Thursday, January 24, 2013

Hebei: home to some great, strange pasta

Hebei is generally overlooked in the grand scheme of things. Politically, culturally, culinarily… this province has almost always been ignored. It’s not hard to see why: supersized Beijing weighs down the eastern edge of Hebei and gets all the attention. In fact, a couple of decades ago, Beijing and the huge port city of Tianjin were shaved off of Hebei and made into autonomous metropolises, sort of like Washington, D.C.

What was left behind was a large, bumpy cutout shaped like the letter C, with a tiny dot of Hebei proper remaining behind as a provincial outpost between the almost equally-proportioned clasp of Beijing and Tianjin. The northern part of Hebei seems mainly dominated by mountain ranges and stretches of the Great Wall, which makes for a relatively sparse population, while the rest is part of the enormous North China Plain, meaning that the foods here center on meat and breads and pasta.
Hebei, courtesy Wiki Commons

As a result, one thing they do especially well up in Hebei is pasta. Noodles of all forms – including many that remain a surprise even to me after all these years of eating my way through China’s numerous cuisines – are doted on with particular affection.

One of the reasons for this is that flour is a cheap energy source. And if you go one step further and make a meatless meal centered on pasta, you find that you can easily feed a number of people well for very little money.

That is not to say that the food isn’t good. On the contrary, inventiveness is prized here almost as much as pasta.

Hidden Hebei gem of a dish
In addition to regular noodles in all their incarnations, northern Chinese love crepes – both thick and thin – that are cut into ribbons and then fried. Called 炒餅 chǎobĭng, these chewy strips are a true delight.

I first enjoyed them in Taiwan, where military families (who were almost always on very tight budgets) rolled out thin rounds of bread dough, grilled these on both sides with very little oil, and then cut them into thin strips. These were then stir-fried with bean sprouts, green onions, and pork, with only a few dashes of soy sauce seasoning the dish. It was a perfectly balance meal that also soothed parts of my soul.

These rolled crepes, though… these are really ingenious. Bouncy and chewy, they work as wonderful little intermissions between bites of crunchy vegetables and a savory sauce. As with all of the local pasta dishes, this is as good a reason as any to finally put Hebei on the map.

Fried rolled crepes 
Chǎo miàn cài  炒麵菜 
Like pancake batter
Serves 4 as a main dish 

Freshly ground black pepper to taste
2 cups cool filtered water
Peanut or vegetable oil

Vegetables and seasonings:
½ medium onion, peeled
6 large fresh Chinese black mushrooms, stems removed
½ sweet red pepper
½ medium head cabbage
1 pound mung bean sprouts
4 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil
¼ cup finely chopped fresh ginger
6 cloves garlic, finely chopped
¼ cup rice wine
4 tablespoons toasted sesame oil
4 tablespoons sweet wheat paste
4 teaspoons sugar
Regular soy sauce to taste

1. First make the crepe noodles: Mix the flour and pepper together in a medium work bowl. Stir in the water to form a batter the consistency of heavy cream. Heat a flat skillet (as smooth as possible to keep the crepes from sticking) over medium heat and then film the bottom of the skillet with a tablespoon or so of oil. Pour in just enough of the batter to thinly cover the bottom, rolling the skillet around to encourage the batter to fill in bare spots. Cook the crepe on one side only, until the edges loosen from the sides of the pan, the top of the crepe is still wet, and the bottom of the crepe is not yet browned. Use a spatula to remove the crepe to a clean cutting board. Quickly add more oil, if needed, to the pan and make another crepe. While that crepe is cooking, roll up the semi-cooked crepe very tightly, lightly squeezing it with your fingers and rolling it back and forth; the remaining heat in the crepe will cook the raw batter and – if all works right – seal the crepe into a tight cylinder. Repeat this with the rest of the batter until you have a bunch of rolled-up crepes. When the crepe rolls are cool, cut them crosswise into ½-inch to ¾-inch pieces.

Lumpy batter quite all right
2. Next, prepare the vegetables: Cut the onion, mushroom caps, red pepper, and cabbage into ½-inch (or so) dice. Rinse the bean sprouts in a colander and let them drain in the sink.

3. First fry the crepe noodles: Heat about 2 tablespoons oil in the wok over high until the oil starts to shimmer, and then add the noodles. Gently toss them over the heat until they are lightly browned all over. (If some come uncoiled, that’s fine. No one will notice.) Remove the noodles to a large serving bowl.

4. Then, fry the vegetables: Heat 4 tablespoons of oil in the wok over high and immediately add the ginger, garlic, and onions. Stir-fry them for a minute or so to lightly brown them, and then add the mushrooms. Stir-fry them until all the oil has been absorbed, and then toss in the rice wine. Quickly toss the mushrooms and onions in the wine, and then add the red pepper and cabbage. Toss these as they fry and wilt, and when they have shrunk to about half their original volume, scoot them up the side of the wok. Add the sesame oil and sweet wheat paste to the bottom of the wok and stir them around to cook the wheat paste. Add the sugar and fried noodles, and then toss everything together. Taste and adjust the seasoning with soy sauce, if needed. Serve hot.

Roll up tightly into a cigar

Korean flour works best here, which is the same as two parts all-purpose flour to one part pastry flour.

Shredded pork or chicken can be added with the mushrooms, if you like.

Vary the vegetables, using whatever you like and is in season. Aim for a variety of colors, textures, and flavors.

The sauce, too, can be adjusted to fit your tastes. Like chili oil? Add some!


  1. Your book pays a lot of attention to the regionality of Chinese cuisine. I hope your book does the same!

    1. It most certainly will, and that is going to be one of the defining features of The Book. But, I'm going to do this in a way that has never been done before, and which I hope will make more sense out of the immense spectrum that makes up China's many cuisines.

  2. Great! lemme know if u ever need a recipe tester :-)

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