When I arrived in the Ningxia province of China, it was the end of Ramadan and the first day of Eid al-Fitr. Formerly part of the Gansu province of China, Ningxia was converted into an autonomous region for the Hui people in the late 1950s. The Hui are a Muslim minority group, which means that the cuisine is strictly halal. On my first day there, I paid a visit to the Nanguan Mosque in Yinchuan, one of the largest mosques in the province. As a woman, I was required to stand in the back, but I got to watch as hundreds of worshippers bowed – heads down – in synchronized reverence.
The day marked the last day of fasting; that night, there was a feast.
Not for me, though.
After nearly two weeks in northwestern China, where dough and meat is the norm, I had stopped eating meat. My appetite was waning and, quite frankly, all I wanted was crisp, raw vegetables from California.
Here’s the truth about traveling in China: restaurant food is notoriously oily and water isn’t reliable in terms of sanitation. Eating noodles and meat on a daily basis was wreaking havoc on my digestive system. I was double-fisting yogurts in the morning in a desperate attempt to recolonize my gut with healthy probiotics. It didn’t work. But it didn’t matter. I didn’t go to Ningxia to eat.
I had gone to Ningxia to camp on the sand dunes in the Tengger Desert. There’s something insanely romantic to me about sand dunes, their shifting shapes and their whimsical impermanence. My first sand dune camping experience was nearly five years ago, when I – on an impulse – decided to fly to Dunhuang in the Gansu province to camp in the Gobi Desert. It was magical – how desolate the landscape was, how arid and dry and remote the area was. Sand dunes remind me of childhood days in the sandbox and it had been too long since my last experience. I wanted to sleep on them again.
And so I did. I found a campsite near a small oasis and simply lay there, taking in the desolation. Not a city or a road in sight. Right before sunset, I signed up for a camel tour and got to ride around, pretending I was on a caravan from bygone days. At night, I slept outside of my tent under an endless expanse of stars, my feet digging into the warm sand.
When I got back to the city, I went into the first restaurant I saw to collect a recipe. I had forgotten all about food and recipe collecting. “One condition,” I told the owner. “Please, no meat.” The owner of this small little roadside restaurant, Weirong Cao, nodded and invited me into the kitchen. Today we would be making potatoes over noodles.
"Northern China ... accounts for 47 percent of the country's potato cultivation. And so the root is featured prominently in nearly all the dishes across the region."
Taken in context, the potato is a relatively new crop in China. It’s a New World root and was introduced to China toward the end of the Ming dynasty. In the Qing dynasty, population increases led to the spread of potato farming throughout China. It was a heavily subsidized government crop; in some parts of China, people could pay rent in the form of potatoes. Northern China, where Ningxia is located, accounts for 47 percent of the country’s potato cultivation. And so, the root is featured prominently in nearly all the dishes across the region.
This is an extremely simple dish to whip up and that is entirely the point. Too many people, when they think of Chinese food, think it is a complicated cuisine chock full of sauces and technique. Chinese food for the layperson, generally speaking, is simple. Most cooks only use one knife – a sharp cleaver. Most cooks only have one type of pan – a heavy wok. Don’t overthink it.
For a genuine Ningxia experience, pair your meal with a beverage of rice water.
Shredded Potatoes Over Noodles
Preparation time: 30 minutes
Cooking time: 10 minutes
(Recipe from Weirong Cao)
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