|Shanxi oat noodles 莜面烤栳栳
Shanxi Province is not only the cradle of Chinese history but also home to one of China’s great eight cuisines, known as jin cai 晋菜, famous for its liberal use of locally produced aged Shanxi vinegar, round breads and pastries known as bing, and an extraordinary variety of noodles.
Having now traversed Shanxi from north to south eating everything that was put in front of me I can confirm Jin cusine is pretty exciting and very diverse. True to form I tended much more towards the local street food than haute cuisine, and Shanxi people seem to love eating on the street as much as I do – the province was full of snack stalls and night markets bursting with atmosphere and the smells of good cooking.
The following list isn’t meant to be definitive, it’s just ten of the foods I enjoyed most while in Shanxi. I hope you get a chance to try them too.
1. Shanxi Oat Noodles 莜面烤栳栳
|Street vendor selling oat noodles, ready to steam at home
Think oat noodles might be dense and chewy? Think again. The first surprise when ordering Shanxi oat noodles (shanxi youmian kao lao lao 山西莜面烤栳栳) is when the steamer lid is lifted to reveal their unusual honeycomb appearance, the second surprise being their soft light texture and mild taste.
Oats are a staple crop in this part of China, so there many kinds of oat noodles on offer in a variety of shapes but these are the most well-known. A steamer basket full of the wonderful hot honeycomb noodles alongside a small bowl of a rich, thick tomato and garlic sauce, and you simply peel off a single noodle and dip it into the sauce before eating.
Alternately you can have the steamed noodles quickly dry-fried with plenty of garlic, onion and chili and a little ziran spice mixture – known as ganbian kao lao lao 干煸烤栳栳 (see picture below).
Where to try it: You can find oat noodles all over Shanxi but kao lao lao is more common the further south you go in places like Taiyuan and Pingyao.
|ganbian kao lao lao 干煸烤栳栳
2. Shi Tou Bing 石头饼
|shi tou bing 石头饼
These prehistoric looking cakes are made with corn meal flour and filled with either a sweet red bean paste filling or a savoury sauce, before being baked with hot pebbles (or ball bearings, see below) indenting their surface, hence their great name: shi tou bing 石头饼 or stone cakes.
Crisp and delicious when hot out of the griddle, the crisp textured surface with the soft filling makes for a great snack.
Where to try it: southern Shanxi, on the streets of Taiyuan and Pingyao
3. Sea Buckthorn 沙棘属
These tiny orange berries, about the size of a plump peppercorn, grow wild all over Shanxi Province, being well-suited to the dry conditions (in Europe they grow in coastal areas and are salt-tolerant, hence the name). They have the most unusual taste – a little sour, with the rich taste of a really ripe apricot and a deep orange colour.
Sea Buckthorn juice is sold everywhere, and sea buckthorn wine is also available. This dish was a one of the most memorable and inventive I ate in Shanxi – a steamed yellow millet pudding surrounded with soft honeyed jujubes, and drowned in a sea buckthorn syrup – soft, sweet and comforting with the slight tartness of the berries overcoming the cloying sweetness of the syrup.
Where to try it: Datong’s Yonghe Food City 永和美食城: 大同迎宾东路8号
Sea buckthorn juice and wine available all over Shanxi.
4. Fragrant Straw Beef 香草肉
Fragrant straw beef (xiāng cǎo ròu 香草肉) are small parcels of savory home-made beef sausage wrapped in tofu skin and steamed inside a tiny woven straw caboose, imparting a lovely fragrance to the finished product.
Where to try it: the streets of Pingyao – look for the large tin steamers with the woven straw parcels peeking out.
5. Bottle Gourd with Aged Shanxi Vinegar 养生葫芦丝
This dish highlights for me just how often Chinese cuisine continues to surprise and delight. This cold dish, served at the start of a meal, is elegant and complex with a contrast of textures and flavours that brings every ingredient to life.
You would be forgiven for thinking this was a noodle dish, when in fact it is carefully coiled shredded bottle gourd, dressed with aged Shanxi vinegar, chilies, and finely sliced cooked scallions（yangsheng hulusi 养生葫芦丝). The textures and flavours are simply sublime, a little crunch, the deeply complex vinegar, the light heat of the chilies.
Of course, it does help that it’s served in Datong’s most exquisitely beautiful restaurant, the Phoenix Court, in a Ming Dynasty house that has been home to this restaurant for several hundred years (since 1518, to be exact). The surroundings are extrardinary with gold phoenixes flying across the ceiling and heavy carved mahogony tables.
Where to try it:
The Phoenix Court Restaurant, Huayan Temple Street, Datong 凤临阁烧卖: 大同城区华严寺街
6. Scissor-cut Noodles 剪刀面
Shanxi’s noodle fame is well-deserved with more than a hundred varieties of interesting shapes, sizes and textures. I loved watching the skill of these young noodle chefs in Taiyuan as they made scissor-cut noodles from a spindle-shaped piece of dough held in their hand, using what appeared to be a pair of giant dressmaking scissors to slice long thin noodles with gently tapered ends.
The noodles are served with a variety of rich sauces – in this case a ragout made from pork, yellow beans, cubed tofu, and green bean pickles (below left).
Other varieties include mao er duo or cat’s ear noodles (below right), tiny triangular noodles with curled edges, perfect with a thick and hearty sauce.
Where to try it: All over Shanxi, although Taiyuan has a great concentration of restaurants specialising in noodles.
7. Savoury Pork Pastries 肉饼
Bing means anything round and flat, so a pancake can be a bing, and so can a savoury pastries like these. These ròu bǐng 肉饼 are pure theatre in the making, one pair of hands taking the soft and pliable dough and at lightning speed pushing it into long flat tongues to be seasoned with lamb fat and pork mince, then rolled and flattened, dipped in sesame seeds, and cooked on a griddle by an even faster second pair of hands.
Hungry customers crowd around, waiting for the next batch to appear. Piping hot, the flaky buttery pastry melts in the mouth, with salty pork giving the pastry a delicious flavour.
Where to try it: Taiyuan’s night market, on the corner of Wulongkou Jie and Heitu Gangzhong Hengma lu 太原五龙口街黑土巷中横马路
8. Shaomai 烧卖
Shanxi shaomai 烧卖 are delicate versions of their Hong Kong and Shanghai cousins. The dumplings are wrapped in skins as fine as paper, ruffled at the edges, and filled with a rich, smooth pork filling. The best way to eat them is dipped in Shanxi’s famous vinegar, a special variety expressly used for dumplings.
Where to try it: The most well-known shaomai in all of Shanxi come from Datong, where they are served in every restaurant and many street stalls
9. Doufu Nao 豆腐脑
Imagine this dish: spoons of soft-set silken tofu, still warm, slipped into a steaming meat broth then topped with chili oil, chive paste, and a little red-fermented tofu. The whole combination of salty, hot, herby, meaty tastes and the smooth, soft texture makes this one of Shanxi’s most popular snacks. Especially warming in winter, people eat it all year round at all times of the day and night. Soul food.
Where to try it: This dish is not indigenous to Shanxi and in fact can be found all across northern China. Look for a vendor on the street with two huge canteens – one contains the soft-set tofu, and the other the broth.
10. Tian Sheng Bing
Yet another bing, these puff pastry circles the size of a cookie are all about flakiness and crunch. In both sweet and salty varieties, they’re a little hand-held snack for morning or afternoon.
A note here: As with many of the street foods I try, I ask the name, make a note of it, and translate it later. Sometimes though, the name doesn’t make obvious sense and there are multiple possible translations. Perhaps I heard it wrongly? Please let me know if I’ve made a naming error!
I loved watching these come out of a street-side bakery the size of a cupboard by the dozen, then lined up neatly in a wicker pannier on the outdoor counter. The black (or white) sesame seeds denote whether the tian sheng bing is sweet or salty.
Where to try it: Look for these in bakeries all over Shanxi.