Imperial Tea Court Stars Noodles and Tea

Roy Fong of Berkeley’s Imperial Tea Court believes in making hand-pulled noodles the way of the ancients.


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Hand-pulling noodles at Berkeley’s Imperial Noodles in an arduous task demanding deft wrists and strong arms.

Photo by Lori Eanes

Now that packets of instant ramen occupy entire supermarket aisles, the actual crafting of Asian noodles remains comparatively unconsidered.

Yet instant noodles—and even their slightly superior fresh but machine-made cousins—bear only a scant resemblance to stretchy, chewy, gluten-tastic hand-pulled Chinese mian, as served at Oakland Chinatown’s Shan Dong Restaurant and North Berkeley’s Imperial Tea Court.

“Noodles are the staple of northern Chinese cuisine, just as rice is to southern Chinese cuisine,” explains Imperial Tea Court owner Roy Fong. “And those noodles have always been handmade, since this is the most economical and practical way of producing a meal.”

The noodle-pulling process requires keen eyes, deft wrists, and strong arms and is so physically demanding that perfection can take as much as 10 years of practice, top mian-masters claim.

It starts with kneading basic flour-water dough into a blob, then whomping that blob onto a short, thick log on a hard, lightly floured work surface. Seizing this log with both hands, the maker then pulls it gently apart in midair.

Then comes a theatrical, arms-wide-open series of wild, whipping pulls, twists, fold-overs and slams, during which the ever-stretchier dough resembles a lasso, a jump-rope, a hammock, and a noose, then finally a skein of string as it subdivides seemingly magically into multitudinous strands, which are then rapidly sliced and briefly boiled.

At Imperial Tea Court, they’re a best-selling entrée—“just the way they’ve been made for thousands of years: with organic flour, water, sea salt, and a lot of elbow grease,” Fong said. He is a noted international tea master and ordained Taoist priest.

Tossed simply and classically with beef, chicken, shrimp, spicy pork, Mandarin chicken, or greens with fiery chili oil, the hand-pulled noodles pair perfectly with the restaurant’s vast array of black, green, white, yellow, herbal, floral, puerh and other teas—served hot, iced and/or infused old-schoolishly in a lidded china bowl, gaiwan style.

“Noodles made the right way make everything else so much better,” Fong says. “I love noodles and I love tea. They compliment each other so well.”

Imperial Tea Court, 1511 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley, 510-540-8888, www.ImperialTea.com

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