My obsession with chinese dishes nr.1: Stir-fried tomatoes with eggs - 番茄炒蛋 fānqié chǎo dàn
Updated: Apr 28, 2018
What was sickening about a tomato sandwich? Harriet felt the taste in her mouth. Were they crazy? It was the best taste in the world. Her mouth watered at the memory of the mayonnaise.
- Harriet the Spy, Louise Fitzhugh
I bet! My mom used to prepare Polish kanapki with tomatoes (less the mayonnaise which she hates) and they were so good. Tomatoes even work on bread! If I ever had to choose one food item I just cannot do without, it would have to be tomatoes, well, correction: tomatoes and lemons.
An obsessive nature
Sticking to eating one dish for several weeks is nothing new to me. If it tastes good and makes me happy, why shouldn’t I? I know, it may seem weird to other people. Proof of this was my Ayi’s fearful asking one day: “Are we going to be having eggs and tomatoes again for lunch today?”. After a couple of minutes of reflection -and going against my first impulse to respond affirmatively, I said: “No, we can eat something else today”. After all, having tomatoes and eggs 5 times in one week may have seemed to her a slight exaggeration. It is just that they are so delicious!
I liked eggs and loved tomatoes, separately; I just would never enjoy them together. Eggs and tomatoes are both featured in some very well-known dishes worldwide like shakshouka or huevos rancheros, but to me it always seemed a weird combination. I remember having eaten pericos In Ecuador – an omelet with onions, bell peppers and tomatoes that did not taste good at all, maybe because of the raw bell peppers or the watery tomatoes -who knows?, there was just something that did not quite convince me. Since that time, I usually refrained from preparing or ordering anything that involved mixing the two together, which is why I was reluctant to taste eggs and tomatoes prepared in a Chinese style the first time.
It was 2010; I was living in Rome back then but travelling frequently to Warsaw. In a magical turn of events, my sister had also moved back temporarily to Poland the same year and had rented a tiny apartment in a spooky and slightly dark socialist block in the center of the capital. It was one of those very cold November winter afternoons when there is absolutely no wish to go to dine out, no wish to order pizza or KFC (one of the few delivery options at the time), and no desire to go to the supermarket to stock a practically empty refrigerator. As it turned out, apparently, there is not much that is needed to whip up a stir-fry of tomatoes and eggs in 10 minutes. Left with no other choice, it was then and there, where I first tasted this dish. It was prepared by a native-Chinese and, naturally, was accompanied by a steaming bowl of white steamed rice, which absorbed the juices from the mixture –just the way God intended it to. It couldn’t get any better, it was just what we needed for that freezing evening: hot, quick, delicious and so comforting.
Unfortunately, years had to go by before I had the chance to taste it again. Chinese restaurants in Italy, Ecuador or Poland did not have it on their menu (or was it me not paying attention?). Nevertheless, I did not forget about the dish and once we moved to China in 2014, I embarked in a search of those flavors that, back in the day, had surprised me so much.
It was not an easy challenge. First month hit and armed only with my survival Chinese -to say the least, I would sit in a small eatery trying to decipher the picture-less menu with my Pleco app in search of the pictograms corresponding to eggs and tomatoes. Suffice to say I had neither the energy nor the time to do so. In China, as I know now, people are supposed to enter a restaurant practically knowing by heart what they are going to order. The waitress gives you the menu and stands next to you waiting for you to tell her what you will be having. My tongue was unable to mumble the Chinese words "shāoděng yīxià 稍等一下" (give me a moment please) and my fingers were not trained to draw ideograms fast enough on my phone, so each time I ended up eating whatever the waitress said that was “hěn hǎo chī 很好吃” (very tasty). Not once was that tomatoes and eggs.
Aware that this was not the way to go, I started trying to go to restaurants that did have pictures on the menus, walls or in their windows. I purportedly stayed away from these the first months since I assumed those places were 'touristic' and the food they served was no good, you know, like in those restaurants in Rome or Athens where you pay the double, eat half and leave feeling you made the worst choice in your life. And, I was not a tourist whatsoever, I was an expat planning to live in Beijing for some years and therefore I wanted the real deal, the real local Chinese food. As I later came to realize, most restaurants in Beijing, touristic or not, middle-class or high class, good or bad, feature pics; it is just the way it is. So, having had surmounted the first major hurdle I did actually manage to order –or rather point at the photo of eggs and tomatoes. The second hurdle was, however, finding a restaurant where they actually tasted good, or at least remotely resembled the ones I kept going back to in my memories. They all just tasted wrong. They were either:
- too watery (who adds water? Tomatoes release lots of liquids),
- too sweet (seriously that much sugar?),
- too garlicky (this is the only dish garlic can spoil),
- had ginger in it (absolutely unforgivable),
- had cucumbers in it (I still cannot get over it and will never get over the fact that in Asia people cook cucumbers. Not even Julia Child could convince me to try her baked cucumbers. Cucumbers are meant to be eaten raw)
- completely tasteless (no explanation needed)
- tasting of something that didn’t have to do with either eggs or tomatoes - for that matter (probably should not go back to that restaurant).
Xiaowen to the rescue
And like this, my first year and a half in China went by. This was also the time when our little Nina was born and when Xiaowen, our Ayi (the Chinese word for auntie), started working full-time for us. Depending on the country and the culture, being able to hire house help is not always possible, but in China, for most expats it is a real option. Xiaowen is the sister of our previous Ayi, or I should say her 'mèimei 妹妹' (younger sister), an important differentiation – in Chinese the terminology for relationships is very complex and utterly exact, with different words to define which relative is older or younger and whether this relative comes from the mother’s side of the family or from the father’s side of the family.
When we just arrived, we were wondering how to hire an Ayi: through an agency, by asking the management office at our compound to contact someone for us; or, through friends and acquaintances. Before we even had the time to think too much about it, one of my husband’s colleagues at work recommended Fu Ayi and that is how this 50-year old woman started coming to our place twice a week in the afternoons. Her husband had not been able to find work in Beijing, so she was the only person earning money in the household, hence she preferred to work per hour as it yielded more than a full-time arrangement with monthly salary. When Fu Ayi realized I was pregnant, and that I would probably need more help, she took the initiative to substitute herself with her mèimei. We were presented with the fait accompli and thus Xiaowen entered our lives.
Although the sudden change was not too much to our liking at the beginning (we thought we should have something to say – or is it just us being to uptight?), it ended up being the best possible arrangement. I asked Xiaowen to start working full-time after Nina was born. Besides cleaning the house, ironing, helping me with the baby (as if it was not enough), she also said she was willing to cook for us. At the beginning meals were not what we had expected, part of the problem was Xiaowen not knowing what we like –or dare to eat; part of it was us not being able to explain to her what we enjoy. With time, we surmounted those communication issues and as it turned out, she was correct when she told us that she 'hěn huì zuòcài 很会做菜' (cooks very well), no doubt about it. She is a gifted cook, resourceful and always observant of the quality of the ingredients she uses. She is also very quick and organized, she separates the cooking process in prep time and actual cooking. Chopping, slicing, soaking, velveting, all has to be done beforehand, and then the cooking phase consists of several thunder rounds. We are always impressed how much she can do in such a short time. We always eat Chinese dishes during the week -not western food. It was a mutual agreement, since we wanted to dive deep into the Chinese way of life and because Xiaowen feared cooking dishes she had no idea how to prepare.
Back to my obsession. I had not succeeded at finding the dish on the streets so I thought we could try preparing it at home. Who else could I turn to for this mission if not Xiaowen? If anybody ever wondered how far would one year of 'intense' Chinese courses get you, well, in my case, it barely allowed me to express which one was the dish that I craved and that I needed her to do the marketing. It was not quite enough to allow me to express that I did not want all those watery, sugary, cucumbery versions; hence, I couldn’t really blame her when those were the versions of the dish that were presented one by one, as if destiny was playing a joke on me. More than a few recipes had to be tested and several types of tomatoes had to be tasted to get it right.
Can food be comforting?
The smell of that buttered toast simply talked to Toad, and with no uncertain voice; talked of warm kitchens, of breakfasts on bright frosty mornings, of cozy parlor firesides on winter evenings.
-The Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame.
“Why do you like this dish so much?”, Xiaowen asked.
My first instinctive response was “I love tomatoes”. And I do. I love tomatoes in every shape, form, size, and preparation mode. I always have. I don’t mind the eggs, but just as an addition. And then I started thinking that it may have seemed strange choice to Xiaowen. There are so many famous, glorious, exquisite, luxurious Chinese dishes out there, and then I go and choose that one, because it has tomatoes?
Tomatoes seem to be rather sporadic ingredient in Chinese dishes. They are native from Peru and Ecuador, but were domesticated in Mexico. They were introduced in China around the 1500s from the Philippines -where they were brought by the Spanish. Prove that tomatoes are a rather new addition to the Chinese culinary scene is the fruit’s name. Several crops, particularly in South China and mostly from the New World, were baptized with Chinese names that included the particle 'fān 番' (southern barbarian) as a prefix to a second word that usually referred to a long-established Chinese crop. Therefore, just as guava was named 'fān shíliu番石榴' (barbarian pomegranate), and sweet potato was named “ fānshǔ 番薯” (barbarian yam), tomato became known as 'fānqié 番茄' (barbarian eggplant). Fan crops were probably introduced to China before the end of the Ming (1368 - 1644) and by the fall of the dynasty their use had spread even to remote parts of the country. At the beginning, they were grown only in the coastal enclaves where Westerners were located (and for their consumption; which is funny since they had also just discovered the crops), and as a consequence, it is thought that it primarily influenced mostly the urban scene of Cantonese food. Tomatoes improved the diet of the Southern Chinese considerably, since they were a rich source of Vitamin A and C and certain minerals. The production of tomatoes, was especially important in spring time, when 'seasonal bottlenecks' on vitamin availability occurred due to the lack of other crops; they were easy to grow, highly productive and a year-round crop.
I still have to return to Canton to convince myself that there are more tomato-based dishes there than in other parts of China. It did not strike me as a tomato-loving place the last time I visited. To me Xingjiang is much more so. Again, a future trip to this border region may prove to be enlightening in this matter, nevertheless, the few visits to the Xingjianese regional restaurant in Beijing and other similar regional eateries gave me the impression that the tomato is in fact an ingredient that is used less infrequently than in other parts of the country. I felt a little less insecure about this bold statement after reading a small piece on Uyghur dishes in one book: “In Beijing, mutton, kebab, pilaf, spice and tomato on rice, all became ethnic markers distinguishing the Uygur sojourners of Xinjiang Autonomous Region of Northwest China from the Han Chinese” Or this one referring to the menu of a dinner in a restaurant run by a Dongxiang owner (Gansu province) but advertised as a Xingjianese restaurant: “Of 8 kinds of soups only the 'soup with tomato and minced meat' was of Xinjiang flavour […] The Dongxiang owner ordered all the fried breads to be seasoned with tomato juice and ziran was sprayed on all roast meat dishes to give them a strong 'Xinjiang flavour'”. Or this one: “To Beijingers' taste, some Uygur dishes are a little too sour, and have too much tomato”.
To come back to the thread, when I told Xiaowen that I loved tomatoes so much that any dish where they were so generously featured would be a favorite of mine, she said: “Tomatoes are so sour, without adding the sugar, which you don’t like, the dish is no good”! By then, I had learned that for Xiaowen, everything is “suān 酸” (sour)! Tangerines are suān, yoghurt is suān, green apples are suān, and basically, anything that is suān is not “hǎochī 好吃” (tasty). But, even she had to agree that we had found the perfect way to prepare the dish, which called for small pinkish tomatoes that are naturally very sweet, that are not suān.
All and all, I do not know if the obsession was searching for the perfect –perfect for me – version of eggs and tomatoes for almost two years; or, eating the eggs and tomatoes five days in a row after having discovered which one is the flawless recipe. Maybe both. Was the source of the obsession the delicious taste of the dish or was it the emotions and memories it stirred up in me? Was its comforting nature the reason? Totally, and it still so every time I eat it, even if it probably is a version that has absolutely nothing to do with the actual dish I ate years ago. To me the eggs with tomatoes are what the toast was for Toad. It is not comfort food because it is a dish my grandma or my mom used to prepare for me, but because it reminds me of my sister, of her awful windowless kitchen, of the white Polish winter and of a beautiful night spent together with lots of laughter and wine. She now lives and works in El Salvador, and we are rarely able to see each other, but every time I smell the aroma of the dish I feel warmth, happiness and find myself smiling at one of the numerous funny things she tends to say.
* Kanapka (pl. kanapki) – sandwich or open sandwich in polish.