No Sweet Sour: Yunnan Small Pot Rice Noodles (Xiaoguo Mixian, 小锅米线)

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Xiaoguo Mixian

Yunnan Noodles, Far From Home

Ask about the best-known Yunnan rice noodles across China, and many would nominate 过桥米线 (guòqiáo mǐxiàn), “crossing the bridge noodles.” However, for Yunnan locals, 小锅米线 (xiǎoguō mǐxiàn) or “small pot rice noodles” are no doubt the everyday staple. Xiaoguo mixian are hearty, down-to-earth, simple to prepare and available in almost every noodle shop. 

Although xiaoguo mixian are a go-to breakfast for most people in Kunming, I prefer to eat it later as a comforting late-night meal.

I learned to cook this dish from the noodle shops I ate at. Many Yunnan rice noodle restaurants are semi self-service, with one person in charge of welcoming guests and taking orders. I remember standing in front of the kitchen counter where I passed my “ticket” to the kitchen staff. As soon as the chef received the ticket, they would ask if I wanted thin or thick noodles. I always ordered the softer, thick version, which soaked up the sauces better. They would also ask if I wished to add chili oil—Yes. Finally, I would add a personal request of more pickles.

The chef would nod, then scoop out two large spoonfuls of simmered pork broth from the giant stockpot beside the cooking bench using a long-handled spoon. Next, they would add a thumb-sized piece of lard into the broth. Once the broth came to a boil, a large patty of minced pork would go in.

ingredients
Cooking the rice noodles with all the sauces and toppings in the broth helps them soak up the most flavor

After adding the meat, mix Pixian doubanjiang with red oil (红油豆瓣, hóngyóu dòubàn) into the broth and cook for about 30 seconds, followed by garlic chives, pickled mustard greens, leafy greens and rice noodles. Pixian’s red oil douban most closely resembles the chili pastes Yunnan cooks use for xiaoguo mixian. Continue boiling for another two minutes. During this time, the small pot rice noodles soak up all the flavors from the broth and meat. 

The seasonings are added right before finishing cooking, together with a generous splash of chili oil. Once the noodles are cooked, the chef lifts the copper pot and pours it over into a large serving bowl placed in front of me. This scene has been repeated in front of me countless times. After moving to Norway, whenever I crave xiaoguo mixian, I still prepare it the same way.

True to its name, each serving of small pot rice noodles is prepared individually. A classic kitchen set-up includes a rectangular kitchen bench with 4-8 powerful gas burners and thin, fast-heating, semicircular copper pots about 18 cm wide and 10 cm deep atop each burner. The whole process takes about 4-5 minutes. The chef cooks the noodles as efficiently as possible to avoid guests from waiting too long during peak times.

Selecting Ingredients for Xiaoguo Mixian

  • For the broth, it is best to select bone-in pork leg (腿骨, tuǐgǔ) or bone-in pork shoulder (肩骨, jiāngǔ). Pork spareribs (排骨, páigǔ) produce a more meaty flavor than the leg and shoulder bones. You can choose ribs if you wish for a meatier taste. Some Hui restaurants use beef broth with stewed beef as a topping, but I have not seen it often.
  • The meat patty in the cooked noodle dish is always minced pork. Choose a grind or cut with at least 20% fat if you are mincing your own meat, like many families do on a weekend morning. Pork belly makes for extra luxurious ground pork.
  • For the leafy greens, fresh bean sprouts and thinly sliced Chinese cabbage are excellent choices. If I had to be picky, I would prefer to use the white part of Chinese cabbage because it’s crunchier than the leafy part. If you have access to fresh pea shoots, get a handful of that as well.
  • Xiaoguo mixian are very customizable. Some prefer more pickled mustard, some like it with fewer chives. When my mom prepares it at home, she always adds extra meat topping and pickled mustard. That being said, Chinese chives (garlic chives) and pickled mustard greens are must-haves for this dish. It would feel like something was missing if either of these ingredients were not included in the soup.

The type of pickled mustard greens I can get in Norway are mostly imported from Thailand. They taste pretty similar but lack chili and coloring compared to the Yunnan pickled mustard greens. My trick is to finely chop the mustard greens, then fry them with a bit of oil and thin slices of ginger until the color turns dark. Then season with chili powder and a bit of dark soy sauce to deepen the color. Frying is a common way of cooking pickled mustard greens in Yunnan.  The heating process takes away some of the raw flavors and reduces the acidity. It also adds more fragrance to the mustard green and extends its storage time.

There are many different styles of small pot rice noodles. The “old school” way emphasizes savory, sweet and umami flavors.  In the past decades, under the influence of younger generations’ preference for stronger spices, xiaoguo mixian have shifted towards heavier seasoning, spiciness, umami and aromatic flavors. A hint of sweetness still shines through the complex flavors, although it is no longer as noticeable as before.

Variations of Yunnan Small Pot Rice Noodles Over Time

  • Restaurants started offering 卷粉 (juǎn fěn), flat rice noodle, and  碱面 (jiǎn miàn), alkaline noodle, to diversify the choice of noodle.
  • In 砂锅米线 (shāguō mǐxiàn) or “clay pot rice noodles,” the noodles are cooked in a clay instead of copper pot, then served directly in the pot. Check out Taylor’s adapted shaguo mixian!
  • In 罐罐米线 (guànguàn mǐxiàn) or “clay jar rice noodles,” the noodles are served in a small clay jar, about 8×6 cm. The reduced serving size is ideal as a snack or side.
  • Adding extra ingredients is also popular. 臭豆腐小锅米线 (chòudòufu xiǎoguō mǐxiàn) or “fermented tofu small pot rice noodle” uses a specialty fermented firm tofu from Shiping or Jianshui counties in southern Yunnan. A palm-sized piece is added to the broth along with leafy greens, creating a unique, irresistible aroma and flavor to the broth. The super-soft tofu coats the rice noodles, creating a smooth, mouth-melting sensation.
  • Other popular toppings: pickled garlic chive flower from Qujing, pickled and dried daikon radish strips from Kunming, 油条 (yóutiáo) or “Chinese fritters/donuts.”
thin pot
Use a fast-heating thin metal saucepan similar to this enamel pot to cook up xiaoguo mixian in no time

When I prepare xiaoguo mixian, I use a thin enamel stockpot with a handle on the side instead of a copper pot. It transfers heat quickly, making an ideal substitute for copper. Avoid using stainless steel or heavy-bottom pots, as it takes much longer to cook the ingredients. Aluminum pots work well for non-induction stovetops.

To enjoy little pot rice noodles, don’t ever rush into eating it right away even though the soup looks super tempting, as you may burn your tongue!

bowl of xiaoguo mixian
Unlike other noodle dishes, the small pot rice noodle toppings are boiled together with the main ingredients

For more Yunnan rice noodle dishes, check out Michelle’s Liang Mixian (Cold Rice Noodles) and Taylor’s recipe for Shaguo Mixian (Clay Pot Rice Noodles), adapted from Georgia Freedman’s cookbook Cooking South of the Clouds: Recipes and Stories from China’s Yunnan Province.

No Sweet Sour: Yunnan Small Pot Rice Noodles (Xiaoguo Mixian, 小锅米线)

By: Michelle Zhao | The Mala Market | Inspiration & Ingredients for Sichuan Cooking

Equipment

  • Thin/quick-cooking medium stockpot (avoid heavy-bottom pots)

Ingredients 

Pork Bone Broth

  • 500 grams pork leg bones, about two pieces cut in half, OR pork ribs, cut between each rib ask butcher to cut
  • 15 grams unpeeled ginger, lightly smashed with the flat side of a knife
  • 1 pod black cardamom, lightly smashed
  • ½ teaspoon whole huajiao (Sichuan pepper)

Xiaoguo Mixian (Small Pot Rice Noodles)

  • 100 grams dried rice noodle or 250 grams fresh
  • 80 grams pork mince at least 20% fat
  • ½ teaspoon minced ginger
  • teaspoon salt
  • 3 tablespoons water
  • 300 milliliters pork stock
  • 1 tablespoon pork lard
  • 1 tablespoon red oil doubanjiang (Pixian preferred)
  • 2-3 Chinese chives, cut into 3 cm (~1 inch) long pieces
  • handful fresh bean sprouts or thinly sliced Chinese cabbage, white parts only
  • tablespoons pickled mustard greens, finely chopped
  • 1 tablespoon Chinese light soy sauce (Zhongba preferred)
  • 1 tablespoon Yunnan sweet soy sauce (Tuodong preferred)
  • 1-2 tablespoons chili oil, with flakes
  • handful fresh pea shoots if available

Instructions 

Pork Bone Broth

  • In a large stockpot, add enough water to cover the leg bones by 5 cm (2 inches). Bring to a boil over a high flame and let it cook for 2-3 minutes.
  • Drain the stock and rinse the pork bones under cold water to wash off any blood and foam. Next, wash the stockpot, then return the pork bone back to the pot.
  • Add 4 liters of cold water to the stockpot. Bring to a boil. Skim off any remaining foam. Add all seasonings, turn the heat down to low, and simmer (covered) gently for at least 3 hours.
  • Strain the stock. Let the broth cool. You can store the stock in the fridge for up to 3 days or in the freezer for up to 3 months.

Xiaoguo Mixian (Small Pot Rice Noodles)

  • If using dried rice noodles: Cook the rice noodle according to the instructions on the package. Soak the cooked rice noodles in icy water until thoroughly chilled. Drain and set aside.
  • Combine pork mince, salt, and ginger in a small bowl. Add the water one tablespoon at a time, then stir counterclockwise until the water fully absorbs in the mince. Repeat until you've added all 3 tablespoons water. Shape into a rough patty and set aside.
  • Add the pork stock and lard to the stockpot. Bring to a boil over a high flame. Add the pork, then, using the backside of a soup spoon, gently press on the pork without breaking it loose into small pieces. Try to get a meatloaf shape by pressing on the pork. Add the Pixian douban and let boil for 30 seconds.
  • Add the chives, bean sprouts, pickled mustard greens, and rice noodles. Bring to a boil, then let cook for 2-3 minutes.
  • Season with light soy and sweet soy sauce, then cook for another 30 seconds. Add the chili oil and fresh pea shoots to the top right before turning off the heat.
  • Pour over into a large bowl. Use a spoon to support the tilting pot, by letting the liquid into the serving bowl first, then slowly pour over the rest of the non-liquid ingredients. Serve immediately while hot and enjoy.

Notes

To make your own chili oil using roasted rapeseed oil and fragrant-hot ground chilies, see Kathy’s Traditional Sichuan Chili Oil recipe. Or, for the ultra-mouthwatering 香辣 (xiānglà)/fragrant-hot version, see the Aromatic Sichuan Chili Oil recipe!
  • For the broth, it is best to select bone-in pork leg (腿骨, tuǐgǔ) or bone-in pork shoulder (肩骨, jiāngǔ). Pork spareribs (排骨, páigǔ) produce a more meaty flavor than the leg and shoulder bones. You can choose ribs if you wish for a meatier taste. 
  • Choose a pork grind or cut with at least 20% fat if you are mincing your own meat for the patty, like many families do on a weekend morning. Pork belly makes for extra luxurious ground pork.
  • For the leafy greens, fresh bean sprouts and thinly sliced Chinese cabbage are excellent choices. If I had to be picky, I would prefer to use the white part of Chinese cabbage because it’s crunchier than the leafy part.
Avoid using stainless steel or heavy-bottom pots, as it takes much longer to cook the ingredients. Aluminum pots work well for non-induction stovetops.

Tried this recipe?

About Michelle Zhao

Michelle Zhao is the creator of No Sweet Sour, an Instagram and blog-based community where she shares recipes and stories of Chinese cuisine, with a particular focus on Yunnan, the southwest province where she was born and raised. Growing up in the capital city of Kunming, Michelle was exposed to many minority cuisines, including Yi, Hui (回), Dai (傣) and Bai (白). These flavors have been missing from her life since she moved to Norway, so her mission with No Sweet Sour is to keep those flavors alive for herself while introducing this most amazing cuisine to the world.

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