I'm currently writing this entry in a hotel room overlooking the Tianjin daylight cityscape. Tianjin is a city in China that is about 3 hours away from Beijing by bus or 52 minutes away by bullet train. This was where my sis-in-law once upon a time resided. When I asked her how it was like to live in Tianjin, she told me "There's really nothing much to see in Tianjin," and so I expected this place to be something like a province-- full of trees, cultured animals and cool blown winds. Of course, my imagination exaggerated it a little bit. Tianjin proved to be a city and a whole lot more. I heard that people would intentionally come to this city, (it definitely looks and feels like a city) for its food. It has the finest "Bao Zi" in China, and perhaps, in the whole world.
Bao zi is a steamed, filled bun that has been a staple in northern China for hundreds of years. I asked my sis-in-law why this dish is more popular than rice in their town. Being a smarty walking encyclopedia, she gave me two reasons: (1) The weather in Tianjin is cool making the land dry. Since water was difficult to transport then, they opted to plant grains that would grow and harvest easily without water. (2) Bao zi is a full meal on its own. One can get carbohydrates from the bun, protein and fiber from the varying meat and vegetable fillings.
Yesterday, I got to taste a dumpling that even Empress Dowager went out of her way to take a bite of. This dumpling place is popularly known as "Gou Bu Li" or "Dog that doesn't pay attention" in English.
Gou Bu Li is 150 years old and it stands five storeys high in Chengde Dao street, 20 minutes walk from the Lotus Hotel. When I entered, I walked on a red carpet and it led me to the lobby with an overwhelmingly high ceiling. I thought I entered a palace or a hotel at least. The whole building is the restaurant by the way.
You may be wondering how the place got its name. Once upon a time, there was a boy in Tianjin whose nickname was "little dog." He was called such by his mother so that people would not bully him. It was for safety purposes. Little Dog worked as a baker's assistant, and soon when he was skilled enough, he opened his own food place. He was selling just one type of food, the bao zi. Soon people started flocking in for the bao zi and business was doing good that he spent all his days bent down wrapping the meat. When people would call him "Little Dog" he was too busy to look up. That's where he got his new nickname "Dog that doesn't pay attention."
After 150 years, the bao zi is still the main reason why people go to Gou Bu Li. So when we went there, each of us had eight bitable pieces of the ever so infamous bao zi and an individual bowl of plain congee. A set of eight bao zi is priced at RMB 38. The white bao zi was shaped like a chrysanthemum, with at least 21 equally spaced folds on its outer covering. At the middle was a pointed top like the mountains at the northern part of China. I was all too excited to take my first bite. When I finally did, I couldn't help but close my eyes to savor every bit of meat, every dot of vegetable and every inch of the bread covering. I first tried it without the black vinegar. It was very tasty in itself.
The cover was like that of a siopao. It was very smooth and chewy. It held a savory filling of meat and vegetables together with its juices similar to a Xiao Long Bao. The contrast of the plain tasting outer covering and the salty savory filling reminded me of the yinyang symbol, the balance of two opposing forces. Sometimes when I eat a lot of the same thing in a meal, say pizza in an eat-all-you-can-pizza, I would vow to myself that I would never eat pizza for a year. But in the case of the bao zi, even after the 8th piece, I still longed for more.
Come to Tianjin, taste the bao zi for yourself, and feel like Empress Dowager for a day! Here's the address. If you can't read Chinese, just print this out and show it to your taxi driver (most won't be able to understand English). I assure you, a short visit to Tianjin is definitely one royal experience.
Then hold your bao zi up high and say 'Kampei'! (Cheers!)