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Chinese stew over noodles

A global surge in food prices hits a popular everyman's dish.

July 28, 2007|Don Lee | Times Staff Writer

LANZHOU, CHINA — Mention this city's name in China and people think beef noodles.

Once served only to royalty, beef noodles, or niurou mian, were brought out of the palace and into ordinary folks' homes about a century ago by Ma Baozi, a member of the Muslim ethnic minority group known as the Hui.

Today, more than 1,000 beef noodle shops cater to this western industrial city of 3 million on the upper reaches of the Yellow River, far from the prosperous eastern metropolises of Shanghai and Shenzhen. The hand-pulled noodle dish is a staple here, a cheap, soothing way for workers who toil in petrochemical plants, oil refineries and heavy machinery factories to fill their bellies.

So when one shop after another bumped up the price of a bowl from 33 cents to 40 cents last month, it came as something of a jolt. Beef noodle prices had risen before, but never as much as 20% in one swoop. Many consumers, concluding that shop owners must have colluded, howled to the government.

"I have no option but to eat less," said Chang Xueqin, 43, who was laid off from an engine factory here several years ago and now drives a cab. "If it keeps increasing like that," he added, "in the end I'll eat like a monk."

But behind the stewing in Lanzhou is a global surge in food prices that is driving up the cost of such things as a latte at a Starbucks in L.A. and a tortilla in Mexico. Food prices worldwide have risen 23% in the last 18 months, according to the International Monetary Fund, partly because of soaring demand for corn to make ethanol.

With farmers shifting to grow more corn, they are producing fewer soybeans and less wheat. That's pushed up prices of grains that feed livestock and poultry, lifting the price of meats, eggs and other goods. Milk in the U.S. costs 10% more than at the start of the year.

In China, meat and poultry prices have increased 20% from a year earlier; eggs are up 28%. Besides higher grain prices, an outbreak of "blue ear disease" at pig farms cut into pork supplies, while growing incomes continue to bolster demand for meat, particularly along China's prosperous east coast.

Even the price of cheap instant noodles is up; Chinese media said this week that it would rise this week 20% to 40%, in part because the cost of palm oil, a major ingredient, had nearly doubled in the last year. Palm oil prices have been driven up by rising demand for biofuel in Europe and strong demand from food sectors in countries such as fast-growing India.

In Lanzhou, the outcry over the beef noodle price hike prompted the local government June 26 to cap the price of a bowl at 33 cents. . Although many consumers cheered, officials and scholars in Beijing criticized Lanzhou authorities for trying to dictate prices in China's market economy.

The row over beef noodles has mushroomed into a national debate, and market forces seem to be prevailing over the government order: Most shops are defying the directive, since there is no penalty for violating the cap.

"The policy is not reasonable," said Ma Jianfeng, who serves up 700 bowls of noodles a day in the city's Xigu district, where the wave of price increases began. So far, he says, the added charge hasn't hurt his business much. A little before 5:30 a.m. Sunday, Ma sat in a booth dispensing noodle tickets to a steady trickle of customers. Steam rose from the kitchen.

"Because the cost is high, it's impossible to lower the price," said the 37-year-old, who like most owners of beef noodle shops is an ethnic Hui. Hui people say running a small business is their only way up the economic ladder. If he followed the government order, Ma says, quality would suffer and that would mean the end of his livelihood.

"You would have less meat, less ingredients, less soup. Customers won't come here anymore."

Beef noodle maker Wei De, 50, is also feeling the pinch. His biggest cost, beef, has jumped more than 20% in the last few months, to $1.30 a pound, and butchers won't throw in bones for free anymore.

Wei learned how to prepare the dish from his father, who was one of Ma Baozi's disciples. For the last 20 years, Wei has been running his nameless shop on Camel Lane in an old Hui neighborhood that evokes the city's past as a major stop on the ancient Silk Road.

In a small backroom, Wei's wife, Ma Bingxiu, pulled noodles in long strands, twirling and slapping them on a table before dropping them into a large coal-fired kettle. Wei says he mixes a special stone-shaped herb grown in the Gobi Desert into the flour, which he says enhances the elasticity and flavor of the noodles.

Wei makes the broth using 14 ingredients, including garlic, cinnamon, radish, nutmeg and, of course, beef. He says he adds a thin layer of beef fat on the surface of the soup to keep it hot.

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