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.

Taiwan, finally!

Typical night market in Taiwan

Typical night market in Taiwan

I have been traveling to Mainland China since 1984. I spent time there as a student, have led several study abroad groups as a professor, have attended academic conferences, and so on. I’ve traveled all over the Mainland, from North to South, and East to West. I lived in Hong Kong in the early 80’s and have traveled to Macau. But in all these years, I had never been to Taiwan. I have friends and colleagues from Taiwan, and many of my students have spent time there, but I guess I never felt overly compelled to go there. Maybe I didn’t believe all the hype about how great Taiwan was. A year and a half ago my daughter moved to Taiwan. Suddenly I had a great deal more interest in Taiwan.

Earlier this month I finally made it to Taiwan. I am working on a new book on Chinese culinary culture (basically a foodie’s guide to China), and practically everyone that I talked to told me that I couldn’t possibly do a book on Chinese food without including at least a section on Taiwan, especially Taiwan’s famous snack food. So, after spending a couple weeks in Guangzhou and surrounding areas researching Cantonese food, I stopped in Taiwan for six days to check out the culinary scene. And I was not disappointed.

In addition to meeting up with some former colleagues and a friend or two, I spent most of my time eating. I know, it’s a tough job, but somebody has to do it, as the saying goes.

Here are some of my initial observations about Taiwan, mostly compared with the Mainland.

1. Taiwan is really clean, neat, and orderly. Even the traffic is well behaved and I didn’t feel like I was going to get run over. In fact, I had bus drivers actually wait for me while I crossed the road. That’s pretty rare in the Mainland.

2. Taiwan people are generally friendly, polite, and eager to chat with a foreigner. Coming from China, and a socialist attitude toward customer service (i.e. non-existent), this was really surprising to me. At one night market I sat down at a tiny table to eat some delicious 甜不辣 tiánbúlà and since it was a bit quiet, the lady running the stall sat down with me and we chatted for a half hour or so. She kept giving me more food to try, on the house.

3. Taiwan is very Westernized. I guess this was not too surprising. There are lots of foreigners in Taiwan. I saw them all over (at least in Taibei). It is evident that Taiwan is heavily influenced by Western ideas, fashion, food, etc. There is also a very noticeable Japanese influence as well.

Overall, I had a very nice time in Taiwan and will definitely be back. I originally planned on going down to Tainan to try some of the famous snack food down there, but I ran out of time. I spent time in Zhongli, Taibei, and an evening up in Danshui.

Below are just a few of the delicious dishes I sampled at some of the night markets. I spent time in the Shilin Night Market, The Shida Night Market, and the Danshui night market.

Night market 'restaurant'

Night market ‘restaurant’

魚丸湯 yǔwán tāng; Fish ball soup

魚丸湯 yǔwán tāng; Fish ball soup

蚵仔煎 ézǎi jiān; Fresh oyster omelet

蚵仔煎 ézǎi jiān; Fresh oyster omelet

甜不辣 tiánbúlà; hard to translate—it is fish paste formed into various shapes, then boiled in a broth and topped with a miso gravy.

甜不辣 tiánbúlà; transliteration of the Japanese tempura—it is fish paste formed into various shapes, then boiled in a broth and topped with a miso gravy.

This is the nice lady running the tiánbúlà place

This is the nice lady running the tiánbúlà place

筒仔米糕 tǒngzǎi mǐgāo; tube rice pudding (with pork and mushrooms)

筒仔米糕 tǒngzǎi mǐgāo; tube rice pudding (with pork and mushrooms)

肉圓 ròuyuán, but more commonly called ba wan from the Taiwanese. It is a large rice flour dumpling.

肉圓 ròuyuán, but more commonly called ba wan from the Taiwanese. It is a large rice flour dumpling.

大腸包小腸 dàcháng bāo xiǎocháng ;Small sausage wrapped in a large sausage; the big sausage, which acts as a bun is actually sticky rice in a sausage casing.

大腸包小腸 dàcháng bāo xiǎocháng ; Small sausage wrapped in a large sausage; the big sausage, which acts as a bun is actually sticky rice in a sausage casing.

滷肉飯 lǔròu fàn; fatty seasoned pork on rice

滷肉飯 lǔròu fàn; fatty seasoned pork on rice

蔥抓餅 cōngzhuā bǐng; flaky scallion pancake w/egg

蔥抓餅 cōngzhuā bǐng; flaky scallion pancake w/egg

牛肉麵 niǔròu miàn; beef noodles

牛肉麵 niǔròu miàn; beef noodles

I went to Taiwan with a list of about 40 or so things I wanted to try. In the end, after 6 days I was able to try about 22 items on my list. The food was fresh, delicious, and quick. Next time I really need to get down to Tainan as I have heard the food there is pretty amazing as well.

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


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.


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.