East is West (Food, glorious food)

你好/ Ní hǎo / Nín hǎo / Hello / How do / S’mae / Namaste

 

Our favourite home comfort dishes can be still be found in Chinese restaurants. Just a little…different.

 

Every now and then I fancy a taste of back home. China has a wealth of cuisine. Local, regional and national dishes, sit hand in hand. Steamed, fried and Chinese-style stewing is common throughout the provinces, autonomous regions, municipalities and special administrative regions. Gastronomy is so diverse in China, yet every now and then, I long for a Manchester Tart and a glass of warm Vimto. Neither is readily available or even for that matter, imported.

 

There are plenty of well-stocked western restaurants in Dongguan – and every other city, for that matter, in almost every district. Some like One For The Road cater proper Fish and Chips, Ziggy’s DG does a mean steak burger, or Irene’s Bar throws a wonderful barbecue. For variety, there are options all over the city and suburbs. For some, like myself, sometimes these places involve a trek or a wander out of the way. Or, we’re not always as free to stumble upon these alternatives. What do we do when rice and noodles have little appeal?

 

Pasty Or Patty Anyone?

In the U.K., there is a bakery-chain called Greggs. It has spread from its north-eastern stronghold of Newcastle faster than a dropped sausage and bean melt. There are no such joys here. Or so it seemed. Until I discovered the Kǎobaozi (烤包子), also known as the Uyghur Samsa. This often contains mutton, beef or poultry (and I hear Bactrian camels in some regions). Carrots, onions, tomatoes, peppers and other shrubbery can be packed in too. Sometimes even fruit finds its way inside.

 

For an alternative to the delectable Cornish-recipe pasties found in many western joints (e.g. Alan’s World in Dongguan) delightful bakery products, these Uyghur Samsa know how to deliver. They fit perfectly between the chopsticks and fill a hole. Traditionally, this baked bun concept is cooked in a brick oven. For me, it has never failed to be appetising. A great way to feel satisfyingly full after a hard day’s work.

 

Fancy Sausage And Chips?

Pushing aside innuendo, I hate sweet, tasteless fatty sausages. Give me a meaty number [quit it!] with great flavour. Battered sausages are a common chip shop favourite in Blighty (another way to say Britain). Harbin Red Sausage 哈尔滨红肠 (Harbin hóngcháng) is one of a number of sausages around the Middle Kingdom that is worth chomping on. It is less sweet and much more smoked like Germanic and Russian sausages. It arrived from Lithuanians working at a Russian factory in Harbin and has yet to leave the city.

 

Price per sausage is reasonable with some restaurants selling cold varieties sliced for more. It costs much less for a hot sausage on a stick. If only a bread roll was handy. I also recommend you look up Yizhou blood sausage (宜州血肠) for around 2RMB a try. Think English Black Pudding…

 

Now for the chips, I recommend Dongbei’s Suānlà Tǔdòu Sī (酸辣土豆丝). They are traditional to Northern China. Spuds are versatile, whether mashed, boiled or roasted, but everyone loves the fried chipped variety (in American English, they say French fries, oddly christened by this name in Belgium). This dish translates as ‘sour hot earth bean thread’ dish. Tǔ (earth) dòu (bean) is Chinese for spud. I always thought it was a phonetic sounding version of potato, how wrong was I!?

 

Sometimes the potato dish can be found sporting other names, clad in spring onions,shredded carrots or other extra peppery greeneries. Most are there to flavour the dish and not be eaten. Usually the chillies are dry and extra hard to digest.

 

Improvised Fish and Chips?

Sometimes, just sometimes, the Sōngshǔyú [松鼠鱼] or Squirrel Fish delivers. It lacks the tiny little bones that niggle and hurt the throat. Of the six or seven times, I had eaten this, I experienced little to no bones. As I sat with friends, looking to gnaw on this dish in one restaurant, I was pre-warned, “It will contain many, many small bones.” I backed down. My appetite was on the brim of chockfull. The next night, I set out again for a different restaurant. Lady luck was on my side.

 

The fish looks attractive. It has a texture of appealing nature, with an endearing smell. Often garnished with lime or vegetables, and always accompanied by sweet and sour sauce. Tartare sauce may be absent, but don’t be deterred. The scored blocks of flesh hang out like the branches of a Christmas tree. It is surprisingly easy to eat. It is not just golden brown, but crispy and crunchy. This is a go to fish for introducing visiting friends who seldom give fish a second glance. They always ask for a second helping.

 

This delightful dish may not be Atlantic cod, but the deep-fried strands of white flesh pulled away, encased in a sweet and sour batter. Alongside stacks of shredded potatoes, it made for an enchantingly appealing alternative to fish and chips. I must confess, I have since longed for fish and chips… ending up at Murray’s Irish Pub in Dongguan, again. Always, again. Atlantic Cod takes some beating. I tried. It can punch back. Big buggers! Between the genuine article though, Squirrel Fish certainly delivers for taste and value.

 

Just like Quesadillas?

Firstly, take one bag of grated cheese with you. It is necessary to convert this food from a streamlined automobile to a sleek open-top sports car. Xianbing (馅饼) resemble English muffins (an unsweetened bread). Is it a stuffed pancake? Is it a pie? Is it an encased sandwich? Either way, when roasting hot and spliced open, cheese can be inserted. Some even resemble pasties in shape and size.

 

The crispy case opens to reveal a luscious savoury filling. I have had a few of these in my time. My figure is testament to that statement. The fillings have covered all spectrums of meat fillings, pork, lamb, beef and even one that was entirely onion and mushroom-filled. That’s the last time I eat with vegetarians… Expect to find it on street food stalls, in Dongbei restaurants and in freezer sections of supermarkets.

The Emperor Of Burgers?

I spent a year in China before I discovered Ròujīamó (肉夹馍). Then I immediately read up on them. It could easily be said this dish is the grandfather of sandwiches and modern hamburgers. Without this conception, there would be no McDonald’s or Burger King. Many a food review in the local press would instead need to focus on salad. It’d be a far sadder world indeed. Steak prices could have been far different.

 

Instead, the exotic-sounding Ròujīamó saved the day. It appears in street food locations from Guang Ming Market to places all over the country, and beyond. Some contain spices, roots, clove essences, varieties of meat, potato shredding, and others are all about the meat. If you have the odd slice of cheese in your refrigerator, order one of these sandwiches hot and slap it on. Think of it as an instant and modern form of hedonism. You will thank me later for this suggestion.

 

Chicken Ròujīamó is also great with sweet chilli sauce. For me, it gives it a kind of bread-based fajita feel. Shaanxi’s flatbread, the mó, dates back to Qin Dynasty (221 BC – 206 BC) but the meat was around in the Zhou Dynasty (1045 BC to 256BC). It makes you wonder how they held the meat together. Surely it was not sat in a salad?! Old texts do mention gravy as a side course. I approve.

Where To Try: (Jianggujia) and  秦关面道(Qinguan miandao – a national chain)

 

Late Night Kebab?

Kebabs in the U.K. are often the staple food of those who have drank one too many. The rich oils and meats soak up the booze and fill in fat reserves, albeit too well. Over here in China, Xinjiang and Uygur Kebabs are the Bing to Google. Dipped in salts, peppers, spices, lathered in yoghurt or stuck sweltering with heat on a stick, they are scrumptious. They are not greasy and have no unpleasant smell – and are highly nutritious compared with many other meats. The mutton is often slaughtered that same day. It is skewered and roasted over hot charcoals or firewood. It is cheap too – a skewer of tender chunks is often as little as 3RMB. Xinjiang mutton is often free-range and far healthier than farmed sheep variants. Xinjiang people are often skilled experts at cooking this meat. Serve with Nang – a crispy yellow wheat and cornflour bread.

 

Room For Dessert?

I love a good dessert. Hand me a Manchester Tart and watch it vanish in seconds. Not an ounce of coconut topping will remain or the inkling that a cherry was on top. Bakewell Tart? Devoured in the blink of an eye. Treacle toffee pudding? A vanishing act. Cheesecake? Cheese? Cake? Cheesecake? Oh, go on, it will dematerialise. Voomph! Rhubarb crumble? Ooh, you are naughty…

 

As good as the light Guangdong Coconut Bar or Almond Jelly (A.K.A. Annin Tofu 杏仁豆腐xìngréndòufǔ) is, it doesn’t quite fill my belly. However, a few Chinese desserts have won me over. They are practically western in style. Uyghur region restaurants have a meanBaklava style dessert full of dates, raisins, walnuts, and syrups. It is nutty goodness. Then Churro-like doughnuts can be found in the Yóutiáo (油条). Whilst it means oil strip, it is a fluffy yet crispy snack for dessert. In Guangdong, the Canton-speakers call it yàuhjagwái (油炸鬼, gwái is ghost or devil!). There are stumped variations of the dish, Tánggāo (糖糕) is much shorter and is far sweeter. But for me, the daddy of all desserts in Dongguan, is a go to staple food for comfort. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the humble Egg Custard Tart (蛋挞dàn tǎ). Unlike the English egg custard, set at room to chilled temperatures, the Cantonese brother from another mother (born around the 1920s in Guangzhou) is set in an oven. Since then Hong Kong, Macau and many more lands have taken the offspring away. It can be found in Dim Sum restaurants – and even conventional fast food joints. The love child of east meets west is globally known.

 

Remember, it isn’t decadence to jazz up and add fusion to local dishes. This way home comforts can embrace more conventional forms of grub. There was once a period of time before pork became pulled and ice cream sorbet had been dreamt of. Innovation in food, especially in China, is coming all the time. Maybe your creation will bless a menu one day. Until then, why not invest some time and effort into sampling local dishes and trying to add a flicker of your palate into the recipe…

再见/ Zài jiàn / Bài bài / Ta’ra / Goodbye / Hwyl Fawr / Dhanyabaad / Alavidā


Originally published by Dongguan’s now defunct HubHao magazine. Permission granted. Not for profit.

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