Friday, September 23, 2011

wondrous cooking night number one.

A walk through the Beijing hutongs is never without insight.
When I was in Beijing during August, my mum and I went to two evenings of cooking classes together at a great establishment called The Hutong. It is, as the name suggests, situated in amongst one of the quaint and more traditional areas of Beijing full of hutongs, and they offer all kinds of classes and information sessions and excursions. As well as doing two cooking courses, we also enjoyed a couple of evenings of untutored life drawing and a local market tour and a big tea market tour. 

So, for this first cooking class I finally learned how to make my favourite kind of Chinese cuisine – Uyghur food. I’ve talked about it a couple of times before, and you can read those blogs if you want to know more about this kind of food in it’s own right. I’m just a little obsessed with it just because it’s just so damn delicious, and so when I saw that these people were offering ‘pulled noodles’ classes, I was totally pumped. Fully psyched. Jumping my bones. All over my China travels I have seen people standing out the front of their restaurants, massive strings of dough swaying in long ropes between their hands. They twist it and bang it down to such a loud *CLAP* on their boards that it’s hard to believe these thin noodles don’t break, but the secret lies in the freshness and the ancient technique. Pulled noodles are the perfect example of when the culinary world crosses over into artistry, not to mention athleticism. Damn, it ain’t easy.

That evening we also learnt one of the many possible deliciously rich sauces that can top these noodles. Usually this kind of food is famous because of it’s suitability to red meats (rich lamb & tomato stews and thick noodles like theirs can put any English ‘comfort food’ recipe to shame) but as I already knew, the vegetarian versions of Uighur food can be just as – if not more – delicious than their meaty counterparts. One of the reasons for this is because of the swathe of spices in every single dish, I mean, I talked about all this kind of thing in that other blog, but I just want to reiterate the fact that these meals are the Chuck Norris of Chinese food. You can throw that sweet & sour to the pigs, and the dumplings to the dogs, but Uyghurs know where it’s at. They’re on the down low for what the belly wants. They’re tapped into the tongue’s inner mind.

mmmmm plum juice. yeah baby. also machete.
 I digress. I was wondering whether or not to actually write up the recipe for you. The reasoning was this: Nah, don’t bother. Would anybody really believe me enough to try and make this? Then the reasoning was this: DUDE, COME ON. PLEASE IF YOU VALUE YOUR LIFE THEN ENRICH IT WITH THIS DELICIOUSNESS. So, as you can tell by the capitals, the second reasoning won out and I shall attempt to recreate the recipe for this blog. I really feel condescending saying this, but in case you don’t normally cook a lot of real Asian food, it might take a little getting used to. With Uyghur food, and especially with the noodles, it’s a lot more about personal judgment than about the measurements. On that note, I’m giving you the vegetarian version, with possibly some notes about how to adjust it for meat content, because I am more confident with how to do the vegetarian version. It’s not vegan, though, it does have eggs. But chances are that if you’re vegan you’re already pro at altering recipes to suit your diet. The recipe below also includes all of my personal annotations from the evening, and should serve 2 hungry hungry hippos. (read: people like me who like eating) The recipe is in three parts, so here goes!

PART 1 – THE DOUGH. mmmmm noodly doughy. so much good dough time to be had.

The important thing to remember with the noodles, is that they share an impatient temperament with scones – i.e. you have to be quick when you’re preparing them or they won’t work. The noodles also have to sit for about half an hour before they are cooked, so it makes sense to do the dough first then make the sauce, then come back and finish the noodles. 

  • 1 cup of plain flour – wholemeal flour can’t really be substituted here because the noodles must be stretchy, and you can’t get stretchy with the grainy.
  • ½ a cup of room temp. water – use vegetable juice for extra goodness and also extra colour.
  • Pinch of salt
  • Small bowl of vegetable oil – any kind of oil can be used, really.
The kneading. Look closely and you can see that this
dough is still a little lumpy. It should be nice and smooth.

1.       In a bowl, add the pinch of salt to the flour. Add just a bit of the water (or other liquid) to the flour, stirring with your hands/fingers in one direction only. (The temperature of the hands helps the dough bind.) Keep adding liquid little by little until you have a mixture that resembles the consistency of bread dough. It should be kind of sticky, and very malleable – springing back a little when pushed. (Best described as the texture of an earlobe. But whatever.) 

Cover the flat disc of dough in oil to seal the moisture in.
2.       Dust a wooden board with flour, and knead the dough until it is lump-free. Remember not too take too long, but it needs to be completely smooth, but if you knead too hard the dough won’t be soft enough to pull. I know, she be a demanding beast. 

3.       Push the dough into a round, flat, disc kind of shape. Use your fingers to coat that dough in a layer of oil. Cut it into thick strips. 

An example of the diameter and shape of such coils.
4.       With those same oily hands, take the strips of dough and roll them out into long strips about 1cm in diameter. Take a flat plate and wind the long rolls into a coil on it the cover them with a bit more oil, and cover the plate up. The noodles can be layered on top of each other with no worries – the oil is necessary to keep them soft and stop them sticking together.

5.    Cover the plate and set aside for 30 minutes.

PART 2 – THE SAUCE. mmmmmmm saucy. all that rich saucy goodness. get into it.

One thing that really strikes me about this part of the dish, is just how much oil it contains. I’ve given my best estimate of the minimum amount of oil you have to use, but I can honestly say that the finished product doesn’t feel oily at all, and olive oil can be used so it’s not too bad for you. But hey, I never claimed it was a healthy recipe, I just reiterate how gosh darn DELICIOUS it is.

  •        3 or 4 eggs – depending on how hungry you are and how much you like a good egg. (1 cup of tofu or lamb or beef or chicken can be used here instead.)
  •        A handful of mushrooms – only if you’re doing the egg version.
  •        10 tablespoons of oil – vegetable oil is fine, but I recommend olive oil.
  •        ½ an onion, chopped – the original recipe calls for a quarter, but I love the onion with the spices, so you can switch it up depending on your onion and your preference.
  •        500 grams cherry tomatoes
  •        1 to 2 garlic stems, chopped – I can never find these in Australia, but they can be substituted with a small capsicum.
  •        Chilli – this is totally up to preference. If you like it hot, I suggest one or two fresh chillies. If you like the flavour without the pain, I suggest 3 small dried chillies.
  •        5 garlic cloves
  •        1 ‘thumb’ or ginger – in other words, a good knobbly chunk of it.
  •        3 tablespoons of vinegar
  •        1 tablespoon of dark soy sauce
  •        ½ teaspoon salt
  •        1 teaspoon sugar
  •        1 teaspoon of cumin – add more if you’re having meat.
  •        1 star aniseed
  •        2 or 3 bay leaves – dry.
  •        1 chunk of cinnamon bark – it literally looks like bark. If you can’t find it, a normal roll of cinnamon can be substituted, but is certainly less cool.
  •        1 teaspoon of Sichuan pepper
  •        Fresh coriander for topping – optional but highly recommended.


Frying that delicious assortment of crazy herbs in the oil.
1.       Crack the eggs into a bowl. Dice the mushroom and two garlic cloves and a chunk of ginger, and add it all to the eggs. Give it a good stir around. 

2.       Scramble the eggs as you normally would for a Sunday breakfast, then cover them and set them aside. 

The cherry tomatoes on their way to sauciness...
3.       Make sure your pan has no water in it at all, and put the oil in it at a medium temperature. When the oil is hot, add the Sichuan pepper corns, the star aniseed, the cumin, bay leaves, and the chilli. When it smells really good (takes a couple of minutes) take all the spices out. 

4.       Add the cherry tomatoes (unchopped) to the oil. Be careful of splatter here. Fry the cherry tomatoes for about 10 minutes. Make sure they keep moving and stay covered with the oil. 

5.       Once the cherry tomatoes are soft and saucy, add the onion, capsicum, salt, sugar, dark soy sauce, and vinegar. Braise on a low heat for another 10 minutes.

Everything coming together at the end.
6.       Once the sauce is sufficiently saucy, add the eggs and cook for a minute or two all together. Now remove from heat and cover. 

7.       Add in the remaining fresh garlic and ginger just a minute before serving and stir through.

PART 3 – THE PULLING AND COOKING OF THE NOODLES, AND SERVING. this is the fun part. but also the hard part.


1.       Bring a big pot of water to boil. Add a pinch of salt. 

2.       Unwrap the coils of dough, and on that same oiled board/surface, roll the dough out into really long snakes. Take a length by each end in each hand, and whilst pulling the dough longer, also swing it up and down banging it on the board. If your dough is soft enough, it should be pulled to about a meter. It will expand too, so don’t make the noodles too thick. 
3.       When all of the dough has been pulled into long strands of noodle-potential, put them all together into the boiling water and cook as you would spaghetti. The noodles should rise when ready. 

4.       Rinse the cooked noodles quickly under cold water to remove and glugginess. Split them into two serves and into bowls. 

5.       Give the sauce a quick high-heat reheat, and pour it over the noodles. To taste and for prettiness, I recommend the chopped coriander on top. 

Eating this meal with proper chopsticks also makes it taste better. Do it. To drink? Plum juice is traditional, but a strong red wine or cold beer is somewhat more suitable and satisfying.

Here's one a prepared earlier. This is served with a cold cucumber and chilli salad on the side. I also prefer mine a little saucier, and therefore more suitable to the humble bowl. Humble Mr. Bowl is less photogenic though.
As with most things in life, this meal is also better when shared.
So there it is! It’s my first recipe recitation, so please forgive any discrepancies, and questions are welcome. Drop me a line for more info on the meat substitution options. More vegetables (potato is particularly good) can easily be added, and the noodles are also wicked for soups.

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