This is the third post that's part of a larger series about my trip to Xiamen, China. Other posts in this series include A Weekend Trip to Xiamen China and Xiamen Street Food - From Oyster Pancakes to Worm Jellies!
There is something special about the authenticity of an old, untouched village that preserves an older way of life that is quickly disappearing. This uniqueness is magnified when that village also holds a deep, personal connection to family roots and history.
This sort of village came upon us unexpectedly during an unplanned trip to Xiamen, a coastal island city in Southern China.
A comedy of errors originating from a friend's visa issues forced us to change our vacation at the last minute from Taiwan to Xiamen. We knew Bryan's paternal family came from Xiamen, so we reached out to his parents, asking them where the old family home was located.
"If it's not too far we can try to find it!" I promised.
Their response was vague, and not really helpful, to say the least. Bryan's dad only remembered how to pronounce it in his Minnan dialect, and then tried phoneticizing it into English for us.
Yikes. They had no idea how to contact the one person who would know, Bryan's granduncle, who lives in California but just happened to be traveling throughout China during that time. Online searches for those words yielded nothing.
It seemed a bit hopeless.
Then Bryan remembered he had his granduncle's contact on WeChat (a popular messaging app in China), so he messaged his granduncle asking where the old house was.
We couldn't believe the response.
"I am coming to Xiamen tomorrow for two days. Will you still be there?"
It must have been divine appointment that we were meant to come to Xiamen. How crazy! Our unplanned trip to Xiamen fell exactly on the two days that Bryan's granduncle was visiting his old home.
The next day, Bryan's granduncle took us to visit his old neighborhood, a maze of narrow stone alleys flanked by traditional homes on both sides.
There was a time where the city was full of these narrow stone streets. In 1684 (during the Qing Dynasty under emperor Kangxi's reign), Xiamen opened up its ports and expanded the city. Trade flourished, and many more small streets and alleys were added. By 1906, there were over 200 of these little streets and alleys, made mostly of stone.
However, with the fall of the dynasties and China's rapid urbanization, most of these stone alleys have been torn down and replaced with shiny modern high-rises. Today, there are only 67 of these stone alleys left in Xiamen, including the one with Bryan's family home.
The entire block or "village" where Bryan's relatives live has been preserved. The same families from generations back still live there. When we visited, Bryan's granduncle chatted with a few old-timers while we walked up and down the narrow alleyways.
We were floored when we realized that Bryan's mom had somehow (smartly) guessed correctly the three Chinese characters for the alley near Bryan's house (see photo above). This alley has their family surname in it!
Called "handcart alley" or 手车巷 (手車巷), the street name describes the trade of the people who gathered in that area - in this case, those who worked on spinning thread or yarn (spinning machine is called a 手纺车, shǒu fǎng chē). Other streets, such as "bamboo alley" and "chain iron street" were located near factories focused on those trades.
Here it is! Bryan and his granduncle stand in front of the house that Bryan's grandfather purchased so many decades ago. Bryan's granduncle grew up here up until he was around 10 years old, when he moved to Taiwan. We met some relatives who are still living there, and saw old photos of Bryan's grandparents on the wall.
Finally, we had our BEST meal in Xiamen at Bryan's uncle's home. This uncle, unlike many of his other relatives, never moved to Taiwan but instead has been in Xiamen his whole life. This uncle is a phenomenal cook. He went to the local fish market in the morning to pick up fresh seafood and cooked for us the most incredible spread of traditional Xiamen family dishes.
SUCH a treat . . .
Here are just a few highlights.
Seafood is huge in this coastal town, and the locals love cooking fresh seafood. Bryan's uncle went to the local fish market to get this fish, which he told us was live (!). It's simply steamed with scallions, ginger, soy sauce, and some chili. The meat was supremely tender. It was so good!
Oyster omelets (or pancakes) are very popular in Xiamen and very much resemble the Taiwanese version, where eggs are mixed with sweet potato starch and cooked with oysters and some greens. Bryan's uncle version reminded me of that dish, but without the egg.
The potato starch still gave it a similar texture to an oyster omelet, but this version was more like a stir-fry dish of fresh oysters, sweet potato starch, and scallions.
Razor clams are ubiquitous and can be cooked in many ways, including stir fried with a bit of chili.
This is another CHE family favorite. These egg dumplings are filled with ground pork and water chestnuts. Bryan's granduncle loves this dish, and tells us how it reminds him of his mom, who used to make these when he was a child.
The dumplings are labor-intensive to make: a true labor of love. The egg "wrappers" are first pan-fried one at a time. Then they are filled with ground pork and water chestnuts, which have already been separately peeled, hand-chopped, and stir fried with the pork. Finally, the eggs dumplings are folded and sealed into these half-moon shaped packages. Even sealing them properly takes a bit of skill on the pan!
They were so delicious. Knowing how much effort went into each one made them all the more special. I think I ate three of them myself (!).
This is shrimp stir fried with a special type of vegetable. I think it might be a young shoot of sorts (maybe some Chinese word that sounded like bamboo?). I honestly can't remember since I had never heard of the vegetable before. Does anyone think they know what this is?
Apparently Bryan's uncle (the incredible cook) has a brother who is also a great cook and lives in Chongqing, Sichuan (known for fiery, flavorful cuisine). The other brother had been in Xiamen visiting just the day before. Alas he had to travel back to Chongqing the day we arrived, so we didn't get to meet him. However, before he left, he cooked a few spicy Chongqing dishes for us to try!
Pictured above, spicy braised beef tendon.
These chili braised chicken feet were fantastic. I typically think chicken feet as a dish is only OK and I tend not to eat it that much in Hong Kong. THIS Chongqing spicy version, on the other hand, was addictively flavorful!
I cannot express how much of a treat it was to re-connect with Bryan's granduncle, meet more relatives, and visit the old family home. We were blown away by the incredible warmth and hospitality these relatives showed to us, people they had never met before.
I can tell that meal took a lot of effort. We enjoyed it immensely, not only because it was delicious (it was), but more importantly because of what it represented. There were stories behind these dishes - stories and memories of people who are long gone. I loved seeing how happy Bryan's grand-uncle was while eating the CHE family egg dumplings, smiling as he remembered his childhood.
I have a feeling this won't be our last time in Xiamen. Apparently Bryan's granduncle comes back to his family home once a year, and the same uncle ALWAYS cooks him a phenomenal feast whenever he visits. They've told us we are welcome to come back.
Heh, we might just take them up on that offer.
A Weekend Trip to Xiamen - Trip Overview
Xiamen Street Food - From Oyster Pancakes to Worm Jellies
Tour of Top Taiwanese Street Dishes from Night Markets
CHE Family Chinese Savory Pumpkin Cake Recipe 南瓜糕