Following up on my must-eat meals in Beijing, where my mom’s family has been living for the past 30 years, it was only right that I tell you about the foods I needed to eat in my dad’s hometown of Changde 常德. Again, this does not encompass all of my favorite foods or Changde’s specialties, but here are the 3 foods I did not want to leave Changde without eating:
- Changde beef noodle soup
- 油粑粑 youbaba, a deep-fried doughnut
- Fish that I caught myself
1. Changde beef noodle soup
Changde is actually quite famous for their 牛肉米粉 niurou mifen, beef rice noodles. The noodles themselves are very distinct and difficult/impossible to recreate outside of Changde. (For similar reasons to why it’s difficult/impossible to recreate authentic NY-style pizza outside of New York – people attribute it to the water.) The noodles are the perfect consistency and absorb just enough flavor from the delicious soup without getting waterlogged. The soup is hearty and beefy without weighing you down and, in traditional Hunan style, it has a kick! (Hunan province, like Sichuan, is famous for spicy food. The big difference is the lack of the peppercorns that numb your mouth and/or cause extreme pain!)
This is officially my brother’s favorite breakfast food of all time, despite the fact that he usually tends to prefer more Western cuisines. We ate these noodles almost every single morning for breakfast with a splash of vinegar and relished these big bowls of soup and noodles and beef every single day we were with our family in Changde.
If you visit Changde, you must get a bowl. It is the most famous food out of Changde and one of the famous foods out of Hunan province.
There is no direct English translation for this, but you baba roughly comes out to oil cake. If you are familiar with 油条 youtiao, fried crullers, then 油粑粑 will be a familiar food. It is a deep-fried ring with scallion bits throughout the dough and definitely not a health food. I also don’t see these in Beijing, and, as I understand it, this class of fried pastry is fairly unique to Hunan. I like these savory ones that are crispy and fluffy for eating on their own or dipping into my beef noodle soup.
They also make sweet 粑粑 varieties, and I would frequently hear street vendors with speakers advertising these while seeing kids running after them. It’s one of those foods that is really simple that just remind me of being in my dad’s hometown, eating breakfast with my family, who would tell me to not eat so much fried food…
3. Fish I caught myself
Since my grandmother’s passing, I always stay with my aunt and uncle when we visit Changde. My uncle is super passionate about fishing. He goes nearly every day, and whenever I show up at his place, there is fish that he caught on the table. The last time I visited China, he was drying scores of little fish for us to munch on as soon as we got in from the airport!
My grandfather also used to really love fishing, so every time we visit Changde, my uncle will take us to his spot to try our luck with the lines. I have come to enjoy how meditative fishing is, even though the weather wasn’t great the morning we went. It’s relaxing to sit and wait and slow down, which is really difficult for me and my racing thoughts to do.
Unfortunately, I did not catch a fish this time around. I almost got one but it got away. 😢 My brother caught a fish and my uncle caught enough to make up for it, and we were still able to come home with freshly-caught fish for dinner. It always tastes a little better knowing that you had to sit and wait and be rewarded for your patience. (And, in my uncle’s case, his skill!)
The food in Changde is really good and very different from the food in Beijing. Hunan is considered a southern province while Beijing is in the north. While it sometimes takes a bit of adjusting after eating a lot of northern-style food, I always have a great time eating when I visit my dad’s side of the family and the foods above are a big part of that.
Again, I cannot stress how grateful I am to have such amazing family that feeds me so much delicious food, whether they make it themselves, bring it home for me, to take me out to eat it. And I feel so fortunate that this amazing cuisine is part of my heritage. Eating is a big way that Chinese people connect, and it is instrumental in helping me reconnect with family members I haven’t seen in years. Nothing bridges the awkward gap created by time quite like sharing a delicious meal.
Have you ever been to Hunan before? If so, what are some of your favorite foods from the region?
What regional foods do you love, for China or elsewhere? Hunan and Changde are known for their own variety of stinky tofu, but I just cannot bring myself to eat it, I’m sorry! It smells too stinky! (And I know, I know, the smellier the tastier, but I just can’t eat it after smelling it.) Frogs’ legs is also a dish I always see when I come back to Changde, and I refused to eat them for about 15 yeares after I rescued a frog to keep as a pet! I’ve had to acclimate over several years to the spice levels in the food in Changde, but it’s so worth it.