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The Chinese food you WON’T find in America

August 13, 2010
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I never thought about how much not having gone to China last summer would have an impact on my taste preferences. Last summer was three months of Farmer’s Markets– of biking up hills with melons in my saddlebags and pretending I had a dog so I could buy raw dairy products. I ate Asian food, don’t get me wrong, but it was mainly limited to all-you-can-eat Korean buffets and the occasional Thai curry.

Most importantly, bread > rice.

In fact, this is where I know that i’m Asian. Rice = a staple. I could easily survive without bread. But without freshly steamed, slightly sticky rice straight from the rice cooker to soak up the juice from a stir-fry? Never.

On the other hand, you would think that going to Beijing every summer, I would prefer bread anyway. Most Americans, their experience with Chinese food mainly limited to Sichuanese food and Dim Sum, are surprised to learn that the Chinese eat not only lamb and yogurt, but all kinds of breads as well. The cuisine of mainland China is divided by predominating taste according to region: Beijing/Northeastern food is salty, Shanxi food sour, Cantonese/ Shanghai food sweet, and Sichuan/Hunan food spicy. Of course, these categories can be broken down even further:

*DISCLAIMER: I really only know Beijing food, so is going to be Northern dishes. This is only based on experience.

Beijing/Northeastern food (北京/东北菜)

  • Salty, oily
    • Peking Duck
    • Mongolian/Xinjiang influences:
      • yogurt, Manchu “cheese”
      • Lamb kabobs
      • Mongolian hotpot
  • Roughly equal proportion of bread/corn to rice
    • Different varieties of 饼, or bread in different shapes:Dabing/ 大饼,or “big pancakes.” Soft, flat, slightly charcoaled tortilla-like bread. Can be stuffed with meat (肉饼)or made with scallions in the batter (葱油饼).
      • Shaobing/烧饼, which are a kind of bagel-croissant hybrid, if that makes any sense. A bit like flattened hamburger buns, they can be made with or without sesame paste (which is much darker and nothing like tahini). They taste salty and slightly smokey, with delicate pastry-like layers (this gives them the croissant effect). Also similar are 糖火烧 (tang huo shao), a sweetened sesame version. Shaobing can also be found on street stalls as cute little portable sandwiches (not to sound like every one of these things has to have an American counterpart, but I like to think of these as Asian McMuffins) of ham, lettuce, and fried egg.
      • Xian er bing/ 馅儿饼, or “filled bread.” Similar in shape to shao bing, these can be stuffed with anything ranging from vegetables to egg.
      • Jianbing/煎饼, thin crepes with an egg cracked on top, topped with lettuce and a sheet of crunchy fried dough, spread with soy bean paste, drizzled with hot sauce, and folded about a million times. Without the fried dough, the whole thing would be floppy– all it really does is give the crepe texture (but comparing the egg-crunch factor to bacon and eggs wouldn’t do it justice). From what I’ve heard, jianbing originates from Shandong, although Shandong jianbing are rolled rather than folded and missing that crunchy layer. Similar to jianbing are jidanguanbing/鸡蛋灌饼, another kind of egg pancake.
      • Youbing and Youtiao/ 油饼/油条-- Literally, “oil bread” and “oil strips.” Churros without the sugar. I ate a lot of these when I was little. It’s simple: if you like fried things, you will like this. If you don’t, you will hate it. (Youtiao can be found in the South as well)
    • Steamed breads
      • Baozi/ 包子, which are steamed dumplings. While Shanghai and Suzhou are famous for soup dumplings (shown below), Northern dumplings are more substantial, with a leavened, and therefore doughier, wrapper. Although more varieties of vegetarian baozi have started popping up in the last few years, they also tend to be meatier. I always kind of found “Bao” chains like Wow Bao funny because a person will buy one dumpling and call it a meal. In China one person typically eats an entire basket of baozi (for a fraction of the price).
      • Mantou/ 馒头– solid baozi, ie. no filling. I can understand why these basically don’t exist in the U.S, as they are completely flavorless. Boring, bland, white bread with no oil or salt whatsoever. More popular are fried mantou dipped in sweetened condensed milk, which you can find on most dim sum menus.
      • Cai Tuan Zi/ 菜团子– these are so hardcore Northeastern food that you’d be hard-pressed to find them at most breakfast joints. HOWEVER, I have come to the realization that if I do not find a way to recreate them in the U.S., I will die slowly but surely. Maybe this is one of those personal quirks, since Chinese and English speakers alike seem to find it hysterical that I can eat these bland globes of cornbread that have been hollowed out and stuffed with any shredded vegetable ranging from bok choy to wild nettles to carrots to pickled cabbage to daikon radish to dill (considered a vegetable, yes) to things I don’t know the English translation for… Sorry, getting carried away.

Cai Tuan Zi are exactly the kind of “peasant food” I could eat every day. Unlike Western cornbread, the “dough” consists of nothing besides cornmeal and maybe a little white flour for binding. No milk, eggs, butter, or salt, even. The vegetables are seasoned, however, with some magical combination of ingredients I have yet to find out (my guess is sesame oil, salt, garlic, maybe a bit of dried shrimp), then wrapped in the dough and steamed.

(It just occurred to me that these are a sort of mild vegetarian Chinese tamale)

When I was staying at my aunt’s, I would get up early before work, turn the corner and find myself surrounded by dingy eateries serving breakfast (to be described in another post). Anyways, there was also a market with multiple stalls: pulled noodles, fresh tofu/ soy products, freshly ground sesame paste, the butcher (where an alarmingly large pig carcass was on display), all the bread varieties I’ve already described, and finally… the cornmeal-based bread stall. In addition to Cai Tuan Zi, the vendor sold plain cornbread and a mixed mung bean cornbread. The first time I asked if he had Cai Tuan Zi, it was about 7:30.

“Sorry, they’re still cooking,” he said.

I was crestfallen and had to settle for a piece of mung bean.

The next day, I arrived promptly at 7:45. “Excuse me, are the Cai Tuan Zi ready yet?”

“They’re still steaming. Can you wait a bit?”

“Um, how long? I don’t think I can wait longer than 15 minutes.” I could almost taste the vegetables and cornmeal on my tongue. I would be late to work for this.

“They should be ready in ten minutes.”

“太好了!(Awesome, or “that’s too great!)”

I took my Cai Tuan Zi (stuffed with dill) and ate it, piping hot, on the bus. From then on I learned that they were done steaming just before 8:00. From then on I also became known as the Crazy Foreign Girl Who Looks Like a Boy (at least, that’s what he said) and Comes in the Morning Exclusively for Cai Tuan Zi.

I don’t think I even have to say that this doesn’t come close to covering all the varieties of Northern Chinese breads. Xinjiang cuisine has a Muslim flatbread called nang (directly related to the Indian naan), and I haven’t even touched on noodles, steamed dumplings or wontons! But that’s another post for another time…

I’ve decided to save my rambling about Beijing breakfasts, street food, and the best homestyle cooking (家常菜), as well as country/village food (农家菜)for my next post. Until then, good luck pondering why the hell those Cai Tuan Zi have such addictive properties…
–Octopus Gourmet

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