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Soup

Making Hand-Pulled Noodles

219 posts in this topic

I am beginning to think that the Alkali isn't important for stretching the dough. I know that alkali is put into the dough but correct me if I'm wrong.....this is in order to make the noodles not 'fall apart' when they are boiled and give them that particular yellowish colour. I have tried some lye water which is very alkaline in the dough and as I think Lukermyaz (sp?) found, it actually has the opposite effect if only more than a little is added. Isn't there a story about some people who would make the noodles years ago and found that the water from a certain lake would make the noodles have a certain texture and colour (ie yellow) when boiled in this water? More recently, they've found that the water is highly alkaline. I think it was in Mongolia.

There is (I think) something else which effects the gluten network to make the dough more extendable and less elastic.

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No further successes here, but Ader1: You may be on to something. Here's a pizza recipe just posted by Kenji from the Food lab (bear with me):

http://slice.serious...-pan-pizza.html

What does this have to do with hand-pulled noodles? Well, he writes: "With kneading, your goal is to first work these proteins until they untangle a bit, then to rub them against each other until they link up, forming a solid chain-link fence. It's this gluten matrix that allows your dough to be stretched without breaking, and what allows it to hold nice big air bubbles inside."

He continues, "flour naturally contains enzymes that will break down large proteins into smaller ones. Imagine them as teeny-tiny wire cutter that cut those jumbled up balls of wire into shorter pieces. The shorter the pieces are, they easier it is to untangle them, and the easier it is to then align them and link them up into a good, strong network."

Why does this pizza recipe matter:

- It's consistent with using both a high-protein flour and (optionally) an alkali, rather than a low-protein flour.

- Stretchiness and aligned gluten protein is what we're looking for in hand-stretched noodles.

With all information we've collected previously, this suggests:

- Making a wet dough (strong flour, twice the water, target 30°C); EDIT: Twice the water is probably over the top - I'll try with roughly equal amounts by weight.

- Let it rest well, at room temperature (note: this introduces a season-dependent factor as room temperature varies)

- Thoroughly kneading, twirling, etc. the dough, AFTER resting.

Try 15, here I come.


Edited by kleinebre (log)

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I won't claim I can make hand-pulled noodles just yet, but the above did give me the best result I managed so far.

Equal amounts of water and strong (12.1% protein) flour by weight still yielded a too wet dough, so I had to add more flour. I let the dough rest at room temperature overnight, then placed it in the fridge for the rest of the day (about 12 hours) before I could get back to it. After kneading the rested dough vigorously (as well as pulling and twirling), this did result in a stretchable dough which allowed stretching well beyond the first pull, once the dough came back to room temperature. Moreover, the dough resulting from this method seemed to stretch relatively evenly. So it seems this is the right direction, at last, and the rest is just due to my poor pulling technique.

lamian_try15.png

I should probably note that I did add a little bit of bicarbonate of soda to the flour/water mix.

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Well done. You should add a little bit of salt to your flour mix.

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Ader: I will give that a go.

Meanwhile today I dropped by in London and of course couldn't miss a visit to Noodle Oodle (106 Queensway- apparently the other branch has closed). They sure make it look so easy I nearly dropped to my knees, exclaiming, "I'm not worthy!". To my good fortune, the Master Noodle Puller was more or less approachable, so to once and for all have certainty, I asked about the flour they use (high gluten vs. low gluten?), they answered "Tipo 00" with an additive "like yeast" (which I take is our often-mentioned alkali). I also happened to be lucky enough to witness them carrying in yellow/white bags of flour; only managed a glance, but by that glance it might well have been (warning! wild speculation ahead!) Eurostar '00' yellow.

Not entirely unimportant is that they also happened to be the nicest noodles I've ever had. I sure need just that extra bit of motivation to try again.

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I pretty much had it so I started doing some side-by-side comparisons. Bit of an unexpected result so I thought I'd share.

Started out with a cup of 00 flour and enough warm water to permit it to be kneaded. Nothing fancy so far. After kneading pretty vigoriously (but with plenty of spring in the dough left), I then split the batch in two equal parts, added a sprinkle of lye water to one batch but not to the other. Then stretched until breaking point. There didn't seem to be much of a difference in the combined length of both breaking points; in fact the version treated with lye water seemed to stretch a bit less. Note: Room all at room temperature, 21 degrees C.

I proceeded to cut both batches in half and combined them so both batches would have the same consistency again, kneaded both of them vigorously, alternating between batches. Rolled both batches to two-palms wide and about the same thickness. Now confirmed that they stretched about equally before breaking.

Next, I rolled both batches to the same width and thickness again. Then I vigorously kneaded one of the two batches while leaving the other. I repeated the stretch test. The dough that had been resting was much softer and stretched a LOT further in the first single pull than the un-rested dough.


I rolled the dough back up, then did a pull to the point where I could feel the dough start to resist and put it down before it broke. Repeated this with the other roll as well.
I then returned to the first single-pulled roll and found that after it had rested for a short while, I could stretch it much further, still without breaking. Managed to repeat this to third pull.

Still using nothing but water, 00 flour and lye water at this point. Other than that, key seems to be to relax the dough between pulls. If you feel the dough pull back, stop pulling.

Looks like high gluten flour is the way to go after all.

Ader: You're on to something. Dough relaxer you say? http://whatscookingamerica.net/Q-A/DoughRelaxer.htm



Edited by kleinebre (log)

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...and you need a little salt. Say half a kg of flour....a couple pinches of salt or so. This is what this La Mian guy told me re-salt but he was using Peng Hui as well.

25kgs flour - 200grammes of salt - Hot weather. During cold weather; use even less.

Yes, that's 25kgs! And that's how much they would make every morning. Nobody (in my opinion) can do that without a dough relaxer.


Edited by Ader1 (log)

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"and you need a little salt" - Noted. I'll do a side-by-side for that as well next time.

Currently I've tried to reproduce yesterday's success and it's looking promising.

Made another regular stretchy water-and-tipo-00-flour dough like you would for bread. No exact proportions; just a regular, slightly on the wet side, elastic dough. Once I had a ball of elastic dough, I proceeded with more vigorous kneading (rolling and folding the dough as I go to align the gluten and press the gluten strands into each other); Then cut the batch in half, rolled the batch into two thinnish logs and wet my fingertips with lye water, which I rubbed onto 1 log. Joined together the logs again (spiraled into each other) and followed this up with more vigorous kneading (same rolling and folding method as before, once again to align the gluten strands). At some point I could stretch the dough to nearly the width of my workspace without breaking (which, by the way, isn't all that much, about 40 cm/16 inch). Waited a few minutes, and stretched the same length to almost twice as long, once again without breaking.

Where I'm standing now is that I need to get the feel for stretching. I've noticed that there is a point in each pull where the dough will stiffen and stress/pull back, much like a rubber band that has stretched as far as it will go. If I pull further at that point, the strand(s) will break. If I put down the strands and wait a bit, I can then stretch the dough further, to nearly twice the length, without breaking (probably depending partially on how long the dough rests. This stiffening of the dough when stretched reminds me a bit of a slow version of a "non-Newtonian" water-with-cornstarch mix, which would also explain why the strands stay nice and regular in thickness: Only dough that hasn't firmed up yet will readily stretch further.

When I say the dough needs to relax for a bit before the next pull, at the moment "a bit" is about a minute. Never mind it's not as fast as the masters. I'm glad I'm managing this to any degree at all. I'm currently at 16 strands, two more pulls and I'm officially there (and from then on it's 10 more years of practice before I can do it properly :) But at long last (today was try 20 if I'm not mistaken) I'm getting confident enough in reaching the goal, that I can finally consider dusting my workspace with dry flour to keep the strands separated.

Up next - salt.


Edited by kleinebre (log)

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Thank you for trying out the options. I have not been able to get too far with this.

Just thinking out loud:

I think the process before pulling is very important. The "Weakest Link" theory also determines how many times you can pull without breaking. By doubling up many times again and again when you prepare the dough, you basically even out the weakest part of the dough so there will be no weak points in the noodle when you pull.

dcarch

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Overall, 00 flour isn't especially high-gluten, is it?

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dcarch: Absolutely. If you watch the masters at work (youtube is your friend), you'll also notice that they twist the strands during pulls, no doubt so the stronger strands help support the weaker ones.

Will: The packaging of the 00 flour I've been using in my last efforts (Sainsbury's "taste the difference") states an overall protein content of 11.5%. That's a bit lower than the Allison 12.1% strong bread flour I've used before or the Very Strong 14% canadian flour I tried at some point. As it happens, yesterday I also tried Sainsbury's mid-range "plain flour" (9.4%) but the results were poor. I may well try 12+% flours again as well.

By now (try 22) I've tried adding a bit of salt to the dough mix, by the way (mixed into the water). I'm not noticing much of a difference with or without, though online documentation supports the idea that it should have an impact on the visco-elastic properties of the dough. I still need to do an actual side-by-side comparison for an objective verdict on that.

I would say that my biggest hurdle at this moment is getting the dough to relax more. After it has rested, it is less elastic and that helps pulling it, but I can't yet seem to get the dough to relax enough to permit several pulls in a row. I'm looking to maintain dough strength while decreasing its elasticity; The Progressive Baker (http://www.progressivebaker.com/tips_tools/balancing_elasticity.html) suggests starting with an autolyse (in other words, after mixing water and flour, I should be more patient and not start kneading straight away).


Edited by kleinebre (log)

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"---no doubt so the stronger strands help support the weaker ones. ---"

I think it is more than that because the weaker ones go weaker progressively faster than the slightly stronger ones, so the mixture needs to be 100% uniform in strength. The fact that only a few strands break first indicates uniformity has not been achieved, otherwise every stand will break at the same time.

I also think there are similarities in the physics in other similar operations, such as cotton candy making, and "Dragon's Hair" candy making.

dcarch

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dcarch: I can see where you're coming from and have thought about it before as well. I've come to think that 100% uniform strength is a myth. Even if the dough is perfectly uniform, it would also have to be rolled out 100% uniform as well. You can try to come as close as possible, but unless you're a machine, this simply cannot be achieved. There are always going to be weaker and stronger spots in the strands.

Yet, hand-pulled noodles exist.

I agree that having an as uniform as possible dough will be helpful to get consistent stretch, but I've also concluded that once the dough is uniform "enough", the way it stretches and thins out, must be (to a degree) self-regulating. That is, if some part of the dough stretches more than another part, it would strengthen and refuse further stretching, causing the weaker part of the dough to stretch first. This seems consistent with rested dough being more stretchy/less elastic than freshly kneaded dough.

For try 23, I've tried an autolyse stage before starting kneading. I also added salt and kneaded several times with good resting periods in between. This time around the dough was even more elastic than try 22, so I wouldn't consider try 23 wasn't very successful as it had the inverse effect from intended. Gluten development has certainly been excellent though.
One thing I noticed when trying the 9.4% protein flour was that it was a lot (and I mean a LOT) stretchier, it simply was not strong enough.

Now that I'm managing a pretty strong dough, I'll try with a 50/50 mix of plain flour and 00 next (targeting about 10.5% protein). It should quite a lot more stretchy than 11.5% protein, but hopefully still strong enough to stand some pulling. The pizza forum suggests that my dough is too dry, so I'll try sticking to the exact recommended 5 parts flour:3 parts water ratio (by weight) from now on.


Edited by kleinebre (log)

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Did another side-by-side. Top: 11.5% protein "00" flour; Bottom: 50/50 mix 11.5 "00" flour and plain flour (~10.5% protein average).

noodles_try24_4strands.jpg

Extensibility of the slightly lower-protein flour version was a bit better, but had a bit more tendency to start tearing.

noodles_try24_8strands.jpg

Strand thickness is fairly consistent in both cases, about 5-6 mm (1/4 inch) at 8 strands. Some of the strands fused as I didn't dust the noodles with more flour.

I realize that the above two pictures look considerably less impressive than my 2013-01-26 attempt, but unlike my last week and a half of attempts, I haven't managed to repeat my January effort.

Further notes:

- Base recipe 167g flour, 100g water, 1 tsp salt.

- Used warm tap water ~50C for both for a target temperature around 30C.
- Flour mix (bottom) was blended thoroughly before use to ensure even distribution of "00" and "plain" flour.
- Flour was sifted before use for more even water absorption and was added to the flour bit by bit while stirring to prevent overheating/denaturing the flour protein.
- Autolyse stage 20 minutes followed by vigorous kneading/folding. Both attempts rubbed with a few drops of 40% potassium carbonate solution after initial kneading, followed by a second kneading/folding to evenly distribute the alkaline through the dough.
- Rest after kneading prior to pull 20 minutes.
This attempt gave the best extensibility of my tries so far (the high protein ones anyway), on BOTH recipes. The high protein flour appeared to be capable of absorbing a bit more water, whereas the lower protein version ended up getting much more sticky, with even a tendency to get "soupy". To make the dough workable, I had to slightly increase the flour content by dusting the wet sticky roll of flour. I used high protein flour for this, as the overall protein content was going to be lower than pure "00" anyway.

Extensibility of the lower protein dough was slightly better than that of the higher protein dough. In both doughs, elasticity appeared to increase somewhat on rubbing with the alkaline solution.

Next steps:

http://en.citizendium.org/wiki/Alkaline_pasta suggests resting the dough for much longer (a full hour as opposed to 20 minutes) prior to pulling. In my January effort, the dough had rested in the refrigerator for a full 12 hours, so I'll be studying the effects of a prolonged resting time next.

Edited by kleinebre (log)

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lamian_try28_moderatesuccess_scaled.png

Here's some inspiration for those who need it...This was try 28. Too short, too thick, bit starchy on the inside. Needed separating as they got stuck together. But they were relatively even in thickness, and for once I managed making a meal out of my efforts.

Details: 100 grams flour (Allison strong, 12.1% protein), 50 grams water, 1/4 teaspoon salt; gently combined in the morning, left in a bowl covered with plastic for an all day long autolyze stage; Kneaded with budget hand mixer+dough hooks only ever so briefly (I don't think it was two minutes) to "overkneaded" state, at which point there was a decent amount of stretch to the dough. (Notice how the only added chemical in there is salt?)

"Overkneading" renders the dough too sticky to handle, so added a few drops of oil to remedy this. After some stretching and folding, I split the batch in half, added about a teaspoon of lye water (potassium carbonate solution 42%) to one half for a comparative stretch test. The side with lye stretched a bit further and most of all seemed to give a bit more even stretch. I recombined the two halves and did a good lot of strecthing, twirling, folding and rolling to the point where I realized that this time I could actually make a meal out of it.

Boiled some water, cut both ends of the strands and boiled for a few minutes. They swell up quite a bit, so this is something to keep in mind next time. I prefer my noodles a bit thinner. Also, many strands had fused so I had to separate them out.

To make a long story short, I still can't do it. But hey. Unexpectedly, a meal. (As for the dish, it's my usual go-to for chow mein noodles).

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Right, for those who aren't going to read the long version, here's a summary of my findings so far:

- In a side-by-side comparison, lower-gluten flour (~10.5% protein) had better extensibility than higher-gluten (11.5% protein) flour.
- In a side-by-side comparison, rested dough had better extensibility than freshly kneaded dough.
- Elastic dough, like an elastic band, only extends so far, and beyond this it will break. However, after resting it a bit, it can be extended further.
- Adding lye water (potassium carbonate solution 42%) in the short term appears to increase elasticity of the dough and toughen it up. Adding l-cysteine to dough appears to have the opposite effect (making the dough all sticky and near impossible to handle).
- After it has had a chance to act (a few minutes), in a side-by-side comparison with natural dough, the lye water enriched dough stretched further.
- An autolyze stage (i.e. water absorption prior to kneading) is useful to make dough more consistent and (when it lasts long enough) to reduce its elasticity.
- When kneaded long enough (presumably with an appliance), dough can be kneaded beyond its usual elastic consistency and will then become stickier and appear wetter than before it. Kneading this far will cause it to be less elastic, but the stickiness makes it harder to handle. The amount of kneading required to reach this point is considerably less after a long (9h) autolyze/initial resting stage compared to kneading dough from fresh.

- Despite using mostly high gluten flour in my recent attempts, the high gluten vs low gluten issue still baffles me. I'd like to believe high gluten is key, but so far the evidence of my side-by-side comparisons points in the other direction.

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This thread has almost 60,000 views. No one has figure out the way to make good pulled noodles. :-)

dcarch

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kleinebre, thank you for your efforts and experimentation. Your hand-pulled noodle journey is fascinating to read and I am happy to see you're at a stage that produces something edible. :wink:

I recall watching one of Martin Yan's PBS series where he was in Asia and watched how hand-pulled noodles were made. I seem to remember the chef throwing flour at the noodles every once in awhile.

In this Alton Brown narrated video, the flour is used mainly on the last half of the pulling: http://youtu.be/VzHtPyqUll0

Perhaps the added flour prevents the dough from being too sticky.


“Peter: Oh my god, Brian, there's a message in my Alphabits. It says, 'Oooooo.'

Brian: Peter, those are Cheerios.”

– From Fox TV’s “Family Guy”

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This thread has almost 60,000 views. No one has figure out the way to make good pulled noodles. :-)

I think the way has been alluded to several times -- a lot of practice / know-how.

The specific composition of the dough isn't as important as that. The reason more people can't do it (myself included) is because they haven't spent the time to master the skill, which is not easy.

And to be honest, most people don't need to know how to make these at home. Personally, I usually just go out if I'm craving handmade noodles, but more rustic hand-cut ones are fine in a pinch too.


Edited by Will (log)

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This thread has almost 60,000 views. No one has figure out the way to make good pulled noodles. :-)

I think the way has been alluded to several times -- a lot of practice / know-how.

The specific composition of the dough isn't as important as that. The reason more people can't do it (myself included) is because they haven't spent the time to master the skill, which is not easy.

And to be honest, most people don't need to know how to make these at home. Personally, I usually just go out if I'm craving handmade noodles, but more rustic hand-cut ones are fine in a pinch too.

I agree that skill is very important. I still think that all the skill will do you no good unless the dough is of the exact consistency. If you look at the video of Gordon Ramsay making pulled noodle the first time, you will see he has done not too bad with the right dough.

dcarch

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kleinebre, thank you for your efforts and experimentation. Your hand-pulled noodle journey is fascinating to read and I am happy to see you're at a stage that produces something edible. :wink:

I recall watching one of Martin Yan's PBS series where he was in Asia and watched how hand-pulled noodles were made. I seem to remember the chef throwing flour at the noodles every once in awhile.

In this Alton Brown narrated video, the flour is used mainly on the last half of the pulling: http://youtu.be/VzHtPyqUll0

Perhaps the added flour prevents the dough from being too sticky.

Yes, the flour is to prevent sticking. Without it, the strands will fuse. Mr. Alton Brown seems rather frustated in the video... "It's just flour, not pixie dust..." It does sound like he gave it many, many tries.

My 29th try ended in disaster- not enough moisture in the dough, which ultimately resulted in a hand mixer blowout. Good thing it was just an economy one, I have already replaced it. Celebrating try 30 today where I'll be comparing two long autolyze stages: One refrigerated, one at room temperature. The dough I'm using today is 1 cup bread flour 12.1% protein, 1 cup plain flour 10.5%, 1 cup water, 1 tsp salt, 1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda.

By the way, I happened to check: A proportion of 2 parts wheat flour:1 cup water by volume corresponds to just about a 5:3 proportion by weight (as opposed to 6:3). That's quite a difference; it goes to show why it's important to make the distinction between weight and volume measurements.

By the way... I second that pulling technique is important, but without a premium dough you won't get past that first pull and you won't be able to even start working on your pulling technique. Indeed, Chef Ramsey's first attempt was with proper dough, which allowed him to immediately work on his pulling technique. Same for the 3 celebrities having a go at pulling noodles for the first time in "Saturday kitchen".

Just ran into a youtube vid of a chap that used Luke Rymarz' dough recipe. He's managing decent noodles and says that fast pulls make for more even strands.


Edited by kleinebre (log)

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"---Just ran into a youtube vid of a chap that used Luke Rymarz' dough recipe. He's managing decent noodles and says that fast pulls make for more even strands."

As I have said there is a lot of mathematics and physics involved, in addition to the chemistry of the dough.

The initial pulling and pulling and pulling, and twisting and twisting, mathematically evens out any difference in dough texture to 99.9999%. This is very important because of the "weakest link" theory that the weakest part will get weaker faster with each pull and break faster than the slightest stronger part in the final pull.

The fast pull is probably important because of gravity pulls on each noodle strand unevenly, The weight at each point is different due to gravity. It go from 0 to the full weight of the dough. Fast pulling give less time for gravity to act. Also, when they lay the noodles on the work counter to pick up flour, there will be no gravity acting on the noodles.

dcarch

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I need to correct myself. It's "Market kitchen", not "saturday kitchen". The links to the Brit celebs pulling noodles for the first time with good dough is on http://noodleoodle.com/publicity.htm. I also forgot to mention that this morning I used COLD water (measured about 14°C from the tap).

A few more insights while pondering the matter:

- I've concluded that it's not about high gluten or low gluten. Too much gluten and the dough will be too elastic and won't stretch; too low gluten and it won't be strong enough. It's about "optimum gluten". The problem is that that's very hard to measure objectively, so some trial and error is involved. Gluten *content* isn't the only thing either. It's about how developed the gluten is.

- Traditional Chinese recipes state to use "hot water in winter, cold water in summer". I had a bit of an epiphany there from my side... hand-pulled noodles have been around for a Very Long Time and it stands to reason that the wheat of the season was used back in the day. Winter wheat is lower gluten than summer wheat. To develop the gluten more in winter, higher temperatures are needed. In the summer, the wheat would get too strong (=too elastic) with warm water, so cold water is used to prevent too much gluten from forming.

In modern society however, you buy flour by its gluten content, not the season in which you make the noodles, which is decisive how warm or cold your water needs to be. (Luke R's recipe uses low gluten flour... and very warm water; I used higher gluten flour today, and therefore it stands to reason the water needed to be colder).

Right. On to the outcome of today's experiment (You can't tell, but I'm jumping up and down with excitement here!):

At room temperature, gluten would develop more quickly than at fridge temperature. For every 10 degrees celcius/20 fahrenheit warmer, chemical reactions take place at twice the speed and all that. In terms of gluten development/breakdown it would be equivalent to about 1/3 of the time that the other ball had.

Interestingly, the refrigerated ball of dough was very elastic (even after warming up to room temperature) whereas the room-temperature ball of dough had become moist, soft and relaxed.

Three minutes of hand mixer and the room temperature ball of dough was "overmixed" and very sticky; far too sticky to handle on a surface or to roll a log from. However, I rubbed the dough with a small amount of vegetable oil (sunflower) and then could pull, fold, twirl and re-pull it pretty much indefinitely without breaking. After playing around with it for a bit, I dusted it liberally with flour and managed to pull and fold many times, resulting in ever thinner strands. Sure, some broke; but many reached a thickness of under a millimeter - probably thinner than I'd ever be interested in making for a meal.

Which is to say... I consider the dough solved. And it only took me 30 attempts. HURRAY!

Key points:
- 5:3 proportion flour/water
- Flour was a 1:1 mix of 12.1 and 10.5% protein which gives an average protein content of about the same as the "00" flour I've been using.
- 1 tsp salt, 1/2 bicarbonate of soda to gently increase the pH.
- Water was cold - 14°C (but it will have warmed up during the day).
- Water was added slowly while stirring the flour and GENTLY kneaded into it so a ball formed.
- NO LYE WATER USED. Instead, used a small amount of bicarbonate of soda.
- Ball was put in a bowl, covered with clingfilm and left to rest at room temperature (~20°C) for about 8-9 hours.
- After this, the dough was very sticky and seemed more moist than when starting.
- Mixed the dough with a hand mixer w/dough hooks (about 3 minutes, until "overkneaded"). With the dough sufficiently rested, even my light economy mixer handled it easily.
- Could not roll the dough on a surface... Too sticky. Rubbed with oil to make it easier to handle and pulled, folded, twirled in the air instead.
- Tried to concentrate on pulling FAST for more even strands.

That's probably the closest to a recipe I'm going to write, as I've basically reached the goal I was aiming for.

If there's anything I missed, feel free to ask. I kinda enjoy the fact that hardly any vigorous kneading was necessary on this one. Time did it most of it, the hand mixer did the rest.

Would be nice if someone could replicate my efforts of today to confirm I'm not just spouting nonsense!

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The next pic shows how thin this dough could be pulled. Yes, you're right... It's embarrassingly uneven.
At this point, I didn't mind a few strands breaking. I just wanted to see how far this dough would go... Pretty insanely far, as it turned out.
lamian_try30_success.jpg

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Congratulations! You pulled it off! I am going to have to give it a try some time.

Too bad you are not in medicine. You would have found a cancer cure already.

dcarch

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      But what is it anyway? Which five spices?
       
      Today, I bought four samples in four local supermarkets. I would have would have preferred five, but couldn’t find any more. It's not that popular.
       
      First thing to say: none of them had five spices. All had more. That is normal. Numbers in Chinese can often be vague. Every time you hear a number, silently added the word ‘about’ or ‘approximately’. 100 km means “far”, 10,000 means “many”.
       
      Second, while there are some common factors, ingredients can vary quite a bit. Here are my four.

      1.


       
      Ingredients – 7
       
      Star Anise, Fennel Seed, Orange Peel, Cassia Bark, Sand Ginger, Dried Ginger, Sichuan Peppercorns.
       
      2.
       

       
      Ingredients – 6
       
      Cassia Bark, Star Anise, Fennel Seed, Coriander, Sichuan Peppercorn, Licorice Root.

      3.
       

       
      Ingredients – 15
       
      Fennel Seeds, Sichuan Peppercorns, Coriander, Tangerine Peel, Star Anise, Chinese Haw, Cassia Bark, Lesser Galangal, Dahurian Angelica, Nutmeg, Dried Ginger, Black Pepper, Amomum Villosum, Cumin Seeds, Cloves.

      4.
       

       
      Ingredients – 6
       
      Pepper (unspecified – probably black pepper), Sichuan Peppercorns, Star Anise, Fennel Seeds, Nutmeg, Cassia.
       
      So, take your pick. They all taste and smell almost overwhelmingly of the star anise and cassia, although there are subtle differences in taste in the various mixes.
       
      But I don’t expect to find it in many dishes in local restaurants or homes. A quick, unscientific poll of about ten friends today revealed that not one has any at home, nor have they ever used the stuff!
       
       
      I'm not suggesting that FSP shouldn't be used outside of Chinese food. Please just don't call the results Chinese when you sprinkle it on your fish and chips or whatever. They haven't miraculously become Chinese!

      Like my neighbours and friends, I very rarely use it at all.

      In fact, I'd be delighted to hear how it is used in other cultures / cuisines.
    • By liuzhou
      For the last several years Cindy's* job has been to look after me. She takes care of my residence papers, my health insurance, my travel, my housing and associated repairs. She makes sure that I am supplied with sufficient cold beer at official banquets. And she does it all with terrific efficiency and great humour.
       
      This weekend she held her wedding banquet.
       
      Unlike in the west, this isn't held immediately after the marriage is formalised. In fact, she was legally married months ago. But the banquet is the symbolic, public declaration and not the soul-less civil servant stamping of papers that the legal part entails.
      So tonight, along with a few hundred other people, I rolled up to a local hotel at the appointed time. In my pocket was my 'hong bao' or red envelope in which I had deposited a suitable cash gift. That is the Chinese wedding gift protocol. You don't get 12 pop-up toasters here.
       
      I handed it over, then settled down, at a table with colleagues, to a 17 or 18 course dinner.
       
      Before we started, I spotted this red bedecked jar. Shaking, poking and sniffing revealed nothing.
       
       
      A few minutes later, a waitress turned up and opened and emptied the jar into a serving dish. Spicy pickled vegetables. Very vinegary, very hot, and very addictive. Allegedly pickled on the premises, this was just to amuse us as we waited for the real stuff to arrive.
       
       
      Then the serious stuff arrived. When I said 17 courses, I really meant 17 dishes. Chinese cuisine doesn't really do courses. Every thing is served at roughly the same time. But we had:
       
      Quail soup which I neglected to photograph.
       
      Roast duck
       
      Braised turtle
       
      Sticky rice with beef (the beef is lurking underneath)
       
      Steamed chicken
       
      Spicy, crispy shell-on prawns.
       
      Steamed pork belly slices with sliced taro
       
      Spicy squid
       
      Noodles
       
      Chinese Charcuterie (including ducks jaws (left) and duck hearts (right))
       
      Mixed vegetables
       
      Fish
       
      Cakes
       
      Fertility soup! This allegedly increases your fertility and ensures the first born (in China, only born) is a son. Why they are serving to me is anyone's guess. It would make more sense for the happy couple to drink the lot.
       
      Greenery
       
      Jiaozi
       
      There was a final serving of quartered oranges, but I guess you have seen pictures of oranges before.
       
      The happy couple. I wish them well.
       
      *Cindy is the English name she has adopted. Her Chinese name is more than usually difficult to pronounce. Many Chinese friends consider it a real tongue-twister.
    • By liuzhou
      A few days ago, I was given a lovely gift. A big jar of preserved lemons.
       
      I know Moroccan preserved lemons, but had never met Chinese ones. In fact, apart from in the south, in many parts of China it isn't that easy to find lemons, at all.
       
      These are apparently a speciality of the southern Zhuang minority of Wuming County near Nanning. The Zhuang people are the largest ethnic minority in China and most live in Guangxi. These preserved lemons feature in their diet and are usually eaten with congee (rice porridge). Lemon Duck is a local speciality and they are also served with fish. They can be served as a relish, too. They are related to the Vietnamese Chanh muối.
       
      I'm told that these particular lemons have been soaking in salt and lemon juice for eleven years!
       

       

       
      So, of course, you want to know what they taste like. Incredibly lemony. Concentrated lemonness. Sour, but not unpleasantly so. Also a sort of smoky flavour.
       
      The following was provided by my dear friend 马芬洲 (Ma Fen Zhou) who is herself Zhuang. It is posted with her permission.
       
      How to Make Zhuang Preserved Lemons
      By 马芬洲
       
      Zhuang preserved lemons is a kind of common food for the southern Zhuang ethnic minority who live around Nanning Prefecture of Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region in China. The Zhuang people like to make it as a relish for eating with congee or congee with corn powder. This relish is a mixture of chopped preserved lemons, red chilli and garlic or ginger slice in soy sauce and peanut oil or sesame oil.
       

       
      Sometimes the Zhuang people use preserved lemons as an ingredient in cooking. The most famous Zhuang food in Guangxi is Lemon Duck, which is a common home cooked dish in Wuming County, which belongs to Nanning Prefecture.
       
      The following steps show you how to make Zhuang preserved lemons.
       
      Step 1 Shopping
      Buy some green lemons.
       
      Step 2 Cleaning
      Wash green lemons.
       
      Step 3 Sunning
      Leave green lemons under the sunshine till it gets dry.
       
      Step 4 Salting
      If you salt 5kg green lemons, mix 0.25kg salt with green lemons. Keep the salted green lemons in a transparent jar. The jar must be well sealed. Leave the jar under the sunshine till the salted green lemons turn yellow. For example, leave it on the balcony. Maybe it will take months to wait for those salted green lemons to turn yellow. Later, get the jar of salted yellow lemons back. Unseal the jar. Then cover 1kg salt over the salted yellow lemons. Seal well the jar again.
       
      Step 5 Preserving
      Keep the sealed jar of salted yellow lemons at least 3 years. And the colour of salted yellow lemons will turn brown day by day. It can be dark brown later. The longer you keep preserved lemons, the better taste it is. If you eat it earlier than 2 years, it will taste bitter. After 3 years, it can be unsealed. Please use clean chopsticks to pick it. Don’t use oily chopsticks, or the oil will make preserved lemons go bad. Remember to seal the jar well after picking preserved lemons every time.
    • By liuzhou
      Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region in southern China, where I live, is sugar central for the country. Over two-thirds of China's output of sugar is grown right here, making it one of the largest sugar production areas on the planet. I have a second home in the countryside and it is surrounded by sugar cane fields.

      Much of this is produced by small time farmers, although huge Chinese and international companies have also moved in.
       
      Also, sugar is used extensively in Chinese cooking, not only as a sweetener, but more as a spice. A little added to a savoury dish can bring out otherwise hidden flavours. It also has medicinal attributes according to traditional Chinese medicine.
       
      Supermarkets have what was to me, on first sight, a huge range of sugars, some almost unrecognisable. Here is a brief introduction to some of them. Most sugar is sold loose, although corner shops and mom 'n pop stores may have pre-packed bags. These are often labelled in English as "candy", the Chinese language not differentiating between "sugar" and "candy" - always a source of confusion. Both are 糖 (táng),

      IMPORTANT NOTE: The Chinese names given here and in the images are the names most used locally. They are all Mandarin Chinese, but it is still possible that other names may be used elsewhere in China. Certainly, non-Mandarin speaking areas will be different.

      By the far the simplest way to get your sugar ration is to buy the unprocessed sugar cane. This is not usually available in supermarkets but is a street vendor speciality. In the countryside, you can buy it at the roadside. There are also people in markets etc with portable juice extractors who will sell you a cup of pure sugar cane juice.


       
      I remember being baffled then amused when, soon after I first arrived in China, someone asked me if I wanted some 甘蔗 (gān zhè). It sounded exactly like 'ganja' or cannabis. No such luck! 甘蔗 (gān zhè) is 'sugar cane'.
       
      The most common sugar in the supermarkets seems to be 冰糖 (bīng táng) which literally means 'ice 'sugar' and is what we tend to call 'rock sugar' or 'crystal sugar'. This highly refined sugar comes in various lump sizes although the price remains the same no matter if the pieces are large or small. Around ¥7/500g. That pictured below features the smaller end of the range.


       
      Related to this is what is known as 冰片糖 (bīng piàn táng) which literally means "ice slice sugar". This is usually slightly less processed (although I have seen a white version, but not recently) and is usually a pale brown to yellow colour. This may be from unprocessed cane sugar extract, but is often white sugar coloured and flavoured with added molasses. It is also sometimes called 黄片糖  (huáng piàn táng) or "yellow slice sugar". ¥6.20/500g.
       


      A less refined, much darker version is known as 红片糖 (hóng piàn táng), literally 'red slice sugar'. (Chinese seems to classify colours differently - what we know as 'black tea' is 'red tea' here. ¥7.20/500g.


       
      Of course, what we probably think of as regular sugar, granulated sugar is also available. Known as 白砂糖 (bái shā táng), literally "white sand sugar', it is the cheapest at  ¥3.88/500g.



      A brown powdered sugar is also common, but again, in Chinese, it isn't brown. It's red and simply known as 红糖 (hóng táng). ¥7.70/500g


       
      Enough sweetness and light for now. More to come tomorrow.
    • By Dejah
      [Host's note: This topic forms part of an extended discussion which grew too large for our servers to handle efficiently.  The conversation continues from here.]
       
       
      Supper: Yeem Gok Gai:

      Mock Fried Rice - grated cauliflower

      Baby Shanghai Bok Choy and ginger

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