A Fresh Take: Beijing’s Best Bowls
Writer Jen Lin-Liu tours China’s capital city in search of the finest hand-pulled noodles.
It’s noon at Beijing’s Noodle Loft, and half a dozen chefs are demonstrating their artistry in the restaurant’s open kitchen. One noodle maker slowly unfurls a single coiled spinach noodle, making arcs with it in the air like a fly fisherman, the 75-foot-long (23-metre-long) strand stretching into a large vat of boiling water several feet away. Another chef holds on his shoulder a massive hunk of dough on a wooden tray the size of a skateboard, carving it with a pastry knife to make long ribbons that cascade into another boiling pot. Meanwhile, two more noodle craftsmen stretch gobs of dough into noodles as thin as angel hair with their bare hands, working in unison like gold-medal synchronized swimmers.
A recent exploration of the Noodle Loft and Beijing’s other top noodle eateries convinced me that the city is one of the finest places in the world for noodles. Unlike many Asian cities and even Italian towns, Beijing hosts a variety of restaurants where chefs continue to craft noodles by hand, mostly eschewing machines and refusing to outsource their noodles to suppliers. Usually the noodles you’ll eat in China’s capital are made to order, right under your nose. And Beijing showcases a dizzying array of noodles that are formed into nearly as many shapes as Italian pasta. On a recent visit to Beijing, I watched the capital’s best noodle makers in action—and savoured the results.
The art of making noodles
At the Noodle Loft, in the affluent Wangjing suburb, the chefs’ noodle artistry is just one component of the restaurant’s distinction. Featuring the noodles of Shanxi, the province southwest of Beijing that is famous for its innovative noodle shapes, the Noodle Loft shows how variety in shapes and textures enlivens the eating experience. Ren Tiaohong, the restaurant’s manager, speculates that noodle shapes developed out of the poverty of the region—with less meat and fewer vegetables, different noodles provided variety in people’s diets. The ingredients folded into the noodles at Noodle Loft are diverse: Spinach, red sorghum, oat, buckwheat and soybeans are added to various wheat-based doughs. One noodle dish, kao lao lao, made of wheat and oat, is even more elaborate: Before being steamed, the dough is formed into wide ring-shaped bands that are pressed together in a bamboo basket to create a beehive-like design.
I enjoyed the most refined noodles at Noodle Bar, a 12-seat restaurant located in a stylish dining and nightlife complex called 1949 The Hidden City that also features Duck de Chine, one of the capital’s best restaurants for Peking duck. The tiny Noodle Bar feels Japanese, with the kitchen situated around a bar where diners eat under dim lighting. The simmered beef soup in which the restaurant’s most popular noodles are served is simple and light, like a broth from Canton, in southern China. But the noodles themselves are purely from China’s north: wispy strands as thin as hair, stretched magically by hand.
Just as delicious are the noodles served at Four Seasons Hotel Beijing, where I indulged in a bowl of savoury pork won tons and egg noodles, a dish from southern China, for breakfast at the Opus Lounge. That was followed by a late lunch at the hotel’s opulent
Cai Yi Xuan. Chef Michael Liang prepared a common Beijing dish, zhajiang mian, spaghetti-like noodles with thick soybean sauce and pork belly, enlivened by julienned cucumber and pink turnips.
Finding local flavour
Craving more local flavour, I went to the back alley neighbourhoods of Beijing called hutongs. Crescent Moon, a restaurant specializing in the cuisine of Uighurs (a Muslim ethnic minority living along China’s western border with Central Asia), serves noodles that show how the dish spans all the way into China’s west. The eatery features delicious chao mian pian, or noodle squares, that are stir-fried with tomato sauce and bits of beef and lamb, reminding me of an arrabbiata sauce. Also mouth-watering is a dish called dapanji, in which tagliatelle-like noodles are folded into a spicy chicken stew. The noodles are the perfect vehicle for absorbing the chilli-infused gravy.
A visit to Beijing would not have been complete without a meal of dumplings, a dish the city is known for. At Bao Yuan, a dumpling restaurant just around the corner from
Four Seasons Hotel Beijing, I saw half a dozen female dumpling makers wearing purple checkered aprons and shower caps. They rolled out dumpling skins made colourful with the addition of spinach, carrot or red cabbage, and stuffed them with an extensive offering of different fillings, some quite experimental. But the cooking method remains very traditional: The dumplings are only boiled, not pan-fried as they might be elsewhere in Beijing or steamed as they often are in southern China.
Ren Juxiang, the manager of Bao Yuan, said that the restaurant’s owner, Chen Zhongkai, is actually from Hong Kong, in southern China—an artist who just wanted to make a living by selling dumplings. “But now he’s committed to the art of dumpling making,” she said. “He thinks of dumplings as his children, and since he’s only been making dumplings for 16 years, they haven’t reached maturity yet. We have a long way to go.” Exactly the kind of noodle devotion that I’d hoped to find in Beijing.
Noodling the choices: Jen Lin-Liu’s top picks for Beijing’s best noodles
Bao Yuan Dumplings
Maizidian Jie 6, Chaoyang District; 86 10/6586-4967
This humble yet festive restaurant near Four Seasons Hotel Beijing features more than 100 dumpling fillings.
Black Sesame Kitchen
3 Heizhima Hutung, Dongcheng District; 86 136/9147-4408
This cooking school/restaurant was founded by Jen Lin-Liu. The most popular classes among expatriates and foreign travellers are the ones in which chefs teach the finer points of dumplings and noodles.
Cai Yi Xuan
Liang Ma Qiao Lu 48, Chaoyang District; 86 10/5695-8888
The opulent Chinese restaurant at Four Seasons Hotel Beijing serves a variety of noodle dishes.
Dongsi Liutiao 16, Dongcheng District; 86 10/6400-5281
This Uighur restaurant features noodle dishes from China’s northwest region of Xinjiang.
Gongti Bei Lu, Courtyard 4, Chaoyang District; 86 10/6501-1949
Order at this 12-seat restaurant and watch the noodle being stretched before your eyes.
Guangshun Bei Dajie 33, Chaoyang District; 86 10/8472-4700
More than a half-dozen chefs demonstrate various noodle styles in an open kitchen.
Xian’r Lao Man
Andingmen Nei Dajie 252, Dongcheng District; 86 10/6404-6944
Locals cram into this popular dumpling and pot sticker restaurant near the Lama Temple.
Jen Lin-Liu is the author of Serve the People: A Stir-Fried Journey Through China. She’s currently immersed in noodle research for her next book, On the Noodle Road: From Beijing to Rome With Love and Pasta.
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