Some reflections on a recent food trip to Xinjiang, China

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One of my favorite things in the world. Home-style laghman from a small restaurant Teweruk ta’amliri (“Legacy foods”) on Nobishi Road in Kasghar

Great laghman (لەغمەن) is well worth obsessing over. Hand-pulled and perfectly chewy wheat noodles are boiled, drained, and then topped with a hot stir fry of fatty mutton, garlic, tomato, and peppers with any seasonal vegetables. Check out my 2015 post on the topic if you want to learn more, or even make these at home. The noodles pictured above were perfect–it looked like a large plate of noodles, but I devoured them in an instant. They were so good. While laghman is one of the most delicious and ubiquitous foods of Uyghur Xinjiang, I was actually on a self-imposed mission to explore the foods that I knew much less about. Because of that goal, this was one of my only laghman experiences during my whole trip earlier this year in March. That said, my subsequent meals and snacks were no less intriguing.

Regular readers of this blog will be at least somewhat aware that the foods of Xinjiang (and adjacent Muslim regions just to the east) represent a fascinating mix of cultures. Turkic and Persian Central Asia, China, Russia, Tibet, and Mongolia all meet and mingle in this vast region famous for its own legendary agricultural products to forge a delectable culinary landscape.

Much to my dismay, my long-anticipated food trip return to Kashgar’s Old City was met with many closed restaurants, empty food stalls, and boarded-up storefronts. It seemed like half of the bustling businesses in the Old City were now closed or shuttered. The streets were unusually devoid of activity, aside from the parts that were adjacent to the streets with roving police vans with their blaring sirens and soldiers conducting military drills. Ever since the neighborhood’s streets were closed to car traffic a year or so ago as police checkpoints were installed on every block, far fewer people are out selling things and far fewer people are out buying things too.

Among the small handful of open restaurants that I found upon my arrival, one small restaurant seemed to be doing a brisk business. I went up to the locked doors and pressed the doorbell to be let in. Inside customers were quietly eating, keeping largely to themselves with few rare conversations. The waiter directed me to an empty chair at a shared table with an elderly woman and her son and brought me a teapot and bowl. “Nime yeysiz?” he asked. I responded with a dish that I had been dreaming about for a long time, which was also happened to be one of the restaurant’s specialties. “Öy leghmini yeymen–I’ll have the home-style laghman.”

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“Teweruk ta’amliri”, a welcome sight and one of a handful of small restaurants operating in March on Nobishi road. Note: this image is from the morning after, the boy is preparing steamed breads outside for morning/lunch service while watering the street (a neighborhood initiative to fight dusty streets)

I was first introduced to the wonders of Uyghur food with travels to Xinjiang in the late 1990s, a time that followed a period of great economic and political opening that nurtured a flourishing intellectual and artistic curiosity throughout the PRC. Printing houses even in rural provinces were publishing new books like crazy, and you could find very interesting scholarly and layman works focused on all sorts of topics, including Uyghur culture and history, both in Chinese and in Uyghur. It was a thrilling time to be there—a time when anything seemed possible. Socially outgoing Uyghurs would often initiate conversation with a cheery “hello!” in English. I found that if I engaged in conversation, that undoubtedly would lead to the famous Uyghur hospitality: invitations to meals, drinks, and even home stay situations. Those extremely positive memories are part of what drove me to do Central Asian Studies in graduate school.

I knew that this trip would be different. The social and political climate in southern Xinjiang has been deeply affected by the “Strike Hard”-related police/military surveillance, as well as by the detainment and forced migrations of a substantial portion of the population. What I didn’t know was how widespread these effects would be, and how much they would influence daily life for Uyghur locals, and even their interactions with tourists like myself.

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Kashgar’s night market, summer 2010

After I finished my plate of noodles, I took a long walk and ended up at Kashgar’s famous night market. The last time I visited in 2010, the market was alongside Liberation Road (Jiefang Lu), and it was thrilling—I was excited to return. Now the market has been relocated to a courtyard further down Orda Ishik Road (欧尔达西克路). It was clearly moved and modified to fit the “tourist village” redesign that the Old City has been undergoing for the past decade or so. The vendor stalls were built with identical styles, and they were placed together in a small labyrinth meant for tourists to explore. There were very few locals eating out at this market (unlike my trip in 2010), but there was a small handful of Chinese tourists as customers.

Sadly, only about half the stalls were occupied with vendors, and some of my favorite night market foods weren’t even there. I enjoyed what was there in any case, the offerings of opke-hesip ئۆپكە – ھېسىپ (boiled and chopped stuffed lungs and sausages) and hoshang خوشاڭ (pan fried meat pies), as well as freshly squeezed pomegranate juice:

I noticed something curious with the opke-hesip vendor. The butcher knife he used to cut up the offal pieces was locked with a chain to the bench. I noticed other vendors had the same setup. This, it turned out, was a new policy for food vendors (as well as butchers) as knives are under strict control throughout the province and are treated as weapons.

I didn’t capture an image of the empty stalls, but someone who came back to Kashgar just after I left, Gene Bunin, commented on that, and the lack of that most famous Uyghur dish polo in a Facebook post (see here for my 2014 post on that dish, with a recipe):

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So… why are so many restaurants and shops closed, and where are many of the food vendors? As Uyghurs who were born in Xinjiang have been forcibly recalled back to their hometowns (places where their hukou were registered) over the past few years for several government initiatives meant to control their movements, most were not allowed to return to where they were working–whether to the cities of the Far East or even cities in other parts of Xinjiang. Local business owners in Kashgar were challenged with continuing without staff, and some couldn’t make it and had to close. Other businesses are forcibly shuttered by local authorities (see example below left) because owners are under suspicion of some illegal activity or even “wrong thoughts”. Due to the sorts of people who are put into reeducation, are arrested, and/or disappeared, ranging from Uyghur folklore scholars to Uyghur pop singers, threatening people seem to include political and religious moderates who have a respected and/or influential voice in Uyghur society.

If my mention of the above forced migrations, arrests, and disappearances in Xinjiang comes as a jarring surprise to you, there have been several news stories and publications in recent months that do a decent job of explaining what has happened. The restrictions are based in the government’s move to clamp down on “illegal activities”, which can include anything from religious gatherings to promoting Uyghur culture (as well as any sort of violence, of course). There has been a pretty steady stream of articles this year highlighting the situation in news outlets like Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and New York Times (sorry, these are mostly pay-walled). For some free links, here is a recent summary of events from Vox, and here is a very illustrative video report showing what police and military checkpoints look like from Josh Chin for WSJ on surveillance in Xinjiang.IMG_8298

I gleefully sought out every (open) bookstore I could find, to browse for cookbooks or anything new pertaining to Uyghur or Xinjiang culture, language, or food. Not too much has been published in Uyghur in the past two years (outside an enormous display of communist writings), and all of the Uyghur language bookstores I could find in Hotan were sadly shuttered. I visited Chinese language bookstores with the same excited anticipation, but this time I was unable to find ANY Chinese language books on Xinjiang or Uyghur culture, food, or language. I was able to go home with some treasured souvenirs however: reprints of the entire “Uyghur food and drink culture” series, and a 2016 10-disc set of cooking DVDs focused on important and favorite dishes of the Uyghurs (see image on the right).

Despite a narrower range of options in restaurants and market stalls since my last trip and the despite the somber mood of local customers, I was able to find my way to some pleasant and even joyful food experiences in Kashgar and Hotan. Many of these experiences will form the themes of separate posts in the coming fall, but I wanted to share a handful of memorable meals here…

Kawap كاۋاپ and somen سومەن from the restaurant beneath the 100 year teahouse, on Seybazar road:

A mug of mutton soup gangza shorpisi گاڭزا شورپىسى and a girde گىردە bread from a shop in the Grand Bazaar:

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A beautiful selection of dried Xinjiang dried peppers from the Grand Bazaar, including the shriveled kind famous in “big plate chicken” from Shihezi:

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A fascinating take on cooking with dry day-old flatbread where meat and root veg is piled on top and it is steamed until cooked into a rich breakfast: qazan kawap قازان كاۋاپ

Fancy street food! A spin on the Northwestern Chinese favorite Liangpi 凉皮 (cold skin noodles with gluten and dressing, or as it is known in Uyghur as rangpiza راڭ پىزا —Check out that fancy bowl!:

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Mutton kebabs on red willow branches from Hotan’s new (and kind of disappointing) indoor “night market”):

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Stay tuned for future posts that will delve more into the wonders of Uyghur cuisine…

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Garlic scapes, fried as a vegetable

 

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Garlic scapes, or 蒜芯 suanxin, from Chinatown’s underground market

We are deep into the season of garlic scapes. Fortunately for those of us in Philly, we are able to find these strong-flavored beauties with fair regularity through springtime in Chinatown and even at area farmer’s markets. These are a twisting flowering bud of the garlic plant, and they have a wonderful flavor. They are delicious fried, grilled, or even pickled. They can be slightly woody (especially older scapes) and have a similar fibrous structure to asparagus. In fact, you can cook them in much the same ways you do asparagus.

It’s already the first day of summer, but I was still able to find these treasures today in Chinatown. I’ll chop these into segments and fry them in a simple brown sauce with some pork, and it will be scrumptious.

Note: these are also sometimes referred to as “garlic stems”, like in the classic recipe with smoked Chinese bacon that Fuchsia Dunlop sites in Every Grain of Rice. The Chinese she uses is perhaps more familiar in mainland China: 蒜苔 suantai.

If you look for these in Philly markets, beware that they are not often labeled in English, and when they are, it might be in “creative English”. It’s best to know what to look for, or be observant of the Chinese characters. Here are two versions of signage, at the underground market and at Spring Garden Supermarket:

In shape, these are a little larger than the more regularly available “flowering garlic chive” or jiucai hua 韭菜花 (which is usually sold next to their leaves). Garlic scapes are thicker and are closer in size to long beans.

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Ingredients for today’s quick stir fry, garlic scapes: soaked chile peppers, sugar, oyster sauce, soy sauce, rice wine, sliced pork, cornstarch

Cooking with this vegetable is very simple as so much of the flavor comes from within. You don’t need to add garlic or onions–there are already plenty of aromatics present in this vegetable.

That said I’ve decided to over-complicate this today with a typical brown sauce: a touch of sugar, splash of rice wine, a tiny bit of oyster sauce, soy sauce, water and cornstarch. You could do far less and still achieve a tasty result. If you use salt and oil, They will be great. All else can be considered optional.

In a very hot wok (I’m using a new stove with a much bigger flame than I’m used to) I seared pork slices for about 30 seconds before putting in the garlic scapes and chiles. Then in quick succession I tossed in a spoon of sugar, a splash of rice wine, tiny bit of oyster sauce and a splash of soy sauce. When all is cooked (on my new “high” it was 2 minutes), stir in water and cornstarch to finish.

Serve as an accompaniment to a larger meal or simply with rice.

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Savory Uyghur flatbread at the base of a stew

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A recent Xinjiang delight from a Beijing restaurant: nan qordaq, or 馕包肉

Travelers to Uyghur cultural zones of Xinjiang will be familiar with the Uyghur staple flatbread (aka nan) and its many uses at the table. It is served alongside tea, dried fruits and nuts for breakfast and afternoon tea. At kawap (kebab) and laghman (pulled noodle) restaurants, nan is often served as a plate for the intensely seasoned bites of meat.

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Prepping portions of “whole grilled lamb” on plates of nan at the famous “Qaxshal tonur kebabs” in Hotan (قاخشال تونۇر كائاپلىرى)

It is also served in restaurants in another way, as a base sponge for a savory stew. The bread is generally cut into triangles before a stew is dumped on top. In the US This might strike us as odd perhaps only because it otherwise closely resembles pizza, and as a pizza it would be difficult to pull out a slice with stew on top. Despite that, the combination really works. The coal or wood-fire bread is often baked with onion, and the smokiness and onion add a beautiful dimension to the stew. Additionally, Uyghur nan are generally made from much stiffer doughs (than say, a pizza dough). The consistency is closer to that of a bagel, with around 60% hydration. This helps it stay together, even under a stew.

The climate of the Tarim Basin is very dry. Breads tend to completely dry out not long after being baked. Culturally and historically speaking this has an important advantage. Dry bread basically lasts forever. Just add tea/soup/stew. That is likely closer to how this sort of presentation evolved as a bread-under-stew. In any case, the bread adds attractive texture and flavor components, and there is an added benefit of a dramatic presentation. This is something you should experience–it might change your concept of “bread bowl”.

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My version of a Uyghur chicken qoruma stew on top of my home-baked onion nan


Recipe: Uyghur-style chicken qoruma over nan نان-توخۇ قورۇمىسى

As was previously mentioned, In arid climates nan can dry out fairly quickly after baking. In cases of further cooking in Uyghur households, this is not a problem at all as the bread readily welcomes broth/tea/stew. Personally, I’ve been getting a lot better at baking nan at home, and I am getting closer to a “tonur”-style nan (see here for a past post relating to that oven) by using a combination of a baking steel and my broiler. Although my bread recipe has evolved since last year to a stiffer dough, my past post on nan and stew has several key bit of information for those interested in baking Uyghur-style nan at home.

This is a simple qoruma-style stew. My recipe is built largely on one from Mexetjan Rozi’s 2007 cookbook in the “Uyghur food and drink culture series” Toxu goshi qorumiliri (chicken roasts and stirfrys) from Xinjiang people’s press.

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Ingredients for today’s simple chicken stew, clockwise from left: 10″ onion nan, salt, fowl (I actually used a lean Asian fowl for this), white pepper, star anise, cassia bark, ginger, chile peppers, leek, and cilantro. Not pictured: soy sauce

1. Chop up the chicken, bones, skin and all. Trim skin and fat if you need to. Coarsely chop ginger, chiles, and leek.

2. Start frying the chicken pieces in a pot, pan, or wok. Toss in leek, ginger, chile, star anise, and cassia bark. Season with salt, soy sauce, white pepper.

3. Add water to cover. Boil until chicken is cooked and tender. If you use a tougher bird like the one above, you’ll need to boil for a lot longer.

4. Chop about 1/2 a cup of cilantro to include at the end of cooking.

5. Cut nan into triangle pieces and ladle stew over the top.IMG_0050 2

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Xi’an’s famous foods in the instant noodle section

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One example of new instant cold “skin” noodles from Shaanxi Province 陕西凉皮. There is a Northwestern dialect expression under the chef: “liao di hen” 嘹滴很 (“very delicious”)

In 2014 I wrote a post on the growing popularity of “Xi’an” and “Northwestern Chinese” foods in Philadelphia and beyond. Since then we’ve seen even more restaurants open as Philly’s Xi’an Sizzling Woks added another location in University City and Chinatown gained yet another “Lanzhou style” pulled noodle restaurant (right under the arch). In New York, Xi’an Famous Foods has more than 10 locations in the city and the boroughs, and had a short-lived spinoff restaurant/bar Biang! Popular northwestern street food items are also slowly creeping onto restaurant menus that cater largely to Chinese eaters: liangpi 凉皮 (cold “skin” noodles), and “Chinese hamburger” 肉夹馍 are a few examples of things you might find–the new Danlu in University City is featuring the latter as “Xi’an sandwiches”.

These food trends are not happening on the East Coast alone. Our local developments are similar to food trends happening on the mainland, with Shaanxi-style restaurants popping up all over. This can be further evidenced by the increasing number of “northwestern”-themed instant food products at markets catering to Philadelphia’s residents from mainland China. Over the past year and a half, I’ve noticed quite a few new offerings in the instant noodle aisles and in the refrigerated section at Chinatown markets, Spring Garden Supermarket, and at Hung Vuong (which since last year is owned by Heng Fa) on Washington Ave.

Below I’ll highlight some of the several instant/prepared food items I’ve picked up over the past year or so with some commentary…


Liangpi 凉皮

Liangpi 凉皮 is a style of cold noodle and gluten dish popular in Central China. It is dressed with spiced oil and vinegar, and is commonly consumed as a refreshing street food. As simple of a food as it seems to be, the process of making this from scratch actually takes a few days. Last year I found a great 4-part video tutorial on this process from the very talented Xiao Gaojie (小高姐的 Magic Ingredients)–click here to link to that YouTube video series, starting with the spiced chile oil. Steps include mixing a wheat flour and water dough, rinsing the starch away from the gluten and then boiling down that starchy water to make the “skin” noodles and finally recombining the “skin” and sliced gluten into a cold noodle dish with a savory sauce.

When they are freshly made, Liangpi have a crisp and slightly gummy texture. Gluten pieces (I used to think these were pieces of diced white bread!) among the noodles nicely soak up the savory dressing and provide an interesting contrast to the gummy noodle. The instant noodle versions pictured above are not quite as nice; they have a rubberier texture. That said, they are still pleasant enough to enjoy as a side to a meal. If you decide to try these, I’d suggest steaming the noodles as opposed to microwaving them–they’ll be a little softer and less rubbery.

This is how one such example looked out of the packaging–the Qinsheng brand liangpi with the happy chef, image at the top of this post:

As you may know, Shaanxi, Gansu, and Ningxia Provinces are home to very large indigenous Muslim peoples. Many restaurants throughout China that specialize in these noodle dishes are run by Muslims themselves, and are halal (in Chinese qingzhen 清真). It is rare to see these influences in the US, but the Qinsheng brand advertises this on their products:

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I’ve also been seeing gluten more available in different forms. The brand Havista (I previously posted on their line of tofu skin threads) can be found in the refrigerated section–this gluten can be eaten cold or warmed, perfect for a quick inclusion to a dish:

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Liangfen 凉粉 (bean starch jelly noodles)

Liangfen is another item that is now being marketed as a “Shaanxi” notable food. I wrote on this unique cold noodle dish in 2014–be sure to check that out if you are interested in making these from scratch. As I hinted in that post, liangfen have become pretty widely available through the explosion of “authentic” Sichuan restaurants in the US. Liangfen is popular from Sichuan up through the northwest corridor through to Xinjiang, where it is known as langpung.

Here are two kinds of “Shaanxi” liangfen found recently from Spring Garden Supermarket, Qinzong brand, spicy and mild.


Lanzhou lamian 兰州拉面 (Lanzhou-style pulled noodles)

This is another topic that I’ve written about at length in the past, largely focusing on making this noodle at home and enjoying this at Philadelphia restaurants. I’ve noticed a steady shift over recent years seeing both dry and fresh “Lanzhou” pulled noodles at markets. I’m skeptical of what makes these different from other wheat noodles available at the market–the thing that makes Lanzhou noodles special is the way they are pulled by hand. In any case I had to get a pack and see. Nothing to write home about, but okay for a quick preparation. Again, Havista brand:

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Qishan saozi mian 岐山臊子面 (Qishan-style minced meat noodles)

West of Xi’an in Shaanxi Province is a county famous for noodle dishes–all the way back to ancient times. This is Qishan 岐山a place already referenced above in the images of liangpi noodles. Saozi mian 臊子面 is a specialty, understood as “minced meat” noodles, and the brand “Dear Xidada” (DEAR XIDADA 旗下实力品牌) is producing this and a few other notable specialty noodles of the NW region. Again, Xiao Gaojie’s Magic Ingredients has a great video tutorial on making these noodles from scratch.

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Biangbiang mian

Finally, that brand Dear Xidada is also making a version of instant Biangbiang mian (sometimes called “belt noodles”). This is the same Biang that the NYC short-lived Xi’an Famous Foods spinoff was named after. Tim Chin and Cook’s Science has a nice video from last year on making these at home–check it out.

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Delicious greens: yuchoy

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Long leaf vegetables are a key component of most meals at our house, and yuchoy is a vegetable that comes fresh to Philadelphia markets regularly. That is to say it is usually in our fridge. It keeps pretty well for 3-5 days, so we can eat a bag over two or three meals, alternating with other vegetables.

Yuchoy 油菜 (or youcai in Mandarin) literally means “oil vegetable”. This is because it is closely related to the plant that produces rapeseed oil (aka canola oil). The vegetable is delicious chopped into bite size segments and stir fried with oil, garlic, and soy sauce. It is also nice in savory soups (like the Northern Thai stew “boiled greens” which I wrote on a few years ago.

I ate this vegetable often while living in Guangzhou in the 90s–it is very common there, so it is perhaps fitting that is frequently referred to by its Cantonese name in Philadelphia. The version of this vegetable commonly found in markets across Thailand–with longer stems and bright yellow flowers–is called simply gwangdoong vegetable, or ผักกวางตุ้ง (i.e. Guangdong Province). That variation might be referred to here by the Cantonese name “heart” of yuchoy, or yuchoy sum 油菜心.

My favorite way to prepare this vegetable is to simply blanch it for a minute or so and top it off with a quick mixture of oil, soy sauce, oyster sauce, sugar, and water heated in a pan. From start to finish, this dish can be done in five minutes or less. Needless to say, we eat this a few times a week because it is so fast and easy.


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One tool I would recommend is a wide shallow pot. My pot of choice is one that is meant for Korean hotpot–it is made from lightweight material that helps water quickly come to boil.  I find myself using this pot several times each week, whether to blanch whole vegetables, or to boil long dried noodles. Its width makes it possible to quickly blanch or boil things things that are long or awkwardly shaped.

Recipe: Blanched yuchoy 清煮油菜

This recipe is so easy I’m almost embarrassed to post it here. Still, I realize that this simple preparation maybe hasn’t occurred to some readers–hopefully those people will be inspired to try it:

1. Bring water to boil in your pot, pan, or wok. Toss in a spoon of salt.

 

 

2. Wash vegetables. Give them a good rinse. If the sliced part of the stem is discolored or wilted, feel free to trim it a little bit. Don’t worry about draining them well–they’re about to go back into water. If you didn’t do a good job cleaning them, it likely won’t make much difference–the boil is like a second cleaning! I used a good handful of yuchoy, enough for 2 people as an accompaniment.

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3. Put vegetables into the boiling water and use chopsticks or another utensil to ensure they get submerged. Boil covered or uncovered for 1-2 minutes. Stems will start looking bright green.

 

4. Turn off the heat. Take the yuchoy out of the water. I like to take them out one by one and stack them on a plate. Notice how I do that, with the plate tilted to drain water off back to the pot.

 

5. This is also optional, but I like to chop the vegetable on the plate into bite-size segments.

 

6. This part is also optional and highly customizable… you can serve the vegetable as is, or with some sort of a seasoned topping. I like a combination of oil, oyster sauce, soy sauce, chopped garlic, and sugar (with a little water to keep it from burning). You can premix those things or just add them one by one to the pan. I used one clove of garlic, and 1/2 tsp sugar, and about 1 tsp each oil, oyster sauce, soy sauce, and water.

 

7. Drizzle optional topping over vegetableIMG_7585

8. Enjoy with rice and some other accompaniment. Today this is breakfast, and I enjoyed the yuchoy with a rice and a fried egg:

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Young tamarind leaves and an Isaan-inspired sour chicken soup

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Tonight’s tasty soup: chicken with young tamarind leaves

Green tamarind and tamarind leaves are back at my go-to Cambodian market, providing an opportunity to explore cooking with these rare Southeast Asian sour treats. Dried tamarind fruit is of course a standard souring agent for cuisines ranging from Persia all the way to Southeast Asia (and even to Central America). I previously posted on the joys of souring soups and salads with that food item in Cambodian cooking and Thai cooking. That sticky and sweet/sour fruit or compressed blocks of it are pretty easy to come by in Philadelphia, especially at markets that cater to South and Southeast Asian tastes. Tamarind leaves, however, are a lot less common in Philly markets. But today I found the leaves, together with the raw green tamarind fruit.

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A recent find of green tamarind fruit and tamarind leaves

Green tamarind is perhaps most commonly eaten in Thailand primarily two ways: skin scraped and pounded with aromatics and raw pork or shrimp and peppers in a mortar and pestle, and then pan-fried into a meaty and intensely flavored dip for raw vegetables–see here for an image search of that dish; the other way is to eat it simply as is, a crispy sour green fruit dipped in a complement of a funky nam phrik spice paste (usually flavored with aromatics and fermented fish, crayfish, or shrimp paste)–see here for for a video example of that preparation. In coming days I hope to experiment with dips, but today I am making a tom yam-style soup, relying heavily on the sour tamarind leaves for the sour note.

The soup I am emulating is a popular one around Thailand, especially in Isaan. Names for this dish range from simply “boiled chicken with young tamarind leaves” ต้มไก่บ้านใบมะขามอ่อน to “tom yam chicken with tamarind leaves” ต้มยำไก่ใบมะขามอ่อน.

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Aromatic ingredients for today’s soup (beside the tamarind leaves), clockwise from tomatoes: Thai chiles, shallots, magrut leaves, lemongrass, galangal, lime

If you are familiar with tom yam-style soups, this cooking process is pretty similar. Most recipes found for this dish tend to use the same essential “kreung gaeng” เครื่องแกง soup components of lemongrass, galangal, and chile. I also used tomato, bashed shallots, and makrut leaves. Amounts of young tamarind leaves can range from 1/2 cup per pound of chicken to 2 cups of leaves for the same amount. I used about a cup of leaves, and I also added a little lime at the end too.

I should also say that the chicken I used was a typical US chicken thigh. Most commonly in Thailand, this dish is prepared with a bone-in chopped up “domestic” chicken (i.e. a type of fowl more closely related to pheasant and are the type strutting around the village–gai baan ไก่บ้าน). These birds are full of flavor, but they are a lot less meaty. Comparable birds can also be found in certain Philly Chinese markets (Hong Kong Supermarket on Adams, for example). The bodies are longer, and a little more gangly. I didn’t have access to one of those today though, so I’m going with some chicken I had in the freezer.

The most time-consuming part of this cooking event was separating young, tender leaves from the pile of tamarind leaves that I bought. Older leaves would also be fine in the soup, but they would be hard to chew and swallow. I chose to sort through the leaves and separate the young and tender sections for soup today. See images below for what to look for. Basically, if the stem feels woody or twiggy, or if it is hard to pull the stems apart, it will be too hard to chew (although those leaves will also impart a pleasant sourness to the soup).


Recipe: Boiled chicken with young tamarind leaves – ต้มไก่ใบมะขามอ่อน

This soup is very simple, and is very similar to other standard tom yam preparation. As with tom yam, fresh aromatics are key! This takes about 30-40 minutes if you use chicken like I did. My recipe is a compilation from examples found in my cookbooks (Saep Isaan แซบอีสาน by Ratri Gaewsaengtaam ราตรี แก้วแสงธรรม, 2012, and Ahaan Isaan อาหารอีสาน by Ajaan Wut Jalaagun อาจารย์วุฒิ จาลากุล, 2015) and Thai language videos from webchef Krua Pitpilai and ThaiFoodTravel.tv. Straw mushrooms are also commonly used in this dish (if you used the canned ones, rinse them of brine).

Ingredients:

  • IMG_7295coarsely chopped chicken, 1.5 lbs
  • prepared young tamarind leaves, 1 cup (or more)
  • galangal root, 6-7 coarse slices
  • 2 lemongrass bottoms 2″, coarsely sliced
  • 3-5Thai chiles, whacked
  • 3 shallots, peeled and whacked
  • 5 magrut leaves
  • 3 Tbsp fish sauce (or to taste)
  • 5-6 small tomatoes, halved
  • water to cover, 5 cups+
  • salt (or “chicken powder”) to taste
  • lime juice or prepared tamarind sauce to taste (optional)

Simple steps:

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    Note: these coarsely chopped and “whacked” items impart great flavor to the soup, but are not easy to eat. Eat around them. Or, if you must, fish them out before finally putting in the tamarind leaves at the end

    Boil about 5 cups water. Add in galangal, lemongrass, chiles, shallots, and magrut leaves, tomatoes, and a good squirt of fish sauce

  2. After those items return to boil, add chicken. After the chicken returns to boil, turn heat down to medium low. Skim any discolored foam off the top of the soup as the chicken simmers away.
  3. When chicken is cooked through, taste for salt. Add fish sauce and or salt to adjust. It should be pretty full flavored.
  4. Finish by dumping tamarind leaves in. Turn off the heat and give it a good stir. Taste for sourness. Add lime, or more tamarind leaves to adjust. Prepared tamarind sauce is also a delicious sour addition to the soup. If you plan to add this, you can add it while the soup is still on the boil.

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Lanzhou beef noodles, Lanzhou-style

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Pulling breakfast noodles at Beijing’s Oxen Street (niujie 牛街), 2011

Three years ago I published my first post on this blog, focusing on a topic that has fascinated me for more than twenty years–Lanzhou hand pulled noodles and “secret” ingredients. Over the past three years that post has been far and away the most-viewed post, with quite a few new views every day. To be sure, Lanzhou-style pulled (aka beef noodles) lanzhou lamian 兰州拉面 lanzhou niurou mian 兰州牛肉面 continue to captivate newbies and drive obsessive DIY cooks crazy.

That first post was a very basic entry into the world of Lanzhou-style pulled noodles and issues with noodle pulling that home cooks would certainly encounter. Today I’d like to take you a little further down that rabbit hole and explore what makes Lanzhou noodles unique–and how Lanzhou noodle shops in Philadelphia compare. I’ll close with reflections on my own experiences in noodle pulling (which I’ll confess, is not quite perfected), and suggestions on ways to accomplish decent results with typical US all-purpose flour.

New video sources and a newly published book

Quite a lot of new videos have been uploaded to YouTube on the topic of “Lanzhou noodles” since my first post. Some of them (especially Chinese language videos) are very good–I’ll highlight these below. Other bits of information are gleaned from a book I acquired in Beijing last year: Lanzhou Flavor: the Story of Beef Noodles, by Bing Yan《兰州味道 牛肉面的故事》作者:燕兵 (2016). That author and his work is also featured in a beautifully filmed 2-part Chinese language documentary on the history and tradition of Lanzhou pulled noodles, which can be viewed on YouTube: Part 1, and Part 2.

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A personal favorite: Philly’s Nanzhou Hand Drawn Noodle House

Before I talk about how our Philly “Lanzhou” pulled noodle shops are quite different to noodle preparations in Lanzhou, I’ll first say that I am a huge fan of Philly’s offerings. Currently we have four pretty decent restaurants… for a list of those shops with notes and links to more information, see the bottom of this post.

At our local noodle shops each bowl is expertly pulled to order, with noodles thick or thin, topped off with dark and deeply flavorful soup, interesting cuts of meat (usually beef, pork, and lamb), nice chewy blanched Shanghai choy cabbage, and chopped aromatic herbs of cilantro and green onion. Tableside, customers can add their own optional flavors of chile oil, vinegar, and sometimes even suancai pickled mustard greens according to their tastes. Part of the reason I like our Philly options so much is that these are very similar to noodles I used to enjoy in Guangzhou (Canton) hole-in-the-wall joints as a student in the 90s–a perfect lunch. That said, those presentations of “Lanzhou beef noodles” are quite different to how it they are commonly seen in China’s northwest, and in Lanzhou itself.

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My attempt at replicating a Lanzhou food memory

In Lanzhou, noodles are king. Wheat products are the base for every major food staple of the region, but while pan-fried and oven-baked breads and pies are enjoyed as snacks and specialty treats, noodles are meals, any time of day.

Multicultural influences perceived in the “ideal bowl”

In his book, Bing Yan posits that the perfect bowl of Lanzhou noodles is a culmination of cultural mixing between three groups: Tibetan cultural zones to the south produce the best meat for slow cooking to top this dish: yak, not beef! (but in Chinese yak is thought of as a kind of beef). That, combined with Han spices and Hui noodle pulling techniques result in the ideal bowl. I’m a little skeptical that cooking techniques took on ethnic dimensions in this way a hundred years ago,  but

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The “beef lamian” commemorative statue in central Lanzhou (ca 2010)

 many in China do associate Hui (Chinese Muslim) culture with wheaten foods of the northwest, including the tradition of noodle pulling. Lanzhou is situated at the center of the Hui heartland, and that city has long been a meeting point for Turkic, Mongol, Han, and Tibetan culture. The person widely credited with standardizing the dish of “Lanzhou beef noodles” was a Chinese Muslim noodle seller in the early 1900s named Ma Baozi 马保子. He started as a street vendor selling “hotpot noodles” (热锅子面) and over time became a local hero in food. His combination of flavor lives on with the standard “five colors” that are deemed necessary for proper Lanzhou noodles today (see below).

Outside of Lanzhou, “beef noodles”, or “Lanzhou lamian” restaurants often have green awnings signifying that they are halal. Noodles at these places would only be using beef/yak/mutton for their soups and toppings. That connection to Hui or Muslim Chinese culture is not present with Philadelphia’s “Lanzhou” restaurants, where pork is a common add-on possibility.

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Five colors of Lanzhou beef noodles

In Lanzhou, an ideal bowl of noodles is appreciated through five colors: Clear 清 refers to the finest beef bone broth being clear and not cloudy (this also means that soy sauce and sugar are not in the soup!). Yellow 黄 refers to the off-white or pale yellow color of the noodles after they take on alkaline seasoning, i.e. from penghui solution. White 白 refers to the obligatory pairing of boiled daikon slices to accompany beef. Green 绿 refers to chopped aromatics of cilantro and green onion and/or other vegetables as toppings. Finally Red refers to the chile oil that is dolloped onto the top of the soup broth. This chile oil is loaded with floating sesame seeds as well, and is sometimes spiced with other aromatic seasonings. All of these toppings come direct from the kitchen. Often the only table condiment that is optional is black vinegar, which is a popular addition at the table.

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A recent attempt at a clear broth with the right colors involved at home. With beef tendon.

Meat choices and soup

Yak of the Tibet-Qinghai plateau (adjacent to southern Gansu) is supposed to be the superior “beef” for inclusion in this dish. Beyond the animal, bones are a key part of

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Common aromatic spices used in Lanzhou soup recipes

building the broth, as is beef liver. That said, most mainstream shops use tough cuts like tendon, which slice or cube nicely after 3-4 hours of simmering.

Meat and bones are simmered together with a variety of traditional Chinese spices like fennel seed, star anise, white pepper, cassia bark, Sichuan peppercorn (huajiao), bay leaves, and caoguo pods for 3-4 hours. Fresh ginger is also generally included, as are other dried medicinal roots. Every shop has its own recipe.


Further explorations into the problems of pulling high-protein (and high-gluten) dough

Penghui 蓬灰 is an elusive ingredient for us in the U.S. Perhaps because it is difficult to obtain in the U.S. and even around China, it is largely thought of as the secret ingredient in making Lanzhou-style noodles. Penghui is the favored alkali of noodle makers in Lanzhou, and it influences noodles in at least three ways: the alkali turns the noodles to a pale yellow, it strengthens the noodle texture (especially for low-gluten doughs) and enables noodles to be pulled extremely thin. If too much is used, a sulfuric flavor can be detected in the noodle.

Penghui originally comes from a plant called jianpengcao 碱蓬草 (Suaeda glauca) that grows in the highlands of Alashan (north of Lower Gansu, in Ningxia and Inner Mongolia). After this plant has been charred in a pit for several hours it is compressed into a dark crystal block. That is later processed with water to make a solution that noodle pullers use on mixed dough. Most people use the “quick dissolving” version (速溶蓬灰). That can be found at shops in Gansu Province (and even on TaoBao). You can see images of this plant, the crystal block, and the solution made from it in this very informative video broadcast from the CCTV Military Science Channel.

Can you pull noodles without penghui? Yes, you can. Penghui (or any alkali) is not required for noodle pulling–though it helps provide a nice texture while giving noodles elasticity. Alkali like Penghui actually help toughen dough, and should be applied after the dough has been properly processed to a pullable state.

“You need to first break the dough’s strength before adding strength back in”

Problems with pulling tough noodle dough have more to do with flour than any “secret ingredients”. As I stated in my last blog post on this subject, typical U.S. all-purpose flour is much higher in protein (and therefore gluten) than typical NW Chinese flours. This makes them much harder to pull than low gluten flours. Interestingly, Chinese noodle chefs talk about higher protein flours as superior. That said, noodle shops in China have machines that break the dough down to the right consistency to make for pliable dough before adding penghui. See this process in action again in that 2015 video from CCTV Military Science Channel.

Now, moving across the ocean to North America… check out the following short video from Ryan Ding with the noodle chef Brock Li (of Vancouver’s Legendary Noodle). He implies that the flour in North America is of higher quality, and “machine strength” is required to break it down before adding salt and alkali to add strength back later (see video from 1:45-2:45):

In his book, Bing Yan also discusses the types of wheat used in Lanzhou tradition. He points out the best flour of all is the “monk’s head” style (i.e. bald), a local variety of wheat which is produced in small yields only (implying that most wheat flour used for lamian in the NW is not quite as good). In Yan’s book, and in video interviews with chefs (like above), people link “quality” with higher protein content in the flour, and they also say more protein can mean less penghui is required to provide a nice mouthfeel.

With that in mind, I review three methods for pulling noodles at home:

(1.) Pulling without alkaline additives. Believe it or not, it is possible to pull noodles without alkaline additives at all. Uyghurs in Xinjiang and home cooks around China employ this technique with a coil-resting method. In this technique, the gluten in the flour is encouraged, and not ripped and torn like it is in Lanzhou pulling traditions. That means to say, that the pleasant mouthfeel of Xinjiang-style pulled noodles has more to do with maintaining the elastic structure of the gluten in flour. Essentially, a super long noodle is rolled by hand, coiled on a plate and covered with oil, and then thinned again (at least once) before boiling. I previously posted on this type of noodle, and highly recommend trying this method. It is a LOT easier to get started with than the Lanzhou method–and the noodles taste great. This method is also used in other parts of China, and can be witnessed in the following video from La, taken in 2007 in Shaanxi:

(2.) Pulling noodles from a sliced piece of noodle. This method is for a a low-gluten noodle dough (a method employed by many home cooks in Gansu and Shaanxi). This is kind of in between the methods of #1 and #3. After the dough is mixed and rested, it can be rolled flat with a rolling pin and cut into strips. Those strips, one by one, can be pulled long and thrown into boiling water. You can see this performed in the home visit documented in Corine Tiah’s video project:

(3.) Pulling noodles from one block of dough. This is the method witnessed at restaurants all over China, and even at a few in North America. It is so impressively fast. The requirements here are a dough that has been abused to the point were gluten has been broken down and the dough is almost like taffy. That is easier to do with a low-gluten flour, and even then in my experience this happens only after about 40-50 minutes of aggressive twisting and tearing (by hand). I’ve tried a mix of flours and settled on the ones posted and explained at Mark Rymarz’s site. I will say that while it was IMG_7148very rewarding and enjoyable to be able to pull noodles like they do at restaurants in China, the flavor and mouth feel of my experiments have not been great. I have found better results with the method #1 above, and I tend to stick to that if I want to be sure of a good result.

That said, I am still “in training” for the Lanzhou-style pull, and my next experiments will include getting the dough to that taffy consistency before testing alkali waters (as the chef above says, “you have to break the strength before adding it back.” One such alkali water that I expect to experiment with (available from Chinatown markets) is pictured to the left, FYI.


Go out and try a bowl of hand-pulled noodles in Philadelphia!

  1. Nanzhou Hand Drawn Noodle House 美味兰州手拉面 (1022 Race St.) This is a great bowl of noodles. The taste is adapted for broader Chinese clientele, but the stock and noodles are delicious. You can see the guys in the kitchen pulling noodles, but you have to go up to the kitchen counter to see.
  2. Spice C Hand Drawn Noodles 林記蘭州手拉麵 (131 N. 10th St.) also does a delicious bowl of noodles. One thing I really appreciate here is the boxes of pickled mustard greens on each table along with other condiments. You can add as much as you like! This isn’t necessarily a Lanzhou tradition, but it is yummy. Again, you can see them pulling through a window to the kitchen. This place experiments with “spicy Sichuan” soups for its noodles.
  3. Ochatto (3608 Chestnut St.–previously named Chattime, see my post on here) This University City spot is perfectly situated for Penn/Drexel student lamian cravings. It is a great bowl of noodles, and is the only place in Philly where the noodle chef comes out in public to pull noodles to order, right next to the sushi chefs.
  4. Authentic LanZhou Hand-Pulled Noodles (aka Henan little kitchen) 蘭州拉麵 (河南小吃)(935 Arch St.—just under Chinatown Arch). This restaurant with two signs with different names on opened new last year. Their specialties seem to be more mutton hui mian than pulled noodles. I confess I haven’t yet tried their pulled noodles, partly because there are so many other unusual things on their menu. Their liang pi, or “凉皮” cool skin noodles, popular in Northwest China, are delicious.

 

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