One of my favorite Chinese dishes

I love Chinese food. Eating is what I most look forward to when I travel to China once or twice or three times each year. Some of my favorite dishes are not the fancy stuff you get at banquets, but the simple everyday dishes that you can get at just about any restaurant.

In May I took a group of friends, most of them their first time in China, to a nice restaurant in  Beijing. I had eaten there before and it was a nice balance of well prepared food, cleanliness, without be too expensive. It is off a side street at the northern end of Wangfujing Street and is called Siji Minfu 四季民福 (sìjì mínfú). The dish is called 干煸四季豆 (gānbiān sìjìdòu). It can be translated as ‘dry-cooked string beans’. It is just a coincidence that the name of the restaurant and the name of the dish are the same. Actually 四季 (sìjì) means ‘four seasons.’ The dish is made with finely ground pork, dried chili pepper, and garlic and the beans are cooked in a lot of oil, almost deep fried, then stir-fried with the other ingredients. The beans are tender and chewy with a little crisp to them, and the meat and peppers give it a nice salty crunch. It is truly a wonderful dish. To really make you salivate, you need to click on the photo.

干煸四季豆 (gānbiān sìjìdòu); “Dry-cooked string beans”

Yangzhou Dimsum

蒸饺 zhēngjiǎo (Steamed dumplings)

In late February and early March of this year I was in Nanjing doing some work for our language program there. I extended my stay a few days to do some food and eating research. This area of China, the lower Yangtze River valley, is where you find Huaiyang Cuisine (淮扬菜 huáiyáng cài). The name comes from the Yangtze and Huai Rivers. This is one of the eight major cuisines of China (八大菜系 bādà càixì). I have spent quite a bit of time in Nanjing, and have traveled to Shanghai on occasion. I have also been to Suzhou, Hangzhou, and Yangzhou, but I had never really explored in much depth real Huaiyang Cuisine. On this trip, in addition to visiting the city of Huai’an, I spent a couple days in Yangzhou, eating. I had a Chinese colleague and good friend with me. Not only is he a real Chinese foodie, but he is also very familiar with the city of Yangzhou.

Yechun Teahouse, Yangzhou

In this post I want to focus only on Yangzhou style dimsum (点心 diǎnxīn), or breakfast food. I am quite familiar with Cantonese style dimsum from my time in Hong Kong and Guangzhou. To be honest I didn’t know that dimsum (even using this term) existed outside Cantonese food (粤菜 yuècài). On our first morning in Yangzhou, my friend took me to probably the second most famous restaurant (at least for dimsum) in Yangzhou, 冶春茶社 yěchūn cháshè. I was completely blown away, and have to rank this as one of the most spectacular meals I have eaten in China, and I have eaten countless meals in China.

Yechun Teahouse in Yangzhou

Though the restaurant has a very long history, it had been remodeled in traditional style. It sits on one the many canals in Yangzhou and was a favorite stop for emperors touring the Southern part of the kingdom. Unlike some Chinese restaurants, it was clean and very nice, bordering on swanky.

Yechun Teahouse

Decor at Yechun Teahouse

We started with a couple appetizers. My mother always told me that you can tell a good restaurant by the little things like appetizers and side dishes. A good quality restaurant will spend time to make excellent little dishes, not just the main dishes. We had boiled peanuts and red peppers with garlic. The peppers had a fantastic flavor seasoned with fresh garlic and a hint of vinegar. The peanuts were crunchy, just a little salty, and had a faint hint of vinegar. It’s hard to describe this very simple dish. Who would think eating plain old peanuts would be very good, but I assure you the Chinese have elevated the peanut to haute cuisine. The were so good we had our little appetizer dishes refilled twice.

Peanuts and red pepper appetizers

One of the first things that struck me about the dumplings were how big they were. Most Cantonese dimsum dishes are quite small. The steamed jiaozi were enormous in comparison. The were freshly made right next to the dining room and were succulent and full of flavor. They had just the right amount of oil, being tender and juicy without feeling the least bit greasy.

Making 蒸饺 zhēngjiǎo (steamed dumplings)

蒸饺 zhēngjiǎo

Fabulous!

I also had a kind up dumpling that I had not eaten before, though I had heard about them. Think of a very large dumpling filled with a delicious broth and tiny bits of minced meat and you have Yangzhou style 汤包 tāngbāo. It is served with a small straw. Simply poke the straw into the dumpling and slurp out the rich, flavorful broth. Then eat the dumpling. Not only is it a creative way to serve a rich broth, it was absolutely delicious. The menu name of those that we ate were called, 蟹黄汤包 xìehuáng tāngbāo. In this case it was a rich crab-based broth. They reminded me a bit of Shanghai style 小笼包 xiǎolóngbāo.

汤包 tāngbāo (Soup dumpling)

Slurping up the rich broth

Yangzhou is famous for their pastries, though they are not much like what we call pastries in the West. They are called 酥饼 sūbǐng and have a flaky and crispy, yet tender texture. They can be sweet or savory. We ordered  萝卜丝酥饼 luóbosī sūbǐng or shredded carrot sūbǐng. Yangzhou Subing are made with white sesame seeds on the outside, both the sweet and savory kinds.

萝卜丝酥饼 luóbosī sūbǐng (Shredded carrot cakes)

The pastry was wonderfully crispy and flaky. In addition to shredded carrots, there was also some turnips and green onion. They were addictively good. In fact each dish was so good, I would have been happy just eating more of the same.

We next had a beautiful and delicious 烧麦 shāomài. This is a common Cantonese dimsum dish, usually written as siumai. They are a stuffed steamed dumpling. We ordered 翡翠烧麦 fěicuì shāomài, which basically means jade or emerald shaomai. They were exquisite to look at and to eat. It was obviousl that this restaurant took great pride in using very fresh ingredients. One of the ways you can tell nicer Chinese restaurants from others is the amount of grease in the food. Crummier restaurants tend to have pretty greasy, oily dishes, but since nicer restaurants use higher quality ingredients they don’t need to hide things in a lot of oil.

翡翠烧麦 fěicuì shāomài (Green steamed dumplings)

Finally, we ordered 千层油糕 qīancéng yóugāo, which was a layered cake. The Chinese are not too fond of sweets so their desserts tend to be much less sweet than what we are used to in the West. This was a slightly sweet layered cake, that was pretty good, as long as you were not expecting Western-cake-sweet. It was light and airy.

千层油糕 qīancéng yóugāo (Layered cake)

This was truly a spectacular meal for me. And it was a revelation to eat such wonderful dimsum outside of Hong Kong and Guangdong Province. I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Yangzhou. In fact, I loved this dimsum so much, I went to another pretty well-known restaurant by myself the next morning to try some more dishes. I was not disappointed.

Chinese food is so varied and delicious that eating is what I most look forward to when I travel to China.

你吃饭了吗?“Have you eaten yet?”

To say that Chinese life revolves around food and eating is not an overstatement. Food is at the core of literally every Chinese holiday and a multitude of everyday activities. In fact, a very common greeting in Chinese is 你吃饭了吗? nǐ chīfàn le ma? “Have you eaten yet?”  It is an expression of well-being, or concern for the other individual. This seems pretty logical coming from a country that has endured centuries of on and off famine.

Food is so important in Chinese culture that the language is full of food and eating terminology. In fact, a search in the wenlin electronic dictionary for the word 吃 chī “to eat” found literally pages and pages of words and expressions that incorporate this word. A similar result was found with the word 食 shí also meaning “to eat” in many Chinese dialects, such as Cantonese. A sampling of the these terms include:

吃苦 chīkǔ eat-bitterness = bear hardship

吃力 chīlì eat-strength =  strenuous effort

吃醋 chīcù eat-vinegar = to be jealous

吃亏 chīkuī eat-loss = suffer a lose; come to grief

吃惊 chījīng eat-surprise = to be startled or shocked

A couple other food related expressions that are commonly used in everyday speech include:

铁饭碗 tiěfànwǎn       iron rice bowl = to have a secure job

炒鱿鱼 chǎo yóuyú    fry squid = to be fired, as in“他炒了我的鱿鱼” tā chǎo le wǒde yóuyú “He fired me” literally, “He fried my squid.”

吃不了兜着走 chībuliǎo dōuzhe zǒu

carry away leftovers from a meal = to get into serious trouble; for example if I said, 你吃不了兜着走 nǐ chībuliǎo dōuzhe zǒu  means that you are in serious trouble. Obviously the meaning in this expression is metaphorical.

China truly is one of the great ancient cuisines, along with France and Greece. It is a cuisine that has survived and evolved for thousands of years. What most Americans do not realize is that Chinese cuisine varies dramatically across the country. In other words, there is not just one kind of Chinese food, but rather many kinds of Chinese food, that use different ingredients, different methods of preparation, and different methods of cooking. There are also popular dishes that you can find all over China.

Below are a few photographs of some dishes I like to eat when I travel to China. In a later post I’ll discuss some of the different kinds of Chinese food.

鱼香茄子 yǔxiāng qiézi; fish flavored eggplant

宫宝鸡丁gōngbǎo jīdīng; Kung Pao Chicken

番茄炒鸡蛋 fānqié chǎo jīdàn; scrambled eggs with tomatoes

I don’t know the origin of the eggplant dish below, but I have only found it at one very small restaurant in Nanjing. It is truly delicious—spicy, sweet, and crunchy.

蟠龙茄子 pánlóng qíezi; coiled dragon eggplant

四季豆 sìjìdòu; green beans

南京盐水鸭 nánjīng yánshuǐyā; Nanjing salted duck

穆斯林羊排 mùsīlín yángpái; Muslim lamb ribs

烤鸭 kǎoyā; roast duck

And finally some dimsum dishes from Hong Kong.

The best bowl of noodles in China!

A version of 担担面dāndān miàn

It was an unlikely place to find such an exquisite bowl of noodles. Noodle shops are scattered liberally all over China, from big cities to small towns. I’m no expert on noodles, but I do know a good bowl of noodles when I eat one.

The problem with the vast majority of noodles that we eat here in the US, Chinese or otherwise, is that they start out dry. Nearly all the Chinese noodles available at Asian grocery stores are dried, though occasionally you can find “fresh” noodles in the refrigerated section. I put fresh in quotes because though they are certainly fresher than dried noodles, they are not quite like noodles made a few minutes before they are thrown into the pot of boiling water.

You can buy fresh noodles in markets in China, and they are certainly much better than dried, but still, they have been sitting around for awhile. The picture below was taken in a large open market in the center of a small town in Yunnan Province.

Open market noodle vendor


 There are a dizzying array of noodles available in China, from the venerable 牛肉面 niúròu miàn of Northern China to the Cantonese classic 干炒牛河 gānchǎo niúhé to the fabulously chewy刀削面 dāoxiāo miàn of Western China. Noodle dishes are generally stir-fried or served in soup. They are all wonderful in their own ways, and it would be impossible and fruitless to try to argue which kind of noodles or which noodle dishes are the best. I guess that depend on where you are in China. For example, if you were in Lanzhou, then the best noodles would probably be a good Muslim 拉面 lā miàn.

This bowl of noodles was totally unexpected. My friend and colleague and I were in the small border town of Shangri-la 香格里拉 xiānggélǐlā (formerly Zhongdian) in Northwestern Yunnan Province. After spending several days exploring a fairly remote river valley sprinkled with Tibetan villages, we went looking for breakfast. On the main drag in town there are numerous small restaurants, many of which cater to the growing Chinese tourists. We selected a small restaurant partially by the crowds of people inside. One of the first rules of finding a good place to eat, is the number of people inside eating. If it’s crowded, there’s a good chance that the food is good, and freshly prepared. An empty restaurant is not a good sign.

Inside there were about eight small, short tables, with tiny stools. The place was run by a Tibetan couple, probably in their mid to late fifties. The man was in the tiny back kitchen cooking, and his wife scurried back and forth between the kitchen and the dining area serving food and taking money. There was no menu, which is not too uncommon in small restaurants, so we looked around to see what other people were eating. The noodles looked pretty good so we ordered a couple bowls along with a couple rounds of the local flat bread.

We weren’t sure quite what to expect. Though there are Chinese in Shangri-la, about 80% of the population are Tibetans with a few other smaller ethnic minorities. The Tibetans are not known for making and eating noodles, but this far west there could have been Muslim influences, and the Muslims know how to make noodles. We were also very close to Sichuan which is known for its spicy cuisine. The condiments on the table were pretty typical of many small Chinese restaurants.

When the noodles arrived it looked like 担担面dāndān miàn, or at least a variation of the popular Sichuan noodle dish.

The best bowl of noodles in China

It looked good; it smelled good. The tender minced pork was laced with finely shredded chili pepper and the broth was deep, rich, spicy and and a bit oily. The noodles were wonderfully chewy, yet not overly heavy. The dish was spicy but not lethal like you would get in Chengdu. When we started eating, we were both astonished how good it was. We quickly cleaned our bowls, then returned the next day, and the next for more. Notice the delicious, oily, spicy broth.

There were a couple reasons why this bowl of noodles was so good. One, the noodles were made fresh minutes before they were served. We could hear the Tibetan guy slapping the dough against the table in the back kitchen. When I was paying the bill, I peeked into the kitchen and there he was cutting the dough into thin noodles with a cleaver. Second, the food was very fresh. To get really freshly prepared food, go to a busy place. Third, there was a perfect balance of seasonings. In this case, chili pepper, garlic, sesame, maybe some ginger. The soup stock was rich, and full flavored.

My friend and I talk often about that bowl of noodles and if we’re ever in Shangri-la again, we will be sure to find that small unassuming restaurant again. I guess they don’t call it Shangri-la for nothing.