Welcome everyone, to Tianjin! This is the city I was born in and where part of my heart will always lie. Don’t ask me to choose between Melbourne and Tianjin, because both cities I see as my home. Funny thing is that Melbourne and Tianjin are sister cities (I know Melbourne has a lot of siblings).
Since this is my hometown, so unfortunately or fortunately this is going to be a wordy post. So if you aren’t interested on a little bit of background of the food and the city, just scroll straight down to the first food photo you see and start reading from there.
Tianjin, one of the four major municipalities in China, situated only 134km from Beijing. Though to my knowledge, unless you have business relationships with companies in Tianjin, not many people know of its existence. To be honest, it isn’t much of a city for tourism, only recently have they tried to improve tourism in Tianjin by advertising and naming new sites. Plus, for the non-Chinese speaker, Tianjin isn’t an extremely accessible city, because unlike Beijing and Shanghai, English translations for bus stops, subway stops etc. is no where to be found. However, due to the lower prices of quality food and shopping when compared to Beijing, it is quite a popular weekend destination for nearby provinces. So next time you take a holiday in Beijing, brave the language barrier and give Tianjin a shot. It’s only a 40min train ride away from Beijing and with the terrible road traffic in China I promise you, time wise that is a very short journey. Another promise I can make is that the food won’t disappoint!
Bao (Buns). If there is one food that represent Tianjin, it has to be bao. Tianjin baozi, no other kind will do. They aren’t the puffs of clouds that took Melbourne by storm last year, actually I’ve never found the same kinds in Melbourne. To me this kind are the best, though I am severely biased in my opinion. Famous across the whole country is probably Gobuli (Go Believe) baozi, which is a famous traditional eatery in Tianjin. However, like many other famous eateries Gobuli has lost its old lustre through is pursuit for fame and further financial gains, so now it is really only a place for tourists. The locals have moved on to other less famous eateries that has kept to traditions and maintains the flavours of old.
So what makes a Tianjin bao unique. First is the skin, it is made using half leavened dough, so in the end the texture is soft, yet relatively thin and chewy. Traditionally, baozi are made from a “seed dough”, this is a fermented dough that gets passed down generations and between neighbours, sort of like how a traditional sourdough is made. After raising, an alkaline agent is added to neutralise the dough, giving it an unique taste. Nowadays, people are making the move to yeast and bicarbonate soda, however at least in my family we are still finding it hard to balance yeast and soda to make the characteristic texture we are used to. Without the seed dough in Australia, we are still searching for that fine balance, but we aren’t there yet. The most traditional filling is probably pork, shops often adjust the proportions of fat to lean meat according to the seasons. In summer the fat:lean ratio is approximately 3:7, whereas in the bitterly dry and cold Northern Chinese winter the fat ratio is upped to 4:6.
NanShi ShiPin Street
(outskirts opposite Lvguan St.)
南市 食品街 （外围，旅馆街对面）
The name is cumbersome to translate into English, but I think it implies that after eating their baos it will make everyone happy, from young children to the elderly. LaoYouLe (LYL) first opened in 1984 and has relocated several times, now it is situated on the outskirt of a major food complex called Shipin Jie. At one point LYL was a government owned eatery, so it has kept the old operating format. Basically, you order at the counter and the friendly lady gives you some tokens, you take the tokens to the kitchen window and they will hand over your food.
There is one more thing I have to explain before we can start eating and that is ordering. In Tianjin, we sell baos by weight and normally using the Chinese measurement for weight. The conversions is basically 1 jin = 500g, 1 liang = 50grams. For ease of access I will just try to convert everything in this post to metric measurements. Just for a basic idea when ordering, 5o grams gives you 3 baos, 100 grams gives you 6 and so on so forth. I observed some of the customers ordering and by my observations a man normally orders around 100 grams for himself. I have a pretty large appetite, so I will eat around 5 baos as well.
Like many establishments, baos are steamed to order and at LYL they suggest you consume them within 6 minutes of coming out of the steamer for optimum taste. During my stay in Tianjin, we came back to LYL 5 times, either for takeaway or as a quick meal. During our first visit, dad and I had been starved of buns for 2 years and I made the mistake of letting dad take care of how much food to order. So we ended up with 9 seafood baos, 15 pork baos and 2 bowls of wontons. Dad thought we could eat that much, but needlessly to say, he was wrong and we ended up taking away for grandma.
With the first bite of the soft skin, quickly drenched with savoury soup, I was home. It is really remarkable of how we can associate taste with memories and for me, this was the taste of home.
Pork baos are the simplest staple and simplicity reigns king among my family. The filling isn’t minced, but rather very finely diced, for a more interesting texture then mixed with spring onions, soy sauce and many others to create a rich, savoury filling. Even though, I’d agree that pork baos are the best, I don’t mind a good seafood one as well. Actually, seafood bao is a very inaccurate translation. We actually call it “三鲜” which means “3 umami”, still not clearer? Basically it contains 3 items that are considered full of umami, normally these 3 items would be: pork, prawns and some form of mushroom/fungi.
You can order some liquids with your buns, normally there are 3 options available: congee, wontons or a simple soup. Hospitality is old style here, you can bring your own bowl and if you want to take away you can even bring your own pot to takeaway for the family.
My dad has always had a strange request when I make his wontons. He always wants small filling, actually not just small but tiny. This makes me confused every time, because isn’t the bigger the filling the better? But this bowl of wontons explains it and this was the type he was used to growing up. I would say this is a different style of wontons to the ones I’m normally used to eating. Despite having the tiniest filling these wontons were so full of flavour. I can assure you, that when I make wontons at home with tiny fillings they taste horrible, but these ones tasted very nice indeed. Strange.
I would say that baos are a simple staple for us Tianjinese, they are fast and delicious. To me, this is what fast food should be like, no maccas, no KFC, but baos and plenty of them! But more than any of that, this is the food item I associate with home and home I was.