After going back and forth with the editors we decided on Lanzhou La Mian - the enigmatic pulled noodles of Lanzhou. These noodles have spread across China with remarkable speed (keep in mind, naysayers, that today's restaurant industry there is really about 35 years young).
Lanzhou la mian are remarkable in the sense that these noodles (which, according to my research, were popularized in Lanzhou in the early 20th century) are now represented in every small to midsize city in the mainland. There are hundreds of outlets serving the dish in Shanghai and Beijing. It's impossible to say, but I would put the number of Lanzhou la mian stalls in China in the tens of thousands.
But here's the thing: when researching this dish, there's not a great deal of information available (and next to nothing in English). So I got on the phone, spoke to street cooks and chefs, and starting trying to formulate a recipe. The problem here is twofold: Chinese cooks don't like sharing secrets, and the ones that did share were clearly lying to me. Here's a recipe: Fill large stock pot with water. Add bone and carrot. Cook for a long time.
After many shakes of the head, wasted phone calls from Bangkok to Gansu, I decided to go at this the best way I knew how: by taking a trip to the store. I had already devoted a lot of thought to what makes a great Lanzhou la mian stock - and two stuck out in my mind (I've probably eaten a hundred or so bowls of the stuff. Most were unmemorable).
Once, while just outside Lanzhou on a bus to Xiahe, I ate one that was so thick with dried and salted yak meat it seemed like a bowl of curried beef jerky. In the best way. (There are arguments for and against cumin and tumeric. Some purists don't like it. I think the best Lanzhou la mian has both - and these flavors are evocative of Gansu's silk road roots).
Another bowl was - and still is - the best Lanzhou la mian I've ever had, and it was cooked by a family from Qinghai in a tiny shop on Wending Lu, in Shanghai. That shop was razed long ago and is now (I think) a pet store that sells Chihuahuas to girls in Gucci ankle boots with purple contact lenses. But that's another story...
So I tried to recreate that old neighborhood favorite with beef and carrots and daikon radish, some star anise and cassia bark, a few leeks and an onion. I got the best and cheapest cut of beef I could find (in this case, knuckle steak) from my local market, and put it over the flame.
After about three hours the beef was soft without breaking apart, and the soup was rich and beefy, but it was missing something... color and a hint of cumin. I added 3/4 of a teaspoon of tumeric, and an equal measure of cumin after I had strained the stock and there it was... as close to the beef noodle soup in my mind's eye as I was likely to get. The one I stopped for on my way to work in Shanghai, or on my way home on weekends as the sun began to rise.
Here's a basic recipe (I did not pull my own noodles, though you should, and are welcome to try. Dried Chinese wheat noodles are a lazy but workable substitute):
2.5 lbs beef rump, knuckle steak, brisket or any inexpensive cut, cut in 2" cubes
10 cups water
2 medium carrots, peeled, cut into large chunks
1 daikon radish, peeled, cut into 5 sections
1 bulb garlic, skin on, cut in half
15 black peppercorns
1 piece cassia bark
3 star anise
Bring above ingredients to a boil, making sure to skim off any foam (there will be a lot at first, to avoid skimming off your spices, add them when the foam has subsided). Lower to a simmer, cover, and cook for 3 hours. Remove beef, strain stock, and return to pot. Season with salt and tumeric and cumin to taste (4-6 Tbsp of Soy sauce adds some richness, too). Serve by pouring stock over pre-cooked wheat noodles, with generous amounts of chopped coriander, spring onions and chili oil or chili sauce (Chinese la jiao) and some slices of beef.
Best paired with a lukewarm, watery lager - preferably in collapsibly thin plastic cups. Suntory or Reeb is best.