by Ernie Diaz
Whatsamatter – feeling chilly? Dark skies before the work whistle getting you down? Don’t bother crying that river unless you’re wintering north of the Yalu. In China’s Dongbei provinces, bone freeze is a way of life, as sweat-soaked underwear is in Bangkok. Sure, Canada and Russia both have their versions of hyperborean hell, but Dongbei’s is worse for the fact that you’re supposed to pretend not to even notice it.
Witness the Changchun girl on the corner selling baked yams, her bright smile set off by cheeks candy-apple red from windburn, not rouge. A Harbin businessman plods stoically home on a frozen sidewalk, a thin sweater under a flimsy sports jacket his only concession to the sub-zero chill, naught but ergutou and domestic abuse to see him through to Worker’s Day. Now what’s that, laowai? Your North Face polar expedition jacket just isn’t up to snuff unless you can find Trekwear thermals to go underneath? How did you sissie Marys win the Opium Wars again?
Wherever you’re putting a brave face on shriveled appendages and chapped skin, Dongbei food will make up for a windy bus stop’s worth of misery. Notice we didn’t say “Dongbei cuisine”. Dongbei food shouldn’t be about frills and frippery. This is the part of China a western stomach feels most at home in, with down-home grub, no little pieces to crack and spit out, meals that stick to your ribs so hard even Sara Palin wouldn’t claim hunger an hour later. Sorry, yes she would, and espouse support for “our North Korean allies” in the same breath.
Enough preamble. Herein two classic Dongbei dishes you can throw together in less than an hour, no filleting or marinating necessary, but tasty and substantive enough to convince you, however temporarily, that north of the Tropic of Cancer isn’t just for the damned after all.
Di San Xian
What You’ll Need:
1 large bell pepper
1 tbsp. diced garlic
2 tbsp. corn starch
1 tbsp. soy sauce
2 tbsp. cooking oil
After peeling the potato and rinsing, cut it into thin wedges, rhomboidal or half moon as the mood takes you. Slice that green pepper into strips. The eggplant will do best as thumb-tip-sized chunks.
Lube up a wok or conventional frying pan and let it get hot for half a minute on a medium flame. Now add your diced vegetables and stir-fry them until they’re just starting to brown; somewhere between two and three minutes will leave you in the safe zone. Remove and drain on a paper towel.
There should be a little oil left in the pan, enough to throw your diced garlic into. Once the inimitable aroma of simmering garlic has pervaded the kitchen, put the veggies back in. Add soy sauce and salt, and stir-fry a minute until the veggies are glazed. Time for the corn starch to go in, but not until you’ve mixed it up on the side with double the amount of water. Drizzle it over the veggies then turn the flame up high, stir-frying double time like you see them do in the back of the Lucky Panda.
If you haven’t cut the potato too thick, or walked out during the process to check your email, your di san xian should be crisp yet tender, saucy but not gloopey. If not, it’s pretty hard to totally screw up “earth (di) three (san) flavor (xian)”. Back to the grilled cheese sandwiches if you manage to.
What You’ll Need:
2 cups green beans
1 large potato
Approximately 1 pound of pork spare ribs (3 or 4 hefty ribs)
3 tbsp. cooking wine
4 tbsp. soy sauce
2 tsp. salt
2 tbsp. vinegar
1 nice-sized bay leaf
3 star anise
1 thumb-tip sized piece of ginger, diced
Chop the ribs into thumb-length pieces (Ironic, all the thumb-cutting.), put them in a pot and cover them with cold water. Bring to a boil, and remove ribs immediately after. Dump the water. Heat up a wok on a high flame, with a few teaspoons of oil, and add the spices, letting them sizzle for less than half a minute. Put the ribs on top and start a stir-frying, a good two minutes. Now add enough boiled clean water, which you had going all along, to put the ribs a half-inch under.
Cover the wok and turn the flame down to medium. Cook 10 to 15 minutes, or until the ribs are just getting tender enough to tear into without need of a knife. Check the level of water if it’s boiling off too fast.
You should have peeled and sliced the potato into thumb-sized pieces, and snapped all the green beans in half while the ribs were softening, unless you live on the set of a cooking show. Add them to the ribs, and only add a little water if things are looking particularly Saharan. After another ten minutes, the potatoes will be as soft as the ribs, signaling time to turn off and tuck in.
Gou Rou Dun
And for the big finale, dog-meat stew, proven to thicken the blood to anti-freeze levels of viscosity. Aw, come on, where ya going? To a PETA rally, in your leather jacket? Pigs are cute and smart too, ya know! Alright, alright, off to KFC with you. Wouldn’t want you to make an inhumane dietary choice.