Province's pasta masters proud of their ancient culinary traditions
Liu Yong, a chef at posh boutique hotel Jing's Residence in Pingyao, an ancient walled city in Shanxi, is very proud of his provincial cuisine, but laments the fact that it's not as famous as many of China's better-known cuisines.
'Shanxi cuisine is not as famous as the big four,' he says, referring to Cantonese, Sichuan, Shandong and Huaiyang cuisines, the last a combination of Zhejiang and Jiangsu styles. 'It's not so well-known or distinguished.' But he says that the province's unique cuisine is well worth exploring.
An old Shanxi saying has it that a ball of dough can be turned into hundreds of different types of noodles. And this is no exaggeration.
Liu, head of the hotel's Chinese kitchen, says the province boasts no less than 260 varieties of noodle and that there are more than 30 different methods of preparing them, including cutting with a knife or scissors, pushing, pulling, tucking, folding, dragging, shovelling and pinching, to name a few.
The young chef, who spent 11 years mastering noodle-making, then begins to tick off the names of a variety of noodles, popping up one finger for each type: cat's ears, flat noodles, fish noodles, in-the-air noodles, knife-shaved noodles, plate-turning noodles....
'For Shanxi people, a meal without noodles is like not eating,' says Wen Aiying, a Beijing-based food writer. She explains that Shanxi is known for its cereal crops, including buckwheat, naked oat, sorghum, corn, millet and wheat, which all thrive in the province's dry, dusty, yellowish-brown soil.
'With such a wide variety of grains, it's no wonder that Shanxi is home to so many different types of noodles and breads,' says Wen. She adds that archaeologists have dug up grinding stones from as far back as the late Neolithic period, which proves that prehistoric man in the region was munching on chewy noodles as far back as the Stone Age.
Chao Lei, a chef at Jinyang Shuanglai Restaurant, one of a handful of Shanxi restaurants in Beijing, says Shanxi is the king of mianshi, or wheat products, and that many noodle dishes found in China originated in the province. He describes his hometown cuisine as 'country-style and a little rustic'.
One of the best compliments of Shanxi food comes from the late Lao She, Beijing's best-loved writer, who said the rare northern favourites of his day could not compare to the simplest Shanxi kitchen dishes.
'Exotic dishes like camel humps and bear paws pale in comparison to cat's ear noodles and fish-like noodles,' he wrote.
One of the most famous Shanxi dishes is wantuo, made with steamed potato and wheat flour, and served cold or hot with a sprinkle of vinegar, hot peppers and other condiments. This popular dish can be found on any Shanxi street.
The dish became famous in China in the late Qing dynasty, when Empress Dowager Cixi passed through Pingyao while escaping the Eight Allied Powers that marched through Beijing during the Boxer Rebellion in 1900. While visiting a wealthy local family, it is said she fell in love with the dish, which she had her imperial chefs prepare for her on her return to the capital.
Equally famous is cat's ears, a pasta named for what it resembles. The dish is prepared by pinching small pieces of dough off of a large ball of dough, and rapidly firing them into hot boiling water. The niblets are then stir-fried with wood ear fungus and scrambled eggs.
Other noodle favourites include honeycomb noodles, or kao laolao - thin, naked oat grain noodle sheets, which are rolled up to form a honey-combed shaped structure, cooked in a bamboo steamer, and served with dipping sauces, scrambled eggs and minced meat.
But Shanxi is not all noodles and no meat. A popular appetiser is Pingyao cured beef, somewhat similar to corned beef. The oddly named 'pass through oil' pork is a tasty dish that depends on the skill of the chef. 'We use a lot of oil, but the dish is fragrant and not oily,' says chef Chao. 'It's all to do with our technique.'
Shanxi also has kourou heye bing, a variation of the popular Hakka dish meicai kourou, the only difference being that the tender fatty pork slices are served with small steamed lotus leaf-shaped buns, instead of preserved vegetables. The pork is eaten in the fold of the steamed bun.
One of the tastiest Shanxi dishes is minced chicken rolled in crispy fried bean curd sheets.
Shanxi is also famous for its vinegar, and no Shanxi dish would be complete without a dribble of it. In fact, a nickname for Shanxi people is laoxi'r, which means old vinegar (xi is the ancient name for vinegar). Shanxi vinegar is made from a combination of sorghum, rice chaff and bran. Shanxi people love the sour taste so much, they take a swig before meals.