Saturday, July 19, 2008

Chinese Food, Part Four: Western Food

(This is part of a series of posts on our recent trip to China. We'll be posting throughout the summer as we bum around at or near home.)

In addition to Dongbei, or "northeastern" food, Nana and I also sampled some Western Chinese food on our recent trip to China. Western Chinese food is heavily influenced by the flavors of Xinjiang cuisine. Xinjiang is China's westernmost province, and though it doesn't get as much press as Tibet, it's every bit as far-flung. Xinjiang was brought under Chinese domination during the opening of the Silk Road in the Middle Ages; culturally, the area has more in common with, say, Turkey than it does with eastern China, and Kashgar, one of Xinjiang's two major cities, is as close to Baghdad as it is to Beijing. This sense of separateness is made even greater by the fact that a plurality of Xinjiang residents are Uighurs, a Turkic people related to the nearby people of "the Stans" (Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan, specifically), and a majority of Xinjiang residents belong to one of the Turkic ethnic groups. As such, many of the same charges of "cultural genocide" bandied about in Tibet are current in Xinjiang, aka East Turkmenistan, as well.
However much the national-majority Han Chinese might be uncomfortable with Xinjiang's aspirations of independence, though, people from all over China seem to love Uighur food. In Beijing, Western Chinese is a well-represented ethnic cuisine, and in Xian, the traditional eastern terminus of the Silk Road, Xinjiang provides the dominant flavors.

Here we are enjoying a meal with Shasha and her boyfriend. Shasha says the restaurant is the place for Xinjiang food in Beijing. It's a giant dining hall across from the Xinjiang provincial consulate (fascinating tidbit: many of China's provinces, especially those dominated by ethnic minorities, such as Xinjiang and Tibet, are largely autonomous). It's where all the Xinjiang officials in Beijing eat.

First, we one of my favorites. This is a common appetizer/side dish: pickled green beans in hot sauce. The pickled green beans are actually a Dongbei thing, while the hot sauce is classic Xinjiang. Yum.

One of the things that makes Xinjiang cuisine a lot of fun is the way it blends Middle Eastern, South Asian, and Chinese flavors. At the top above, you can see a very Chinese tofu soup, and below it some Middle Eastern braised beef served with Chinese-style rice bread to be used like Indian naan.

This is another good example of fusion, picked up at a random diner in Xian on our last night in town: Chinese-style fried egg patties and soy-stir-fried green onions, with hot green chilies and Middle-Eastern-style spiced chicken.

Above we've got another variation on the spicy-meat-with-bread dish (this time it's shredded, stir-fried beef), coupled with stir-fried shoestring potatoes (a Dongbei staple) and other veggies in a tomato broth. Note the cooling yogurt at the lower right.
Then, of course, you don't get much more Middle Eastern than this: lamb kebabs and roast chicken. All in all, a delicious meal!

The verdict: if you're in China, try some Xinjiang food. Not only is it tasty, it's like a history lecture in your mouth!

Monday, July 14, 2008

Chinese Food, Part Three: Northern Food

(This is part of a series of posts on our recent trip to China. We'll be posting throughout the summer as we bum around at or near home.)

On our recent trip to China, Nana and I ate mainly two types of regional Chinese cuisine: Northeastern and Western. As described in detail in a previous post, neither of these varieties is commonly available in the US, though a few signature dishes from Beijing (see Peking duck, below) are well-known throughout the world. So sit back, relax, and enjoy (reading about) a brief sampling of Dongbei cuisine--which is not quite like anything most Westerners have ever had.

First, a short mention: though we weren't served this delightful treat until we were in Xian, Nana tells me the candied potatoes above are actually a Northeastern dish. Also, they're apparently extremely difficult to cook. The timing needed to create their hard candy coating is precise: plate them too early, and they're just a pile of searing-hot goo, but plate them too late, and they're like rock. These ones were just right, though--and so good I might have licked the plate, if it hadn't been so darned jagged. I'm not kidding: that candy coating is hard!

Mongolian Hotpot

Mongolian hotpot, like Korean BBQ, is one expression of the platonic ideal of steppe-horde cuisine: bring raw meat and veggies into contact with a heated piece of military equipment, then serve. With Korean BBQ, it's the overturned shield that does the trick, but with Mongolian hotpot, it's the helmet--fortunately, bereft of any remaining Mongol hair, thank you very much.

You can see part of our spread below. I'll also note now that this was one of several meals Shasha, Nana's roommate from Harbin arranged--if it weren't for her, we probably would have eaten cheap tourist grub for the entire trip!
Here's how hotpot works: first, you dump a bunch of herbs, veggies, spices, etc., into a plain , oily white broth. You can add hot pepper oil to taste--as you can see below, we had one pot spicy and one pot mild. Then, you heat the broth to a slow boil and dump the goodies in. Our goodies included thin-shaved beef, lamb meatballs, thick-cut seaweed, bamboo shoots, spinach--etc.

You can see the hotpot in action below.

Then, after taking your cooked goodies out of the broth, you can cool it off with some peanut sauce (center) or some seasoned broth (left). Then, enjoy!Your meal isn't over once all the goodies are devoured, though--there's a final course of noodles for you to add to the broth. (Japanophiles/Koreaphiles might be noticing some similarities to shabu shabu right about now. The dishes all have the same origin.)

At the place we went, which is apparently the hot spot for hotpot in Beijing, the noodles were hand-pulled, as you can see below. Dinner and a show, anyone?

Finally, then, a shot of Nana and me gloating over the hotpot we have just slain. (Little did we know, the battle had just begun . . .)Verdict: Tasty, but we definitely over-ordered, and I definitely over-ate. Also, that spicy broth is HOT, HOT, HOT.

Recognizable Beijing Cuisine

We had two duck dinners during our time in Beijing--one mediocre duck at a cheap-ish restaurant on our first day, when we weren't terribly hungry, and one superb meal at one of the places to eat Peking duck in Peking. (Note to self: exercise caution when typing "duck" over and over again.)

As mentioned, our first duck experience was ho-hum, though you can get a good shot of the pancakes below.
Despite the lackluster duck, however, the other dishes on the table were actually quite tasty: at right above you can see the classic cashew chicken, and at the top left another simple chicken dish.

Our real Peking duck experience came at a well-known establishment off Wangfujing Street, one of the main shopping districts in Beijing's downtown. According to a plaque by the entrance, this was where Kissinger ate when he came to Beijing. I can believe it--the duck was spectacularly crisp, served (by request) with plum sauce and a strong mustard for dipping. They also carve the duck at your table, which is a nice touch, and also guarantees you're getting your money's worth, which can be a problem elsewhere in Beijing.

Traditional Northern Lunch

During one of our free days in Beijing, after a tour of one of Beijing's historic hutong (more on that later), Shasha took Nana and me to a "snack street" establishment, where we could sample a bunch of traditional food stalls gathered under one roof. Below, you can see some approximations of good-old-fashioned grandma's cooking, Beijing-style.
Clockwise from the upper-left:

Fried dough with sugar
Fried spiced buckwheat/ground beef cakes
Stir-fried wheat pasta in soy sauce with veggies and wood ear mushrooms
Beef potsticker dumplings, each built like a brick
Skewered spiced mutton
Plain yoghurt

Below, you can also see the adventure-dining highlight of the meal: steamed beef trip (ie, intestine), which is a terrible thing to behold.

What does it taste like, you ask?Not bad, actually. The peanut dipping sauce was a stronger flavor than the tripe. Unpleasantly chewy, though, and with a bit of a strong smell. Not something I'd eat again, probably, but hey, it's fun to try.

That's all for now. Next up: the flavors of the Silk Road, represented by Western Chinese cuisine.