Our local Chinese restaurants: learning the language of menus

Despite the presence of the massive Metro supermarket across the road, many small shops and businesses survive at the west gate of our compound. A couple of weeks ago I noticed a bright orange sign had gone up advertising a Dong Bei restaurant, selling ‘jaozi’ (dumplings). Dong Bei (North East) food is well known for being simple, filling and cheap, presumably to satisfy the appetites of the farmers and steel workers who live in the vast, cold wastes that stretch up to the border with Russia.

I duly persuaded Fintan that he would like to have a lunch of ‘jaozi’ and one Saturday we ventured into the small premises. It was a typical one family business – about eight small tables, plastic-wood flooring, rice steamers plugged into dodgy looking sockets on the floor and a tiny kitchen at the back. A woman in her early 20s took the orders, while her husband and father cooked and her mother looked after the grandchild. Each table was provided with cellophane wrapped sets of a plate, bowl and china spoon. Chopsticks in paper stood in a container next to a jar of chilli sauce and a jug of soy. Customers helped themselves to watery Qingdao or Harbin beer from a fridge.

I often used to go to similar restaurants with fellow students, but it was some time since I’d been to one. I had forgotten that the menu is a list of dishes entirely in Chinese. Chinese people seem to walk into a restaurant knowing exactly what they want to eat and don’t mind that the waitress immediately stands at the table expecting an instant order. For a foreigner with limited Chinese, however, this can be challenging.

My Chinese language suddenly deserted me, but I blurted out ‘jaozi’, hoping this would be enough. The waitress pointed to the wall, where a poster-menu showed that there were at least 15 different ones available. ‘What kind of jaozi?’ she smiled. I just about remembered how to say ‘beef’ and ‘pork’ and although the young woman said a lot more, she seemed satisfied. When I looked more calmly at the list I could see that she must have made a number of decisions on my behalf – with chives, with spring onions, with chilli, with greens – and so on.

Our steamed dumplings arrived and we quite enjoyed them. The pictures of food on the other wall looked a lot more appetising, but how to match them to the lists of dishes on the laminated menus that served as placemats? I took a photo on my phone, determined that we would return once I’d worked out what was what.

The following week I enlisted Yona’s help and sent her the photograph. Printed out in large format, the handwritten characters provided the basis for my next three lessons. First we started with methods of cooking, next we tackled the main ingredients and finally got to the names of complete dishes. The Chinese have an unimaginable number of words for ‘fry’ as this is their main way of cooking – quick fry, stir fry, longer fry, deep fry, fry and then braise in soy sauce, not to mention dry fry in a pot brought to the table. Then there is steam, stew, grill and roast, all with further variants.

Ingredients were sometimes difficult to translate, especially when I was more familiar with the Japanese names, such as shitake or enoki (fragrant mushroom and tea tree mushroom respectively in Chinese). Yona sent me about 50 new words and we identified things I would probably not like to eat – duck head, fish head, bull frog – among them. We looked at photos of different fishes on the internet – belt fish, croker, pomfret – usually agreeing that I would find most of them too bony.

I went back to Fuchsia Dunlop’s ‘Every Grain of Rice’, because she names every dish in English, Chinese and pinyin, which helped with cross-checking. She also stimulates my memory through her knowledge and insight; for example she says that the Chinese called newly imported tomatoes ‘barbarian aubergines’ (fan qie), ensuring that I won’t forget the character for aubergine in a hurry. It turns out that sweet potatoes are also barbarian potatoes.

Gradually my vocabulary and confidence grew and we got to the stage where I could read through the menu in halting Chinese (tones nearly correct) and write out a dialogue about going to a restaurant. Finally, after some negotiation with Fintan, I highlighted the dishes we would choose and practised how to say them. We were ready to return.

Yesterday we walked down to the west gate, full of expectation. Alas, the shutters were down and the restaurant was closed! This weekend is a holiday weekend, with Qing Ming or Tomb Sweeping taking place on Monday. Presumably the family had gone back to their Dong Bei home to honour their ancestors.

Determined not to be defeated, we walked across to the establishments on the other side of the gate. At the end is a small restaurant run by a Hui family, serving halal food. The Hui are an Islamic ethnic group living across China. Although there was no pork, in most other ways the restaurant was almost exactly the same. Young woman serving, husband cooking, menu listed on the wall, small tables, packs of china, drinks in the fridge. It served noodles rather than rice, but I found my preparation had not been wasted, as I could now read most of the characters, and many standard Chinese dishes were available here too.

We ordered two bowls of noodles and enjoyed our simple Saturday lunch. We had discovered a new ‘local’ but I hope we will still soon go back to the Dong Bei restaurant.

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More on food: Hom versus Dunlop

One of our Christmas presents was Ken Hom’s ‘Complete Chinese Cookbook’. This has stimulated me to try out a whole new set of Chinese dishes, generally with good results. I haven’t given up my first love – Fuchsia Dunlop’ s ‘Every Grain of Rice’, but I needed some fresh inspiration. I always find with cookbooks – and we have a considerable library of them in Nottingham – that I perfect about six recipes and then stop exploring. With just the one book on Chinese cooking, this had meant a certain amount of repetition. We probably eat about 10 recipes from ‘Every Grain of Rice’ regularly, but still needed some new input.

Ken Hom is an American Chinese, whose family came from Taishan, in Guangdong (Canton), just west of Hong Kong. Wikipedia tells me that this area is famous for its high percentage of celebrities in the entertainment industry, and Ken Hom certainly seems to fall into this category as a TV personality. My cookery book has at least 20 photographs of the man himself – portraits of his head and of his hands with chopsticks. It is a shiny, lavish production and very well adapted to the western market.

Many recipes focus on adapting Cantonese flavours and cooking methods to ingredients available in British and American supermarkets, and not necessarily in Ningbo. Fish is an example. There are many appetising recipes for ‘firm, white fish fillets’ which I’d like to try. Unfortunately, fresh, firm white fish is not obviously available in our market or even in supermarkets, except in its frozen form, which looks somewhat unappetising. Small oily fish, with many bones predominate. One success has been steamed salmon with black beans, as both are readily available in Metro. Ken Hom says that salmon is ‘growing in popularity in cosmopolitan cities’ in China; this was not my experience when I cooked it in plain western style for guests at my graduation party. Perhaps my Chinese friends would have preferred it with the help of the spicy and salty preserved black soya beans.

Fuchsia Dunlop’s book is very different. There are no photographs of the author and the food takes first place. It oozes with the author’s enthusiasm about China and her passion for and profound knowledge of the country’s food. It strives for authenticity, and only makes occasional concessions to western taste. There are few recipes for white fish, and quite a lot for fatty meat. If Chinese people don’t eat something, it’s not in the book.

Both authors patiently describe and explain the main ingredients of Chinese cooking, many of which were unknown to me before we came to Ningbo. What has been a great help is that Fuchsia Dunlop gives the pinyin (Romanised script) and the characters for most ingredients and for the names of dishes. This has been invaluable in restaurants and when I’ve been trying to find vegetables or sauces in supermarkets or in the market. At first, as I struggled to learn the language, I copied out the names and took them with me to the shop; later I’ve been able to ask for them and anyway have learned to recognize more products. In my early, often painful Chinese lessons, my teacher taught me to say simple recipes from Fuchsia Dunlop in Chinese and then learn and repeat them to her. This not only improved my Mandarin, but led to some interesting discussions about cooking and different tastes.

Before we came here, I had no understanding of the regional differences between Chinese cooking. What passes for Chinese cuisine in England is predominantly Cantonese, which is the southern school. In any case, it is often not much like the authentic Cantonese food available say in Hong Kong, and full marks to Ken Hom for trying to help British and American cooks understand how to make real dim sum, spring rolls and won ton. Fucshia Dunlop was extraordinary in being the first British woman to train as a chef in Sichuan province, in south west China. Her recipes are an introduction to the fiery tastes of this school of cooking, which uses large amounts of fresh, dried and pickled chillies.

Of course, with the movement of the population from the countryside to the cities, it is easy to try all the main types of regional cuisine in the big cities. For example, we’ve eaten wonderful ‘dong bei’ or north eastern food from Shandong peninsula, in Shanghai. The signature dish is roast pork served on the bone with thin pancakes, hoisin sauce and spring onions, similar to Beijing duck, but much less fatty.

Despite Fuchsia Dunlop’s best efforts, I still long for a book written in English which would help me do more with the wonderful fresh ingredients I see around me, but don’t know how to prepare. As well as the fish and the seafood, not to say the live turtles, there is a plethora of vegetables that I’m sure would taste wonderful if I knew what to do with them. For the moment, I will continue with my exploration of Ken Hom’s book, but I think it will come into its own more fully when we return to the UK.