In the back are two burners and a panini press. On a counter rests a large rice cooker giving off steamy breaths, and various pots exuding an aroma of soy sauce and star anise. This Westmoreland Newsagents serves Northeastern Chinese, or Dongbei, food. Although I was born in Atlantic City, it is the frosty Dongbei province from which my family hails and rarely lets me forget.
Also known as Manchuria, Dongbei has played host to Russians, Koreans, and the Japanese, and often its borders become confused with that of Siberia. Its people are horse riders and soldiers, hard drinking, hard working and rowdy; its winters are long. The Siberian tiger is, in Chinese, the Dongbei tiger. I have a memory from childhood of my grandfather calling my mother. He’s just bet his wife (my grandmother) a million dollars and he needs my mother to resolve the question. Dongbei people are a competitive lot.
Newsagent’s boss is typically Dongbei — broad shouldered, tall, merry, and tough. His staff hails from Taiwan, which was where certain Chinese, including my grandparents, fled during Mao’s Communist Revolution, and where my parents grew up. The kitchen takes me back to kitchens in China and Taiwan, but also to my father, who, as an engineering student in Mississippi, would transform his dorm room radiator into a stir-fry station for the entire hall. The smells are not just familiar, they are family; I yearn for them as much as a New York slice.
In Dublin restaurants, Chinese food is Cantonese or Sichuan. Cantonese is cosmopolitan, delicate, and seafood based, Sichuan is tingling and hot. Dongbei people, as befits their clime and temper, prefer salty, hearty, and sour. The fare is stick-to-your-ribs — noodles, breads, cruellers, dumplings, potatoes, braised meats, punctuated by pickled vegetables, suan cai, a parent of Korea’s kimchi. It is not exactly sunshine food, but luckily I am not based in Seville but in Dublin, where the rain pummels in horizontal blasts.
On the menu there is liang pi, a cold salad of slippery, mung bean starch fettuccine tossed in vinegar. There is paigu fan, or sparerib rice, ubiquitous to Taiwanese street lunches; the spareribs are cooked until they fall apart and the fat leaks into the rice. The “Chinese burger” on the menu is not the bao that are recently so popular, but rather rou jia mo, which is a specialty from the city of Xi An, best known for where the first emperor of China and his terracotta army were buried. Instead of the soft bao bun, the outside of these buns are crusty, which Newsagent re-crisps on the panini press. (Personally, I prefer this crust to the steamed bao’s squish.) The meat inside is lu pork, braised shoulder torn into soft shreds, interspersed with pickle and dotted with fiery chili sauce. This, plus two lu (braised) eggs and a Diet Coke, costs 5.50.
In the corner, there is a guy making jianbing on a cast iron griddle perched on a bookshelf. Jianbing is the Chinese crepe complet, a thin-skinned crepe encasing scrambled egg, chili, scallions, hoisin, bits of pastry crackling. At Newsagent, the batter is mung bean, slightly fermented, and pocked with black sesame seeds; those familiar with South Indian dosa will recognize the delicate texture and its pleasant, slight shadow of sour. Newsagent’s jianbing is not overfilled with extras, which can be the case in jianbing I have tried in New York. It has crunch, oozes from its barely cooked eggs, and includes leaves of iceberg lettuce. Slice it in half and revel in the slightly greasy layers, try the version with richly flavored braised beef. As my Irish boyfriend remarked, “It’s exactly what yo want to be eating in this weather.” My Dongbei mother would wash hers down with good bourbon, a pairing I approve.
Customers come for jianbing and the rou jia mo, but for me it is the ubiquity of lu rou, or stewed meat, that warms me (For the record, lu rou is the pork and beef in the jian bing and rou jia mo.) Outside of China and Taiwan, you only find lu rou at home. It bears little resemblance to that braised meat common in restaurants, hong shao, or red cooked, which is Shanghai style, sweet and elegant. With lu rou, which might be better translated as “steeped meat,” the meat sits in the dark caramel juice, for hours, even days. There is ginger, soy sauce, garlic, scallions, wine, and star anise. It has the aroma of every Christmas I spend with my family in the United States. It is a Chinese grandma’s pot roast. The meat is pork shoulder, beef brisket, or beef shank. But while in hong shao it is the meat that is the star, it is the lu or the gravy, and not the meat, that is a lu rou’s glory.
The longer a lu sits, the better. In fact the most exemplary lu is made from the lu that has been frozen from the batch before. It’s like sourdough, which improves with generations. Spoon the lu over rice and give it a stir, mop it up with bread and potatoes. It is Newsagent’s dedication to its lu that truly makes me feel at home. One dish that speaks to me is the lu mian (mystifyingly translated as “Brine Noodles”) — hot chili sauce, tangles of braised pork, spicy peanuts, and green beans wrinkled in their lu bath, and ladles of lu over noodles.
At home, when we have a pot of lu rou on the stove, into it we drown things like bean curd and bean shoots. As a lu sits, the meat yields its fat and flavor, and everyone fights for the increasingly deeply flavored lu and garnishes. Mostly, we infuse hard-boiled eggs in the lu, called lu dan, and translated on the Newsagents menu as “braised eggs.” I can eat four of these glossy, toffee colored beauties without blinking. In Taiwan, I would buy them by the half-dozen from street hawkers, who scooped them from their crusty pots.
If I was a pork shoulder, my dream in life would be to flavor a lu dan. As I am a person, to live in a lu dan desert is hell. While making them is simple (take eggs and then immerse), delicious lu dan require a gravy made out of a piece of meat that has been steeping, not easily accomplished overnight. You can get lu dan in the Asia Market but these are factory-made, ovo-vegetarian-friendly products stained with soy sauce.
At Newsagent, a real lu dan sells for a euro a piece.
I continue to be impressed by the spatial engineering at Newsagent, which, while fitting ten Chinese students, also includes a guy dressed in a purple cap and apron, manning a sweet Japanese crepe booth. (He looks bored.) Specials are written up in Chinese and in English. Order from the girl behind the cashier, and she will shout out what you want to the people behind the counter and hand you your receipt. They will, in turn, ask if you want your order to stay or to go. You will wonder how you can stay and then you will follow the waitress up the stairs tucked in the back and there is an Internet café – with computers that look like they are from the nineties, plastic garden chairs, and Chinese youngsters slurping under bright, white lights that my family and I refer to as “Chinese mood lighting.”
Dongbei food is heroic food, the staple of rogues, rebels, and barbarians who battle while quipping in the snow. Dongbei food is also quest food, found in holes-in-the-wall and spotted only by a precious few. For years, I have searched, and have earmarked: a few blocks in the Sunset neighborhood of San Francisco, a restaurant in Flushing, and a breakfast place in Watertown, Massachusetts that is located on a motorway in a windowless, square building that once was a bank. My aunt, when she is in Boston, packs away twenty portions of lu rou shaobing to take back with her to Jersey. Seriously, we fight for this shit.
Newsagent isn’t perfect. The pickles can look a little tired. The noodles in my “brine noodles” the other day were cold spaghetti. (The noodles are usually rice vermicelli. At Newsagent, they run out of ingredients, depending on demand.) With one guy manning the jianbing griddle, be prepared to wait in line with chattering Chinese students. My jianbing, by the time I get home, is slightly wilted, as crepes after ten minutes are wont to be. (I should have eaten it immediately, but I couldn’t bear to eat in a plastic chair.) However as another Dublin winter encroaches, as I face the holidays without my family, as I think back on my grandparents, their bantering bets and the savory things they used to concoct on the stove, I am happy that this food of my heart is just around the corner. Moreover, I have realized that the Dongbei food of my country encapsulates the qualities I love most about my new Dublin home. My cousin, who recently relocated to LA from New York, emailed me, “I found rou jia mo 45 minutes away in the Valley.” It gave me much delight to reply that I have rou jia mo next to the Tesco in Temple Bar. Because when a family member crows about a Dongbei score, you never pass up the chance, no matter how fiercely you miss them, to triumph.