Since I have a Cantonese background, noodles have never been as prominent as rice in the Chinese cuisine I’m used to. I grew up with all the usual rice-centered expressions: “You haven’t eaten unless you’ve had rice” or “That person is a rice bucket” (meaning they love rice, though it can sometimes also be used in a derogatory way). I knew plenty of Chinese kids who insisted on eating nothing but plain white rice. And we had rice nearly every day in our home growing up.

But there must be something of my Beijing roots still left in me (my great-grandfather was a Beijinger), because I’ve always had a special place in my heart for noodles. It is one of my favorite foods, and I’ll eat them thin or fat, wheat or rice, dry or in soup, Asian or European, with chopsticks or with a fork, happily slurped up or neatly coiled in bite-sized bundles. They are just so much funner to eat than rice.

It’s only been during this prolonged trip to Beijing that I’ve realized the stark contrast between northern and southern Chinese food. Whenever we sit down to dishes served family style, we often have to put in a special request for rice (we’ve found people here eat their rice or noodles after the main dishes, rather than with). And the rice that’s served up can sometimes be this bland, textureless stuff, rather than the jasmine rice I’m used to in Southeast Asia. The noodles on the other hand — I could eat them forever. The hand-pulled noodles here are plump and doughy and have a fantastic bite to them. And they’re always made fresh. So I decided early on that I need to at least try my hand at making noodles before I leave, however disastrous it might turn out to be,  if only so I could bring a taste of Beijing home with me.

Watching my order of noodles get made at the Noodle Bar.

After a bit of searching online, I found a great little place called The Hutong, a cultural exchange center run out of a renovated Beijing siheyuan, a traditional courtyard home deep in the hutong or small alleys of the city. They offer all sorts of classes there, and luckily a hand-pulled noodle making class was just coming up. For about 35 USD I got to wander into a local hutong, meet other travelers, learn how to hand-pull noodles, and even eat what we’d made.

Sophia, our teacher, was from Inner Mongolia, and she taught us a method of making noodles that involves pulling one strand at a time, which is easier for a beginner to do at home. At first I was a little disappointed we weren’t going to learn how to pull noodles the way the expert noodle-makers do. But considering how long it’d take to even attempt to pull noodles like in the video above, I soon realized how much more realistic this beginner method is. And it turned out to be surprisingly easy and effective too. You just can’t make as many noodles as quickly, but no one’s working in a noodle shop here anyway. :)

We each started out with a bowl of flour and a glass of water with a pinch of salt added to it. Then we added just enough of the salted water to the flour to get it to bind together into a ball of dough. It’s better to add less water at first and gradually add more to get the dough to form. In the end, there should be no flour left in the bowl or on your hands. Sophia mentioned how that’s one of the things mothers would traditionally check for when considering prospective brides for their sons!

Then came the most important part — the kneading. You push the dough out on a surface, fold it back over onto itself, then give the dough a quarter turn and repeat. You don’t want to press too hard or you’ll dry the dough out, but you want to knead until the dough becomes very smooth and fairly soft, with all of the flour incorporated. We kneaded for about 10 minutes that night, but you can knead longer, up to about 20 minutes. You’ll know the dough is ready when you press down on it with your finger and it rises back up, which indicates there is enough elasticity to the dough.

Next we put some oil onto our flat surface and flattened the ball of dough into a disc. We oiled both sides and then, with a knife, cut the disc into thick strips. We took each strip and rolled it out a bit, until it was about the thickness of a pinky finger. Then we arranged the strands in an oiled platter like the picture below. Mine are too thin in the picture — you want it to be thicker so that you can pull it later on. We added more oil to coat the strands and then covered this and let it sit for about half an hour.

Meanwhile we chopped vegetables for the sauce — garlic, ginger, onions, tomatoes, green and red bell peppers, celery, and napa cabbage. One thing I learned from Sophia is that she often likes to rip rather than cut vegetables — for example, greens or bell peppers — which keeps the cells intact and makes it healthier and better tasting.

We were making Xinjiang noodles, from the northwest or Uighur part of China, so we used mutton along with the vegetables. We added a bit of oil to a wok and stir-fried the strips of mutton first. Then we added onion to fry for 1-2 minutes before adding the celery, tomatoes, and cabbage. Last, we added garlic, ginger, and the bell peppers and turned off the heat. And finally, we seasoned with some soy sauce, vinegar, and salt to taste.

Then came the fun part — pulling the noodles. Taking each strand, you stretch it out quickly, letting the strand fall and bounce off a flat surface and spring back up. You fold the strand over and, taking the double strands, pull again. The dough is actually really stretch — it almost immediately started to stretch when I picked it up with both hands. But the tricky part is getting thinner noodles, as it gets harder and harder to pull the thinner the strand gets. Sophia kept reminding us that you want to work as quickly as possible, so that the dough doesn’t dry out as you’re pulling. Working quickly also prevents the strands from breaking, since the heaviness of the dough causes it to fall on its own, creating uneven strands and breaking off.

As we worked, Sophia walked around gathering our noodles to cook, saying you need to drop the noodles into hot water as soon as possible, or else they will dry out. She boiled the noodles for about 3 minutes and then scooped them out of the water with a slotted spoon. If not serving right away, you can shock the noodles in cold water to keep them from overcooking. We topped the boiled noodles with the mutton and vegetable sauce we made and served this with a side of pickled cucumbers.

I have to say I was surprised with the end result. It tasted quite similar to some of the more rustic noodles I’d had at smaller restaurants, where the noodles are not all a uniform thickness and length but are nevertheless delicious, with a nice bite to them. Sophia’s method makes the process far less intimidating, and I definitely would like to try this again at home some time.

I had so much fun at the class and was so smitten with The Hutong I went back the next week to talk more with one of the people who started it. I hope I’ll have the chance to take another class there before I leave!

Coming up next… a Beijing friend has agreed to teach me how to make zha jiang mian (wheat noodles topped with a ground pork sauce), so stay tuned for more noodle-making fun!