Category Archives: Chinese Food

Requiem for a Rat Place

Picture the following scenario. You’re eating at a local Chinese restaurant and a woman starts suddenly screaming. Shortly thereafter, another woman starts screaming. There is an immediate shuffling of chairs as nearly everybody in the eatery bolts to their feet while yelling. You also jump up, but more out of curiosity. Has the nearby table of drunken, extremely boisterous, beer drinking Chinese men smoking cigarettes erupted into fisticuffs? No, because besides the few initial screams, nobody is really talking. There is, however, a big, fat rat scurrying across the floor. Normally, this would elicit a storm of complaints leveled at the owner and management once the rodent runs out the open front door and hushed silence descends. You know, outrage at the apparent lack of cleanliness that has led to a marauding rat. Does that happen in this case? No, it doesn’t. Everybody sits down and resumes eating.

This begs the question why? The above written scenario isn’t a hypothetical. It’s actually a personal experience I have had, but I decided to rewrite it in the second person point of view. You know, the whole put the reader in your shoes literary device. So, now the question is Why didn’t I flee the restaurant or complain? The answer is much more simple than one might think. I sat for likely the same reason everybody else did: I liked the food that much, and I wasn’t going to let one measly rat ruin my dining experience.

The place in question was 司令的锅 siling de guo, which translates as “Commander’s Pot.” I have since learned that this is possibly a local chain in Changzhou, but this particular rat incident happened at a Jinling Road location in Tianning that’s very close to the bridge over the canal to Wujin and it’s Wanda Plaza. Up until now, me and my most frequent dining partner have never referred to it by its actual name. To us, it’s simply just The Rat Place. The rodent incident was one of the first times we visited, and we have returned several times since then.

This is well and nice, but it still doesn’t answer the earlier why question. Commader’s Pot specializes in soups — very, very meaty soups. They are actually deceptive in their simplicity.

The above is just simple beef and cabbage. The beef itself has a more brisket-like texture, and all of it is still attached to the bone, which adds a sort of heartiness to the soup’s broth. Also, the stock is not at all spicy; this is local Changzhou food, after all. A little bit salty would be more apropos. The bones, chunks of fat, and more, however, led me to find it easier to use my hands rather than chopsticks to delicately gnaw and otherwise separate what I wanted to eat from what I didn’t or couldn’t.

The same could be said for the pork variety. The meat, in both soups, is tender enough to be easily pulled apart. The proliferation of bones is also something to be considered. Every time I have eaten at this place, I’ve left with a doggy bag of bones and fat scraps, but they were never for my later consumption. My most frequent dining partner has two canines, and those two mutts love the place as well. They get regularly rationed take-out bones for days. And they also absolutely love it when fat scraps have been mixed into their everyday dry food.

A doggy bag for actual dogs.

While staff and other diners have suggested the pork and cabbage is the signature dish of the place — what it is locally known for in the neighborhood — I actually preferred the beef. I’m not saying that lightly because I really like the pork, too. Speaking of staff and other diners, every time I have eaten here, I have gotten some sort of laowai gawk. All that means, essentially, is that I have gotten a strong suspicion that this place has gotten next to no expat traffic. To be fair, its location was in a place that is not necessarily a population center for the foreign community. The same could be said for the other locations once you look at a map.

No locations downtown. No locations in Wujin. The Xinbei location is actually out by the north train station and near the end of Line 1 of the subway. The other seems to be in a bit of Jiangyin north of Dinosaur Park. As I said, not exactly convenient to where most of the foreign community actually lives. There is little chance of accidental, curious foot traffic.

And this makes me cycle back to the rat — the little rodent that caused chaos one of the first times I ever ate at Siling de Guo, aka Commander’s pot. That Jinling Road location is now gone. I realized, once the place closed, that the rat was not the reason why it shut down.

The area around it has been slowly vacated because demolition and redevelopment is imminent. In short, my Rat Place was surrounded by a lot of delipidated property.

Sometimes, it doesn’t matter how clean an owner keeps his kitchen. If the other property around him is infested, there will be a de facto rodent problem. It should be noted that I only saw one rat there. Never cockroaches, flies, or other insects. Impending eviction is one reason to shut down a restaurant location and reopen elsewhere. It’s also a convenient one when, despite best efforts, rats still can find away to scamper through your dining room and cause a ruckus of screaming patrons. Perhaps this a good reason why myself and other patrons have been so forgiving?

I write Requiem for Rat Place because it’s exactly that — a requiem. The place whose food had charmed me to the point of forgiving a rat is gone. It’s dead. The above map location is where it used to be. It has since reopened up the street a little on Jinling. In fact, it’s new location is practically at the intersection of Jinling and Zhongwu Da Dao and less than half a kilometer from the old one. But, this new address has not been updated on Baidu Maps. It’s not an easy Wechat Location Sharing pin at this precise moment.

Still, the move has been an upgrade. The place is so clean the white tile floor gleams. The dining area has been enlarged. It’s in a better, easier to find location. This is all great. I wish the place and all profit greater foot traffic will bring it. Yet, part of me will always miss the hole in the wall it used to be.

These are NOT Lanzhou Shaved Noodles

Some staple vegetables and fruits easily have cross-cultural appeal. To that end, consider the tomato. It can effortlessly show up in multiple cuisines. For example, I grew up eating noodles in a tomato-based soup as part of my mother’s Italian-American home cooking. That was minestrone. It is not by coincidence, then, that one of my favorite dishes in China would be 刀削面 daoxiaomian — a reliable staple at Lanzhou noodle joints across the Middle Kingdom. It’s simple: if there are tomatoes and noodles involved, I am more than likely going to like the result. This was confirmed for me recently while dining in the basement of Global Harbour in Xinbei. I was having lunch at the above pictured 啊利茄汁面 aliqiezhimian. It’s a place that specializes in noodles and vegetables served in a tomato broth.

On their menu, the above is 茄汁牛肉面 qiezhiniuroumian. No, a soup lover might like at this and ponder, well, how is that different than Lanzhou shaved noodles (daoxiaomian)? And that would be a legitimate question. For some tomato soup is tomato soup is tomato soup! Who cares? Well, let me show you the math here.

Let’s start with the most important part: the noodle. Lanzhou shaved noodles are thicker, denser, and more chewy. These are a little bit lighter without going to the thinness of spaghetti, stretched noodles, or vermicelli / angel hair. On to the next component. . .

The beef is different. Lanzhou shaved noodles usually employs it as paper thin slices, lean slices. If you go to a Lanzhou joint that has the hongshourou variety, that’s just a type of beef that’s usually been braised in a soy sauce or something like it. The meat is still in some sliced variety most time. This place in Global Harbour has it cubed. The cut of beef has the same consistency of something that might have been braised, but the cubed orientation makes you think you’re actually getting more chewable meat. I have always felt that Lanzhou places are usually skimpy.

Lanzhou shaved noodles have a larger variety of vegetables. Besides some errant meng bean spouts and bok choy, the main vegetable here are mushrooms. (And to nerds that want to argue that mushrooms are type of fungus and not a vegetable, I will counter with this question: Who cares? Technically you are right, but who really cares about your hair splitting?)

For some reason I have yet to figure out, mushrooms and meat are perfect companions. They beautifully compliment each other. I think it has something to do with the texture of both and how they can soak in a good marinade. If you want more vegetables with tomato broth and noodles, Lanzhou shaved noodles may be better for you. I do love a plethora of vegetables floating in my soup, but I just enjoyed the boiled-down simplicity of this of this a lot. I am not saying one is better than the other; I’m just explaining why I liked this and would have it for lunch again sometime during a future revisit to Global Harbour. Yeah, and about that shopping mall.

There is no map location I can drop for it. If you enter the characters 啊利茄汁面 into Baidu Maps, you will get the above, deserted store front in Wujin’s college town as the sole representative. The Global Harbour location does not even come up, so it seems that this is the only iteration of this franchise in Changzhou — if you go by Baidu Maps results. Rest assured, it’s in the “B District” of that absurdly large mall, and it’s on the basement level nearest to Global Harbour’s subway station. While I highly enjoyed eating this, I also have to stress that I would only go here for lunch if I am at this plaza for other reasons. It’s solid, but it will not take your breath away, culinarily speaking.

Mikong: A Taste of Zhejiang

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Some regional cuisines are more closely related than others. For example, nobody in their right mind would ever say Chengdu and Changzhou’s cuisines are remotely similar. One is super spicy, and the other is sweet. However, you can find some commonalities between Jiangsu and Zhejiang. There is an emphasis on lighter, fresher flavors. Both tend to be on sweeter side, but out of the Zhejiang dishes I have tried, the sweetness tends to be more subtle.

A year or more ago, a Chinese friend introduced Zhejiang cuisine to me by taking me to 弥空的小确幸 Mí kōng de xiǎo què xìng. Based on Google Tanslate, a possible English name might be Mikong’s Small Fortune. Then again, it’s always risky to trust non-human machine translators. Also, the restaurant didn’t seem to advertise an English name, so I’ll just call it Mikong going forward. A different good friend and I recently wanted to grab lunch and do some catching up, and I realized that I hadn’t been back  to this particular place. I had good memories of the food the first time around, and so we settled on here as a place to dine. So, how was it?

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Yeah, it’s a picture of a refrigerator. It’s also the only interior shot of Mikong that I have.

The inside has a very cozy atmosphere, and interestingly enough, there was soft, jazzy English-language music on in the background. The location is also highly convenient for downtown; it’s across the street from the rear end of Wuyue / Injoy Plaza. Basically, it’s part of the non-historic side of Comb Lane. On the downside, you have to walk through another restaurant and climb a set of stairs to get to Mikong, but that almost gives it a secluded, tucked away vibe while essentially being in a highly trafficked part of downtown Changzhou. Enough about that, how about the food?

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The shrimp smothered in garlic was particularly good. This was a repeat ordering from my original visit more than a year ago. There is reason why I like this dish. I have always had a problematic relationship with shrimp in China — I don’t like the fact they are often cooked and served with their heads and eye stalks attached. In fact, I still haven’t figured out how to eat shrimp in China. There seems to be an art and skill level involved that is completely lost on me. At Mikong, the prawns are beheaded, and that really simplifies matters.

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Next up was a goose dish. It tasted good, but to be honest, the goose itself seemed to have too many bones. This led me to putting my chopsticks down and using my hands to inelegantly gnaw. The brown sauce it came in reminded me a little of slightly sweet “sort-of” curry. I often used it a dipping sauce for the remaining side dish.

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Lightly fried potato balls. This is just sheer simplicity. It is really hard to go wrong with potatoes that haven’t been overly fussed with. These three dishes led to a final bill around 160ish RMB. The friend and I left satisfied and thinking Mikong would be worth a return visit.

Silver Thread Noodles 银丝面红汤

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When I lived in Wujin, I used to ask my college students for recommendations about what was truly “local” Changzhou food. Most of them didn’t know what to say because 1) their English levels were so low and 2) most of them didn’t come from Changzhou. So, I used to get some silly answers like “Go to the top floor of Injoy.” One day, a friend brought me to Yinsi Noodles. Eventually, I was handed a bowl of noodles, and that became my first exposure to Changzhou’s food.

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That was more than a couple of years ago, now. Recently, I returned to Yinsi and tried the same dish. Only, I went to a different location. This cafeteria style restaurant is a prolific chain with locations all over the city. It serves a variety of non-local dishes that can be easily found elsewhere.

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So, if that is the case, what is so special about this place? A very cheap 5 RMB bowl of noodles.

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The dish’s name is actually shared with the eatery. Yinsi Noodles in Chinese is 常州银丝面 chángzhōu yín sī miàn. The actual above noodle soup is 银丝面红汤  yín sī miànhóng tāng. The literal translation would be “silver thread noodles red soup.” The characters 银丝 refers to the actual noodles themselves. According to Baidu’s version of Wikipedia, the name comes from how the ingredients in the dough results in very white noodles.  The “red soup” comes from the broth base, which is made with soy sauce. The result is a slightly salty taste that never becomes too much.

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You can also add a few things to the soup to customize the flavor a little more. If you look closely at the above, you’ll notice I chopped up a meatball and mixed it in. So, what else can I say?

This dish has been part of Changzhou culture for nearly 100 years. However, one should clarify one thing: only the recipe is that old. The current chain of Yinsi cafeterias doesn’t date back that far. The original shop, from all those decades ago, is also gone and lost to history. It used to be in what would become the Nandajie area of downtown.

 

Soupy Blood and Guts

“Why do Americans eat potatoes with nearly everything? It’s not right!” A Chinese teaching colleague blinked at me a few times. “I mean, when I lived in the US, I grew to hate potatoes at first and never wanted to look at them again. Eventually, I realized I had no choice and just learned to like them.”

I smiled. “First, I don’t know why. Second, a question. Why do lots of Chinese people always eat rice with their meals?”

This colleague then laughed. “OK. Fair point.”

This conversation happened many years ago. I lived in Wujin at the time. There is, however, a reason why I still remember this exchange. When a person is actively trying to assimilate into a foreign culture, two of the most immediate challenges are language and food. My colleague essentially was saying “I had to learn to like potatoes if I ever was to appreciate American food.” There is something similar that occurs to some westerners when they move to China. Some might find a few Chinese dishes culturally offensive due to organ meat and animal parts they are not used to. To appreciate Chinese food, sometimes, one has to turn these cultural sensitivities off.

I recently did this when some Chinese friends invited me out to lunch. They had a “free” coupon for a place called 就犟才好 jiù jiàng cái hǎo. It’s relatively new and on one of the upper levels of Injoy / Wuyue Plaza downtown. Actually, it may be occupying the space that used to be home to Summer and then a Vietnamese pho noodle shop. Alright then, so it’s new. What’s the culturally challenging part? It specializes 毛血旺 máo xuè wàng. Also, I quickly learned that when you feed those three characters in Baidu Translate, you get some hilarious Chinglish.

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No, mao xue wang is not hairy blood. No strand, root, or follicle of hair is involved! This is one of those instances where it’s best to write the name in Pinyin without tone markers and call that the dish’s English name. Okay, so what is it?

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It’s a soup originally from Chongqing. Oh, and by the way, it’s extremely spicy. The above photo was taken from a soup that had been intentionally toned down at my request. So, instead of “extremely spicy,” it was just “very, very spicy.” I can’t imagine how mao xue wang in it’s natural, highly nuclear state would make me weep and sob with each bite. Spicy red peppers are not culturally challenging. What is? The two signature ingredients.

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Tripe! This is hardly the first time I have eaten animal stomach. That is just merely the cost of living in China for years and trying to make friends with the locals. However, I have always struggled on how to describe tripe’s flavor. So, I consulted a fellow foodie — who is a rather intrepid and fearless gastronaut (inside joke). He said, “I don’t know. Tripe has always been more about its chewy texture than it’s flavor.” Right, he is. So, what’s the other challenging ingredient in mao xue wang?

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Blood! Congealed blood shows up in a lot of Chinese cuisine. Once you get past the very American icky ick ick gross! factor, it basically tastes like a slightly metalic tofu. One of the greater things about mao xue wang is the other ingredients. This soup can be customized, but it typically also has seafood in it.

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You can find shrimp, squid, fish, vegetables floating or submerged in this soup. So, if you are out to lunch with Chinese friends, and you don’t want to eat blood and guts, simply pick out the stuff you do like. This restaurant offers a variety of side dishes. One of those was very welcome to my inner American.

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Cheesy potatoes! Oh, what a comfort food and an emotional crutch while eating adventuresome! At any rate, did I enjoy the totality of my lunch at 就犟才好 jiù jiàng cái hǎo? Yes. Would I eat there again? Also yes, but with one caveat. This is the sort of place that you share with other people. It’s not meant for solo dining. It’s more of a communal experience, and the restaurant itself caps tables at four people and no more than that.

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While the place is relatively new, it has seemed to drawn a crowd. This might mean, depending on when you visit, there could be a bit of a wait to be seated.

A Love for Liangpi

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Image courtesy of this blog. https://wifemothereventplanner.com/2013/03/07/big-mac-without-the-mac/

 

“Can I have a Whopper with Cheese, only hold the meat patty.” I crossed my arms. “I would also like …”

“Excuse me.” The Morgantown, West Virginia, Burger King cashier shot me a look that actively mingled confusion with disgust. “What did you just order?”

“Whopper with cheese, minus the meat.”

“So, um, you don’t want a burger without the actual burger?”

“Exactly.”

“You just want condiments and cheese in a bun?”

“Yep.” I nodded slightly. “And fries. I want French fries, too – with a Diet Coke.”

“Um, okay.” She tapped the order into her register.

I saw her mouth the word weirdo under her breath while slightly shaking her head. I really didn’t care. This whole scenario played out multiple times during the 1990’s and my years as a university student in Appalachia. This wasn’t the first time I ordered a tomato, pickle, onion, and cheese sandwich from a fast food joint. It wasn’t the last, either.

You see, I used to be a vegetarian. The reasons are best saved for another time, but in retrospect, they were more out of punk rock vanity than concerns over my health.  I was a very bad vegetarian who consistently made poor dietary choices. Instead of evaluating the nutritional content of my food, I just ate a lot of eggs, steamed vegetables, cheese, and faux meat. Not Dogs? Yup, always in a bun and usually smothered in coleslaw. Fake ham? Absolutely! Especially if I wrapped it around a breaded cheese stick and dipped it into a barbecue sauce. Most of my diet consisted of easily microwaved GMO soy-based foods like Morning Star Farms. In short, I ate a lot of junk food.

One day, I woke up and realized that the counter cultural idealism of my twenties didn’t make for healthy living. Actually, I realized I was a clueless idiot. So, I stopped being a vegetarian who used to call strawberry ice cream dinner, and I eased myself back into sensible, balanced meat consumption. Fish without bones first, followed by poultry, pork, and beef. Now, many people can argue that I have many dreadful habits – rampant neurosis, heavy drinking, saying I am going to go to the gym while never going, and incessant chain smoking, for example.  Correcting all of that is an ongoing work in progress. It is work. It is in progress. I promise.  And, while I am no longer a vegetarian and never will be one again, I still have the upmost respect for people who have made that choice and know how to do it the right way. I also still enjoy eating proper vegetarian and vegan foods from time to time.

I know the challenges that come with it, especially when you are travelling and cannot cook for yourself. I also know that maintaining that lifestyle choice in China is not particularly easy. Being a vegan here is even worse. Sometimes, even a vegetable-only dish has been cooked in or is swimming in pork fat. Noodle soups are even more deceptive. Do you know what was used to make the base broth? Can you be absolutely sure when you are starving, in a Chinese city you don’t recognize due to travel, and walk into a restaurant? Can you ask a restaurant owner if something has an animal by-product in it without coming off like a complete jerk who is using his phone as a translator? Sometimes, that is easier said than done.

I thought about this while between classes at Hohai University, recently. There are plenty of small restaurants between that school’s west gate and Xinbei Wanda Plaza. Like all eateries, some of them survive and some do not last six months. Needless to say, I eat dinner in this area a lot because it’s right next to where I work. It was in one of these places where I stared at a plate of noodles and realized I was eating something totally vegan without realizing it. It was a dish called 凉皮 liángpí.

Yes, the two quail eggs are not exactly vegan friendly, but they can be picked out, and most basic liangpi dishes do not have them.
Yes, the two quail eggs are not exactly vegan friendly, but they can be picked out, and most basic liangpi dishes do not have them.

 

The Chinese for that literally translates as “cold skin.” Yeah, I know. It sounds rather disgusting – as if you are eating something that has been flayed off of a person or animal. Only, it isn’t that. In my experience, the character 皮usually refers to a sheet of something very thin in texture. For example, 豆腐皮 dòufu pí literally translates as “tofu skin” and is a common add-on ingredient in hotpot places and other restaurants that allow you to customize.

So, what exactly is liangpi? It’s a cold and wide rice noodle served in vinegar. Sometimes, chili oil can be added to spice things up. Typically, shredded cucumber, spongy tofu, and crunchy peanuts are involved. Since it is served cold, it’s usually best ate during hot weather. This dish originally comes from Shaanxi, but it is now so popular and widespread, it can be found nearly anywhere in small restaurants or as street food. It’s also relatively cheap. So, for vegans and vegetarians alike, this is a potentially a quick and easy lunch choice.

However, since liangpi has spread all over Changzhou, there are multiple variations and a lot of them have meat added. Some of the these options can include…

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Lean beef.

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Shredded chicken.

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Ground pork.

Really, cold rice noodles are an extremely versatile dish — from it’s vegan friendly base to just about anything the shop in question likes to add to fill out their menu board. This is why I am not really providing a map location. This dish really is that widespread throughout the city. However, there was one place where, between my Hohai classes, I had a blast from the past.

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This is 农少爷 nóng shàoyé. It focuses more on the Xian variety of liangpi. It recently opened, and I see a lot of university students crammed in here during dinner and lunch rushes. Their “Chinese hamburger” sandwich 肉夹馍 ròu jiā mó is excellent. However, while exploring their menu over multiple days, I ran into this.

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It is 蔬菜夹馍 shūcài jiā mó — a bun stuffed with vegetables.Biting into this made me think of 20 years ago, during a different time and a different life. A time where I walked into Burger Kings and asked for a hamburger-without-actual-hamburgers. I was young with a huge vinyl record collection of punk rock and death metal albums with titles like Save for Your Doomed Future. If I could talk to that kid, I would tell him that his future — while having some devastating rock bottom moments — isn’t all that bad.

For the Love of Spare Ribs

Simple foods can be simple comforts. This is especially true when you are a foreigner living in China. I have been here four years now, and I still haven’t begun to try all the different dishes and snacks to be had in the Middle Kingdom. Recently, I found a new-to-me lunch item that is now in my standard rotation of cheap eats in Changzhou.

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Grill stands seem to be very common. Two of the more prominent characters in the above picture are 排骨páigǔ — ribs. However, these places offer a variety of meat-on-bone options.

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So, the selections usually include pig’s feet, shanks, and other things. I can honestly say, I am not a fan of pig’s feet. Or eating feet in general. Thankfully, one of those aforementioned options includes a type of chicken wing I have never tried before.

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This is 鸡翅包饭 jīchì bāofàn, or basically a stuffed chicken wing. I think it might have originated in Hunan, but I see this everywhere. It’s a boneless chicken wing that’s been stuffed with glutinous rice. At this particular shop, it ran about 10 RMB for one. I enjoyed it, but keep in mind anytime I encounter street food, I always say 不辣 (bù là — not spicy)  when they offer to season my food. Originally, I thought the idea of stuffing a chicken wing was slightly weird, but I remembered chicken corden bleu is a thing in western culture. That’s essentially putting cheese and ham into a breaded chicken breast. Oh, and I love me some chicken corden bleu! So, I should be game for trying something tangentially like it. While I found this snack interesting, it just doesn’t compare to what these grill stands really have to offer.

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Pork ribs. Pure and simple. Now, these are not the same as ribs you would find in the American south — especially a place like North Carolina. That would be smoky, sweet, and tangy. These are also not the famed ribs you would find in Wuxi, either. Those would just be sweet in taste without any attempt at smoky or tangy flavors. Both American BBQ ribs and Wuxi ones are sauced, and these are not. It’s just simple spare ribs on a grill going for 25 RMB for four bones. So, where can you find simple and yummy pork ribs?

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Everywhere. The above screenshot is a Baidu Maps search for 桥头排骨 qiáotóu páigǔ,and that is just one chain that does a flaming grill with various meats. There are others. The one I have been going regularly to isn’t even part of that chain, and it’s at the Xinbei Wanda. I seen these rib stands in other cities, too. And that’s a relief, really, I have always been looking for excuses to not to give McDonald’s or Burger King my money when I need to eat and am on the go. These places are also great one you don’t know Chinese all that well. The meat is on display. You don’t have to say anything. Just point at what you want grilled, and it will be grilled.

A Mysterious Chinese Fragrant Pot

A common mistake some foreigners make is thinking their Chinese friends are all experts when it comes to their native cuisine. I will admit that I have been guilty of that in the past. There are many errors to this way of thinking. For example, which Chinese food? It’s a huge country with many different regional cuisines. Once you factor in local delicacies, you can live a lifetime of trying a new dish everyday and still not have gotten to everything China has to offer an adventuresome eater.

In the end, some dishes are harder to research than others — even in Chinese. The restaurant 筋牛坐筋头巴脑香锅米饭 Jīn niú zuò Jīn tóu bā nǎo xiāng guō mǐfàn has been very difficult to figure out. Let’s start with the name, as half of it is easy to miss-translate into Chinglish. Following the rule of translate the easy stuff and leave the specifics in Chinese, I would call it Jin Tou Ba Fragrant Pot and Rice — or just Jin Tou Ba as a short form. The official sign outside the place says “Ribs, Head, and Brain.” I don’t feel comfortable saying that, so for me, it will be just Jin Tou Ba going forward. The other option would be the place’s actual Chinese name, Jin Niu Zuo.

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The frustrating thing is I really like the food here, but none of the Chinese people I ask know anything about this restaurant or the style of food. That’s weird, because every time I go here, the place is busy. I even asked my students at Hohai, and even they didn’t know. Hohai University is national institution and draws students from all over China. I often joke that while I am their English teacher, they are my Chinese cultural instructors. To use an extremely Chinese expression, it’s a win-win situation. Not one of my students said, “Oh, I know Jin Tou Ba!”

Okay, so enough of the personal mystery. What is the food actually like? The closest comparisons would be malatang 麻辣烫 and malaxiangguo 麻辣香锅. Even that comparison is not entirely accurate. Malatang is a soup, and Malaxiangguo I think is a spicy stir fry. The point of comparison with all three involves self service.

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Jin Tou Ba has a similar set up, but it results in a beef stew. A diner walks in, grabs a bowl, tongs, and selects from meat, vegetables, and dumplings. Then, they must choose from a series of pots of braised meat. A lot of those choices are organ meat like tripe, but the first pot is essentially braised beef. The woman behind the counter weighs your selection, gives you the price, and then asks your preferred spiciness level. I tend choose weakest option above “not spicy,” but you can get Sichuan levels of heat if that is desired.

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The quality of the food is very good. Jin Tou Ba has become a reliable and convenient lunch or supper option for me, as of late. The braised beef has always been tender and not over cooked and chewy. All of that is served with a simple side of white rice. However, I like that they have a hot pot condiment station. I always prefer mixing minced garlic and scallions into sesame seed paste (think, tahini).

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Changzhou currently has two of these places. One is on the pedestrian street at Xinbei Wanda Plaza. The other is in the basement of Injoy Plaza downtown. My average meal here has averaged somewhere between 40 to 50 RMB, but I have always left full and satisfied.

I still haven’t figured out what this food actually is. I have now sort of given up on figuring this puzzle out. It comes more from a memory of my mother. She had been experimenting in the kitchen, and I had been poking her creation tentatively with a fork. “Stop analyzing your food, Rich, and eat.” Sometimes, I just need to do exactly that.

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Amee Toast 凹蜜土司 at Xinbei Wanda

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I am always on the look out for Chinese food that is unintentionally friendly towards western eaters. I like to call it “unintentional fusion.” The people creating the food are not actively going, “Hey, likes mix western food with Chinese.” No, its Chinese food that just happens to be similar to some types of North American or European cuisine. I recently ran into something intriguing on the Xinbei Wanda pedestrian street. It’s a place called Amee Toast 凹蜜土司 Āo mì tǔsī. It’s brand new, as it just opened.

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The name loosely translates as “concave honey toast.” It’s a thick slab of toasted bread that has been hollowed out and filled with meat and vegetables. I showed a picture of one to a friend who is also a professional chef, and she said, “Oh, it’s a coffin sandwich.” She’s lived in Taiwan, and a coffin sandwich is a Taiwanese specialty. Only, those involve a creamy soup on the inside. What’s over at Wanda is more of a Mainland China version of that type of sandwich.

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So, how was it? I tried two of Amee’s offerings, a bacon sandwich and a black pepper chicken one. Both were served with sliced and cooked mushrooms.  When I say bacon, Brits, Canadians, and Americans should not get their hopes up. It’s Chinese bacon. That’s well and fine. A condiment in the sandwich tasted a little like the sweet chilli dipping sauce you might find served with appetizers at a Thai restaurant. The black pepper chicken was okay. As a whole, the sandwiches here raged from 18 to 28 RMB. Now, would I go back? Yes, there are a few others I want to try, but this is your basic mall food, and it really is hard to compete with the shwarma-like roujiamo food shack nearby, which is my favorite place to eat at Wanda. This place also treats toast as a sweet desert — some with burnt cheese, and others with blueberry jam and other fruits.

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There is something else I found that seemed interesting. This, like the Mr. Potato next to it, looks like a chain. Yet, after searching, even with the Chinese name, I turned up next to nothing. All I could find was an article about an Amee Toast in Wuxi, which claims to be the first of it’s kind in China. I have seen one in Wuxi; it was in the Chong’an area downtown. So, if Changzhou has one now, this could be the beginning of a new snack food chain.

Three Italian-Friendly Chinese Noodle Dishes

Marco Polo, famous for being the first real European cultural ambassador to travel to China centuries ago, did not bring noodles back to Italy for the first time after traveling through the Middle Kingdom. This is not to dispute the Chinese claim that they created noodles first. They did. It’s just that the creation of pasta in Italy predates Polo completely. Still, the legend persists. However, I got to wondering, recently, if there are some Chinese dishes that Italians, Chinese, and Italian Americans could equally enjoy. By this, I mean some unintentional fusion.To figure that out, I figured that two ingredients needed to be central: noodles and tomatoes. While there plenty of possibilities throughout Changzhou, here are the three dishes I found recently that I enjoyed.

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Over in Laimeng, in the downtown area, I found something called 牛肉烩饺 Niúròu huì jiǎo. This was at a Lanzhou place not that far from the clock tower and Starbucks. It’s basically a dumpling soup with a tomato base and clear vermicelli noodles. Since this is considered halal Chinese food, the dumplings are filled with spiced beef and not pork. The tomato flavor of the soup is something people who like Italian cuisine might enjoy, but the other thing are the dumplings themselves. The common misconception about Italian food is that raviolis have to be filled with cheese. Quite often they are not. Beef stuffed raviolis are quite common, for example. In America, a similar misconception is that Polish perogies are always stuffed with mashed potatoes; they are not. The great thing is that whether it’s a perogie, a ravioli, or a chinese dumpling, the concept is the same. It’s just the fillings differ.

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This is 慢烤番茄牛肉面 Màn kǎo fānqié niúròu miàn at Hefu Noodle. The base broth is made from roasted tomatoes, and to quote Emril Lagasse, you could pair it with a tire, and it would even make rubber taste delicious. What the famous American TV cook meant, basically, was that anything could possibly go with a specific ingredient. The base broth here is basically the star, and everything else is a supporting player. But then again, that’s a fundamental truth when it comes to soups. Bad broth equals a bad soup overall, and there is no exception to that.

While I have loved absolutely loved Hefu Noodle in the past, they recently changed their menu. Most of what I have tried is gone, and now I have to relearn their menu all over. The roasted tomato soup above seems to have survived the shake up, but the meat seemed a little less lean and more like fatty-but-boneless ribs, recently.

Hefu is a chain of restaurants, and Changzhou has three of these places that I know of: One on the fourth floor of Xinbei Wanda, one in the basement of the downtown Injoy Plaza, and one in the basement of the New World Mall, also downtown.

 

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And then, there is the good old reliable, Lanzhou shaved beef noodles, aka 刀削面 Dāoxiāomiàn. Like the above mentioned dumpling soup, this is considered a type of Chinese Halal food. Lanzhou beef noodle joints are honestly all over Changzhou and China in general. However, not all shaved noodles are the same. Again, it comes down to the broth and how rich the flavor actually is. There is one thing I have noticed about daoxiaomian: the deeper red it looks, the better it probably tastes. If it has a lighter color, it will probably taste watered down. The tomato flavor is less pronounced.

Lanzhou shaved beef noodles were actually the first dish to remind me once of the minestrone my mother used to make. It’s also important to openly state that these are not Italian foods. They are totally Chinese. But, if you have a taste for Italian food, then you might be sympathetic to these dishes, too.