A step by step guide for Guilin noodle foodie pilgrims
Here is a step by step guide with tips and tricks for ordering genuine Guilin noodles in Guilin and Nanning.
The process can be a little complicated for the uninitiated, but the reward for your effort will be perhaps the most delicious noodle dish in China. Unlike other noodle dishes in China that can take the roof off your mouth with salt or chilli, the flavours here are complex and multi-layered in a subtle blend that feels supremely comfortable. It's almost like it belongs on your taste buds.
Once you have mastered the ordering process, like most locals, it can easily be your staple meal when travelling throughout the region, and will keep travelling foodies coming back again and again.
Step 1: Find a Guilin noodle shop:
There are lots of noodle shops in Guilin and nearby cities, but not all of them serve Guilin noodles. Rather than looking for specific Chinese characters, the easiest way is to ask people on the street and to look for the signs of genuine Guilin noodle activity noted below.
Guilin noodles are known locally as Guilin Mifen, where "Gui" is pronounced roughly like the last syllable in "musical segue", "lin" sounds like the first syllable of the female name "Linda", "Mi" sounds like the personal pronoun "me", and "fen" is roughly pronounced like the second syllable in "stiffen".
Step 2: Order your Guilin noodles at the cash register
There are several things you need to remember here when talking to the cashier:
Order the noodles - tell the cashier you want "Guilin Mifen", as pronounced above.
Order your choice of meat - Guilin noodles are served with either beef or crispy pork, or both. As a non-Chinese speaker, you can take a short cut here and use the generic words for pork (zhu rou, which is roughly pronounced like the first syllable of the word "Jewish" and the first word of "row your boat") and beef (niu rou, with niu roughly pronounced like the first word in "new car" and rou is as above). These are not the right words, but they will get you what you want.
If you want to sound like a local, you can use the words chui pi for crispy, or guo shao for cooked with fire, which will get you crispy pork or beef respectively. In days gone by, horse meat was also an option, but is generally no longer on the menu.
There are three sizes available, namely small, medium and large. To keep things simple, go for medium, which is a good-sized feed for most people. If you are still hungry, you can always order another bowl later. To ask for medium size, use the word er liang, where er is roughly pronounced like the first word of "err on the side of caution" and liang sounds like the first syllable of "leeway" plus the vowel sound in the body part "lung".
Choose to eat in or take-away
This determines whether your noodle bowl is or isn't lined with a plastic freezer bag. To eat in, you can use the phrase zhe li chi, where zhe is roughly pronounced like the first syllable of "German", li sounds like the first syllable of "leeway" and chi sounds like "chirp" without the final "p" sound.
For takeaway, say da bao where da sounds like the first syllable of "darling" and bao sounds like the last word in "take a bow".
The cashier may try and bamboozle you with other conversation, such as whether you want bread with your noodles, but if you can't speak Chinese, then don't get distracted and simply keep re-stating the four things listed above. They may or may not give you a receipt that you give back to the cashier when your dish arrives.
Step 3: Add your condiments
When the noodle dish arrives, it will contain the noodles, the Guilin noodle sauce, your choice of meat, and a sprinkling of roasted soy beans. Take your bowl to the stand of condiments, which is usually a collection of silver bowls and trays containing spring onion, pickles, chilli, etc., and add whichever ones take your fancy. When trying it for the first time, I suggest you keep it simple, and just add some spring onions.
Guilin noodles after adding condiments and ready to add some soup
Look around for an urn with a tap, or a vat with a ladle, and add the clear soup broth. Adding a little bit helps to lubricate the noodles, or half-fill your bowl if it's a cold day and you want to slurp some soup after polishing off the noodles.
How do you know you are eating genuine Guilin noodles? Here is a simple checklist that I have devised of indicators of genuine Guilin noodles:
1. You are in Guilin. The best-tasting Guilin noodles are without a doubt made in Guilin, by family businesses who have been making it for generations. The further you move away from Guilin, even within neighbouring cities of Guanxi Province, the more distorted the recipe becomes.
2. The noodles are served in a silver mixing bowl, not ceramic. If you see people eating out of ceramic bowls, keep walking until you find another noodle shop.
3. The noodles are served with roasted soybeans, not roasted peanuts. Peanuts, either placed on your noodles or in the self-serve condiments, are a signal that the kitchen hand does not know what they are doing. For the authentic taste, make sure your noodles are topped with roasted soybeans.
4. The noodles are thick, round rice noodles. This almost goes without saying, and I've never seen Guilin noodles served with flat rice noodles, but it's worth making sure of.
5. You see people standing up or sitting on miniature stools to eat the noodles. This is a sign that the noodles are delicious, and that people don't mind sitting on kindergarten-sized stools, as long as they can shovel some of those hot noodles into their mouths.
6. The taste is subtle, mild and more-ish. If you find it too salty, particularly if it has too much soy sauce, throw it in the bin and keep looking for another shop. Most people have Guilin noodle for breakfast, but you should be able to eat it any time of the day.
This may seem a bit pedantic, but I have eaten Guilin noodles in some noodle shops in Nanning where the chef has got the sauce horribly wrong. The sauce is a closely guarded secret, so don't expect everyone to know how to reproduce it outside of the family-owned noodle stores in Guilin. If the dish tastes ordinary, pick yourself up and try a different store next time. In my experience, the franchise "Capital of Rice Noodle", which has signs in English and operates several stores in Nanning, is a safe option that does a good job of reproducing the dish, capturing about 80% of the flavour of the genuine article.