When I first visited my Chinese parents-in-law, their biggest worry was if I will be used to their food (mine was if I will even understand a word of their dialect…). It turned out their worry was unnecessary (mine wasn’t though…).
I always thought it would be my husband’s mother who prepares all the dishes. But I was totally wrong. My mother-in-law, let’s put it this way, is very good at making dumplings and ‘mantou’ (steamed buns), but that’s the entire menu there. My father-in-law on the other hand, turned out to be an amazing cook! Until today I don’t understand why my husband is so bad at even preparing the simplest dish… he can burn water…
Learning from the Best – My Chinese father-in-law
I am an avid cook and baker. I love to try new things. I have no problem in just taking a cook book and experimenting with different recipes. So it was natural for me to ask my father-in-law to teach me a few Chinese dishes (starting with my favourite ones of course).
Of course my own mother has taught me a lot of different dishes over the years, and I love preparing them at home for my husband. But living in China makes preparing Western dishes somehow harder. You always have to plan well in advance to have all ingredients ready, especially here in our small town we have no access to many needed ingredients, so I always have to get them from Taobao. There is no spontaneity with preparing Western dishes. (Don’t even get me started on baking in China… I have written detailed posts: “Baking in China – A Guide: Ingredients“ and “Baking in China – A Guide: Equipment and Supplies“).
The first Chinese dish I have ever learned (and maybe most of you living in China have), was the very common and always safe dish, tomatoes with eggs 西红柿炒鸡蛋. Actually I already prepared myself that dish with a bowl of rice when I was still in High School. Of course I have dabbled in a few other Chinese dishes back home like spring rolls, an eggplant dish and something with curry, all of which I thought “That’s real Chinese food”.
Coming to China and living with my Chinese parents-in-law showed me that there is a huge difference between Chinese food in restaurants and Chinese food families prepare daily at home. Home prepared meals are usually simpler and faster to prepare, and they make use of local products.
I have learned how to make a variety of vegetable dishes and meat dishes, but my favourite are the noodle dishes father-in-law taught me. They are quick to make, simple, but delicious. So I am going to share with you what I have learned. Maybe you can try them at home. I strongly recommend them if you like noodles as much as I do!
Simple home-made fried noodles 炒面条
Yes, this is my all-time favourite dish. And whenever I go visit parents-in-law I would ask for these fried noodles. Only father-in-law knows how to do them right! He’s the fired noodles king!
They are very easy to make, too. You only need:
- Noodles (best to use fresh ones, as the dried ones tend to stick together after boiling with water)
- Meat (whatever you want, father-in-law usually uses pork, but I tend to use chicken at home)
- Vegetables (you can use any of the below, or everything, I always use what we still have at home):
- Green beans, snap peas, baby corn
- Scallions / shallots – either sliced thinly or into 2″/4cm pieces
- Onions – 1/4″/0.5cm slices
- Beansprouts – use as is
- Leafy Chinese greens (eg. bok choy/pak choy/Chinese broccoli) – separate leaves from stems, cut stems vertically into roughly 1/2″/1cm sticks
- Firm vegetables (eg. carrots, zucchini) – slice into 1/5″ / 3mm slices
We always buy the fresh noodles in on the daily market. They keep them refrigerated to not dry out. We don’t boil them in water, but steam them over hot water until they are soft. Time really depends on how many noodles you steam and how big your pot is. With the huge wok at my parents-in-laws kitchen it only take a few minutes, at home with my little pot it can take more than half an hour…
While the noodles are being prepared, preheat some oil in a wok and throw in the onions together with the meat. The only seasoning we use is 鸡精 jijing (chicken bouillon powder) you get in every supermarket here, a bit of salt, a bit of pepper… that’s it. Add the rest of the vegetables and fry for one or two minutes. When the noodles are ready just throw them in together and fry for another few minutes (sometimes need to add a bit more oil at this point and more seasoning, if you like a bit of soy sauce). Done. Really simple and delicious.
My father-in-law’s Zha Jiang Mian 炸酱面
The Chinese characters for Zhajiangmian are 炸酱面. 炸 means fried, 酱 means sauce, and 面 means noodles. The sauce itself (before being packaged into a jar at the store) is fried, hence the “fried” in the name. Since this dish originated in Beijing, it is translated to Beijing Fried Sauce Noodles.
Father-in-law doesn’t prepare them entirely the traditional Beijing way, but they still taste awesome and are very easy to make at home. You only need:
- Ground beef or pork
- Black bean sauce Dou Chi Jiang 豆豉酱
- Tian Mian Jiang 甜面酱 (a sweet sauce made of fermented flour)
- Scallions / shallots – either sliced thinly or into 2″/4cm pieces
- Cucumber, cut to matches (sometimes if we don’t have cucumber we use carrot or even beansprouts, something crunchy)
While you put your noodles to boil, take out a pan, fill with a bit of oil and add the ground beef/pork and scallions when hot. Fry until the meat is brown all over and only small pieces are left. Add black bean sauce and Tian Mian Jiang (I am honestly not sure how much, depends on how much meat you use, I always look at the consistency and taste). If the sauce is too thick you can add a bit of boiled water (you can use the left over water from boiling the noodles). Turn heat down a bit and boil for another five minutes.
Pour one serving of meat sauce over one serving of noodles and garnish with cucumbers cut into matchsticks (or whatever else you have prepared).
I can’t recount how many times father-in-law has prepared these two noodle dishes over the years for me. I am sure they must be fed up with having to eat the same fried noodles over and over again when I am there, but for my Chinese parents-in-law food means love, and so whatever I like to eat, they will do their best to have it available whenever I am there. I am very lucky.
Do you have learned how to prepare Chinese dishes? What are you favourite ones?
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