No Sweet Sour: Yunnan Liang Mixian (Cold Rice Noodles, 凉米线)
Pretend You’re South of the Clouds~~
Here’s a recipe for Chinese cold rice noodles from the land where they do liang mixian best, plus a trick for making dried rice noodles taste like the thick, bouncy fresh ones of Yunnan.
Text and photos by Michelle Zhao
Cold rice noodles (凉米线, liáng mǐxiàn) is a summer dish that Yunnan people are especially fond of. Every city has its own style of liang mixian, but my top three are from Yuxi, Dali and Kunming.
The distinguishing characteristic of Yuxi cold rice noodles is the palm-sized scoop of bright yellow-pea pudding that tops the noodles along with a generous amount of ground pork. (“Cold noodles” actually means room temperature, and the toppings can be hot or cold, cooked or raw.) The sour broth is mixed together with chili oil, soy sauce and other ingredients, making the overall flavor very refreshing, acidic and spicy.
The signature cold rice noodles from Dali are served in Hui restaurants (Halal restaurants owned by Hui minority). Their version is crowned with braised chicken and a Dali-produced walnut sauce, adding an irresistibly aromatic flavor to the noodles. In comparison to the Yuxi version, the flavor here hits the sweet and spicy notes with just a hint of acidity.
The cold noodles of Kunming are called shi jin (什锦), referring to their colorful assortment of toppings. At Jian Xin Yuan (建新园), a famous restaurant in the city center, the shi jin is topped with a peeled quail egg, slices of cold pork, a spoon of spicy pork topping, crispy fried lard, white and black wood ear mushrooms, Chinese chives, carrot slices and sprouts. The final touch is a premixed sauce and chili oil added just before it is handed over to the customer.
My parents and I went to Jian Xin Yuan every time we went to the city center. Getting food there requires teamwork because the restaurant is crowded with people during lunch and dinner time. One person has to stand in the queue, while the other waits inside the restaurant to grab the first seats that become available. But even that does not guarantee you get a place to sit. Pass by Jian Xin Yuan during peak times and you will see an interesting scene of people squatting next to the restaurant, in front of a fire department entrance gate, slurping their noodles.
Jian Xin Yuan has expanded as a franchise and opened many restaurants in Kunming, but my mom still insists on visiting the original location, which has been there for over 100 years. For her, that is the flavor of “Old Kunming.”
Shi jin cold rice noodles are the must-have dish as a cold starter on all wedding banquets in Kunming. They are very delicately prepared and placed in the center of the round table before the guests arrive. It is hard to tell what the dish is from its appearance, because the rice noodles are completely covered by a layer of sliced vegetables: emerald-green cucumber and celtuce, bright orange carrots, light green chives, golden tofu skin, dark-brown wood ear mushrooms and, on the top, slices of shredded chicken and coriander leaves. A bowl of pre-mixed sauce is placed next to the noodles. Once the banquet starts, a guest pours the sauce on top of the platter and mixes the sauce with all of the ingredients before serving to each person at the table. This is a refreshing starter especially on hot summer days, wakening the appetite for more food.
Yunnan’s rice noodles are prepared with a type of batter that has been through a fermentation process. We call them suan jiang mi xian (酸浆米线), meaning sour rice noodles. They are thicker than other rice noodles, bouncy, smooth with a hint of sourness and sweet rice aroma. Unfortunately, sour rice noodles are only sold fresh and are not available in dried form.
Outside Yunnan, you will need to use dried rice noodles, but I have come up with a method to mimic the bouncy texture of sour rice noodles that involves resting the just-cooked noodles in the hot water they were boiled in and then thoroughly rinsing them in cold water. Make sure you have drained your rice noodles until there is no more water dripping before you start to assemble them in a bowl. Use a kitchen towel to pat dry the noodles if necessary. The rice noodles can be cooked one day ahead. In this case, if not used immediately, rinse cooked noodles under cold water until no more starchy water can be seen, and then store in cold water in the refrigerator.
Another ingredient I need to mention is sweet soy sauce. It is a type of soy sauce produced in Yunnan that is made from soy sauce, brown sugar, maltose and different types of spices. It has a dark red shiny color and a very sticky texture. Sweet soy sauce is often used in Yunnan cuisine, but is rarely available outside Yunnan. In Norway, I’ve been substituting with sweet soy sauce made by Healthy Boy or Lee Kum Kee, which are somewhat similar to Yunnan’s famous Tuodong soy sauce. [Editor’s note 3/3: The Mala Market now carries Tuodong Sweet Soy Sauce!]
To prepare liang mixian at home is not very complicated, though you will need some time to get all of the ingredients ready. Once that’s done, it takes about one minute to finish assembling a bowl. In this recipe, I chose a chicken breast, Chinese chives, wood ear mushrooms and bean sprouts. They all cook quickly, so you’ll be eating Yunnan liang mixian in no time.
Check out Michelle’s recipe for Crunchy Lotus Root Salad.
No Sweet Sour: Yunnan Liang Mixian (Cold Rice Noodles)
Ingredients for prep
- 1 small handful dried wood ear mushroom
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 tablespoon minced ginger
- 1 chicken breast
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 3 slices ginger
- 1 green onion
- ½ teaspoon Sichuan peppercorns
- 6 ounces (180g) dried rice noodles (thick round noodles are traditional)
- ¾ ounce (20g) mung bean sprouts
- 4 stems Chinese chives, cut in 2-inch pieces
- 2 tablespoons toasted walnuts, finely minced
Sauce ingredients per bowl
- 2 tablespoons prepared garlic and ginger water
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- ½ teaspoon white pepper powder
- 1 tablespoon Chinese light soy sauce
- 1½ tablespoons Chinese sweet soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon rice vinegar
- 1 teaspoon Sichuan pepper oil
- ½ tablespoon sesame paste, thinned with ½ tablespoon warm water
- ½ tablespoon sesame oil
- 2 tablespoons chili oil
- Rehydrate the wood ear mushrooms by soaking them in warm water. Combine the minced garlic and ginger in a small bowl and add 3 ounces water to cover. This is to help tame the intense flavors of ginger and garlic so they do not dominate the other flavors.
- Place the whole chicken breast in a saucepan together with salt, ginger, green onion and Sichuan peppercorns. Bring to a boil, skim off the excess foam, and let it cook at a simmer for 12-15 minutes, depending on the size of the breast, until it is just cooked through. Remove chicken breast to a bowl with enough cold water to cover.
- While the chicken breast is cooking, set another large pot of water to boil, add a pinch of salt and the rice noodles. Boil the noodles for 15 minutes, stirring once every 2-3 minutes to prevent the rice noodles from sticking together. Remove the pot from the heat after 15 minutes and cover with a lid, allowing the noodles to rest in the hot water for 10 minutes. Finally, rinse the noodles under cold water until they are completely chilled. Drain well and set them aside.
- Bring a saucepan of water to boil, add the rehydrated wood ear mushrooms and boil for 2 minutes. Remove them to rest in a bowl of cold water. Using the same saucepan, blanch the Chinese chives and bean sprouts for 30 seconds, drain and rinse under cold water. You do not have to blanch the chives and sprouts if you prefer the crunchy and raw flavors of these two vegetables.
- Use your hands to shred the chicken instead of using a knife to cut it. You will get a completely different texture. Start from one end of the chicken breast and thinly shred all the way to the other end.
- To assemble, divide the chilled rice noodles between two bowls. Add all sauce ingredients in list above except chili oil to each bowl, directly on top of the rice noodles. Then top each bowl with small piles of shredded chicken, Chinese chives, wood ear mushrooms and bean sprouts. Garnish with chili oil and toasted walnuts. Diners should mix all ingredients well before eating.