Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Yangshuo food pt. 2 - dragon beard noodles

Having to write a lab report really is the best way for keeping up with a blog. This must be why I so rarely updated this summer.

From Yangshuo
In a small corner of Yangshuo, where tourists are rare, I encountered something pretty extraordinary. While it definitely wasn't a local food, it's definitely worth blogging about.

Noodles are a HUGE part of Chinese culture. Just to name a few: there are the rice noodles I blogged about last time, the thick chewy noodles cut straight into a boil pot from a blob of dough using a very sharp knife and a quick hand, Lanzhou pulled noodles, thin, transparent cellophane noodles... and then you have dragon beard noodles, something completely in a league of its own.

Just imagine: you need to roll out a sheet of dough until it's so thin that if you put it over a book, you can read the text on the page. Then you have to cut this sheet into hundreds of strands, each about a milimeter wide (about 200 knife strokes for a foot of sheet dough). Then you have to find a way to cook these noodles so that they can maintain their delicate shape and texture. If there was ever a dish to eat more for the techniques involved than the actual taste (although I have to admit that they taste exquisite), it's this one. Forget Ferran Adria with his foams and pearls, there is more skill involved in these noodles without any of the flash so typical of famous TV chefs these days.

From Yangshuo

From Yangshuo
Old Mo cooks these noodles by heating the soup base in a small clay pot until it boils. Then he immediately takes the clay pot off the heat and sticks carrots, mushshrooms, ground pork and noodles in it, cooking all the ingredients with the heat from the soup. The result is light and flavourful. The noodles taste so light with each strand still completely separated and not at all sticking to each other.

From Yangshuo
As we ate, we talked to him about how he is having trouble finding a apprentice to pass on this skill. Old traditional food that is more labor intensive is becoming less popular, especially in touristy areas like Yangshuo. And finding someone who has the talent to make noodles like these can't be easy.

Old' Mo's noodles on Guihua Road in Yangshuo. You'll see him on his makeshift cart after 6pm.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Yangshuo food pt. 1

There is a general rule about food in Northern vs. Southern China. Northern Chinese food is wheat-based (noodles, buns, white doughy mantou, etc) while Southern Chinese food is rice-based. A visit to any countryside farm in the two regions will make this clear. In the north during wheat harvesting season, the fields are golden and not unlike the image I have in my head of Kansas. In the south (oh the magical Southern China), during rice harvest season, you will encounter the most glorious sight of rice paddies extending as far as the eye can see.

But before I go on, let me first give you a sense of your setting. This is the Li river framed by karst formations in Yangshuo, which is an hour away from Guilin.

From Yangshuo

There is a phrase in Chinese that translates into "The mountains and waters of Guilin is the first in the world, but the scenery of Yangshuo beats even Guilin." Maybe a little illogical, but I hope you get the idea.

From Yangshuo

This is only one of the hundreds of rice paddies we passed by. The best thing about them is probably the way the mildly sweet scent of the rice stalks permeated every cubic inch of air in the area. You can't walk by without catching a whiff of it. It smelled like the way a countryside should smell like.

But let's get back to the food.

Rice noodles are the staple food of Guilin and Yangshuo. The locals pretty much eat it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. They are either prepared in broth or stirfried. And by broth, I don't mean Swanson's chicken broth. I mean the real stock that's been boiled from the bones of beef and/or goat that tastes like how every soup should taste -- hearty, light, and oh so flavorful. We had them mostly for breakfast since there were SO many noodle shops right outside of our hotel.

The way they're usually served up for breakfast is that the shopkeeper would have boiled a HUGE load of noodles beforehand, and all he/she would do is to skillfully get a two or three liang into a metal bowl using a single, long chopstick, ladel some soup into the bowl and ask you to add the rest of the ingredients (garlin, scallions, ginger, pickles...) yourself. Every shops has its specialty and all their soups taste different. You find your favorite and go back every morning.

From Yangshuo

My sister, enjoying a breakfast bowl.

From Yangshuo

One of the days we went to one that specialized in soups with snails. Very enjoyable, although the soup base was quite spicy for so early in the morning.

That was the other thing, when you asked people what shop they recommend for noodles, they would first fire back the question "spicy or not spicy?" And inevitably, the not spicy shops' soups were spicy as well, but just less so than the actually spicy ones.

Another thing I noticed is that all the shops, regardless of whether you're in Guilin or Yangshuo, use the same type of yellow metal bowls for the noodles. The shopkeeper I asked says that they actually don't wash any of the bowls but instead send them off to the official bowl cleaning place nightly to get them washed. Not exactly sure why they do this.

I miss rice noodles.