By Stephen Vargha
There is an ancient Chinese Proverb that says, “To the ruler, the people are heaven; to the people, food is heaven.” Owner of Cuenca’s Lamian China restaurant on Av. Florencia Astudillo, Tan has imparted that philosophy with his top-rated Asian restaurant in Cuenca, Lamian China.
“It is very popular in the middle of China, but now it is popular in southeast China, too,” said Tan. “Dumplings are now popular, too. They are from my homeland in northeast China.”
Tan is referring to Lamian (also known as Lā Miàn) noodles, which literally means “stretched by hand.” If you’re a fan of Jackie Chan, you might be familiar with the 1997 action-comedy movie “Mr. Nice Guy.” In the film’s opening scene, Chan is live on Australian television, standing at a flour-dusted table, stretching, twisting, and pulling a piece of dough into fine strands of noodles. Those were Lamian noodles.
Because wheat has been a staple crop for thousands of years in northern China, Lamian noodles are a cornerstone of traditional Chinese cuisine. The earliest written record describing these noodles was found in the 16th century cookbook, “Sòng’s Instructions for Preserving Life” (“Songshi Yangsheng Bu”), written by Sòng Xù.
Lamian noodles are a local favorite in Shaanxi province. Tan said there are more than 100 types of noodles that are incredibly al dente and served in a savory beef broth with chili oil and other spices.
“I spent 20 years working part-time in restaurants in Shaanxi province,” said Tan. “I learned to cook noodles and dumplings at three restaurants in Xianyang.” He also became a culinary chef after completing courses at a local culinary school.
With his extensive training and experiences, Tan moved from Xianyang to Ecuador in January 2021. “I moved to Quito, but after one month there, I decided I needed to look for a new home,” said Tan. “I drove all over the country to Guayaquil, Cuenca, Machala, Manta, Esmeraldas, Ambato, Salinas… I drove around to every big city in Ecuador.”
It did not take him long for him to realize Cuenca was the right place for his wife, Zhou, and his young daughter, Jenny. “Cuenca is not the best place for business, but it is definitely the best place for living,” said Tan. “Cuenca is a safe city and the education my daughter is getting is great.”
He was putting his family first and his restaurant second. “I want to enjoy life,” said Tan.
Tan opened up his restaurant, Lamian China, in September 2021 across the street from Parque de la Madre, and just east of Estadio Alejandro Serrano (the fútbol stadium). It took little time for Lamian China to be rated #1 among Asian restaurants in Cuenca by Gringo Post readers.
Most North Americans are familiar with the most commonly found Chinese regional cuisines: Cantonese (southeastern China), Hunan (southern China), and Szechuan (southwestern China). Lamian China adds to that with the cuisines of northwestern and northeastern China.
If you come at the right time, you can hear loud banging sounds on the other side of the restaurant’s wall. “The noise you hear is made by stretching the noodles,” said Tan. “It keeps the noodles fresher for a longer time.”
Fresh noodles are made every morning. “I need at least two hours every day to make the noodles,” said Tan. “It is not hard for me to make Lamian noodles, but for others, it could be difficult.”
The Australian television food writer, radio broadcaster, critic, cookbook editor Melissa Leong said, “Chinese food culture has imparted flavour, dimension, and excitement to the way we eat.” There is no doubt that Tan feels the same way. The native of northeastern China proudly boasts that his food is genuine. “I cook good quality Chinese food. There is no MSG (sodium salt that is a flavor enhancer which is often added to restaurant foods),” said Tan. “It is not Chinese American!”
Spices are brought to Tan every month from China. “My friend brings the fresh spices to Ecuador,” said Tan. “He is a businessman who visits China all of the time.”
His noodles are the top choice of his customers. “Lamian noodles with shrimp is my customers’ favorite dish,” said Tan. “Beef and mushrooms are also very popular.”
Of course, his dumplings are one of the most sought-after dishes. “My mother showed me how to make them,” said Tan. “It is her special recipe.”
This month, Tan will be refreshing the menu. “I will be adding more dishes,” said Tan.
Tan grew up believing that it’s important to balance the yin and yang of the body, which can be achieved through eating the right foods. “The history of Chinese food is over 2,000 years old,” said Tan.
The earliest work with Chinese medicinal food dishes dates from the early Han Dynasty era (206 BCE to 220 CE). The basic ideas of Chinese food therapy are called, the Huangdi Neijing (The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine). It gave recommendations on what to eat for different health conditions and for different environmental conditions.
Tan is a strong believer of this philosophy. “Traditional Chinese has vegetables with little meat,” said Tan. “Chinese medicine says a little meat is enough.” He added the Chinese believe that the older you get, spicy food should be part of your diet for good health.
In November, Tan has special plans for his restaurant. “I will bring in high quality Chinese tea,” said Tan. “You can drink it here or buy the leaves for drinking at your home.”
There are two kinds of tea processing. The CTC (Cut-Tear-Curl) method is what most people are familiar with. Tea leaves are sent through a machine that cuts, tears, and curls them into small pellets. This process is for teabags and brewing quickly. It is a lower quality tea.
Lamian China will be offering tea processed in the Orthodox (or “Long Leaf”) method. The tea leaves are delicately handled to ensure minimal breakage. In this process, teas are rolled, preserving the aromatic compounds, and retaining the tea leave’s complex flavors.
Three types of tea will be available this spring. Lamian China will offer Pu’er, a variety of fermented black tea traditionally produced in Yunnan Province (southwestern China), Tie Guanyin, a variety of oolong tea that originated in the 19th century in Fujian province (southeastern China), and a superior green tea.
“Right now, I am only serving common green tea from China,” said Tan. “The green tea I will be serving will be very good for your health.”
Along with the tea, Tan plans to sell tea sets. Chinese people attach great importance to what kind of tea set they use. They believed that the tea set affects the flavor and experience of the tea. Tan will open his restaurant early to experience tea drinking. From 10:00 to noon, Lamian China will only be offering the high-quality teas. After that and until 9 p.m., both tea and food will be served.
Lamian is open Wednesday through Monday, so if you are interested in enjoying what is considered the best and probably the most unique Chinese food in Cuenca, head on over to El Vergel.
Lamian China, Av. Florencia Astudillo between Av. del Estadio and Alfonso Cordero, Cuenca 010204, 098-636-3066, https://www.facebook.com/lamianchina/
Photos by Stephen Vargha
Stephen Vargha’s new book about Cuenca, “Una Nueva Vida – A New Life” is available at Amazon in digital and paperback formats.