The front is no more than five metres wide, the window is coated in steam rising from the woks, and on the pavement a few plastic stools are drawn up to two small tables, each sporting a container of fiery Shanghai red bean curd sauce. In the window is a long list of the dishes the tiny kitchen produces and a sign that reads “Cash Only”.
In every city, town and village across China, there is a noodle bar much like this one. But this is not China, as the presence of a Caffè Nero to one side and the entrance to Leicester Square Tube station on the other clearly attest. This is the Zhengzhong Lanzhou Lamian Noodle Bar at 33 Cranbourn Street, one of the few places in London still home to the exhausting art of hand pulling Chinese noodles.
China gave noodles to the world. The earliest record of their popularity, in a book from the Eastern Han Dynasty, is almost 2,000 years old, though in 2005 archaeologists at the Lajia site on the Yellow River found noodles that were dated as roughly 4,000 years old. From China noodles spread to Japan (whose ramen noodle shops are opening with great regularity in London and New York) before catching on throughout the rest of Asia.
Longevity, ubiquity and frugality have given noodles extra layers of meaning in Chinese culture. Long noodles have come to signify a long life, so they are invariably served as one of the final dishes at an important banquet. They can also be one of the gifts at a burial.
Like so many of its kind in China, Zhengzhong Lanzhou Lamian Noodle Bar is about an everyday noodle habit. Compact, and not terribly comfortable, it has two communal wooden tables that seat six each plus a couple of ledges where one can perch. On the wall are Chinese cartoon characters – eating noodles, naturally – alongside plastic-covered photos of the many dishes on offer.
At the corner of the front counter stands chef/proprietor Liangming Qiu, 36, who was born in southern China but trained in Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu province, home to the finest hand-pulled noodles, many believe.
Behind him is the bank of woks and pans of hot stock overseen by three cooks who produce the more than 200 dishes listed on the coloured paper menu. These include soups and dim sum; a few meat dishes; a long list of vegetable dishes; and, finally, a matrix of noodles. There are two different varieties, La-Mian, the thin hand-pulled variety (reportedly the kind found at Lajia), and Dao Xiao Mian, which are shaved from the dough straight into the steaming stock. These are served in soup, dry or fried, then topped with beef, pork, chicken, duck, vegetables, seafood or various combinations thereof.
Any meal on the ground floor resounds to the thud of Qiu’s transformation of the large pieces of raw dough into the thinnest noodles.
This process starts in the basement as a wiry chef kneads the Italian hard wheat flour (farino di grano tenero tipo 00, widely used for pasta) with water and salt into a vast mound of dough. This then comes upstairs where it is torn into thick strips before Qiu begins his culinary gymnastic performance. Stretching the dough, whirling it about, laying it out, letting it rest, folding it and finally refolding it, Qiu works hard until it becomes thin strips of pale noodles which, with a nonchalant turn of his shoulders, he then drops into a bowl of hot stock just to his left. Minutes later, another nourishing bowl of noodles is on its way to a hungry customer.
These dishes are more than simply bowls of very good-value food – the most expensive noodle dish is £7.50. They are, in essence, fuel for the working body. The cooks are there to feed anyone in need of nourishment at any time, which is one reason why this noodle bar is open continually from 10am every morning until 2am Sunday to Thursday and until 5am at the weekend.
As I sit noisily slurping my bowl of noodles, I nurture the hope that one day I will eat this dish as elegantly as someone who has grown up eating them. Negotiating noodles with chopsticks in one hand and a spoon in the other does require dexterity. I watched in admiration as one Chinese woman in a Burberry raincoat ate swiftly and silently, her hands rising and falling with almost automatic regularity, before pausing, only for a second or two, to push her long hair behind her neck. Great noodle style, indeed.
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Zhengzhong Lanzhou Lamian Noodle Bar
33 Cranbourn Street, London WC2, 020 7836 4399