Tag Archives: Chinese Food

Chinese Dishes at Willow Street

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“I like this place,” a Chinese friend said, “because the food is good, and it’s relatively cheap.”

She was speaking of Willow Street 样柳巷,· a Chinese restaurant not far from downtown’s Injoy shopping mall and the BRT station that serves it. She had taken me out to belatedly celebrate my birthday once I had returned to from USA. Since she knew I was genuinely curious about trying new foods, she also chose Willow Street because the it serves food local to southern Jiangsu province. As a result, the dishes turned out to be not that spicy. Also, if an expat wants to eat here, they should either be able to read Chinese or take a Chinese friend with them. The menu is all text and no pictures.

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One dish, my friend said, was native to Changzhou. This consisted of thin strips of tofu in a slightly thick clear broth. Bread-like dumplings filled the soup out, but a lot of the contrasting flavor came from strips of congealed duck blood. As I have also liked to point out, blood in Chinese cuisine often has the consistency of tofu, but with a stronger flavor. Duck blood tends to be strongest, most metallic tasting of all of them. However, it was not over powering in this soup. As I said, it provided contrast. That said, for a tofu soup, it certainly makes it not very vegetarian friendly.

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“I don’t know how to translate this other than chicken on a pole,” my friend said.

And when it was served, it was exactly that. Chicken on a stainless steel pole. Perhaps the oddest thing about this was how it was served. Once cooked, the wait staff brought it to our table to look at. I wondered how we were supposed to eat it, because it was literally a small chicken — with head and neck intact — impaled on metal pole. A bowel of smoking dried ice in water was there purely for dramatic effect. Before I asked how we were supposed to eat it, it was taken away and the chicken was chopped up. The head and neck were absent once this was actually served. Despite how weird it looked, the chicken itself was well cooked, juicy, and quite delicious. I reminded me of roast or rotisserie chicken I have eaten in back in America.

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We were also served a pork dish. It seemed rather simple. The exterior was slightly charred for a crispy texture, and the meat itself reminded me a little of pork belly. Stripes of meat and fat came with each thick slice. However, it lacked the saltiness that sometimes come with pork belly. So, that made me think it just looked like that cut without it actually being this. The coolest thing, however, was the presentation here. The meat sizzled on a tin foil cooking surface. The flame itself, however, was inside of white stone container with black Chinese calligraphy.

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Two of the other dishes consisted of a very simply pumpkin dish. Sometimes, pumpkin is a lot like sweet potato. You don’t have to do much to it make it yummy. It’s just delicious in its most simple form.

The other dish used cassava, which is interesting since that is a plant that grows more in tropical and sub-tropical climates. The last I had ever heard of cassava used as food was when I lived in Bermuda a very long time ago. At Willow Street, cassava flour had been used to make gelatinous cubes that had been served with ground pork. Actually, this reminded me a lot of mapo doufu —  just substitute cassava cubes for tofu.

On the whole, Willow street struck me as a very good Chinese restaurant where good flavor and taste didn’t come with a high price tag. It was a great place to spend some time with a dear Chinese friend.

HaiDiLao as a Vegetarian Option

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Being a vegetarian or a vegan in China poses unique challenges. For all you know, a delicious broadbean or bok choy dish could have been simmered in pork broth. Once a person with particular dietary needs settles into a city like Changzhou, the hunt for potentially friendly eateries begins. There is one place, however, that can be a consistent convenience.

HiDiLao 海底捞 has a name that is kind of misleading. It makes it sound like a seafood hotpot. While you can order fish, it also just resembles a normal hotpot with ingredients like sliced mutton and beef. The last time I went there, the seafood options also seemed a little less prominent than my first visit. For example, there were no scallops available. Still, they offered the standard fish balls, as well as crab sticks and white-fleshed fish chunks. Like all other hot pots, there are also plenty of vegetables available.

However, there is another thing to consider. A diner can select what broth they can use. This has not been the case with every hot pot I have eaten at. The other great thing is that a patron can easily select non spicy soups. At my last visit, a friend and I had two options. One was a light water, ginger, and rice soup. The other was made from tomato. So, this is unlike the risk of ordering veggies and then seeing them served in meat juice.

The other thing to consider is the convenience. HaiDiLao is a chain, and there are locations all over Changzhou and even in other cities. In many aspects, it’s a friendly resturant when you are in a city you may not know all that well.

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Hong Kong Roasted Goose

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Living in Changzhou and trying to eat locally means you will eventually try things you wouldn’t back home. For me, duck and goose were marvelous revelations. I simply never had them before moving to China, and once I tried both with Chinese friends, it was love at first bite. So, when a good friend recommended a tiny roast goose restaurant, I desperately wanted to try it. And trust me, this friend really, really knows food. He’s a professional.

Weeks went by without me trying out the place, however. Apparently, the place is so good, it always is packed during Saturday lunch. I decided to take a different approach: wait till Monday morning and go right after the doors open. That plan worked.

So, was the meal as good as my friend promised? Yes. For 38 RMB, I was served goose, rice, and side dishes of vegetables. Half of a hard boiled goose egg also come on the plate, but I didn’t care for it all that much. Think of a chicken egg, but bigger and with a strong “game” flavor.  The star of the dish, of course, was the goose itself. Both the texture and flavor are similar to beef. However, badly prepared goose can be extremely greasy. This wasn’t. It was both juicy and tender. This is a Hong Kong specialty, and the manager explained to me that his cook comes from there. It’s really important. For example, try eating Italian food when the kitchen staff were not trained by an Italian or an Italian American. My only complaint, however, was I found myself wishing the portion size was a bit bigger.

The place is also convenient. The menu has pictures. It’s close to the Injoy Shopping center downtown. Cross the street and go to Youdian Road 邮电路. This is the street where all the phone markets are. Basically, you take your first right until you see the place pictured below.

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Lamian Stretched Noodles

IMG_20160217_122347Navigating Chinese food can be difficult at first. There is the whole “picture menu” versus “no picture menu” issue to deal with. But as one learns to read Chinese, things eventually become easier. For instance, mala tang involves no menu at all. There are other food options to consider if you are new to a city.

Lanzhou 兰州 noodle shops are pretty much universal in China and in Changzhou. It’s a form of quick food that is easy to find, partly because it’s very popular with Chinese people. It’s also a type of Halal eating, or what some people call “Chinese Muslim Food.” Simply, Chinese dishes that follows Islamic culinary law. The chief thing, of course, is the religious ban against pork as “unclean.” Lanzhou cuisine also prominently features beef or mutton.

Of the many menu options, Lamian 拉面 is the easiest to find. The noodles involved have been rigorously pulled and stretched. If you see a chef twirling and twirling dough, he or she is likely making this style of noodle. The dish itself is fairly simple: noodles, meat, and broth. It can be a little spicy, but it also depends on the establishment and the cook. Some are spicier than others.

There are two ways to adventure into these noodle shops. First, you can ask a Chinese friend to take you or recommend a place. If you are by yourself, glance into the restaurant and take a head count. If it’s busy, the food is likely well prepared and probably wont give you food poisoning. If the joint seems perpetually empty, then skip it by all means.

Nanjing Duck Blood and Vermicelli Soup

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Before moving to China, I spent a lot of time rationally thinking about where to look for a job. Eventually, I settled on Nanjing.  While my recruiter contacted potential colleges and universities, I decided to do a little research on the culture of the city. And that’s when I discovered duck blood soup 鸭血粉丝汤.

At the time, it sounded absolutely revolting, even though most websites were calling it a delicacy and were heaping emotive adjectives on weird ingredients — “Sumptuous duck intestines,” for example. To the average American, the ingredients really do sound disgusting. The vermicelli noodles are made from from sweet potato flour. There is a form of fried tofu in here to. That’s well and fine, but lets get to the fun parts!

I guess starting with the blood should suffice. Blood in general is a standard part of Chinese cuisine. In my time in the middle kingdom, I’ve eaten duck, pig, sheep, and goose blood. Typically, it’s shaped  into cubes and it looks like a brown form of tofu, and it tastes that way too, albeit a bit coppery and metallic. Blood pretty much tastes the same — just some, like duck, have stronger flavors that others, like pig. So, the blood is not the stock that makes up the broth at all; it’s a solid.

As for the other ingredients, there is no rest for the squeamish. This soup literally has most of a duck’s organs floating in it. That includes livers, lungs, intestines, gizzards, and more. There may be some variations, but rest assured that there will always be organ meat in this soup. And before somebody screams Barbaric! Keep this in mind: many Americans in the south enjoy eating chicken gizzards and hearts.  Liver and onions is a pretty standard dish. Pork rinds are deep fried pig skin, and so on and so forth.

I once told my father I would never eat something this repulsive.  The funny thing is this: the list of foods I said I would never eat in China keeps getting shorter and shorter.  I have a rule: never insult Chinese hospitality. If I am having dinner with a Chinese friend, and they are paying the bill, I will at least try what they order. After all, dishes are communal when dining out.  And that’s how a mischievous friend tricked me into trying this.

We were at some food street near Cultural Square 文化宫 in downtown Changzhou. He set the bowl down and simply said, “Try this. If you like it, then I will tell you what it is.” I already knew what it was, just by seeing the brown slabs floating in it. So, I gave it a try. Once I could see beyond my own cultural and culinary prejudices, I realized something. It wasn’t that bad at all.

Accidental Duck Guts

IMG_20151116_122948Chinese people once laughed at me when I was eating. I was dining by myself at the time, and tears flowed over my reddened cheeks. Sweat beaded across my brow, and the corners of my mouth curled into a severe frown. From time to time, I had to put my chopsticks down, grab a tissue, and blow my running nose, hard. So, what had happened? Why was I weeping? Was I an emotional wreck? Had a beautiful woman just spurned me? Did somebody kidnap my cat and send me a ransom note?

Um, no. I had made a huge menu mistake with Chinese food. While dining at the Jiangnan People’s Commune 江南人民公社 across the street from the Changzhou College of Information Technology, I ordered what I thought was sauteed string beans. They looked that way on the picture menu. Dear god, they weren’t. They were stir-fried green peppers with lots garlic. Eating this dish brought me physical pain. So, why did I insist on trying to finish it?

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The Mao Zedong themed Jiangnan People’s Commune across from CCIT.

Stubborn, hard-headed pride. I ordered, it was served, and I was going to eat it. I wasn’t going to be that type of foreigner  that would squeal in terror and flee at the sight of culturally challenging dish. So, I sat there and ate half of it. Then, I pretended to be full, and I politely asked for a to-go bag. Once safely out sight of restaurant, I tossed that doggy bag into the garbage.  Why was being so polite? I ate at that eatery quite often, and I didn’t want to insult them. I didn’t want to be an ugly American. Yeah, it was totally a face-saving issue. Especially, if I was going to be going back in the following week for tried-and-true lunch options. One rule of life is this: don’t piss off the people who usually feed you.

Ever since this incident, I have had some delicious lunches and dinners at this particular place. But, I had one other epic ordering blunder. Again, it involved thinking “string beans” and being served something completely else.

In this case, the alleged “string beans” ended up being duck intestines — complemented by tongues and other innards. The name was 干锅鸭四宝, or “Dry Pot Duck Si Bao.” You see, I thought I was ordering something duck meat, because I saw the character 鸭. A Chinese friend later told me that 四宝 (four jewels) means a dish will have four types of organ meat.

I didn’t blanch in horror once I was served this. I have eaten weirder things in the name of respecting Chinese hospitality. Once, I had the rather Satanic sounding “lamb’s blood” in hotpot. I ate about half and found the duck tongues to be very chewy. Then, I left. I had long since stopped the fake “to go” shtick. I had eaten this place enough to know they really didn’t care, so long as I paid my bill.IMG_20151116_125505

Are You Looking for Shit?

What the hell is this shit?
What the hell is this shit?

Living in China is to be sometimes confronted with a number of hilarious WTF! moments. Imagine this: you are shopping at Nandajie in downtown Changzhou. You pass a restaurant, and you seemingly do not notice at first. Yet, something alarms you. It starts in the corner of vision; something registers as “not quite right,” but you are not sure what it is. So, you stop walking and you turn. What you see, not only makes your jaw drop, but the bottle of water you are sipping falls from your hand. You blink a few times, and you try to comprehend the epic weirdness – but it’s hard. Very hard.

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Literally eating out of a urinal.

Why? You are staring through the window of a poop-themed restaurant. Most of the seats around the tables are toilets. Plush and cuddly stuffed turds hang from the wall. The seat back cushions are shaped like swirled-up piles of crap. Shit really factors in big to the decor, but that’s not the most surreal part of it all. The weirder parts are the patrons, the happy diners you might see here. It’s a Saturday night. A group of guys huddle around a table and the empty beer bottles crowd their table to the very edges. A love struck man ignores the pork, mushrooms, potatoes, and other vegetables in front of him to gaze adoringly at his date. He is oblivious to how shit surrounds him. The most off-putting thing is the family you see.  With chopsticks, a Chinese mom and dad warmly take turns feeding sea vegetables to their young, rambunctious, and squirming son. All three smile and enjoy a heartfelt bonding moment – despite the constant reminders of human excrement around them. I didn’t know how they could be so oblivious about eating around so many reminders of defecation.

Maybe Americans are just culturally prude? This is something I have often asked myself for many reasons – especially when it comes to this particular restaurant. It wasn’t because it offended me; it didn’t. It’s because, secretly, curiosity had the best of me. I wanted to go in and see what the hell the place was about. Only, I didn’t have the courage to do it by myself. Well, that changed, recently – thanks to a most daring and most adventurous friend. Together we boldly went where some Changzhou expats might fear to tread.

So what was the poop restaurant like? Surreal, for sure. I sat on a toilet, and my friend had a regular chair. One of the most immediate drawbacks became apparent. If you sit on a toilet in one of these places, you can’t move it around to find your comfort spot while eating. You are stuck in one place and must stay there. Other problems included the table itself. This was a “Paper Barbecue” place. Like hot pot in China, you select raw ingredients, bring them to your table, and your meal cooks in front of you. “Paper BBQ” has a heating element / grill within the table itself. The paper keeps grease all in one place and not falling into the heating element.. At our table, the grill seemed a bit faulty. Half the food cooked quicker than the other

Breast shaped sippy cups?
Breast shaped sippy cups?

half. The paper itself and oil burned quickly, giving off an unpleasant odor. Long afterwards, my friend complained that the smell had gotten into her clothes and hair. Days later, she reported that the stench is still in her jacket, and she was considering getting it washed or dry cleaned. The taste of the food lingered long afterwards. It was mostly cheap vegetables and inexpensive, low quality meat. The fatty pork and beef left my stomach slightly upset. I chose to ignore that because I was in the presence of my lovely friend. My attention needed to be focused on her, exclusively.

If I tried to describe every weird thing I saw, this review would never end. So, I will just stick to the most utterly bizarre, and the best way to handle artless transitions is to use bullet points.

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    A shitty uniform.

    The biggest incongruity is the name, 29 主题烤吧The Chinese word for shit is nowhere in its name. It just plainly says “themed restaurant” and hints at the cooking method.

  • This sort of eatery really doesn’t have real waiters or waitresses. It’s self service, after all. However, one busboy sported a shirt that says, in translation, Are you looking for shit? The Chinese text is above a picture of poo.
  • Some of the  ceramic plates meant for cooked food are shaped like urinals.
  • There are both boxed drinks and fountain drinks available. But the glasses are shaped like breasts that force you to suck at a nipple.
  • Hand-washing sinks are shaped like bent-over buttocks.
  • Cartoonish porcelain turds with exaggerated facial expressions await you upon checkout; they are by the cash register.
  • This wasn’t the only feces-themed restaurant in Changzhou.  There used to be another in the downtown Injoy Mall.
  • If you Google China Shit Themed Restaurant, you will be bewildered to find that these places are extremely common in The Middle Kingdom. 
  • I could go on and on and on. And then go on some more.

And, that’s sort of the point. The surreal nature of the place is its only selling point. It certainly isn’t the food, and women will more than likely hate that a stench will cling to them long after they leave. The only reason to go here is to experience the weirdness first hand.

Cartoon poop.
Cartoon poop.

Fast Chinese Food: Mala Tang (麻辣烫)

Buffet choices at a 麻辣烫 mala tang restuarant.
Buffet choices at a 麻辣烫 mala tang restuarant.

Here is a problem expats new to China — or new to a Chinese city — routinely face. Where do you eat when you are in a hurry and only want a quick bite? If you live in a medium-sized city like Changzhou, the answer is simple: McDonalds, Burger King, or KFC. But really, that is a diet of unhealthy grease and carbs, and the more you eat it, the more sick of it you become. The novelty of a Big Mac or a Whopper with Cheese in China wears off the longer you live here. Fried Chicken is scrumptious, but eat too much of it every week, and you will loathe that too. And what if you are a vegetarian? A vegan? You feel royally screwed with few options

It doesn’t have to be that way. One of my best friends recently showed me an alternative, and it has quickly become a staple of my eating-out diet. It’s called mala tang (麻辣烫). Literally, it means “hot and numbing soup.” When it comes to Chinese food, this is even more friendly to Chinese-language illiterates than picture menus. Why? There is no menu, at all.

You walk into the place, grab a bowl, and you grab tongs. There is a buffet of meat, raw vegetables, and dumplings to choose from. My first choices are usually cabbage. For me, soup always has to have some sort cabbage in it. I blame my European ancestry for that. From there, it depends on my mood. Today, I had cabbage, mushrooms, quail eggs, and dumplings with pork centers. They other day? A profound fish theme–but with cabbage!. Every time you visit one of these places, the flavor of your soup changes based on your ingredient selections. This means that these places take much longer to become boring than KFC will be within two weeks.

Then, you grab a bottled drink and hand your bowl to a cashier. He or she weighs it, charges you money, and then hands your bowl it to the cook. You go to your table and wait. And then? Five to ten minutes later, your soup is brought to you. Your carefully selected ingredients are sitting in a spicy broth, ready to eat. The most I have paid for this sort of meal has been 30 RMB, but my go to lama tang joint is in Xinbei Wanda Plaza. It is bound to be more expensive the the mom-and-pop, hole-in-the-wall lama tang restaurants that are all over Changzhou and China in general.

Mala Tang Soup. Withlots of vegetables!
Mala Tang Soup. Withlots of vegetables!