By CJ Juntereal
Northern China has some pretty harsh weather. The winters are long, extremely cold, and dry but the summers can be blistering hot. The weather may have limited the region’s agricultural products, but it has also evolved a cuisine that is rich, hearty, and satisfying.
There are a few noticeable differences between Northern Chinese cuisine and the Southern Chinese cuisine we Filipinos are more familiar with. In Northern China, wheat is a staple crop, so they eat noodles, steamed buns, dumplings, pancakes, and stuffed buns more often than they eat rice. The food is a little oilier, with a lot of red meat and dairy products, because the fat and proteins insulate their bodies against the cold weather. Southern cuisine is lightly seasoned to highlight the original flavors of the ingredients, but Northern cuisine uses more seasoning and spices. Chinese food in general smells delicious when it is being cooked, but Northern Chinese food gives off strong, spicy aromas that make the mouth water. In Northern China they use a lot of green onions, ginger, garlic, fresh and dried chilis, wine, star anise, cinnamon sticks, Szechuan peppercorns, sesame oil, dried mushrooms, soybean pastes, soy sauce, and vinegar. The flavors are combinations of hot and spicy, salty and sweet, with sour to balance things out.
The hearty, spicy meat-heavy dishes are the sort that would appeal to Filipinos, except that we would want to eat everything with copious amounts of hot, sticky rice. And after quite a few late night visits to Jing Ting, City of Dreams’ restaurant that specializes in Northern Chinese cuisine, I’ve also realized that Northern Chinese dishes are just the sort of food I crave for after a night of wine and cocktails. There’s something about the combination of spicy, salty, sour flavors that soothes a wine-drenched stomach.
Jing Ting’s décor is inspired by hutongs—narrow streets or alleyways commonly associated with Northern Chinese cities, particularly the most famous of them all, Beijing. Off to one side of the restaurant is a large glass window that looks into the restaurant’s kitchen. From the window, diners can watch the chefs hand-pulling noodles and forming dumplings by hand. All of this is the domain of chef Yang Chen Fei (also known as Chef Allan), who has 15 years of experience in traditional and modern Northern Chinese cuisine.
Because jiaozi dumplings are the quintessential Northern Chinese food—they’re eaten as snacks, as breakfast, as meals—Jing Ting has a whole section of the menu devoted to them. Beijing dumplings have a hearty pork and shrimp filling, kimchi pork dumplings, inspired by the area closest to North Korea, have the spicy zing of kimchi in their filling, while mushroom, vegetables, and pork dumplings have an earthy flavor. Unlike the more delicate southern-style dim sums, Northern Chinese dumplings are hearty, with thicker dough wrappers because they are boiled rather than steamed. The dumplings are dunked in dipping sauce of chili oil, sesame seeds, soy sauce, and vinegar—spicy but balanced.
The dish that I dream of after a night of drinking is Jing Ting’s handpulled noodles with mushrooms and pork. It’s a poached noodle dish (meaning no soup) topped with a spicy, oily, slightly sweet concoction of ground pork and mushrooms that has a savory element of soybean-chili paste. Chopped green onions keep it fresh, and the noodles have a chewy-bite. There is no dainty way to eat this dish—bend your head over the bowl, inhale the aroma, use your chopsticks to shovel noodles and some pork into your mouth, and begin the classic slurp and chew move. There is nothing quite like it, especially if you’ve just come from a wine tasting. Did I mention that Jing Ting is open until 2 a.m.? And the Skyway and NAIAX make it ridiculously easy to drive to City of Dreams if you need a noodle fix at midnight.
Another favorite dish is the toasted pork pastry with sesame and peanuts. Think of it as a Northern Chinese Sloppy Joe. Fried rounds of dough sprinkled with sesame seeds sandwich a ground pork and peanut filling that spills out over the sides. The pork is spicy, a little sweet, with nuggets of salty-sour preserved vegetables studded throughout. Those little treasures of preserved vegetables keep the dish from being overwhelming.
There are a couple of vegetable dishes on the menu. Pickled cabbage and mixed vegetables, which is a version of chop suey, is probably the only one with no meat in it. Crispy five spices eggplant often makes me wish that all vegetables tasted as good. Cubes of eggplant are deep fried, tossed in chilis and five-spice powder, and topped with a tangle of salty-sweet pork floss.
For meat lovers, the restaurant offers “Genghis Khan” roasted prime beef short ribs and “Xinjiang Style” spicy lamb skewers. The beef arrives as a whole rib, with the meat sliced off into cubes. Tender, fatty, redolent with warm spices like cumin and Szechuan peppers, it has the sort of spiciness that is warming, rather than fiery and lip burning. The lamb has more of a chili powder kick, but is also marinated in Chinese spices and cumin. It arrives in great style, dangling in skewers from a gallows-like contraption.
Just in case people think that Jing Ting is all about fiery spices, it also has dishes that are subtle. Handpulled noodles in clear chicken soup and handpulled noodles with stewed pork ribs soup are warming, with clean and delicate flavors.
All in all, Jing Ting has enough variety in its compact two-page menu to entice people to return again and again. The fact that it remains open till 2 a.m. makes it a noteworthy addition to the list of places to get great late-night eats. I’m usually there late at night myself. And if you happen to arrive at midnight, and see me hunched over my bowl of noodles, come over and say hello. You may have to wait until I finish slurping up my mouthful and pat my mouth clean, because I want to look clean and polite when I shake your hand, but grab a seat and let’s talk about our favorite midnight munchies.