A Quick trip to Hong Kong

R0130612

In October I was headed to China to visit some students at their internship sites in Shenzhen, and decided to stop in Hong Kong on the way. It was also cheaper to fly into Hong Kong than Shenzhen.

This is where is all started for me. I lived in Hong Kong for a year and a half back in the early 80’s and this was my first exposure to Chinese culture and the language. In fact, I learned Cantonese before I ever studied Mandarin at University. I still speak Cantonese but it is a bit rusty these days. In my early career I did quite a bit of work with Cantonese coauthoring a textbook series and teaching Cantonese courses at BYU.

Hong Kong is a dynamic, exciting place, and it has changed much over the years. Each time I go, I am amazed at how the skyline changes. Considerable amounts of land has been reclaimed into Victoria Harbor to make room for development.

With only a day and a half, I naturally focused on eating—Cantonese pastries, dimsum, chasiu, and a few other things. It was also fun to just walk the streets. I usually stay in a small hotel in the Mongkok District, on the same street I used to live on back in 1983. It’s a bit nostalgic and I don’t like the heavy tourism district of Tsim Sha Tsui. Hong Kong is a very crowded place. Back in the 80’s, the Mongkok District was considered one of the most densely populated places on the planet with 144,000 people per square kilometer.

R0130573

Street in Mongkok

R0130554

Another Mongkok street

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Night markets abound in the Mongkok area

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The famous “Ladies Street” market

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

A couple getting their fortune told

R0130572

R0130577

Hong Kong street food

R0130588

Hong Kong subway: always seems to be crowded

R0130590

The infamous  and chaotic Chungking Mansion in TST District

Not everyone shops in grocery stores. You can still find meat and produce markets all over Hong Kong, tucked away on side streets.

R0130591

R0130595

Cantonese food is known for their roast meats, particularly roast goose, salt baked chicken, roast suckling pig, and chasiu (a bbq roasted pork).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Lunch; in the little bowl is a dipping sauce made with scallion, ginger, and oil.

R0130597

Working class dimsum restaurant, full of older people.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Beef balls

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Siumai (steamed shrimp dumplings)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Choisum (caixin)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Fried noodles

Most Westerners do not care for Chinese desserts, usually because they are not that sweet, and very different from what we are used to. However, Cantonese pastries are the exception, at least in Hong Kong. Two delicious pastries are a coconut bun, called gāi méi baū in Cantonese, and a pineapple bread, called bō lòh baū in Cantonese. I always have to get some of this delicious bread when I am in Hong Kong.

R0130542

gāi méi baū

R0130543

bō lòh baū

And finally a couple shots of some typical Cantonese dishes.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

After our short trip, we hopped on the train for the short 40 minute ride to the border and on to Shenzhen. It was a nice quick trip, though the heat was pretty unbearable, in the 90’s with high humidity. Oh well, that’s what you get in Hong Kong some times of the year.

To the people, food is heaven (民以食為天)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

This saying, 民以食為天 mín yǐ shí wéi tiān, is a good indication that the Chinese are pretty serious about food and eating. I have written previously on this blog about food terminology in the Chinese language. Suffice it to say, the Chinese love to eat, and when they are not eating,  they are talking about eating, or planning what to eat next. China is truly one of the great cuisines of the world, and one of the ancient cuisines that has been around for a very long time. In fact, during the Song Dynasty (960-1279 A.D.) one could find more than 200 dishes served at a banquet, including 41 dishes of fish, shrimp, snails, pork, goose, duck mutton, pideon, etc., 42 dishes of fruits and sweetmeats, 20 dishes of vegetables, 9 of boiled rice, 29 dishes of dried fish, 17 different drinks, 19 kinds of pies, and 57 desserts. In the capitol city of of Hangzhou you could find 18 different kinds of beans and soya beans, 9 kinds of rice, 11 kinds of apricots, 8 of pears, and so on.  (See Gernet, Jacques. Daily Life in China on the Eve of the Mongol Invasion, 1250-1276). Think about what was going on in Europe during this time.

In China’s ancient book of poetry, The Book of Songs (shī jīng 詩經), published around the 5th century B.C., there are 130 references to plants, 200 to animals, 19 fishes, 38 types of poultry, the seasonings mentioned include salt, honey, malt sugar, ginger, cinnamon, and pepper. By contrast, the Bible only mentions 29 food items.

There are at least three reasons we can contribute to China’s long obsession with food. One, there has been a very long, sustained civilization. In other words, there has been a long time to develop the many food sources. Two, geographical diversity. China is a land of many geographical features, from desert to jungle to fertile river plains. And three, for much of China’s history the people have been threatened with famine. This has resulted in the Chinese being very creative with all food sources.

三大菜系 sān dà cài xì: Three General Food Categories

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The first and biggest category is Han/Man 汉/满 which refers to the Han or Chinese majority and Manchurian (the rulers of the last imperial dynasty. This accounts for the vast majority of all Chinese food in China.

DSC_6913

The second category is Muslim or kosher cuisine, referred to in Chinese as 清真, and the third category is vegetarianism 素 which is often associated with Buddhism.

DSCN1462

八大菜系 bā dà cài xì: The Eight Culinary Tradtions

Chinese food, represented under the broad Han/Man category is often broken down into eight distinct culinary categories, which are generally divided by geographical region.

1. Chuān     川  Sichuan

2. Huì          徽  Anhui

3. Lǔ           鲁  Shandong

4. Mín         闽  Fujian

5. Sū           苏  Jiangsu

6. Yuè         粤  Guangdong,   Hong Kong

7.Xiāng       湘  Hunan

8. Zhè          浙  Zhejiang

四大菜系 sì dà cài xì: The Four Major Culinary Traditions

This list can be further simplified into four main geographical areas that incorporate the eight ares listed above. They are:

Lǔ                    鲁  Northern China

Huáiyáng         淮扬  Eastern China

                        (Lower Yangtze River Basin, incl. Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Anhui)

Chuān              川  Western China (Sichuan, Chongqing, Guizhou, Yunnan)

Yuè                  粤  Guangdong, Hong Kong

Northern Cuisine 鲁菜 lǔ cài (Shandong Cuisine)

DSC_8254

• Wheat-based foods: noodles, steamed buns, fried flat breads

• Seasonings: garlic, chives, leeks, star anise, sweet plum sauces

• Poultry , especially duck, lamb, beef, pork

DSCN1952

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

DSCN1947

 

 

Eastern Cuisine 淮扬菜 huáiyáng cài (Jiangsu Cuisine)

DSC_7245

• Land of fish and rice

• Light flavors that emphasize the natural flavor of the food; not too salty or sweet

• Famous for soy sauces, vinegars, and rice wines

• Stir-frying and steaming most common

DSCN1633

DSCN1658

DSC_7553

DSC_7385

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Western Cuisine 川菜 chuān cài (Sichuan Cuisine)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

• Land of abundance

• Liberal use of spice (chili peppers, Sichuan peppercorns)

• Lots of garlic, ginger, bamboo shoots, mushrooms, pork, chicken

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Southern Cuisine 粤菜 yuè cài (Guangdong/Cantonese Cuisine)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

• China’s haute cuisine

• Tastes and techniques a blend of China and the West

• Light flavors; delicate, fresh, tender, crisp

• Known for roasted meats: suckling pig, duck, chicken, BBQ pork

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Spectacular Meals: Kunming (昆明 kūnmíng)

一颗印 yì kēyìn Restaurant in Kunming

一颗印 yì kēyìn Restaurant in Kunming

One may not think of Kunming as a culinary hotspot, but it does have some very good restaurants. The food has a definite Sichuan influence with the liberal use of chili peppers and some Sichuan peppercorns, but it is not as spicy as mainstream Sichuan cuisine. Another wonderful thing about Kunming, and Yunnan in general, is the ethnic minority populations. The unique cuisines of these various groups have found their way into Chinese cooking to give it some interesting and delicious variations. For example, one does not think of cheese in Chinese cuisine, but it can be found in Kunming, and is probably an influence from one of the ethnic minority groups.

One night my friend and colleague Michael and I found a superb restaurant in Kunming. We were there doing research on Sichuan cuisine and the many variations to it in the surrounding areas. I think we found this restaurant on a Chinese food blog or forum. It was called, 一颗印昆明老房子 yì kēyìn kūnmíng lǎo fángzi and was in an old courtyard style house tucked away in a back alley. The house was more than a hundred years old and had an historical plaque out front. People seem to eat early in Kunming; the restaurants empty out by about 8:30 pm. We thoroughly enjoyed sitting in the courtyard on a beautiful clear day, about 70 degrees, blue skies with a few white puffy clouds. The restaurant was very crowded, as good restaurants usually are.

Eating in the courtyard.

Eating in the courtyard.

Our practice when visiting a new restaurant is to talk to the server about their speciality dishes. In other words, what are the dishes that the restaurant is known for. We also try to get a sense for the local food scene. Our server at this particular restaurant was pretty helpful. At one point she called another girl over to help answer our questions. We wanted to order local specialties and were not disappointed. We ordered six dishes.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

A spectacular meal.

A spectacular meal.

1. 瓦掌风肉 wǎzhǎng fēngròu, Pork on a curved tile

Pork on a hot curved tile.

Pork belly on a hot curved tile.

Yunnan is famous for their hams, and I suppose this dish follows in that tradition. This fatty pork had a deep, smoky flavor similar to bacon. But it was not as salty and had a more “wild” flavor than the bacon we eat here in the U.S. It was fatty and rich, and was served, and probably cooked, sizzling on a hot curved roof tile. This was a great dish, not typical of many Chinese dishes.

2. 云腿夹乳饼 yúntuǐ jiā rǔbǐng, Yunnan ham in cheese

Yunnan ham with cheese.

Yunnan ham with cheese.

This is the first time I have eaten cheese at a Chinese restaurant; I have eaten yak cheese in other parts of Yunnan and in Tibet, but that was Tibetan food, not Chinese. This was a unique dish with tender slices of salty, flavorful ham with a mellow, fresh white cheese. The cheese had the consistency of a fresh mozzarella, but a little firmer, and was quite tasty. I’m not sure how popular this dish is with the Chinese, but we really enjoyed it.

Nice texture.

Nice texture.

3. 铁板包浆豆腐 tiěbǎn bāojiāng dòufu, Tofu with fermented soybeans

Tofu with fermented soybeans

Tofu with fermented soybeans

This was a fried tofu dish served on a hot iron plate. I really don’t know what the 包浆 bāojiāng in the name of this dish refers to.  The tofu was firm and chewy on the outside and soft on the inside as a result of being fried. This dish also had a delicious sauce made with fermented and seasoned soybeans 豆豉 dòuchǐ (see this post for more on this wonderful seasoning: https://intothemiddlekingdom.com/2014/01/27/spectacular-meals-guiyang-%E8%B4%B5%E9%98%B3/). Seasoned and fermented soybeans are a wonderful mix of chewy and crunchy with an earthy, salty taste. They go well with the blandness of tofu. The tofu was served on a bed of sauteed onions. I am huge fan of tofu and 豆豉 dòuchǐ, so I really loved this dish. the flavors were complex and the tofu was cooked to perfection. I especially like tofu that is fried like this as it gives it a nice meaty texture.

Onions, fermented & seasoned soybeans, and tofu.

Onions, fermented & seasoned soybeans, and tofu.

4. 外婆菜炒鸡蛋 wàipó cài chǎo jīdàn, Grandmother’s vegetable with scrambled egg

Scrambled egg with vegetables.

Scrambled egg with vegetables.

I love eggs in any form, especially in Chinese food. The Chinese use eggs quite frequently in all the different kinds of regional cuisines. This was an excellent dish. I’m not exactly sure what the “grandmother’s vegetable” refers to in the Chinese name of this dish. This particular dish had little bits of seasoned pork, some fermented soybeans, some bell pepper, and of course scrambled egg. It may be that this is one of those dishes where you can throw in whatever vegetables you may have on hand. This dish was very flavorful, probably due to the pork and soybeans.

Chinese style scrambled eggs with pork and vegetables.

Chinese style scrambled eggs with pork and vegetables.

5. 清炒芥兰 qīngchǎo jièlán, Fresh stir-fried Chinese broccoli

Chinese broccoli or mustard greens.

Chinese broccoli or mustard greens.

This is a pretty basic dish that you can find just about anywhere in China. This particular version was cooked with garlic, dried red pepper (the Sichuan influence) and some small bits of mushroom. Nothing extraordinary, but quite good.

6. 清炒豆尖 qīngchǎo dòujiān, Fresh stir-fried bean sprouts

A type of bean sprout?

A type of bean sprout?

This was a local vegetable, which based on the name, is probably some kind of a bean sprout. Again, nothing extraordinary, but very delicious. No Chinese meal is complete without some good stir-fried greens.

This was one of those spectacular meals that I have eaten in China in the past couple years. One of the things that made it so good was the variety of the dishes and the uniqueness of the local flavors. If I were ever back in Kunming I would certainly go back to this fine restaurant.

My research companion deep in his work.

My research companion deep in his work.

 

Spectacular Meals: Guiyang (贵阳 guìyáng)

The name of the restaurant was simply 四合院 sì hé yuàn; this is what traditional courtyard houses were called in China.

The name of the restaurant was simply 四合院 sì hé yuàn; this is what traditional courtyard houses were called in China.

April, 2013 my side kick Michael and I were in Guiyang for a few days to check out the cuisine. We weren’t expecting much, especially when we arrived at the bus station outside town. It was pretty gritty and teaming with peasants and workers. Guizhou is China’s poorest province. We boarded a local bus that brought us downtown. From there we walked to our hotel. We were pleasantly surprised at what we found in Guiyang. We ate well. There was a definite influence from Sichuan cuisine with spicy chili peppers, Sichuan pepper, and fermented soy beans. One night we had a spectacular meal. We read about it on a Chinese foodie blog. It wasn’t easy to find tucked away down an unmarked alley.

The restaurant was at the back of this alley where the red lanterns are hanging.

The restaurant was at the back of this alley and on the right, where the red lanterns are hanging.

We were excited when we arrived as the place was packed, with lots of people waiting outside in the courtyard. It was loud, crowded, dirty, chaotic. Perfect. All the ingredients for a good meal in China.

People waiting outside in the courtyard.

People waiting outside in the courtyard.

Inside the restaurant. Loud, crowded and trash all over the floor.

Inside the restaurant. Loud, crowded and trash all over the floor.

The kitchen spilled over into the dining room.

The kitchen spilled over into the dining room.

We decided on five dishes. We typically talk to the server and ask what the restaurant is famous for, what are the best dishes. We wanted to get some popular local dishes, dishes that were typical of Guiyang. We were not disappointed with her recommendations. This is what we ate.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

1. 蒜泥笋尖 suànní sǔnjiān (mashed garlic bamboo shoots)

A local vegetable with garlic; maybe it was a type of bamboo based on the name of the dish, but it didn't seem like it.

A local vegetable with garlic

We were a little perplexed by the name of this dish. It certainly didn’t look or taste like bamboo shoots. The waitress told us it was a local, popularly eaten vegetable. It was  prepared very simply, stir-fried with garlic and was crunchy, buttery, and delicious.

Crunchy, buttery, and delicious.

Crunchy, buttery, and delicious.

2. 玉排三线 yùpái sānxiàn (?)

Eggplant with green chilis

Tofu with green chilis

The name of this dish tells us nothing about what it is. Literally it is something like “jade rows, three strings.” It probably has something to do with the symmetric tofu glistening like jade. The three strings refers to the slender cut chili peppers. This was a pretty good dish. The sliced tofu was stir-fried with fatty pork, green chili peppers, red bell pepper, a little tomato, and some ginger. The sauce was rich and complex. The crunchy vegetables provided a nice counterbalance to the smooth, silky tofu. One of the many wonderful things about tofu is that is readily absorbs the flavors of whatever it is cooked with. Tofu is eaten all over China and I like to see all the different ways it is prepared in different regions of China.

Silky tofu.

Silky tofu.

3. 火焰牛肉 huǒyàn niǔròu (Flame cooked beef)

Tender beef and vegetables served over a flame.

Tender beef and vegetables served over a flame.

As you can see from the photo this dish was served on a metal grating over a plate. A flame was placed under the grate to continue the cooking and to keep it warm at the table. The beef was very tender—you could cut it with a fork, if you had one. It was cooked with garlic, ginger, purple onion, green pepper, green chili, red bell pepper, all on top of a base of the green tops of scallions. Ground Sichuan pepper corn was sprinkled over the top. This dish was excellent. I’m not a big beef eater, but his was very tender and fresh. The vegetables provided a good balance of spicy and mild flavors.

Very tender beef.

Very tender beef.

One more shot of this excellent dish.

One more shot of this excellent dish.

4. 回锅肉 huí guō ròu (Twice cooked pork)

Twice cooked pork; or more literally, "back to the pot pork."

Twice cooked pork; or more literally, “back to the pot pork.”

There is nothing really special about this dish. It is one of those ubiquitous dishes in China that can be found just about anywhere. It probably comes from Sichuan Province somewhere, but it is one of those dishes that has become Chinese comfort food and everyone has their own version of it, just like Mapo Tofu, scrambled eggs with tomatoes and so on. The dish is made with fatty pork belly that is simmered in water with various seasonings. It is then cooled, sliced thin, and thrown into the wok to cook with the vegetables. We sometimes like to order these very common dishes to see how it differs in different regions of China. This was a pretty good version of this popular dish.

Cooked with lots of sliced scallion and a little minced chili pepper.

Cooked with lots of sliced scallion and a little minced chili pepper.

5. 农家茄子 nóngjiā qiézi (Peasant family eggplant)

Peasant family eggplant.

Peasant family eggplant.

I saved the best dish for last. This was truly an extraordinary dish. The thing that made this dish so good, and unique to this part of China, were the fermented and seasoned soy beans (豆豉 dòuchǐ) that you can see smothering the eggplant. Earlier on this trip when we were in a rural part of Sichuan Province we were in a small village where they were selling numerous variations of these seasoned and fermented soy beans. Some versions had beef and others just had chili peppers and who knows what other delectable seasonings.

Vendor selling fermented and seasoned soy beans.

Vendor selling fermented and seasoned soy beans.

This one is a "fresh, spicy" version.

This one is a “fresh, spicy” version.

This dish was prepared by taking a long eggplant and cutting it lengthwise, then cutting it crosswise and deep frying it. The eggplant ended up in chunky sticks, like big french fries. The soy beans were then mixed with minced pork, dried chili, and a little green chili. The soy beans have a wonderful chewy texture with the occasional crunch for those that got cooked a bit too much in the wok. They are at once salty and spicy and full of rich, dark, earthy flavor (not at all like soy sauce). Eggplant, like tofu readily absorbs the flavors of what it is cooked with. This dish was a revelation and I just couldn’t get over how delicious the soy beans were. It was by far our favorite dish at this meal. Fermented and seasoned soy beans are very popular throughout Sichuan, Guizhou, and Yunnan Provinces. Each region within these areas have their own versions. It is truly a wonderful ingredient. I would love to find some here in the States.

Just the sight of this dish is driving me mad (with hunger).

Just the sight of this dish is driving me mad (with hunger).

One last shot of this extraordinary dish.

One last shot of this extraordinary dish.

We walked out of this tucked away restaurant marveling at how good the meal was. We couldn’t believe that Guiyang, the capital of Chinese poorest province (Guizhou) would have such fantastic food. Though the other meals we had in Giuyang were not quite this good, they were impressive. We ate well for the three days we were there. The other highlights were some really good bowls of noodles.

Michael enjoying the meal.

Michael enjoying the meal.

Good meals make me happy!

Good meals make me happy!

Spectacular Meals: Chengdu (成都 chéngdū)

Chen Mapo Doufu restaurant in Chengdu.

Chen Mapo Doufu restaurant in Chengdu.

Chengdu is a wonderful city for eating. It is one of the great culinary centers of China and the heart of Sichuan cuisine (川菜 chuāncài). Sichuan cuisine is mostly known in the West as the spicy food of China. It is true that there is some truly spicy food here, but it’s not all about chili peppers. There are quite a few dishes that have no heat at all. But the most famous dishes tend to be pretty spicy.

In April my friend and colleague and I spent a week in Chengdu doing research on Sichuan cuisine. The research was rigorous and demanding requiring us to eat as many Sichuan dishes as we could in the short time that we had. Our first evening in Chengdu we went to the restaurant 陳麻婆豆腐 chén mápó dòufu (Chen’s Mapo Tofu). This restaurant has been around since 1862 and claims to be the originator of the famous Sichuan dish, Mapo Doufu, a spicy tofu dish. We had read about this restaurant and wanted to give it a try. We are both quite fond of Mapo Doufu and I have eaten it all over China, but never at its source.

Inside the restaurant.

Inside the restaurant.

We had a very memorable meal. All five dishes that we ordered that night were excellent and I still think of that spectacular meal.

An exquisite dinner.

An exquisite dinner.

Below I describe each of the five dishes that we ordered.

1. Mapo Doufu 麻婆豆腐 mápó dòufu

Mapo Doufu

Mapo Doufu

What made this Mapo Doufu different from all others I have had was the Sichuan pepper or 花椒 huājiāo. This is sometimes translated as prickly ash. It isn’t a true pepper. It is a seed that grows on a bush. The husk is dried, ground, and added to dishes. It produces a numbing heat that the Chinese call 麻辣 málà literally meaning “numb-spicy.” It really does numb your lips, tongue, and mouth. It is a very pleasant sensation, though many Westerners don’t like it. This particular dish had a great deal of Sichuan pepper mixed into the dish, as well as quite a bit of freshly ground Sichuan pepper sprinkled on top. It was very numbing. The dish also had just a bit of ground beef to give it a fuller flavor and it was swimming in hot red chili oil. It was quite salty and as I mentioned very spicy, both in the traditional sense and the numbing sense.

You can see the freshly ground Sichuan pepper.

You can see the freshly ground Sichuan pepper.

2. Smoked Ribs 烟熏骨 yānxūn gǔ

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

This was a dish that was not spicy at all. These pork ribs were smokey and meaty,  seasoned with black pepper and maybe just a hint of ginger. The meat was very tender, literally falling off the bone. And the flavor was deep and rich. We really enjoyed this dish, and it was so different than your typical Chinese dish. We could have eaten two more plates of this delicious dish. This is the kind of dish that you wake up in the middle of the night thinking about.

A true revelation of Chinese cuisine.

A true revelation of Chinese cuisine.

3. Dry-pot Chicken 干锅鸡 gānguō jī

Sichuan-style fried chicken.

Sichuan-style fried chicken.

This dish was spectacular. From the first bite we were transported to some culinary place we had never imagined. These small pieces of bone-in chicken are deep fried, then cooked in a dry iron pot with the other ingredients. This dish contained whole cloves of garlic, baby bamboo shoots, scallion, lots of dried red chilis, and Sichuan pepper. This chicken had so much flavor—fiery, salty, crispy. It was truly remarkable. This was another dish that we felt like we could eat very night. We had never had fried chicken like this before.

A truly exceptional dish.

A truly exceptional dish.

4. Bean-garlic Fish 豆辫鱼 dòubiàn yǔ

A type of sweet and spicy fish.

A type of sweet and spicy fish.

I’m not really sure how to translate this dish, but who cares, it was delicious. The Chinese typically serve fish whole, that is with the head and tail intact. And why not, the tastiest, most tender part of the meat on a fish is right behind the gills. This fish was steamed then smothered in a sweet and spicy sauce with chili pepper and scallions. It was not that spicy and there was that nice sweet contrast to the chilis. The fish was very tender and the mellow flavor of the fish was nicely enhanced with the rich flavorful sauce. I like fish and I really liked this dish. It was exceptional.

An exceptional steamed fish.

An exceptional steamed fish.

5. Shredded chicken with cold noodles 鸡丝凉粉 jīsī liángfěn

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

There are quite a few cold dishes served in Sichuan cuisine and this was a good one. 凉粉 liángfěn are a bean noodle typically served cold. They are thick and chewy with a light delicate flavor. This dish was seasoned with chili oil, sesame seeds, scallions, and a little minced garlic. On top was shredded chicken just lightly salted. The coolness of the dish was a nice contrast to the other hot dishes. Noodles are pretty important in Sichuan cuisine and there are noodle shops all over Chengdu. Noodles are a traditional fast food in China and in Sichuan they take their noodles pretty seriously.

As we finished this meal (and no we could not finish it all) we were reeling, intoxicated with the rich flavors of these dishes. Our mouths glowed from the heat of chili peppers and Sichuan pepper. Outside it was a cool evening, drizzling softly and this was just the beginning of a memorable few weeks eating in Western China.

Satisfied.

Satisfied.

 

Pig Ears, Really!

Chongqing pig ears

Chongqing pig ears

Be open minded. People in other cultures eat things we would deem inedible or at least not desirable. But sometimes you may be surprised.

I am currently doing research on Chinese culinary culture. In April my friend and colleague and I made a trip to areas of western China where Sichuan cuisine is dominant. We spent a couple days in the city/municipality of Chongqing. Whenever I go to a new city where there is a distinctive cuisine I spend a fair amount of time researching the unique food of that area, and that city particularly. This research includes reading books, (mostly in Chinese because there is so little available in English), reading blogs, both English language and Chinese, reading online Chinese foodie forums, and talking to people from those areas. I have a Chinese food notebook where I make lists of dishes that I want to try in those cities that I visit. Pig ears was not on my list of things to try in Chongqing.

We arrived in Chongqing by train from Chengdu around midday. We transferred to the excellent subway system and rode out to near our hotel. After checking in we were starving so went in search of a close, convenient meal. We found a promising looking place nearby and sat down. We chatted with the lady who owned the restaurant a bit about what we should order. We told her we wanted traditional Chongqing dishes. It was a surprisingly excellent meal. As we were eating the owner and a couple workers came out to talk to us. I think they were intrigued that I was photographing all the dishes and taking notes in my notebook. Indeed they were curious about these two middle-aged foreigners taking such an interest in their food. In the course of our conversation we asked them what we should eat while in Chongqing, and if there were any specialties that were not on our list (I showed them the list of dishes in my notebook). The became very animated and told us that we had to eat at this restaurant just up the street. They said they had a very special dish that was very famous, “pig ears”. We weren’t sure we heard them right, and thought maybe that was just the name of the restaurant and not the actual dish served.

The next day we looked for this restaurant and couldn’t find it. We asked some people on the street and they immediately knew the place and directed us to the restaurant. We had walked right by it. I guess we were looking for a big, fancy restaurant, not the small, nondescript place that is was.

The name of the restaurant is: "Kai Ping Tian Pig Ear noodles."

The name of the restaurant is: “Kai Ban Tian Pig Ear Noodles.”

It was a bit past the lunch hour so most of the workers were out front playing Mahjong. Only two other tables were occupied in the restaurant. Inside there were only four tables, with that many outside as well.

Inside the restaurant

Inside the restaurant

After seeing the name of the restaurant, we presumed that maybe that the shape of the noodles were like a pig ear. There are dozens and dozens of different shapes of noodles in Chinese cuisine. In my research on Northern Chinese food (Lu Cuisine), I read that many chefs there know how to make at least two hundred different shapes of noodles, including “cat’s ear,” which are noodles shaped like a cat’s ear. So, it was not too ridiculous for us to think that maybe this pig ear noodle shop made noodles shaped like a pig’s ear, right?

The bowls of noodles were ordered by weight. We weren’t too sure on how much to order so we played it conservatively and ordered the lesser amount (I think it was 4 liang). While we were waiting for our bowls of noodles, they brought us a bowl of some kind of appetizer. We asked them what it was, and they all laughed and said, as if we were complete idiots, “the pig ears.” And there they were.

Sliced pig ears appetizer

Sliced pig ears appetizer

Of course, the pig ears. We felt a little foolish. So we dug in . . . and they were not bad at all. In fact, they were pretty good. They were a little crunchy, and a little soft, and the chili oil was a bit spicy and quite flavorful. I’ve convinced myself that eating strange things is all psychological. If you can get your mind past it, no problem, strange stuff is often pretty tasty. And this was the case with the sliced pig ears. The were marinated in a chili pepper-vinegar and probably some other seasonings. They were a little hesitant to divulge exactly how they made them. The owner explained to us that her pig ears were famous not only in Chongqing, but all over China. She explained that they also had a mail order business and shipped their famous pig ears all over China. She even brought out a very large binder full of shipping receipts to literally every part of China. She was rather proud of this.

The sign reads: "Red oil pig ears, 1 jin, 40 yuan" 2 ears, 4 yuan

The sign reads: “Red oil pig ears, 1 jin, 40 yuan
2 ears, 4 yuan; (red oil refers to chili pepper oil)

After a few minutes our noodles arrived. This was a really good bowl of noodles. They were fresh pulled chewy noodles cooked perfectly, with minced seasoned pork on top with some fresh fresh spinach.

Fresh noodles with minced pork

Fresh noodles with minced pork

A delicious bowl of noodles

A delicious bowl of noodles

The broth was deep, spicy, rich, and flavorful. Most of the spice was from chili peppers, though there was just a hint of Sichuan pepper. It also contained chopped scallion, garlic, ginger, and oil. It was the kind of broth that you must drink down after you have finished the noodles; that is, if you could after eating the noodles.

The rich broth

The rich broth

After we began eating the noodles, we realized we should have ordered bigger bowls. It was delicious and this was certainly not going to be enough, so we each ordered another bowl. We were good with the one dish (each) of the pig ears though.

Finishing up

Finishing up

The bottom line is that pig ears were not too bad, and the folks in Chongqing make an excellent bowl of noodles.

The Streets of Guangzhou (广州 guǎngzhōu)

Shopping

Shopping & eating

Cantonese culture is close to my heart. Just out of high school I moved to Hong Kong and spent one and a half years there. Over the years I have traveled to Hong Kong and Guangzhou on several occasions. In fact, I learned Cantonese before I ever learned Mandarin. Students often ask me which language I like better. My response is, “It depends on where I am.” I much prefer Cantonese when I am in Hong Kong or the Cantonese speaking areas of Southern China. In fact, it seems that it is still a bit of a novelty for a foreigner to speak Cantonese. It reminded me of what it was like for a foreigner to speak Mandarin back in the 1980’s. Now it seems foreigners speaking Mandarin is not such a big deal.

Though I have been to Guangzhou on several occasions, before this year, my last trip there was in 1998. In late February of this year I spent a couple weeks in Guangzhou and the surrounding area on a research trip. Needless to say, much has changed and I hardly recognized the place. It took me a couple days to get into the swing of things with my Cantonese as I don’t have much opportunity to use it these days and I was definitely rusty. But after a few days I was feeling fairly comfortable. I was very fortunate in that one of my colleagues at BYU is from Guangzhou and I was able to meet her parents and spend some time with them. They showed me the city and introduced me to some excellent Cantonese restaurants. Guangzhou, along with Beijing and Shanghai, is one of China’s most important economic centers. It is also a major metropolitan city in China with major universities, a sophisticated subway system, and significant foreign investment.

The Cantonese are passionate about two things—eating and shopping, and it is evident everywhere in Guangzhou. If they are not eating, they are talking about eating, at the market shopping for ingredients, or at the least thinking about food. Cantonese cuisine is one of the four major cuisines in China with a long and rich history. Restaurants, meat and produce markets, and street vendors are everywhere and it seems the Cantonese are eating at all times of the day and late into the night.

Streetside dimsum

Streetside dimsum

Shop workers taking a lunch break.

Shop workers taking a lunch break.

Roasted meats are an important part of Cantonese cuisine.

Roasted meats are an important part of Cantonese cuisine.

Steamed bread

Steamed bread

Spicy soup

Spicy soup

Sleeping sugar cane juice vendor.

Sleeping sugar cane juice vendor.

Street-side Chinese style fast food restaurant.

Street-side Chinese style fast food restaurant.

Street food.

Street food.

Though there are now large grocery stores all over China, the Cantonese still do a fair amount of shopping in outdoor meat, poultry, and produce markets. They are similar to farmer’s markets here in the U.S. Just a couple decades ago all Chinese shopped this way. At that time most Chinese did not own refrigerators and shopped every day for produce. This habit is still practiced by many Chinese who insist on the freshest ingredients. In the past, it was not uncommon for someone to buy a live chicken, take it home, and let it strut around in the kitchen until time to prepare the meal. Live fish are also bought and either taken home alive, or prepared by the vendor on the spot. These kinds of markets are still around in China though they are a bit harder to find and the Chinese are shopping more and more in grocery stores.

Ginger

Ginger

Grapes

Dry beans

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Grapes

Fishmonger

Fishmonger

Fresh chicken

Fresh chicken

Butcher

Butcher

Dried mushroom shop

Dried mushroom shop

Huge dried mushrooms

Huge dried mushrooms

Preparing dried chrysanthemum flowers for tea

Preparing dried chrysanthemum flowers for tea

Selecting dried fungus

Selecting dried fungus

Tomato vender

Tomato vender

With Guangzhou’s proximity to Hong Kong, the Cantonese have been exposed to the West and Western goods for quite a bit longer than the rest of China. Even back in the eighties Guangzhou received some TV and radio stations from Hong Kong. Hong Kong’s fanatic attitude toward shopping rubbed off on Guangzhou. They is everything from European designer boutiques to tiny shops selling Chinese brands.

Shoppers

Shoppers

Adidas man

Adidas man

Maybelline girls

Maybelline girls

Night market

Night market

Tama Yaki

Tama Yaki

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Ornamental plant street vendor

McDonald's coupons

McDonald’s coupons anyone

Women's shoe shop

Women’s shoe shop

Colorful shoes

Colorful shoes

Boring men's shoes

Boring men’s shoes

Finally, here are a few random shots from Guangzhou.

Guangzhou street just after Chinese New Year

Guangzhou street just after Chinese New Year

Incense

Incense

Worshippers

Worshippers

Learning to ride

Learning to ride

Smile for grandpa

Smile for grandpa