The Art of Pulling Noodles – Hutong Cuisine Cookery School

Two days in Beijing and my clothes already smell of a heady concoction of unusual spices. That’s what comes of spending a good chunk of those two days in the kitchen.
Yesterday it was the turn of Hutong Cuisine and a class aimed at teaching us how to make Shaanxi hand pulled noodles, described on their website as “a difficult class where you roll up your sleeves to knead, drag, pull…” This was not an understatement.
But first there was time for breakfast in Feast the swish restaurant of our hotel East which serves possibly the best breakfast buffet in Beijing not to mention excellent coffee.

Feast at East

I couldn’t help thinking that if there were several million more of the electric cars like the one parked outside our door, Beijing pollution might not be quite so bad.
I wonder how long the charge lasts in Beijing traffic?

Of course a little quality NaiNai time had to be had before I headed for the kitchen. Oh how I love that newly minted baby smell.
Good morning Dermot!

Then fortified by an early lunch from MaMa, or Quin Jia Mu as I must learn to call her as my female in-law, we set off by taxi to find Hutong Cuisine. (I had discovered in Urumqi last summer that it is impossible to get past a half an hour with Shan’s Mum without being fed but it is always delicious and interesting – this time it was simple stir fried bai cai – baby pak choi to us – with mushrooms.)
We found the entrance to Hutong Cuisine in Deng Cao Hutong off Dongsi South St and were welcomed by a friendly dog who wriggled his way under the door to meet us. The lovely Chun Yi who runs the school led us in through the Quing Dynasty courtyard to the cosy kitchen where we were joined by the other participants in the class and her brother who would teach us how to make the noodles. Making noodles of this type is usually regarded as a man’s job because of the physical exertion involved.
Cookery school Chinese style

First for the easy bit – the making of the beef soup stock in which the noodles would subsequently be cooked. I will post the recipe for this soon because it is a lovely versatile stock and I can see myself adapting it for stockpot and other uses. Essentially it was made with a large beef leg bone, some added neck or belly beef, spring onion, garlic and ginger and lots of added spices, all simmered for several hours.
There were a few spices included in it that were new to me and may be hard to get in Ireland. Chun Yi explained that some are used because they are believed to have medicinal properties rather than for flavour. See if you can spot the mountain yam, long pepper, shan nai, bai zhi, sha ren or dou kou below – even MaMa and Shan couldn’t identify all of them!
Some interesting soup spices

Then came the fun bit, the making of the hand-pulled noodles. Tai ma fan – too much hassle, said MaMa when she heard how we had spent our afternoon. These are normally only made in restaurants by masters of the craft and rarely, if ever, at home. They are made with high gluten wheat flour and water, salt to give stiffness and the magic ingredient peng hui, the ash of a type of grass which grows in north west China which the people of that area discovered makes the dough supple and elastic. The main ingredient in the ash is Potassium Carbonate K2CO3 and it’s hard to get even here in Beijing.
As I’ve always loved making yeast bread, kneading the dough until smooth and leaving it to rest was easy peasy and I was beginning to feel quietly confident as Chef used the breathing space to teach us the hand movements we would need to roll, stretch and twist the dough. Now I mean to say, I’ve done aerobics and pilates, I even lift weights from time to time, this couldn’t be too difficult could it…? Well at least now I understand why Chun Yi asked Shane how old his parents were and whether we would be able for the class…
Let’s just say making hand-pulled noodles could be the ultimate cure for granny bingo wings. It’s all in the wrist movement and once or twice I nearly got it but not quite. Chef had to rescue my efforts several times and re-roll the dough, adding water when it got too dry. When you do get a rhythm going it is strangely soothing and satisfying, bringing me back to using hula hoops or skipping ropes as a child. There is also a gorgeous sensation when you feel the gluten stretching in your hands (and not breaking!).
Once your thin dough strips become even, you use only the middle part of the roll and pull them into very long thin strips. This bit is great fun and easy compared to all that rolling, stretching and twisting. Then you rush with them to your pot of strained stock, cook them for about one minute and serve them as below. Phew. Take a bow if you get that far!
The easy bit!

This looks manageable doesn’t it?

Chef rolls the dough

Stretch it out nice and long…

I think she’s got it!

Let’s twist…

Let’s twist again…

There you have it..

Derry could be proud of his efforts

To serve:
Once cooked, for as many hours as you have to play around with, the beef stock is strained into a saucepan and simmered. Beef  left over from the stock is shredded and placed in a bowl along with some daikon radish which has been thinly sliced and blanched for a minute, shredded leek, chopped coriander and home-made chilli oil to taste.
The noodles are cooked briefly in the simmering, strained stock, drained and added to the individual serving bowls and then some of the soup is poured over. To meet the exacting standards for balance in Chinese cooking, the soup should be clear, the radish adds white colour, the leek and coriander green and the chilli oil a dash of red.
Eat and enjoy, that’s if you have the energy after all that hand-pulling of noodles!! (or you could cheat and add a packet of your favourite quick-cook noodles to the soup but shhh… don’t tell Chun Yi I said that!)
Thank you Hutong Cuisine Cooking School for a great afternoon.
See – afternoon pastry class 2.30 – 6 pm, price 260 rmb (about €32) per person.