Gunpowder, paper money, and the compass are inventions China has given the world. These milestones, while impressive, pale next to China’s greatest contribution to humankind: the noodle.
As you may know, the ageless Chinese tradition of handcrafting noodles is alive in the Valley. Over at China Magic Noodle House in Chandler, noodles are stretched, shaped, and cooked by hand. Last week, I, a stretcher and shaper and cooker of noodles myself, went to take a few notes and glean inspiration.
At China Magic, noodle-making is on display. Most tables have a view of the rolling table. It builds credibility in the mind of the diner, and hunger in his or her stomach.
A thick plastic window into the kitchen provides a visual of the acrobatics that go into creating the starchy heart of your soup or stir-fry. Owner Sing Chan starts with a smooth mass of white dough. He punches and pushes and rolls the dough with the heels of his hands.
This motion stretches the dough, yes, but also starts a crucial reaction. The "kneading" causes two proteins to join, becoming the undeservedly notorious protein known as gluten. Gluten holds dough together, gives dough structure, and lends the ability to stretch the smooth mass like crazy.
Gluten, dietary villain of this decade, makes the ancient tradition of hand-pulled noodles possible.
As Chang rolls, the dough narrows, lengthens, and before long looks like a really fat unbaked baguette.
Chan then uses his palm to stretch the dough width-wise. He switches back to length-wise. Soon enough, the dough, getting longer and longer by the second, stretches away from the middle with quick pulls, looks like a thick extension cord.
Chan pulls the ends away from the middle, making the dough longer still. For a brief second the dough droops down like a jump rope. And then the dough is aloft, airborne, and flying.
What happens next is hypnotic show of hand control, pretzel shapes, and noodle wizardry. Ropes of dough twirl through the air, braid and unbraid, swing toward the floor, now and then plopping on the counter for a few artful hand slaps and maybe a flour dusting.
The kitchen light is thick with steam. You blink twice, and the whirling show is over. From Chan’s splayed fingers droop alabaster noodles, strings hanging from collarbone-level to the bottoms of his pants pockets.
“Stretching the noodle makes it softer,” he explains. “It also lets us pull dough to become the noodle. When you crush the dough, you can’t make the noodle. You have to swing and pull the noodle.”
Chan uses high-gluten wheat flour for his dough. He makes a variety of shapes, long-strand and ranging from millimeter-thin to thumb-thick. Thin noodles cook for 10 seconds. Wider noodles cook for 15 to 30. Unlike pasta noodles, these babies get dunked in ice water after cooking.
The freezing bath, Chan says, is for texture purposes. He aims for a noodle that has some give and isn’t purely soft, desiring “something to bite on.”
"Something to bite on" sounds a lot like the expression al dente, meaning "to the tooth." Though Chinese and Italian noodles both aspire to a toothsome quality, the difference is one of degree. Italians, especially those of Tuscany, have historically preferred soft thin noodles with not much bite. But such a preference is not catholic; Naples and other southern cities are know for factory-extruded noodles (arguably) a few minutes shy of done. Chan's noodles have a bite almost as assertive and more gelatinous than any Italian pasta.
“It’s a lot of hard work,” Chan says of pulling endless noodles from scratch each day, and targeting his chosen texture with every last strand. “It takes time for the dough to become noodles.”
Chan learned how to hand-pull noodles from his cousin, who learned while working in a restaurant in Fuzhou, China. Chan sells up to 80 pounds of noodles (calculated before boiling adds water weight) on weekdays, and about 20 additional pounds on weekends.
If you’re ordering soup, he suggests you order thinner noodles. If opting for stir-fry, go thick.
I went thick.
A heap of steaming noodles piled on my plate. The noodles were slick with XO sauce and colored with beef, carrots, sprouts, cabbage, and chiles. The XO sauce was mild and the beef plain, both undercard to the just-pulled noodles, which were clearly the main event.
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You could tell they had been handmade. They came in many sizes. Some were a half-inch wide. Others were pushing two inches. A few folded over onto themselves. This made for bites with varying degrees of softness and chew, even within a single slurp from a single raising of the chopsticks. And the noodles did have chew, a gummy texture that tangoed nicely with the reserved funk that came from the dried, chopped seafood lending XO sauce its elusive, enigmatic flavor.
The noodles lacked spiciness for a dish with a chile pepper printed on the menu beside its description. But the lack of heat let me taste more. And what I tasted were handmade noodles, fresh and impressive.
China Magic Noodle House. 2015 North Dobson Road #2, Chandler; 480-786-8002
Tuesday to Thursday 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.; Friday to Saturday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Sunday 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.