Master of Noodles

Meet master noodle maker Ma Dai Cai. He's the boss at my favourite noodle joint on Fangbang Lu in the Old City. We've been going to his hand-pulled noodle restaurant for nearly three years now and he always greets us like old friends, shuffling everyone around so the four of us can sit and eat together.

My life is full of noodles right now - I'm writing a magazine article about Chinese noodles, and I thought it would be an ideal opportunity to formally interview Ma Dai Cai for the piece and have a bowl of his great niu rou la mian (beef hand pulled noodle soup) at the same time. His story is probably familiar to noodle makers seeking their fortune in every big city in China.

His restaurant - all of two metres wide - sits right opposite the temple shop on Fangbang Lu, wedged in a row between two other small food joints. What sets Ma Dai Cai's restaurant apart is the steaming cauldron of bubbling soup sitting just outside the entrance, steaming away day and night. Walk through the plastic strip curtains and you'll find yourself in a very small room lit by a pair of fluorescent lights, a total of six tables and sixteen small orange stools crowding the floor, and at the rear a tiny kitchen where all the wok cooking takes place. Ma proudly showed me his most recent acquisition - a pink electric chopstick sterilizer and dispenser, about the size and shape of a rice cooker. 

On one wall of the restaurant is a huge pictorial menu, and on the opposite wall a map of China and a giant blue written menu. (I believe these menus are absolutely identical in every la mian restaurant in China. I have a theory that there is a national la mian menu centre where all the food photography is carefully standardized and they print cloned blue, white and green menu posters.)

The table closest to the noodle-making work bench is a hazardous place to sit because of the swinging arms of the noodle makers, and you can't sit at the table closest to the kitchen because that's where a step ladder leads through a hole cut in the ceiling to the cramped living and sleeping quarters above. Ma and his family - his wife, wearing traditional Muslim dress, his teenage daughter and his three year-old son all live together with the apprentice noodle-maker in the tiny space.

Ma came to Shanghai eight years ago from Xining in Gansu Province. He had been working in noodle restaurants since in his early twenties, initially apprenticing then working his way up to full noodle-making. He soon realized he needed to own and run his own restaurant to get ahead, so he came to Shanghai and pulled noodles in other people's restaurants until he could afford to open his own place three years ago. The work is tiring, particularly because the restaurant never ever closes. Keen to capture every last shred of business, you can knock on the door at 3am and Ma will get up and fix you a steaming bowl of freshly-pulled noodles. He never takes a day off and weekends are meaningless to him.

It took Ma two or three months to learn how to master all the different noodle varieties - hand-pulled noodles thick and thin, hand-cut noodles, and torn noodle pieces. I asked if it perished his shoulders after so many years but he said they he never had any problems. Even so, Ma always has an apprentice now with much younger arms to do most of the noodle-pulling, and Ma is in charge of cooking and serving the noodles and handling the cash. His wife takes care of all the stir-fry dishes, and his fourteen year-old daughter serves and cleans up. The three year old? Mostly he causes trouble and keeps the customers entertained with some lively antics.

For those of you not familiar with the theatre of hand-pulled noodles, here's how it works (thanks to Ma's apprentice noodle-maker) :

A length of wheat flour and water dough is taken and twisted, stretched, twisted again, then doubled back on itself. This pulling and twisting action is repeated over and over again until dozens of fine long strands have been stretched into shape. The noodles receive a quick cooking in the cauldron of lightly spiced beef stock, then are served in a bowl along with a ladle of stock and a handful of coriander and beef slices. You can add chili paste or vinegar to taste. Here's how they look:

Ma's noodles are really tasty and his restaurant is almost always full, all sixteen seats. It's tiring, back-breaking work but he has high hopes for his family and their future here - I can only hope Shanghai delivers on its promise.

Hand-pulled Noodles
638 Fangbang Lu near Luxiangyuan Lu
Open 24 hours, 7 days


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