To close our Chinese food series, we share a few miscellaneous bits, bites and highlights that we just couldn’t shoehorn into the previous segments. We remember fondly the Chinese dining experience: refrigerator cases full of greens, skyscraper piles of tofu, the flash fry technique, earthy-brown soy and sesame oil chili pepper sauces, and copious condiments.
The Chinese consider the number eight lucky. We can all use a little luck, so we limit our list accordingly.
If you like tofu, you’ll be in heaven in China. If you don’t like tofu, give it another chance since you are virtually guaranteed fresh tofu in China; it’s a whole different experience.
In the Yuanyang region of Yunnan Province, grilled tofu stands dot the streets and markets of towns and villages like Xinjie and Niujiazhai. Tofu grill-masters ensure that each tofu pillow is perfectly browned. Serve yourself: snatch the piece of your choice with your chopsticks and dip it in a spicy combination of soy sauce, hot pepper sauce and other condiments.
Cat’s Ears Noodles
Hop outside the old town city walls of Pingyao (near the post office) and you’ll find some hole-in-the-wall local restaurants serving all manner of fascinating noodles typical of Shanxi Province. Our favorite: buckwheat noodles in the form of little buckets or – if you look at them right – cat’s ears. These noodles go by any number of the following names: kao lao lao, lao lao youmian, cat’s ears noodles, and wowo and are sided with a tomato-based sauce.
Pingyao Beef (平遥牛肉)
The history of braised Pingyao beef may be a bit sketchy, but the taste is not. The texture of Pingyao beef resembles that of corned beef. The flavor is difficult to pin down; Pingyao beef is prepared with a five-spice (or five aroma: sweet, sour, bitter, savory, and salty) seasoning which features a combination of cinnamon, cassia, ginger root, cloves, fennel seed, star anise and occasionally Sichuan peppercorns. The result: beef that is tender, fragrant, and delicately rich. Terrific when sided by a decent bottle of Chinese wine (look for Xinjiang labels, stay away from Great Wall and large volume brands, open the bottle and let it breathe).
Where to find it: TianYuanKui Hotel: Although a bit more expensive than some other restaurants in town, the Pingyao beef is spectacular. Address: 73 NanDa Jie, Pingyao. Harmony Guesthouse also offers a different, but still very good, Pingyao beef. Address: No.165 Nan Da Jie Street, Pingyao.
Lotus root sounds exotic. Looks it, too. It’s delicate, crispy, and vaguely sweet. The pattern inside a lotus root recalls a stencil from art class. Like any good root, lotus tends to take on the flavors surrounding it; it’s often marinated with vinegar or chili sauce and makes for a refreshing starter or palate cleanser.
Where to find it: Xiao Wang’s Home Restaurant serves a pleasant vinegar-marinated version at No 2 Building, GuangHuaDongLi in the Chaoyang area in Beijing.
Plum sauce, scallions and thin crepe-like pancakes round out the multi-layer meat-and-duck fat deal, yielding a delicate balance of salty and sweet. Although we’d argue that Peking duck isn’t the be-all, end-all of Chinese cuisine, it’s worth a taste and holds its place in the pantheon of familiar Chinese delicacies.
Where to find it: We enjoyed the lean Peking Duck at Xiao Wang’s Home Restaurant in the Chaoyang area of Beijing.
Jian Bing Egg Crepe (鸡蛋灌饼)
Also known as the Beijing breakfast pancake, this treat is special, but not exclusive to Beijing. The savory combination of egg crepe, egg, coriander, spring onion and sesame flipped and doused with chili sauce or sweet bean paste will get wake you up in the morning or tide you over in the afternoon until dinner. As with any good street food, the production process is almost as pleasing as the result.
Where to find it: Best taken from a street cart with a dose of nostalgia in one of Beijing’s few remaining low-slung traditional hutong neighborhoods.
Yunnanese Goat Cheese (乳饼 rǔbǐng)
Yes, you read correctly: Chinese goat cheese. Though the goat cheese in Yunnan Province doesn’t quite live up to chevre, its French cousin, it is worth a taste. Braised and served with salt (white salt or sometimes sulfuric black salt) and cracked black pepper, it is relatively mild and looks a bit like braised tofu (similar texture too).
Fresh Soy Beans
You can find this dish anywhere in Yunnan province. Tiny and buttery, shelled
fava fresh soy beans are another terrific vegetarian staple available from the capital of Kunming to the hinterlands of Xishuangbanna. Top it off with roasted red chili sauce for a little kick.