jimei, a teacher at the noodle school. “The hardest part is controlling the texture of the dough and getting the right amount of ash.”

(Read more: A primer on the noodle dishes you need to eat across China)

After that, the dough is ripped apart, kneaded, twirled, and then pulled. Students at the school repeat these movements over and over again until they become second nature.

The students aren’t given a recipe. The belief is that practice makes perfect.

“Because we learn everything step by step, we pick it up quickly,” says Li Jinxing, a student at the school.

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Credit

Producer: Clarissa Wei

Videographer: Patrick Wong

Editor: Nicholas Ko

Animation: Ray Ngan

Mastering: Victor Peña