Category Archives: Learning Chinese

Xian Noodles in College Town

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Across the street from the Changzhou College of Information Technology, there is a small noodle shop. Now, noodle joints are definitely not uncommon in this city or China in general — and that may be the understatement of the century. This one has a menu that contains some Xian dishes, and that is what sets it apart from the others. Xian food is not a common thing here, but that’s if you exclude the widely available 肉夹馍 Ròu jiā mó, aka “Chinese Hamburger.” Don’t get me wrong. You can get that too at this noodle shop, but it’s not one of the more exclusive items. I used to always go here to get 臊子面 Sàozi miàn.

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This is a hearty noodle soup consisting of carrots, potatoes, tofu, shredded pork, bean sprouts, and more. The above picture is the hot and sour version. There is also a version that is less spicy.

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Either version is 10 RMB, which is, of course, extremely cheap for a filling lunch. Among the other things on the menu, they do have good versions of more common dishes not from Xian.

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This is 担担面 Dàndàn miàn. It originates from Sichuan, and it is in basically a “hot and numbing” spicy pork based sauce. This is more of a dry noodle dish and not a soup. As stated, this is very easy to find. It doesn’t change the fact that is still a good dish at the Xian noodle shop. It also goes for 10 RMB a bowl.

Two Lanzhou Potato Dishes

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Lanzhou beef noodle restaurants are an extremely cheap and easy type of Chinese food. Like malatang and malaxiangguo restuarants, they are also extremely common and easy to find all over Changzhou. While the mala places are very convenient for those who do not know Chinese, Lanzhou noodle shops quite often have Chinese-only menus without pictures. Learning to eat at these shops is also a lesson in Chinese. I that regard, I recently learned of two potato related dishes on their menu board, and a new category of Chinese food.

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This is 土豆烧牛肉盖浇面 Tǔdòu shāo niúròu gài jiāo mian. It cost 15 RMB.

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This is 土豆丝牛肉盖浇饭 Tǔdòu sī niúròu gài jiāo fàn. It cost 13 RMB. Both are a type of 盖浇 gài jiāo. This is a simple type of food where cooked food is served on top of rice — as opposed to being given a separate bowl. Noodles can be substituted for rice. Both of the beef and potato dishes are not that spicy, either. This particular Lanzhou shop is on Hehai Road in Xinbei.

Mala Tang vs. Mala Xiang Guo

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“See, this is mala tang.” I pointed to the characters. At the time, my friend and I were hungry and we were on the third floor of the shopping center next to the clock tower where Nandajie intersects with Yanling Road in downtown Changzhou. We both were hungry, and we thought we were about to enter an pick-your-own-ingredients spicy soup shop. We went in, and it wasn’t that. We got bowls where our vegetables had been fried.

As it turns out, my mistake is a common one for Chinese language newbies. 麻辣烫 are the characters for málà tàng. 麻辣香锅 are the characters for málà xiāng guō. 麻辣 málà means “hot and numbing.” 烫 tàng is soup. 香锅 xiāng guō is “fragrant pot,” I think. As for the cuisine, they are very similar. You pick your ingredients, and you hand them to the cashier. They weigh your selections, charge you a price, and then they hand it to a cook. It’s the cooking process that is different.

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So, enough about the Chinese language, right? Was the food any good? I sort of liked it, but my friend didn’t and started picking out bits of red pepper, hunks of garlic, and other spices. She even wondered if the frying base liquid had meat broth in it. My friend also had an excellent point about the restaurant itself. Some of the spoons were not clean. As for the staff, they were using the same tongs for meat and vegetables. If you a are a vegetarian, this is a huge concern. The staff were also in the habit of setting the dirty bottoms of steel bowls on top of the ingredients. One staff member didn’t exactly have a good attention to cleanliness. For example, when a quail’s egg was accidentally dropped, she would either throw it into your bowl or back into the ingredient’s bowl. Those dropped bits of food hardly ever went into the trash. Since it was my first time with this type of Chinese food, I found myself intrigued, but I wouldn’t try it at that third floor eatery at Nandajie again. Actually, I would want to find a higher quality establishment, first.

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Three Important Words When Getting a Haircut in China

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When you are a foreigner, getting a haircut in China can be a truly frightening thing — even when you are a guy, and you really don’t care as much about your appearance as your female friends do. You are more than likely at the mercy of a person with sharp scissors who doesn’t understand English or any word you are saying. They will do what they damn well please. Many snips later, and you may leave with a high-and-tight shaving that could pass muster with U.S. Marine Corps regulations. Even worse, you may end up with a male Chinese hair style that even western punk rockers with gelled-straight-up mohawks would look at with utter confusion.  Let’s just put it this way: during my first year in China, I didn’t get a hair cut for like more than six months. Scraggly and slightly curly bangs hung down to my chin, and I had a penchant for wearing very old dress pants I had sawed off at the knees with a serrated steak knife. That was to make impromptu shorts, of course.

You look like a homeless! Several my Chinese friends told me. Some of them laughed. Some of them were concerned. Some of them were very much both and didn’t know what to make of me. Yes, I did look like a bum. I didn’t feel that way. Still, it didn’t matter. No matter what, however, I looked like a complete idiot back then. My adamant refusal to get a hair cut or even shave just made it worse — like I was some wanderer in a scorched and post-apocalyptic wasteland where jars of dirty water were traded like a highly valued currency. As in: Can I have two pounds of ground rat meat? I can trade you three jars of muddy water! Oh, and I can trade you this battery I pulled from a car somebody shot with a machine gun and lit on fire many years ago?

China is no apocalyptic wasteland, and my day-to-day life certainly doesn’t involve bartering for rat meat as a dietary source of protein. I no longer feel so fatalistic about things, and that is good. Very good.  Well, I’m trying to change. Honestly.  I am. Those scraggly and sawed-off dress pants shorts? I threw them away. I also no longer maul trousers with a steak knife to make shorts in the first place. I shave more often! Sometimes, its a severe struggle just to try to act everybody else. And, most importantly, I no longer have an irrational fear of Chinese barbers. I know how to get a haircut.

Three Chinese words have helped with that. They are 一点点. In Pinyin its: yi dian dian. In my own strange and made up  pronunciation system, its  E D-En D-En. If you point at areas of your hair you are concerned about and say this, your non-English-speaking hair dresser will nod and not shave everything off your head with buzzing clippers. Trust me, that’s a good thing.