Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Dao Xiao Mian 刀削麵 Knife Shaved Noodles

Sometimes there's something really appealing about asymmetry, roughness, sketchiness, or imperfection. The Japanese recognized this and formalized it in their wabi and sabi aesthetic in traditional arts (I'm not sure which one refers more to imperfection and which one more to simplicity...or if it even divides neatly between the two). In the food world, I suppose we like to call things "rustic" when food's rough conception is part of its appeal.

For me at least, the roughness and irregularity in the cutting of dao xiao mian, knife shaved noodles (or knife cut noodles), is definitely part of the noodles' appeal. The other thing is that they're pretty "hearty" and I like fat, thick, and wide noodles in all their forms and preparations, be they he fen (as in "chow fun"), udon, or lasagna (not that I eat lasagna anymore). But hell, I guess I like noodles in general, too. Who doesn't?

Dao xiao mian are shaved from a "log" of firm dough directly into boiling water to cook, like so. Yeah, uh, so it definitely didn't go so smoothly or look so slick when I made it. I mean, besides lacking an overgrown razorblade, economy-sized log of dough, and enough practice, my dough just didn't seem firm enough to handle that kind of cutting. It stuck to my knife somewhat. I followed this recipe on my first attempt. I'm not sure it's quite right, though. The texture also seemed a little different from when I've had it at restaurants, but I'll need to eat more good knife shaved noodles to get a better sense of what it should be like.

Dough resting before shaving/cooking. Looks rough despite kneading I think because of the rice flour component.
 I thought it strange that there was baking powder in the mix rather than baking soda. Baking powder contains both acid and base so that they will react and help baked goods rise in the oven without needing to add an acidic ingredient to react with the purely alkaline baking soda. But these are noodles and don't need to rise, and generally baking soda is added for texture's sake. So in my second batch, I swapped out the baking powder for baking soda, which firmed things up a bit and made the cutting a touch smoother. Interestingly, the noodles also turned yellow once they hit the boiling water--like how ramen noodles, which are also alkaline, are yellow.

batch 2 noodles, with baking soda instead of baking powder
While a little easier to cut, I don't know that the end result was better, though... The noodles had a slight, almost...eggy flavor to them, and were just a little slippery or even "slimy" on the surface. This is maybe because of the alkalinity, as alkalines (e.g. soap) are slippery. I found this a little distracting in my spicy beef noodle soup. However, it was not at all noticeable when I used the remainder of the second batch to make stir fried noodles.

Actually, there's another issue I tried addressing when I made the stir fried noodles: unless you can quickly shave off your portion of noodles, then there will be a cooking time mismatch. Fresh noodles cook pretty quickly and it takes a several minutes for an amateur such as myself to shave off a batch of noodles. I tried pre-shaving the noodles before tossing them into the boiling water--and learned why they're shaved directly into the water. Unless you want to flour the noodles as you're slicing them off the log or keep them all separate, they're going to stick to each other and be annoying to separate before tossing in the water.

Hmm. Well, the dough recipe needs further tweaking, I guess. Or maybe if I just make sure to add a little less water so the dough's on the dry, almost flaking side. I'm going to try omitting the baking powder/soda altogether and be conservative with the water and see how that turns out next time. (Arg, I'm gathering more anecdotal evidence that my system dislikes all-purpose flour, in addition to everything else.)
The Taiwanese spicy beef soup was fantastic, though, as I've made it before. I used Andrea Nguyen's recipe. I mean, the noodles weren't bad either. But there's always room for improvement. Regarding the beef, though, chuck is great, but I think shank is better. At least I'm more used to it. More collagen. Chuck's readily available in the western supermarkets, though, while shank is not.


  1. William this looks amazing! We should definitely do a Spring Potluck for GPPSA. Also, I have convinced them to organize a Dim Sum night in Silver Spring!!! Details to come, thinking March.

    1. Thanks, Erica! YES DIM SUM IN SILVER SPRING. Spring Potluck'd be great!

  2. I admire your persistence! This is actually one of my favorite comfort dishes, and I tried to make a version when I got back from China. We definitely went through the same thought process, as I tried to pre-shave the noodles before cooking, with similar sticky results. I think we need one of those wickedly long knives for authentic noodle noodles. And a lot of courage :D

    1. Yeah, in videos, they slice through their logs of dough so easily! I wonder if their dough's just more stiff or if they have a crazy sharp knife, or maybe some of both. In any case, my days of messing with wheat noodles are over..