Filed under: Food-Focused Travelogues, Living in China | Tags: China, food, Three Gorges, travel
Last summer I made a pilgrimage back to the Three Gorges area, where I used to live for two years before the region was flooded by the Three Gorges Dam. From 2000-2002 I lived in Wanzhou (previously called Wanxian), a small remote city built on steep mountains on the banks of the Yangtze. If you’ve read Pete Hessler’s book Rivertown, I had a similar experience as I lived in a nearby city just 2 years later than his term. At the time I was one of only 5 foreigners in the whole city.
Wanzhou is built on the sides of steep mountains. It is a city of winding, curving roads and countless staircases that cut between the curved lanes. I never saw a bicycle in the city because it’s simply too steep.
Wanzhou is the river town that was the most impacted by the Three Gorges Dam. I lived there during the years that the city was preparing to be flooded by that dam. A full third of the city was flooded by the dam, so during the preparatory years the government pumped money into the area to demolish all the buildings near the water, and build new buildings on top of the cliffs. All over China there is a great deal of demolition and construction, but this area experienced particularly extreme changes because of the dam and strategic flooding.
During those two years, I learned to live with loss as I saw building after building demolished. On one of my last weekends I was moved when I discovered the old Catholic church was reduced to a pile of rubble, with only the front door arch remaining. By the time I moved away in 2002, the lower sections of the city were mostly piles of rubble.
Over the years I have wondered nostalgically what happened to my former home after the dam was completed, always wanting to return and explore the changes. A few months before this pilgrimage I had a dream that I returned. It was meant to be.
Now that I live in China again, teaching in Nanjing, I had the opportunity to return to visit Wanzhou. My jaw hung open in shock as I saw a new glitzy waterfront, complete with a smooth riverside boulevard lined with stylized street lights, a luxury hotel, and a shiny mall with an H+M. It was a new city.
As you can see, the historical structure of the city before 2003 had no river walk. The buildings were pushed right to the edge of the water.
The current waterfront has a wide, empty space below the riverwalk boulevard which is set aside for dining al-fresco in the summer.
I visited my old campus where I had taught, and saw many new buildings, including new apartments which now cover up part of the green cliff behind the college track.
Of course It was incredibly emotional for me to make this pilgrimage back to Wanzhou after 11 years away, especially because the city had changed so drastically. Part of me felt nostalgic for how the city used to be, with the tight alleys and cluttered markets. But another part of me understood that most of the residents like that their city is cleaner now. The small city used to be incredibly filthy (a few months after I moved home, there was an outbreak of cholera… and I have numerous terrible rat stories that I don’t want to share here). Now the streets are much tidier and the sky is clear and blue. The air pollution used to be horrendous. I don’t know if I visited on a fluke clean weekend or if some factories have actually moved away.
It is common for Western observers of China to lament the loss of old architecture in China because recent years have seen incredible demolitions all over the country. I’m usually in the camp of lamenting the loss of old buildings, but after numerous conversations with Chinese friends I can understand their desire for new buildings. When we as outside visitors are appreciating old architecture in China, we are usually walking around taking photos. We don’t have to sleep in those rooms or cook in those kitchens. We don’t have to experience how uncomfortable the crumbling buildings are day after day. I’ve softened my view over time after empathizing with friends who want cleaner, solid homes.
My pilgrimage visit was more meaningful because one of my current students in Nanjing happens to come from Wanzhou. She and I met during my first week in Nanjing and quickly became close friends. When I returned to Wanzhou last summer she was also home on vacation so I stayed in her home and went to her grandparents’ place for a homecooked meal. My friend knows exactly what local foods I had missed, and made sure to take me on a thorough culinary tour.
Here is my friend’s cute grandma preparing lunch for us. She cut the si gua gourd roughly in her balcony kitchen.
Her grandma also prepared dou ban, a local dish of pressed bean curd served room temperature in a spicy marinade. It is slathered in plenty of hua jiao.
In various places in China, a common street food it stir-fried potatoes in a huge wok. I have to put it out there that the Wanzhou variation of street potatoes is special. I’ve tried street potatoes in other Chinese cities, but they taste like plain fried potatoes. In Wanzhou they are deeply spicy with a strong shot of cumin, sesame, and numbing hua jiao. When I was walking around downtown, I usually picked up a bowl for about 20 cents. My friends who visited me in Wanzhou remembered these potatoes as an essential flavor of Wanzhou. Now living in Nanjing, my Wanzhou friend and I reminisce about those incredible street potatoes.
The local noodle specialty is xiao mian, meaning literally “small noodles”. They are called “small” because the preparation is a quick assembly of strong flavors. It requires various types of chili sauce and fermented vegetables, plus garlic, huajiao, greens like kongxincai, and various other aromatics. It’s not something one usually makes at home because it requires small amounts of so many ingredients, and also because you can find it all over any town in the Chongqing region as a regional staple. When I lived in Wanzhou I ate these xiao mian noodles all the time and didn’t realize how regional and special they were. They were just street noodles to me then. Wow, how I missed those flavors. Here on the return trip I had them for solid and satisfying breakfast.
Here is the xiao mian preparation.
The noodles are served in a loose sauce but the proper method is to toss the noodles for awhile until they fully absorb the sauce.
Here are some various preserved vegetables and beans in the market.
Wanzhou still has staircases everywhere. These stairs lead down to a vegetable market.
This is a classic Chongqing regional soup, sour preserved vegetable and noodle soup, suan cai fen si tang. This was another favorite of mine in Wanzhou, and since then when I eat in Chongqing-style restaurants, I often ask for this simple soup. It’s clean and restorative.
Classic mapo doufu.
Late at night we went out for shao kao, which is essentially late-night street grilling. People eat it out on the sidewalk sitting on low plastic stools. The marinade is chili, cumin, hua jiao and sesame. My friends ate the meat pieces the photo, but there are always plenty of veg options like various incarnations of tofu, eggplant, taro, rice gluten, green beans, cauliflower, and every kind of mushroom.
When I lived in Wanzhou I ate hotpot with friends pretty much once a week, but I didn’t have time to eat hotpot during this pilgrimage trip. The following weekend my Wanzhou student and I met in Chongqing and made a point to have a hotpot meal with her boyfriend and his mom.
Filed under: Food-Focused Travelogues, Living in China | Tags: China, Sanjiang, tea, travel
Last summer I spent two weeks visiting students in Guangxi Autonomous Region in Southern China. My last stop was a few days in the home of my student from the Dong ethnic minority, in Sanjiang County. The Dong ethnic minority group is one of the smallest minorities in China, and they are known for their intricate wooden architecture and their picturesque villages tucked away in this mountainous corner of northern Guangxi, near the border of Guizhou.
Adventurous backpackers pass through to admire the old covered wooden bridges and stunning drum towers.
Most villages are adjacent to a river, and in the Dong tradition, they have built covered wooden bridges to provide a breezy and shady spot for people to rest.
Each village also has a tall, triangular drum tower that served to warn the village of dangers. Nowadays most drum towers are communal spaces where old men play chess and take naps.
Sadly because the delightful Dong architecture is wooden, it is susceptible to fires and numerous recent fires have destroyed bridges, drum towers, and even whole villages, This particular village clinging to a steep mountain burned down a few years ago, and the villagers are currently rebuilding the whole village using the traditional style.
Instead of staying in a backpacker guesthouse, I was lucky to have the opportunity to stay in my student’s home in a village off the beaten backpacker path. I was roughing it on this trip, as we had to walk 20 minutes along a grassy path to fetch drinking water, and we washed our hair in the river.
Their wooden homes are lovely in photos, but exposed to the elements with open walls. Birds and wasps wander in and out, and I imagine it would be frigid when it snows in the winter.
My student’s parents and in-laws are farmers, picking green tea leaves as well as various fruits. This is my student’s mother-in-law. I stayed in her home.
Surprisingly when the locals keep some of the tea leaves for themselves, they don’t use the leaves to brew tea as a beverage. This region is so remote that common Chinese tea culture didn’t penetrate it. They grow tea here, but do their own thing with the leaves. They make soup out of it. The Dong use tea leaves to steep a green tea soup for breakfast. It’s simmered in oil before the water is added, so the name for the soup is “oil tea” - “you cha.”
These green tea leaves are drying on the 3rd floor of the family house.
First peanuts are fried in a wok.
The peanuts are removed. More oil is added to the wok, and next puffed rice is fried in the oil.
The puffed rice is removed and finally the green tea leaves are fried in oil. After a few minutes hot water is added so the leaves simmer into a soup.
To serve, the fried peanuts and puffed rice are dropped in a bowl, then topped with oily tea soup. It is eaten for breakfast alongside fried eggs and stir-fried dishes.
I haven’t posted in quite a while – I apologize! I have several stories to tell from the past year. Here’s another story from last summer – some observations about unique uses of corn in a remote county.
Last summer I designed a learning tour for myself, and spent 3 weeks in Guangxi and Guangdong provinces in southern China, living in my students’ homes. I spent a week in Debao County, Guangxi province, a remote mountainous region near the Vietnamese border.
Living in China, I have been told over and over again that Chinese cuisine has a north-south divide along the line of the preferred starch at the table. It’s wheat in the north and rice in the south. In northern China, people eat more more wheat-based foods like dumplings, noodles, and steamed breads. In the south, rice in more prominent, and southern noodles are usually rice noodles.
But I had never heard of a corn culture in China. In Debao I learned that the remote, mountainous region has a unique tradition of using corn instead of rice or wheat. Only recently have people started eating bowls of rice at the table. Until a few years ago, rice was considered so precious that a small bag of rice was a common wedding present of great value.
Because the karst mountains are so steep around Debao, farmers can’t grow rice in terraced paddies like other regions of China, and the spaces between the karst mountains are only narrow valleys. Farms are small, so people have grown corn because they could obtain more nutrients per square acre.
Instead of having a bowl of rice at the table, the traditional starchy side dish was a bowl of corn porridge, not dissimilar to grits or polenta. Debao style corn porridge however only includes dried ground corn and water – no salt or fat or other flavorings. At the table, people dip their stir-fried vegetable and meat dishes into the runny corn porridge, combining stirfry with porridge instead of stirfry with rice.
In the last 10 years, people in Debao have been transitioning into eating bowls of rice as their starch side dish, but many in the older generation still prefer a bowl of corn porridge, called yumi zhou. When I lived with this student’s family for a week, I observed that the mother always ate corn porridge, made in a pressure cooker, while the rest of the faily ate steamed rice with their meals.
Not only have corn porridge been the traditional starch side dish, there are numerous ways that corn is indispensible to the distince local cuisine.
A common breakfast beverage is yumi zhi, a hot, sweet, pureed corn beverage. Corn kernels are removed from the cob, then boiled until soft. Then it is pureed in a blender with a scant amount of sugar. The mixture is poured through a metal strainer to create a creamy consistency. The taste is pure, sweet corn flavor, like pure melted rich gold. Sweet corn enthusiasts would go crazy for this if they could taste it.
One of the favorite street snacks in Debao is kao yumi, roasted corn. Street vendors everywhere were roasting corn on the sidewalk. One day while driving on a winding mountain road, we stopped to admire a lake and noticed some small girls were roasting their own corn over a fire.
One evening a friend of the family came over and brought homemade snacks that were quite similar to tamales, corn steamed banana leaves. Because they were wrapped in banana leaves, they were like the Oaxacan version of tamales. It’s fascinating that people on opposite sides of the planet can create such similar foods.
I’ll close with a simple dish of fresh corn stirfried with scrambled eggs. The variety of corn in Debao produces wide, flat corn kernals, with a firmer texure than American corn.
Filed under: Food-Focused Travelogues, Living in China | Tags: China, tofu, travel
This summer I spent 3 weeks in Guangxi and Guangdong provinces visiting some of my students. One of the places I visited was Debao County, a remote mountainous region in Guangxi near the Vietnamese border. While in Debao County, my student took me to Du’an Village for the day to learn the traditional method for making tofu.
Debao County is known for excellent homemade tofu. Debao people regard mass-produced tofu (what the rest of us eat) as “fake tofu.” Only homemade tofu is considered “real tofu” and most people only eat tofu that was freshly made that morning. The tofu-masters get up before dawn to make a batch at home. Then after dawn they take the fresh tofu to the market to sell. Before this trip, my student waxed poetically about the tofu from this area, claiming it’s the most delicious in China. He couldn’t contain his excitement about introducing me to a “tofu master” so that I could learn the old method.
When I arrived in Debao, I was promptly served a meal that included fresh tofu and I swooned. Their homemade tofu has a wonderful rich fermented flavor, like a good beer or German bread. It is usually served in simple ways, often pan-fried plain or with garlic. This fresh tofu has a deep flavor on its own, and doesn’t need a complex sauce to find flavor.
My student introduced me to a woman in her 80s who taught us the traditional method for making tofu. You can make tofu at home using a blender, however the traditional method creates a richer flavor and better texture. A big stone grinding wheel is required. Most homes in these villages have a stone grinding wheel to grind dried corn. We started that morning by grinding the raw soybeans to lightly crush the beans and take the peeling off the soybeans. The wheel is incredibly heavy and difficult to turn.
We were told that in the modern tofu-making process, the skins are removed from the soybeans after cooking, or not removed at all, which makes a poor product. Removing the skins before cooking the beans creates a more even texture.
After the raw soybeans are crushed, the skins are shaken off. They used a wide, flat basket to shake the skins onto the cement floor.
Next the soybeans are soaked in cold water for 30 minutes to soften slightly. Then the soybeans are ground a second time on the stone grinder.
After the second grinding, the soybeans are cooked in water over an extremely low fire. A wood fire is preferred. They use a special kind of wood that perfumes the tofu with extra flavor.
Once the soybeans have come to a rolling boil, a little cold soaking liquid is added to cool the mixture down slightly. Then a fermenting ash is added. This fermenting ash is a by-product from the previous batch of homemade tofu. Once the ash is added, the liquid will start to curdle. I tasted a little at this stage, and it was delicious.
Then the mixture is poured into a wooden frame that has holes in the bottom for draining. The frame is lined on the inside with fabric, which creates a pretty pattern on the finished tofu.
After all of the mixture is poured into the frame, and is wrapped gently in fabric, we pressed the wooden lid firmly to help squeeze excess liquid out.
The tofu only takes a few minutes to set into a firm rectangular shape. Once it has set, the sides of the frame are removed (like a springform pan).
Then the lid is removed and the tofu is cut into rectangles. We used a measuring tape to create lines to guide the knife.
The fresh tofu was promptly fried up for lunch. It had a rustic presentation, but was more delicious than words can describe. I greedlily ate more than my fair share on that plate. I was so proud that I helped make this tofu!
That day while we were making tofu, the orchestra of that village came over to play a concert for me. The orchestra of Du’an village is the premiere orchestra for Zhuang Opera, which is the Zhuang Minority style of Chinese Opera. The top orchestra has always come from this village, and they were proud to play a private concert for me to welcome me to their village. It was one of the most incredible experiences of my life. The musicians are all farmers, and learned by watching their elders. None of them read sheet music. They apologized for not wearing traditional concert attire. Here’s one of the videos that my students recorded.
In the 1950s, the Zhuang Opera orchestra from this village (which would have the elders of the current members), travelled to Beijing to perform for Mao Zedong and Zhoul Enlai. They played one song for me from the concert for Mao. It’s a song celebrating farm life, and the instruments are used create the sounds of birds in the early morning.
Filed under: Food-Focused Travelogues, Living in China, recipes | Tags: China, rice, travel
This summer I spent 3 weeks in Guangxi and Guangdong provinces visiting some of my students. One of the places I visited in Guangxi was Debao County, a remote mountainous region near the Vietnamese border.
While in Debao, one of my student’s friends wanted to teach me how to make bamboo rice, which is the method of cooking sticky rice in bamboo poles over an outdoor fire. Because it is a slow process, this is normally something that children in Debao do for fun. Adults generally don’t have the time or patience for it. I guess in this region children learn how to use machetes at a young age. Making rice in bamboo poles takes time, but the finished steamed rice is incredibly fragrant from being cooked inside the bamboo. I’m outlining the process for you in case you want to make this at home (and have a machete).
Start by using a machete to chop down some bamboo. Use strong, dark green poles of bamboo. Wash it well. We washed ours in the stream.
You will steam the rice in hollow sections of the bamboo. The sections are marked by the horizontal lines on the outside of the bamboo. Use a knife to cut a hole in one of the horizontal dividing walls inside the bamboo. The hole should be a little less than an inch in diameter.
In a large bowl, combine raw sticky rice with room temperature water, and add a little salt. My friends didn’t measure any of this. Use a soup spoon to scoop rice into the bamboo. Then use a chopstick to push the rice around until it goes through the hole. If you get ahead of yourself and put several spoonfuls of rice over the hole before pushing it through, it will be harder to push through. Just be patient and use a spoonful or two at a time. You might want to have one person spoon the rice and another person using a chopstick to push the rice through the hole.
When you think the rice has filled the section of the bamboo to the halfway point (you can use a chopstick as a dipstick to measure the level of the rice), then stop adding rice, and pour water into the hole to fill the section of bamboo with water. To close the hole, shove a big carrot into the hole to seal it. When it’s finished cooking, the roasted carrot is edible.
Repeat this process with as many bamboo poles as you are using.
Make a fire outside using wood, and ideally include bamboo branches and leaves for fuel. Place the bamboo poles on the fire, only 2 at a time. Roast over the fire until it is cooked. My friends did not set a specific time for roasting. One benefit of cooking bamboo rice is that the rice won’t burn inside the bamboo, as it might in a metal pot. The bamboo walls will keep the rice moist. The bamboo pole will char a bit, which is fine. However if the bamboo gets hot enough after charring to actually catch on fire, then pull it away from the fire. You don’t want the bamboo rice cooking longer than that.
Pull out the roasted carrot with tongs.
Use a machete or large knife to cut open the bamboo, lengthwise.
Scoop out the sticky rice, or eat it straight out of the bamboo as a bowl.
Filed under: Food-Focused Travelogues, Living in China | Tags: breakfast, China, street food, travel
This summer I spent 3 weeks in Guangxi and Guangdong provinces visiting my students’ homes. It was a sort of learning tour for myself to learn about my students’ lives. I spent a week in Debao county, Guangxi province, which is a remote mountainous region near the Vietnamese border. The mountains are the same kind of vertical karst mountains that are so famous in Guilin, but tourists don’t visit Debao because the region is so remote. The first roads in the area were built 20 years ago, and in some villages only 10 years ago.
Debao county also isn’t on the tourist path because it doesn’t have any special lovely traditional architecture to lure tourists. It’s a Zhuang minority area, but people don’t wear traditional clothes anymore. Guidebooks dismissively say that the Zhuang have assimilated into the mainstream Han Chinese culture, but after spending a week there living with a family, I can say there are some special aspects to life there. Some distinctions include the local language of Debao county, which has some similarities with Thai, and it’s the only place in China where the work animal is the pony! The cuisine is also special, with a few Vietnamese influences.
One of the Vietnamese culinary influences is found in the rice rolls, called juan tong fen in Mandarin. Juan is the verb for rolling things. Tong is the noun for a rolled object, and fen is for rice flour. These rice rolls are a common street breakfast in Debao.
The stall we visited made the rice sheets fresh to order, which made the rice rolls warm, soft, and slightly thicker than the Vietnamese rolls I’ve had before. They were slightly reminiscent of crepes. The process starts with a bowl of batter for the sheets, which consists of rice flour dissolved in water. She uses a ladle to spread a thin layer of batter on a piece of cloth that is stretched over a steamer. Then it is covered with a lid to steam for about 20 seconds.
After the rice sheet has steamed, it is removed with wooden sticks.
There are a variety of fillings, and customers order a combination of 2-4 fillings. Many of the fillings are preserved items, so the juan tong fen has a mild sour edge. Some of the fillings were chopped green beans, preserved bamboo shoots, soy bean sprouts, sour pickled vegetables, and some meat, all chopped fine.
Then the juan tong fen is quickly rolled up. Because the rice paper is fresh, it is thicker than store-bought rice paper, and it is soft and warm, quite comforting for a breakfast food.
Many people drizzle a little soy sauce on top.
This little boy was waiting patiently for his breakfast juantongfen.
I spent a month in Thailand during my holiday for the Chinese New Year.
When in Bangkok, I was determined to visit the Chattuchak Weekend Market, also called Jattujak, or “JJ.” The market attracts about 200,000 visitors each weekend, and seems to the be the size of a small town. Stalls sell everything from traditional handcrafts to hipster fashion labels to exotic pets. I bought several blouses at a stall that sold used clothing from Japan. Food stalls are strewn throughout the market, and there are also a few larger food areas.
It was so incredibly hot that day, and I think I drank about 5 Thai iced teas.
We had lunch at this Malaysian Halal food stall.
My friend had this bowl of Malaysian curry noodles for lunch, topped with crisp fried onions (and Thai iced tea).
I had pad thai (and Thai iced tea).
Fresh coconut ice cream, served in a coconut shell, and topped with peanuts.
Here I am eating fresh coconut ice cream.
At this stall they were making huge vats of “boat noodles.”