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Inside Job: noodle thrower

Frank Hersey is trying every job in Beijing. This month: hand-stretching biangbiang noodles

Ever wondered how they give thick noodles that irresistibly chewy texture and flawless consistency? Turns out they give them a twang and slap them on a table, as I learn when I take on the role of a noodle chef at Shaanxi noodle joint Lingerjiu in U-Town mall.

Everyone arrives straight from the restaurant’s dormitory for the 9.30am start. The first task of the day is making the dough as it needs to prove for a few hours. The main ingredient looks to be salt. Head Chef Tian explains how the dough has to be made ‘in one direction’ so that the noodles will tear properly. Masses of the stuff is made then formed into rectangles to be rolled out later – three rectangles per bowl. By the time the toppings are prepped the lunchtime rush has begun.

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Around 200 bowls of steaming youpochemian (油泼扯面) later, most of my colleagues are heading back to the dormitory to sleep before coming back again at 5pm. I’m with the through shift-ers, the pros.

Chef Hu shows me the ropes. They’re made of dough. First step is rolling the rectangles and squashing them flat with your palm. Already it’s clear that Chef Hu is using skills that I don’t have. Then we use a rolling pin to get the dough spread further and flatter before the real fun begins: the stretching (che, 扯).

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Laying the ends across my upturned fingers and holding them down with my thumbs, I’m shown how to gently stretch out the dough while bouncing it up and down. By shown, I mean Chef Hu gets behind me and takes hold of my elbows in awkward Ghost-meets-Titanic movement.

The first few attempts result in twisted and broken remnants, but I’m getting into the swing and we progress to noodle slapping. After stretching the dough out with some bouncing, you then smack (chen, 抻) the middle section down on the countertop. Because it feels so right. And also because the dough would otherwise bunch up in the middle, leaving a noodle no-no.

It’s highly satisfying. Like when you take chewing gum out of your mouth and stretch it, but bigger and slappier. I’m brought out of my revelry as there’s still a lot to do. I’m shown how to double the dough over then tear it lengthways from top to bottom. Because of science, the dough tears in a highly satisfying, perfectly straight line – a movement as pleasing as the stretching and slapping.

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Then we literally throw the torn-up noodles across the kitchen into the vat of boiling water, aka noodle soup (miantang, 面汤), where they float for three minutes.

The serving bowl already has the ma oil in the bottom, then on go my noodles. I’m shown how to neatly arrange the toppings of meat, pickled veg, garlic, beansprouts, and finally, the hot rapeseed oil, which hisses on impact. As pleased with myself as when I made my first plaster of Paris nativity set, Time Out’s photographer starts taking photos of my finished noodles. Until Chef Hu interrupts with an ‘okay!’ and dashes out of the kitchen with them. Hungry customers are waiting and ingredients don’t pay for themselves, I suppose.

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I ask Chef Tian what a Shaanxi person would say about my noodles: ‘They’re too expensive – twice what I’d pay in Shaanxi’. Chef Hu, who was trained for six weeks in the process, says ‘not bad for a first try’. Luckily for me, he makes my bowl for lunch. They’re so good I can ignore our photographer’s interpretation that the chefs are being polite and my noodles are terrible. Regardless, my former fantasy of owning a tea house has changed to making noodles in my own shop – without the 5-10pm shift.

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