Saturday, April 11, 2009

The dumplings and noodles in my neighborhood

From 1994 to 1996 I lived in the city of Xiamen, Fujian province, ostensibly to learn Chinese, but also to figure out what I was going to do with my life. The Chinese language classes were interesting, although 15 years later I find myself struggling to remember so much of what I never used. What has stayed with me was a love for real chinese food.

There is a great deal of regional differences in Chinese food, and what has spread around the world have been the hordes of Cantonese and Sichuan cooks (and very few chefs) dominating a global landscape of fried rice, sweet and sour pork, and something called General Tso's Chicken. Who GT was, no one knows, especially no Chinese I've ever spoken to. In N. America, there are too many mediocre chinese restaurants and take out counters that destroy any sense of what good chinese food is; in S.East Asia, we are so much luckier, but even in a country like the Philippines with our cultural and demographically strong presence, there are as many bad chinese restaurants as there are traffic jams in a day. And since most of our ancestors came from one province in China, Fujian, we don't have a good variety of chinese cuisine. Not too many good hunanese or sichuan restaurants to fan the flames of the chilli heads, neither do we have the hot pots from the north, or a flurry of hand pulled noodle shops. And let's not forget that there's only a couple of places in Ongpin that serve decent dumplings (jiao zi).

Being back in China for the time being, I am determined to try as many dumpling and noodle shops around. For one, they're cheap. I can eat a plate of 10 dumplings for as little as 4 renmimbi, sometimes 6 renmimbi (appr P28 to P43). A bowl of noodles costs about the same. And a plate or a bowl is hearty, it will keep you going for a few hours, no need to add more stuff down your maw.

In the two weeks I've been based in Wenzhou, I've scouted the lanes for what could be good places to try a plate or a bowl of my favorite comfort foods. I can't say that I've discovered the best, but my forays around my neighborhood have been productive to say the least. I hope to get in the good graces of some of the places I've been to so I can ask the owners to let me take a photo of them doing their magic. The owner of the Lan Zhou noodle shop I was in recently worked the hand pulled noodles, pulling the dough into magically thin threads in less than a couple of minutes, then tossed it into the boiling broth. I've found that Wenzhou dumpling soups come with a few dried shrimp and a hearty helping of seaweed in the broth.

A couple of days ago I stumbled upon a northeast dumpling place, Dong Bei is also the name of the dumpling place in Ongpin, but these dumplings were a different animal, they were stuffed, full of vegetables and meat, and a plate of 15 pieces overwhelmed me. I was a very happy puppy popping in a dumpling at a time, dipped in a blend of black vinegar, soy sauce and dried chilli peppers.

Today a stroll down a neighborhood lane led me to a place that made a good plate of fried rice with vegetables and egg, but what made my mouth water was the spicy bowl of boiled fish in spicy sauce and topped with chunks of dried chillis. Shui Zhu Yu, I heart thee. But I will have to come back to try it out another time. The apple cheeked waitress was kind and made sure I had hot water to wash down my meal.

The days are getting warmer, the nights are perfect for exploration, and my tummy is happy to be filled with chinese goodies that I love.

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