Tucked away underneath a busy car park in JLT’s Cluster F sits an unassuming noodle house, which is capturing the hearts of foodies across the UAE.
The unpretentious charm and authentic taste of northern China being dished up at San Wan restaurant has helped ignite a movement across the country, with hand-pulled noodles the veritable flavour of the month.
Case in point: #handpullednoodles has been used more than 27 million times on TikTok alone.
My visit to San Wan comes barely an hour after the restaurant opens, but already there is a queue outside, made up of first-time customers keen to taste what the fuss is all about and seasoned regulars returning for more.
Each time the door opens, I revel in the aroma of simmering broths filling the air, as the sound of fresh dough being slapped on a stainless steel surface draws my attention to the kitchen.
A glass panel is all that separates diners from the open kitchen, allowing them to watch San Wan’s now-viral hand-pulling process up close.
The fresh noodles are all expertly stretched to order. Barely a minute passes before the chef is readying the next batch. Diners stand and admire, often watching through their phones.
When he finally has a minute, owner Hadi Abbas sits down with me to try to unpack the success formula – of both his restaurant and the recipe at large.
“These traditional noodles follow a simple recipe, but taste great because of the quality of the ingredients,” says Abbas. “All our ingredients come from China; even the flour is imported because it must be a specific fine flour that’s high in protein. This is what makes it elastic.”
Abbas says diners have waited for up to two hours for a table, and says one of his proudest moments was when Egyptian footballer and Liverpool superstar Mohamed Salah stopped by on a recent visit to Dubai.
The traditional biang biang noodles are San Wan’s top seller – a hearty bowl of wide hand-pulled noodles sitting in a base of soya sauce and Chinese black vinegar. “If you put the hot oil directly on the soya and vinegar, it’ll just bubble up. It needs to trickle down to be effective,” Abbas explains. “Then it’s mixed by the customer and they get a balance of all the flavours. It’s actually a vegan dish, but you can add chicken or other meat if you wish.”
The lunchtime rush shows no signs of stopping as, just minutes after sitting down to speak to me, Abbas asks if we can move to the cafe next door to free up a table to help ease the queue of hungry diners.
Centuries of success
Hand-pulled noodles may be taking the UAE by storm in recent months, but Abbas says they’ve been a staple food in northern China for thousands of years.
Before modern machinery, the art of making hand-pulled noodles meant carefully hand-twisting the dough before stretching and folding into an increasing number of strands. Thickness depends on the amount of folds, with the thinnest noodles being folded thousands of times.
Along with the fresh taste, another noticeable difference between hand-pulled and machine-made noodles is the chewier, doughier texture of the former that allows them to soak up more flavour.
TikTokers around the world have been keen to get in on the act with thousands trying the viral sensation. Many share home-made recipes using just four key ingredients – flour, salt, water and oil.
The simplicity of the dough along with the novelty of slapping it on to a kitchen surface as it’s stretched makes it the perfect recipe for content creators looking to cook up some views.
UAE restaurants pulling in the crowds
In the Emirates, hand-pulled noodles have been rapidly growing in popularity since the turn of the year, with a number of restaurants offering unique flavours and even live performances.
HaiDiLao Hot Pot’s famous dancing noodles have made their way to the Chinatown district of Dubai Mall. Diners are treated to a live show where the chef will spin around your table, quite literally, stretching the noodles before dunking them into a tasty broth.
Chefs at Sofitel The Palm’s Hong Loong restaurant, meanwhile, invite guests to watch the mesmerising noodle-making process as traditional techniques are used to create popular dishes such as chicken bak mie goreng.
Meat-lovers can also enjoy hand-pulled noodle soup, a century-old dish, at Dubai Hills’ wallet-friendly Lanzhou Beef Noodles.
Abu Dhabi residents can transport themselves to the streets of Hong Kong and enjoy authentic Cantonese street food at Dai Pai Dong at the Rosewood hotel on Al Maryah Island. Here you’ll find delicious home-made family dishes that date back generations, including hand-pulled noodles.
Those looking for a cheaper alternative can head to the cozy Dragon Bao Bao on Electra Street, where you’ll be warmly welcomed at one of five tables to enjoy a generous serving of hand-pulled braised beef noodles.
Another option for those in the capital looking for a quick but tasty takeaway is All Directions. You get bang for your buck with its enormous hand-pulled noodle soup.
The UAE is no stranger to restaurants looking to make their food stand out on the diverse culinary scene, and the demand for this Chinese staple looks set to soar. “Making these noodles is like an art form and people are clearly interested,” says Abbas with a big smile. “We take noodles very seriously and we’re already, pun unintended, looking at ways to expand.”