I remember when growing up in north London in the 1950s and 60s that one of the pleasures that one looked forward to was going out to dinner, which on the whole was not something we as a family did on many occasions. It usually meant a birthday or some other celebration was coming up, and invariably a really special occasion meant “going Chinese”.
Of course I was pig ignorant in those days about Chinese food. Usually it meant Cantonese style cuisine and it was de rigeur that we ordered sweet and sour pork, fried rice and lychees out of a can to finish off. It was accompanied by jasmine tea; and sometimes on really special occasions we had deep fried battered bananas with ice cream as well!
When I was in my teens I discovered Peking Duck – and we would go right across to the other side of London to a restaurant in the East End in order to get it.
London in those days – and even now to a certain degree – catered for a very westernised palette. Little did I know until very much later how varied and very different food in China is to what we had been brought up to believe.
Having now been in China for nearly two years, I have been keen to improve my education in this particular subject! But last week I was taken to a restaurant by my friend Zhijuan to try out a cuisine that I had never encountered before – and I can only wonder how I could have missed out on such wonderful food all this time!
The restaurant is called JinJiaChun MianShiFang (晋嘉春面食坊) and it’s located in the Huilongguan area in the north of the city. I was taken there after spending an afternoon teaching English to Chinese kids – of which more in a later blog.
Unlike many restaurants that have stone lions or PiXiu guarding their portals, you can spot this one immediately – it has stone dragons.
The restaurant specialises in ShanXi style cuisine. ShanXi – 山西 – is a province located in the North China region and is also called Jin – 晋 – after the state of Jin that existed here during the Spring and Autumn Period. ShanXi literally means "mountain's west", which refers to the province's location west of the Taihang Mountains. It borders Hebei to the east, Henan to the south, ShaanXi to the west, and Inner Mongolia to the north and is made up mainly of a plateau bounded partly by mountain ranges.
The province has a rich cultural heritage, with more than 70% of all ancient architecture in China built before the Liao and Song Dynasties. The Yungang Grottoes, for instance, with a history of more than 1,500 years, is one of the largest cave clusters in China and comprise 53 caves and over 51,000 stone statues, representing Chinese Buddhist cave art from the period of 460-525 AD.
ShanXi actually has over 35,000 relic sites that include architecture, grottoes, houses, murals, and sculptures with distinct features, giving ShanXi the nickname of “ancient Chinese culture museum”. Small wonder, therefore, that this restaurant chooses this as the main decoration theme on one of its walls.
Zhijuan and I first order TuDouQieZi PaYouMian (土豆茄子扒莜面), which is a typical local speciality. It consists of fried vegetables made up of potato, aubergine, green peppers, tomato and spring onions, mixed with a tomato sauce…
… and they all sit on top of steamed rolls made of oat flour – known as YouMian WoWo (莜面窝窝) – which form a honeycomb-like cluster into which the sauce and ingredients slowly fall. Truly scrummy!
Next up, a dish that is found all over China, but almost probably originates from SiChuan (四川). It requires the use of an ingredient unfamiliar to most Western cooks: Dried Cloud Ear, also known as Wood Ear fungus and in China as MuEr (木耳). YuXiangRouSi (鱼香肉丝) normally contains pork, chili and green vegetables. The way it is cooked in ShanXi uses vinegar, soy sauce, sugar and chilli together with doubanjiang (a spicy, salty paste made from fermented broad beans, soybeans, salt, rice, and various spices), which give it a slightly sweetish taste.
YuXiangRouSi is generally understood to mean pork shreds prepared in the manner of fish; and translates as "fish fragrant pork shreds", even though there is no fish in it! Its unique quality can be attributed to the shredded fungus and green shoots, which contribute to a flexible yet strikingly crunchy texture.
Up next is MaPuTofu, which probably needs no introduction. Another dish, basically regarded as coming from SiChuan, the fact is that everyone makes it these days.
The name MaPoTofu is roughly translated as "pockmarked grandmother beancurd," named after an old woman who supposedly was cast out of Chengdu owing to her disfigurement. One day, a weary trader happened upon her shack and she was so delighted with his company that she scraped together her meagre provisions to create this dish, which is made from tofu and meat and cooked in a chili bean sauce, though the ShanXi style is slightly less mouth numbing than its SiChuan counterpart.
So that’s the first course, which we munch our way through prior to the “pièce de resistance” which I have been briefed beforehand is something that I should go and see being prepared.
Now, it is said that Italian pasta is a direct descendent of Chinese noodles, Marco Polo having returned to Italy in the 13th century and introduced his fellow Italians to what would become a staple of their diet; and ShanXi claims the honour of being the first province in the Central Kingdom to come up with the idea of noodles!
Among the various noodles, Dao Xiao Mian (刀削面 – knife-shaved noodles) are probably ShanXi’s most famous. And it is said that shaved noodles are as much a feast for the eyes as they are for the mouth.
Basically, a chef stands in front of a huge pot of boiling water, with a large lump of noodle dough in one hand – possibly weighing as much as 9kg. The dough is very hard, and is mixed by machine from just flour and water and left to stand for half an hour.
He shaves the dough with a thin, arc-shaped knife into the boiling water; and it is said that a top chef can shave as many as 200 bits a minute.
The tradition of making shaved noodles has been carried on in ShanXi since the beginning of the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368), and apparently every summer, the annual ShanXi International Noodle Cultural Festival is held in the city centre.
Once cooked, the noodles are lifted out of the pot and a sauce with mince is placed on top of them, together with a pinch of coriander. The texture is slightly rubbery and more chewy than most other noodles, but really tasty!
To wash all this down, the most common drink is not beer or hot tea, but hot water served in kettles that stand on plates on the table, and get filled by the waiting staff periodically. It reminds me of the culture of the ancient Britons when being invaded by Julius Caesar as depicted in ‘Asterix in Britain’ – and if you haven’t read that book, then your education is sorely lacking!
(Basically the Brits used to stop whatever they were doing in the middle of every afternoon to drink hot water and milk - I won’t spoil the rest of the story; you should read it yourself. And Julius Caesar, being the cunning strategist that he was, used to wait for them to have their water-and-milk break before sending in his crack troops. Thus was Britain conquered!)
But I digress. Although we were some of the first to arrive, it is obvious that we have been talking so much and enjoying watching the cookery ‘show’ that we are now some of the last in the restaurant. In Europe and the Middle East the restaurateurs will often dim the lights as a subtle hint to their guests that it is perhaps time they should be thinking of making a move.
Here in Beijing it is not yet 8.30, yet we are left in no doubt that it is time for us to make a move too when the waiting staff bring out large tubs of soapy hot water and proceed to do the washing up on some of the neighbouring tables vacated by earlier diners!
OK. Hint taken. We’re on our way. Really we are. But it was a great meal. Scrummy and Yummy! Not to mention Dee-Lish!
A few days later I am in the area again and this time Zhijuan suggests we try out one of the fast food joints around the corner from her office. “Why don’t we try out ShanXi style again?” she suggests. Why not indeed?
There’s a fast food restaurant called Xikou Popo – 西口婆婆 (literally: grandmother or old woman in the Xikou area), but once inside we discover that this is not a ShanXi style eatery, but ShaanXi style. OK, you won’t be surprised at this ‘faux pas’ as your favourite blogger is a hard-core, Genus-Expatrius, Mandarin-challenged laowai, but I wonder how many Chinese also get it wrong sometimes.
I turn to Wikipedia for enlightenment: Shaanxi should not to be confused with the neighbouring province of Shanxi, it advises (now it tells us!). The Chinese pronunciation of 陕西 and its east neighbour province 山西 differs only in tone, and hence when written in English without tonal marks they would be spelled identically as "Shanxi" according to standard Hanyu Pinyin Rules. One solution is to employ diacritical marks to denote the tones. Thus, "Shǎnxī" means 陕西 while "Shānxī" refers to its east neighbouring province 山西, however this requires marks which are not available in standard English character sets.
However, another method was adopted to distinguish these two provinces. The spelling "Shaanxi" was contrived for the province 陕西, following the Gwoyeu Romatzyh romanization system developed by Yuen Ren Chao. The spelling for its neighbour 山西 remains to be "Shanxi". This interesting spelling, "Shaanxi", is the official spelling of the province and it appears on Chinese Government's official web portal.
So there you have it. Easy when you know, isn’t it!
ShaanXi is considered one of the cradles of Chinese civilization, Wikipedia continues. Thirteen feudal dynasties established their capitals in the province during a span of more than 1,100 years, from the Zhou Dynasty to the Tang Dynasty. The province's principal city and current capital, Xi'an, is one of the four great ancient capitals of China and is the eastern terminus of the Silk Road, which leads to Europe, the Arabian Peninsula and Africa.
Inside, the fast-food outlet is basic, but snug and clean. On one of the walls are ropes of dried corn and garlic – which is apparently a typical decoration of ShaanXi.
The owners have taken some thought in decorating their little ShaanXi home-from-home and one of the walls also features a novel use for steam-baskets that I haven’t encountered before.
One look at the prices is enough to confirm that this eatery gives extremely good value for money. Typically 10 kwai per dish (about £1); and when the food actually arrives, they come in gargantuan portions. Zhijuan takes a take-away menu to keep at home…
The staff are extremely friendly, not least the table-clearer-upper who leers through a hole in the wall just over my right shoulder.
For our fast-feast, we start with pi dan (皮蛋) also called song hua dan (松花蛋) – otherwise known in the West as preserved egg, hundred-year old egg, thousand-year-old egg, and millennium egg.
They are traditionally prepared by preserving duck, chicken or kwail eggs in a mixture of clay, ash, salt, quicklime, and rice hulls for several weeks to several months, depending on the method of processing. (Ours are obviously chicken eggs, but it’s nice to see eggs still on the menu when they have been removed from so many other eateries because of the present H7N9 virus that has wiped out a few poor souls in the south of the country.)
Through the above process, the yolk becomes a dark grey colour, with a creamy consistency and with a slight smell of sulphur and ammonia, while the white becomes a dark brown, translucent jelly with not a great deal of flavour.
Apparently, the transforming agent in the egg is its alkaline material, which gradually raises the pH of the egg to around 9 - 12 or more during the curing process, which breaks down some of the complex, flavourless proteins and fats, and produces a variety of smaller flavourful compounds.
Some recipes involve the infusion of tea in boiling water, to which is added quicklime, sea salt and wood ash from burned oak. While wearing gloves to prevent the lime corroding the skin, each egg is individually covered by hand, then rolled in a mass of rice chaff to keep the eggs from adhering to one another before they are placed in cloth-covered jars or tightly woven baskets. The mud slowly dries and hardens into a crust over several months, and then the eggs are ready for consumption.
And jolly good they are too!
Next, we are brought a noodle dish known as Qishan saozi mian (岐山哨子面) which makes use of simple ingredients, such as pork floating in a sour and spicy tomato-flavoured soup with sweet vinegar and diced spring onions and with garlic and coriander. Here your blogger soon gets the hang of eating slippery spaghetti-type noodles with chopsticks (while mopping up with copious amounts of paper serviettes!)
Our next dish is one of ShaanXi’s specialities – hand-pulled dry noodles, called jing pin you po mian (精品油泼面) which – unlike the ShanXi speciality – is made by stretching out the dough by hand, rather than shaving off strips from a dough block. It comes with chicken and egg and green veggies and loads of dried chillies and garlic
Zhijuan calls over one of the waiting staff – a friendly soul who offers to let this laowai see the dough being prepared.
Inside the kitchen the chefs are throwing the dough around with gay abandon. They obviously enjoy having an audience. (Just think of having to do this every day for a living)!
There’s a super-sized dough making machine, which reminds me of some of the spaghetti making machines in Europe, but on a much grander scale of course.
We munch. We talk. And the time just flies by. And before we know it, an army of restaurant staff are scrubbing floors all around us and the lights are gradually being turned off. I glance at my watch. It is not even 9.15. People obviously eat early in this part of town. As we pick up our bags to leave, the staff all smile – a relieved smile, now that we have taken the hint, I wonder?
Zaijian. Byebye. We’ve enjoyed it. ShanXi or ShaanXi style... I love them both!