Of all the provinces in China, the one I’d like to visit the most is Gansu. I suspect this is a rather rare sentiment, as in China the name was until recently is a byword for poverty, with peasants eking out a marginal existence at the drought-prone edge of the desert and dying in droves when the frequent earthquakes collapsed their yaodong cave homes, dug into the brittle loess of the plateau. In the fading days of the Qing dynasty, the area was wracked by rapacious warlords, while after the Revolution, Gansu became a base for heavy industry.
So why go? Gansu’s odd bone-like shape hints at its deep history. Sandwiched between the Qilian Mountains to the south and the Gobi Desert to the north, the Gansu (Hexi) Corridor is the first stretch of the northern Silk Road, running from Xi’an in Shaanxi to the east via the oasis town of Dunhuang, home to the fabulous Mogao Caves, to Xinjiang and Central Asia to the west. The Great Wall of China runs along its length, protecting the northern flank from Mongol invasion and ending at Jiayuguan, where those exiled from the country were cast out into the wilderness and where, oddly, China’s space program is now based. At the eastern end, the Yellow River (Huang He) passes through capital Lanzhou, and if you’re looking for a rollicking account of life in these parts in the late 1930s I warmly recommend In the Footsteps of Genghis Khan by John DeFrancis. Back in kindergarten in Finland, we used to sing a catchy ditty about wanting to row on the Huang He river, and after crossing the Gobi by camel John did just that, sailing 1200 miles on a sheepskin raft from Lanzhou to Baotou in Inner Mongolia. You can still go rafting in on the Huang He today, but try not to sing the song, since it has recently been cancelled.
These days Gansu is famous for exactly one dish, hand-pulled Lanzhou beef noodles (蘭州牛肉拉面 Lánzhōu niúròu lāmiàn), the self-proclaimed “First Noodles in China” now ubiquitous not just throughout the country, but arguably the entire world, since the Japanese ramen descends from this. A canonical bowl is described by the mantra “One Clear, Two White, Three Red, Four Green, Five Yellow” (一清二白三红四绿五黄; Yī qīng, èr bái, sān hóng, sì lǜ, wǔ huáng), meaning that it must have clear soup, white radish, red chilli oil, green leeks and yellow wheat noodles.
Lanzhou beef noodles are widely available in Singapore, and there are even a number of dedicated restaurants. My first stop was Western Mahua (西部马华 Xībù Mǎhuá), the sister restaurant of Alijiang from the Xinjiang post and in fact sharing the same premises in Vivocity, only more fast food than fine dining with a funky modern vibe, including a distinctly Chinese cover version of Despacito playing in the background. Musical atrocities aside, the noodles here are as good as it gets, and you don’t need to take my word for it, since the Deputy Secretary of the Gansu Party Committee has certified them as authentic. You can watch them made to order by hand, using that near-magical Chinese technique to tease apart a ball of dough into noodles using nothing but your fingers. The whole generously sized bowl is composed of one giant uncut noodle, made to any of 8 sizes, which even encode some social signalling: ladies and intellectuals are supposed to order thinner noodles down to sub-millimeter “hair width” (毛细 máoxì), while workers and peasants should go for wider ones, which range all the way up to the 50mm “big belt” (大宽 dà kuān). I tried the default size (普通细) of 2mm, while my wife sampled the waitress’s recommended 5mm, and they were both great, although the bigger sizes are definitely harder to eat. All five canonical ingredients were present, with a mild chilli-mala kick but nothing over the top, and the 6th (beef) was well-stewed and tasty as well. The kids chickened out with a chicken broth, but ended up preferring ours, although they lavished the most praise on what the English menu calls Braised Beef in Pita (精品煨牛肉夹馍 jīngpǐn wēiniú ròujiāmó), a Chinese “burger” I’ll talk more about when we get to Shaanxi. A regular bowl of noodles goes for $9.80, and total damage for 4 was just $44. Two thumbs up.
For balance, I went to test out the competition, Tongue Tip Lanzhou Beef Noodles (舌尖尖兰州牛肉面 Shéjiānjiān Lánzhōu niúròumiàn). A franchise of the Chinese chain of the same name, they have 4 outlets in Singapore, so I tried the one at Chinatown Point, which is also bedecked with the same certificates of authenticity as Western Mahua and has two behatted noodle masters doing their thing in a glass box.
This time, I tried the Sauerkraut Beef Noodles (酸菜牛肉面), but it was a sad disappointment in all respects. I have only myself to blame for ordering the suan cai variation with vinegary pickled cabbage, but there was also way too much chilli sauce, and the combo completely overpowered the broth. The “normal” sized noodles were thin and mushy, with none of the chewy bite I expected (were these really made to order?), and the beef slices were small, thin and mostly buried at the bottom of the bowl. I had paid an extra $4 for a set, which consisted of a cold braised egg whose yolk had long since turned green, a dish of rubbery “vegetarian chicken” (素鸡 sùjī, made from beancurd) straight from the fridge, and a can of soft drink. Neither the side dishes nor the noodles were worth it; not recommended.