It has a kind of French ring to it, but it's a Chinese institution that's not well known outside China, although variants can sometimes be found in Chinatowns and a great place for a foreigner newly arrived in China to order a quick and easy meal that won't risk taking them out of their gastronomic comfort zone.
The selection of food in China is overwhelming, the written and spoken language to those who haven't studied extensively or lived here for a considerable time, bewildering and menus, even sometimes with an English “translation”, incomprehensible. Local cuisines vary considerably and sometimes have names which, although they may be poetic, give no real indication of what the dish actually is, so that even Chinese people sometimes need an explanation. Finally there is the generally communal approach to dining in China which means that a group of people order a number of dishes that are always of a set size. You then choose which of these to eat. Dining alone means that you need the option of a single meal, which brings us to noodle dishes.
La Mian (拉面) actually means “pulled noodles”. The staple ingredient of La Mian cuisine is the wheat based noodles made from dough which is pulled by hand, often in view of the tables, between the fingers until it resembles thick strands of soft spaghetti. These are then consigned to a vat of boiling water or broth where they are quickly cooked to a soft consistency.
La Mian Shopfront
The advantages of La Mian for a foreigner fresh to China are firstly it's ubiquitous; I haven't been to a Chinese city yet that doesn't have a number of La Mian noodle houses dotted around it. In my almost 6 years in China almost all foreigners I have met like the food. It's cheap and quick and always tasty and satisfying. A basic noodle dish in broth or fried noodles, with beef, will probably cost 10 RMB (at the time of writing, around US$1.70).
The proprieters and staff are almost always Moslems from the city of Lanzhou in Gansu Province in north central China, hence the characters at the front of the restaurant are usually 兰州拉面 (Lánzhōu lāmiàn). In the case of the shopfront in the photo it actually reads 兰州牛肉拉面 (Lánzhōu niúròu lāmiàn), aka Lanzhou beef noodles. The signs usually also have a background image of snow-capped mountains, some Arabic text and sometimes a mosque. The basic dishes are based around the pulled noodles, either in a broth or fried and with a choice of two meats, beef or mutton, in small quantities, usually as a flavouring rather than the bulk of the dish. If there's a picture menu on the wall it will usually be divided into noodle and rice dishes, basically with the same meat and vegetable ingredients. So, without knowing too much Chinese you can ask for:
Niúròu lāmiàn 牛肉拉面 Beef noodles
Yángròu lāmiàn 羊肉拉面 Lamb noodles
Niúròu chǎomiàn 牛肉炒面 Beef fried noodles
Yángròu chǎomiàn 羊肉炒面 Lamb fried noodles
Menu La Mian
Menu La Mian
The fried and rice dishes are always accompanied by a bowl of peppery broth which they will readily refill if you wish. The dishes are reasonably spicy but certainly not eye-watering but you can make them hot (là; 辣), by adding some of the readily available hot sauce (làjiàng; 辣酱) and also add vinegar (cù; 醋), usually in a teapot on the table!
Vinegar and hot sauce La Mian
If you grow tired of these basic dishes you can go to the picture menu, although the smaller La Mian's may not have this option the larger ones certainly will. There will be a variety of other dishes with different configurations of noodles, plus:
beef dumplings (shuǐjiǎo; 水饺)
cumin flavoured lamb (zīrán yángròu; 孜然羊肉)
a kind of cross between naan bread and a pancake (yóubǐng; 油饼)
and my personal favourite:
rice covered with potato and beef (tǔdòu niúròu gàifàn; 土豆牛肉盖饭).
This is currently a little more expensive than the standard La Mian noodles, 13 RMB (at the time of writing, around US$2.10 !)
Hot sauce La Mian
The basic noodle dish is actually tāng miàn (汤面, literally “soup noodles“), although there's no need to be this specific when ordering, just “niu rou” or “yang rou” followed by “la mian” will suffice. The noodles are made by stretching a lump of dough to a full arm span using the fingers to separate the strands. These strands are then looped together, halving the length then, on the next pull, decreasing the thickness. The process is repeated until the desired thickness is achieved. Sometimes flour is used to keep the dough dry enough to prevent sticking. The pulled strands are often dramatically slapped onto the preparation board to remove excess flour and to ensure even thickness, before the noodles are thrown into the broth.
Kitchen La Mian
Kitchen La Mian
As a footnote, be warned, if you use any kind of translation device when in China keep the content very simple, divide any complex requests into short, simple sentences. Only then will you stand any chance of showing a Chinese person an intelligible sentence in Mandarin.
Here are just a few items from the “English” menu of a restaurant in my city, which shall remain nameless, but which is one of thousands of menus all over China which have either been “translated”, without proofreading of any kind, or taken straight from Google translate. Google translate is a good starting point and will work reasonably well for simple, well constructed, unambiguous sentences but which soon loses the plot when confronted with idiomatic or figurative language from either side of the linguistic fence.
Thousand Island Lake Organic Head
Thousand Island Lake Organic Snakehead
Thousand Island Lake Organic Fish Body
Abalone Sea Cucumber Juice Button
Hong Men of Wild Boar
Fragrance Gluttonous Frog
Tin Package Beef Rib
Secret Cook Way of Sheep Meat
Features Exclusive to Burnt Salt
Dough La Mian