Pizza and Testaroli and Baba

The World Is A Splendid Flat Bread

Any discussion of Italy and China inevitably grinds toward some variation of the Marco Polo conspiracy theory. Marco stole the idea for BLANK from China and introduced it to Italy - and now the Italians take credit. The BLANK is spaghetti or ice cream, paper or the compass, porcelain or gunpowder. We are just back from a culinary tour of Yunnan, China, where we had to reconcile ourselves to the dark possibility that PIZZA was not a uniquely Italian invention. We found two pizza-type street foods being offered in one small valley. Not only that, one was cooked like testaroli, the specialty from our familiar Lunigiana!

We'll end the suspense, however minimal: Italian pizza is not a case of medieval espionage, but an example of Multiple Discovery. That is to say, some stuff is invented independently in different places because there's a need or because the physics and the materials make the invention inevitable. Flat bread specialties have occurred in many, many cultures since before recorded or discovered history. A type of pizza product was found in the ruins of Pompeii, and pizza with a tomato topping is absolutely of Italian origin.

The Baba of Xizhou.

In the old trading town of Xizhou (pronouced she-joe) in the Dali Valley of western Yunnan, the cooks start to set up early along the main road and in the main square. It's a small town, but well known for its specialty - Baba, a yeast-raised wheat-flour bread enhanced with lard and other flavorings. It's been made here for at least 800 years. Truckers stop throughout the day to buy it, as do old guys on bikes, pairs of elderly ladies,  schoolkids, and the rare tourist - it's really a great snack.

To prepare a savory Baba (there's also a sweet version), a chunk of raw leavened dough is cut off from a basket stockpile. The dough is spread in a circle, lard is worked in, as well as some scallion and chopped pork. The dough is slashed almost through in parallel lines - to enhance the texture when cooked - and the unit is rolled and squished and pounded down. Then, it is formed into a circle again, spread with lard again and a topping of chopped pork is added. Variations in the ingredients are available on request, but most customers chose either the pork version described or a sweet version that uses a raw brown sugar. There's a recipe link below.

These baba are just starting.

The cooking is very similar to the way the age-old testaroli of Lunigiana are cooked. In Xizhou, a giant fry pan rests on a bed of coals. Oil is spread on the pan and several baba added. Then a large cover is placed over the fry pan, and it is some cover! The cover holds charcoal embers which act as the primary heat source, and the cover-fire is accelerated as needed by a large electric fan.

The top holds burning embers and covers the fry pan.

Testaroli are made unleavened, and cooked in a cast iron
pan and cover which have been superheated by a wood fire.
Photo: Comunità Montana della Lunigiana

Jiang Xiang Bing  酱香饼
Just a dozen miles from Xizhou, in the larger city of Dali, we encountered another type of flat bread with pizza-like characteristics. This is just one of many foods that we ate during a street food tour of the town. (Special afterlife request: If there is a heaven, please let it be an eternal Chinese street food tour.)

Fa mian bing ready to cook.  Photo: Janice Thomas/Savory Spoon.
Jiang Xiang Bing is also made with a yeast-raised wheat flour, but, like Italian pizza, this is made looser and stretched until it's quite thin. Once it's stretched, it's then placed on the well-oiled heating plate of a special cooker. There's a trick, however. The dough is about twice the size of the plate, so it must be crumpled in. This process creates a hundred wrinkles which, along with the oil, gives a unique texture - sort of a cross between pizza and fried bread.

Finished Jiang Xiang Bing brushed with spicy paste.

The special cooker has a top which closes like a clam shell over the Jiang Xiang Bing, and retains the heat in order to cook the top. When finished, the top is brushed with oil, and a spicy red bean paste. For our group, we calculated the mean time from cooking to consumption to be 12 seconds.

Many of the children hadn't met a Westerner up close. Yet,
 they were tolerant of large balding men with mustaches.

Photographs. The friendly, intelligent, hard-working Chinese people made photographing our experiences a joy. At this link, you can see a Picasa Album slide show (click the slide show button at the top) of some of our photos, taken with our new Canon Powershot S100 (see the self-serving Amazon camera ad on the right side of our page).

Savory Spoon Culinary Tour.  Our fabulous tour was organized and directed by Janice Thomas of the Savory Spoon Cooking School of Ellison Bay, Wisconsin. She hosts several small group tours each year to China, France, Italy, and Mexico. We can't recommend her offerings highly enough. If you have any interest, get yourself on her newsletter!  Here's her recipe for Xizhou Baba, which we have made pretty much, sort of, successfully. Read the China Tour 2012 Details.

Linden-Centre. Our tour was based primarily at the Linden-Centre in Xizhou, a hotel and cultural focal point started by a remarkable American couple, Jeanee and Brian Linden, supported by a wonderful staff. If you are lucky enough to be travelling in Yunnan, we recommend you schedule Xizhou and the Dali valley into your trip, and stay here (3 day minimum). The Centre also has many programs during the year which just might suit your passion.

Copyright 2012 All Rights Reserved. This article appeared on and has not been authorized elsewhere.

Shanghai Street Food Fiona Reilly's blog will make you buy an airline ticket.

Written by Martha