keito potato


Vegetarian Shaomai
December 21, 2017, 4:44 am
Filed under: Living in China, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , ,

I’ve grown to love shaomai, the little folded bulbs filled with sticky rice, mushrooms, and soy sauce. However, it’s almost impossible finding them vegetarian because they traditionally have a bit of minced meat in the filling. The only place I can get meatless ones in Nanjing is at a Buddhist Temple, Jimingsi.  I have to travel about an hour and a half across town, and then climb to the top of a hill to arrive at the temple’s café which overlooks the city wall and Xuanxu Lake. It’s a lovely setting to enjoy a few shaomai, but this trek doesn’t make it an easy snack for me.

Jiming Temple Shaomai

Jiming Temple Shaomai

I decided to take matters into my own hands and learn how to make them on my own. My student’s mom in Shanghai has taught me how to cook a number of dishes, and her vegetarian shaomai are fabulous.  She is almost a vegetarian herself – a flexitarian – because of observing the treatment of animals when she was “sent down” to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution.

I had enjoyed her shaomai a few years ago made with an alternative wrapping of cellophane-thin soy paper, but this time cooking together a week and a half ago, we made them with the traditional dough wrappers.

This recipe has no fixed amounts, like typical Chinese home cooking.  I’ve never seen measuring cups or measuring spoons in a Chinese home.  If you want to try these yourself, just follow along with the method, and adjust the amounts as needed.  This time my friend added too much soy sauce, so she then scrambled a few more eggs for the filling to dilute the flavor.  Problem solved.

sticky rice, mushrooms, and carrots

 

Start by making sticky rice.  She made this before I arrived.  Sticky rice requires a good deal less water than regular steamed rice.

Mince several mushrooms and woodear mushrooms, AKA black fungus. That day she also added minced carrots and a local Shanghai wild green called “jicai.” You could substitute a little minced spinach other another green if you want to add a little green nutrition.

Next, scramble several eggs and add them to the mixture. To make Chinese scrambled eggs, heat oil in a very hot wok. Beat the eggs with a little salt and a splash of shaoxing wine. When the oil is almost smoking, pour in the eggs. They will make a loud whoosh sound because of the high heat. Stir gently until cooked. Add the scrambled eggs to the rice and mushroom mixture and stir well.

Next comes the soy sauce. Shanghai’s cuisine is known for dishes braised with soy sauce, and Shanghai folks have several types of soy sauce in their kitchens for different uses. She used a heavier variety of soy sauce used for braising, and boiled it a bit in a wok before adding it to the rice mixture. Nothing was measured, but I would guess it was about a cup of soy sauce.

Once it was all mixed, as I mentioned before, she tasted it and determined it was too salty, so she scrambled 4-5 more eggs to dilute the flavor.

Now it’s time to fill them. Because shaomai come from Shanghai, which is considered southern China, there isn’t a “flour” tradition like northern China. This means that folks in southern China don’t make dough from scratch at home. Shaomai wrappers are all purchased at the market. Same thing goes for wontons, which are also from Shanghai.  Shaomai wrappers are circular, and are slightly larger than dumpling wrappers.

The sticky rice filling is quite sticky so it’s easy to use chopsticks to fill the shaomai.  Use about 2-3 tablespoons of the mixture per shaomai.  Gather the edges up and make uniform pleats.  Then press the top of the filling down into the center.  You want the bottom to bulge, “like a fat tummy, ” she told me.  After pressing the filling down and encouraging the lower belly of the shaomai to swell, you might add another teaspoon of filling on top.  Rotate the shaomai in your hands almost like you are working on a pottery wheel to shape it.

She repeatedly told me they are easier to make than wontons, but hers were consistently prettier than mine. I need more practice with the muscle memory of rotating and the art of getting the perfect shaomai shape.  Our tops were also wider than the ones sold outside.

Arrange all of the shaomai on a board.

Steam the shaomai in a steamer. If you don’t have a nice steamer, you might have a simple vegetable steamer that could work. They steam about 20 minutes, or until the wrappers have changed in color, and are a bit translucent.

Because shaomai have soy sauce in the filling, they have enough flavor to be enjoyed plain. They’re also often eaten with a splash of good dark vinegar. They can be served as a snack, or as the starch component of a larger meal, paired with a few simple vegetable dishes. That day at lunch we also had stirfried bamboo with water chestnuts, and a simple soup of vermicelli noodles and slivered taro root.

Advertisements


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!

chemian

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.