With a bite of the springy hand-pulled noodles, the melt-in-your-mouth beef, a bit of homemade fresh chili oil, and a sip of the rich broth, you can’t help but wonder about the magical power of a plain bowl of beef noodles.
Simplicity is beautiful. But most of the time, you won’t notice the immense amount of hard work behind it. A bowl of noodle soup might seem plain, like nothing special, but once you try it, you’ll be amazed at how such a simple food tastes so good and is so addictive.
The idea behind this dish is like that of good sushi. If you ask the average person in Japan to teach you how to make sushi, they’ll probably answer that they don’t know how, that it’s too complicated. You’ll find that surprising – isn’t it just put a piece of raw fish on top of a rice ball? Well, it’s way more than that in reality.
Lan Zhou La Mian – Art in a Noodle Bowl
Back to the noodles.
It is not just an average bowl of noodle soup; it has an official name – Lanzhou hand-pulled noodles (兰州拉面, lan zhou la mian). It is a registered commercial designation and a long list of rules and standards to defines it. For example, the noodles should be even in thickness and width, and have a few pre-defined diameters. The dimensions of the white radish should be 4*2.5*0.2 centimeters. The beef should be soaked in water for hours and you need to add beef blood into the broth. To cook the broth, you should also use beef bones, beef itself, a whole chicken, and a lamb liver. The list goes on.
Isn’t it a bit obsessive, you ask? Yes it is. Because it’s not just a bowl of noodle soup. It’s an art. It is the star of a prominent Chinese inland city – Lanzhou.
If you browse the Lanzhou beef noodles on a Chinese recipe site, no matter how nice the recipe looks, there’ll be tons of hateful comments declaring the recipe to be “fake”.
It has to be.
That’s because the real-deal Lanzhou beef noodle recipe is a commercial secret, written on a tattered yellow sheep’s hide in a barely recognizable script, hidden in a cave deep in the desert, which is guarded by ten giants. To open a real-deal Lanzhou beef noodle shop, you need to spend a million dollars to get the secret broth recipe from the Lanzhou Beef Noodle Committee. Anyone who doesn’t do this can’t claim that they’re cooking the authentic recipe.
OK, I’m exaggerating a bit here, but you you get the gist. You can only get the real-deal noodles in this specific city, Lanzhou. Noodles from any city other than Lanzhou and any homemade noodles are NOT RIGHT. Even though you may not be able to distinguish between a broth with beef blood and one without, if you skip the blood, the recipe is still wrong.
I’m doing all this rambling to tell you just one thing. This is not an authentic Lanzhou hand-pulled beef noodle recipe, but it teaches you how to make an authentic tasting homemade version that is pretty damn close to the real one.
We can do it!
What makes Lanzhou beef noodles taste so good? The answer is the hand pulled noodles plus the beef broth. Here, I have some bad news and some good news for you.
The bad news is that it’s very difficult to replicate every tiny detail of the authentic dish at home.
First of all, to make very springy hand pulled noodles, you need a special alkaline component (the main ingredient of it is potassium carbonate). It’s quite special and I doubt it can be easily found for culinary use outside of China.
Second, to make a restaurant-quality beef broth. You also need a lamb liver and a whole chicken to make the broth even richer. Doing it this way requires a lot of trouble and a high budget, and some people might not feel comfortable cooking with these strange ingredients.
Wait, wait! Don’t hit the tiny x on your browser yet!
Here is the good news! You can easily make a rich, beefy, and very hearty bowl of beef noodles using a simplified method. I won’t say it tastes EXACTLY the same, but it’s really close to the authentic one, and is super delicious, too!
To make the hand pulled noodles, check out my no-fail recipe and watch the video. It might sound daunting to make the noodles from scratch, but actually it’s surprisingly easy. If you don’t want to spend the extra time, you can always use dried noodles from a package. The wonderful beef soup will make any type of noodles taste better.
To make a rich beef broth, you only need a big piece of beef bone and a cut of beef with a decent amount of fat. You only need one pot to cook it, from start to finish. It takes 3 to 4 hours to simmer the broth, but you’ll only need to spend the first ten minutes in the kitchen. Then, you can leave it to cook for the remainder of the time.
Have I convinced you to make this dish at home yet? If so, let’s start cooking! 🙂
Lanzhou Beef Noodles (兰州拉面)
- 1 beef leg bone about 700 grams / 25 ounces, cut into 5 to 6 parts (*see footnote 1)
- 1 kilogram (2 pounds) beef flank , untrimmed (*see footnote 2)
- 5 whole cloves
- 1 teaspoon Sichuan peppercorn
- 5 cloves garlic
- 1 thumb ginger , sliced
- 1 cup scallion , chopped (the white part)
- 5 chili pepper , dried
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 whole nutmeg seed
- 1 star anise
- 1 cinnamon stick (about 6 centimeters / 2.4 inches long)
- 1 teaspoon fennel seed
- 2 teaspoons salt (or to taste)
- 1 small daikon radish
- 2 tablespoons freshly made Chinese chili oil (or to taste)
- 6-8 servings hand-pulled noodles (or dried noodles)
To cook the broth
- Thoroughly rinse leg bones and transfer them to a 5-liter (5-quart) dutch oven (or big pot).
- Cut the beef flank into strips that are around 8 centimeters (3 inches) wide and 12 centimeters (5 inches) long. Place them into the dutch oven.
- Add 10 cups of water to cover the bones and beef. Bring to a boil over high heat. Turn to medium low heat and continue to boil for 10 minutes. Use a ladle to skim the foam from the surface and discard it, repeating until the broth comes clean.
- Add cloves and Sichuan peppercorn into a tea infuser, and place the infuser in the dutch oven with the beef and bones. Add ginger, scallion, garlic, chili pepper, bay leaves, nutmeg, star anise, cinnamon stick and fennel seed to the pot, as well. Cover and simmer over low heat for 3 hours. Depending on the cut of beef you’re using, you may need to simmer longer, up to 4 hours.
- While the broth is simmering, prepare the daikon radish. Peel the radish and cut it into 5-millimeter thick slices. Further divide each slice into 4 quarters. 30 minutes before the broth is done, add the daikon radish slices to it.
- Check the broth every 30 minutes. During the first 2 hours, if the water is evaporating too quickly, add 1 to 2 cups boiling water to keep the beef and bones covered. You should not add any water during the final hour of simmering. The beef and radish should become very tender and the broth should turn a pale brownish yellow color. Add salt to season the broth. The broth should taste slightly salty by itself.
- Use a ladle to transfer the beef to a plate to cool off. Use a strainer ladle to pick out the bones and spices and discard them. You might find a thick layer of oil floating on top of the soup (depending on the fattiness of the beef). Use a ladle to skim the oil off according to your preference (see footnote 3).
- Boil hand pulled noodles. If you aren’t making hand pulled noodles, cook dried noodles according to instructions on the bag.
- Prepare Chinese chili oil according to this recipe. You can use one from the supermarket, but I highly recommend you cook your own at home. It takes only 5 minutes, and freshly made chili oil is full of aroma and will make the dish shine.
- Once the beef has cooled enough to handle, trim off any fat and discard it. Slice the lean part of the beef.
To assemble noodles
- Add noodles to each serving bowl, then pour in the broth. Top noodles with beef slices, a few pieces of daikon radish, and some cilantro. Serve immediately with chili oil. Add 1/2 teaspoon to 2 teaspoons of chili oil according to personal taste.
To store leftovers
- Store the beef broth and beef separate in air-tight containers in the fridge for up to 3 days or in the freezer for up to 1 month. You can use the beef broth in a stew or soup, if you like. The beef can be used in a stir-fry or salad.
- Ask the butcher to cut the beef bones lengthwise into a few parts when purchasing.
- Always use a cut that contains 30% to 40% fat. Using untrimmed cuts will generate a very tender and moist lean part after simmering. You can trim off and discard the fat before serving.
- I usually skim off as much oil as I can and save it. Some people like to serve the broth with oil on top, but I found it delicious enough without the oil. You can use the oil for stir-frying later and it will result in very delicious dishes (for example, this Mongolian beef fried rice). To store beef fat, allow the oil to cool in a small bowl at room temperature, then transfer it to an air-tight container. It can be stored in the fridge for up to 2 weeks.
Hand Pulled Noodle – It makes this rich beef noodle soup tastes even better.
Homemade Chili Oil – make a delicious bowl of noodle perfect. A hundred percent better than the supermarket one and only takes 5 minutes to make.
Mongolian Beef Fried Rice – Use the leftover beef from this recipe to make these quick and yummy fried rice.