I remember when the city of Lanzhou’s hand-pulled noodles became Internet-famous back in the 2010s. On YouTube, I watched as expert noodle makers would take a block of dough and magically whirl and slam it into thin, even strands, looping them around in a hypnotically fast-paced game of cat’s cradle.
As shops specializing in this type of noodle sprang up in the US in the years since, a sister item on the menu of these Lanzhou cuisine restaurants has quietly started gaining in popularity: the knife-cut noodle. And now that Trader Joe’s has gotten into the mix with their Squiggly Knife-Cut Style Noodles, it has everyone asking: What exactly are knife-cut noodles?
What are Knife-Cut Noodles?
I spoke with Jason Wang, CEO of Xi’an Famous Foods, Western Chinese food expert, and author of Xi'an Famous Foods: The Cuisine of Western China, from New York's Favorite Noodle Shop about knife-cut noodles (what the Chinese know as dao xiao mian [刀削面]).
“Knife-cut noodles come from the province of Shanxi, west of the mountains,” he says, an area not to be confused with another northwestern Chinese region, Shaanxi, whose specialty is hand-ripped biang biang noodles. “Those are made from a softer dough, pulled by hand, into very long, wide noodles,” Wang says.
“Knife-cut noodle dough is harder. Those noodles are made by cutting the surface of a block of stiff dough and depositing the strands right into a pot of boiling water.”
The best quality knife-cut noodles use premium, super-high gluten flour for maximum body and chew. The dough is kneaded and proofed and, at restaurants, cooked fresh off the dough block at a rate of roughly 200 strands per minute when made by a master.
The motion is rapid and “very theatrical as the cook cuts from the dough block that he’s holding at an angle and shoots the pieces right into a pot of boiling water,” Wang says.
The result is ribbon-shaped noodles that cook up denser and chewier in the middle while curling into light ruffles on ragged edges. Sometimes they’re long and sometimes they’re short; some pieces are narrower while others are wider. They’re rustic in their inconsistency, but all share a common thread: each noodle offers two distinct textures, the loose, soft ruffle and a springy, toothsome center.
What’s more readily accessible is the popular instant knife-cut-style noodles, like the kind now available at Trader Joe’s. These are made from the same style of dough, but are cut using a revolving knife technique that emulates hand-shaving techniques. They’re then air-dried–not deep-fried like instant ramen–for 18 hours, ready to be reconstituted with a quick boil.
How Do You Eat Knife-Cut Noodles?
With a flavor that is mildly wheaty and slightly sweet, the knife-cut noodle is happy to take on elements of whatever it is cooked in, making them highly versatile. At noodle shops, knife-cut noodles are often ordered the same way pulled or ripped noodles are: after selecting the noodle, you choose your toppings and cooking style from simmered in soup, to dry-sauced, or stir-fried.
“The sauces that go [with] knife-cut noodles are similar to our sauces [at Xi’an Famous Foods] in that they usually have a rice vinegar component, along with salt [and] soy sauce,” Wang shares. The Shanxi knife-cut noodle sauces also “tend to have even more vinegar, as that province is [really] known for their rice vinegar.”
For the instant knife-cut noodles, such as Trader Joe’s squiggly noodles, a quick 4 to 5 minute simmer in boiling water to reconstitute the noodle is all it takes before you can toss in your choice of umami packed sauces, chili crisp, or a sesame oil based sauce.
Are Knife Cut Noodles the Same as Ramen?
As of the past decade or so, many fresh-made artisan Chinese noodles and dried noodles have become colloquially labeled as ramen due to poor translation. However, neither lamian nor dao xiao mian are ramen, even though the root of the word is based on a Japanese pronunciation of lamian.
In order for a noodle to be categorized as ramen, it must contain alkali. This differentiator is why Lanzhou lamian does fit the definition of ramen. The alkali additive is called kansui, and manufacturers typically use a powder made of potassium carbonate and sodium carbonate, which falls somewhere between baking soda and the lye we use to make pretzels. It’s this treatment that gives ramen elasticity, chewiness, and their light yellow hue.