Youmian: The Chinese oat noodle rolls that sustained life in the mountains

Sep 01, 2020

Youmian is a popular dish in the arid alpine regions of China, where not much grows except for oats and potatoes.

Oat noodles are a lesser known variation of Chinese noodles.

They’re predominantly found in the arid alpine regions of China, where wheat and rice—the typical ingredients used to make noodles—are hard to come by.

Youmian, or oat noodles, are a staple of Shanxi Province.
Youmian, or oat noodles, are a staple of Shanxi Province.

Jingle County, located 6,500 feet above sea level in northern China’s Shanxi Province, is famous for oat noodles.

The local variation is made with oat paste, rolled into tubes and steamed in a basket. It’s called youmian kaolaolao—youmian meaning oat and kaolaolao meaning basket because the noodle rolls look like the weaved pattern of a hamper.

“When I was a kid, wheat and rice were scarce,” says Yu Yunlong, a youmian chef who grew up in Jingle County. “Oats and potatoes were our staples.”

Not much grows in the arid province of Shanxi.
Not much grows in the arid province of Shanxi.

Yu says younger people have largely forgotten oat noodles because the grain is so coarse and there is ready access to wheat and rice.

(Read more: These Chinese ‘cat ear’ noodles are the ultimate comfort food)

But Yu hopes to continue the tradition with his shop.

Oat paste is harder to shape because it lacks the gluten which makes wheat dough stretchy. Not everyone can do it, Yu says.

“Some people have machines for this, and it really saves them money. But I hired some older women from my hometown, and they’ve been here for 10 years. It’s authentic handmade flavor.”

The delicate noodle rolls are typically served with a dip made from lamb, potato, tofu, chili oil, and scallion vinegar.

“Vinegar is another specialty of Shanxi. This flavor really goes well with the kaolaolao,” he says. “Because the tubes are really thin, they soak up the flavor of the lamb and potato.”

It’s a time-intensive dish. The entire thing takes about 20 minutes to make from start to finish. But Yu says it’s worth it.

“It’s complicated to make, but the end result is delicious,” he says.

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Credit

Producer: Clarissa Wei

Videographer: Patrick Wong

Editor: Hanley Chu

Mastering: Victor Peña