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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Next in this series on Chinese food:
Part 3: Dumplings
For further reading and recipes:
– Sichuan “saliva” chicken recipe