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)

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