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”.
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.