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.

Trekking in Shangri-la: Niru Village

After our breakfast of yak cheese, Tsampa, yak butter tea, and curdled milk, we hiked down off the bluff and back onto the road to Niru. It had rained during the night so there were mud puddles all over the road. It was a beautiful cool morning. After hiking for about an hour, we heard a truck approaching. We stepped aside as an old open bed truck pulled up. Standing in the back was the Tibetan girl we had breakfasted with, along with a dozen or so other Tibetans. They were all on their way back up to the mushroom fields. We climbed into the back of the truck and rode with them for about a half hour bumping and pitching along the rough road. When we reached their turn off, we climbed out, thanked them for the lift, and continued our trek.

We were really hungry. The previous day we had only eaten a bowl of instant noodles, some snacks, and a light dinner of stir fried squash and potatoes with our gracious hosts. This valley was certainly much less developed than we anticipated. Our original plan was to hike up into the high mountain Summer pastureland where the local Tibetans herd their yaks. This was looking unlikely as food was proving to be difficult to obtain. The locals were not used to seeing foreigners, or any outsiders for that matter, and were thus hesitant to offer assistance. A farmer we had met the previous day told us that they were developing this valley for tourism with guesthouses, stores, and so on, but that time had not yet arrived.

Hiking the road to Niru Village

Late morning we arrived at an area identified by a sign as 关门山 guānmén shān. This translates loosely as “Close the door Mountain,” probably referring to the narrowness of the valley, seemingly closed off by this rocky peak. The valley narrowed to just a hundred yards wide or so. To the left was a towering rocky peak seemingly blocking off the canyon. Just as we arrived at the base of the peak, the road turned sharply right. The river raged through this narrow part of the canyon. Another turbulent river flowed down from the mountains on the right joining with the Niru River. A narrow bridge, about the width of a single lane crossed this tributary. The river was so high, it tumbled just inches below the wooden bridge.

关门山 guānmén shān "Close the door Mountain"

Unknown tributary flowing into the Niru River

We had studied some old black and white photographs from the legendary Joseph Rock on one of his expeditions in the late 19th Century. This area seemed to match some of his photographs. There was a small shelter here where we took a break enjoying the roaring of the rivers.

We still were not quite sure what to expect in Niru Village proper. I think we still had hopes that there would be a store, and maybe even a restaurant where we could fill up. All we knew is that the kids told us it was about a five hour walk to the village.

Once we passed through this beautiful narrow canyon, the road began to climb. We climbed steadily for about two hours before the valley began opening up. At a high point on the road, we came to two large piles of mani stones.

Mani stones are usually flat rocks on which is inscribed the six syllable mantra om mani padme hum. This mantra is associated with the bohhisattva of compassion, Avalokiteshvara. Mani means “the jewel” and padme means “the lotus.” The exact meaning of this mantra is tricky to translate. The Fourteenth Dalai Lama has interpreted it as,

“. . . the six syllables, om mani padme hum, mean that in dependence on the practice of a path which is an indivisible union of method and wisdom, you can transform your impure body, speech, and mind into the pure exalted body, speech, and mind of a Buddha[…]”

This is the mantra often mumbled by Tibetan Buddhists as they finger their prayer beads. It is said to be an indication of your devotion and brings merit to the individual. These stones sometimes form entire walls, or large piles and are often found along pilgrim routes, at junctions, overlooks, or other places considered auspicious. Devout Buddhists will circle these stone piles clockwise while chanting the mantra.

Mani stones

More mani stones

We took another break at the mani stone piles. While sitting along the road here a tractor with a couple individuals in the back, headed down the valley from Niru Village. We later found out the local school teacher was in this tractor heading to a funeral. We had hoped to speak with him about the education situation in the village, particularly the teaching and learning of Chinese among the Tibetans in this area.

In the early afternoon we finally arrived at the head of the valley and the small village of Niru. It was a lovely cluster of farms nestled among high peaks.

Entering Niru Village

The primary school was here at the head of the village. It provided schooling for all the kids up and down the valley. There were dormitories where the kids stayed during the week, then returned home on the weekends. We were disappointed that the teacher was not around, but we knew this was a distinct possibility since is was August and school was not in session. This is the school where the Tibetan kids we stayed with attended. They told us that all the kids in the school were Tibetan. They did learn Chinese in school, but Tibetan was the language of instruction.

Niru School

Just past the school we came to a dirty old wooden building. A couple people loitered out front. They informed us that this was a store. We entered the dimly lit ramshackle building to find a very basic store run by an older Tibetan woman. The only food available was instant noodles. We each bought two bowls, as well as some bottled water and Chinese sports drink.

The Niru Store

Outside the store a guy told us that there was a guesthouse just a short way up the valley and that he would give us ride in his tractor. It turns out that he was the brother-in-law of the guy who ran a very rustic guesthouse.

We were relieved to learn that we may have a bed for the night, and readily hopped into the back of the tractor trailer. In a few minutes we arrived at the guest house run by a man named Mr. Tian, a Han Chinese. In fact, he was the only Han Chinese person in this village of 658 resident Tibetans. He was originally from Tiger Leaping Gorge and had married a Tibetan woman from the village twenty years ago and had been living there ever since.

Approaching Mr. Tian's guesthouse

Mr. Tian and his wife were separated, so he ran this place on his own, and it showed. It was quite dirty, with rotting food laying around, dirty dishes scattered about, and in general disrepair. We were not complaining though, and Mr. Tian was a pretty interesting guy. It was a typical Tibetan wood-framed house, a courtyard on the ground floor for the animals, up a steep ladder/stairway to the second floor living quarters, and storage on the third floor. Inside the living area was an open fire pit for cooking. On one side of the main room was a row of single beds with basic frames made of 2X2’s. The beds had thick foam mattresses and appeared to be pretty clean.

Inside the guesthouse

The guesthouse courtyard from the second floor.

The proprietor, Mr. Tian

Mr. Tian told us that for about the past year, since the road was built, Chinese tourists were beginning to arrive. He had hosted one foreigner the year before. In our wandering around the village we found another guesthouse that was very large and newly built. There was one seemingly pretty rich Chinese family, parents and two kids, staying there.

Mr. Tian owned a horse and lead treks up to a waterfall and a lake in the area. In fact, he told us that he had been hired to lead three Chinese students and a foreigner up over a pass to Shudu Lake the next day. This is where we were headed as well, and he said we could tag along if we like. He told us we would never be able to find the trail without his help.

That afternoon we wandered around the village a bit. We also found the road/trail to the Summer pastures, called 南宝牧场 nánbǎo mùchǎng. According to Mr. Tian, it was a good eight to ten hire hike from the village up pretty steep trails.

The track leading to Nanbao pastureland. The pastures are the green swaths high in the mountains.

As much as we wanted to hike up there, we had so little food, and nowhere to buy more, other than instant noodles. And by this time we were really hungry. To go up there would be at least a three day trip: one day up, a day to explore, and a day back. We also were not too sure of our route over the mountain pass to Shudu Lake and back to Shangri-la.

Later that afternoon a couple of Mr. Tian’s Tibetan buddies showed up to hang out. I’m not sure what they did for work, and they were pretty reluctant to talk about it. They had passable Chinese. In fact, Mr. Tian’s Chinese was pretty heavily accented, not much better than the Tibetans. One of his friends carried a long, curved dagger on his belt. This is pretty typical of the Kham Tibetans in this area. They are also known for their horsemanship skills as well.

That evening Mr. Tian offered to cook us a meal. That morning he had picked some wild mushrooms. Then he went outside and picked fresh Sichuan peppercorns from a bush in his yard. Our meal consisted of stir-fried mushrooms with the fresh Sichuan peppercorns. (This area of Yunnan was literally right on the border of Sichuan Province). I had never eaten or even seen fresh Sichuan peppercorns. They are most often dried and are dark brown in appearance. This dish was pretty good, albeit there was not much. However, he used way too many peppercorns and by the time we were done, our mouths were literally numb. In Chinese cuisine there are two kinds of spicy, the regular spicy that we are used to, called 辣 là from the word 辣椒 làjiāo, meaning “chili pepper.” The other kind of heat is called 麻辣málà or “numb spicy.” This numbing spice comes exclusively from the Sichuan peppercorn, which is not a chili pepper, nor technically a peppercorn. It produces a pleasant (to some people) tingling, numbing sensation in the mouth.

Fresh Sichuan peppercorns

Freshly picked wild mushrooms

It was nice to have a meal, but it was pretty small and we were still hungry. We planned to get up the next morning and hike along with Mr. Tian and his clients up over the pass and down to Shudu Lake. This lake is within a new Chinese National Park called Pudacuo National Park 普达措国家公园 pǔdácuò guójiā gōngyuán. From there we hoped to hitch a ride back to Shangri-la.

Niru Village farmhouses

High peaks above Niru which also marks the border between Yunnan and Sichuan Provinces

TO BE CONTINUED. (One more post to finish this series)

Exploring Shangri-la

The city of Shangri-la looking toward the old town. Buddhist temple on the right and a huge prayer wheel on the left.

The city of Shangri-la has a population of around 120,000 and sits at 3200 m (10,498′). That may sound like a pretty good sized city, but on Chinese standards, it’s pretty tiny. The city consists of an old section where all the Tibetans used to live and a new section recently built up by the Chinese. This is typical of many Chinese cities—the original older city, and a newly developed section. For example, a couple years ago I was in Qingdao visiting an academic program there. I was staying in the new section of town and I didn’t like it. It was very modern with lots of new shiny skyscrapers, and shopping areas, but it was all very bland, with very few people on the streets.  It was even hard to find a decent restaurant that was reasonably priced. The border between the new city and the old was stark. Literally cross a street and it was like the old China that I know and love—tons of little shops and restaurants, crowds of people on the streets, old architecture, lots of character.

A street in Shangri-la's new town

Shangri-la’s old town was charming and quaint, but a little too “restored.” That is, they went a little too far with tourists in mind. It is full of little restaurants, coffee shops, stores selling all kinds of tourist trinkets, and guest houses.

Shangri-la's old town

Click on the link below to see a photo of the old town taken in 1999 (photo courtesy of Michael Paul)

Zhongdian Old Town

The new city is rather typical of most Chinese cities, bland concrete architecture, wide streets, and generic stores. But Shangri-la is still predominantly Tibetan, and that is who you see on the streets and in the markets. Yes there are Chinese run businesses and restaurants, but there is still a huge Tibetan presence. Tibetan women in this part of the Tibetan realm have a distinctive dress. Nearly all the women in the city seem to wear pants (oftentimes jeans), a bright blue apron. sometimes with a white apron over the top it, and a distinctive headdress that sometimes consists of bright fuchsia yarn wound together, or a woven scarf. They are very bright and colorful. Some women also wear brightly colored blouses or vest-like coverings.

Tibetan girls on the street

Traditional Tibetan headdress

One morning while out exploring we came upon a thriving street market. This is where we had our first taste of yak cheese. Though a bit strong and somewhat smoky, I kind of liked it. Michael was not too thrilled about it though.

Street market

Yak cheese

We then stumbled on an indoor market selling meat, produce, and other things. In Chinese we would call this a 农贸市场 nóngmào shìchǎng, or a farmer’s market. I love these kinds of markets and we had a great time wandering around taking pictures. The highlight was when Michael slipped on a big chunk of pig fat on the ground and almost went down.

Fresh market. The characters in the upper left say cài shìchǎng or "vegetable market"

Traditional shopping baskets

These kinds of markets sell an astonishing array of goods, from fresh meat and vegetables to dry goods and live animals in some cases. Below is a sampling of goods.

Chili powder

Fresh chilis, ginger, corn, and I think rhubarb

Tea

Fresh mushrooms

Fresh noodles

Roast duck

Chopping block

Fresh bacon

Frogs (not for pets)

Another day we were wandering around on the outskirts of town and came upon a mushroom market. July and August is wild mushroom season in this part of Yunnan Province and many Tibetans roam the mountains picking mushrooms to sell in the markets. This is one way for rural Tibetans to earn some cash.

Mushroom market

Bringing in the harvest

Wild mushrooms

More yak cheese

The road to Tibet, a few hours drive away.

TO BE CONTINUED.

Serve the People—A Book Review

A couple years ago I was in the University of Arizona bookstore browsing when I came across this book. I was immediately interested since it addresses one of my favorite topics—food and eating in China. I admit that I really enjoy eating when I am in China. In fact, I seldom (i.e. almost never) go out to eat Chinese food when I am in the States. I am too often disappointed with American style Chinese food. It’s not necessarily bad food, it’s just very different from authentic Chinese food that you get in China. Students often ask where the best Chinese restaurants are in town, and I have a hard time recommending anything. Usually the best Chinese food in town is made at the home of some Chinese family. Fortunately I am able to travel to China enough to satisfy my cravings for good, authentic Chinese food. I do cook Chinese at home on occasion to keep me happy between trips to China and have collected a few pretty decent Chinese cookbooks, some written in English from American Chinese writers and some in Chinese that I found in bookstores in China.

Now for the review.

Lin-Liu, Jen. Serve the People: A Stir-Fried Journey Through China. Orlando: Harcourt, Inc. 2008.

The author is a Chinese American journalist living in Beijing. It should be noted that she is a fluent speaker of Chinese and it would not have been possible to do the research that she did without good Chinese language skills. I mention this because I think it adds credibility to her research and what she has to say. To be able to interview and interact with people without an interpreter I think is very valuable and will allow one to get stories that would otherwise be unlikely, if not impossible.

The title of the book comes from the socialist slogan coined by Mao Zedong and popularized by the communist party: 为人民服务 weì rénmín fúwù, which literally means “for people serve.” When I first arrived in China in the early eighties you could find lapel pins all over the place with this slogan. Though it is used less these days, you still hear it once in awhile, probably more in official settings.

This book is divided into four parts, 1) Cooking School, 2) Noodle Intern, 3) Fine Dining, and 4) Hutong Cooking. In the first part Lin-Liu describes her experience as a student in the Hualian Cooking School in Beijing, a three month course, Monday through Friday for two hours a day. At the end of the course students take a national cooking exam, are awarded a diploma and can then be hired to work as a cook in a restaurant. This does not mean that you have to have a cooking diploma to work in a restaurant, as I am sure there are countless small mom and pop restaurants all over China where they have received no formal training. The author learns all about Chinese regional cuisines, different kinds of foods, methods of preparation, and so on. She also gives the reader some insight into attitudes and practices of traditional Chinese education. For example, she learned very early in the course, “listen, bow, and copy” and don’t ask questions.

In the second part of the book, Lin-Liu apprentices with a noodle chef from Shanxi Province. She works in his tiny noodle stall in a warehouse district in Southeastern Beijing. Through much hard work she learns how to prepare a variety of different kinds of noodles. I think her goal here was not just to learn how to prepare and cook noodle dishes, but also to experience working in this very vibrant and important part of the Chinese restaurant culture, the food stall, which is really the equivalent of fast food in China.

In Part Three she moves to Shanghai and works in a high end Shanhaiese restaurant on the Bund called The Whampoa Club. Here she learns all about the opposite end of Chinese restaurant culture. The reader gets a glimpse into the high fashion world of Shanghai and the exquisite food that is prepared and consumed by the wealthy, both Chinese and foreigners. It is a completely different world from the noodle shop and yet many of the techniques used are the same.

The book ends with a rather short section on Hutong cooking. A 胡同 hútòng is an alley or lane and is used to identify many of the old Beijing neighborhoods characterized by courtyard houses and mazes of narrow lanes. Unfortunately these historic neighborhoods, which have been around for hundreds of years, are disappearing to new develpment. This part of the book is mostly about these historic neighborhoods and the people that live in them. She also discusses how these friends of hers shop and cook in their small hutong flats. It is an interesting look into these very cool neighborhoods. A couple years ago a friend an I spent a very enjoyable day wandering a hutong neighborhood admiring the architecture, eating at a small restaurant, and chatting with people.

Hutong near the Bell Tower in Beijing

Typical Hutong alley

I really enjoyed this book. Lin-Liu did an excellent job drawing the reader into the world of Chinese food and eating. The book is sprinkled with historical anecdotes and interesting facts, such as how MSG is made and used in Chinese cooking. The reader also sees an intimate portrait of regular Chinese people living ordinary lives in Beijing. Again this would not have been possible without Chinese language skills. I guess my bias as a Chinese language teacher is showing through here, but it goes without saying that learning a foreign language opens all kinds of doors not available to those without foreign language skills. For example, who is going to invite a foreigner to their home if they cannot communicate with them?

I highly recommend this book as a glimpse into contemporary China, particularly with regard to food and eating, which of course, is everything in 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.