From time to time, after staying up late and drinking one too many beers with friends at a bar, I often hit Japanese Street on my way home. It’s more of a convenience, though. The north gate of my housing estate is actually on Hanjiang Road. The other night, I did one of my routine pit stops, and I had what I felt was an amazing bowl of pork and garlic ramen. It was also 2am, and I figured thinking it was so awesome could be chalked up to the fact that I was a little tipsy. So, I decided to go back, completely sober, and try it again for lunch. Alas, the place was closed. I was still hungry, and so I just ventured into a different — and newer to me — Japanese eatery. They didn’t have the type of soup I had wanted from the other place. However, I noticed something I hadn’t really tried before.
To put plainly and simply: udon noodles in Japanese beef curry. Now, if one is ranking the international curries of the world, Japan’s version is not near the top. In my opinion, that’s an ongoing threeway war between Singapore, Thailand, and India. That’s not to say Japanese curry is bad, and I do quite often enjoy it. There is a sort of simple “comfort food” aspect sometimes appeals to me.
Frequently, curry is on a Japanese menu while being paired with white rice. Adding a pork or chicken breaded cutlet is also common, and that is often sometimes topped with a fried egg. So, on this occasion, it was the first time I saw beef curry paired with soft, thick udon noodles. So, what’s the end result?
Liked it, and at 35 RMB a bowl, it will be something I will have again for a quick lunch. While putting noodles into curry is not a new and novel thing, this particular pairing isn’t something I have seen at other Japanese places I have dined at. That’s also the important thing about figuring out the entirety of Hanjiang Road as a dining destination. There are so many Japanese restaurants competing with each other, it’s hard to declare which is the best. Actually, that’s a bit of a silly task. It’s better to figure out what menu items are unique to certain places. So, simple udon beef curry; it’s one of the reasons why I might go back to Jing He 井禾 on Japanese Street. Since it was only my second time there, I’m wondering what else may be on the menu that sets itself apart from the dozens of other places nearby.
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.
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.
So, if that is the case, what is so special about this place? A very cheap 5 RMB bowl of noodles.
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.
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.
“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?”
“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.
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pí 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…
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.
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.
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.