By JULIA MOSKIN
Published: January 25, 2011
IN an open kitchen in NoLIta, two solemn young men work together in virtual silence up to 16 hours a day, their destinies yoked by noodles.
Longevity Noodles With Chicken, Ginger and Mushrooms (January 26, 2011)
Roasted Squash and Ginger Noodle Soup With Winter Vegetables (January 26, 2011)
Michael Hodgkins is a stern, passionate chef from upstate New York, with a dedication to local and organic ingredients. Huacan Chen is an aspiring entrepreneur from Fuzhou in southern China, with a skill that happens to be seriously marketable in New York at the moment: he knows how to spin out endless skeins of la mian, smooth, springy hand-stretched noodles, using nothing but a countertop and his hands.
Hung Ry, a restaurant that opened in October, serves noodle soups that brilliantly combine Mr. Chen’s noodles and Mr. Hodgkins’s broths: deep brews of oxtail, duck belly, roasted squash, star anise, ginger, tamarind, dried chilies and mushrooms. They are the most recent expression — building on David Chang’s ramen and Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s chicken-coconut soup — of the East-West dialogue that has produced some of New York’s most memorable modern dishes.
Because of Mr. Chen’s skills, they are also a high expression of traditional Chinese noodle arts. Even a thousand years ago, there were late-night noodle shops in many Chinese cities; today, niu rou la mian, beef soup with hand-pulled noodles in the hearty style of western China, is a ubiquitous dish. There is a staggering array of fresh noodles served all over China — far beyond the familiar lo mein and chow fun — and more and more of them are popping up here.
In Chinatown, there are stimulating dishes like Mount Qi noodles from Shaanxi in the west of China, a hot and sour broth with minced pork and wide, stretchy noodles called “biang biang mian,” after the noise the dough makes when it is snapped against the counter.
At Sheng Wang on Eldridge Street, the Fujianese chef JinSheng Zhu makes dao xiao mian, “knife-peeled” noodles with ruffled edges that he rapidly slices off a dough block with a steel blade the size of his fist. Each cut he makes lands with such force that it sends a strip of dough several feet through the air, into a pot of boiling water. (In China, noodle vendors with a taste for showmanship learn to do this with the lump of dough balanced on their heads.) The boiled noodles are plunged into broth cloudy with pork marrow, or stir-fried, absorbing every drop of flavor from the wok.
In southern China, noodle dishes tend to be light snacks, but northern noodles are thicker and often make up hearty one-dish meals. Both are found in New York City’s various Chinatowns. There are string-thin noodles combined with Hong-Kong-style clear broth and delicate shrimp-watercress dumplings at Sifu Chio in Flushing, Queens; a mile away, a Shanghai-style noodle shop, Da Jiang Nan Bei, serves thick house-made noodles in a sweat-inducing, chili-red soup thick with beef and preserved mustard greens.
The most basic way to divide Chinese noodles is by flour: rice noodles are called fen, while wheat noodles are mian. There are, however, rice noodles that include wheat starch, wheat noodles that include rice, and noodles from other starches like tapioca or cornstarch. In the Chinese culinary canon, each has its own distinct effect of chewiness, crunchiness or springiness.
There are also two basic ways of cooking noodles: stir-fried in a wok, or plunged into soup. Noodle soup is a standard lunch or anytime snack for millions, always customized to taste with the condiments on every noodle shop table: dried-chili oil (the best places make their own); soy sauce; black, white and red rice vinegars; suan cai, pickled greens; and even fried eggs, wontons or dumplings for a more substantial meal.
During the New Year’s period from Feb. 3 through 17, long noodles are eaten in all corners of China. “Longevity noodles,” also presented at birthday celebrations, are never cut or broken by the cook, and if they can be eaten without biting through the strands, it’s considered even more auspicious. Longevity noodles are usually stir fried, presenting challenges to the home cook.
“Noodles should always be stir-fried alone at first,” said Grace Young, the New York author of several books on Chinese cooking, including the new “Stir-Frying to the Sky’s Edge.” Noodles should be lightly oiled so that they don’t clump together in the wok, she said, and all ingredients must be completely dry so they sear properly. She uses Chinese egg noodles, but when the sidewalks are snowy and Chinatown seems far away, she said, tagliarini from Raffetto’s on Houston Street does very well.
The main difference between pasta and mian, said Susur Lee, the chef at Shang, on the Lower East Side, is that Italian noodles are never supposed to have chew. (Even pasta cooked al dente should be resistant, not chewy.)
“Chinese people like chewiness and crunchiness and density in noodles,” said Mr. Lee, who was raised in Hong Kong. “In China, texture and mouth feel are as important as flavor.”
Of all the noodles in China, Mr. Lee chose plump, bouncy “silver needles” to serve in a homey stir-fry at Shang. He said that silver needles remind him of his childhood in Hong Kong, when vendors would sit by the street and roll the dough to order on their thighs, which produces their distinctive shape: fat, with pointed ends. They are also called pearl noodles or, in Malaysia and Singapore, “rat tails” because of their pointed ends.
At Shang, the noodles are stir-fried in wide, shallow black woks (the northern style, Mr. Lee said, which is easier for Westerners to handle), with searing flames licking up from huge cast-iron wok rings. Like Ms. Young, he adds soy sauce to the wok only at the end of cooking, swirling it around the hot rim of the pan where it evaporates and then gets sucked, smoky flavor and all, into the noodles.
Shang is an elegant, lacquered room in an expensive hotel, but just a few blocks away, squatting under an archway of the Manhattan Bridge, is Xi’an Famous Foods, a tiny storefront where the cooks make noodles that are hand-stretched, rough-edged and deeply filling.
Jason Wang, who helps run the family business (there are four branches in the city), said that the newest house specialty, Mount Qi noodles, is a 1,000-year-old recipe, created by an emperor who decided to share a pig with all of his subjects. With bits of minced pork and a hot-sour-sweet tang — traditionally from red sorghum vinegar — Mount Qi is the Tiger Mother of noodle dishes: challenging, tear-inducing, but strangely compelling..
In most of the dishes at Xi’an Famous Foods, the wide, ruffled noodles — you po che mian — are seasoned with fresh and dried chilies, cumin and peppercorns (black and Sichuan) that characterize food from China’s western plateau (where Mount Qi is situated). Many of the noodle dishes at Xi’an are described as “spicy and tingly,” Mr. Wang’s translation of “ma la,” a term that embraces the heat of chilies and the numbing quality of Sichuan peppercorns, a combination that New Yorkers are increasingly drawn to. Dan dan noodles, the iconic Sichuan noodle dish, have become so popular that at least one restaurant, Grand Sichuan in Midtown, serves two different recipes: one with more ma la and one with less.
“I need a 12-step program to deal with my ma la addiction,” said Sang Yoon, a chef in Los Angeles who created a deconstructed version of dan dan noodles for his new noodle shop, Lukshon.
The most popular of all the new noodles, however, are the la mian, or hand-pulled noodles, that Mr. Chen of Hung Ry has mastered. La mian are not the same as the “lo mein” already familiar to Americans: “la” means pulled, while “lo” means tossed, as in tossed in a wok in a stir-fry.
Signs for “Lan Zhou pulled noodles” now line some streets of Chinatown, though most of the men who make it are not native to Lanzhou, the capital city of Gansu Province. “Lan Zhou noodles,” like “Chicago pizza” or “New York bagels,” has become a catchphrase that signifies deliciousness everywhere.
Noodles from Gansu are famous for their springy texture, according to Florence Lin, the great teacher of Chinese cooking in the United States. Centuries ago, noodle makers in Gansu learned that certain kinds of ash, called peng, had the effect of tenderizing dough. Ash contains potassium carbonate, an alkali (like lye and lime) that makes the noodles soft by inhibiting the development of gluten. (Potassium carbonate is also used around the world to cure foods like olives, lutefisk and corn for hominy.)
Packages of peng imported from China are the key to Mr. Chen’s noodles, every bowl of them made to order with what he considers an ideal level of jiao jing — roughly translatable from Mandarin as “chew power.”
He works in a kitchen stocked with gadgets, but he begins in the traditional way, with a hill of flour. The flour is organic, shipped from a mill in the Champlain Valley, with extra gluten and protein that lend flavor and resistance. Into the flour, Mr. Chen drizzled a solution of water and peng and began to knead, throwing his entire body weight against the shaggy dough.
“Organic flour is harder than the usual kind,” he said, speaking through an interpreter. Mr. Chen came to the restaurant by way of jobs in Peru and Manhattan’s Chinatown, he said, and learned to make la mian during a two-month apprenticeship in China.
As the dough came together and softened, Mr. Chen divided the lump into baguette-size lengths and twisted each one tight like cheese straw. When the twists were done, he held each weighty length in his hands, letting its belly fall toward the ground, then twirled the ends together as if making a pretzel. After several repetitions, he broke off a handful of dough and began to pull it long, doubling the dough around his left hand and spreading his arms wide apart in a few quick moves that produce a web, like a full-body game of cat’s cradle. A few extra pulls produce noodles that are xi, or thin; thick noodles are called cu.
When the noodles come out, perfectly tender, Mr. Hodgkins — who worked most recently under the chef Shea Gallante — goes to work. (Since Mr. Chen speaks no English and Mr. Hodgkins no Chinese, they communicate — minimally — in basic Spanish and hand signals.) Mr. Hodgkins added the broth and highly untraditional toppings like Romanesco broccoli roasted in mustard oil or turnips braised in daikon broth.
“Some days are more Chinese than others,” he said. Mr. Hodgkins has little knowledge of Chinese tradition — a paradox that is part of what makes Hung Ry such an interesting place at which to eat. He has created a complex version of the traditional soup condiments and is fermenting some cavolo nero cabbage to approximate Chinese suan cai, but making the noodles on his own defeated him.
“His hands just know,” he said of Mr. Chen, who plans to open his own noodle shop soon. “I spent three weeks on a mission to learn it, and at the end I had gotten exactly nowhere.”