okay, i admit i get my kicks out of translating chinese pronouns into english. i mean, if i sent you off to find a restaurant called “da ma jiaozi guan” in one of china’s provinces least traveled by foreigners where it’s virtually impossible to find a cab during rush hour, and you didn’t speak chinese, your brain would be twisted into such a knot just remembering the pronunciation that you might give up on your search before setting foot into the place. or at least, that’s what happens to me when i’m trying to learn a new language. now, if i sent you to a place that i told you was called big mama’s dumpling house, you might in fact be running or leaping through the air in big bounds, until you crossed over the restaurant’s threshold. dumplings, especially ones fresh made to order by hand, where you can see each indentation made by agile fingers, are delicious ,and big mama’s located in yinchuan city in ningxia province is such a place.
a bit on ningxia first: ningxia is one of china’s lesser known provinces, and is a hui (chinese muslims, one of 55 or so officially recognized ethnic minorities) autonomous region. it’s about the size of connecticut, located in northwest china, right below inner mongolia, to the left of shaanxi and to the right of gansu. the hui population comprises about 30%, although the majority are located in the south of the province. we saw a few mosques in the city, and a few citizens dressed in traditional hui attire, but for the most part, yinchuan, the provincial capital, looks very han chinese. according to our tour guide, about 98% of tourists to the region are domestic chinese, and the remainder being foreigners. unless you’re into desert formations, cave drawings or archaeological ruins from the qin, western xia, han and ming dynasties, there really isn’t all that much to see. Y wanted to go because it was one of two remaining chinese provinces she had not yet stepped foot in; now she’s only got one left.
we ate plenty of lamb at prior meals in authentic hui restaurants (more on that in a separate post), and wanted to take a break and eat something non-lamby. the tour guide mentioned, big mama’s as one of the better restaurants in the city. big mama’s cuisine is actually a mainstay of northeast of china (shandong, beijing, dongbei) — geographically out of place but still expertly executed and worth a visit, if you ever find yourself in ningxia.
i found big mama to be a charming sort of place. it reminds me of china from 10-15 years ago when most restaurants were run semi-canteen style (note: this means, that the waitresses don’t seat you at a table, you literally have to stand next to a table that is close to finishing up, and stare at them until they leave. everyone was doing it and most tables that appeared to be wrapping up, had mini queues surrounding them. if you haven’t got sharp elbows or a friend who does like Y to the rescue, i would advise going early, before the 6-7pm dinner rush). big mama is a plain jane, but it’s that quality that reinforces the authenticity of its food. the dumplings are delicious being handmade, and you can taste that artisanal quality in each bite of the steamed dumpling shells. the wrapping all takes place in the back of the restaurant, where there’s a glass window installed that enables guests to look at the dumpling masters hunched over, making each crease and fold with lighting fast fingers. flavors are plentiful, the menu containing the dumpling section goes on and on and on for about 7 to 8 pages, if memory serves me right: seafood, vegetarian, pork, beef, lamb, chicken, with various herb pairings and seasoning combinations.
the dumplings are sold by the jin, a traditional chinese unit of measure that equates to 500g or a half kilo. you can think of it as a wee bit more than a lb, if you’re not familiar with the metric system. Y and i ordered two plates of dumplings, one vegetarian steamed and one pork and parsley boiled. there was also a pan-fried option, which we skipped. we had plenty of leftovers, which the restaurant doggy bagged for us by dumping them into rather flimsy, transparent plastic bags. we weren’t the only ones, just about every customer leaving the restaurant, walked out with clear plastic bags filled with dumpling leftovers.
in addition to dumplings, y and i ordered a delicious claypot chicken and pork rib soup stewed with goji berries/ wolfberries (a specialty of the area) and red dates (another local produce) and my personal favorite: chinese french fries. imagine thin slivers of potato stir fried with bean sprouts, piled high. hello mountain of joy!
大妈饺子馆 (Da Ma Jiaozi Guan)
Jie Fang Dong Jie, Xin Hua Department Store, East Gate
Yinchuan, Ningxia, China
+86 951 607 2378