I recently went home to 长春 Changchun, China, to see my family. Changchun is in the northeast part of China, called 东北 Dōngběi, which is known for its hardy, loud, and fiery-spirited people. And also, more notoriously known for its smokers, drinkers, and gamblers, which the people here take great pride in. Changchun is very much still a blue-collar town, with strong agricultural roots. The food is quite distinctive as well, characterized by hearty, savory stews and stir fries based heavily on soy, ginger, garlic and scallion. Starchy wheat-based foods like buns, dumplings, pancakes, and steamed and fried breads are also popular. The dishes my family cooks are are a hodgepodge of all this and many dishes my grandpa created on his own throughout his life, and that have been passed down to us. I’ve written previously about his cooking here.
When I go home, we always cook at home, and it’s the food I love best. My grandpa, the OG of the fam, sits and presides as we, my dad, aunts, uncles, and cousins all gather around the kitchen table to prep the ingredients, which takes up most of the day. We laugh, joke, bicker, reminisce, and talk shit about other family who aren’t there. Typical family stuff. After that, for the cooking part, only a few key trusted people are allowed in the kitchen to execute.
Below is just a portion of the meals and dishes I shared with my family on my trip. This is the kind of Chinese food that you would not find on a menu at a Chinese restaurant because it’s considered to be too rustic and simple. To me, it’s full of memories and meaning.
From top left: Eggplant with fermented soybean sauce (酱茄子), Caramelized shrimp (烤大虾), Rice with steamed red dates, Fermented soybean sauce with scrambled egg (鸡蛋酱), Soy braised fish (红烧鱼), and chrysanthemum greens with soybean sauce ( 茼蒿蘸大酱).
Trimming the tough outer layer from the stalk of a celtuce (莴笋 wōsŭn).
Chopping up the tender parts of the celtuce stalk for a stirfry.
A supply of Sichuan peppercorn (花椒 huā jiāo), a.k.a. “numbing” or málà (麻辣) peppercorn, to last our family for 1-2 months. These are stored in a plastic bag and sealed within an air tight canister, and kept in a cool, dark place.
A chicken from the farmer’s market, killed that morning. Called a 土鸡 (tǔ jī) or 笨鸡 (bèn jī), these chickens are raised in farmers’ backyards on natural feed and grasses, so the meat is more lean. These chickens tend to be older when killed compared to their commercial counterparts since they have matured naturally, rather than at an accelerated pace.
A bag of bean sprouts (豆芽 dòu yá) from the market.
Stuffing rounds of eggplant slices with pork stuffing for one of my favorite dishes called 茄盒 (Qié Hé).
The chicken cooking in a bath of soy, ginger, garlic, scallion, star anise, peppercorn, and cinnamon.
Caramelized shrimp (烤大虾) is a family recipe, created by my grandfather. He’s taught most of the men in my family how to make it, but over the years, each one’s version has evolved and become something completely different than his. This is my uncle’s version.
This is traditionally a Sichuan (central southern Chinese) dish but in the past decade, Sichuan cuisine has become wildly popular in the North, including Beijing. This dish, 水煮鱼 (Shui Zhu Yu), is one of the most popular. Slices of flaky white fish swimming in hot chili and peppercorn oil and broth, topped with bean sprouts, and crushed chilis and peppercorn. It’s addictive.
This is usually served in a huge serving bowl with ladles, to be shared amongst large groups of hungry people.
The chicken, because it was an “old” chicken with tougher meat, was braised in the soy for over an hour. The result is tender meat saturated with the cooking broth.
The stuffed eggplant is each coated in a tempura batter and fried. 茄盒 (Qié Hé) literally means “eggplant pockets.” It can be served with a mixture of salt and pepper for dipping.
Another family meal, with the dishes described above, and the celtuce (top left) stirfried with shitake mushrooms. Also served is an “American style” salad, and fried pecans.
A simple wheat flour dough rising. This will be used later to make pancakes, buns, or breads.
Our 阿姨 (āyí), or weekday maid/cook, brought fresh goose eggs from her geese. We boiled them, and they taste same as chicken eggs, but the texture of the whites is more tough and toothsome.
Griddled corn pancakes (玉米餅 yù mǐ bǐng) for lunch, made of grated fresh corn on the cob, flour, egg, scallion, salt and pepper. Corn is a cheap and delicious staple food in the northeast, along with wheat and rice.
酱羊腿 (Jiàng Yáng tuǐ), top, is a baby leg of lamb, braised in soy and spices for hours until tender. The dish comes from the Uyghur people of Xin Jiang Province, and is a cuisine that is popular in the north. We bought this from a Uyghur shop downstairs. Below is a stuffed pies with ground beef (馅饼 xiàn bǐng), about 5-7 inches in diameter. Popular stuffings include pork, beef, and lamb.
炖豆角 (Dùn dòujiǎo), a homestyle dish you’d find in many households in northeast China in the summertime, when flat wide green beans are in season. Here, they are stewed with potatoes and carrots.
Lunch, with the additional of a cauliflower stirfry.
We went to the butcher in the morning in search of fresh lamb meat. Here, the butcher is cleaning a rack of lamb ribs for us.
Tofu is sold in large blocks like this, and not prepackaged. You buy in blocks, and pay by weight. The tofu is imprinted with lettering from the mold in which it was made: 卤水大豆腐 meaning tofu in brine.
鸡蛋酱, or fermented soybean sauce with scrambled eggs, is a condiment that can be eaten with rice, vegetables, anything really. Our family likes to serve this with fresh cucumbers and scallions for dipping, like a party dip.
The lamb ribs were broken down and stewed with spices and seasoning, for a very basic but flavorful lamb soup (羊汤 Yáng tāng). Considered to be highly nourishing, we made it for my grandfather.
The lamb in the stew is usually served with a dipping sauce of soy, vinegar, and garlic. The soybean and egg dip is served with raw cucumbers and blanched chrysanthemum greens. Another dish for lunch is stir-fried shrimp and zucchini.
An individual portion of the lamp stew was made for my grandfather who likes greens in it, served with a bowl of thick noodles.
黏豆包 (Nián Dòu Bāo), or sticky rice buns filled with mashed beans, is a rustic dish that is hard to find in the cities now. Farmers, however, still continue to make these around the new year. The rice is a glutinous rice that is pounded down, and mixed with water to form a very sticky batter. The beans, not sweetened, are cooked and mashed into a chunky paste. Each bun is filled and rolled by hand, and the batch is steamed over corn husks until cooked through. The result is a sticky, chewy, hearty bean dumpling. Sometimes, we dip the bun into plain white sugar for a sweet treat.
Chinese pumpkin (similar to Japanese kabocha pumpkin) stir-fried. The pumpkin is naturally sweet and doesn’t need much seasoning.
Another way to cook 黏豆包 (Nián Dòu Bāo) is pan frying. Rather than keeping each in the shape of a ball, each is flattened for frying. The rice batter crisps up really nicely and is crisp and golden. These can also be dipped in sugar.
My favorite dish of all time is 西红柿炒鸡蛋 (xī hóng shì chǎo jī dàn), my comfort food. This dish is another simple, homestyle dish that is cooked in most households in the northeast. Rich scrambled eggs are balanced out by tangy, sweet tomatoes. Upon my request, here, my dad is frying some up for me.
My dad, with the finished dish. Although I really like his version, my aunt makes an even better one! She claims she adds a spoonful of sugar to bring out the sweetness of the tomatoes.
Simple lunch with some cold appetizers like kimchee, American style green salad, and sliced sausages.