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.

Dimsum Highlights

Typical dimsum menu

Typical dimsum menu

Guangzhou is a wonderful place for excellent dimsum. For nearly two weeks I was able to sample some of the best dimsum the city has to offer. Below are a few highlights in no particular order. This represents several dimsum meals.  Later I’ll do another post and discuss the world of eating dimsum in more detail.

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The Cantonese Really Know How to Eat!

Sunrise over the Pearl River, Guangzhou, China

Sunrise over the Pearl River, Guangzhou, China

I’ve been in southern China, specifically Guangdong Province, for the past couple weeks and was reminded of how seriously the Cantonese take their food and eating. Back in the early 80’s I lived in Hong Kong and learned first hand how much the Cantonese love to eat. Food was everywhere and people ate all day long it seemed, and late into the night. I remember once in the early 90’s I was in Guangzhou for a couple weeks working on a Cantonese language project. One night my Cantonese colleagues and I finished up our work at about 11:00 pm. I had a flight out the next morning at 7 am and figured I’d head back to my hotel and go to bed. But they had other plans. They suggested we go out and get something to eat. Why not? A little snack would be good. Boy, was I wrong. We found a small restaurant with tables spilling out onto the sidewalk. The dishes kept coming and coming. We ended up with 12 different dishes and ate until 2:00 am.

One the first things the foodie may notice in Guangzhou is that there is food and eating everywhere. It is common for small restaurants to set up tables along the sidewalk and at the best places people will be lined up waiting for a table.

People eating and lining up to eat.

People eating and lining up to eat.

Eating is THE social activity in Guangzhou

Eating is THE social activity in Guangzhou

Even white tablecloths at some places.

Even white tablecloths at some places.

The number of restaurants in Guangzhou is staggering. Street food is also pretty serious business in Guangzhou as well. Busy pedestrian malls, night markets, near bus and train stations, and shopping areas are packed with vendors selling snacks from their carts. The streets are lined with countless small shops selling everything from milk tea to ice cream. And everyone is eating.

Snack food in Guangzhou

Snack food in Guangzhou

This shop sells 牛杂 niǔzá, literally 'misc. beef' but really means beef innards like tripe

This shop sells 牛杂 niǔzá, literally ‘misc. beef’ but really means beef innards like tripe

Milk an bubble teas are very popular.

Milk an bubble teas are very popular.

Dried seafood is a very popular snack in Guangzhou, especially squid.

Dried seafood is a very popular snack in Guangzhou, especially squid.

Of course Cantonese food is probably most notable for its dimsum and the dimsum in Guangzhou is spectacular. I will be doing several more posts on the eating scene in Guangzhou as it is one of the major cuisines of China.

Also watch for an upcoming posts on eating in Chaozhou and Taiwan.

 

 

 

 

 

Eating Seafood in Tianjin

Seafood lunch in Tianjin

Seafood lunch in Tianjin

Last year I had the opportunity to go to Tianjin for the first time. I have to admit that previously I had not had a great desire to go to Tianjin. I always imagined it as a big, dirty, industrial city. But I guess things have changed over the years. I had a couple days in Beijing where I met some friends so we decided to take the new bullet train out to Tianjin. It only took 28 minutes.

I had a former graduate student who was from Tianjin. Her parents were kind enough to pick us up at the train station, show us around the city, and feed us well. For lunch they took us to a fabulous seafood restaurant called 鹏天阁酒楼 péngtiāngé jiǔlóu. It was a large, well decorated restaurant. On the ground floor were dozen of large fish tanks full of turtles, lobster, shrimp, all kinds of fish, and so on. There was also many varieties of fish and other seafood on ice. There were also refrigerated cases full of side dishes. The way these kinds of restaurants work is you walk around, followed by a hostess, and you tell her what you want. You even select the specific fish you would like to eat. They write everything down, and in some cases, net the seafood right there on the spot for you.

Tanks full of live seafood

Tanks full of live seafood

Netting our selected fish

Netting our selected fish

Selecting other dishes

Selecting other dishes

After we selected our dishes we were ushered upstairs to a private dinning room. At most nicer restaurants it is common for larger private parties to have your own private dinning room. You will usually have a waitress assigned specifically to your room.

A typical private dinning room

A typical private dinning room

The Chinese are gracious hosts. I had worked with this graduate student for several years, had hired her, wrote letters of recommendation for her, and so on. Her parents were probably feeling somewhat indebted to me, so this their way of saying ‘thank you.’ As is usual in this kind of situation, they ordered way more food than we could eat. This is also the Chinese way of showing respect for a guest. In total they ordered 11 dishes. Some of those dishes are below. Chinese restaurant food have notoriously creative names and they are difficult to translate. I have provided more literal translations to these dishes and sometimes have avoided the more difficult to translate phrases.

清炒四角豆 qīngchǎo sìjiǎodòu (fresh stir-fried  four-sided beans)

清炒四角豆 qīngchǎo sìjiǎodòu (fresh stir-fried four-sided beans)

世纪深井烤鹅 shìjì shēnjǐng kǎo é (Century deep well roasted goose)

世纪深井烤鹅 shìjì shēnjǐng kǎo é (Century deep well roasted goose)

胞椒茴香卷 bāojiāo huíxiāng juǎn (Fennel roles)

胞椒茴香卷 bāojiāo huíxiāng juǎn (Fennel rolls)

白灼甚围虾 báizhuó shénwěi xià (Boiled shrimp)

白灼甚围虾 báizhuó shénwěi xià (Boiled shrimp)

清蒸海蟹 qīngzhēng hǎixiè(Fresh steamed ocean crab)

清蒸海蟹 qīngzhēng hǎixiè
(Fresh steamed ocean crab)

清蒸桂鱼 qīngzhēng guìyǔ(Fresh steamed Mandarin fish)

清蒸桂鱼 qīngzhēng guìyǔ
(Fresh steamed Mandarin fish)

鲜椒美容蹄 xiān jiāo měiróng tí (Pig trotters with fresh pepper)

鲜椒美容蹄 xiān jiāo měiróng tí (Pig trotters with fresh pepper)

It was a really memorable meal. Chinese dining is a group experience with all dishes placed in the center of the table on a lazy Susan. Everyone then serves themselves from these dishes. Everything is communal. It is great to eat wonderful food with good company.

And I quite liked the city of Tianjin.

Breakfast in Beijing

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

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

素包子 Vegetarian steamed dumpling

素包子 Vegetarian steamed dumpling

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

油条 fried break sticks

油条 fried break sticks

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

蒸饺 steamed dumplings

蒸饺 steamed dumplings

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

豆浆 soybean milk

豆浆 soybean milk

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

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

Making 煎饼

Making 煎饼

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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