Flour. Water. A pinch of salt.
It’s a simple recipe, but in the hands of master noodler (yes, I made that word up) Chef Gene Wu the end result is anything but simple.
Rolled, rested, stretched and stretched and stretched.
Thwacked forcefully upon a wooden table over and over again, separated into strands and plunged into boiling water for three minutes then doused with hot oil, chili flakes, garlic and cilantro — what started as the simplest of doughs has been transformed into a bowl of tender, comfortingly chewy noodles that keep you coming back for more.
Wu shared his noodling secrets with a group of 30 curious onlookers Monday night at the Boott Cotton Mills Museum as part of the Lowell National Historical Park’s Lowell Folklife Series, programming that David Blackburn, LHNP Chief of Cultural Resources and Programs, explained aims to “bring the spirit of the Folk Festival all year round.”
Wu came to the United States in 1997 from Xi’an, Shaanxi, China to study Chemistry.
Xi’an, he explained, is located in a landlocked mountainous region of China. It is very dry, too dry to grow rice, so wheat is the grain of choice. It is used to make flatbread and noodles. The particular type of hand-pulled noodles for which the region, and Wu are famous are called biang, biang mian, named for the banging noise the smooth stretchy dough makes as it is slammed against the table. The beating, Wu explained, helps to strengthen the noodle (not to mention the chef’s arms).
Wu did work as a chemist for 12 years and he loved the work, but something was pulling at him. Growing up in his grandparents’ restaurant in Xi’an, Wu washed dished, pots, pans and floors from the age of 7. He loved being there, watching the chefs and aspiring to be like them one day.
“I had a lot of fun in the restaurant kitchen and still do,” he said. “It was my childhood dream, it was always there.”
On Thanksgiving Day 2011, Wu opened Gene’s Chinese Flatbread Cafe at 257 Littleton Road in Chelmsford. This is not your father’s lo mein; the Cafe specializes in a small menu of fresh, authentic dishes from Xi’an where flatbread stuffed with flavorful slow cooked five-spice pork, biang biang mian and lamb noodle soup are king.
Today his 7-year-old daughter Ava spends time in her father’s restaurant kitchen the way he did in his grandparents’ kitchen so many years ago.
To see the Cafe’s full menu, visit http://www.genescafe.com/
To keep up to date on programming offered by the Lowell National Historical Park, visit www.nps.gov/lowe/