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Chinese Street Food Starts With Spicy ‘Cold Food’ Dishes

Pak choi salad with mango and carrot.

Pak choi salad with mango and carrot. Credit: StockFood.

When Westerners come to China, one of their first complaints is that nothing in Chinese cuisine serves the role of a simple salad. The argument generally proclaims that most Chinese food is overcooked or over-fried to the point of losing all traces of the healthy nutrients held in the original raw ingredient. What remains, they say, swims in a sea of oil or whimpers cloaked under a thick, crispy outer shell, when all that was desired is a bunch of cold vegetables that are also tasty.

It took me a couple years of living and traveling throughout China to learn what part of the meal fills this role.  It’s called, appropriately, liang cai (pronounced “lyang-tsai”), which literally means “cold food.” Liang cai refers to a category of Chinese dishes made mostly of chopped vegetables, tofu and nuts. They’re served raw after being steeped in a simple sauce of garlic, rice vinegar, sesame oil and red pepper.

Customers at a cold dish stall in Beijing. Credit: Manuela Zoninsein

Customers at a cold dish stall in Beijing. Credit: Manuela Zoninsein

Beijingers eat liang cai a lot, especially during the sticky summer months when it is often picked up on-the-go from streetside stands and eaten either as a quick meal with chopsticks straight from the plastic bag, or taken home to snack on while waiting for lunch or dinner to be served. Every province has its own specialties and flavor iterations. Even though I’ve been sampling liang cai for years, only recently did I discover a consistent, and consistently delicious, source of liang cai here in Beijing.

Master Fan’s liang cai

It comes to me care of Fan Jin, who holds court over a small stand in a small market at the Geological Sciences University, a square block campus in the Wudaokou student district in northwest Beijing. Fan is a stocky and solid 56-year-old with a round belly, round face and square hands and a circular face. He’s losing his graying hair.

Everyday he uniformly wears a white button-up collared shirt over a white tank, both of which are tucked into black, belted pants. His appearance gives off the practical air of a worker going through his daily chores diligently, but without interest. Since he’s been doing this for 24 years at various universities in the neighborhood, I suppose I understood his boredom, but from watching clients gather around his stand daily it’s clear his food excites those who eat it.

Fan Jin preparing a liangcai in Beijing. Credit: Manuela Zoninsein

Fan Jin preparing a liang cai in Beijing. Credit: Manuela Zoninsein

So it was logical that he responded to my requests to show me how to prepare food by first wholly disregarding me, and then expressing varying degrees of surprise and skepticism that eventually morphed into humor. Only after I showed up daily over several weeks did he finally warm up to me. I began calling him “Master Fan,” explaining I wanted to be his diligent student and watching him prepare dishes whenever he refilled his wares.

Watch Fan Jin prepare liang cai.

Generally, Fan stands behind his refrigerated display stand, which holds between eight and 12 plastic containers, each with a different kind of liang cai, depending on the time of day and how much student foot traffic recently passed through. The container also holds some animal offal such as pigs’ feet, knees and ears, which can be chopped up and added to the mix, though as a vegetarian I haven’t sampled this option.

Chinese street food features simple, fresh dishes

Dishes are named by the central ingredient.  For instance, doufusi entails thin threads of dried tofu, often accompanied by a bit of cilantro. Qincai, or celery, comes chopped into cubes and paired with boiled peanuts and bits of cooked carrot. My current favorite, jinzhengu, or gold-needle mushrooms, is mixed with pea shoots and a few strips of grated carrot.

Fan’s favorite is the songergu, which is chunky matsutake mushrooms interspersed with bok choy. He recently added a doujiao option of green beans that stand alone, which he’s been promoting to customers pretty regularly.

After indicating the weight of the product they want to buy, clients pick out the dishes they want, which are thrown together into a plastic bag nestled into a metal bowl. After the bag is weighed and priced, Fan tosses the goods into a larger bowl and mixes them together with more of the oil and vinegar, plus additional smashed garlic and hot pepper if requested.

For the marinade, after he has chopped and chilled the vegetables he liberally coats them with salt and MSG, and then douses them with sesame oil, rice vinegar and garlic-infused vegetable oil. He doesn’t measure, but the liquids are mostly one-to-one in proportion.

A main attraction

The flavor hits the tongue quickly, thanks to the sharp vinegar and spicy pepper; but it stays on long after swallowing, leaving a smoky flavor thanks to the oil and in part to the garlic. Because the dishes are raw and served cold, there’s also a nice crispness, and the textures of the two or three ingredients usually contrast between crunchy and soft.

Perhaps liang cai have slipped under the radar for this long because they are often placed on tables as small plates, either as appetizers to the main dishes, or as healthy side dishes that serve as afterthoughts alongside steamed buns or dumplings. More and more, however, they are the main attraction for me.

Photo: Pak choi salad with mango and carrot. Credit: StockFood

Zester Daily contributor Manuela Zoninsein is a Brazilian-American reporting on sustainable food, travel and business from Shanghai. A former dining editor for Time Out Beijing, her work has appeared in Condé Nast Traveler, ClimateWire and Newsweek. She writes about her passion for healthy, interesting and sustainable food at

  • Roz Cummins 9·7·12

    Thanks for this great article. The only cold vegetable dish I can find to order here in the US from generic Chinese restaurants is cold pickled cabbage. It’s delicious, but few places offer it.

  • Bookseller 9·10·12

    The reason few places offer that pickled cabbage dish — and I love it, too — is that it’s Szechuan (Sichuan), while most of the restaurants in the U.S. are sort of quasi-Cantonese, though often staffed by Fujianese cooks. But in any case, not Szechuan. Good news? The cabbage is super-easy to make. I recommend Fuschia Dunlop’s Land of Plenty cookbook; she has a swell recipe.

  • AggieMom 9·19·12

    This concept really intrigues me although my Asian travl experiences are limited to Singapore. Are there enough recipes from enough countries or regions to merit a cookbook? If so, count me “IN” to buy one!

  • Pearlowa 9·20·12

    I have read alot about chinese cuisine , but never did I discover this cold food salad liang cai !
    loved the article about liang cai!

  • Manuela 9·30·12

    So glad everyone enjoyed this piece! It’s been so fun hanging out with Mr. Fan and getting to know this “class” of cuisine. My article focuses on Beijing style “liang cai”, and it is hard to find in the US (most of the restaurants in the U.S. are Cantonese and cooked by Fujianese, as Bookseller points out). But there have been a spate of regional Chinese restaurants in NYC – Yunnan, Shaanxi and Hunan – and the former do some nice chilled dishes and salads.

    I recently used the same seasoning as Mr. Fan uses – sesame oil, rice vinegar, garlic, some dried red peppers chopped up – to make a “liang cai” salad of sliced cucumbers, and then the same thing with chopped up chunks of red Chinese radish (aka daikon). I threw in some leftover cilantro and a bit of soy sauce and sugar to add depth and complexity. After chilling them in the fridge for a couple hours, I had a crunchy, refreshing, flavorful dish to chomp on.

    Let me know if you have any other thoughts/questions – happy to respond from Beijing 🙂

    Til then: Happy Mid-Autumn Festival!

  • Nean 3·18·14

    I know this is late, but take a whole cucumber (in Aus, either continental or lebanese – basically not the big fat English type), smash it with a clever (I put a second chopping board on top and hit that), then slice up very roughly into chunks, add minced garlic, sesame oil and a small dash of soy. Let marinate for 1/2 hr, works treat.