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.
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.
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.
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