Wuhan Reganmian Hot Dry Noodles (热干面) ft. Dried Jianshui Alkaline Noodles
Guozao With Wuhan’s Famous À La Minute Sesame Noodles~~
In South-Central China’s landlocked Hubei province, the capital city Wuhan is beloved for its breakfast staples and snacks—chief among them 热干面 (règānmiàn) “hot dry noodles.” Served steaming and soup-less in to-go bowls with a barely-saucy coat of ground sesame paste and simmered house stock, reganmian was invented and popularized around 1930 by two local noodle shop owners, Li Bao and his apprentice Cai Mingwei. Now, reganmian is regarded alongside Sichuan 担担面 (dàndànmiàn), Shanxi 刀削面 (dāoxiāomiàn) knife-cut noodles, and Beijing 炸酱面 (zhájiàngmiàn)—not to be confused with Chengdu 杂酱面 (zájiàngmiàn)— as China’s Four Big Noodles.
Reganmian is, unsurprisingly, Wuhan’s most emblematic food. This is no small distinction in the Breakfast Capital, where a saying goes that you can eat a different breakfast every morning for a month and not eat the same thing twice. In Wuhan, you don’t just have breakfast. Instead, you “过早 (guòzǎo),” as the locals call it. This fast-paced, vibrant breakfast culture evolved from the needs of dock workers, a fixture of the port city at the intersection of the Changjiang and its tributary Hanjiang (Yangtze and Han Rivers). In the mornings, these workers rose early and sought quick, filling breakfasts on their way to work. As a result, carb-heavy meals like noodles, dumplings and fried breads were extremely popular to guozao, “pass the morning.”
Background on Wuhan and “hot dry noodles”
Wuhan is famously known as one of China’s “三大火炉” (sān dà huǒlú), “Three Great Furnaces,” the title bestowed upon Wuhan, Chongqing and Nanjing for their notably oppressive summers back in the early-mid 1900s. Located within the humid lower-altitude valleys of the Yangtze River Basin and surrounded by mountains, these three major metropolitan cities experience subtropical conditions that define the geographic and cultural area.
When it came to food preservation pre-refrigeration, the alkaline in 碱水面 (jiǎnshuǐmiàn) alkaline noodles helped prevent fresh noodles from spoiling as quickly in the heat. This made them popular in the area. The origin story for reganmian goes a couple ways based on that.
Legend says that on one such hot night in Wuhan around 1930, Li Bao, a soup noodle seller, was left with unsold fresh noodles he worried would spoil. Cleverly, he cooked the remaining noodles and left them to dry on the cutting board. By accident, however, he knocked over the sesame oil, spilling oil all over the noodles. He had no choice but to leave them to dry as is. The next morning, Li Bao blanched the cooked noodles and served them with various sauces he usually sold his mung bean jelly noodles in. The fragrance attracted customers, and the heated “dry noodles” sold out quickly from then on.
Cai Linji and reganmian as we know it
Li Bao may have pioneered serving his blanched noodles in the “dry” (i.e., soup-less) sauce base, but it may not have been him who came up with the sesame flavor that defines reganmian as we now know it. Many versions of the story credit Cai Mingwei—a different noodle shop owner and/or Li Bao’s apprentice—and his store 蔡林记 (Cài Línjì) as the origin of sesame paste reganmian.
What’s known for sure is that by the 1940s, Cai Mingwei was already in business with his wife officially marketing their noodles as “reganmian” under Cai Linji. One account claims that Cai Mingwei, a savvy businessman, got the idea to add sesame paste for a sesame-forward dressing from smelling the fragrant sesame oil factory down the street. The smell made his noodles irresistible, and his intuition paid off when customers started coming specifically for his sesame paste noodles. Regardless, by 1950, Cai Mingwei had officially registered his sesame noodles under the name “reganmian.” Today, Cai Linji is a major label (revived and expanded by Cai Mingwei’s son) that brands and manufactures its own packaged reganmian noodles for commercial export.
Selecting ingredients for reganmian
- Alkaline noodles—the body of the dish. Slender, smooth and springy with an excellent bite and top-tier Q, these mid-weight, round alkaline wheat noodles from Wenzhou are, without exaggeration, the best dried jianshui noodles you can find and buy in the U.S. Regular wheat noodles don’t have the same heft, mouthfeel or slickness. These are the same noodles you need for Sichuan liangmian, dandanmian and Yibin 燃面 (ránmiàn) burning noodles.
- Sesame paste—the soul of Wuhan hot dry noodles! When choosing a sesame paste, the most important quality is that it’s stone-milled, the seed paste equivalent of being cold-pressed. This is a distinction that Wuhan’s longest-running and most beloved reganmian shops swear by. Why? When cheaper, lower quality sesame paste is processed with industrial blades and heat, the heat extracts the fragrance with it. By the time it makes it to your noodles, the best of the flavor is gone. Naturally, for sesame paste noodles, high-quality sesame paste is vital. The Mala Market‘s made-to-order organic, single-origin Shandong sesame paste uses the traditional stone-mill method of grinding sesame seeds into paste, and the resulting texture and taste is unsurpassed. Unlike other sesame pastes, there are also no preservatives or additives—just 100% organic sesame seed.
- Sesame oil is not only extra aromatic, but it also turns thick, dense sesame paste into a deliciously runny paste (see first photo in collage below) that glosses over the noodles and prevents it from clumping up as it dries. Cuizi Small-Mill Roasted Sesame Oil is grown from the producer’s own sesame cultivar in Shandong. It is also stone-milled and cold-pressed at low temperature and pressure, and further filtered through 36 layers of natural plant fibers so there are no impurities left behind. This process goes back 600 years, and the producer Ruifu only makes sesame products. It’s the real deal.
- Light and dark soy sauce round out reganmian’s distinctive base flavor. It’s a little for coloring and a lot for emphasizing the slick sesame—a small amount goes a long way. We’re partial to Zhongba’s straight-up sippable light and dark soy.
- Spices: a touch of fermented white pepper is essential. This recipe also uses warming spices in a fragrant braising stock to give the noodles oomph. If you don’t keep any broth on hand, then you can whip it up in 30 minutes with the help of beef stock and a great Chinese Five Spice blend with whole black cardamom. Every noodle shop has their own house version, so it truly doesn’t matter if your broth differs much from what’s recommended in the recipe.
- Pickled radish and 豇豆 (jiāngdòu) long beans are two key components of reganmian. The sharp, sour tang of preserved veggies cuts through the blanket of sesame paste and wheat noodles with a refreshing crunch. Pickled radish came first in the original dish, and in Wuhan it’s nonnegotiable. Here, you may find pickled radish harder to locate if you don’t make your own or live near an Asian market. At the very least, you can use 榨菜 (zhàcài) pickled mustard greens like the Mala Market package linked.
- Scallions, not cilantro! The garnish “debate” is nonexistent because the consensus is unilaterally on the side of scallions. Texturally and taste-wise, I have to agree. I love cilantro as garnish, but it’s true that cilantro carries more of its own flavor than scallion greens. Avoid overpowering the delicious sesame and stick to scallions like they do in Wuhan.
- Optional: chili oil to taste. Naturally, I use my family’s Traditional Sichuan Chili Oil Recipe ft. Caiziyou. There’s an aromatic version, too, which really kicks it over the edge. While Hubei people do enjoy spicy food (Chongqing and Hunan are their western and southern neighbors, respectively), the “hot” in hot dry noodles does not refer to spiciness. At any noodle shop, adding chili oil is a popular option according to personal preference. Feel free to add extra heat, or not.
To the question of broth: Many shops cook up their own house broth that gets added to the reganmian. It doesn’t need it, per se, but I find it better balances the sharp, intense flavors of sesame and soy sauce without watering the noodles down. Don’t use tap water! You’ll dilute the sesame flavor. Instead, make like many beloved reganmian shops in Wuhan and add a splash of whatever braising stock you have on hand (or, this recipe will show you how to make a small batch in 30 minutes). It creates a slick sesame sauce, provides depth and keeps your mouth from drying up while you inhale these noodles.
Making and assembling the noodles
For the best noodles, use a larger pot of water than what your quantity of noodles technically require. This is to help hold heat and bring the water back to boiling quickly once the dry noodles are added. Maintaining the boiling action from the start keeps the noodles nice and separated, preventing them from sticking to the pot or each other. Parboil until 80% cooked, i.e. al dente. Typically you can just subtract a minute from whatever the packaging instructions tell you. If you’re using The Mala Market’s dried alkaline noodles, this means boiling for 4 minutes instead of 5 minutes.
According to the Sichuan master chefs I watched on a cooking show about Sichuan liangmian, it’s important to rapidly cool alkaline noodles first without physically manipulating them. When you agitate the noodles fresh from the pot, it activates the gluten strands and leaches starches that, when overdeveloped, make the noodles stick (just think of what happens when you knead dough). So, lift the noodles and fan them cool, then add oil and toss them to coat (still fanning—a folded magazine will suffice).
The collagen network formed by these starch granules on the noodle surface adds to the refreshing 爽口 (shuǎngkǒu) mouthfeel of reganmian. How can hot, dry noodles be refreshing, you ask? When you get your sauce ratio right so it’s slick and slurpable, you may notice a cooling sensation while sucking up the noodle strands. This is due to the surface area of the noodles rapidly cooling down the barely-glossed sauce. You may have never thought of this while slurping noodles, but Chinese people are the ultimate foodies: there’s a name and an appreciation for every small quality!
Don’t skip the parboiling! You may think you’re clever, saving a step and assembling bowls with the freshly boiled noodles, but what you’re really doing is sacrificing the texture (again, the Taiwanese “Q“) and mouthfeel (口感, kǒugǎn—great explanatory article by Fuchsia Dunlop linked) that reganmian is beloved for.
The caveat of these noodles is that they must be enjoyed immediately—within six minutes of leaving the pot is the popular verdict.
I delight in these noodles taxing those who wait, punishing the un-present: like ice cream and fried chicken, once it cools (or melts), it’s never the same. Even the five minutes it took to shoot these photos resulted in consequences—the sauce congealing a little, the gloss dying, the noodles sticking. There’s a trick for eating reganmian that will also help revive them if they have reached this stage, though. Lift the noodles from the bottom of the bowl, where the heat and sauce bide their time, up to your mouth to get a fresh mix of the warm and thus still-saucy bits—slurp; devour.
For more noodle ideas, try Ma’s Sichuan Liangmian, also featuring these dried alkaline noodles, and Taylor’s 怪味 (guàiwèi) “Strange Flavor” Sesame Noodles, another excellent use of our freshly restocked organic, stone-ground sesame paste!
Famous Wuhan Reganmian Hot Dry Noodles (热干面)
- sieve strainer ideally
- fan manual or electric, makeshift with any magazine or book works too
- large plate, cutting board or clear surface area for spreading noodles to dry and tossing with oil
Stock recipe (OR use 1/2 cup of existing braising stock)
- 1 tablespoon vegetable or peanut oil enough to coat pot bottom
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 small black cardamom, lightly crushed
- 1 star anise
- 3 cloves
- 1 inch cassia bark
- ½ tablespoon whole huajiao (Sichuan pepper)
- ½ teaspoon fennel seeds
- 2 whole scallions, divided, just the white parts for stock save the green parts for garnish
- ½ thumb fresh ginger, washed and sliced
- 1 clove fresh garlic, peeled and sliced
- splash any liaojiu (rice cooking wine)
- 2 cups beef stock
- 1 tablespoon light soy sauce (Zhongba preferred)
- 1 teaspoon rock sugar optional
Reganmian (2 servings)
- 2 cloves fresh garlic, peeled and chopped
- 150 grams dried alkaline noodles ~75g per person. Hungrier folks may want up to 100g each, in which case you should adjust the sauce quantities up accordingly.
- 5 teaspoons sesame oil, divided approx. 7g
- 2 tablespoons sesame paste approx. 20g
- ½ cup simmered stock from above or existing braising stock
- 1½ teaspoons light soy sauce (Zhongba preferred)
- ½ teaspoon dark soy sauce (Zhongba preferred)
- 1 tablespoon homemade chili oil, optional, more or less to taste
- dash ground white pepper
- 3 tablespoons spicy pickled radish, chopped or spicy pickled mustard tuber if radish is unavailable
- 2 tablespoons pickled jiangdou (long beans), chopped approx. 2 long beans,
- 2 scallions, just the greens, finely chopped
- In a small pot, bloom the dry spices starting in cold oil. When the spices are sizzling and have started to release their fragrance, add the fresh aromatics (scallion whites, sliced ginger and garlic) and stir-fry to release the flavor. When you can smell the garlic and ginger, add a splash of liaojiu. Add the beef stock, light soy sauce and rock sugar, then simmer on low for 30 minutes. Strain all the spices before using and save the extra for future purposes!
- While the stock simmers, prepare the rest of the dish. Soak the chopped garlic in 1 tablespoon cool water or just enough to barely cover, then set aside. Bring a large pot of water to boiling and add the dried alkaline noodles. Stir immediately to make sure they don't stick to the bottom or each other. Parboil them to 80% cooked by subtracting 1 minute from the package's recommended cook-time.If using The Mala Market's dried alkaline noodles, boil for 4 minutes.
- Ready your handheld fan (or turn on electric fan facing workstation). Strain the parboiled noodles (DO NOT dump them out into a colander, you need to reserve the boiled water), letting excess water drip out. Spread the noodles flat over a large plate or cutting board and immediately begin lifting them up to cool with one hand (chopsticks, tongs, whatever) while rapidly fanning the lifted noodles with the other hand. Repeat until the noodles are no longer hot to the touch, about 1 minute. Lightly drizzle 1 teaspoon of the divided sesame oil over the cooled noodles, then toss the noodles to coat and separate each strand, moving quickly while still fanning with the other hand, 1-3 minutes. Set aside.
- In a small bowl, mix the remaining 4 teaspoons sesame oil with the sesame paste until it runs smoothly. In another bowl, mix ½ cup of the prepared stock with the soy sauces. Return the pot of noodle water to boiling.
- At this point, the stock is strained and the noodles are ready for assembling. To get the dish hot for hot dry noodles, dunk each serving of noodles back in the boiling noodle water for 8 seconds. This is easiest if you lower them directly in the strainer/spider skimmer. Shake off excess water and transfer to serving bowls. Evenly divide the soy/stock mix, garlic water, chili oil (optional, to taste), sesame paste, dash of ground white pepper, pickled radish, pickled long beans and scallion greens atop the noodle bowls. Enjoy immediately, mixing well and lifting the noodles from the bottom up to bring up the sauce!
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