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

Chaozhou (潮州, cháozhōu)

Chaozhou native

Chaozhou native

It is always interesting to visit a new city. In February I had the chance to spend a couple days in the Southern Guangdong city of Chaozhou, or as it is sometimes transliterated from the Cantonese pronunciation Chiuhchow (chiùhjāu) ; it is also sometimes written as Teochew. This smaller Chinese city (less than 3 million) sits along the Han River and is just 40 kilometers from the port city Shantou (Swatow) on the South China Sea. It is in the far southeastern part of Guangdong Province, quite close to Fujian. I was in Guangzhou and decided to take the 6 hour train ride out to see Chaozhou. When I was living in Hong Kong back in the early 80’s I had met many people from Chaozhou; I was also interested in Chaozhou cuisines which has a major culinary tradition, though it is usually considered a subcategory of Cantonese cuisine.

The old part of Chaozhou

The old part of Chaozhou

Many Chinese cities have two distinct parts, the old, original part, and the newer built up part. The old sections of these cities are full of character with winding alleys, vendors hawking their goods on the streets, and small restaurants and shops lining the streets. The new sections of these cities have wide streets, skyscrapers, and very little character, in my opinion. Chaozhou has a quaint feel to it. Though there is a newer section to town, most of the city seems to have retained that old China feel to it. The most interesting part of town consists of a maze of narrow alleys clustered around the Kaiyuan Temple (Buddhist). In ancient China these religious centers were the focus of any city and vendors would set up stalls and shops all around these temples. Even now in China some of the bigger outdoor markets surround Buddhist, Taoist, or Confucian Temples. The famous Fuzi Miao shopping area in Nanjing is a classic example of this. The very name of this market means “Confucius Temple.”

The pace of life seemed slower and more laid back than many other parts of China where I have spent time. Instead of large grocery stores and discount stores, there were open meat and vegetable markets. Vendors sold goods off the backs of their bicycles. Traditional hats and clothing were observed on the streets and in the markets. Three wheeled pedicabs were abundant, both for transporting people, as well as the flat bed variety for transported large goods. Restaurants were everywhere, sometimes with tables set out on the sidewalks. The people of Chaozhou take their food and eating very seriously, just like the Cantonese. Street food was everywhere and the snacks were delicious. The people were friendly, gracious, and not afraid to talk to a foreigner. The Chaozhou dialect is completely different from Mandarin or Cantonese. Since I don’t know any Chaozhou dialect I was stuck with using Mandarin, or occasionally Cantonese when I met someone from somewhere else in Guangdong Province.

I enjoyed two and half days wandering around sampling the local cuisine, strolling the narrow alleys, talking to locals, and relaxing in this rather laid back small city in China’s far south. The following photographs are my impressions of Chaozhou. Black and white seemed fitting for Chaozhou as the area I spent most of my time had that old China feel to it. It was a very nice change of pace from bigger, more hectic Chinese cities.

Informal outdoor dining

Informal outdoor dining

Waiting for a delivery job

Waiting for a delivery job

Pedicab station

Pedicab station

In no hurry

In no hurry

Scooter ladies

Scooter ladies

Shoulder pole

Shoulder pole

Shopping

Shopping

Dry goods

Dry goods

The hat

The hat

Vegetable hawker

Vegetable hawker

Mushrooms

Mushrooms

Noodles

Noodles

Chess

Chess

Buying flowers

Buying flowers

Alley in the rain

Alley in the rain

Men & Women's leather shoes

Men & Women’s leather shoes

Old city wall

Old city wall

Fisherman on the Han River

Fisherman on the Han River

China’s Rising Middle Class

Starbucks, Macbook, young people.

Starbucks, Macbook, young people.

China has changed immensely in the 25+ years I have been traveling there. When I first spent time in China as a study abroad student, everyone wore green or blue Mao suits, and everyone addressed everyone else as ‘comrade.’ Private enterprise was unknown and most cities literally shut down at 8:00 pm. There was very little Western influence. It was a very different time.

I recently spent time in Guangzhou, Chaozhou, Chengdu, Chongqing, Guiyang, and Kunming. Everywhere I went there was ample evidence of China’s growing middle class. People have money to spend and time to play. Luxury cars are everywhere, high end Western designer boutiques abound, and Chinese tourists are all over the place. And it isn’t just high ranking officials that are enjoying these things. There is a new middle class in China comprised of ordinary folks. Granted this middles class, in most cases, come from larger urban areas. There is still a significant wealth gap between urban centers and the countryside (but that’s a topic for another post).

Here are a few things the visitor to China will see as evidence of this rising middle class.

1. Luxury cars

On these last two trips alone I saw Bentleys, Mercedes, Porches, BMWs, Ferraris, Audis, and just about every other kind of luxury car. This was in addition to the countless Toyota Camrys, Honda Accords, and Volkswagon Passats. When I was first in China in the mid 80’s private cars were practically unknown, and the bike lanes were wider than the lanes for cars. Now every city in China is congested with cars and the bike lanes get narrower and narrower every year.

Study in contrasts.

Study in contrasts.

Ferrari parked  on the sidewalk in front of a high end seafood restaurant in Guangzhou.

Ferrari parked on the sidewalk in front of a high end seafood restaurant in Guangzhou.

Bentley

Bentley

Porsche

Porsche

BMW

BMW

2. High end shopping malls

When I was a student in China my classmates and I would joke about going shopping for clothes in China. You would walk into the big state-run department store and say, “I’ll take a pair of the blue pants, the white shirt, and the belt.” Size didn’t matter because there seemed to be only one or two sizes. The belt fit the big guy pretty well, but the little skinny guy had the belt wrapped halfway around his waist again. There was not much selection and everyone dressed the same, men and women alike.

Now, every large-ish city has numerous high end shopping centers. Even the Chinese style department stores have an astonishing array of goods. But it is the Western designer boutiques that are really astonishing. And they are not just for decoration; these places are crowded with shoppers buying things. Some of the designers and other high end stores that have a noticeable presence in China include, Gucci, Zegna, Rolex, Tudor, Omega, Cartier, Louis Vuitton, Christian Dior, and so on.

Gucci

Gucci

Dior girl

Dior girl

Cartier

Cartier

Rolex

Rolex

Omega boys

Omega boys

Shopping in Chengdu

Shopping in Chengdu

3. Western restaurants and products.

Though we would never think of McDonald’s as a hip place to hang out in the U.S., it is just that in China. Eating Western food in China tells people you have money, you’re hip, and you’re international. Young people especially like to hang out, study, and talk business at places like Starbucks and McDonalds. These Western restaurants in China are big business. In 2010 the 100th McDonalds opened . . . in Shanghai. That’s right, there are now more than 100 McDonalds restaurants in Shanghai alone. The first Starbucks in China opened in Beijing in 1999. There are now 851 Starbucks in China. Starbucks believes China will be the second largest market after the U.S.

Starbucks

Starbucks

McDonald's

McDonald’s

School kids I met at a McDonald's in Chaozhou. They said they liked to study there.

School kids I met at a McDonald’s in Chaozhou. They said they liked to study there.

 

KFC is also immensely popular

KFC is also immensely popular

iPhones and fake iPhones are everywhere, as our Apple stores.

iPhones and fake iPhones are everywhere, as our Apple stores.

4. Pets, especially dogs

In traditional China pets generally consisted of crickets and birds. Now everyone wants a dog, and there are dogs all over the place. The Chinese not only like to walk them, but they like to congregate in public squares where they can socialize and let their dogs play together. Though many people like small dogs, especially the puffy poodle types, I have also seen many large dogs including Huskies, Labs, Golden Retrievers, German Shepherds, and so on. Having a dog for a pet is a sign of affluence in China. It says, “Hey, I can not only feed myself and my family, but I can also feed a dog and I have time to take care of it.”

Walking the dogs in Chengdu

Walking the dogs in Chengdu

Doggie playtime in Chongqing

Doggie playtime in Chongqing

Dressed up in Guangzhou. Seriously??

Dressed up in Guangzhou. Seriously??

5. Chinese tourists

In the past 10 years or so the Chinese have begun traveling. The Chinese middle class are the new tourists around the world and in China. It used to be the Japanese that you used to see all over in large groups, everyone with a large camera around their neck. Now it is the Chinese turn. They have taken to tourism in their own country in a big way. They are crowded all over the important cultural sites in China.

A quick story. Last year my son and I were on a  week long bicycle tour. We were sitting in front of a small store in the tiny ranching town of Woodruff, Utah, near the Wyoming border. We had been riding all day and still had a few miles to go to our campground. As we were sitting there two brand new Dodge minivans pulled up and a dozen or so Asians poured out. I learned they were a group of friends from Shanghai. They had flown into Las Vegas, rented the cars, and were working their way through the Utah National Parks and were on their way to Yellowstone. I was really surprised, and I think they were a little taken back seeing a middle-aged guy wearing spandex in the middle of nowhere speaking Chinese with them.

The photos below are from an ancient town about 75 km outside Chengdu.

Chinese tourists getting their feet wet.

Chinese tourists getting their feet wet.

Hip young couple from Chengdu.

Hip young couple from Chengdu.

Strolling though the ancient village.

Strolling though the ancient village.

There is lots of other evidence of a wealth China as well. We saw one area in Chongqing where there were dozens of night clubs and dance clubs. On public squares kids flew kites, rode BMX bikes, and rollerblades. It’s getting harder and harder to see the old China; not impossible, you just have to look harder.

Dance club in Chongqing

Dance club in Chongqing

Rollerblading in Guiyang

Rollerblading in Guiyang

The Life of a Tibetan Buddhist Monk

Polishing the floor. Shigatse, Tibet

Polishing the floor. Shigatse, Tibet

Last year when I was in Tibet, we spent several hours wandering around in the Tashi Lhunpo Monastery in Shigatse. It was a bright sunny day. The sun is very intense on the Tibetan Plateau, which averages about 15,000′. I ducked out of the sun into a hallway that connected a couple buildings and encountered this young monk. The floors were made of crushed stone and were polished smooth and glossy. This monk was polishing the floor. His “mop” consisted of a large bag of rocks with a rope tied around the top. Under the bag was a sheepskin. He walked slowly up and down the hallway dragging the very heavy load. Click on the photo to better see the expression on his face. His skin glistens with sweat and the exhaustion is apparent in his face. To the right, outside the frame, another older monk was supervising his work.

It is not uncommon for junior monks to do a lot of the grunt work in the monasteries. Years ago I was visiting with a Buddhist monk in a monastery in Hangzhou, in Eastern China, and he told me that when he first arrived at the monastery he spent a great deal of time sweeping courtyards and doing dishes. He slowing worked his way up to less menial jobs. In a sense they must pay their dues, or prove their worth. In another Tibetan Buddhist monastery I visited with a monk who was in charge of selling trinkets to tourists. He said it was not his first choice of jobs, but that he was willing to do anything to help out the monastery. I have never heard a monk complain about anything.

Even though the harsh sunlight coming in from the left blew out the detail on the bag and floor, I do like this photo. I’m glad I stumbled on this interesting scene. I wish I would have shot more and had taken some closer, more intimate shots of him. But, at monasteries you have to be careful not to be too invasive and respect the privacy of the monks.

It was shot with a Nikon D90 with a Sigma 17-70mm lens, at 24mm, 1/80 sec. f/4.5.

Breakfast in Beijing

I love Chinese breakfast food, especially what you get on the streets, such as 煎饼 jiānbing. A few months ago I was in Beijing with some good friends and they took me to a simple little restaurant for breakfast. Nothing special, but nonetheless delicious. This is pretty typical fare for breakfast in the North of China.

That morning we had 素包子 sù bāozi (vegetarian teamed dumplings), 油条 yóutiáo (fried bread sticks), 蒸饺 zhēngjiǎo (steamed meat dumplings), and hot 豆浆 dòujiāng (soybean milk).

素包子 Vegetarian steamed dumpling

素包子 Vegetarian steamed dumpling

包子 bāozi is a generic term for steamed bread. They can be simply steamed bread with no filling or they can come with a variety of fillings. Vegetarian ones usually have spinach, mushrooms, and a number of other kinds of vegetables. Meat fillings are usually pork and seasoned with ginger, garlic, and will often have scallions, or mushrooms. They differ by region as well.

油条 fried break sticks

油条 fried break sticks

You can find 油条 yóutiáo all over China. They are commonly eaten for breakfast, either alone, or as part of another dish. For example, 煎饼 jiānbing will often have a 油条 inside. It is often eaten with 粥 zhōu in the south. Sometimes it is cut up into chunks and tossed into the 粥 zhōu sort of like croutons.

蒸饺 steamed dumplings

蒸饺 steamed dumplings

蒸饺 zhēngjiǎo are a variety of 饺子 jiǎozi that are steamed instead of boiled or fried. They usually have a meat filling. These also vary by region but are all pretty similar. are a variety of 饺子 that are steamed instead of boiled or fried. They usually have a meat filling. These also vary by region but are all pretty similar.

豆浆 soybean milk

豆浆 soybean milk

豆浆 dòujiāng is simply soy milk, but is often very fresh. In the Winter it is usually served hot in a bowl, like in the photo. It is a great way to warm up in the morning.

Below are a couple photos of 油条 yóutiáo in 煎饼  jiānbing. In the first photo you can see it just under the 煎饼 and in the second photo it is rolled up in it.

Making 煎饼

Making 煎饼

20120228-DSCN1432

China Street Photography 2

This is a series of street photos taken in Nanjing, Yangzhou, and Huai’an (Northern Jiangsu Province) in February of 2012.

Night market

Night market

Breakfast

Cantonese style breakfast

Nighttime snacks

Nighttime snacks

Water chestnuts

Water chestnuts

Noodles

Noodles

Lining up for breakfast

Lining up for breakfast

Rainy day in Huai'an

Rainy day in Huai’an

Yangzhou alleyway

Yangzhou alleyway

Kebobs

Kebobs

煎饼 jiānbing

煎饼 jiānbing

Yangzhou street food

Yangzhou street food

Yangshou 酥饼 sūbǐng

Yangzhou 酥饼 sūbǐng

Fresh noodles

Fresh noodles

Mushrooms

Mushrooms

Bottles

Bottles

Yangzhou night

Yangzhou night