20,000 Miles Till Lunch: Finding Noodle Heaven in Shanxi Province

[Photographs: Fiona Reilly]

Editor's Note: Welcome to the second installment of 20,000 Miles Till Lunch, in which Australian-born, Shanghai-based writer Fiona Reilly shares the sights and flavors she encountered during her family's six-month road trip around China. Last time, we left Fiona; her husband, Matt; and their two daughters, Bella and Lily, in Inner Mongolia. Today, they pick up in northern China's Shanxi Province.

We enter Shanxi Province directly beneath the Great Wall. Not the imposing, gray-stone, crenellated portion marching across China north of Beijing and Tianjin, the Great Wall of history books and documentaries. This is the crumbling, rammed-earth section, eroded into a line of anthills along the northern border of Shanxi and punctuated every now and again by lumpy mounds that used to be garrison towers.

Once we realize what it is, we stop and walk among the ruins. Lily looks disappointed. "There's no luge," she says.

The Great Wall at Mutianyu, near Beijing, has a luge, a slim, silver, slippery dip that twists and curves and takes you all the way to the bottom at great speed, like a waterslide. Climb up, slide down, and repeat: one of humanity's greatest accomplishments, transformed into an amusement park ride. Lily knows from personal experience that the luge runs much faster in winter, when the metal is cold and smooth, than in summer—we visit it often. But here in Shanxi, there are no ticket booths or souvenir sellers or chairlifts and luge rides. There's just us, a few ancient grave mounds, some wild thyme and chives growing in the red earth, and the dilapidated wall.

That night, we camp in a peach grove alongside the Wall. Nobody stops us. Locals stroll past for their afternoon tai qi. Some pause in the orchard to pick velvety green peaches for their soft, cream-colored pits, a delicacy we will later see on a restaurant menu, stir-fried with four-treasure vegetables.

In the month since we set out from our home in Shanghai, every provincial border we've crossed has ushered in a new regional culinary tradition, with its own characteristics and tastes—there was Shandong, all light flavors and seafood; Tianjin, with its pickled and salted vegetables; Inner Mongolia and its abundance of mutton. And, while the plateau province of Shanxi is often heralded as the cradle of Chinese history, I'm most excited to explore its cuisine, known as jin cai—famous for its liberal use of locally produced aged vinegar, round breads and pastries called bing, and an extraordinary variety of noodles.

The Wall isn't far behind us as our RV rolls into Shanxi's northern city of Datong. When we arrive, the big country town (population: 3 million) is in the throes of transformation: Construction workers are knocking down acres of tiled 1970s apartment blocks, '80s shops, and '90s offices, all destined to be replaced by gleaming housing developments, impressive bridges, and broad boulevards. The ambitious mayor believes Datong's glory days as the former capital of the empire can be resurrected, so the city's old quarter, its walls, gates, and gardens, are being entirely rebuilt. It's a grand scheme, or will be once it's finished, but for now, Datong is an enormous demolition site with piles of rubble, clouds of dust, vast expanses of featureless mud, and building after building marked "condemned" in red spray paint.

It's hard to imagine we'll find any restaurants open amid the reconstruction. While our girls have gained an appreciation for Chinese food on this journey, they convince me and Matt to have lunch at Datong's only "Western" restaurant, a fast food joint with a baroque-Victorian theme. The colorful laminated menu boasts milkshakes, pizzas, and cheesecake—a jarring contrast to the overstuffed ornate velvet sofas, the flocked wallpaper, the chandeliers, and the potted palms in each corner. Our Hawaiian pizza arrives in a deep dish, with eight red glacé cherries and chunks of canned pineapple embedded into its doughy, cheese-less surface, like a dreadful cherry-pineapple clafoutis. It comes with a side salad of fruit drizzled with mayonnaise. It's a foregone conclusion that we won't be back for dinner.

And so, come evening, we head to the Phoenix Court, a 500-year-old dining institution housed within a Ming Dynasty mansion. The interior is lavish, replete with gilt phoenixes flying across the ceiling and heavy linen tablecloths draped over mahogany tables. Diners are discreetly concealed behind delicate carved wooden screens.

While we enjoyed the simple, rustic lamb and soothing soups of Inner Mongolia, our first taste of Shanxi's cuisine offers a welcome contrast in technique-intensive dishes and a breadth of new ingredients. The meal begins with a cold dish of finely grated strands of raw bottle gourd (also known as calabash), slim and long as noodles, coiled elegantly, turban-like, in a bowl of vinegar dressed with chilies and braised scallions. The vinegar clings to the smooth, slippery strands, as soft as real noodles. We follow with guo you rou, pork slices that are first fried and then braised, and the peeled kernels of baby green peaches, tender and pale like soaked almonds.

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But we're here for one thing above all else: The region's shaomai are renowned for their delicacy, and the restaurant has been honing and perfecting theirs since 1518. Our order doesn't disappoint. The rich, smooth pork filling is wrapped in skins thin as tissue paper, the edges gathered and ruffled like peach blossoms. We dip the dumplings in the region's namesake condiment, a dark, aged grain vinegar that delivers tang with layers of sweetness and malt.

For dessert, we share a steamed millet pudding surrounded with soft jujubes, drowned in a luscious syrup of sea buckthorn berries. The soft, pale yellow millet has a faint nutty flavor, enriched by the honey sweetness of the date-like jujubes and the pop of the deep orange sea buckthorn berries. Known in Chinese as shajishu, the berries are about the size of plump peppercorns and grow wild all over Shanxi. They're sweet and a little tart, with the rich taste of ripened apricot. For a Chinese dessert, it's unusual in its sweetness and decadence.

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Buoyed by the experience, we slow our drive southward through Shanxi, stopping briefly on our way out of Datong to buy some Shanxi vinegar of our own. The black-hued vinegar is the province's best-known food export, and it makes its way into almost every one of Shanxi's regional dishes. But in the tiny supermarket, I'm immediately overwhelmed. I quickly discover that "Shanxi vinegar" is little more than an umbrella term for a vast suite of grain vinegars—the shelves are crowded with bottles of dumpling vinegar, noodle vinegar, vinegar for seafood, aged vinegar, and even small bottles of "health tonic" vinegar. ("But if your health is good, you can also use it for dumplings!" the lady in the shop tells me.) It's a far cry from the limited selection of bottles I remember buying at specialty stores back home in Australia; in retrospect, little more than crude attempts at the refined and complex real deal. Eventually, I settle on two small bottles of high-quality dumpling vinegar (about a dollar each) and a boxed set of assorted vinegars, taking tiny sips of each bottle, like Alice in Wonderland, to ascertain their properties and tastes.

We meander south to the provincial capital, Taiyuan, through fields of sunflowers and corn and villages with rows of neat redbrick houses with amber or jade glazed roofs. Taiyuan buzzes with the energy of a big frontier town, with wheeled conveyances of every kind—bicycles, motorbikes, tray-back tricycles, and three-wheeled passenger carts, like human sardine cans on wheels. Cars, trucks, buses, and semitrailers all compete with us for road as pedestrians weave themselves into the remaining spaces.

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We're richly rewarded at Taiyuan's night market, an open labyrinth of smoke-filled streets and lanes, alive with color and wonderful aromas. We feast on shí tou bǐng (stone cakes)—cornmeal cakes filled with sweet red bean paste and baked on a griddle, with heated pebbles or iron ball bearings indenting their surface. The crisp exterior and toasty corn contrast with the starch-sweet deep purple filling. On a side street, we eat grilled skewers of fatty lamb and ròu bǐng, flaky sesame-crusted pastry rounds stuffed with ground pork and lamb fat seasoned with pepper.

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The girls may be resistant to some Chinese specialties, but our whole family is unanimous in its love for Chinese noodles. In Shanxi, noodles are idolized and celebrated—we encounter dozens of varieties. There are tiny triangular "cat ear" noodles, each one pressed flat by a thumb, its edges curling inward. I watch a row of chefs make willow leaf noodles with gently tapered ends, cutting the noodles to shape with long brass scissors. When I later taste them, served in pork sauce with yellow beans and green bean pickles, they are smooth, with a perfect chewy bite. I eat them alongside tiny macaroni-like noodles with a rich tomato and garlic sauce, reminiscent of Italian passata, and for a moment I forget I'm in Taiyuan and not Rome. My favorite are the knife-cut noodles, shaved from a block of dough right into the boiling pot and served with a hearty vegetable ragout. We try as many kinds of noodles as the days allow.

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But there is one very particular type of noodle on our list, and we head to the historic walled Ming Dynasty town of Pingyao to find it. At the end of a long colonnaded drive lies the imposing 600-year-old dark stone city wall; it's a scorching August day, and the wall radiates additional heat of its own. At each point of the compass, ancient barbican gates protect the city from intruders, including our hulk of a camper van, so we enter the walled city on foot. Dark stone mansions with gracefully upturned eaves line the streets, their roofs ridged with rows of curved black tiles. Glazed terra-cotta dragons in imperial yellow, jade green, and cerulean blue march across the ridges of each roof. Red lanterns hang from the gables, like apples on strings.

With no place to camp inside the walls, we stay in a Ming-era mansion turned hostel, a stone structure with a black terra-cotta roof. The four of us step over the heavy wooden threshold that protects the house from evil spirits and ghosts and into a light-filled central courtyard, surrounded by an elegant arrangement of three double-storied wings.

"Good choice, Mum!" says Bella. I've been phoning hostels from the road, trying to find one with a family room large enough for four. Our room faces the courtyard, and the entire far side is occupied by a long kang bed, an earth platform heated from below by a small stove in the wintertime.

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In Pingyao, the refined jin cai of Taiyuan and Datong has been replaced by simpler country fare, but that's what we're here for. Specifically, for oat noodles. Oats are a staple crop in Shanxi, and they end up in a variety of different noodle dishes. We're intent on trying steamed shanxi youmian, flattened noodles that are rolled into short tubes and stood on their ends for an unusual, honeycomb-style presentation.

Out in the cobbled streets, there's a tiny open-air noodle restaurant serving cold beers and hot oat noodles. A steamer basket full of honeycomb shanxi youmian noodles arrives, alongside a small bowl of rich, thick tomato-and-garlic sauce. The vendor, a middle-aged man with steam-tinted spectacles, explains, "You peel off the noodles one at a time with your chopsticks and dip them in the sauce." They look coarse and heavy, like whole-wheat pasta, but have a surprisingly light texture, each noodle thin as handmade paper. The oats give the noodles a mild nutty taste, and the sauce provides a vibrant counterpoint. Every sauce-draped noodle is a perfect single bite.

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Seeing how much Matt and the girls have enjoyed the first steamer, he offers another, but this time dry-fries the noodles with plenty of garlic, onion, chili, and a little cumin—a local dish known as ganbian kao lao lao. He brings Bella and Lily frosted bottles of golden-orange sea buckthorn juice, cracking the tops with a bottle opener hitched on the string of his apron.

"Wow," I say, slugging an icy beer as the girls down their juice and hit up the vendor for one last round of honeycomb noodles.

"Noodle heaven?" Matt asks.

"Noodle heaven," I reply.