Food for thought: Top 3 foods I miss most from China

Graphic of four Chinese dishes. Clockwise from top left on a beige background is a bowl of beef noodle soup, a dim sum basket, a plate of jianbing (not mentioned in the article), and a plate of dumplings.
Graphic by Ugen Norbu Yonten

As college students, many of us are far away from home. My home is Beijing, which is more than 6,000 miles away. I miss my life there immensely, especially the food.

I crave Chinese food every day. Unfortunately, the Chinese food in the dining hall doesn’t compare to the authentic recipes in Beijing, and in hopes of satisfying my food nostalgia I have visited some Chinese restaurants in the Claremont area.

I have the habit of over-ordering because I often get too excited. The food isn’t as good as homemade, but the restaurant versions do make me content.

Here are three of my favorite Chinese foods, along with a suggestion of where you can try them nearby.

Dumplings – 饺子 (jiao zi)

Dumplings plump pockets of dough stuffed with whatever you want — are easily one of my favorite foods. You can get them boiled, fried or steamed. Back at home, my grandma makes the best dumplings, and her stuffing is comprised mainly of hand-minced pork, Chinese chives and abalone.

She even adds in homemade chicken bouillon for extra flavor. They are delicious on their own, but pairing them with a sauce of garlic vinegar, soy sauce and sesame oil adds a whole new dimension of flavor.

Dumplings are considered special in my family because they are only made a few times a year: Chinese New Year’s Eve and occasionally family celebrations. My family also has the tradition of putting cashews or dried cranberries in three dumplings out of the 100 we make. We call them lucky dumplings because whoever eats it will be lucky for a whole year.

I always enjoy talking about meaningful dishes with my friends here in Claremont. I was pleasantly surprised when I heard some of my friends had similar traditions of putting dried fruit or nuts in their dumplings.

The Upper House, a Chinese restaurant in Claremont, makes very tasty pork dumplings. The perfectly savory flavors patch up the nostalgic hole in my heart (and stomach).

Beef noodle soup – 牛肉面 (niu rou mian)

Nothing’s better than slurping down some hot homemade noodle soup on a cold day. Actually, this dish is perfect for any occasion, anytime. When my mom makes homemade beef noodle soup for my family, she braises the beef in spices for hours and makes thick-cut noodles by hand. The beef was consistently fall-off-the-bone tender, and very juicy. The noodles always had a bite to them. Whenever I ate it, I would feel at home, regardless of where I was.

On a cold rainy night, I went to The Upper House, again. I ordered the beef noodle soup because a friend recommended it, and I was not disappointed. It was delicious, and evoked memories of home. The broth was fragrant from the stewed beef, vegetables and spices.

Although the beef was from a different cut of meat than I was normally used to, it was still very tender and flavorful. The noodles, unlike my mother’s, were thin but still satisfyingly slurpable.

Tang yuan – 汤圆

This dish is sweet, and usually eaten for breakfast during Chinese New Year and Chinese Lantern Festival. It most closely resembles Japan’s mochi — both are made from glutinous rice and filled with sweet stuffing. Tang yuan is usually boiled in water and eaten hot, and is most commonly filled with black sesame paste, my favorite — not too sweet, a little savory and nutty. Other fillings include red bean, peanut and taro.

I craved this dish immensely in the months of January and February, especially during the Chinese Lantern Festival. Luckily, the Taiwanese American Students’ Association held an event at Scripps College with tang yuan. I hurried over as soon as I heard about it, stomach rumbling. No words could describe the happiness I felt when I took a bite out of a black sesame tang yuan, even though I burned my mouth.

Tang yuan can be bought frozen at 99 Ranch Market. Simply boil them in water until they float and you can enjoy the soft outer skin and the melty sweet filling inside.

I associate all three foods with my family. I miss gathering around the dinner table and making dumplings, talking about our lives and laughing at jokes. I miss the tradition of having beef noodle soup on my birthday. I miss waking up to a bowl of steaming tang yuan.

These dishes, all made with love, stir up so many happy memories. Maybe one day, I can use what I learned from my family and spread that love here. For now, the substitutions I have found around the Claremont area will have to do.

Stephanie Du SC ’21 is a biology major. Her hobbies include cooking, baking, traveling and eating all kinds of foods.

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