It is my Second full day in Shenzhen and during a business meeting it transpired that my business associate Wesley was from Hubei, the area that I had once lived for 6 months a few years back (well when I said a few it was 1998). We talked fondly of the food from that area and bonded quickly on those memories. So much so that he then worked some magic and at lunch took me to a local restaurant that specialised in food from Hubei, and even better than that one that cooks food from the city of Wuhan where I had lived.
Now I cannot read Chinese very well but I was assured that the name of the restaurant was ‘Wuhan‘. You know I was really getting quite excited at this point. Would I be able to recognise the food? Would I still be able to order the dishes I remember in Chinese? Would the flavours be the same as I remembered? Oh my gosh I really hoped so!
This is not a spoiler alert, but the answer was “yes I could”, “yes I did”, and “yes they were!”
So what did I manage to eat?
rè gān miàn (Hot Dry Noodles)
Now this is the dish I had been dreaming about ever since I heard that there might be a chance to find some food from Wuhan in Shenzhen. rè gān miàn or regamian as I used to call it was a dish that I ate almost every day for breakfast while I was working at the Chinese Academy of Science near to Wuhan University.
When Wesley took me here for lunch even though it was well past breakfast he asked them to make me a bowl, a whole bowlful just for myself. I could not believe it, it was just the same, the flavour profile flooded back, I was transported back to the dusty streets and the vendors in the alleys around the campus. It was amazing, I instantly wanted to jump onto the train back to Wuhan to see if my local noodle man was still there.
The first time I ate a bowlful in Wuhan, I wrote home and described it as a ‘bowl of spicy and cold spaghetti bolognase’. After about a week |I was craving the stuff by the bowlful, what was once weird had become the daily norm. It got to the point where I was just staggering out of bed and onto the street with my metal bowl and joining the line of locals to get my fix.
From what I have read a typical bowlful of rè gān miàn has soy sauce, sesame paste, pickled vegetables, chopped garlic chives and chili oil. The noodles are pre-cooked and then scalded back in boiling water just before they are served and that mix popped on top.
To get the best effect you need to stir it all together before slurping up with a pair of chopsticks and an open mouth. How can I explain the flavour? It’s not easy, the sesame paste and the soy mix together and you sort of get something similar to a very savoury peanut butter taste with spicy hints and nuggets of pickle flavour. Trust me or be forewarned this is highly addictive stuff. Back in 1998 when I first ate this I was only paying 7p a bowl. It appears to have moved nearer to a pound now, but still excellent value.
- ½ pound fresh or dried noodles
- 1½ tablespoon chopped salted chilies (duo la jiao)
- 2½ tablespoons sesame paste
- 2 teaspoons crushed garlic
- 1 tablespoon light soy sauce
- 1½ tablespoons chili oil, with sediment
- 4 tablespoons slivered preserved mustard tuber (zha cai)
- 2 tablespoons thinly sliced spring onion greens
- 2 tablespoons toasted sesame seeds
Boil noodles in water until al dente (according to Chinese sources, until 80% cooked). Drain well, and spread out to dry. Sprinkle over a little sesame oil and mix well so that the noodles don’t stick together.)
Divide the salted chilies, sesame paste, garlic and soy sauce between two serving bowls. Bring a panful of water to the boil. Place the noodles in a small bamboo colander and dip them into the boiling water, mixing them with a pair of chopsticks to ensure even heating. Do this four or five times, until they are cooked through. Then divide the noodles between the bowls, and scatter over the chili oil, preserved mustard tuber, spring onion greens and sesame seeds. Mix well before eating
The second dish that I really wanted to try again was one that I did not know the name of. Luckily there was a poster on the wall of red shelled crayfish tails that I was able to point at. I asked Wesley what this dish was called in Chinese and the translation in English and I was surprised at the translation being ‘prawns’ as I think that this is made with crayfish and crayfish tails. It is a really delicious juicy and messy dish to eat. You end up sucking the meat out of each piece and it is really spicy, you will end up with juice, and spicy juice at that, all over your face. You just have to accept that and then it is fine. I remembered the crayfish being bigger in Wuhan, and when we talked about it so did Wesley, To be honest I think that our imaginations just have ‘bigged the dish up’. I had many happy moments with a bowl of these in the C.A.S canteen sucking the meat out and getting messy in Wuhan, and this brought back many happy memories.
The last dish that we ate was one that initially surprised me the most when I found out the name and the way it was made. I had remembered some strange yet delicious tasting shredded pork, but I had never realised that it was ‘fish flavoured’ well according to Wesley anyhow, then I delved into some of my cookbooks to try and find the recipe and found that it was called ‘Fish Fragrant’ a whole different thing. The ‘Fish-Fragrant’ flavour is noted to be one of Sichuans most famous culinary creations. Fuchsia Dunlop talks about the recipe and what makes the flavours in her excellent and now definitive cookbook ‘Sichuan Cookery’
They say that it is described as fish fragrant, it is said that the ingredients used are reminiscent of those used in local Sichuan Fish dishes and so when other ingredients cooked in the same way (like pork) would remind people of the fish dish, sounds a bit unlikely to me. One of the other suggestions for the flavour is that sometimes whole crucian carp are sometimes added to the ‘vats of pickling chillies to improve their flavour’ .Anyway it just goes to show that you cannot always rely on google translation or similar when sitting in a restaurant. Even the Chinese translator failed to give me the exact names.
This is a nice dish, but unlike the previous two, in my mind it is one to share as I could not eat the whole plateful on my own. It has a nice taste, but it is a little bit strange as one might expect from pork that tastes fishy. It is very delicious though, and if you are not careful you can grab more slices of chilli than pork and you end up with a very spicy mouthful.
I really wish that I could tell you exactly where this restaurant was. I took a picture of a nearby road sign to help me find it. I think it was on Zhenzhong Rd East. All I know for sure is that it is in the streets just around the Saige Technology Zone, Huangqiang North, Futian District in Shenzhen Guangdong China 518033.
I am not a very good guide am I at this point? To be honest though if you want some food from Wuhan, go to Wuhan. You can get these dishes on almost every corner well on corners where there is a restaurant.
This was a really good day. I don’t know if I will be able to top having a bowl of those Hot and Dry Noodles? As I said it took me back 16 years to a time when I was standing on the streets of Wuhan with my metal bowl and wooden chopsticks waiting in line for my noodle man to serve me. Happy Days both today and then.
As I said in the tagline I was “In Food Memory Dreamland”
But Hey Marcus
Perhaps there will be other new taste memories to be found? Just be patient