keito potato

Vegetarian Zhajiang Mian
November 9, 2016, 7:58 pm
Filed under: Living in China, Uncategorized | Tags:

Zhajiang Mian is a famous noodle dish from Henan province, and I learned to make it about 3 years ago from a former student from that province.  She’s a great cook, and intuitively adjusted the recipe to make it vegetarian for me.

Soon after I learned this dish, my parents were visiting me in Nanjing, and I had a few students over to help make homemade noodles and this sauce for them.  When I told my parents all of the ingredients in this sauce, they said it sounded gross, with too many competing flavors.  However, when they took the first bite, their eyes lit up and they asked if I could make it for my grandparents when I went home that summer.  And could I also make it for church?  I admit, the combination of ingredients initially sounds strange because it’s different from an Italian pasta sauce, and honestly the final product has a murky color that isn’t very pretty.  You’ll notice I don’t even have any good photos of the sauce.  The sauce almost looks like a wok-ful of puke, but it smells wonderful and tastes delicious.  The predominant flavors here are ginger and fried peanuts.

I was recently in Shandong province visiting a former student.  Her mom is a professional noodle-maker, and at one meal she made the noodles, and the student asked me to make the Zhajiang Mian sauce because she and I had made it together several times when she was a student here in Nanjing.  In fact, when we made it for my parents, she was the student who made the homemade noodles for that meal.  Because this sauce comes from a different province, her mom didn’t know it, and she was learning it from me that day.  I sometimes find myself teaching Chinese regional dishes to Chinese friends from different provinces, which seems strange.


noodle dough at my student’s home


my student’s mother, making the noodle dough

I use Chinese yellow bean sauce for this, but you can use a Korean daenjang or a Thai fermented yellow bean sauce.

This version of the recipe has carrots and garlic shoots.  You can substitute most any other vegetables instead of the carrots.  I recently used spinach and taro roots in their place.  It might be difficult for you to find garlic shoots, and if that’s the case, you can double the amount of green onions.

Zhajiang Mian recipe: for 6 people with leftovers


3/4 cup peanuts

6 eggs

1 block soft tofu

1/2 head of garlic

ginger: same amount as garlic

1 bunch green onions, white and green parts

2-3 TBS yellow bean paste

2 tomatoes


ground dried red chile, to taste

ground Sichuan peppercorns, to taste (optional)

2 carrots

splash of soy sauce

1 bunch garlic garlic shoots ( or substitute another bunch of green onions)

3-4 TBS cornstarch



Heat the oil in a wok over medium-high heat.  Fry the peanuts, then remove them from the oil with a slotted spoon.  Set the peanuts aside.

Beat the eggs in a large bowl.  Cut the soft tofu into a small dice, then carefully stir the diced tofu into the beaten eggs.  Heat a little more oil in the wok over high heat.  When very hot, add the egg-tofu mixture.  It will puff a bit like  a soufflé.  When fully scrambled, removed that egg-tofu mixture from the wok and set aside.

Chop the garlic, ginger, green onions and garlic shoots.  Cut the carrots and tomatoes into a dice.

Add a little more oil to the wok.  Add the yellow bean paste.  A few seconds later, add the ginger, garlic and green onions.  Then add the tomatoes and salt.  Cook for 2 minutes, and then add ground red chile and Sichuan Peppercorn powder, if using.  Add the diced carrots and a little soy sauce.  Then add the garlic shoots.  Let it cook several minutes.  Then add the egg/tofu mixture.  

Add about 1 quart of boiling water to the wok to thin out the sauce.  Mix the cornstarch with cold water, then add that cornstarch mixture to the wok.  Let this cook about 10 minutes while you boil the noodles in a separate pot.  Pound the fried peanuts with a mortar-pestle, and then add them to the sauce at the end.


Noodle Lessons in Nanjing
December 14, 2014, 6:02 pm
Filed under: Food-Focused Travelogues, Living in China | Tags: , , ,

When I moved to Nanjing two and a half years ago, I had a dream of befriending some folks at a noodle shop who would teach me how to pull noodles.

pulling noodles

I thought that would be a useful and fun hobby.  Back when I lived in China from 2000-2002, I took lessons from a chef who taught me how to carve fruit and vegetables into decorative flower and animal shapes.  That was a fun and quirky skill, but not especially practical.  I hoped this time around living in China I could learn to  make Chinese noodles instead.

During my first fall here I discovered several decent noodle places in my neighborhood, and a favorite was run by a friendly family.  I was planning on asking them to teach me, but they suddenly moved away.  None of the other families running noodle shops in my neighborhood seemed very friendly, not wanting to engaging in conversation besides taking my order.  I kept waiting to find the right place because I wanted these noodle lessons to emerge from a friendship first.

chao daoxiao mian

Over the months, I gradually forgot about this plan.  Then last spring I started going to a Xi’an noodle place downtown.  Their youpo mian 油泼面 is delicious.  Youpo means “throw the oil on,” and it’s a noodle dish flavored with a little oil in the bottom of the bowl sauteed with garlic, and topped with soybean sprouts, wilted leafy greens, cumin, red chile, and green onions.  You stir it at the table so the oil lightly coats the noodles.  The noodles have oil “thrown on” or tossed on them instead of being chao, or fried in oil.

youpo mian

Here is another beautiful bowl of youpo mian I had in Xi’an with the ingredients composed on top.

youpo mian in Xi'an

The family in this Xi’an noodle shop is so friendly.  They are from Xi’an themselves and we talked lots last spring about how my parents were going to visit soon, and I was going to take them to Xi’an for 5 days.  The man said, “In Xi’an, over there, you just walk down the street and it’s fun — 走路就好玩”  It’s true because Xi’an has great street life, and his comment became our trip motto “you just walk down the street and it’s fun”.

This fall when I returned from my summer travels, their faces beamed when I showed up for a bowl of noodles.  “Where were you?  We missed you!”  One night in September as my friend and I ate bowls of noodles after a lengthy Belgian happy hour, she encouraged me to ask them if they could teach me in their free time.  “Can we teach you?  Can we?  Of course!”  And that was that.  So far I’ve had 3 lessons.

making dough

One of my lessons was in the early morning to learn how they make their dough.  They use this machine to mix the flour, salt, and water.  They use the same dough for all of the different shapes of noodles, but for each designated shape, the dough rests for different amounts of time at different temperatures.

daoxiao dough

We started with dao xiao mian 刀削面, the wide cut noodles in my photos above.  These are the noodles that food writer Jonathan Gold describes as “fettuccine on steroids.”  They’re thick, chewy, and slightly irregular, which gives them a good mouth-feel.  The dough is formed into a log, and then refrigerated a several hours until firm.  Then the log of dough is placed on a wooden board so that you can prop it on your shoulder to cut the noodles.

tool for dao xiao mian

This is the tool for cutting dao xiao mian.  The blade is curved on the top left end of the tool.  You could use a paring knife, but this tool slides along the dough to cut the noodles more evenly.   Apparently you can only buy this tool in northwest China.  When one of his breaks, he has a friend back home in Xi’an send him a new one.

making daoxiaomian

We were practicing over a metal work table, but to make real noodles to serve, this kind of noodle is cut directly over a pot of boiling water, made to order.

Jessica doing daoxiaomian

I’ve been taking these lessons with my student Huang Xiaoming (Jessica) because she loves working with dough.   She grew up making noodles with her mom in the simple homestyle way, rolling dough out flat then cutting it into strips.  She has made those simple homestyle noodles in my home in Nanjing several times for student parties.  So she’s been really excited about joining me on these days.  She also helps translate a bit for me when the vocab gets too technical.

Jessica doing daoxiaomian

Here she’s practicing and making a pile of noodles.

my daoxiaomian

After practicing with the dough, we made our own daoxiao mian to eat ourselves.  We cut the noodles directly over the boiling water in a huge pot the size of a cauldron. I made these noodles myself!


For another lesson, we made chemian 扯面, the super-wide noodles from northwest China that are rolled out wide and pulled gently.  You start by forming the dough into smaller logs about an inch and a half wide and a little over a foot long.  These logs are dusted with cornstarch and placed in a cool spot next to a cold open window to chill slightly.  You can see a whole tray of these logs resting under wax paper.

rolling the dough

Once you are ready to work with the chilled log of dough, roll it out a little with your hands.

Jessica rolling out the chemian

Then it is rolled out with a slim Chinese rolling pin to stretch further.

rolling chemian

It’s rolled out into a strip about 2 inches wide.

pulling chemian

Then the strip is pulled gently a few times to stretch out.  These are not la mian 拉面 which are the famous thin pulled noodles.  These che mian are only pulled gently, and are still very wide.  Both la 拉 and che 扯 mean pulling, but la mian 拉面 and che mian 扯面 are pulled in different ways.

Jessica with chemian

Here Jessica is showing off one very long noodle.

my chemian

The che mian are so long and wide that only 1 or 2 noodles fit in a large bowl of noodle soup.  Here is the che mian that I made, in a classic tomato and egg soup.

my chemian

I look happy with my bowl of che mian!

Jessica's noodles

And Jessica looks happy too.

The family at the noodle shop won’t accept payment for these lessons.  They won’t let us even pay for the noodles we eat at the end of our lessons (because they say we shouldn’t pay for noodles we make ourselves).  In the Chinese style, we’ve tried throwing money down and leaving, but they grab it and stuff it in our bags and pockets before we can get out.  It’s very Chinese.  I’ve found that in these situations it’s usually more appropriate to give a gift for lessons instead of money.  So I bought them an expensive knife at a good knife store as a “Thanksgiving present to thank them for being my teachers.”  They accepted the gift, so I feel good about it.

I’m not sure if they’ll teach us how to make the thin pulled noodles, the lamian 拉面.  They are quite difficult and require many, many hours of practice.  The husband and wife at the noodle shop can make them, but they haven’t even taught their other staff in the kitchen how to make them.  He said we can keep coming to practice these shapes we’ve already worked on, but he’s not sure if he’ll teach us lamian.  So we’ll see.  I’m simply grateful for the experience I’ve had so far.

Homemade fensi noodles in Wenzhou
December 6, 2014, 11:37 pm
Filed under: Food-Focused Travelogues, Living in China | Tags: , , ,

This fall I spent 5 days with a student’s family in Wenzhou county, along the southern coast of Zhejiang province.

coffee on the balcony

They live in Yongjia village just across the river from Wenzhou city.  Every morning I drank coffee on the 4th floor balcony looking out at the small community farm next to their home.

cutting sigua

My student’s parents are retired, and spend their free time growing a variety of vegetables in their little plot in the community garden next to their building.  Here my student’s mom is cutting some sigua in her garden.  Sigua is a soft squash, similar to zucchini in texture, but with a different, earthy flavor.

washing vegetables in the canal

She likes washing her vegetables in the canal next to the garden.  During warm weather she also prefers doing her laundry in the canal rather than using her washing machine.  She trusts the canal to wash her clothes better than a machine.

sigua from the garden

A basket of sigua from her garden.

shirtless farmers

From their kitchen I looked out at another small farm plot behind the building.  Every afternoon these guys worked in their garden, usually shirtless, sometimes while smoking pipes.

Yongjia market

There’s not much sightseeing to do in Yongjia, and that was okay with me.  I’m happy visiting students when I can just hang out with their families and get a feel for the rhythms of daily life.  Every morning we would cook breakfast, then go to this vegetable market in the picture to pick up ingredients they don’t grow in their own family garden, cook lunch, take a long nap, cook dinner, and then go out in the evening to walk.  Her mom loves joining the big dance groups in the city squares in downtown Wenzhou.  So I pretty much only saw Wenzhou city at night.  One night we took the ferry across the river instead of driving over a bridge.

Wenzhou skyline at night

My student’s mom is a great cook.  One of the unusual things she cooked for me was homemade fensi noodles, those light tan, chewy noodles made from sweet potato starch instead of wheat flour.  I’ve had fensi noodles (pronounced fuhn-sih) numerous times in China, but never homemade.  I was surprised by the method because it was so drastically different from making noodles with wheat flour.

You need to make a thin batter instead of a dough.  Then you use the batter to fry a stack of crepes, and cut the crepes into strips before boiling the strips as noodles.

sweet potato starch

Here is the light tan sweet potato starch powder.

making fensi batter

The fensi starch powder is mixed with egg and a little water.  She doesn’t measure the amounts, but rather goes by feel.

fensi batter

The batter is extremely watery and thin.

making crepes

The batter gets ladled into lightly-oiled wok, and cooked into thin crepes.


A crepe after being flipped over.

cutting the rolled up crepe


After a stack of crepes is made, each crepe is rolled up and then sliced with a cleaver into wide noodles.

chopped sigua

At this point, she started to make a soup for the noodles.  She peeled and roughly cut the sigua she picked from the garden that morning.

frying sigua

She stir-fries the sigua in a wok with whole smashed cloves of garlic.


After the sigua is softened a bit from stir-frying, she adds some water and a little salt and green onions to start turning it into a soup.

boiling fensi

More water is added, along with the fensi noodles, which boil directly in the soup.

fensi noodle soup

The finishing touch was poaching a few eggs in the soup. You can see one floating toward the back of my bowl.  These noodles are so delicious and succulent when made from scratch.  I should try making these at home.


Icy Harbin: Two weeks in a North Korean-Chinese Home
September 24, 2014, 11:21 pm
Filed under: Food-Focused Travelogues, Living in China | Tags: , , , ,

Last winter I spent two weeks in Harbin, a northeastern Chinese city near the Russian border.  I lived in my friend’s home for those weeks and celebrated Spring Festival (Chinese New Year) with her family.  My friend recently graduated from the Master’s program at my school in Nanjing.  When she lived here, she had become one of my best friends in Nanjing, so she invited me to travel north to celebrate the holiday with her family.  She is ethnically Korean, from a family who came to China from what is now North Korea a few generations ago, before the Korean War.  Several of her family members still live in North Korea.

In Harbin I enjoyed the thrill of the freezing weather and the beauty of the Ice Festival, but the highlight was living with this family for two weeks, cooking together, playing majiang, and celebrating Spring Festival.  It truly felt like going home for the holidays.  I’ve traveled extensively in China, and this was probably my favorite experience thus far.

Harbin Ice Festival

Harbin has an annual ice festival, in which they build an entire village out of ice.

Harbin Ice Festival

The ice buildings are lit up at night.  This ice arched bridge was extremely slippery to walk on.

ice slide

There were several ice slides at the ice festival.

Ice Festival

An ice Parthenon lit up at night.

ice carousal

The ice festival isn’t the only place for ice sculptures.  Some of the downtown streets were lined with ice art like this ice carousel.  I can’t imagine sitting on this for very long.

Russian Orthodox Church

Located near the Russian border, Harbin has a strong Russian influence.  The downtown has several Russian Orthodox churches, and many of the streets reminded me of the architecture in Moscow and St. Petersburg. I had numerous flashbacks to my two trips to Russia in 1995 and 2002, when I visited my sister who lived there for several years.  Elsewhere in China people ask me where I come from.  In Harbin, people just assumed I was Russian.

Harbin synagogue

Part of Harbin’s Russian influence comes from the city’s history of welcoming Jews who were fleeing Russia and Europe around the turn of the century.  This synagogue is now a museum dedicated to the history of Harbin’s Jewish community, many of whom were business leaders and prominent professors and musicians in the city.  They built much of the downtown which gives the city its distinct non-Chinese character.

jade menorah

My favorite object in the synagogue museum was this jade menorah.

Songhua River

My friend’s mother and I became fast friends.  She and I took regular walks along the frozen Songhua River.  You can see a family here walking across the ice.

ice rink on the Songhua River

Here is an ice rink built right into the frozen Songhua River.

Harbin farmers

Some farmers just outside of Harbin hauling a load of wood.

Harbin farmhouse

A farmhouse outside of Harbin.

Harbin cat

Most of the animals I saw in Harbin had grown enormous coats of fluffy fur to protect them from the cold.  This cat’s fur is amazing.

frozen bus stop

A solitary bus stop outside the city.

Michelle at Harbin's seminary

My friend now teaches at Harbin’s seminary.  The architecture of their library resembles a stack of books.


I also visited this pastor on the right, who was my student during my first year in Nanjing.  She is a vivacious head pastor of a small church.

Dawai neighborhood

My friend took me to a neighborhood called Dawai, an area of old buildings built around the turn of the century that are condemned but still inhabited.  The facades of the buildings are Russian in style, but the interiors are built in the Chinese courtyard style.  The buildings are falling apart, but people are still living there.  We saw clothes hung out in the courtyards.

frozen staircase

A frozen dilapidated staircase.

old movie theatre

An old movie theatre.

Harbin Mosque

We visited Harbin’s mosque and chatted with one of the imams at the Halal bakery.

Michelle in Dawai

My friend posing with a candied-haw vendor cart.

North Korean ice skating

We happened upon an ice skating performance by a North Korean troupe.  They displayed a giant patriotic video behind the ice skaters.  A surreal experience.


While in Harbin, I visited “731,” the site where Japanese soldiers tested chemical weapons and performed live vivisections on Chinese citizens during WWII.  Horrific.

Spring Festival fires

During the weeks leading up to Spring Festival (Chinese New Year), every night I saw people burning fake money in the streets as part of the ritual.

Spring Festival fireworks

Firecrackers in China are all about the noise.  People set them off on the sidewalk even during the day.


The highlight of my Harbin trip was spending time with my friend and her mom.  We became really close.  She said I was like another daughter to her, and she cried when I left.  My friend had to work several days during my visit, so her mom and I would spend the days together cooking, taking walks along the frozen Songhua River, and playing majiang with her friends.  Her friends usually come over to play majiang a few times a week, for 4-5 hours straight with no break.  These majiang afternoons were so great for my conversational skills.  None of them speak English, so all of the game play – and all of their strategic advice to me – was in Chinese.  After a while I realized I was understanding everything that was said and it felt easy and natural, so I was proud of myself.  My majiang playing also really improved, but apparently we were playing “Harbin rules” so I would have to relearn some things if I were to play elsewhere.  I wish I had a group of older Chinese friends in Nanjing that I could play majiang with.


When we took our long walks, she kept stopping to pose for photos.  This little wooded area is next to the river.


I especially like this dancer’s pose.

Russian popsicles

Since this is a food blog, I’ll transition to writing about food in Harbin, starting with a few Russian influences in cuisine.  Here my friend and I are eating Russian-style yogurt popsicles on the street.  I remember that it was popular in Russia to eat ice cream on the street in the winter.  It’s a rush.

Russian borscht

Russian tomato-based borscht, with a hint of white vinegar.

Russian bread

My friend wanted me to see these loaves of Russian bread, and she encouraged me to hit them to feel how hard and solid they were.  When I started to buy one, she was shocked.  She said she just likes looking at this funny hard bread, but wouldn’t think of eating it.  I insisted on buying a loaf despite her protests.  Chinese bread is so pillowy-soft and sweet.  It’s hard to find substantial European style bread and I didn’t want to pass up this opportunity.

Russian bread

I loved this Russian bread, but it was way too hard for my friend and her mom.  They each ate a small chunk slowly and painfully to be polite.  I didn’t want it to go to waste, so I baked a few batches of bread pudding.  They loved it and insisted it was much better than plain hard bread.  Actually, before my visit, my friend bought an oven so that I could teach her how to bake.  We made a few bread puddings as well as a carrot cake and apple cake.

Michelle's grandma

This is my friend’s grandmother.  She moved to Harbin from what is now North Korea when she was a teenager.  She never learned to speak Chinese because she stayed at home as a housewife.  Now she mostly stays in her apartment watching Korean channels on TV.  We visited her a few times to cook lunch for her.  This is some fried tofu, dipping sauce, and some shrimp.

Korean mochi

The dessert for lunch at her grandma’s home was the  Korean version of mochi dusted with powdered nuts.

daenjang jige

My friend’s mom cooked a combination of Korean and northeastern Chinese dishes.  For most breakfasts she made a Korean soup called daenjang jige.  The soup base is fermented soy bean paste so it’s similar to Japanese miso, but heartier with chunks of potatoes, tofu, and zucchini.  This soup was accompanied by rice and fried tofu.

breakfast soup

Some mornings we had Chinese style egg and tomato soup, accompanied by rice and fried tofu and vegetables.

vegetables for Korean pancakes

We made two kinds of Korean pancakes.  On the left is the base for zucchini pancakes, and on the right is shredded potatoes for potato pancakes.

Korean pancakes

Frying the pancakes in a skillet.

Korean pancakes

She likes to place a thin slice of carrot in the middle of each pancake to make it prettier.

fried potatoes and garlic shoots

My friend’s mom cooked a range of Chinese stir-fried dishes that were simple but utterly delicious.  This is potato slivers stir-fried with celery and garlic.  Northeastern Chinese  cuisine is known for meat, but there are also numerous tasty vegetarian dishes.  The dishes have stronger flavors and more garlic than the light cuisine here in Nanjing (which is usually too plain for my taste).

fried rice

She made several simple fried rice meals.

making jiaozi

It’s a tradition to make jiaozi (dumplings) for Spring Festival.  Here we are making jiaozi together.

making jiaozi

My friend and her mom with the jiaozi.


Homemade jiaozi and Harbin beer.

leftover fried jiaozi

The next day we fried the leftover jiaozi, along with fried tofu.

jiucai hezi

The same egg and leek filling is also used to make “jiucai hezi,” a northeastern large dumpling that is pan-fried.

jiucai hezi

Rolling out the dough for jiucai hezi.

jiucai hezi

A freshly fried stack of jiucai hezi.

chun bing

We also made chun bing, which are the northeastern thin pancakes or flat breads that you stuff and roll with various things.  We went out for these in restaurants and also made our own at home.  Two pancakes are rolled out and cooked together, so the layers are softer on the inside.  You start with two small balls of dough on top each each other, and them roll them out together.

chun bing

A stack of rolled-out dough.

The fresh chun bing.  We stuffed ours with potatoes stir-fried with garlic shoots and a classic savory preserved bean sauce.


You need to pull the layers apart and use them separately.


My chun bing filling.  Looking at this photo brings back memories and makes me really hungry.


My chun bing.

wild vegetable balls

One my favorite northeastern vegetarian dishes, wild-vegetable balls.  Chopped wild-vegetables and aromatics like garlic and onions are formed into balls with a light batter and then deep fried.  They are incredibly delicious.

di san xian

When I lived in Dalian in northeastern China in 1998, this dish became my favorite.  It’s a classic northeastern dish of potatoes, eggplant, and green peppers in a garlicky sauce, called “di san xian,” literally “the three fresh things.”  I can find this dish in Nanjing, but it’s never as good as it is in the northeast.

di san xian

Di san xian at another restaurant.  I pretty much ordered it every time we went out to eat.

braised cabbage with noodles and garlic

Braised baby napa cabbage with glass noodles.  The topping looks like ground meat but is actually richly brown garlic, so the dish was vegetarian.  Delicious.

fresh tofu

We went to a restaurant that specialized in homemade soft tofu, which is seen here on the right.  It was fresh and soft like a souffle, still wrapped in fabric when brought to the table.

gan doufu

Gan doufu is like a tofu skin or leather, and here it was stir-fried simply with green onions.

Japanese tofu

This kind of custardy yellow tofu is called Japanese tofu “riben doufu” in China.  Here it was deep-fried and served in a savory onion based sauce.

bean sprouts

“Douya fensi,” bean sprouts stir-fried with glassy noodles made from sweet potato starch.

dong bei rice

“Dong bei mifan,” or northeastern rice, is famous throughout China.  The climate and soil creates high quality rice.  Some restaurants mix in a little red rice for color.  And here in the background you can see yet another order of di san xian, that potato and eggplant dish.


We ate jiaozi several times in Harbin, and actually my favorite jiaozi cafes in Nanjing are ones run by families from Harbin.  They are soft but also chewy, and you can easily find a variety of vegetarian fillings.

vegetable market

I’ll close with a few photos of vegetable stalls in street markets, which are generally enclosed in glass to keep from vegetables from freezing.

vegetable market


What an trip.  I hope I have a chance to go back.

A Pilgrimage Back my Three Gorges Home After 11 Years
August 1, 2014, 11:45 pm
Filed under: Food-Focused Travelogues, Living in China | Tags: , , ,

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 harbor 2000.  The iconic clock tower was demolished because of the floodwaters.

Wanzhou harbor 2000. The iconic clock tower was demolished because of the floodwaters.

Wanzhou harbor, 2000

Wanzhou harbor, 2000

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.

Wanzhou construction

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.  

new Wanzhou waterfront, 2013

new Wanzhou waterfront, 2013

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.

Wanzhou harbor, 2000

Wanzhou harbor, 2000

The current waterfront has a wide, empty space below the riverwalk boulevard which is set aside for dining al-fresco in the summer.

Wanzhou riverwalk 2013

Wanzhou riverwalk 2013

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.

Three Gorges College track 2002

Three Gorges College track 2002

Three Gorges College track 2013

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.

Yangtze River

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.

my friend's grandma roughly cutting si gua for lunch

my friend’s grandma roughly cutting si gua for lunch

grandma's table

Grandma's lunch table

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.

dou ban

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.

Wanzhou 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.

xiao mian

xiao mian

Here is the xiao mian preparation.

xiao mian prep

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.

xiao mian

xiao mian

Here are some various preserved vegetables and beans in the market.

various pickled things

Wanzhou still has staircases everywhere.  These stairs lead down to a vegetable market.

Wanzhou stairs

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.

suan cai fen si tang

Classic mapo doufu.

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.

shao kao


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.

huo guo

Wanzhou landscape

Where Tea is Oil Soup and Bridges are Art
July 9, 2014, 11:27 pm
Filed under: Food-Focused Travelogues, Living in China | Tags: , , ,

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.

drum tower




Adventurous backpackers pass through to admire the old covered wooden bridges and stunning drum towers. 





wooden bridge


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.  

wooden bridge

men on bridge


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. 

drum tower

drum tower


men in a drum tower

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. 

village and terraces


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.

children swimming under a wooden bridge



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.


wooden building

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.

My student's mother-in-law.  I stayed in her home for a few days.

My student’s mother-in-law. I stayed in her home for a few days.

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.

drying green tea on the 3rd floor

drying green tea on the 3rd floor


First peanuts are fried in a wok.

frying peanuts

The peanuts are removed.  More oil is added to the wok, and next puffed rice is fried in the oil.  

adding oil

frying puffed rice

frying puffed rice

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.

frying tea

frying tea

boiling tea 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.

oily tea soup


breakfast table

breakfast table


water buffalo




A Surprising Tradition: a Corn Culture in Debao County, Guangxi
July 7, 2014, 11:03 pm
Filed under: Food-Focused Travelogues, Living in China

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.

boys with birds in Debao


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.

corn growing in Debao


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. 

corn field in between mountains

corn in Debao

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. 

yumi zhou

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.  

yumi zhi

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.

Debao lake

girls roasting corn

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. 

steamed corn in banana leaf

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.