Monthly Archives: January 2014

Shangri-La: The life, death and rebirth of an ancient Chinese town

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A few days ago, I read the sad news that the ancient part of the city in Shangri-la in Yunnan Province in China had been ravaged and almost completely destroyed by a fire. I stumbled on an article about the fire half way down the page, deeply embedded in the middle section of the international news page of the local newspaper where I now live. Having visited the city myself exactly two years ago, I had to carefully reread the headline and subtext to make sure it was indeed the same obscure city. A remote city in the northwest corner of Yunnan Province called Gyalthang in Tibetan by it mainly Tibetan inhabitants, the ancient city was formally a trading post along the Southern route of the Silk Road and still serves as an isolated springboard for travel into Tibet. Known in Chinese as Zhongdian until 2001, it was renamed “Shangri-la” by the Chinese government in the hope of attracting tourists. Before moving to China, I knew nothing of the namesake for Shangri-la, a fictional Tibetan utopia in the 1933 novel “Lost Horizon” by James Hilton, nor was I aware that there was in fact a real place bearing that name.

Although Shangri-La had apparently attracted a lot of tourists both from China and overseas in the recent years, it was almost completely shut-down for tourists when I arrived there in January 2012 with newly-made hiker friends. It was the week leading up to Spring Festival (Chinese New Year) and most accommodations, shops and restaurants were shut for the winter. Ice-chilling winds blew through the empty, narrow, cobbled streets of Dukezong, the ancient part of the city. Walking gingerly along the icy roads, stray, rugged dogs escorted us through the streets as we wandered around and explored. The tucked away, elevated remoteness of Shangri-La reminded me of a frontier town in the Wild West, thanks to the lack of foreign and Chinese national big brand commercialism. Entire families putted by on tractor pulled carts, cows and wild turkeys shared the streets, and Tibetan techno pop music blared from local bars and shops. A 15 minute walk outside of the old city center was a busy market. Monks in their long auburn robes sashayed by while other locals sold brightly colored prayer flags, brass bowls and a variety of produce.  A short uphill walk behind the ancient city, prayer flags flapped from hilltop monasteries while wind whistled past my face. Lacking a skyline of tall buildings and any construction, clear views of the residential city in the valley below offered a calming backdrop. It was a welcome escape from the overpopulated chaos, noisy traffic and urban sprawl typical of other Chinese cities.

shangri-la collage

The question remains as to what will now come of the ancient part of Shangri-La. Having been branded as a tourism getaway by the Chinese government, it will most definitely be rebuilt. How will the new ancient city be reborn? Will it be completely gutted, flattened and then developed with new upmarket shopping malls, KFCs, and fancy new high rise apartment buildings similar to those popping up over other cities in China? Could the ancient city be rebuilt to resemble another Lijiang, the Unesco World Heritage city a few hours south in Yunnan that tends to be overcrowded and overpriced with its theme park depiction of the local and ancient culture? Part of Shangri-La’s charm was in its remoteness, ruggedness, and it not being another concrete replica of an ancient town fashioned by an eager developer from elsewhere in China. I do hope that the ancient town of Shangri-La will be rebuilt again. Certainly the income will help support the local economy. Here’s hoping it will be rebuilt similar to the original form as well as with a majority of input and involvement from the local population.

From a hilltop monastery overlooking the old part of Shangril-La below, a monk collects old prayer flags to burn.

From a hilltop monastery overlooking the old part of Shangril-La below, a monk collects old prayer flags to burn.

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A Chinese culinary journey along the streets of Nanjing: Part 3

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Dumplings

My Chinese food experience in Nanjing would not have been complete without a basic Chinese food staple- jiao zi (饺子)or dumplings (cousin of the American “gyoza” potstickers). I believe the best dumpling restaurant in all of Nanjing is located a 5 minute walk down the road from the university. It is absolutely packed every afternoon from 12 noon until 1:30, with patrons squeezing in at tables with other customers. This adds to the charm as you may be forced to small talk with a couple or a mother and her child sharing the table with you. In the back of the restaurant, a team of women hunch over a large table preparing the dough and the filling for the dumplings from scratch. This is a large production. Two women can be seen mixing a pile of flour with water with their hands. Eventually, the large pile of flour becomes a large pile of dough. Grabbing small pieces of dough, two other women quickly knead and roll out small, flat discs of dough. Two additional women rapidly spoon fillings of ground pork or ground pork and corn onto the flat discs of dough and pinch the dumplings together. The prepared dumplings are placed on a large round bamboo woven tray and hurriedly brought to the cooks in the back who boil the dumpling for the eager customers.

In the front of the shop, a two person team fries the guotie (锅贴) or pot stickers (this is a literal translation) in two inches of piping hot, bubbling, golden cooking oil in a large shallow and round iron pan. As the guotie fry, they begin to brown and stick to the pan and each other. The outside of the guotie harden and turn crispy while the minced pork and garlic filling cooks nicely in the inside. Once crisped, browned and stuck together, the cook slowly pours the oil into another pan. Another attendant scrapes the browned blocks of guotie onto plates for hungry customers who push their way into the line and quickly grab from the latest batch before it is depleted. On hand at each table are garlic cloves (for mashing up with bare hands, no less), dark vinegar and a bright, thick red garlic chili sauce. Customers prepare a mixture of all three in individual dipping bowls for dunking the fresh steamed jiaozi and guotie in before downing the savory treats.

Another interesting take on dumplings are tang bao (汤包)or xiao long bao (小笼包)or soup dumplings. A specialty originally from Shanghai, xiao long bao is a dumpling with a gelatinous broth cube placed inside before it is pinched on top. Xiao long bao literally means “little steaming basket buns” and these little morsels are placed in a bamboo basket to steam over boiling water. As the dumplings steam in the basket, the gelatinous cube inside the dumplings melt and mix with the water vapor and turn to soup, essentially creating tasty soup filled dumplings. An unsuspecting xiao long bao virgin might bite right into the dumpling, squirting hot liquid all over himself and his front. I myself haven’t mastered the art of eating xiao long bao but usually I cautiously and wobbily grab one with my chop sticks, careful to pinch the top of the dumpling, and slowly dunk it in dark vinegar. Steadily, I then place the xiao long bao on a small porcelain soup spoon held in my left hand while still gingerly holding the dumpling upright with the chopsticks in my right hand. I bite a small hole at the top of the dumpling and then slowly suck and slurp the soup out of it. I usually manage to not dribble or squirt any soup on myself but every once in a while, one of my shirts becomes a casualty of careless xiao long bao consumption. For a while, a small eatery right next to the university steamed tasty xiao long bao and it became a tradition to bring any visitors from back home to try them as one of their first Chinese cuisine experiences. As I write this, I laugh because until this week, I thought “long” in xiao long bao meant “dragon” (龙) (different tone from “long” meaning “steamed basket) so all along, my friends, sister, niece and I thought we were enjoying “little dragon buns”.

dumpling collage 2

Top right- Jiao zi; Middle right top- Guo tie; MIddle right bottom- hun tun; Bottom left- Xiao long bao

So there you have it my friends- a full Chinese culinary journey right on the streets of Nanjing. I haven’t even managed to cover all of the dishes, snacks, or delicacies such as Beijing duck, Nanjing salted duck, Yunnan fried goat cheese, malatang (麻辣烫)(spicy numb soup) or all the varieties of dofu (豆腐) (tofu).  Chinese food is as diverse in taste and variety as its people. Sometimes the best dining experiences are not at pricey, fancy restaurants but at homey, local rustic holes in the wall or from street vendors. Witnessing the preparation around the cooking of the food, the owners as well as the interaction between other customers can be a unique cultural experience and insight into life in the Middle Kingdom. These experiences I will cherish and take with me from this Chinese chapter in my life.

A Chinese culinary journey along the streets of Nanjing: Part 2

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Carnivore’s delight: Chicken, “hamburgers” and barbeque

Many basic eateries here in Nanjing and throughout China have different forms of meat cooked in sauces and topped or fried in rice, noodles, or in noodle soup. Chicken of course is available in many restaurants. It is not an unusual sight to see live chickens crammed into a cage in front of some restaurants, especially hotpot restaurants. While this may be a little bit shocking, some restaurants will proudly display chickens in front to attract customers who will then be able to pick a chicken of their choice to be cooked up in hotpot shortly thereafter. Perhaps outsiders may see this as unsanitary but here in China, it may be preferred as you can know exactly where the chicken or duck you are eating is coming from and how fresh it is. In contrast, the American way of buying a whole bird like a chicken or turkey, completely frozen and wrapped in plastic from the supermarket and then kept in a deep freezer for weeks may seem absurd as well as a waste of space. Also, Chinese won’t waste any part of an animal and eat every part of the duck or chicken, including the neck, feet (a favorite snack), various organs, and bone marrow.

Ducks from the local farmers' market

Ducks from the local farmers’ market

Caged, live chickens in front of a local hotpot restaurant

Caged, live chickens in front of a local hotpot restaurant

Unless you are savvy with chopsticks, be prepared to wrestle with a piece of chicken and its bones. My two favorite boned chicken dishes are Sichuan specialties called kou shui ji (口水鸡) or “saliva chicken” and another chicken dish simply known as “happy chicken” to me and my friends. “Saliva chicken” is called that because it makes your mouth water and was introduced to me by my friend Ryan who heralds from Sichuan himself and who shared the dish with us at a local Sichuan joint that he claimed was very authentic. Saliva chicken is cold poached chicken dunked in a spicy, dark sauce with peanuts (I could order the dish just for the sauce). Ryan tried for a long time to dupe the owner of that local Sichuan restaurant to share the recipe for her “saliva Chicken” but I think she’ll take it with her to her grave. “Happy chicken” is served in one of the hole in the wall restaurants in the basement of the shopping center near my university. A favorite lunchtime spot for some fellow teachers and me, the “happy chicken place” (as we called the restaurant) serves an assortment of mostly Sichuan dishes. “Happy chicken” is a delicious whole rotisserie chicken (with head and everything) with a nice salty dark glaze with caramelized onions. My friends and I tear the thing apart in minutes and when it gets difficult for us to pick at the thin remaining morsels, the proprietor is nice enough to hack the remaining chicken into smaller, more manageable parts for us to grab with our chopsticks.

A sauce with ji ding, or cubed chicken, is a solution if you want a quick and easy to eat dish with chicken pieces sans bones. This is probably why gong bao ji ding (宫保鸡丁), or “imperial fried spicy diced chicken” (and the original and distant cousin to Kung Pao Chicken), a basic but tasty sauce of diced chicken mixed with cubed pieces of carrot, cucumber and peanuts served on rice, is a very popular dish with foreigners in China. During my first year in China, I must have eaten gong bao ji ding at least every other day for both lunch and dinner.

Pork or rou (肉)(and simply translated as “meat”) is also common in gai jiao toppings over rice. You can easily eat it without bones if you order a sauce mixed with vegetables and rou pian (肉片)or sliced pork. At our local Sichuan restaurant, we frequently order a very basic but yummy sauce called tu dou rou pian (土豆肉片)or “potato pork slices” which is basically cooked potato slices and small pork slices in a brown gravy sauce which we eat on top of rice. Another cut of pork is rou si (肉丝) or shredded pork. Rou si is almost like ground pork but the pieces are just big enough to grab with chopsticks. My favorite rou si is another Sichuan dish called yue xiang rou si (鱼香肉丝) or fish fragrant pork strips. Despite its name, yue xiang rou si is not fishy tasting and is a nice dark sauce mixed with strips of carrot and garlic.

Tudou Roupian- Potato pork slices

Tudou Roupian– Potato pork slices

China’s answer to the hamburger is rou jia mo (肉夹馍) or pork pressed (in a) bun. Also coming from Shaanxi Province in northern China, rou jia mo is a very unique and delicious pulled pork sandwich which can be bought from street vendors. The pork is stewed for hours in a pot of soup broth with a variety of spices. To prepare the sandwich, the vendor will take a piece of pork from the pot, chop and mince it up into slivers and smaller pieces with a cleaver on a wooden cutting board. “La de? 辣的?, he’ll ask wondering if you can handle a little extra seasoning of chili powder. Pouring the chili powder and adding some sprigs of cilantro and grated cucumber, he’ll continue to chop up and mix the pork with the other. A small flat and round wheat bread called “mo” is sliced open to form a pocket and the pulled pork is then stuffed into the pocket bread and placed on a grill for a few seconds to be flattened so the flavors of the meat and seasonings can be combined.

Rou jia mo

Rou jia mo

Beef or niu rou (牛肉)(literally called “cow meat”) also can come both with and without bones. The basic beef dish is niu rou chao fan (牛肉炒饭), beef fried rice or niu rou chao mian (牛肉炒面), beef fried noodles. But the best way to enjoy beef in China is at an outdoor barbeque stand or shao kao (烧烤). Quite different from American barbeque, Chinese barbeque uses dry seasonings rather than marinades. In the past couple of years, an outdoor but covered shao kao gallery was set up along the river nearby my university. An entire line of perhaps thirty barbeque stalls were set up with picnic tables placed in front of each of the stands. Entering  the gallery from the street, barbeque chefs and their wives block our way as we walk down the aisle passing the different stalls, competing to woo us to their table instead of another’s. We have our stand we always visit and once we arrive, the wife squeezes us into their table among other customers so that she is able to seat as many people as possible. We grab a metal tray and load it up with a couple dozen beef and lamb skewers as well as an assortment of vegetables like green beans, cauliflower, mushrooms and potatoes as well as my favorite treat at shao kao- grilled mantou (馒头), a steamed bun that has been cut into slices, seasoned and then grilled. Pretty girls in white boots, miniskirts and green blouses slowly make their way to our table selling big glass bottles of beer and easily crushable thin plastic cups. The wife and daughter of our barbeque stall juggle to draw additional customers to their table, while also slicing, seasoning and then delicately threading the vegetable, meat and seafood ingredients onto metal or bamboo skewers. The wife at the neighboring stall always shoots us a dirty glance having passed up their stall yet another time (this is always part of the entire shao kao experience though). Preparing and burning the coals on the long grill and then fanning them to the right temperature is an art and is also strictly the man’s domain. The men are always the barbeque chefs. Always with a cheerful, calm and collected demeanor, our man takes turns greeting usual customers, fanning the coals of the grill, and slowly grilling the skewers of the different customers, being careful not to mix up the orders. He is methodical about grilling our different ingredients in stages so that we don’t get a pile of all of our food at once. His wife brings out a handful of skewers in intervals, carefully but efficiently piling the meat and veggie skewers on a metal tray in front of us. As we dive into our ever growing pile, we pick off pieces of meat with disposable bamboo chopsticks or just thread and rip an entire skewer in one swoop in our mouths, discarding then a growing pile of now clean skewers on the side of the tray. Burping, rubbing our bellies, and very satisfied afterwards, the hubbub inside the shao kao hall has begun to die down. As a ritual, our chef hands the men in our group cigarettes to smoke with him as a gesture of male friendship, to show appreciation of our continued patronage and perhaps as a reward to himself for another job well done that night. The night is not over, indeed the shao kao tent will be open until the wee hours of the morning, but he can allow himself to kick back and relax for a little bit.  How crestfallen I was when I returned from the US at the end of the summer this year to see that the entire shao kao gallery had completely vanished and cleared out, as if it had never existed. Every time I walk or ride by that now empty strip by the river, I remember fondly the evenings we  spent their among friends and witnessing the community of the families who got their livelihood from their shao kao operations there.

Fun times at the shao kao hall

Fun times at the shao kao hall

For a while, we also visited a Xinjiang barbeque place in our neighborhood. Xinjiang is the farthest, most western province of China and borders Pakistan, India, Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Mongolia and Russia. Many of the people from this part of China are not ethnic Han Chinese but are Uygher- a Turkic people who look very similar in appearance to people from the neighboring Central Asian countries and speak a Turkic dialect. Admittedly I have romanticized about visiting Xianjiang for three years, picturing myself riding on a camel into a bazaar in an ancient desert town along the Silk Road. While my dream of visiting Xianjiang has not yet been fulfilled, I vicariously experience a little bit of Xinjiang at local barbeque eateries and stands. The Xinjiang barbeque restaurant in our neighborhood that we visited for a while was strictly a place we enjoyed eating at during the summer and warm autumn months when we could eat at a foldable table outside on the sidewalk. It being a Muslim establishment, lamb skewers or nanrou chuan (羊肉串)were the main meat being barbequed. Outside, one of the young guys grilled the lamb and vegetable skewers forming a cloud of smoke that enveloped passersby. A few meters away, his sidekick prepared balls of dough for naan– a round flatbread with sesame seeds pressed in. A deep, open clay kiln glowed in front of him as he then formed a flattened disc of the dough onto a flat, cushioned hand mitt and then pressed the dough onto the side of the kiln to bake for a few minutes. The fresh, warm naan complemented the seasoned lamb and vegetables nicely. Our visits to our local Xinjiang barbeque restaurant ended, however, as the outside temperatures got colder and we had to retreat indoors to the restaurant where we were welcomed by a cockroach on the wall adjacent to our table. Luckily, makeshift Xinjiang barbeque stands are set up at various locations all over the city, so if I ever crave any lamb skewers and naan, I know where I can get my fix.

Xinjiang barbeque: grilling of lamb skewers and preparation of naan

Xinjiang barbeque: grilling of lamb skewers and preparation of naan

Next in this series on Chinese food:
Part 3: Dumplings

For further reading and recipes:
Sichuan “saliva” chicken recipe

Yu xiang rou si Recipe (Fish fragrant pork slivers)

A Chinese culinary journey along the streets of Nanjing: Part 1

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Happy New Year! 新年快乐! This is my last week in China so I would like to present over the next few days some of the dining experiences and culinary treats I have enjoyed during my three and a half years living in Nanjing. Enjoy!

Regretfully during my time here in China, I have not been able to travel as extensively to other regions of China as I would have liked. Fortunately, I can experience some of China’s rich diversity right here in Nanjing through a wide selection of local restaurants and eateries that represent cuisine from the near and far reaches of the country.

A good part of China’s 1.3 billion people live predominantly within urban centers spanning north to south of its east coast thanks to the economic opportunities available there. Millions of transients migrate from all provinces of China in search of better paying jobs and education opportunities in the booming east coast cities. Some will eventually settle in the East, others will come and then vanish as quickly as they arrived likely seeking other opportunities elsewhere in other booming cities or returning to their distant home provinces. Many of these migrants will run small restaurants, eateries or other small shops to help support themselves and families back home. That’s how it’s possible to experience cuisine from all of the different provinces right within a neighborhood’s limits.

China’s cuisine is as diverse as its people. Many of the typical Chinese dishes you might enjoy in the US or elsewhere outside of China only represent a small fraction of the dishes you could experience in China itself and have also probably been altered so much to meet the tastes of the adopting country, and are nowhere near in taste or appearance to the original dishes. I also rack my brain trying to think of the quintessential dish in China itself because Chinese dishes and cuisine really are delineated along regional lines. In the north of China, north of the Yangtze River, noodles and wheat based food is the basic staple. South of the Yangtze River, rice and rice based food is the basic foundation. Nanjing is just on the south bank of the Yangtze so we can easily enjoy both noodles and rice based dishes. When ordering rice dishes, you can either ask for chao fan (炒饭)or fried rice dishes or gai jiao fan (盖浇饭)or rice with a “lid”, which is plain cooked rice topped (hence the term “lid”) with a sauce with mixed vegetables; a sauce with vegetables and meat; or a sauce with tofu. Noodles or mian (面)are served in soup unless you specify chao mian (炒面)(the original and distant cousin to Americanized “chow mein”) or fried noodles or gai jiao mian  (盖浇面).

Oodles of noodles

For an interesting take on noodles, the people from Gansu Province in the north central part of China are the experts in my eyes. Although Han Chinese in features, some of the people from Gansu are practicing Muslims, perhaps a legacy of the days long ago when traders travelled and spread the religion along the northern route of the Silk Road which bisects right through Gansu Province. In my neighborhood surrounding my university campus is a restaurant we have dubbed the “Muslim noodle place”. The family who runs the place speaks a foreign, exotic dialect which seems to have no remote connection to Mandarin. As for their noodles, you can either choose la mian (拉面), pulled noodles, or dao xiao mian (刀削面), knife cut noodles. It’s fascinating to watch the cook in the back quickly and effortlessly prepare either type of noodle. La mian or pulled noodles are made by kneading and then repeatedly folding, pulling and stretching dough into thinner and thinner and longer and longer strands until they become several arm length noodles. The cook will then toss the noodles into a separate metal basket inside a bubbling, boiling cauldron. With dao xiao mian, the cook takes a big piece of dough about the length of a forearm and quickly downwardly shaves strips of the dough into the boiling pot of water. Dao xiao mian are shorter and fatter than the la mian, but equally delicious on a plate mixed with vegetables or beef or in a bowl of steaming hot broth.

Another unique noodle dish from the northern province of Shaanxi is Liangpi (凉皮) or “cold skin”. This is a cold noodle dish mixed with peanuts, cilantro, bean sprouts, vinegar, chili oil and flakes, and some dried compressed tofu. It gets the name “skin” because the noodles are made from the leftover starch made from producing gluten and resembles a layer of skin. Liangpi is especially perfect in the hot summer and can be bought from little street stalls right in the neighborhood.


Some like it hot

Something to consider when eating throughout China are the five tastes- tian (甜) – sweet; xian (咸)- salty; la (辣)- spicy; suan (酸)- sour; and ku (苦)- bitter. Many of the local restaurants from any particular region especially seem to cater to a diner’s personal spiciness preference. It’s not unusual for a table to already have on hand a small metal dish of la jiang (辣酱)- or chili oil. Ground up dried chili steeped deeply in oil, a person can scoop as many or few spoonfuls of it onto or into their dish as she wants to reach her desired level of spiciness. A bottle of dark vinegar (xiang cu香醋)is also frequently on hand to provide the desired level of sourness. Strangely I have never seen or heard of soy sauce being provided to diners in any restaurant in China, no matter which region the restaurant is representing. While you can easily buy dark and thick soy sauces (literally translated to “sauce oil” 酱油) in the super market, just like you can buy bags of salt and MSG (called weijing (味精)or “refined flavoring” in Chinese), soy sauce in restaurants is probably kept on hand by the cooks themselves who use it to braise beef and pork. This method of braising in soy sauce is called hongshao (味精)or “red-cooked” because the meat comes out looking brownish red after it’s been marinated and cooked in the soy sauce.

Speaking of spice, if you are looking to boost your tolerance of it, food from Sichuan, a central province of China (and home to the panda bear), may be just your ticket. Sichuan cuisine is popular throughout China and indeed there are several Sichuan restaurants right in our neighborhood. We frequent a local Sichuan restaurant at least twice weekly called Xiao Sichuan (小四川)or “Little Sichuan”, a rustic back alley family-run establishment located in the shadows of our university’s outer wall. It’s popular among both students and locals (and a couple of foreign teachers as well!) and has a menu of several pages long of gai jiao fan dishes as well as various sumptuous pork, chicken or cabbage dishes drenched in spicy oil. There is nothing fancy about Xiao Sichuan but it’s intimate, relaxed and very accommodating. The family cooks up the dishes quickly in woks over gas stoves outside and on the side of the restaurant. Within a couple of minutes an order of gan bian si ji dou (干 便 四季豆), dry fried green beans, or shui zhu rou pian(水煮肉片), water boiled pork slices, will be placed in front of you and your companions.  Sichuan dishes are typically stir fried, boiled, or cooked, and then served in very generous amounts of chili oil and then heavily covered in dried chili peppers and Sichuan peppercorns. You’ll be left sifting through the chili peppers with your chopsticks to pinch the remaining morsels from the plates, bowls or pots in front of you. Sichuan dishes are complemented with rice which helps dissipate the tingling and spicy flavors in your mouth.

Top right clockwise: Sichuan dish shui zhu rou pian; la mian or pulled noodles from the Muslim noodle shop; and an assortment of scenes from various street vendors

Top right clockwise: Sichuan dish shui zhu rou pian; la mian or pulled noodles from the Muslim noodle shop; Sichuan dish tudou rou pian (potato pork slices); a local street vendor cooking chao fanpreparing of la mian and dao xiao mian; Sichuan dish of cabbage and pork strips cooked over a flame

As for Xiao Sichuan, we have always enjoyed it not only for its food but for the chance to see an extended multi-generational Chinese family under one roof. Indeed, the family unit is a central, structural part of life in China and it’s fascinating to see through the example of this restaurant how much of a powerful team they all make together. Mom, dad, son, daughter in-law, grandson and other cousins, brothers and sisters all live and work alongside one another in this restaurant. In the center of the universe at Xiao Sichuan is the little grandson, a three year old boy we have witnessed over the past couple of years coo at and give toothless smiles to the customers as a baby; take his first steps and learn to walk on the floor of the restaurant; and gradually form words and learn to talk; and eventually gain the full command and attention of all of the additional family members working in the restaurant. When Grandpa is not away in Sichuan, he and his toddler grandson are partners and crime. They have their quiet moments together when the older man bounces his grandson on his knee and they watch Chinese action war movies on the TV in the corner wall of the restaurant (there is always a different movie on but always with the same plot of a heroic Chinese town defending itself from evil Japanese invaders during World War II).

Huo guo (火锅)or hot pot is also popular throughout China and the Sichuanese are again noted for being king of hotpot. Truly a group dining experience, hot pot is when a large pot of broth is placed at the center of a table. Spicy chili oil, bay leaves, and a cornucopia of other spices are added to the broth when it’s cold. A waiter will turn on a heat element at the center of the table. Gradually the broth will begin to bubble and boil at which time, thin slices of frozen beef, frozen lamb, potato, fish balls, cabbage, vegetables, bread balls, tofu and any other variety of raw ingredients are added into the pot to cook. Diners fish and pick out the ingredients from the pot with their chopsticks after they have sufficiently cooked. There are a variety of dipping sauces such as thick sesame oil, peanut sauce, chili sauce, or minced garlic which can be mixed together to a person’s individual taste for dipping cooked ingredients in before eating.

In addition to the food itself, I always enjoy watching the other parties at a hotpot restaurant. Typically at other tables are groups of male friends and their girlfriends or wives. Or perhaps new business associates will get to know each other and begin to build relationships and trust over a meal of hotpot. As the dinner progresses, the baijiu (白酒)(Chinese rice alcohol) flows and cigarettes between the men are exchanged and smoked, the men become redder in the face, drunker and chummier with one another while their girlfriends gossip and chat on the side. Happy, drunken men wobble and stumble out leaning on the shoulders of one another, bellowing, “Pengyou!! 朋友! (My friend!) to one another. While this may seem like a curious and amusing spectacle and form of machismo to an outsider, it is at the very core and central part of doing business in China and an age old ritual dating back hundreds of years. The Chinese are also very sentimental when it comes to friendship, especially between the same sex. A friend once told me that to some Chinese men, the bond and friendship with other men is sometimes more sacred than their own marriage (this is what I call a “bromance”). A hotpot restaurant is the perfect setting for building and fostering new relationships and also a place guys can go to just let go and let loose with one another.

Next in this series on Chinese food:
Part 2- Omnivore’s Delight: Chicken, “hamburgers” and barbeque

For further reading and recipes:
Fuchsia Dunlop’s blog on Chinese cuisine

Delicious Knife Cut Noodle (Dao Xiao Mian) Recipe

Traditional Chinese Recipes: Gan Bian Si Ji Dou Recipe (Dry fried green beans)