Behind the Scenes in a Chinese Restaurant

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As much as I love to eat Chinese food, I had never really been into the kitchen of a big restaurant. Small restaurants, sure, you can hardly not see the kitchen. I joke with my students (with a serious undertone), to not look back into the kitchen at a Chinese restaurant. Just enjoy the food and don’t worry about where it came from. Chinese kitchens may not be the model of sanitary practices.

Last year I was visiting with an old friend in Nanjing, and as usual he and his wife invited me out to eat. He is a 23rd generation Chinese Muslim and is very well connected with the Muslim community in Nanjing. He knows all the best Muslim restaurants and has a personal relationship with all the owners. On this occasion we ate at the excellent 奇芳阁 qífānggé restaurant at Fuzi Miao fūzi miào in the southern part of the city. This restaurant has a long history and offers excellent Muslim Chinese food. (More on Muslim food in China in another post).

Knowing my interest in Chinese food and culinary culture, my friend introduced me to the head manager of the restaurant as well as the head chef. They then gave me a tour of the kitchen and graciously allowed me to take photos. The lighting was not good, and I struggled to get good exposures, so the photos are not great. But I think they are interesting. I suppose the kitchen was not too different from any restaurant kitchen—busy, loud, and a bit chaotic at times with waiters and waitresses coming and going.

A line of woks

A line of woks

From wok to platter

From wok to platter

The prep and assembly area

The prep and assembly area

Fish

Fish

 

Soup

Soup

Ingredients

Ingredients

The steaming station

The steaming station

Dishes ready to go

Dishes ready to go

More fish

More fish

Quail

Quail

With the head chef

With the head chef

Our delicious dinner

Our delicious dinner

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Story Behind Tianjin’s 狗不理包 gǒubùlǐ bāo

狗不理大酒店 in Tianjin

狗不理大酒店 in Tianjin

In my last post I posted a photo of Tianjin’s famous 狗不理包 gǒubùlǐ bāo. I then received a comment about this very unusual name for this steamed dumpling. As the commenter noted, it sounds like these 包子bāozi are not even fit for dogs. For the non-Chinese speaking readers, let me explain. 狗 gǒu simple means ‘dog’ and to 不理 bùlǐ means to ‘pay no attention to,’ so a literal translation would be something like ‘the dumpling that dogs won’t pay attention to.” This would imply that they are not too tasty.

狗不理包 gǒubùlǐ bāo

狗不理包 gǒubùlǐ bāo

Before going to Tianjin last Autumn I had never tasted them, though I had heard of them as they are considered a famous Tianjin snack. Here is the story about these very tasty dumplings. It comes from the book 旅游城市美食指南:便走便吃 edited by 周国宝. (Tourist City Guide to Gourmet Food: Eating While Traveling).

According to tradition, the story begins in 1858 when a 14 year old boy named Gao Guiyou arrived in Tianjin. His nickname was Gouzi (狗子 gǒuzi) or ‘dog.’ He had come to Tianjin to study to be a craftsman. He was very clever, good with his hands, and a quick learner. He apprenticed at a shop run by the Liu Family that made steamed dumplings (包子 bāozi). He learned very quickly how to make beautiful and delicious dumplings. After three years he had served out his apprenticeship and opened his own shop selling his own dumplings. He soon gained a reputation for making the best dumplings in town and people came from all over to eat them. He became so busy that he had no time to talk to his customers, thus the phrase, 狗子卖包子,不理人, gǒuzi mài bāozi, bùlǐ rén, ‘Gouzi sells dumplings and doesn’t pay attention to people (meaning his customers). After awhile people began calling him 狗不理 gǒubùlǐ, and his famous dumplings became known as 狗不理包 gǒubùlǐ bāo. Now it is said that if you travel to Tianjin and don’t try 狗不理包子 gǒubùlǐ bāozi, then you’ve never been to Tianjin.

Me and a couple friends/colleagues traveled to Tianjin to visit the parents of a former graduate student I worked with. It was also a good excuse to visit Tianjin. We took the new bullet train from Beijing and it only too 28 minutes to get to Tianjin. They took us out to eat at the famous 狗不理大酒店. Whether this was the original location of the shop in the story, I don’t know.

Inside the restaurant

Inside the restaurant

We had an excellent meal which of course included gǒubùlǐ bāo. I am happy to report that they are delicious. We had a chef come into our private room and demonstrate how to wrap them. She then taught us how to do it. Though it may look easy, it surely is not and takes a great deal of practice to wrap them properly.

Rolling out the dough

Rolling out the dough

Wrapping the bāozi

Wrapping the bāozi

Michael and I feebly trying to wrap our own

Michael and I feebly trying to wrap our own

Can you tell which one the lǎowài (foreigner) wrapped?

Can you tell which one the lǎowài (foreigner) wrapped?

Finally, here is a short video I shot of the chef wrapping a 狗不理包. She makes it look so easy and effortless, but I assure you it is not. As I said, they are truly delicious. Next time you are in Tianjin, make sure to eat some 狗不理包.

Dumplings: China’s Traditional Fast Food

Dumplings have been around for a long time in China. They are perhaps China’s original fast food. Dumplings come in a variety of different styles. 饺子 jiǎozi is generic name for dumplings. Traditionally they are eaten in the North of China, but really can be found all over as well. In fact, there are chain restaurants all over China that serve nothing but shuǐjiǎo, such as the popular Chain 大娘水饺 dàniǎng shuǐjiǎo (http://www.cnddr.com/eng/index.htm). They are also traditionally eaten during Chinese New Year. Boiled  jiǎozi, how they are typically eaten in the North and very popular in Beijing, are called 水饺 shuǐjiǎo. They are usually sold by weight, the 两 liǎng, which is 50 grams. The plate above has 2 liǎng.

Earlier this year I was wondering around north of the Forbidden City in Beijing, near the old Drum Tower, and found a wonderful small restaurant that served dozens of varieties of shuǐjiǎo. At this particular restaurant they had pork, beef, lamb, and egg shuǐjiǎo with dozens of varieties of each. Below is a shot from the pork shuǐjiǎo page of the menu. You can choose from pork with chives, cabbage, fennel, carrots, turnips, mushrooms, onions, peppers, to name a few.

shuǐjiǎo menu in Beijing

The skins are homemade (of course) are sometimes thick and chewy, and sometimes thin and almost transparent. They are usually dipped in a dark, rich vinegar. In some parts of China, usually farther south, the vinegar is mixed with a little soy sauce. In some areas they add chili oil as well. Jiǎozi can be a meal all by themselves, and are also often served at the end of a banquet.

Pot stickers 锅贴 guōtiē

Another wonderful variety of jiǎozi are pot stickers 锅贴 guōtiē. These dumplings are fried in a flat wok with oil until they are crispy on the bottom, then water or broth is added and a lid put on and steamed until done. When I was in China for the first time as a student at Nanjing University in 1985, pot stickers were about the only food we could find outside of large state-run restaurants and the school cafeteria. I loved them back then and I still love them and eat them every time I go to China. The potstickers below were ordered at a Muslim restaurant last month in Nanjing as part of a larger lunch.

Delicious guōtiē

The bottoms are fried crispy in oil.

Any traveler to China must eat a good plate of dumplings. The good news is that you should be able to find them all over China. You can order them in fancy, expensive restaurants, small nondescript restaurants, chain restaurants that specialize in dumplings, and and even on the street.

 

 

Dining in Yangzhou

wànjiā měishí Restaurant in Yangzhou

The city of Yangzhou sits on the Northern banks of the Yangtze River (长江 chángjiāng) a short distance down river from Nanjing and a couple hours upriver from Shanghai. The city has approximately 4.5 million people and is often described as a quaint Chinese town or city. And guess what? It does feel smallish and quaint compared to China’s other massive, sprawling cities.

Yangzhou is a culinary hotspot. If you like to eat, you will love Yangzhou. It is a foodie’s paradise. In an earlier post I talked about Yangzhou’s famous and fabulous dimsum. (https://intothemiddlekingdom.com/2012/06/29/yangzhou-dimsum/). Yangzhou is one of the culinary centers of Huaiyang cuisine (淮扬菜 huáiyáng cài), one of the Eight major cuisines in China (八大菜系 bādàcàixī). The name comes from the Huai and Yangtze Rivers that cut through this fertile region. The Yangtze River is also called in Chinese the 扬子江 yángzi jiāng. Huaiyang Cuisine is characterized by super fresh ingredients with delicate seasoning. It is felt that you don’t want to overpower the freshness of the ingredients with heavy sauces or spices. Along with Cantonese (粤菜 yuècài), Sichuan (川菜 chuāncài), and Northern (鲁菜 lǔcài) cuisines, Huaiyang Cuisine is highly celebrated in China and for good reason.

As I have mentioned in previous posts, I was in Yangzhou for a couple days in February of this year and sampled some of the famous dishes of the city. It was truly a memorable culinary experience. Fortunately, I have my friend, and colleague from Nanjing University, and fellow foodie along with me. He knows the city well as he spent much time there as a child visting his grandmother.

One night we selected a small restaurant down an alley off a main street. It is pictured above and was called 万家美食 wànjiā měishí and specialized in Yangzhou’s specialties which is what the smaller characters on the sign say, 扬州特色菜 yángzhōu tèsè cài. It was a cold rainy night, and as many of you know, there is seldom central heat in buildings in this part of China so you get used to eating with your coat and hat on.

Yangzhou cuisine is famous for its “three heads” dishes. This includes fish head (鱼头 yǔtóu), lion’s head (狮子头 shīzitóu), and pig’s head (猪头 zhùtóu). I tried the first of the two, which were exceptional. The pig’s head is basically a braised pig face, which I decided to pass on.

Delicious fish head steamed with a slightly sweet sauce

I know what many of you are thinking, fish head??? Trust me, it is delicious. The most tender and delicious meat from a fish comes from the cheek area, and the area just below the gills. Have you ever had halibut cheeks? I ate them once at a seafood restaurant in Seattle and they were to die for. This fish dish was exceptionally fresh, with a delicate sweet and slightly sour sauce with a few chopped scallions sprinkled on top. It was really good.

清蒸狮子头 qīngzhēng shīzitóu “fresh steamed lion’s head”

This dish contains no part of any lion. The Chinese have many creative names for dishes that have nothing to do with the ingredients. This dish is actually made with beef. However, it is not cheap ground beef. Prime cuts of beef are actually chopped with two large cleavers until the meat is minced into teeny tiny pieces. It is then seasoned with ginger and some onion, then steamed to perfection. The meat is so tender and succulent it can only be described as velvet-like. It was fantastic. The flavors were delicate, subtle, perfect. I really enjoyed this dish. It was ever better than the similar beef balls you get on Cantonese dimsum menus. I am not a big beef eater, but this dish was outstanding and I would order it again, and again.

大煮干丝 dàzhǔ gānsī “boiled shredded tofu”

This is another famous Yangzhou dish. The noodle-looking things are actually a type of dried tofu called 豆腐干 dòufugān, which literally means “dry tofu.” It has a firm, chewy texture similar to noodles. Like all tofu dishes the tofu soaks up all the flavors it is mixed with. This dish contains some greens and bamboo shoots all cooked in a delicious, light chicken based stock. It is a wonderful dish and can be found all over Yangzhou.

扬州炒饭 yángzhōu chǎofàn “Yangzhou fried rice”

This is not the greasy slop that you get at Chinese-American restaurants in the U.S. The first time I encountered Yangzhou style fried rice I had just arrived in Guangzhou after many hours on a plane. I finally got to my hotel around midnight and I was ravenous, but way too tired to go out and find a restaurant still open. So I ordered a plate of Yangzhou fried rice from room service. It was delicious!

Yangzhou fried rice is famous all over China. As with most Huaiyang cuisine it is lightly and delicately flavored, and is neither greasy nor smothered in salty soy sauce. It is seasoned with little bits of very fresh vegetables such as carrots, greens, maybe a bit of garlic. It almost always has freshly scrambled eggs and ham. I very seldom order fried rice; actually I never order fried rice, much preferring steamed rice. But Yangzhou style fried rice is the exception. It really is outstanding and the pinnacle of fried rice dishes in China.

After this wonderful meal I was feeling very sleeping, and very chubby. In fact, on this trip I had been eating way too much as I was doing research (i.e. eating) on Huaiyang cuisine. Several of my friends and colleagues knew this so they were very eager to take me to their favorite restaurants and order way more food than we could possibly eat.

Feeling a bit chubby after an excellent meal in Yangzhou

In the future I’ll be posting more about Huaiyang cuisine as well as China’s other cuisines as I continue my research on China’s famous regional cuisines. Let’s just say that authentic Chinese food is more varied, more delicious, and much more exciting than anything you can find here in the U.S.

 

Tofu Brains (豆腐脑 dòufu nǎo)

豆腐脑 dòufu nǎo (Tofu Brains)

It was a cold, rainy night in Yangzhou this past March. I was out walking in the old town section of Yangzhou looking for something quick, and hot to eat for dinner. When you are in an area that does not have central heating in its buildings, 40 degrees feels much, much colder. And after several days, the cold seems to wear you down a bit.

I passed a very small restaurant crowded with people. This is always a good sign that good, fresh food is being served. In fact, I would suggest that you avoid empty restaurants no matter how good the food looks. There’s a reason why restaurants are crowded. At the entrance to the restaurant, outside, was a table with dozens of white bowls arranged on it. In each bowl was a ceramic spoon with some broth in it, freshly chopped garlic, finely chopped chili pepper, cilantro, and a few other ingredients that I am not sure of.

Bowls waiting for tofu

I asked the woman working there what this dish was called. She looked at me like I was an idiot and replied, “dòufu nǎo (豆腐脑).” Her tone was like, “duh.” Well, I admit that as much as I love Chinese food, and have been eating it all over China for 25+ years, I had never seen or heard of this dish.

After diners paid for the bowl of Tofu Brains, the women would then take a large flat ladle and scoop out several thin layers of soft, hot tofu from a large crock and ladle it into the bowl. You then took your bowl, and found a place to sit down inside. You then gently stir the tofu up into the other ingredients to make a soup as seen in the first photograph.

Preparing the dish

Wow! It was amazing. The tofu was soft, silky, and hot, and the broth was deep and complex. The heat of the tofu gently cooked the freshly chopped vegetables, and it had just the right amount of salt. The wonderful thing about tofu is its ability to absorb the flavors of whatever it is cooked with. This dish was exceptional. It really hit the spot on this cold, wet night.

I admit the name of this dish, Tofu Brains, is a bit graphic, but who cares when it is so delicious (and the fact that there are no real brains in it). I was beginning to have recollections of a soft tofu dish sort of like this common in Southern China, called 豆腐花 dòufu huā or 豆花 dòuhuā for short. This dish uses the same kind of soft, silky tofu but it is sweet and eaten cold, particularly in the summer when it is hot. It is pretty refreshing. This can be translated as ‘jellied tofu’ even though it literally means ‘tofu flower.’

I wish I would have spent more time analyzing the dish to figure out exactly what was in it. I guess I could also have asked the woman working there what was in it. But I was cold, and hungry, and I gobbled down the bowl without giving it a whole lot of thought. I then scurried off in the rain back to my hotel.

If you don’t like tofu, you probably wouldn’t like this dish, but if you do, I highly recommend it. There are quite a few variations of this dish all around China. For example, in Sichuan Province, it will likely be spiked with lots of fresh chili peppers and be very spicy. The Yangzhou variety had a hint of spice, but like most Huaiyang Cuisine, tasted fresh with delicate flavors. This certainly won’t be my last bowl of Tofu Brains

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)

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.

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.