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Dispatch from western Yunnan: Handmade rice noodles

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Editor's note: This piece was written jointly by Colin Flahive and Aling Yang.

In the culinary world, noodles reserve the unique ability to conceal bland grains in a masquerade of floppy, al dente morsels. For most Yunnanese, mixian (米线) is the noodle of choice. The majority of mixian is produced in automated factories throughout the province; but in the town of Zhangfeng, five kilometers east of the Burmese border and 33 kilometers north of Ruili, the Duan Family keeps the tradition of handmade mixian alive.

Mrs Duan rinses freshly boiled mixian in cold water before sending it off to her popular restaurant in the center of town. The restaurant's sign reads, Sino-Burmese Friendship Family Handmade Noodles (中缅友谊户撒手工米线). "The name is meant to show the connection between Chinese and Burmese culture," Mrs Duan says. "We want our noodles to represent a bridge between the two countries." In 1960, Mrs Duan started selling her noodles from small a stall on the roadside. Now the family runs a noodle empire with a restaurant packed full of customers. "There's never a slow day," one of the workers says proudly.

The restaurant specializes in guoshou mixian (过手米线) an Achang minority dish eaten with one's hands that combines cold mixian with a sauce made from minced fire-roasted pork, slow-cooked pea curd and a soup of fermented white radish leaves. This is served along with side dishes of boiled white radish, peanuts and spices. The Duan family takes particular pride in making everything fresh, a fact that is not lost upon its loyal customers.

The Duan family spends the majority of each day just making the mixian. First, buckets of rice are rinsed and soaked for about eight hours. The rice is then ground into a fine paste and placed in a press overnight to remove all of the water.

In the morning the paste is mixed with mixian from the day before and kneaded laboriously into springy lumps of dough. This dough is broken and rolled into small clumps called baba (粑粑) which are boiled until firm. The boiled baba are then put through a grinder with a fitting at the end that shapes the mixture into long, round noodles. Finally the noodles are re-boiled, drained, and rinsed in cold water before being ready to serve.

Guoshou mixian is eaten by hand in small bundles smothered in the minced pork sauce. Customers consume their meals with such gusto that sauce courses through their fingers, dripping onto the tables. At first bite, the arduous task of preparing guoshou mixian proves its worth. The combination of fresh, flavorful ingredients and the Duan family's particular obsession with flawless preparation make for a meal that feels more like gourmet cuisine than street food – and eating noodles by hand is a pleasure that few of us have relived since childhood.

For those in Zhangfeng, the Duan family's guoshou mixian is a particular source of local pride. Customers line up early and most stay for second and third servings. After eating their noodles, many customers take a stroll down the street to the Leisurely Refreshments Shop (休闲冷饮店) for a local cold drink called paoluda (泡鲁达) made from coconut milk, tapioca and biscuits.

Getting there:
If you're in the neighborhood, Sino-Burmese Friendship Family Handmade Noodles is located at the following address:
64 Laojiezi, Zhangfeng Town, Longchuan County, Dehong Prefecture, Yunnan
Phone number: 0692-8891731

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That stuff looks really good. I've found it's quite unusual to find Chinese food, even minority stuff, that you eat with your hands.

Is there anything else worthwhile exploring in this area?

zhangfeng itself is interesting for its mix of achang, jingpo, dai and burmese cultures. there is a jingpo park called munao zong ge that throws down some crazy festivals, especially during new year and water festival. there is also a mafia-run casino there just across the border, but there have been enough disappearances there that it should probably be avoided. on top of that, the area is plagued with heroin addiction. ruili is nearby and more set up for tourism.

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