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Mian’splained: An Illustrated Guide to Chinese Noodles, Part One

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It’s safe to say that most regions of China have some kind of famous local noodle variety — yet much like dumplings, the word “noodle” can be interpreted in a variety of ways in Chinese. While some of the most famous noodle types are made from wheat (miàn 面), there are also very popular versions made from rice (mǐfěn 米粉), oat (yóumiàn 莜面), and other types of flour and starch. (Some aren’t even prepared in the long, thin shapes you might expect.)

While wheat noodles tend to dominate central and northern China in regions such as Sichuan and the northwestern province of Gansu, you’ll start to find rice noodles in more humid, southern climates where the crop is grown. Noodles are eaten at any time of day, all year round, and prepared in all manner of ways — cold and piping hot, in soups and fried to a crisp, for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. And in most cases, these noodles offer a window into the favored ingredients and flavors of a regional cuisine — as well as the hearts and minds of the locals that love them.

There are so many varieties, that in order to be comprehensive this list would stretch to dozens and dozens of entries, so we’re breaking it up into digestible chunks. Here’s part one of our illustrated guide to some of the most popular types of Chinese noodles.

Lanzhou Lamian 兰州拉面

lanzhou ramen lamian

Lanzhou lāmiàn, named after Lanzhou in Gansu province, is one of the most famous types of wheat flour noodles in China and is similar to hand-pulled Japanese ramen. A type of noodle originated by the Hui minority people, its signature springy, tender texture is made by stretching and folding dough in a process that can take years to master. Their hometown’s most famous export, these noodles can be found in specialty shops all over China, usually served in a broth with thin slices of beef.

Sichuan Dandan Noodles 四川担担面

sichuan dandan noodles

You’ll be seeing Sichuan a lot on this list — when it comes to essential noodle varieties, the western, spicy food-loving province has them in abundance. Named after the street hawkers (dàn 担) that traditionally sold these noodles, dàndàn miàn are world-famous for their salty, spicy, and refreshing flavor profile, which locals believe perfectly captures the essence of Sichuan cuisine. Unlike Chongqing street noodles — another popular specialty in this area (see below) — this dish is served dry and is as much about the noodles themselves as it is the minced pork on top.

Chongqing Street Noodles 重庆小面

chongqing street noodles

One of the four Chinese cities big enough to be considered their own municipalities, it makes sense that the southwestern megalopolis of Chongqing is intent on having a culinary identity of its own. Like the neighboring dandan noodles, Chongqing xiǎomiàn are a local noodle staple that lays it on thick with spice, oil, and minced pork. But while dandan noodles are dry, Chongqing noodles are usually drenched in flavorful broth and heavy seasoning, and the noodles themselves tend to be slightly thinner.

Wuhan Hot and Dry Noodles 武汉热干面

wuhan hot dry noodles

Wuhan has made international headlines for its association with the coronavirus outbreak. But this city deserves to make more positive headlines for Wuhan règān miàn, a beloved grab-and-go item typically eaten for breakfast across Hubei province, where Wuhan is located. Boiled and doused with sesame oil, scallions and soy sauce, this noodle dish is served as street food to fuel hungry, busy city folk on their way to work.

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Shanghai Scallion Oil Noodles 上海葱油拌面

Shanghai’s beloved noodle dish is more stripped down than many others on this list, but packed with a surprising amount of flavor. It’s made with scallions and soy sauce — two cornerstone ingredients of Shanghai cuisine — and topped with extra fragrant scallions that have been cooked longer than usual to an unrecognizable brown color. Locals know to judge a good bowl of cōngyóu bànmiàn by how aromatic the scallions are.

Old Beijing Noodles with Soybean Paste 老北京炸酱面

beijing zhajiang mian soybean noodles

Though this dish is popular in other cities in northern China, these noodles are practically synonymous with Beijing, and are one of the capital’s most beloved street snacks. The secret lies in the zhájiàng (炸酱), literally “fried sauce,” that’s made by mixing stir-fried ground pork or beef with thick, salty fermented soybean paste.

Shaanxi Oil Spilt Noodles 陕西油泼扯面

shaanxi oil spilt noodles

These noodles are named for the bowl of boiling oil that’s poured onto them after cooking. But to many, these are better known as “biang biang” noodles (“biang” is one of the most complicated Chinese characters in modern usage, with 42 strokes; it’s so complex that it’s missing from most computer input systems). Thick, flat, and very wide, a single strand of these hand-pulled noodles can sometimes be enough to fill an entire bowl.

Guilin Rice Noodles 桂林米粉

guilin rice noodles

Made from rice flour and water, thin and delicate mǐfěn are popular all around southern China. This type of mifen is found in abundance in the region of Guilin, a popular tourist area renowned for its spectacular karst landscape. These noodles come in both soup and dry form, and typical toppings include beef, pickled vegetables, peanuts, and hot peppers, resulting in a mix that’s sour, sweet, crunchy and spicy all at once.

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Xinjiang Noodles 新疆拌面

xinjiang noodles

These noodles are also nicknamed “Xinjiang lā tiáozi” (新疆拉条子) or “pulled slivers,” and exemplify cooking among the Uighur people. Popular in Xinjiang as well as across Central Asia, these thick wheat noodles are topped with an almost equal portion of cooked vegetables — peppers, tomatoes, and green beans — and mutton.

Shanxi Sliced Noodles 山西刀削面

shanxi sliced noodles

Shanxi sliced noodles are considered one of the most famous varieties in China. To achieve these flat, wide noodles’ distinctive shape, chefs will scrape bits off of a giant slab of dough, using a method that almost resembles peeling a potato.

Hot and Sour Noodles 酸辣粉

Another specialty of Sichuan province, suanlafen are a type of rice noodle that is as much sour (suān 酸) as they are spicy ( 辣). Little known fact: chefs use a lot of sugar to make these noodles so sour, which is said to help eaters break through their upper limit of handling the spice. Similar to mifen — the word “fen” (粉) indicates they can be made from rice starch — these noodles can also be made from sweet potatoes, red scallions, and even peas.

Yunnan Cross-Bridge Rice Noodles 云南过桥米线

yunnan cross bridge noodles

This popular type of mifen comes from southeastern Yunnan, a province that borders Vietnam, Laos, and Myanmar and whose cuisine has the most similarity to southeast Asian cuisine. The soul of this dish lies in the thick broth, in which ingredients such as pork bones and Yunnan ham are cooked before adding the noodles. The dish gets its name from the legend of an intrepid housewife who had to cross a bridge in her hometown to deliver food to her husband, and added a layer of chicken oil to keep the soup warm.

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Xiamen Shacha Noodles 厦门沙茶面

xiamen shacha noodles

The shāchá (沙茶), or satay sauce in these Fujianese noodles are an import from southeast Asia, but locals will say it generally has a sweeter, less spicy flavor in southern China. These noodles are packed with plentiful portions of fish and shrimp — local bounties of the seaside city of Xiamen.

Oat Noodles 莜面

oat noodles

Thought you knew what a noodle looked like? These noodles, which are made from oat flour, are usually seen folded into a labor-intensive “oat noodle nest” (yóumiànwō 莜面窝). Though traditionally common across northern China — namely Shanxi, Hebei, and Inner Mongolia — a handful of popular chains such as Xibei Oat Noodle have helped popularize this dish across China.

Yanji Cold Noodles 延吉冷面

yanji cold noodles

Also referred to as Jilin cold noodles, Yanji lěngmiàn originated on the Korean peninsula, but became so popular in the bordering Chinese province of Jilin that they are considered a famous local variety in both countries. Suspended in broth and topped with sliced meat, cucumbers, radish, and spicy kimchi, these refreshing noodles are often enjoyed in the summertime.

Related:

An Illustrated Guide to Chinese Dumplings

Illustrations: Shi Yue

RADII Staff