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Authentic Chinese Food Guide, Part 1
Authentic Chinese Food Guide, Part 3
Northwest Cuisine – The Taste of History
Time for a pop quiz! True or False: rice is the main staple food of China.
Answer: True, but only for the southern half of China. The other half? Wheat.
Wheat products are the main staple in the enormous Northwest region, and there’s pretty much no rice in the diet at all. Steamed bread, baked bread, toasted bread, hand pulled noodles, shaven noodles, sliced noodles, starch noodles, noodles of every shape and size… the list goes on and on. Then you combine this list with different sauces and soups, and there’s just no end to the possibilities.
I’m actually going to deviate from my usual blog style, and put on the historian hat. Let’s take a deep dive into how Northwest cuisine developed through centuries of evolution.
How Wheat Shaped Northwest Cusine
So, archaeology tells us that wheat originated from West Asia and made its way eastward towards the Pacific. Wheat is a crop that needs a lot of water, especially when it’s close to harvest season. Remember how your lawn grows like crazy after a good rain in the Spring? Wheat is the same. Central Asia is arid, so the first suitable environment for large scale wheat cultivation was northwest China. People weren’t crazy about it at first, because no matter how they cooked it, it just didn’t taste as good as millet – the native staple crop.
Then, the magic happened: people figured out how to grind grains into powder form. That was when wheat really began to shine. Once turned into flour and combined with water, wheat became very versatile and could be worked into any shape and form. The wheat dough could be cooked in many ways: steamed, toasted, boiled, fried, anything you can think of. It was also easier to digest, providing farmers strength and energy to farm even more… wheat. Ha! No wonder some historians claim that it wasn’t the humans who tamed wheat – it was wheat who tamed the humans!
Here’s a perfect example to show how thoroughly wheat is used in the Northwest: the starch noodle salad (Liang Pi). It starts with nothing but a regular dough of flour and water. Get a big bowl of water, and wash the dough in it until all the starch dissolves and only a ball of gluten is left. Then, let the water rest so that the starch collects at the bottom. Remove the excess water, and pour the wet starch into a shallow pan. Steam the starch along with the gluten ball, and you end up with an elastic sheet which you can slice into noodles. The cooked gluten is conveniently the choice of protein for the salad, just cut it into bite-size cubes. Add some shredded cucumbers, minced garlic, vinegar, chili oil and sesame oil and toss everything together. Now, you’ve made a full meal out of just a dough!
Over the next thousands of years, wheat slowly replaced millet as the main staple, but it didn’t work out very well in southern China due to the landscape and climate. Rice has always been the king there. Even to this day, some southerners still consider eating rice to be more “luxurious” than eating wheat. On the other hand, northerners thought eating little grains of rice was weird. So, an invisible culinary “Mason-Dixon Line” divided China into the rice-loving south and wheat-loving north.
Beef, Lamb And Noodles
Aside from wheat, the northwestern Chinese also love beef and lamb. Traditionally, in other parts of China you’ll find no traces of such. Raising sheep and goats require large pasture. Cattle was raised as farm labor and not slaughtered for meat. But the Northwest is so close to the Mongolian grasslands, so the locals could easily obtain beef and lamb via trading. Mixing in a large Islamic population, and you have a big appetite for red meat. One famous dish that involves both wheat and beef was hand-pulled noodles from Lanzhou, served in a clear beef broth, and garnished with chili oil, cilantro, green garlic, and daikon. Let’s watch how the pro does it:
The idea behind the hand-pulling technique is very simple: reorganize the gluten into a parallel structure like string cheese. The process begins with stretching a dough into a long strip, and then twirl it together like a braid. Then stretch again and repeat as many times as needed to build the gluten structure. This technique forces all the protein to point in the same direction, making it possible to pull the dough into great lengths without breaking. The rest is just matter of experience and practice. A skilled noodle-puller can create noodles as thin as spaghetti, or as thick as Udon, just by repeatedly folding and pulling the dough.
One crucial component of hand-pulled noodles is alkaline additives. Traditionally, the burnt ash of a local weed was used as a source of potassium carbonate, which strengthens the gluten, making the dough more stretchy and chewy. It also adds a unique “alkaline taste” to the noodle. Some people like the taste while others don’t, but without it, you can’t make a good pulled noodle.
Another interesting method of making noodles is simply shaving them directly off of a hunk of dough, straight into a pot of boiling water. It results in short, flat, razor shaped noodles which works for stir-frying, or just serving in a broth. If you have the opportunity to taste shaved noodles, don’t forget to pour some dark vinegar into the bowl before digging in – that’s the way they do it!
Northwest Cuisine Restaurant Guide
Starting with New York City, Northwest style Chinese food has become increasingly popular in the States. It did take a few years, but eventually a small food scene began to take shape in DFW. So far, there are four places that I know of:
Xi’an Yummy Foods carries a variety of delicacies ranging from Liang Pi (wheat starch noodles) to grilled skewers, as well as roujiamo (toasted bread stuffed with braised pork) and hand-pulled noodles. Be prepared to try some all-new flavors you never experienced before!
Morefan, on the other hand, focuses on a different set of dishes from the Northwest such as the Biang Biang noodle, so it complements Xi’an Yummy Foods perfectly. It also serves the roujiamo, but more rustic and meaty. I didn’t get to try this place before the supermarket closes the food court for renovation. Let’s hope it comes back soon. EDIT: according to a recent Yelp review, Morefan is back in business!
Royal China is one of the oldest Chinese restaurants in Dallas. The menu focuses on hand pulled noodles and dumplings, plus a collection of dishes from the regions around Shanghai. Royal China is absolutely not your average go-to fix for Chinese food. The price is about 50% higher than most other dine-in Chinese restaurants, whereas the portion is 50% less. The taste of the noodles is rather mediocre as well. However, you do get to watch the chefs pulling noodles in the kitchen which is good to experience once.
Taiwan Cafe/Ma Shifu Noodles used to be a Taiwanese restaurant, but has adopted a new menu of mainly noodle dishes from Northwest. It features braised noodles, bread soup, chili oil noodles, and of course, the wheat starch noodles and roujiamo. Adding cherries on top – this is also the only place I can find that offers Cantonese Claypot Rice (rice cooked and served in personal-size claypot, with Cantonese sausages and sweet soy sauce).
The Red Lantern in McKinney has a “hidden” menu of Xinjiang-inspired dishes such as “big-plate chicken” with hand-pulled noodle, as well as northwestern favorites such as lamb soup with flatbread. You’ll have to look in the “Signature Dishes” and “Big Bowl Hand-pulled Noodles” menu section for these.
Capital Cuisine – Confucius Say, “Yummy!”
It took me quite a while to decide on the term “Capital Cuisine”. What I meant was the dishes originated from Beijing and surrounding areas, including the city of Tianjin.
Beijing has been the capital city of China for a good part of the last one thousand years, but its cuisine has a much more ancient history. It goes all the way back to the days of Confucius, who established not only the mainstream philosophy of China, but also a detailed guideline for fine dining.
子曰：食不厌精，脍不厌细。食殪而餲，鱼馁而肉败，不食。色恶不食，臭恶不食。失饪，不食。不时，不食。割不正，不食。不得其酱，不食。肉虽多，不使胜食气。唯酒无量，不及乱。 沽酒市脯不食。不撤姜食。不多食 。Confucius say: with grains, the more refined, the better; with meats, the more finely sliced, the better.
When grains are expired and rancid, or when meat and fish are rotten and smells bad, do not eat. Also don’t eat anything that doesn’t look good (Doesn’t Andrew Zimmern always say something along this line?), or doesn’t smell right.
Food not cooked well? Pass. Not in season? Pass. Meat not cut properly? Pass. Wrong or bad seasoning? Pass.
Don’t eat more meat than staples. Indulge in wines, but don’t get drunk. Avoid wines and meats sold on markets. Have ginger with every meal, but don’t eat too much of it. (No wonder my parents always put ginger in almost every dish!)
Confucius lived around 500 BC, so apparently his people were already picky with food at the time. His wisdom of food still impacts our life to this day, and is the basis for China’s Haute Cuisine.
The Legacy of Lu Cuisine
“Lu” is the name of the vassal state Confucius lived in, which is roughly where Shandong province is today. Since Confucius became the greatest philosopher of China, his descendants enjoyed ever-lasting privilege and prosperity for thousands of years. The “House of Confucius” developed their own series of dishes ranging from stuffed tofu with savory sauce, to stews of the most exquisite ingredients, celebrated by the emperor. The cuisine of the House of Confucius has tremendous influence over court-dining in Beijing.
On the other hand, the commoners of Shandong had their own way of uplifting meat and seafood, using fermented soybeans, sugar, vinegar, ham and seafood broth, and emulsified bone stock (known as 奶汤, literally “milky stock”) to flavor the dishes.
Together, these two styles of cooking formed Lu Cuisine. What set Lu Cuisine apart from the rest is its sense of royalty. Every dish is designed to reflect the elegance of the court, from flavor profile to presentation – you won’t find anything bold and spicy like Sichuan cuisine. It’s also known for incorporating broth to achieve the taste of umami, a luxury we often take for granted today with the convenience of packaged chicken stock and MSG. Extracting umami was no easy task without modern technology. Imaging having to simmer dried scallops, cured ham, bones and mushrooms for hours just to obtain the concentrated flavor to add to other dishes, which is easily done today just by adding MSG and few can tell the difference. This is exactly the reason why Lu Cuisine has declined in the last century. However, its legacy has lived on elsewhere in the country, especially around Beijing.
Since the royal court was always fond of Lu Cuisine, most of the cooks in Beijing came from Shandong province. These cooks brought over techniques of fermentation, stock brewing, and stir-frying. They also brought green onions as tall as a young child, paper-thin multi-grain crepes, and luxurious seafood. It made such an impact there that you’ll find these techniques and ingredients everywhere. Since Lu Cuisine has declined, many consider Beijing/Tianjin cuisine to be a branch, or even a reincarnation of it.
Beijing’s Local Delicacies in Dallas
Beijingers love to introduce their city to the Wai Guo Ren (foreigners, non-Asian). They will tell you where to find the best Peking Roast Duck, and before you have a chance to respond, they’ll start arguing among themselves around this topic!
Peking Duck, about which I have a whole article for it here, is the crown jewel of Beijing cuisine presented to the rest of the world. Our good old Texan, late President George Bush loved Peking Duck, and reportedly dined at a Chinese restaurant in Virginia over 100 times just for that. I’m sure he would have loved the Peking Duck from Beijing Brothers too. It wasn’t until I have tried several “authentic Peking duck” from different restaurant that I realized how prized the crispy duck skin can be, and Beijing Brothers does it perfectly. I must also mention that their side dishes were simply addictive, you gotta try it!
Mr. Wok in Plano is also loved by the community for its roast duck. Unfortunately, earlier this year the building suffered a fire incident, and they are currently taking the opportunity to repair and remodel.
Another iconic dish from Beijing is Noodles with Fried Bean Sauce. Ugh, this translation is such a mouthful. 炸酱面, pronounced as “zha jiang mien”, is a peasant dish consisted of minced pork, green onions, and fermented bean sauce over wide noodles. The name of the dish indicates its cooking process: the fermented bean sauce (酱) is slowly fried (炸) in the fat rendered from the pork, resulting in a thick, dark, salty, oily, and incredibly savory paste, and you just need a little bit of it to flavor the noodles after they are boiled.
The dish is accompanied by a whole choir of toppings, ranging from fresh vegetables to pickles – the more varieties the better. An old-school Beijinger would grab a huge bowl, load it up with noodles, sauce, and toppings, take a comfortable Slav squat under a breezy shade, and enjoy the lazy summer evening. Oh and if you are truly old-school, you would also have a cucumber and some raw garlic to help quenching your thirst.
Sounds delicious? I’ll share with you three secret places in Dallas where you can find it. First up is Xi’an Yummy Foods, on which I have written an article a while back. You’ll also find it in Fat Ni (meaning “fat girl”) BBQ in Plano, under the menu item “Soybean Paste Noodle”. Finally, there’s a restaurant in downtown Richardson labeled as “Taiwan Cafe” in English, but it’s really a Northwestern Chinese noodle house, and you’ll see this noodle dish there as “Beijing Noodles with soy bean”.
Another famous Beijing-style feast is the hot pot, but I’ll cover that later in the section dedicated to Chinese hot pot.
Tianjin’s Local Delicacies in Dallas
While everyone has heard of Beijing, its sister city Tianjin is not as famous to the rest of the world. Here’s a fun way to compare the two: Tianjin is to Beijing like Osgiliath is to Minas Tirith. Though Tianjin doesn’t have the historical and and political aura, its convenient location as a sea port and river dock makes it much more friendly for commerce and transportation. What happens when a city has a booming business? Lots of restaurants.
The Tianjinese people enjoy their own regional cuisine, which is largely inspired by Lu Cuisine. In addition, sailors and dock workers sparked the local street food scene, where small snacks like braided fritters, pork buns, and stuffed crepes became the symbol of Tianjin.
I don’t think we have authentic Goubuli pork buns here in Dallas, but I will dedicate a section later on to cover all of the dumplings and buns available to us.
The stuffed crepe is truly phenomenal. It’s made from a paper-thin multi-grain crepe, wrapped around airy, crispy fritters. The savory crepe is coated with egg, and smeared with fermented wheat paste, chili sauce, and finished with a generous sprinkle of scallions, cilantro, and sesame seeds. If you don’t mind cilantro, this combination of flavors is just heavenly. It’s really hard to find, but one place that specializes in it is Original Taste Restaurant in Plano. You have the option to add toppings like beef, chicken, Chinese hot dog, or just enjoy it plain and original. While you are there, you’ll find other Tianjin delicacies like pork buns and pot stickers.
North Town Chinese Kitchen is yet another place paying homage to northern Chinese cuisine. Come and sample pretty much all of the dishes I mentioned in this section, and be careful not to bite your tongue in all the excitement!
Taiwanese Cuisine – Street Food Heaven
Taiwan, one of the “unsinkable aircraft carriers” of the world, has been a point of contention between East and West for a good part of 20th century. Actually, for centuries before that, there was already a tug-of-war among various ruling entities over the control of Taiwan.
Taiwan has a short recorded history. Prior to the Spanish and Dutch occupation in 17th century, only indigenous tribes lived on the island. Then the Dutch kicked the Spaniards out, and they were in turn booted by Ming general Zheng Chenggong a few decades later. Soon the Ming dynasty fell, and Zheng’s family took over Taiwan for their own, until Emperor Kangxi invaded Taiwan in the late 17th century.
Two hundreds years later, after Qing dynasty fell to the warlords, Japan seized the opportunity and established their own foothold in Taiwan. Finally, after WWII, Japan returned Taiwan to China’s ruling government at the time – Republic of China (not to be confused with People’s Republic of China), who has been controlling Taiwan ever since.
The Culinary Melting Pot
Phew! So why am I going through the whole history of Taiwan? It’s because Taiwan’s cuisine is a hodgepodge of all the influences from its past occupiers. The Dutch, who was colonizing Indonesia at the time, brought over Indonesian ingredients like rice, tomato, mango, basil, sugar cane, and beef. Might I add that the Dutch really love Indonesian food!
Then, immigrants from mainland China, right across the Taiwan strait, brought their traditional Hokkien and Hakka cuisine such as fried eggs with oysters, braised pork, and starch-thickened noodle soup. After the Chinese civil war, the retreating Nationalist army made Taiwan a new home for the soldiers from all over mainland China. What happened then? Taiwan bacame a miniature China with all the diverse food culture stuffed inside one island. Finally, during Japanese occupancy, not only did the locals learn to enjoy Japanese dishes like Oden, Sashimi, Tonkatsu, and Tempura, they also built a strong bond with Japanese culture that continued to shape Taiwan till this day.
There has to be an outlet for all these culinary creativity. What’s a better place than a night market to share your hometown recipe? Every city in Taiwan has several streets dedicated to food stalls that only open at night, serving heart-warming snacks to citizens hungry and tired from a day of work. Just look at this small set of popular Taiwanese street food:
- Braised pork with rice
- Grilled Taiwanese sausages
- Grilled chicken rolls
- Mini-noodle soup
- Pan-fried pork bun
- Fried stinky tofu
- Fried egg pancake with oyster
- Pork belly sandwich
- Oyster and pork intestine noodle
- Marinated beef, chicken, egg, or tofu
- Braised beef noodle soup
Taiwan Cuisine Restaurant Guide
Although we don’t have any night markets in Dallas, it doesn’t mean we can’t try Taiwanese street food! In my opinion, the restaurant that’s most representative is Taipei Station Cafe. All of its appetizers are inspired by Taiwanese street food, and you can’t go wrong with any of them. As far as I know, this place has the most extensive menu for street food. Of course, for the main entree, you have the choice of various meats over rice or the prized Beef Noodle Soup. They also make their own Taiwanese sausages which is a best-seller. Unfortunately the availability of many of their dishes is often limited, so sometimes you have to be lucky to get what you want.
Speaking of the Beef Noodle Soup, there are quite a few restaurants specializing in this iconic Taiwanese dish, mostly in Plano. I have an article drilling into this topic in detail, but I just want to add that Noodle House in Park West Plaza has a broader collection of Taiwanese noodles.
If you enjoy the convenience and variety of cafeteria style eateries, Taiwan Cafe in Plano (not to be confused with one in downtown Richardson with the same name) is perfect for a satisfying quick lunch.
Still with me? Yes! Whenever you are ready, here goes the third and final part of the authentic Chinese food guide. We will be focusing on:
- Dumplings and Buns
- Hot Pot
- Chinese BBQ