Filed under: Food-Focused Travelogues, Living in China | Tags: China, cooking, Nanjing, noodles
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.
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.
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.
Here is another beautiful bowl of youpo mian I had in Xi’an with the ingredients composed on top.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Here she’s practicing and making a pile of noodles.
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.
Once you are ready to work with the chilled log of dough, roll it out a little with your hands.
Then it is rolled out with a slim Chinese rolling pin to stretch further.
It’s rolled out into a strip about 2 inches wide.
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.
Here Jessica is showing off one very long noodle.
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.
I look happy with my bowl of che mian!
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.
Filed under: Food-Focused Travelogues, Living in China | Tags: China, noodles, Wenzhou, Wenzhou city
This fall I spent 5 days with a student’s family in Wenzhou county, along the southern coast of Zhejiang province.
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.
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.
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.
A basket of sigua from her garden.
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.
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.
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.
Here is the light tan sweet potato starch powder.
The fensi starch powder is mixed with egg and a little water. She doesn’t measure the amounts, but rather goes by feel.
The batter is extremely watery and thin.
The batter gets ladled into lightly-oiled wok, and cooked into thin crepes.
A crepe after being flipped over.
After a stack of crepes is made, each crepe is rolled up and then sliced with a cleaver into wide noodles.
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.
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.
More water is added, along with the fensi noodles, which boil directly in the 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.
Filed under: Food-Focused Travelogues, Living in China | Tags: China, Harbin, jiaozi, North Korea, travel
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 has an annual ice festival, in which they build an entire village out of ice.
The ice buildings are lit up at night. This ice arched bridge was extremely slippery to walk on.
There were several ice slides at the ice festival.
An ice Parthenon lit up at night.
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.
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.
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.
My favorite object in the synagogue museum was this jade menorah.
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.
Here is an ice rink built right into the frozen Songhua River.
Some farmers just outside of Harbin hauling a load of wood.
A farmhouse outside of Harbin.
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.
A solitary bus stop outside the city.
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.
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.
A frozen dilapidated staircase.
An old movie theatre.
We visited Harbin’s mosque and chatted with one of the imams at the Halal bakery.
My friend posing with a candied-haw vendor cart.
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.
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.
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.
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 tomato-based borscht, with a hint of white vinegar.
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.
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.
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.
The dessert for lunch at her grandma’s home was the Korean version of mochi dusted with powdered nuts.
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.
Some mornings we had Chinese style egg and tomato soup, accompanied by rice and fried tofu and vegetables.
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.
Frying the pancakes in a skillet.
She likes to place a thin slice of carrot in the middle of each pancake to make it prettier.
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).
She made several simple fried rice meals.
It’s a tradition to make jiaozi (dumplings) for Spring Festival. Here we are making jiaozi together.
My friend and her mom with the jiaozi.
Homemade jiaozi and Harbin beer.
The next day we fried the leftover jiaozi, along with fried tofu.
The same egg and leek filling is also used to make “jiucai hezi,” a northeastern large dumpling that is pan-fried.
Rolling out the dough for jiucai hezi.
A freshly fried stack of jiucai hezi.
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.
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.
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.
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 at another restaurant. I pretty much ordered it every time we went out to eat.
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.
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 is like a tofu skin or leather, and here it was stir-fried simply with green onions.
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.
“Douya fensi,” bean sprouts stir-fried with glassy noodles made from sweet potato starch.
“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.
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.
What an trip. I hope I have a chance to go back.
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.