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Tianjin and Its Culinary Pleasures

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Chinese Food in China, Hong Kong, and/or Taiwan

Summer Volume: 2012 Issue: 19(2) page(s): 24 - 25, and 29

One of four cities on a political par with China's provinces, the others are Beijing, Shanghai, and Chongqing. This one is often called the 'capital of delicacies' or the 'city of one hundred snacks.' Tianjin has a population of about six million, is an industrial city, and a major communications center. Once known as Tientsen, it has many Western-style buildings in its former concession areas; they survived the 1976 earthquake. This city still serves Beijing.

Counting its suburbs and the area around it, Tianjin is home to more than eleven million people, is on the seacoast, and is China's third largest city after Beijing and Shanghai. It borders on the Hebei Province, on Beijing, and on the sea; and some call it China's northeast capital, others simply remind of its critical and culinary importance.

Spelled differently, the current Pinyin spelling used in this article's title, do note it was spelled differently before the Pinyin way now in use. Read Bob Sitsky's chapter in his upcoming book: Tientsin: A Russian Immigrant Remembers is the the way folks knew it in earlier times. Sitsky's article is in Flavor and Fortune’s Volume 18(1) on pages 23 and 24.

South and east of Beijing, Tianjin is cosmopolitan, prosperous, and young by Chinese standards. The Ming Emperor, Zhu Di, gave it its name when he reigned from 1403 to 1424 CE. Enriched by sea trade, many rivers of this province join the Grand Canal. Together, they drain into the Bohai Gulf and ultimately into the Yellow Sea. Recently, on land, a thirty minute high-speed rail line to Beijing is the newest feature of this city.

Tianjin and its suburbs are home to flour and spinning mills, mining, chemical and culinary plants, and they are headquarters for sea, rail, and telegraphic interests. A stock exchange specializing in over-the-counter equities recently opened here; and it has direct links to Hong Kong. Clearly, Tianjin was and is of economic importance.

On the culinary front, Tianjin is known for Gobuli buns and northern-style cuisine, and for what some call caramelized cranberries correctly known as candied haw fruit. Those in the know speak about its fantastic pears, huge cabbages, and a popular dish made with noodles and beef. Popular here and throughout the country are local versions of Russian and Japanese beef and lamb dishes and other popular specialities.

In the 1400's, Tianjin was a walled garrison built next to the Zhigu settlement. At that time, known as an important salt distribution center, the state monopoly collected salt tax and bestowed favors on it. This major government revenue politically and economically garnered respect and attention, and it gave this city many perks.

Ninety-eight percent of those living in and around Tianjin are Han Chinese. The other two percent are a mix of Hui, Manchu, Mongol, Korean-Chinese, Tujian, and Zhuang peoples. The minorities, the city's past foreign concessions, and the more recent contacts with Hong Kong and the rest of the world are important avenues as is easy access to the Yellow Sea, the Pacific Ocean, and beyond. This city is at the forefront of westernization and modernization.

Three important Tianjinese culinary delicacies are known throughout China. Tops are their special steamed stuffed dumplings called gou bu lin, sometimes written as gou bu li. There is also fried twisted dough called gui fa xiang ma hua, and special fried glutinous ear-hole cakes called er duo yan zha gao. The origin of gou bu lin is believed from 1859 during the Guangxu Era of the Qing Dynasty. Recognized by their sixteen to eighteen pleats, they taste more bread-like than dumpling-like, and they have fatty pork and leek for their stuffing.

The fried dough twists are less than a hundred years old and are equally popular. Before frying them they are kneaded with cake crumbs, and when they come out of the fryer, these sweet-smelling crusty delights stay tasty and terrific for several months. The origin of the ear-hole cakes is fuzzy. They are filled with red bean paste, named for the lane where the original shop made these yellow glutinous rice cakes, and there are many uncorroborated stories about them.

Tianjin is known throughout China for other buns, steamed and fried, also rice cakes including jian bing guo zi which are thin soft pancakes rolled around a fried dough stick. Known, too, are gui fa xiang, the crisp flower-like bun delights and many other bun and other super snack food phenomena.

In addition, many local braised dishes are popular here and elsewhere including Eight Big Bowls, Ovary and Digestive Glands of Crabs and Shark’s Fin, Quick-fried Fish, Shredded Chicken with Silver Bean Sprouts, and Braised Whole Chicken. Some well known non-food items in this city are known and popular, too. These include their Boxer Rebellion Museum, a huge Water Park, and the recently built Olympic Stadium.

Friends from Tianjin tell us that the Red Flag Restaurant, Kiessling Restaurant, and the Hongqishun Restaurant are exceptionally popular. They say folks from elsewhere in China and those from further afield who visit here should not miss a single one of them. Should you visit Tianjin, we suggest you taste the aforementioned foods and the many German, Russian, British, and Muslim dishes known here, too.

Tianjin's Gou Bu Lin Restaurant has branches all over China and a few in the United States. Many are franchised as was the one no longer on 40th Road in Flushing New York. It was not popular enough to survive a recent economic downturn. Flushing does have a huge food court on the lower level of the Grand Mall on Roosevelt Avenue, and among its some forty fast food facilities is a place to enjoy some Tianjin dishes if not planning to visit there.

When in Tainjin, do try their hundreds of different stuffed bun varieties; most are simply known as Steamed Stuffed Buns. Do try their er dou yan or fried cakes, their sesame seed cakes, many barbecued dishes, the many shrimp and crab dishes, wheat dishes, foreign-influenced foods, minority dishes, crab, cuttlefish, pigeon, and cured meat dishes, too. Tianjinites love foods made with pickled vegetables. They are different from others in China because, as one example, they ferment the cabbage used in so many of them before adding it. Some say other differences include that they use salt water, and others give credit to their techniques. Whatever it may be, Tianjin foods are special and certainly delicious.

Empress Dowager Cixi had local Tianjin delicacies brought directly to her at the palace. So do seek out their great stewed abalone featured with this article, some super Tianjin skate, and their meat-pie-like fried buns filled with pork, chives, fresh coriander, and wine. All are presented beautifully and are a delight to see and a bigger one to enjoy!
Gobuli Dumplings
4 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 pound fatty finely minced pork
4 ounces chicken stock
3 Tablespoons thin soy sauce
2 Tablespoons minced fresh ginger
2 Tablespoons minced scallions, green part only
2 Tablespoons pickled napa or another pickled cabbage
2 Tablespoons sesame oil
2 teaspoons salt
1/2 cup Chinese red vinegar
1. Mix flour with one cup of boiling water. Mix well then knead, adding a teaspoon at a time of cold water until the dough is smooth. Then let it rest for forty-five minutes.
2. Gently mix the pork, stock, soy sauce, ginger, scallions, pickled vegetable, sesame oil, and the salt until just combined.
3. Roll the dough into a thick cigar-shape and cut into sixteen pieces. Roll each of these into a two-and-a-half-inch circle and put a tablespoon of the filling in the center. Wet the edges with water, fold in half, then pleat making ten or more pleats for each of them; experts make eighteen pleats.
4. Place these buns an inch apart on parchment paper or a cloth on the rack of a steamer basket over boiling water and steam for six or seven minutes.
5. Serve with the vinegar as a dipping sauce.
Meat Pies, Tianjin Style
3/4 pound finely minced or ground beef
1/4 pound finely minced or ground pork fat
3 Tablespoons peeled water chestnuts, finely minced
1/4 cup finely minced Chinese chives
1/4 cup pickled Tianjin or napa or another pickled cabbage
3 Tablespoons Chinese rice wine
2 Tablespoons thin soy sauce
1 Tablespoon mixed salt and ground pepper
1 Tablespoon granulated sugar
1 Tablespoon chicken bouillon powder
1 Tablespoon sesame oil
3 Tablespoons cornstarch
1 cup vegetable oil
1. Gently mix ground beef, pork fat, minced water chestnuts, Chinese chives, pickled cabbage, rice wine, soy sauce, salt and pepper, sugar, bouillon powder, sesame oil, and the cornstarch just until well-combined, and let this mixture rest for fifteen to twenty minutes.
2. Stir once more, then divide into three-inch patties and press each one flat to a thickness of half an inch.
3. Heat oil in a wok or fry-pan and when oil is hot, add the patties, reduce the heat, and fry until brown, then turn over and fry the other side until brown.
Note: These patties can be put between two rolled sheets of dough kneaded from one pound of flour and one cup of cold water, then sealed on all edges and fried, if preferred.
Stewed Abalone
6 fresh abalone or about one pound
1/2 pound chicken thigh meat on bone
1 small piece Jinhua ham or a ham bone
1 pork chop on the bone
6 chicken feet, nails chopped off
1/4 cup coarsely chopped pickled Tianjin cabbage
1/4 cup white rock sugar
1/4 cup oyster sauce
12 whole asparagus or 24 string beans
1/2 cup abalone sauce or XO sauce
2 Tablespoons cornstarch
1. Rinse the abalone first with cold water, then with one quart of boiling water before putting it into a clay pot or casserole.
2. Put the chicken thigh in a strainer basket and pour one quart of boiling water over it and add it to the abalone. Do the same with the ham, pork chop, and chicken feet one at a time.
3. Add the minced pickled vegetable, rock sugar, and the oyster sauce and one cup of boiling water and braise covered for ninety minutes. Then remove them and set aside the cabbage, ham, pork chop, and chicken feet. Add the asparagus and simmer for three to five minutes, then remove and set them aside. Discard the minced vegetables and set aside to use in a soup. Put the abalone on the asparagus on a pre-heated serving platter.
4. Bring two cups water to the boil, add the cabbage and steam for three minutes, then remove it and put on the platter surrounding the abalone.
5. Mix the abalone or XO sauce with the cornstarch and bring to the boil stirring until thickened. Pour over the cabbage, abalone, and asparagus and serve.

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