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How could I have been so naive?

August 17, 2010
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Previously, I blogged about 菜团子 (cai tuan zi,), which are essentially shredded vegetables steamed in cornmeal. They’re hard to come by these days, being associated with times of famine (by stuffing the cornbread with vegetables, grain could be saved), and more likely to be found in really rural parts of Northeastern China.

However, I’ve noticed that in places that do sell cai tuan zi, they’ve become part of a new healthy fad. More and more vegetarian and whole grain options are popping up in Beijing, and it’s been a long time since meat was thought of as a luxury.

So far, I’ve been able to find cai tuan zi in two places, the first being in Purple Bamboo Park by our west side apartment. They come in six varieties: wild nettles, baby bok choy, radish, carrot, pickled cabbage, and radish crowns (can’t think of any better way to translate) with seaweed. These are delicious enough that I buy them in massive quantities and eat them at least once a day, but nothing compares to the cai tuan zi I ate at the market by my aunt’s house when I was working at Timezone 8.

Ironically, it seems that my best food memories were when I didn’t have a camera on me: when I was busy at work and could just go with the flow and not let food monopolize all my time. I would get up early and turn the corner, opting for a traditional Chinese breakfast that would cost me a mere 50 cents, or go to this market for a cai tuan zi.

At 7 AM, the market was packed with people… this is China, what do you expect? I passed stalls of wheat noodles and dumpling wrappers, pickled vegetables, anything soy bean-related, pig carcasses… and finally came to my beloved cai tuan zi stall, which also sold tiny fried fish dipped in batter.

Oh, I could write symphonies about their cai tuan zi. The cornbread layer was much thinner than usual and almost flaky. When I bit into the crust (if I can call it that), the vegetable filling was so juicy I needed a napkin. The owners seemed shocked that a foreigner could eat a bun stuffed entirely with dill, which we only use as a seasoning. But the truth is that Chinese dill has long stems and may as well be a vegetable, albeit a strong-flavored one. This stall only had two kinds: dill and radish, but they were both so good that it didn’t matter.

Yesterday, we paid a final visit to my aunt’s house. (We ended up at a crazy Asian buffet with a stage in the middle of the restaurant that served sushi topped with rainbow sprinkles and potato chips and “corn juice” to drink) Anyways, I was sure everything at the market would be sold out by then, but I still wanted to say goodbye to the couple at the cai tuan zi stall and possibly get a hold of the recipe.

“We were wondering what happened to you!” they exclaimed. “But we haven’t had cai tuan zi for a good ten days…. It’s just been too hot.” (The man was frying fish as he said this… go figure)

“I was just wondering how you make the cai tuan zi,” I said, explaining that you can’t find them anywhere in the U.S, and that I only had one day left in Beijing.

“Come in, come in!” they said, ushering me into the little stall. “If it weren’t so hot and you weren’t leaving, we would show you how to make them in here.”

This is what I learned: you can steam them in an ordinary steamer, but without one of those industrial steamer-griddles, the bottoms aren’t going to get crispy—I’m thinking that I’ll steam them and then cook them briefly on a skillet.

For the batter: just cornmeal and hot water, which you let sit overnight (but not long enough to let it ferment).

“The vegetable filling is the easiest part,” they told me. “You season those in advance and they cook when you wrap them in the cornmeal.”

“But there must be something in them that makes the filling taste so good… dried shrimp?”

“No, we don’t use dried shrimp… but we use a bit of it in our oil, which we make ourselves.”

After a bit of coaxing, I finally figured out what was in the filling. “There must be more,” I pressed. “Soy sauce?”

“Yes. Soy sauce, scallions, ginger, our oil, chicken bouillon, MSG…”


I had to laugh. “MSG! No wonder they taste so good.”

Will I use MSG in the cai tuan zi I make at home, or any of my cooking, for that matter? Probably not. But will they taste as good? Probably not.

Did they use MSG in the cai tuan zi shop in the park? Again, probably not—the flavor was too pure for that.

But there’s no point in freaking out about having consumed a little bit of MSG when it makes one of my favorite foods in the world taste so good.

Also, how could I have been so naïve? This is China, and unless you really go out of your way to ask for no MSG in your food, the chef is going to season your dishes with MSG as if it were salt.

I wonder what other “delicious” foods I’ve been eating have been seasoned with “super seasoning?”

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Angela permalink
    August 17, 2010 7:37 pm

    Oooh damn! I want to try this. when you master them you should make them for me 🙂
    or we can make an excursion to new york and MAYBE they’ll have them in chinatown…?

    also msg is really not that bad for you. some people are allergic to it and thats where issues arise but most people are pretty much fine when they eat it.


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