Xizhou Food Guide / Ersi (Rice Cake Noodles)

Welcome to another post from my Xizhou Food Guide series, where I highlight different specialty foods from Xizhou, Dali, Yunnan.

Recently, a coworker suggested we go hike Cangshan, the beautiful mountain range that overlooks our village. “A 1.5 hour hike with great views,” he said. “There’s a steep part, then it’s all flat. We’ll be back before lunch.”

Perfect. I gladly agreed, and set off with our group. We hiked for about 45 minutes through beautiful tea plantations, until we randomly stopped in the middle of the path. “Alright, here’s where we start the hike!” my coworker explained.

The seemingly random place we stopped was actually the extremely overgrown trailhead.It turned out to be a brutal 1 hour of non-stop, very steep hiking. Then, was 1 hour of hiking on a flat paved road that, I’ll admit, did have some gorgeous views. But oh man. Going up was tough.

When we finally came down, it was 2pm (not “before lunch” as promised…) and we were famished. My coworkers suggested that we try ersi, a local specialty that I see everywhere but surprisingly hadn’t tried yet.

Ersi (饵丝) is a form of rice noodles that are prepared in a way unique to Yunnan. Ersi is made of skinny slivers of erkuai (see below), which is rice that has been steamed and then compressed into a dense, chewy “cake.” Erkuai is literally translated as “ear piece,” due to the common shape it is formed into.

The resulting ersi, or noodles (literally “ear slices”) are thicker and chewier than regular rice noodles. They are a little harder to slurp than the usual slippery and skinny rice noodles, but they have a really hearty texture.

Many restaurants in Yunnan offer noodle dishes with the option to add traditional rice noodles or ersi. They can be used interchangeably, but the traditional ersi noodle soup is made of a light spicy broth, pickled vegetables, scallions, and ground pork.

Even though it was sweltering outside and we were sweaty and tired, the hot bowl of ersi felt perfect.

Xizhou Food Guide / Sugar Rose Cake

Welcome to another post from my Xizhou Food Guide series, where I highlight different specialty foods from Xizhou, Dali, Yunnan.

It seems like most of these posts begin with “I wish there was a better translation for this.”

Yesterday, I helped translate the new special menu of our restaurant into English, and I felt like every single dish had exactly the same problem.  黄焖鸡, which has a very famous rich sauce, literally translates to “Yellow Braised Chicken.” Some of the dishes use vegetables that we just don’t have in the West. However, I suppose Western dishes have a lot of translation difficulties, too. How do you translate the difference between shortbreads, bars, and cookies when you only have the word bing? How do you explain sponge cake or pound cake?

This is another winner from my favorite bakery in all of China, the Muslim bakery off the corner of the main square. This one is called “meigui gao,” literally “rose cake,” although when I was in the back trying to figure out the recipe to my buckwheat cake I saw that an old sign also called it “bai tang meigui gao,’ or “white sugar rose cake.” Considering there are so many different types of rose cookies and cakes here, I figure that “white sugar” makes it at least a little more specific.

This cake is thick with a powdery texture that crumbles quite easily. It reminds me of a less sticky version of mochi. It would be false to call it “light,” but it is definitely less rich than some of my other favorites from this shop!

I also love the way this cake looks: light green with flecks of pink rose petals scattered throughout.

Xizhou Food Guide / Buckwheat Cakes (Qiao Bing)

Welcome to another post from my Xizhou Food Guide series, where I highlight different specialty foods from Xizhou, Dali, Yunnan.

Two weeks ago, my coworker and I took the afternoon off to explore a nearby village that is famous for tie-dye. The village is on top of a large hill, so as we approached the top I switched to a lower gear on my bike when I heard a loud, metallic crunch. The damage was just as bad as it sounded.

Of course, the only bike shop in the whole town was closed, so we called a friend to help pick us up. As we waited, we walked around the food market and stumbled upon a local bakery. After asking the (very patient) vendor what the name of a certain cake was about 30 times, we finally gave up and decided to just try it.

lt would be difficult to over-exaggerate my obsession with this cake. The outside is thick and soft, made of a combination of buckwheat flour, wheat flour, and a thick molasses-like brown sugar. The buckwheat flour gives it a richer, nuttier flavor. The top has a coat of egg and honey wash, which gives it a sweet shine and slight crunch, and a sprinkle of sesame seeds and nut slices. The inside is stuffed with rose jam and a generous layer of a lemon-rose sugar. It is glorious.

Thankfully (or maybe unfortunately…) it turns out that a bakery in Xizhou also carries these heavenly buckwheat cakes. We finally learned the name, qiao bing (乔饼), which literally means “buckwheat cake.” It turns out that all the Muslim bakeries in the area carry this specialty, although each one has their own special filling. The one in Xizhou carries the lemon-rose sugar variety, but we’ve also tried a red bean filling and a peanut-sugar filling.

Cooling the qiao bing outside

‘Bing’ is sort of a catch-all word for any baked good that isn’t clearly a cake. It has been translated as cookie, cake, pancake… really it is whatever you want. While that makes it very easy to remember the name of baked goods, it makes it extremely difficult to find what you are looking for specifically. After a bit of Internet searching, I am convinced that this is a specialty exclusive to Yunnan. I found “Yunnan qiao bing” on Taobao, but no other information anywhere else. Buckwheat is too common of an ingredient, and ‘bing’ is too general of a name.

I had to have the recipe. My coworker and I talked to Lao Tou, the man who runs the Xizhou bakery, if he could teach us how to make qiao bing.  “Yes, 10 days from now,” he said.

Odd. But hey, if he would teach us this magical recipe, then sure.

10 days later, we excitedly came back and asked if he was ready to teach us. We agreed to meet the next day at 10am. For the next two hours, we got to stand in the back room, watching him make the cakes. We didn’t get the recipe, probably because 1) we just seem like weird foreigners, 2) he has been doing this for 40 years and doesn’t use a recipe, and 3) his recipe is likely a secret.

Stuffing the dough with filling

As we watched him, we tried to figure out what he was doing.

“Hmmm…  what’s that dark liquid in the unlabeled container?”
“Ok, he’s using only the egg whites.”
“It looks like that flour to sugar ratio is maybe 2:1?”

But really, we had absolutely no idea.

Shaping the bing into perfect circles

To be honest, I am not feeling very hopeful about finding the recipe or being able to duplicate this at home. But I have Taobao, and I have another 5 weeks. Wish me luck.