China's beef with 33-cent soup

Forced by a price cap to keep the staple meal cheap, owners are accused of skimping on meat.

Deng Derong cracks his hard-boiled egg against the wooden table, peels it, and drops the contents into his steaming soup bowl. As his chopsticks stir the pungent broth, a line of customers head past his table to the counter at the back of his drab restaurant.

Mr. Deng, a retired soldier who sports a white cotton trilby hat and black safari suit, bends to his morning bowl of beef noodle soup. The dish is a daily staple in Lanzhou, a city of 3.2 million stretched along the upper Yellow River,where generations of cooks have perfected its combination of hand-pulled noodles, peppery, oily broth, and tiny chunks of tender beef.

"This dish is for everyone. I eat it in winter, in summer. It's cheap," he says.

The last point is the most salient. On the menu outside Deng's local eatery, a large bowl of beef noodles, or "niu rou mian," costs 33 cents. (An egg is extra.) Across the city, at hundreds of similar noodle shops, though not all, the price is the same.

This coincidence is explained by a recent government decision to cap the price of beef noodles in Lanzhou, after restaurant owners tried to raise prices. The policy has drawn national attention, at a time of soaring national food prices that pushed inflation last month to a 10-year high.

Critics call it a throwback to China's old planned economy that doesn't tackle the problem of rising prices for meat and eggs, and a dozen or so other ingredients found in a bowl of beef noodle soup.

But proponents say that lowly paid workers in Lanzhou's factories need a filling meal, and nothing hits the spot like a spicy bowl of noodle soup. Sure, the cost of living is going up in China – housing is a constant grumble here, as in many cities – but anyone can slurp their way to contentment on a cold morning.

That's an argument that Deng picks up, as he puts down his bowl.

"Apartments here are too expensive, and I can't afford one. But I can afford beef noodles. If I don't have an apartment, I can always dig a hole in the mountains and live there. And I'd still get to eat beef noodles," he says.

Some consumers in Lanzhou grumble that the price cap, which took effect June 26, has led noodle shops to skimp on ingredients, especially the beef. "I like the low price, but I think the quality has gone down," says Zhang Shipeng, a businessman who says he eats a bowl every morning. "It's a habit."

Lanzhou's beef noodle business is dominated by ethnic Hui, Muslims who once plied the famed Silk Road that led here. So when noodle shops began to raise their prices, they were accused of operating a cartel. Restaurant owners deny this and say it was simply a common reaction to declining profit margins. Some have defied the price cap, without being penalized, but most appear resigned to the policy.

The key to the dish, say aficionados, is the spicy broth, whose exact ingredients are usually a closely guarded family secret, and the thick noodles, which are pulled by hand into long strands, slapped on a table, and thrown into a bubbling pot.

The server scoops the noodles into a bowl and adds a generous pouring of reddish-brown broth. A handful of chopped herbs, onions, and a pinch of beef, and it's ready to go.

Across town at the city's most storied noodle shop, the line stretches into the street. Run by the grandson of its founder, Ma Zilu charges the princely sum of 46 cents per bowl of beef noodles, and isn't short of takers.

Behind the counter is a silver placard from the Lanzhou Beef Noodle Restaurant Ratings and Inspection Committee that certifies this as a "super-level" restaurant. That allows it to ignore the cap and set its own prices for its clientele of regulars and tourists.

One die-hard loyalist is Zhang Yuanbiao, who brings his family to eat at Ma Zilu every morning. He says the extra cents are well spent, as the broth is unbeatable. A trader who tracks the markets, he sniffs at the idea of a price cap for run-of-the-mill restaurants. "The policy won't work. The price of commodities like beef and oil keeps rising, so how can it work?" he asks.

Back at the first restaurant, kitchen manager Wang Zhiqiang agrees to talk during a lull in the morning rush. Most noodle shops close by 2 p.m., though some fast-food chains open late. Mr. Wang took up the noodle trade five years ago after he lost his factory job, and uses a recipe his mother taught him.

When he raised his price in June, he lost some regular customers. Now that the price has gone back down to 33 cents, they've drifted back, but he's barely scraping by. The price of white pepper has doubled in a year, he says. "As a restaurant owner, of course we don't want to raise the price for our customers. I know it's a daily staple."

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