In case you were wondering about the changes in quality and size of my side photos, this is due to the fact that I had switched from using my tablet to my smart phone for camera.. The pictures may be smaller, but at least the food still looks delicious!
On my second night in Shandong Province, China, my dad and I made a visit to this little restaurant by the road, which specializes in “lamb soup“. The shop was located within a walking distance from the Main South Gate of Shandong University.
“Lamb soup” is a popular dish in the Northern regions of China. The hot soup and fat from lamb meat warms up the body and give you energy to fight against the cold during the winter in these regions (Shandong winter is nothing compared to Mongolia or Ha’er bin though)
Other than “Lamb soup” which was pretty much what anyone who steps foot into the restaurant would order (otherwise you would look like a weirdo going into a Lamb soup shop, looking for fried rice?), one can also order a wide range of “家常” dishes or “Home-style cooked” dishes which seems to be Chinese people’s favourite and go-to food when dining out.
I mean, about 50% of the little restaurants over there would attach a big sign saying “家常” next to their logo just to attract customers.
Anyway, the restaurant was decorated pretty plainly, all the tables were a smooth black, and the chairs accompanying them were rectangular shaped little stools. It seems Chinese people have the habit of sitting on little seats. At least that’s what I’ve found with most public seats which are usually a table and stools set made with stone. Most of the time, I could only sit half a buttocks on the stools each time.
What struck me about the restaurant was the fact that as you walked in, you would immediately be faced with the restaurant’s kitchen, of which there is only a long line of adjoined counters separating the dining area and the working area. Then on the right hand corner, there is a big round metal pot filled to the brim with lamb soup, all boiling and condensing to its delicious flavour through constant stewing. Bobbing up and disappearing the next second within the whitish soup were a few pieces of lamb bones. Next to the lamb soup pot are a small self-serve area where you can help yourselves to dried blackened pieces of spiced lamb which you can have along with the soup.
I had forgotten how much each bowl of lamb soup costed, but it shouldn’t be much since all you get is soup, with about four thin slices of fatty lamb (isn’t it strange to put “thin” and “fat” together in once sentence. Haha.) floating every now and then.
Looking at how calorific, from the colour, and the way the soup had been cooked, I wasn’t that keen on having the soup. But surprisingly, the soup didn’t taste fatty or oily or icky at all. It was actually quite soothing to gulp down the hot soup on a cold February night (like we were outdoors in the cold) I had thought the soup would taste 100% fat from the white colour, but in fact, the texture wasn’t thick. And the ingredients used in flavouring it reduced the queasy feel you normally get from the fat and smell of lamb meat. They must have used black pepper, and some other northern specialized spices in flavouring the soup.
There is something about the taste of lamb that is quite soothing. Kind of like home, and being safe and warm. Which is a sad feeling since you are getting that from eating a baby animal..
I’ve encountered quite a few totally high-calorific looking soup that looked about 1,000 calories per serving, but turned out to not taste that icky, such as this “Lamb soup” (and a few kinds of fish head soup), and I had figured the white colour of the soup must have come from other things in the bones used in making stock, such as bone marrow, and a few other nutritious components (I hope).
Perhaps, the same goes for the white-coloured soup for Ramen noodles. Actually, I think Ramen soup are actually still very calorific because for some soups they put a huge ladle full of pure fat in each bowls.
Back to the main point, being the strange person I am who enjoys the smell of lamb meat, I was pretty smug about sipping on my hot “Lamb soup” but to make things even better, the shop’s other specialty is “烧饼” or oven roasted flat bread which everyone eats along with the “Lamb soup”.
This flat bread is of traditional Mongolian recipe. When you order “Lamb soup” the waiter who was this buff guy in a round-necked long sleeved shirt, would immediately asked you how many pieces of flat bread we wanted. And once again, my dad and I were being total obvious foreigners (our passtime within our few days there while my dad was in China), and turned that guy’s head by requesting for only ‘a’ flat bread for ‘each’ person. Silence across the room.
This was because Shandong Province is known for huge food servings, especially wheat based food from giant steamed buns 馒头 bigger than the size of a man’s fist to 饺子 dumplings piling high on top of serving plates. Meat, especially beef is still a luxury over there. As a result, Shandong Province is also known as the home for huge, tall people.
As a result, most frequenters of this restaurant would order two or more flatbreads to go with their soup. Such as these two guys at the next table to us, with a basket stacked high with flat breads, and bowls of lamb soup already piling.
This flat bread was the best tasting flat bread I have ever tasted. It actually had a tinge of sweetness which I am guessing from a mixture of yeast fermentation and a dash of sugar. But it wasn’t all sweet, there was a certain flavour to it that was just right, which I am guessing was due to the chemical reactions between the heat crispy-ing up and browning the bread and the components of the bread itself. Then there was the aromatic flavours of sesame seeds sprinkled on top of the dough that just rounded up the flavour of this flat bread that to perfection. The texture might not have been as to die for as some flatbreads like the soft and chewy Indian “Naan”, but it is pretty impressive flatbread for staying as delicious as it was even though they were left ready made, stored inside big baskets with a white cloth draped over.
And then we also ordered one other dish to go with our small “Lamb soup” dinner:
This is an example of the oh-so popular range of “Home-style dishes”, stir-fried cabbages with dried chillis. They are often cooked with dried chillis (of course), sliced garlic, and seasoned with soy sauce. Some are also made in a soury sort of taste (with black vinegar), but all their must-have component is the dried chillies. Of course, you can adjust the spiciness to your liking.
There is a funny occasion surrounding the ordering of this dish. Because at the time, I had no idea how to read Chinese, I didn’t really know what sort of vegetables were used for this dish, except that it was vegetables. Then shortly after we made our order, I turned to the kitchen area, and noticed one of the very professional looking chefs in those white chef suits (which I found a strange polar for this little restaurant: the totally, aloof, almost gangster-looking attendants at the service section, and the professional-looking chefs with even chef hats, in the kitchen area) ducked down underneath the counters rummaging through raw materials and returned with a huge whole cabbage which he casually propped on to the chopping board, and promptly proceeded to chopping the whole plant up. I turned to look at my dad and said, half-scared, half-amused asked him whether that was for us.
He looked at me with ‘you-know-the-answer’ look. I was slightly dumbfounded about having ordered a dish of one whole cabbage, stir-fried, but it had turned out to be quite delicious – the cabbage weren’t too wilted, and the seasoning was just right. Soy-saucey (a mixture of a tinge of sweetness, saltiness, and soybean flavours), faintly garlicky and slightly spicy, with the distinctive aromatic smokey flavours of Chinese stir-fries. We made cabbage doner kebabs by wrapping the veggies in the delicious flatbreads.
Also, what I found cool about that restaurant was that they had free spices you can use for seasoning your food. Most tables had a little steel four condiments holder with each jars containing salt, MSG, dried chilli and powdered cumin. I had never encountered self-serving cumin at restaurants so I was pretty excited about that.
I believe from that point on, I started to become more convinced that Chinese food, notorious within the health conscious circle as being too oily or salty, are actually palatable, and in fact, quite delicious. Slowly, from the fat-phobia and carb-reprover I was, I was turning into an authentic Chinese food lover.