I’VE SEEN A LOT of culinary acrobatics in my day, but there’s one act I’ll never forget.
Time: late 1970s. Place: The Dragon House in Wildwood, N.J., where owner Kin Jing Mark would stride into the middle of my favorite Cantonese haunt and in a few short minutes — as flabbergasted tourists’ jaws dropped — turn a clump of dough into hundreds of silken noodles. All this using a single tool:
I had no idea then that Mark (who’d later famously demonstrate his prowess on “Late Night with David Letterman”) was among the first Chinese chefs to introduce the ancient art of making lamian — hand-pulled noodles — to an American audience. Nor would I have expected that decades later, on the opposite coast, I’d find a new favorite Szechuan chef who would take to the task.
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Ask me where I might go this week to slurp long noodles in celebration of the Lunar New Year and I’ll introduce you to Cheng Biao Yang.
For the past year, Yang, the original owner behind Seattle’s Seven Stars Pepper, Bellevue’s Szechuan Chef and Redmond’s Spicy Talk Bistro, has been keeping a low profile at his latest restaurant, Uway Malatang (loose translation: design-your-own individual hot pot).
Buffet-style hot pot is the big draw at this modest Jackson Street cafe, yet it’s those hand-pulled noodles that pull my strings.
While you won’t see Yang on Letterman anytime soon, nor does he sway and weave in the Beijing style that wowed me back in Wildwood, you may find him framed in his kitchen window, standing before a marble counter for a performance well worth the price of admission: less than $10 for a broad bowlful of noodles in soup, or wok-fried “dry-style.”
High-gluten flour, salt, baking soda and water are all it takes to assemble the dough, but perfecting his craft remains a work in progress.
Practice makes perfect, says Yang, who left Spicy Talk’s kitchen in the capable hands of his brother, returned to China and traveled extensively. A perpetual student of Chinese foodways, he studied lamian in Lanzhou, the culinary capital of the type of noodle-pulling practiced at Uway Malatang.
For months after opening his hot-pot house, Yang continued to hone his skills, attempting to maintain the deft motion and delicate tension that turns a hunk of dough into even strands of properly chewy noodles.
With time he pulled it off — and put lamian on his menu.
“When you’re pulling, stretching, you have to know how to control your power,” Yang explains, his son Steven interpreting. One false move and the strands collapse in a sticky mess. (No kidding, I tried it.) That control, Yang says, cannot be taught. It relies on gravity, sensitivity and exquisite timing.
But first you must prepare the dough.
He demonstrates, massaging it as if it were a loved one’s aching back. Then a quick fold. Repeat. Slap, slap on the marble surface. Twirl — slap, slap — twirl. Pull arm’s length, then twirl. Pull again, then twirl.
Once more, the slow massage, each pass making the dough more pliable.
The next steps are crucial. Flour is used judiciously. A single portion is sliced off and swiftly rolled into a log, then — two-handed pull! — away we go:
Imagine a cross between a solo game of double Dutch followed by an intricate version of Cat’s Cradle. Fingers as looms. Gentle tugs. A seemingly effortless exercise in restraint. Then, snip, boil, add some Szechuanese love and — Happy New Year! — my spicy “homestyle” pork noodle soup is served.
Nancy Leson is The Seattle Times’ food writer. Reach her at email@example.com. Ellen M. Banner is a Times staff photographer.