It’s fun playing the place
association game. Ask a number of people at random – at least six to give the exercise a veneer of statistical
robustness – to say the first word that pops into their head when a city name is mentioned, and one is able to learn
a lot about how different people in different regions view the world and the way it works. Mention “Milan”
to a group of twenty-something ladies in Shanghai and you most probably would get “fashion” as the response.
The mention of “Milan” to older Beijingers is more likely to provoke the response, “football”.
While fans of the football team Chelsea may well chorus in reverential tones “The Special One” (the self-styled
name of Jose Mourhino, the last Chelsea manager to steward them to Premier League success). In case you were wondering,
The Special One now manages Internazionale, aka Inter Milan.
What, then, do people think about when the
city Lanzhou is mentioned? I asked several people from various parts of China to give me
their top-of-mind word to describe the provincial capital of Gansu and each one them said the same word, and they said it
with an exclamation mark at the end and with a glint in their eye.
Not being much of a fan of
noodles (other than when I can’t get anything else to eat), I had just about forgotten the findings of my “research”
when an acquaintance told me that I simply must go to the most famous chain of noodles restaurants in Lanzhou – because
not eating noodles in Lanzhou is, it seems, the equivalent of not eating duck in Beijing, fish and chips in London, or not
drinking Guinness in Dublin. In short, it’s
not just a cultural faux pas, it’s also an error of judgement that would haunt one forever (presumably, after one had
somehow seen the light).
The Guinness analogy caught my attention,
not because I had abstained on my visits there but because it’s frightening to think that there are, I guess, some people
who have been there and not drunk the black stuff.
The problem was that Jin Ding
Niurou Mian, the most famous Lanzhou beef noodles restaurant in the world didn’t open at night. In Lanzhou, it seems, noodles are only eaten at breakfast and at lunch. I’m more likely to skip lunch than not, so the
prospect of a midday bowl of noodles was a little foreboding to say the least.
But, despite my excuses, I was somehow dragged along to the restaurant.
One bowl of noodles would have been more than enough I thought, but this restaurant had other ideas. Their standard set Lanzhou beef noodles lunch comes with not one bowl, not
two bowls, not even thee bowls, but FOUR bowls of noodles. Each of which contains noodles of a different length, texture, and thickness.
The pecking order, I was told, is to eat the thinnest noodles first and progress to
There was also a supporting cast of several side dishes crammed on to the large tray.
And all for the price of 30 yuan (about US$4).
Now this may sound wonderful value, but it is far higher than the going rate for beef
noodles in the thousands of noodles shops in Lanzhou, where the local delicacy can be had for a couple of yuan. But this was, after all, the Savoy of noodle-eating,
so I wasn’t about to complain.
The price of noodles is, it seems, always a hot topic in Lanzhou and is capable of stirring much passion and, if the incident
a few years ago is anything to go by, even
threatening social harmony.
The dark period in Lanzhou’s noodle history I am referring to was back in 2006 when thousands of locals simultaneously
choked on their noodles when they realised that – literally over night – the price of a standard bowl had risen
by almost 15 per cent. Such was the newsworthiness of this event that the People’s Daily –
the mouthpiece of central government – even covered the story. But it was the investigative journalists
from the Western Economic Daily that exposed the truth (obvious to every one in Lanzhou) that the price rise was coordinated.
Outrage of outrages… there was a noodles cartel at work no less.
The noodles barons were influential restaurant owners who were intimidating other owners. The threat was, put your price up to our price or risk being the victim
of an “accident”. The public
outcry and the weight of evidence were such that the city government simply had to take action against the perpetrators.
I finished the first bowl.
It was, quite simply, the best bowl of noodles or, come to think about it, the best bowl of anything I have ever tasted. Succulent beef, aromatic broth, perfect noodle-texture.
The next three bowls were also scoffed in double-quick time.
Still not satisfied, I looked around for more.
I was conscious that the kitchen staff (the noodle-pullers themselves) were watching when I volunteered to eat the bowl
of noodles that one of my dining companions couldn’t manage. But that wasn’t going to stop me.
It happened to be a bowl of noodle number four –
the really special ones.