Annie Bananie en Europe

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Chinese noodles at their places of origin

Last week, the noodle restaurant beside my apartment building in Wuhan finally resumed business! When I saw the open door I knew I had to get myself some hot dry noodles (I had written about it briefly before). What are hot dry noodles? You ask. It is a literal translation of “re gan mian” in Chinese and it’s only the most popular street food in Wuhan. If there is one food item that represents Wuhan, this would be it.

But this post is not only about hot dry noodles. There are in fact hundreds of types of noodle dishes in China, each region with their own specialty. I thought about which types of noodle I’ve tried and compiled a list of ones that I’ve had the privilege of having in their places of origin (with one exception). This means that (1) I’ve certainly had other noodle dishes, just not in the region/city where they originated, and (2) only one dish was selected for each region (Xi’an, for example, has tons of noodle dishes but only one is showcased here).

Re gan mian (hot dry noodles), Wuhan, Hubei Province, April 13, 2020.

You know I have to start with hot dry noodles. What’s an introduction without photos?! The first is the unmixed version that you get from the shop. Usually the noodles are blanched quickly in boiling water and topped with a variety of sauces, among which sesame sauce is the main feature. You then get to add whatever toppings you want and I usually only go for green onions, pickled green beans, and sour radish. The second photo is what you get when you mix everything together – and c’mon, you HAVE to mix everything together to eat hot dry noodles properly. It may look like a mess, and sometimes it is, but oh man it is a bite of heaven in my mouth. After three months of absence, welcome back, hot dry noodles!!

Xiao mian (small noodles), Chongqing, December 31, 2019.

Next up we’ve got what we literally call “small noodles” (xiao mian) in Chinese, and it is a specialty of Chongqing. Small noodles have the same status in Chongqing as do hot dry noodles in Wuhan. They are really just ordinary noodles immersed in a hot soup – both in terms of temperature and spiciness! This one may not LOOK very spicy but pay attention to the red soup base and you’d understand how much hot oil went into it. Delicious but painful for those who can’t stand spicy food!

Dan dan mian (dan dan noodles), Chengdu, Sichuan Province, February 6, 2018.

Another spicy one here, dan dan noodles of Chengdu, Sichuan. The province of Sichuan, of which Chongqing used to be a part, is famous for its flavourful and spicy palate. “Dan dan” doesn’t really translate to anything and the noodles are consisted of minced meat and a lot of hot sauce/oil. This was a small portion as a snack and thankfully it was a small portion because heck it was spicy!

Zha jiang mian (fried sauce noodles), Beijing, December 8, 2016.

We now go north to the capital of China, where zha jiang mian (fried sauce noodles) are quite popular among locals and tourists alike. I never really figured out why they’re called “fried sauce” noodles because I definitely don’t think the sauce (bean paste) is fried. And it may not seem like a lot of sauce from the photo but it is very thick and heavy, so this was actually enough to coat all of the noodles evenly for a great flavour.

Biang biang mian (biang biang noodles) with lamb, Xi’an, Shaanxi Province, February 1, 2019.

The word “biang” doesn’t really exist in China and is a made-up character that you can’t even type on a computer. But that doesn’t stop biang biang noodles from being loved in Xi’an, where noodles are the main staple. The unique thing about biang biang noodles is how long and wide they are. The first photo doesn’t quite do them justice and that’s why I’m posting the second one for comparison – the noodles are almost as wide as a person’s mouth!

Hui mian (braised noodles) with lamb, Zhengzhou, Henan Province, March 25, 2020.

J and I had a chance to stop by Zhengzhou for a connecting train on my way back to Wuhan, so we seized the opportunity to try to famous lamb hui mian (braised noodles). This was at a restaurant that ONLY served lamb hui mian and side dishes, so you can’t even get other types of meat if you wanted to. There’s normal-quality lamb, superior-quality lamb, top-quality lamb…you get the point. We only got the normal-quality lamb but oh man it was tasty! Perfect balance of lean and fatty meat that falls apart in your mouth without chewing. And the lamb soup based was top-notch!

Yun tun mian (wonton noodles), Guangzhou, Guangdong Province, December 21, 2016.

I had to save this for the end because Guangzhou (or Canton) is my hometown and I love Cantonese food. Out of all the noodles on this list, I would think that westerners would be most familiar with this one – wonton noodles. “Yun tun” is the Mandarin pronunciation of “wonton”, which is actually the Cantonese pronunciation (though more like “wun tun”). Whenever I go back to Guangzhou I always make sure I get myself a bowl of wonton noodles at least once. My dad told me that back in the day, the original wontons only contained pork and a little bit of shrimp and are not too huge. Nowadays, most wontons are gigantic and contain mostly shrimp, and my dad complained of the authenticity and texture of modern wontons. I’m often heavily influenced by my dad, this time in particular because he is the true Cantonese local who grew up in the city. So I went and looked for the “original” wonton noodles with the pork-based fillings and luckily they still exist (wonton noodles at Wu Cai Ji restaurant shown in photo). I understand what my dad meant but you know, I don’t mind the shrimp in any case 😛

Gan chao niu he (dry-stir-fried rice noodles with beef), Toronto, Canada, August 8, 2011.

BONUS!!! I said there’d be an exception and this is it – dry-stir-fried rice noodles with beef. “Dry” has to be specified because there is a wet version – with sauce. Anyway, this is the exception of the post for two reasons: (1) It is the second Cantonese specialty and (2) I had this in Toronto, not the place where it originated. Again my dad seemed to be an expert on this dish, telling me that Cantonese chefs are evaluated on their basic kitchen skills based on this dish because it tests so many essential techniques in Cantonese cooking. Indeed it may look simple but the amount of work that goes into making the perfect stir-fried noodles takes years and years of training. And we love it!

So, do I have a favourite or a ranking for these goodies? I admit that I am completely biased and I will say that wonton noodles are my favourite, followed by stir-fried noodles with beef. Unsurprisingly hot dry noodles come third so I guess the conclusion is…the taste of home is the best???

Which noodles would you like to try? 😉

In and out of my comfort zone

While looking through the MiMe (now part of CeMi) members on the web site today I realized that a lot of my former colleagues stayed in the lab after they finished their PhD. This made me think of two things. First of all, would I have been able to stay if I wanted to? I guess that is based on the premise that there was a project I could have applied to and that they would want me to continue working there. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to stay in MiMe or Glasgow – in fact, I had gotten so used to that life that it was perhaps easier to stay if I had the choice. This leads to my second point – stepping out of my comfort zone. I hadn’t thought of this in-depth but I ask myself now: was coming to China stepping OUT OF or INTO my own comfort zone?

There was a transitional phase between my departure from Glasgow and arrival in China, and obviously the deciding factor was J (my fiancé), but China was constantly hovering at the back of my mind as I was struggling to make a decision, even before I met J. Thinking back, I owe myself a round of applause for not looking back on this important decision (though I often complain about the downsides of China), being assertive, and MAKING IT HAPPEN.

It is often tempting to stay in the comfort zone rather than venture into the unknown. The path may be foggy, and it will be difficult to see the way. It takes some courage to accept change. The fog won’t fade away, but you will learn to see with new eyes.

For a long time, I’ve had this confusing identity crisis where I feel like a mixed product between western (Canadian) and oriental (Chinese) culture. Still, I always felt like I could and would identify myself as Chinese, no matter where I am. In that sense, by coming to China, I was actually stepping INTO a zone of comfort – familiar language, good food, and physically looking like everyone else around me. At the same time, China has perhaps been much more of an anti-comfort zone for me, especially in terms of expectations, cultural norms and phenomena, work habits, weather, etc. I had expected the challenges and knew that it would not be easy living here, but I was less ready than I thought I was. It’s not about being capable or incapable of adapting to the new environment and lifestyle, but the struggle to resist assimilation into a person whom even I would despise, because of the influence of my environment – that is ultimately what I fear and want to avoid.

Several points emerge from this. The fact that I say this means that there are people around me whom I despise (perhaps unjustifiably), and I attribute this to the way they are due to cultural norms. I also place the majority of the blame on environmental and cultural influence, and even though it can be resisted, it takes the patience, stamina, and wisdom of a saint, which I do not have. I acknowledge completely that this is a hypocritical statement but my opinion remains. This also brings to light my inherent arrogance and lack of empathy, which are areas that I have to work on.

The entire experience so far has been a tug-of-war between me, myself, and I. Society, culture, and the world are not obliged to change for any one person, so I will have to continue adapting to, accommodating to, and accepting – with principle – even the things I cannot seem to comprehend. The conclusion? There is no real comfort or discomfort – the process of bettering oneself will always be filled with pain and tears, but it is also during those moments that I realize how lucky I am compared to most people, who may not even know the meaning of “comfort”. It is indeed as much a lesson of gratitude and satisfaction as it is of self-discipline and self-development.

May 2019

Here goes May, the month where Wuhan tried to initiate summer but sort of failed, thankfully. (I feel like I can’t start a Wuhan-related post nowadays without talking about the weather – go figure.) The temperature hovered between 25 to 28 degrees Celsius during the final week of May, which was PERFECT, and as much I know it’s wishful thinking, I seriously hoped that it’d be like this all summer. Mid-May also marked the one-year anniversary of my official arrival in Wuhan so at least I could say that I reached a milestone. Good to be still hanging in there 😉

One of the things I do to keep myself sane on a daily basis is to take photos of beautiful things that I see, one of which is cloud patterns. I often see the stunning artworks of God in the form of clouds and they are enough to make my day. This photo was taken at the Guanggu 7th Road subway station in the late afternoon, and it almost seemed as if the smoke was emerging from the sky lit by the setting sun.

Another photo near Guanggu 7th Road station, this time taking in the early morning, from the other direction.

Third and final photo of beautiful clouds in this mini-collection, taken near dusk in Yancheng, Jiangsu province. J and I attended my cousin’s wedding in Yancheng and was heading to Nanjing for the evening, and saw this while waiting for the train. The sun and clouds fascinatingly accentuated the silhouette of the city, sending us a perfect goodbye gift.

A change of scenery here – a view of “Fairy Island Lake” from the highest point of the scenic area. This was taken during a company spring outing and though I honestly did not enjoy 90% of the trip, I give credit to the 2.5 hours of free time that we had in the end. It was raining pretty horrendously when this photo was taken (rain only during the free time, great) but I somewhat managed to capture the surroundings successfully. Perhaps the rain made it more…”fairy-like”??

Not going in chronological order, this is the Pagoda/Temple of Gratitude in Nanjing during the evening. It is named so because it was commissioned to be built by a king in the Ming dynasty as an expression of gratitute to his mother. I think the original has been destroyed and this is a replica, but it looked magnificent at night. The pavilion is lit up in alternating colours but there is a 20-second window every 5 minutes where it is lit up in multi-colours. Very beautiful!

Still in Nanjing, this is a serendipitous photo of a little girl staning in front of the lyrics of the Chinese national anthem carved into a wall, with the score. I was wondering why there was no English version, but I think the four languages at the bottom might all be ones spoken by minority ethnic groups in China. I’m going to venture a guess from left to right…Mongol, Sanskrit, Arabic, and transliteration of Korean. Can someone confirm??

Probably the most random photo of this post is of this small cocktail that J ordered as part of a meal deal. The deal doesn’t exist anymore so unfortunately I can’t find its name, but it certainly was an aesthetically pleasing little addition to an otherwise great (and very large-portioned) meal ^_^

This set of pig figurines (and the large piggy bank) that was displayed at the front desk of the Nanjing public library made my day and I wish I could have gotten the entire set! So adorable!!! The last one on the right must be doing some sort of yoga post, heh, I love it ❤

Obligatory (almost) monthly photo of me and J, taken in Yancheng. J looks so sleepy and clueless in this photo but actually it was just him being his usual dorky self 😛

Overall May 2019 has been a pleasant month, and I think I’m finally realizing this: I can constantly complain about various aspects of Wuhan, but at the end of the day, I have to accept the fact that I’m living here and learn to embrace its imperfections. I will probably still complain just as a way to vent (and it is necessary), but again, keeping a record of beautiful encounters will be my way of maintaining sanity and reminding myself of the good things in life. Yes, even in Wuhan.

My stories 02: Chinese New Year

It is no surprise that the Lunar New Year is the most important event of the year for the Chinese, and growing up in a Chinese family, we observe it every year. We didn’t go all out with the rituals and celebrations, which themselves vary among regions across China. For us, it’s usually just a simple meal with the immediate family. The last time I spent Chinese New Year at home was in 2014, and my dad cooked a huge New Year’s Eve meal. I remember, though, that my mom unfortunately had to work that evening and was absent, so it was a dinner for three – my dad, my sister, and me. This year, however, I was finally able to spend New Year’s Eve with the entire family, after five years.

During the Chinese New Year celebrations, elders are obliged by cultural norms to give youngsters red pockets containing lucky money, or “lai-see” in Cantonese. When I was a kid, I would receive lai-see from many relatives and friends of my parents. What did I do with the money? Well, I’d be lucky if I knew how much money was in the lai-see. Why is that? Well, my mom (and many Chinese moms do the same) would claim that I was too young to spend money anyway, so she would “save up the money” for my future. After that, I would never find out the whereabouts of the lai-see. Another thing is that only married people are expected to give out lai-see – I think this is a Cantonese norm, but I’m not 100% sure. So, even though I’m in my 30s, I still receive lai-see from my relatives and am not condemned if I don’t “return the favour” by similarly handing out lai-see to their kids. I guess that’s another reason not to get married yet…

And then there are firecrackers. Perhaps it’s an irrational fear, but I’m deathly afraid of sudden, loud noises – popping balloons, thunder, and firecrackers. I can’t recall what prompted this fear in me, but I do remember shivering and hiding in the house when the firecrackers were lit in my childhood days. Nowadays, firecrackers are prohibited in many cities in China, but are still a widespread form of celebration in the countryside. It does seem like traditional Chinese heritage is being compromised by the diminishing popularity of firecrackers, but at least it effectively alleviated my pain and suffering from the deafening noises that remain in my memories.

Red pockets containing lucky money, given out during Chinese New Year.

Living in Wuhan – Food and dining

Ah, food, my favourite subject ever. I’m surprised myself that the first post in the China mini-series wasn’t about food but about transportation, but it’s never too late to talk about food, so let’s get started.

There’s nothing too extravagant or unusual about eating and dining in Wuhan. As someone who grew up eating Chinese food and LOVES it, I couldn’t complain about having it every day. Compared to other provinces of China, Hubei (the province that Wuhan belongs to) doesn’t have a very well-defined “characteristic cuisine”, per se. Take Sichuanese or Cantonese cuisine, for example. The defining characteristic of Sichuanese cuisine is its “numbing spiciness” whereas for Cantonese cuisine, it’s the preservation of the original “freshness” of the raw ingredients. Nothing really comes to mind if you mention “cuisine of Hubei”. It’s not particularly spicy or sweet or salty or anything, and at least in terms of overall taste, it seems to be a blend of all types of cuisines.

Lotus root stuffed with glutinous rice, one of the regional specialties of Hubei province.

That is not to say that there’s nothing special about food here in Wuhan. Hubei cuisine uses a lot of lotus root in their cooking, and I’m not surprised because I see a lot of lotus ponds in the city as I walk around. As a result, I’ve had the pleasure of trying a few lotus-based dishes, including lotus root pork bone soup, lotus root tip, and glutinous rice-stuffed lotus root (photo shown above). You’d also see people selling lotus seed pods everywhere and they’re actually pretty good if they’re freshly harvested! (Some people may not feel comfortable with their appearance though…)

Lotus seed pods in their original form (left) and after being extracted (right). The shell of the pods themselves need to be peeled, exposing a white interior with a core that is sometimes bitter and should be avoided.

Of course we can’t forget the signature “hot dry noodles” of Wuhan (literal translation), which means…breakfast! If you’re not too familiar with Chinese-style breakfast, it’s very different than what you’d have in either North America or Europe. Stuff like pancakes, eggs/omelettes (not as uncommon), bacon, sausage, ham, waffles, etc…nope, not getting any of that. Instead, typical Chinese breakfast involves one or more of the following (or a variation of it): congee, dumplings, buns, and noodles. Often there are street vendors along the side of the road that I take to get to the bus station, and it’s super convenient to grab what you want and either eat it along the way or while waiting for the bus.

Breakfast stands on the side of the street. The first lady sells hot dry noodles and cold noodles, and the other vendors sell dumplings, buns, fried dough, etc…

My favourite breakfast item has been pan-fried dumplings from a particular vendor, but lately I’ve started getting hot dry noodles from another stand. I actually love hot dry noodles, but they’re just a bit more inconvenient to eat while walking, so I sometimes opt not to get it. What ARE hot dry noodles, you ask? They are a very popular Wuhan street food, though also sold at many sit-down places, that is most often eaten for breakfast (or whenever you want, really). As the name implies, they are VERY HOT (temperature), as they are strained right out of boiling water, and VERY DRY, even though a sesame-based sauce is poured onto the noodles. A variety of sides can be added, including pickled radish, pickled green beans, scallions, etc. A good bowl of hot dry noodles to get the day started – sounds like a perfect morning to me!

Hot dry noodles! Not the ones I got from the lady at the breakfast stand, but they’re similar. I like it with a lot of sesame paste and a lot of scallions. One bowl is super filling!

There are also lots of regional cuisines all over the place. J (the boyfriend) and I recently discovered a nice Cantonese restaurant that serves authentic dim sum – MY STAPLE as a Cantonese! – and a variety of Cantonese dishes, like white-cut chicken and stir-fried beef noodles. The menu is a bit limited but it’s got the most essential items, so it’s definitely a necessary dose of home once in a while. We also frequent this small restaurant that specializes in noodles of the Xi’an region in Shaanxi province. It’s close to where we live, cheap, and everything we’ve tried so far has been super delicious. I especially like their “biang biang” noodles, which are really wide (about the width of a waist belt) and really long. They were as good as the ones I’ve tried in Xi’an, though I should bring my friend from Xi’an to this place next time she visits, to validate its authenticity. In contrast to the Cantonese restaurant, this one has quite an extensive menu, so it’ll take many more visits to try everything! If you’re in the mood for something super spicy, there are quite a few Sichuanese restaurants, some specializing in hot pots. Recently we visited a place that serves “mao cai”, which is just a mix of everything you’d have at a hot pot all in one bowl at once. “Slightly spicy” is often already too spicy for us, so next time we’ll skip spiciness and just add chili sauce ourselves, thank you very much!

 

(Click to view the full image.) Cantonese cuisine (top row), Shaanxi cuisine (bottom left and middle), and Sichuanese “mao cai” (bottom right). We’re also discovering new restaurants every week!

Of course, these are just a few of the many types of regional Chinese cuisine scattered around the area. There are also international options, like Italian, Japanese (man I miss good sushi), Korean, and French. These options are rather limited, however, and they tend to be on the pricey side, so they’re more like a treat/splurge/indulgence for special occasions only. I’m craving a good steak right now…*drools*

Do we eat out all the time? You ask. Oh, we certainly do not eat out all the time, or else we’d be broke. Since J works at a university and I live close by, we like to go to one of the many university canteens for dinner. (That doesn’t count as eating out…does it?) The canteen themselves are quite an impressive sight and so much larger than the canteens or cafeterias I’ve been to in Canada or in Europe. And the variety of food is insane – from noodles to barbecue to soup dumplings to bi bim bap, if you could name it, you could probably find it! It’s almost like a hawker center in Singapore, and whereas you’d usually expect canteen food to be subpar, the food here is not bad at all! For less than $3 Canadian I can get a decent rice dish or several small portions of meats and vegetables. Maybe I should consider enrolling as a mature student in a Chinese university…just for the food 😛

One of the larger university canteen at the Huazhong University of Science and Technology. I heard there are around 30 canteens of various sizes at this university and I’ve definitely been to no fewer than 5. They’re only open at specific times during lunch and dinner and so they’re usually super crowded. You’d be lucky if you didn’t have to share a table with someone.

Oh, we do cook. Even though the kitchen at my small apartment is tiny, it is still a functional kitchen and from the first day I moved in, I intended to make good use of it. The thing is, after I started working, I’m too tired to cook when I get home (around 7pm by the time I arrive). Cooking at home now mostly occurs on weekends, when J and I would take turn cooking and washing the dishes. One thing I did notice when we did groceries was that meat and fish are rather expensive here. Well, compared to fruits and vegetables, that is. While 1 jin (the unit of measurement used here, equivalent to half a kg) of green beans cost 4 yuan (approximately 80 Canadian cents, all prices hereafter are stated in Canadian dollar), 1 jin of potatoes cost 60 cents, and a large watermelon costs $2.5, 1 jin of beef may cost around $6. And it isn’t even high-quality beef! Quite ridiculous, if you ask me. As a result, my meat intake has decreased significantly and I’ve been eating a lot more vegetables recently. Healthier, I suppose, but I do miss my chicken and salmon sometimes!

First home-cooked meal after moving into my apartment! Steamed spare ribs, stir-fried potato, and green beans with ground pork. Add a side of egg drop seaweed soup, please. Very satisfying!

Meanwhile, it’s almost dinner time and I’m waiting for J to come home after his basketball game so we can make our only home-cooked meal of the week. And I’ve got some lotus seed pods next to me that we gotta finish tonight. Life is good 🙂

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