In Chinese, a person of a particular trade is called by the title of shifu, which means “master.” I’m more used to hearing shifu in the context of kung fu movies, but in Beijing I was quickly grateful for the term, which makes it easy to refer to people older than you, whom you’re not familiar enough to call uncle but also can’t call by name. Xie Shifu was the driver at my husband’s office, and it wasn’t long before I found out he was master of more than just driving. When I heard from one of the office researchers that he occasionally cooks at the office, I knew I couldn’t leave China without learning a dish or two from him. So I shyly asked the researcher whether she thought he might be willing to teach me something, and she said she was sure he’d love to.

The only thing was that my last week in Beijing happened to be during the national holiday, when everyone is off for a whole week. But luckily, Xie Shifu lives in Beijing and wouldn’t be going out of town. On one of my last weekends there, he brought along his wife and daughter to the office (his office actually happens to be the kitchen!) to teach us how to make zha jiang mian (literally “fried-sauce noodles”) — a traditional Beijing dish consisting of wheat noodles, pork, and fermented bean sauce. It reminded me of Saturdays in the kitchen with my family growing up. :)

Noodles seem to be something everyone in northern China learns how to make at home growing up, especially if you are poor (flour is cheap, and rice is expensive). Xie Shifu said he often made noodles as a kid, but it’s been a long while since he’s done it, so I felt pretty grateful that he was making it especially for us that day. My dad has also told me that he used to eat my grandfather’s hand-pulled noodles at home, which his own father (my great-grandfather) taught him how to make.

We started with the dough, which we used for both noodles and dumplings, and Xie Shifu said you could also make mantou or steamed bun with it. The method is similar to the hand-pulled noodles I learned to make at The Hutong. After mixing and kneading, we let the dough for the noodles sit to rise while we made the sauce (dough for dumplings doesn’t need to sit and can be used right away).

Xie Shifu likes Korean soybean paste because he says it contains more yellow beans and has been allowed to ferment for a year or two. He started by slowly mixing water into the sauce to thin it out, so that it wouldn’t dry out as easily when fried.

Next, he heated up a wok, added oil, and stir-fried some pieces of fatty pork. Then he added the thinned-out sauce and let it simmer down until it returned to its original thick consistency.

As the sauce simmered, it was time to make the noodles. Xie Shifu rolled the dough out to about 1/8 inch thick (as thick or thin as you want your noodles), then folded it, and cut.

We also pulled a few noodles for fun, following the method I learned last time.

We boiled the noodles for about 3-5 minutes in hot water, then drained, put into bowls, and added a dollop of the pork and bean sauce on top. The sauce is pretty salty, so better to start with a small amount and add to taste. We also julienned some cucumber, carrots, and king oyster mushrooms to add on top of the noodles. The carrots and mushrooms were boiled, but the cucumber was kept raw. We made dumplings as well that day, but I’ll save that for my sister to write up sometime, as she makes dumplings often with her husband’s family.

Lunch that day was a true northern Chinese meal of noodles and dumplings. And Xie Shifu’s family taught us how to drink the milky water that the noodles were boiled in as a soup, just like the locals do. It was one of my favorite memories from my whole time in Beijing.

Next: A few summaries of the foods I ate on my travels to Malaysia, Singapore, Shanghai, Chengdu, and of course, Beijing.