Liang Pi Lust

In food on 01/10/2010 at 4:22 pm

I thought I knew Chinese food. Then I met Xi’an Famous Foods, the mini-chain at its East Broadway Manhattan Chinatown location. My food world was flipped upside down and turned inside out.

What is Western Chinese? Well, Xi’an is a Northwestern city famous for its entombed terra cotta soldiers, and rubs elbows with Mongolia. Therefore the western means Muslim which leads straight to cumin. It sounds like something watered down, cuisine-wise, but nothing in this place is timid, even the Lamb Treasure Soup, which our Persian friend foolishly decided to order, a dish consisting of a clear broth with floating cylinders of gray penises (penes?). She severely regretted her choice, but it allowed the other half and I to laugh our heads off while we slurped up the collagen tubes. Penis may be my taboo food, but they were so tiny and cute, I thought, why not?

Although I did have my camera with me, the place was so tiny that I was literally pressed against the kitchen with my back to the counter, so it was too close for comfort to whip it out. There is only space for five customers to stand shoulder to shoulder, order and/or eat. The rest of the space is the open ‘kitchen,’ a basic set-up with burners, a constantly bubbling cauldron of lamb spine stock, and a large round flat griddle for the ‘burgers.’ Thus, I’m posting pics from the Serious Eats article which spurred me to remember the joint when the other half said where are we going to eat for lunch?

The other half ordered the Liang Pi noodles (so famous the proprieter dubbed himself with that moniker), stir-fried. It was freezing outside so we didn’t want to order the cold version. This is the dish of legend, complete with an amazingly complex and labor intensive method of making a ‘noodle.’ They look translucent, like flat wide rice noodles, but are thicker, have more QQ (e.g. chewy mook), and have a sour aftertaste. It’s like savory puto.

Beyond the QQ, they are also spicy and slippery, and better than White Bear dan dan mien, which is the standard by which I judge all other stir-fried noodles. These have an added bonus, spongy squares of tangy wheat gluten, nicely porous – better to sop up the savory meaty sauce with.

Wiki: Liangpi literally means Cold Skin, although it has no animal products in it at all. There are several ways of making Liang Pi, some of them quite interesting: First, wheat or rice flour is turned into a soft dough by adding water and a little bit of salt. Then, the dough is put in a bowl, water is added and the dough has to be ‘rinsed’ until the water is saturated with starch from the dough, turning into a muddy white color. The remainder of the dough is now removed and the bowl is left to rest overnight at a cool place to allow the dissolved starch to precipitate. The following day, there will be a kind of starch-paste on the bottom of the bowl with a more or less clear liquid on top which has to be discarded. Once the liquid has been removed, a small amount the paste can then be poured into a flat plate or tray, and spread evenly in a thin layer. The whole plate is placed into a large pot full of boiling water, where it is steamed for a couple of minutes and the resulting ‘pancake’ cut into long pieces vaguely resembling noodles.

In comparison, the spicy hand-pulled lamb cumin noodles I ordered were a distant second place, even though they were also very very good. These are not your typical hand-pulled type. The girl pulled a wide strip, consistency of soft bubblegum, and then tore into the main strip, resulting in a web of five or six interconnected strips. She dropped the entire thing into cloudy boiling water for less than a minute to cook up.

The body odor aroma/cumin was so overwhelming it even penetrated my chili spice-induced snot-filled nose. My belly was so happy by this point I started chatting up the girl behind the counter who puts the dishes together. I ordered a lamb burger to go, just to see what the fuss was about. I also wanted to see if I could dig up some secrets from her about these plates of wondrous goodness.

She said the dough used for the ‘burger’ bun, noodles and liang pi were all the same, each was just treated differently. She didn’t disclose what type of flour she used, though the color was brilliant white, unlike the beige dough just made with wheat. I suspect there is some portion of rice or potato starch.

The burger was just cooked on the flat griddle until puffy and toasty brown on both sides. (We ate one cold this morning. It is more QQ than usual steamed bread, but nothing special compared to liang pi. Overrated.) They’re stored in a plastic-lined cardboard box under the counter until sliced and stuffed with lamb or pork.

The noodle dough is rested for a secret amount of time, otherwise when you pull them, they tear instead of making nice QQ strips. The liang pi were most interesting to me. These were steamed as Wiki says. And they are made in-house with a dash of vinegar incorporated in the dough, though I only saw them take pre-made liang pi from a box and stack them in styrofoam take-out containers in preparation of a rush of orders. You can’t buy them in the supermarket.

This location of Xi’an Famous Foods has the very prestigious address of 88, doubly lucky. The world of Chinese cuisine is indeed lucky that someone decided to futz with flour and see what would happen if you used the debris from dough water as the main ingredient. Ingenuity colliding with economy. Would this be the baby or the bath water? Whatever it is, it’s nothing short of a miracle.

A recipe exists for this mind-bogglingly incredible ‘noodle’, though my Chinese needs work in order to translate it into something intelligible. Any help would be appreciated.

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