Shanxi, “West of the Mountains”, has the misfortune of being a backwater stuck between two provinces of similar name and far more prominence, namely Shaanxi to the west and Shandong to the east. The high point in its history was around 500 BC during the Spring and Autumn Period, when the state of Jin (晋) briefly ruled the area only to be crushed by the megalomanical Qin rulers of Shaanxi by 221 BC, and it was all downhill from there. A dry highland plateau largely cut off from trade, the largest industry today is coal mining.
Shanxi cuisine (晋菜 Jìn cài) is thus not particularly famous even in China, but the area has made two notable contributions to the country’s culinary history. Shanxi aged vinegar (老陈醋 lǎo chén cù) is China’s spiritual equivalent to Italy’s balsamic vinegar and looks the part, being deep black and funky.
The other dish comes to us from Datong, technically the only place in Shanxi I’ve been to, since my train from Mongolia to Beijing made a brief unexpected detour through there. Rail buffs may know the city as the site of the Datong Locomotive Factory, once the world’s largest manufacturer of steam locomotives, where the production lines kept puffing until 1988. To keep the hungry steam engineers fed, Datong’s other key product is dāoxiāomiàn (刀削面), usually glossed in English as “knife-cut noodles”, but perhaps more exactly described as “knife-shaved noodles”. Unlike the pulled lamian of Lanzhou, they’re prepared by making a big brick of dough and then using a knife to slice strips off at an angle, creating wavy noodles of uneven cross-section, thicker in the middle and thin on the edges — check out this video to see how they’re made.
Daoxiaomian are reasonably common in Singapore, but as far as I can tell there are no specialist restaurants for these, or Shanxi food for that matter. Instead, they’re typically a sideline at northern Chinese restaurants serving up dumplings, lamian, and other wheaty fare. So one rainy day, I dialed up a bowl of the Signature Beef Shaved Noodles (招牌牛肉刀削面) from the wonderfully named Wonderful Cafe, a remarkably Google-resistant stall unpromisingly located at the S-11 coffeeshop next to Bishan station. (For my non-Singaporean readers, S-11 is a conglomerate that proudly markets “cheapest dormitories in Singapore for worker” (sic), recently in the news for hosting Singapore’s largest COVID-19 cluster; not where you’d expect to find gourmet fare.)
So how? Pretty good! The last time I tried these at Food Republic in Vivocity, the noodles tasted more undercooked than chewy, but the Wonderful version was more thinly cut and the contrast between the soft outside and chewy center was nice. The Taiwanese-style dark beef soup was rich with star anise, the beef slices were soft and a few token pieces of bok choy rounded out the bowl.
While not a Shanxi dish, I couldn’t resist also trying out the Shandong Shredded Pancake (山东手抓饼 Shāndōng shǒuzhuā bǐng) from the other side of the mountains. This turned out to resemble the love child of north Chinese spring onion pancakes with Singaporean roti prata, being flaky, onion-laced dough fried until crispy and then torn by hand to shreds. Oily, unhealthy and eminently snackable.
At the Ang Mo Kio outlet of chain 57° Mala Xiang Guo (57度麻辣香锅), which promises temptation from the tip of your tongue to your stomach, I found another Shanxi classic called guò yóu ròu (过油肉). Literally “passed through oil meat”, and variously translated as “oily pork”, “lightly fried pork” etc, the idea is that the meat is quickly stir-fried in oil, hence the “passing through”. At 57° (no, I have no idea what this refers to), the dish comes with crunchy wood ear mushrooms, lots of onions and a few tomatoes, tossed in an only mildly spicy sauce flavoured with soy, rice wine and a token Sichuan pepper. The pork shoulder here was quite dark and chewy, so much so that I initially suspected they had used lamb instead, but the combo worked a treat. As is apparently standard in Shanxi, the sauce came separately from the accompanying bàn miàn (拌面) noodles, handmade wheat noodles that are essentially the same as Xinjiang laghman and not to be confused with eggy, chewy Singapore ban mian (板面). Just pour on top and enjoy!
And that’s that: I was hoping to find a few more Shanxi dishes like sweet & sour meatballs (糖醋丸子), but they don’t seem to exist in Singapore. It’s time to knife-shave this episode and move onto the next province.