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.
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.
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.
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.