Pad-ding it up

Back in college, I had a strong affinity for the pad thai from Thai Garden, one of a whopping four restaurants along “Williamstown’s Times Square” (no kidding, that’s how it was advertised to me), the bustling thoroughfare that is Spring Street.  I hardly ever eat fried noodles when I’m at home, but somehow it resonates in my mind as comfort food, along with stuff like meatloaf and mash, blueberry pie, ice cream, American-Chinese food, and ramen.  Whether or not the pad thai was authentic was irrelevant, as my fondness for it had more to do with the circumstances under which I ate it (at birthday dinners, during study breaks, and on sunny spring days) than how it actually tasted.  In any case, I was excited to see how it would fare against the real deal in Thailand.  Overall, I found the versions we had in Thailand to be more boldly flavored with a lower noodle-to-other stuff ratio.  There was one time I had pad thai with an unusually strong essence of ketchup, and I got the sense that cooks ad lib quite a bit when making this dish, which I found ironic: it’s practically a national dish but you’d be hard-pressed to find it made the same way twice.  I also noshed on pad see ew a few times throughout the course of my trip, as my companion and I usually ordered one of the two noodles to accompany most of our meals.  Some hits and misses, but at the very least, you can count on pad see ew to give your lips a nice post-meal sheen 😛

Shrimp pad thai:

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Vegetarian pad see ew:

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Shrimp pad thai:

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Pork pad see ew (my uber-caramelized product at the cooking school):

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Noodles galore

Gansu cuisine is wheat-based (rather than rice-based, as it is down south), which translated into lots of delicious pulled noodles (as well as bing). In Zhangye, I probably consumed more noodles than in any other six-day span of my life. And this was not a bad thing, considering that most of what went down was hearty and delicious.

A pit stop in Lanzhou provided a glimpse of what would be a familiar sight for the next few days: a steaming bowl of spicy noodles studded with peppers, beef, and garlic stems…a pretty effective antidote to a cold, dry winter day.

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Plain wheat noodles, usually served with main courses upon request:

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Another spicy noodle dish, with wood ears, chicken, and garlic stems, bathed in chili oil:

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A delicious variation on the theme: potato noodles. The texture of these noodles was distinctly lighter and springier, somewhat more gelatinous, than the wheat noodles. I had never had anything like them (even sweet potato noodles are quite different), but I will be on the lookout in the supermarket from now on, because I want more. This particular dish was called ‘big plate chicken’, a Gansu specialty, and along with the potato noodles came hunks of potatoes, scallions, and chicken scraps (I uncovered a chicken head somewhere in there).  This plate was hefty enough to serve five normal people.  We ordered two of them to split between seven…which is mathmatically suspicious, but luckily for us, I can eat for three.

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An assortment of bing, some stuffed with combinations of meat, veggies, and spices:

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Heavy as it was, the food in Zhangye was some of the most satisfying I had had in awhile.  I had to do some serious detox-ing after coming back, to rid myself of all that oil- and carbo-deliciousness, and have developed a more pronounced double chin as a result of my uninhibited indulgence, but have no regrets about experiencing Gansu cuisine to its fullest (well, my fullest, at least, and then some).  Considering that may very well have been the first and last time I set foot in that province, I’m genuinely glad I maxed out on its culinary delights and left nothing to my imagination.  And best of all, I felt like indulging in such foods was integral to my connecting with that particular culture and fostering some sense of intimacy with it.  Part of it was bonding with the local students over these meals, but there were certainly moments when the very act of eating the food of this people struck an emotional chord for me, one that I suspect will resonate for a long while.  Everything just felt so honest, if spicily so, a quality which was also reflected in many of the individuals I encountered.  It was as if the food was made not to impress, but rather, with little sense of the impression it created, or something to that effect.  I’ll stop waxing, and come to think of it, expect less verbage in the next few blog posts as I continue to play catch-up.  I still have private kitchen #2 from the beginning of December that I have yet to unleash!