Archive for Food

Cooking in Luang Prabang

Eggs - Phousy Market - Luang Prabang
Barbecue Fish - Phousy Market - Luang Prabang

My best day in Luang Prabang was spent taking a cooking class, taught by a young Hmong man named Ning who was accomplished and sure in the kitchen. Along with three other students (a couple from Heidelberg and a guy from Belgium who works for EUROPOL), I paid $25 for the chance to immerse myself in Lao cuisine from 10am to 6pm. We began with a trip to Phousy Market, the central shopping location for all of Luang Prabang’s residents (excluding the hordes of tourists), where we bought some necessary ingredients and snacks for break-time munching and, more importantly, had a quick but thorough lesson in some of the crucial components of Lao cooking. After a half-hour tour, we boarded a tuk tuk and headed back to the hut that acts as the classroom for the Three Elephants Cafe cooking school.

Woman selling blood - Phousy Market - Luang Prabang
Palm sugar sweets

Back at the school, we started off with some palm-sugar sweets and Lao coffee while Ning and his assistant did some prep work. When the mise-en-place was set, the four of us came inside for a demonstration of the two dishes we were to cook that morning for our lunch. We began with a dish that required more composition than cooking, per se: a Luang Prabang Salad, which consisted of cucumber, tomato, hard-boiled eggs, pork and cilantro arranged over a mound of mixed lettuce greens and dressed with an intriguing mayonnaise made by pulverizing hard-boiled yolks as opposed to the traditional raw-egg base. The salad was quite refreshing, though I picked around the eggs, as the hard-boiled variety have never appealed to me–although as a child I often made my mom cook them for me just so I’d have the chance to play with our egg slicer.

Luang Prabang Salad
Fried noodles with chicken, egg, and vegetables

The other dish that was to serve as lunch was one that I anticipate making at home not infrequently: Fried Noodles with chicken, egg, and green vegetables. This dish was not only both simple and quick to prepare but also quite delicious and distinctly more authentic than just about any Asian noodles available in New York.

Longan fruit
Frying jaew bong chili paste

After lunch we watched Ning show us how to make five more dishes, of which we were to choose three to replicate ourselves, in addition to the proper techniques for steaming sticky rice (the Lao staple food) and jaew bong chili paste, the variety of that omnipresent condiment native to the region around Luang Prabang.

Frying massive amounts of garlic
Purple sticky rice

We came to a consensus on two of the choices, but the other three students all agreed on the third dish, while I dissented, hoping to perfect the green bean salad that can so easily be transformed–using cucumber, green papaya, or mango–into a healthy, tasty, and versatile standby. Since everyone else wanted to make the pork and egg stew, however, and since we were snacking on longan fruit while trying to make this decision (and that after an unusually hearty lunch!), I just went with the flow.

Banana flowers, lemongrass, and limes
Green bean salad

There is a reason that we all concurred about the other two dishes–chicken laap and eggplant with minced pork are some of the most typical Lao dishes, and certainly among the most toothsome. The laap is invigorating on a hot day, and evokes the jungle with all its wild greenery, while the pork and eggplant satisfy with their savory bath of oyster sauce.

Eggplant and pork
Dinner at cooking class

Recipes upon request–considering these photos, I’m expecting to hear from you!

Ingredients for jaew bong chili paste
Chicken laap

Posted by on November 27th, 2006

Two great meals in Laos

So far I’ve had, among many memorable meals, two unbelievable ones. The first was on my last night in Luang Namtha, on the outskirts of town near the old airport, at a restaurant called the Boat Landing, which happens to share its name with the most upscale lodgings in town (rooms go for about $20 a night). I hired a tuk tuk to take me out there after I’d showered upon returning from my kayaking adventure, since from what I’d read in brochures around town and from what the staff at Green Discovery had told me when I’d asked, this was the place to try well prepared traditional Lao food in a relaxed and somewhat upscale atmosphere. I asked the waiter for some recommendations, since the set meals were all designed for 2-3 people, and despite my desire to try a lot of dishes, that seemed slightly excessive.

Dinner - Rice, fish laap, and pork jeow chili paste - Boat Landing Restaurant - Luang Namtha
Pork jeow chili paste - Boat Landing Restaurant - Luang Namtha

I went with his vote for the fish laap, accompanied by the nam pik awng chili paste with pork, steamed rice (since I was a bit tired of sticky rice after eating it four meals straight), and a lemon-mint shake, concocted by the chef himself. None of these choices could have been better. The fish laap was green as the jungle, with finely minced river fish happily overwhelmed by chopped leaves of various herbs, like mint and cilantro, as well as garlic, chiles, scallions, ground roasted sticky rice, and crescents of shredded banana flower. The nam pik awng tasted surprisingly like a spicy, umami Bolognese ragu, and was delicious spread on top of the crisp cucumber rounds and parboiled carrots that accompanied it. The Boat House offers some of their recipes online here, and I’m fairly certain the one for tofu laap could easily be adapted to recreate the properly piscine version I had the fortune to consume.

The second meal was the dinner I ate last night, after my first real day in Luang Prabang, the third-largest city in Laos (with a population of only 16,000!). I ventured down the peninsula toward where the Kham River meets the Mekong to check out the 3 Nagas restaurant (website currently under construction). One of four eateries in town run by a pair of enterprising business partners, 3 Nagas was written up in the food section of the Times two summers ago, and it was that article (by Amanda Hesser, of whose writing I’m usually not a fan) that fanned my eagerness to travel to Laos, and especially Luang Prabang. (Since the article is only available to subscribers like myself, who may or may not have filched their mothers’ delivery account numbers to access archived articles for free, I’ll paste the full text of it below.)

Crispy rice cake with jaew maklen - 3 Nagas
Fried coconut sticky rice with sour pork - 3 Nagas

The restaurant appealed from the moment I walked by, with real wine glasses, tablecloths, and what Amanda Hesser described somewhat overdramatically in her Times piece as a floor the color of ox blood. The real star, however, was the menu, and the food that issued from it. When I first sat down, an amuse bouche–of jaew maklen chili paste on a crispy rice cake–appeared, as if by magic I’d been transported from Laos to New York or Paris. Again on the waiter’s recommendation, I started with the salad of fried coconut sticky rice and sour pork, which was one of the subtlest and most delicious dishes I’ve eaten in my entire life. The flavors were so quiet but persistent at the same time, I almost had to order a second helping to take home with me for later…though I managed some restraint. The pork with eggplant was good but not resplendent, though the jaew bong chili paste, the traditional Luang Prabang variety, shined with its dark undertones of dried buffalo skin and roasted garlic.

Jaew bong chili paste - 3 Nagas
Bamboo rice steamer - 3 Nagas

Eating these chili pastes always feels somehow verboten, as if they contained the blood of Christian children or a secret alchemical elixir of life. This food is dangerous, stuff not for sunny days but for consumption in some coven’s cavern, scooped up with fingers and placed on the tongue to facilitate communion with some dark governor.

Stir-fried pork and eggplant - 3 Nagas
Tamarind sorbet - 3 Nagas

Safer fare was to be found in the dessert section of the menu, where a tamarind sorbet tempted even my bulging belly. I washed it down with the last of my half-carafe of the house white–a sprightly cuvee snagged for just $7–and made my way back to my guesthouse, where I passed out in a gourmand’s reverie.

Full text of the New York Times article, “To Eat in Laos,” by Amanda Hesser, published July 13, 2005, follows. Click on “Read the rest of this entry” to see it.
Read the rest of this entry »

Posted by on November 18th, 2006

The Laos-China Border

In contrast to the Paris-China Border (and if you don’t know the reference, get thee to Amazon for a copy of Salinger’s Nine Stories post haste), the Laos-China Border is a very real liminal space, one which I traversed this afternoon, partly on foot and partly in the back of a saengthaew, or a truck that’s been refitted to carry passengers as well as produce in its nether regions. I had left Beijing on a 7:30am flight on Sunday, sleeping my way across the waking giant to Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province, through which my brother J. and I had passed on our way to Dali and Lijiang back in March. From there I hopped another plane to Jinghong, the capital of Xishuangbanna Prefecture in the very south of the province, verging on both Myanmar and Laos.

Last night I wandered around Jinghong for a bit, but there wasn’t really much to see, so I ended up having a quick bite to eat and lingering over the book I was reading instead. (Now, I just need to find a backpacker cafe-cum-bookstore at which to trade it for another, lighter tome.) Then I headed back to my clean but somewhat shabby room–with a leaky sink–at the Jingyong Fandian, a hotel that Lonely Planet had recommended toward the center of town, but which I found pretty lacking. However, I must concede, the room only cost me 60 kuai (about $7.50), and the service was quite friendly.

I awoke this morning at 6am and hiked the 20 minutes up to the main bus station, where I boarded a bus to Mengla. From what I’d read, it was supposed to be near-impossible to get from Jinghong into Laos in the course of a day, due to poorly aligned bus schedules, lacksadaisical border guards on the Lao side, and the like. However, I figured I’d give it a go, since I didn’t have any desire to spend a night in Mengla, which promised to be even less interesting and offer even dingier accommodations than Jinghong. I got a seat on the first bus of the day (by bus I mean the small white vans that shuttle rural citizens around the countryside in China, often known by the nickname mienbao because they look like loaves of bread–and because they hold up about as well in case of a crash). It pulled into the long-distance bus station in Mengla just shy of noon; I hopped into a bicycle cart pedaled by a man who kept trying to get me to change money with him–unnecessary, since I had already done a black market deal with some guy standing outside the not-yet-open exchange booths at the Beijing ariport–while taking me to the Number 2 Bus Station. There, I bought a ticket for $2 for the two-hour ride to the border town of Mohan (Boten on the Lao side), took my seat on the bus, and settled in for a jolting ride over roads that switched from paved to dirt every five minutes or so, interrupted by hitchhikers making their way from village to village using the only form of public transportation around–the long-distance buses.

On both sides of the border, officials commented on the obscene number of Chinese visas in my passport. What can I say? Kafka would have had no choice but to write nonfiction if he’d been born Chinese. Despite some hemming and hawing, I was given exit stamps for China and prodded on my way toward Laos. I walked in that direction for a bit until a saengthaew driver convinced me to climb aboard for about a dollar. He wanted to take me all the way to Luang Nam Tha, my day’s final destination, but I decided to wait and see what forms of transport were gathered on the other side of Immigration before I committed, even though he’d nicely offered me half of his small piece of delicious citrus fruit (the first thing I’d eaten all day). I purchased a 30-day Lao tourist visa (the default length of stay was 15 days until just recently…now you can stay twice as long for the same amount of money–$35 for Americans, which came out to almost $40 for me since I decided to use up some extraneous Chinese cash instead of tapping into my small hoard of dollars). Then I ended up in another saengthaew in any case, but it turned out to be not a bad way of traveling on a warm day. The open sides of the back of the truck let in quite a refreshing breeze.

After a little more than an hour’s drive, we pulled into the bus station at Luang Nam Tha, and I was left with relative locations of guesthouses and restaurants from the meager descriptions in Lonely Planet, but no map, and no linguistic competence. I walked around for a bit, found a guesthouse that looked okay, put my backpack in a room, and went out to get some food. I couldn’t seem to find a restaurant for the first 15 minutes or so, but finally I found a place that looked okay, and I asked the waitress to bring me whatever she thought was good from the menu. She decided on khao soi, rice noodles in a slightly spicy broth with small pieces of beef and what I think was buffalo meat, topped with a pile of cilantro, and accompanied by more than half a dozen bottles and jars of sauces and seasonings. I doused mine with the chili sauce and fish sauce, added a splash of “Green Grade Gold Label Seasoning Sauce,” a dash of “pepper powder,” and a spoonful of chili oil. To that, I threw in some of the greens and string beans the waitress had brought me on a separate plate. The result was deliciously spicy, a harbinger of good meals to come.

After obtaining some nourishment, I walked around and found the main strip, decided to change to a different guesthouse–the recently refurbished Manychan, with a great location, a bustling and pretty good restaurant–and booked a two-day kayaking trip leaving tomorrow morning. We’ll kayak on the Nam Tha River tomorrow, spend the night in a traditional home in a Lanten village (I’m sure I’ll know more about what that’s like when I get back…), and then kayak some more on Wednesday before heading back to Luang Nam Tha. Then I wandered around town for a while, got lost in a residential area and stumbled upon some kids playing soccer and people walking water buffalo and goats (and kids!–of the goatish sort) on strings. Then I grabbed my backpack from the first guesthouse, apologized profusely to the nice woman in charge there with whom I’d conversed earlier in Chinese (our only common tongue), and headed for the comfort of Manychan. I had a quick bite downstairs, my first authentic green papaya salad (tam mak hung in Lao, som tam in Thai) with sticky rice (kao neaw), and then headed over to this nice internet cafe to let the family know I’d arrived safely and, oh yeah, post to my blog. I have some photos (of lunch and dinner, plus a couple random freebies), of course, but I’m going to wait until I have some more before I upload them. Perhaps when I get back from tackling the rapids.

Update (November 15, 9:24pm): I just posted the corresponding photos here, under “Photos from the Border.” You can see the growing collection of Laos photos on flickr in my Laos photoset.

Posted by on November 13th, 2006

Spicy Shangzhi

Last weekend was the start of China’s National Day holiday, one of three so-called Golden Weeks during which business throughout the country comes to a stand-still as trains cart urban yuppies and migrant workers out of the bustling metropolises of the eastern and southern coasts and back to their small cities and farm towns in the country’s vast interior. My friend (and co-worker), E., was heading home to her hometown in the northernmost province, Heilongjiang, which borders Siberia and North Korea, and she graciously invited me to join her there for a long weekend of exploring a very different part of China–and of eating lots of spicy food with her Korean-Chinese family.

Red peppers drying - Shangzhi
Crescent moons with red-bean filling  - Shangzhi

Since the trains are always crammed full at these officially sanctioned vacation periods, and since regulations limit purchases of train tickets to the five days preceding a journey, we were blocked from buying seats on a sleeper train heading to her town, Shangzhi, via Harbin, on Friday evening. Instead, we paid 900 kuai each (about 500 kuai or $60 more than hard sleeper tickets on the train) to fly from Beijing to Harbin, from where we would take an airport shuttle to the center of town and then a two-hour bus ride to her city. E. had never flown before, and she was a bit nervous (I can only imagine how much I would freak out if I didn’t have hundreds of flights under my belt by now–I still quiver a little when turbulence rocks the plane or we sway a bit on take off). However, the 1.5-hour flight passed quickly enough when we started talking, and I don’t even really think she noticed we were in the air. I think it was pretty disconcerting for her to land in Harbin before the train would have left the outskirts of Beijing, though. It must be strange to experience that compression of distance for the first time. In any case, the trip was uneventful, and when we reached the center of the city, her friend J. met us in his friend’s van, and the two of them drove us through the mid-day traffic jam to the bus station. After two hours of zooming along the highway through shimmering fields of wheat, we finally arrived in Shangzhi, and had the bus driver pull up in front of E.’s parents’ hotel.

White porridge with carrots - Shangzhi
Purple rice - Shangzhi

From the minute we arrived until 10 minutes before we left that Monday, I don’t think more than an hour passed without my being expected and encouraged to eat something. It was tough, let me tell you, but everything was so incredibly delicious and fresh that I somehow managed to summon up the appetite. That first afternoon E. requested pork ribs cooked with delicious local long beans, which we were served along with homemade kimchi, sweetly pickled (but still fiery) peppers, and the first of many bowls of teasingly purple rice, which tasted just like regular white rice, if a bit softer, but which instantly won me over with its regal hue. The two of us then headed down the street to her parents’ apartment and looked at some old family photos and her middle school yearbook until it was time to join her parents for dinner.

Jing fish grilling at Korean barbecue - Shangzhi
Grilled mantou buns at Korean barbecue - Shangzhi

That night, we went to one of the two restaurants that E. had described to me before we left Beijing, a version of the typical Korean barbecue spot, made more exciting by the fact that it wasn’t just marinated meat you were grilling but your very own kebabs. The grill-your-own-chuanr (chuanr being the Chinese word for kebab–the character, 串, even looks like two chunks of meat on a skewer!) included such delicacies as liver, kidney, and tendons, but I stuck to lamb, small whole fish, bone marrow (a first for me), and delicious mantou, doughy Chinese buns, brushed with oil and spices and placed over the fire. As we removed the meat from the flames, we dipped it in a mixture of dry spices and seasonings including chili pepper, cumin, sesame seeds, ground peanuts, among others. We washed it all down with tea and beer, and I managed a veritable feast, even though at the end of it her mother didn’t quite believe that I was full.

Glutinous rice sweets - Shangzhi
Assorted homemade baozi - Shangzhi
We awoke relatively early the next morning, at nine, though that was late compared to the schedule that people in the region usually keep. Her parents had been up since around six, since they had to head over to the hotel that they run and prepare for a Korean wedding that was to be held that morning in the banquet hall on the first floor. E. and I meandered over there in time to catch the couple saying their vows, though she couldn’t
Flower girl at a Korean wedding - Shangzhi

translate as her parents never really taught her Korean. We watched them pledge their love, if that’s what they were saying, and saw the bride appear three times in different clothes–a Korean dress, a Chinese one, and a white Western one. Then, they ducked into a limo bound for Harbin, the provincial capital, where the groom’s parents were holding a separate wedding for their friends and family. The bride’s parents stayed behind in Shangzhi to host the celebration for their loved ones. By 11 in the morning, the entire room was drunk on baijiu (noxious Chinese liquor), and E. and I decided to walk over to her middle school. When we returned around noon, the dregs of the party were still there, dancing in a typical Korean style in the middle of the room, and I received my share of dance invitations in broken Russian. None of them could even conceive of the fact that I might have come from farther away than Siberia–though I guess I do look quite a bit Russian.

Crispy pancakes filled with egg and scallion  - Shangzhi
Spicy cabbage soup  - Shangzhi

We ate lunch that day with her parents in the foyer of the hotel, slurping down a tomatoey cabbage soup and devouring crispy crepes filled with scrambled egg and scallions, this after the homemade baozi (stuffed buns), porridge, and sweets made for the wedding downstairs that had magically appeared before us when we arrived at the hotel only a few hours earlier.

Shizui Mountain - Shangzhi
Red flowers at Shizui Mountain - Shangzhi

After lunch, E. convinced her dad to take us out into a countryside, up to a mountain called Shizuishan (Stone Mouth Mountain), that a friend of his had bought a few years ago. He and his brother-in-law, E.’s mother’s brother, borrowed a three-wheeled car, which seemed to be the most popular form of transportation in this city, from a friend, and we set out. As long as the road remained flat, we sailed (well, sputtered) along, but as soon as we reached the slight incline of the path heading up to the mountain, the tri-wheeler died. E.’s uncle had an amusing spot of trouble trying to start it from an uphill position, and the three passengers ended up getting out to make it easier for him. After this happened for the third time, E. and I came to the realization that her uncle probably hadn’t driven before, since her father took over driving and had no problem with the car. It seems this had all been a learning opportunity for her uncle, and she and I were happy to be entertained by his education. It’s not like we were in a rush–we were surrounded by the golden autumn countryside–so what did it matter if he couldn’t get the car past first gear? Finally we made it to the mountain, which, though far from unspoiled by Coney Island-style amusements and games of chance, was still a gorgeous refuge to anyone accustomed to the grit and grayness of Beijing. The sky was a clear cobalt above us, and wildflowers lined the stone steps that we ascended to the summit.

Fish with spicy tofu - Shangzhi
Our fish - Shangzhi

Once we had explored the mountain’s various paths, E.’s father decided we should head to the fields on the other side of the city for some fishing, and we hopped back in the little, lime-green car. Fifteen minutes later, we turned off the main thoroughfare onto a rough dirt road, which led to a large pond where local men were fishing like their dinner depended on it. Half an hour later, we understood what all the fuss was about, as we yanked a five-pound fish out of the water (well, after E.’s father did, she and I both having failed to tug hard enough on the reel-less rod). Her dad paid 25 kuai ($3) or so to take home our catch, and then we drove back to the hotel and eased it into a tub on the kitchen floor, which had already become home to a giant catfish, presumably for the restaurant patrons. From our bounty, though, we got four different dishes an hour later: deep-fried fish, fish with spicy tofu, fish-head soup, and fish jiaozi (boiled dumplings). I had never before caught a fish and kept it, let alone ate it. It made me feel a little more at-one with my food, which was definitely interesting–plus everything was delicious, especially the spicy fish and tofu dish that her dad had made himself. After dinner, E. and I walked off some of the fullness and headed home, where we talked for a few hours before going to sleep.

Deep-fried fish - Shangzhi
Spicy pork, watercress, potato and sweet potato stew - Shangzhi

On Sunday morning, we avoided notice and thereby skipped breakfast, since her parents were busy organizing yet another wedding in their banquet hall, this time of a Chinese couple. Instead, we headed fifteen minutes up the street to Shangzhi’s small but bustling downtown, where ancient farm women were selling wine-dark grapes, bloody pomegranates, and small yellow fruits that looked like tomatillos (I later determined that they were “Chinese lanterns”, and, yes, a close relative of the tomatillo). After checking out some cell phones for E. and looking up and down a couple of streets, we made our way back to the hotel, where her mom had set out some deliciously soft small pears, which we munched on while she prepared her signature dish for us. The family-favorite, a stew of pork, watercress, potato, and sweet potato, was steeped in a more-liquid form of the spicy Korean paste that always accompanies bibimbap at restaurants both in the States and in China (and therefore, I imagine, in Korea as well). It was as good as E. had promised me, and thankfully she’s lived up to her other promise regarding it, that she would learn how to make it before she came back to Beijing. Sometime later this week or next week she’s going to teach me how to make it too.

Korean barbecue trailer - Shangzhi
Chicken feet kebabs at the Korean barbecue trailer - Shangzhi

By that afternoon, we had pretty much exhausted the sights to see and things to do in Shangzhi, so we just went back to her apartment, watched TV, read, and dozed for a bit. That night, however, proved to be the highlight of the weekend. E. had been trying to convince her parents since we arrived that they should take me to her favorite restaurant, which is basically a trailer parked in the street housing a dingy barbecue joint. They seemed to think it wasn’t right to take their foreign guest to dinner there, but E. did a great job persuading them that this was exactly the type of place in which I wanted to eat, and from the moment I walked in there with a huge grin plastered on my salivating mouth, I think they finally believed her. The chuanr there was incredible: the lamb taking on an entirely new taste, the hot-pepper skewers piercingly spicy, the chicken feet kebabs smothered in a tempting-enough sauce that I actually tried one for the first time–and thoroughly enjoyed it! The other tables were full of locals out enjoying a hearty meal together, we swatted flies between bites of spicy meat, the trailer seemed to rust noticeably in the time it took to eat our dinner, but all those things made it one of the most perfect meals I’ve had in China. I’d highly recommend that everyone eat in a Korean barbecue trailer if the opportunity ever presents itself.

Super spicy pepper kebabs at the Korean barbecue trailer - Shangzhi
Spicy pickled vegetables at the Korean barbecue trailer - Shangzhi

After dinner, the four of us walked abreast back from downtown toward their house. Passersby continued to stare at me even on the third day there, despite the fact that I’m sure the entire city had heard there was a white girl roaming their town. E.’s parents decided to stop for roasted corn when we were halfway back, and we sat down on little stools on the side of the street, while men and women crouched in the half-light of the fire they had built to roast the just-picked corn. One of the men, his face eerily illuminated by the flames, asked E.’s father what I was doing here, and told us that he’d seen me walking around the night before. When they told the crowd that I was their daughter’s coworker in Beijing, that I was from the States and I was staying at their house for the National Day holiday, there was an appreciable gasp of awe. My visit gave some clear cachet to her family, made them seem more worldly in the eyes of their neighbors, which was something I hadn’t quite foreseen, even though I knew beforehand that my presence in this city would certainly be an unusual occurrence. As for the late-night treat itself, I’d never before had corn that was roasted without having first been boiled, and the kernels took on a completely new texture, juicy inside and lightly charred without. We hooked arms and gnawed on the cobs the rest of the way home.

If you want to see the rest of my photos from Shangzhi and Harbin, you can check them out here on flickr.

Posted by on October 8th, 2006

The World’s Best Soup Dumplings

I grew up eating some of the top xiao long bao in America–not that I knew that at the time, or that I knew what they were really called–at Flushing’s own Joe’s Shanghai, a mere seven miles from my childhood home. It wasn’t until I ventured to the Beijing branch of Din Tai Fung, a storied Taiwanese purveyor of classic Shanghainese cuisine, however, that I realized the world had even better soup dumplings in store.

Soup dumplings originated in Shanghai (as the name Joe’s Shanghai would seem to suggest) and are its most famous food export–perhaps assorted crab parts, from legs to roe, don’t really captivate the international palate quite as easily. In any case, the best of them are bundles of hot heaven, with a flour wrapper just thick enough to prevent disintegration concealing a mass of steamed pork (or pork-and-crab, if you swing that way) swimming in a sea of soup. The taste is unrivalled in the world of dumplings (except, to be completely fair, by my Great-Aunt Rozzie’s Thanksgiving kreplach). On top of the taste, there is also surprise and wonder, especially on the part of the soup dumpling newcomer: how did they get the soup inside the dumpling?

Behold, the answer (thanks to Google for the link…I had read this somewhere but couldn’t remember where). The Food Section references a 2004 article by Margo True in Saveur, which is sadly unavailable online. Their summary, however, will suffice:

Ms. True writes that the exact origins of soup dumplings, or xiao long bao (“little dumplings from basket”), are unknown, but they first appeared in Nanxiang, northwest of Shanghai, at least 100 years ago…Ms. True reveals the secret behind the soup. The rich liquid comes from small cubes of aspic made from pork skin that is mixed into the filling. As the filling steams, the aspic melts–turning from solid into liquid–and soup dumplings are born.

One of my all-time favorite food writers, Calvin Trillin, writes a bit more eloquently (or at least humorously) about these Shanghai treasures in a New Yorker article that was later included in his book Feeding a Yen (which I actually reviewed for the Harvard Book Review):

Several years ago, Joe’s Shanghai, a Queens restaurant that was noted for its soup dumplings, opened a Manhattan Chinatown branch that became a huge hit with the pasty-faced citizens the Chinese in America sometimes refer to, when in a benign mood, as “foreign devils.” Soup dumplings, which are often called steamed buns on menus, get their name from the fact that the dumpling skin holds not only a core that is often made of pork and crab—Jewish connoisseurs sometimes refer to soup dumplings as “double-trayf specials”—but also a liquid so tasty that diners tend to be sanguine about the clothing stains they acquire while trying to get to it.

Din Tai Fung’s dumplings are exquisite, and not just the soup variety–they make wonderful wontons, superlative shaomai (a taller version than usual, with a dainty shrimp curled into the crimped crown), and delightful dessert buns, filled with either smooth red-bean paste or slightly gritty and sweet black sesame paste). To wash them down, lulu, China’s take on horchata, which tastes like liquid marzipan, is never a bad bet, but the honey cucumber juice is unusually refreshing.

Posted by on July 30th, 2006

Crawfish, dumplings, and beer

Tonight I met my friend M. and his friend T. at a night market in Wudaokou, the part of town where most of Beijing’s universities are located, and to which I’ve never really ventured before, except when I had to take the various parts of the GRE exam last fall. M., and especially T., know the area a lot better than I do, and it was worth making the trek just to get out of my small neighborhood, even if the night market was hyped a bit beyond reality, which is to say, from what I’d heard I’d imagined it was interesting, and it turned out to be not particularly cool. However, a couple of vendors did have some exciting fare, like gigantic live crawfish stir-fried with spices on the spot, good pork jiaozi (dumplings) with spicy bean sauce, cucumber, and cilantro, and Yanjing Beer (Beijing’s hometown ale–Yanjing is an old name for the city) on tap, unusual for a city where beer is much more common bottled than draft. In all, it was a fine night, made more so by a return to M.’s apartment for some Trivial Pursuit and homemade banana bread–and, at the very least, a delicious one.

Posted by on June 5th, 2006

More street food in Hangzhou

On my last day here the weather finally warmed up a bit again, and I decided to go for a long walk around the part of the city I’ve enjoyed most: the streets around historic Hefang Lu. This time, I encountered still more interesting food for sale, both for immediate consumption and for taking home. This included a lane of street vendors twenty booths or so long on either side selling exclusively food that had been dried, particularly seafood, fruit, and funguses. The smell wasn’t great, but the intrigue-factor was so compelling I strolled up and down three or four times looking for the most unusual items (and the coolest-looking). I also found a number of the dessert pastries for which Hangzhou is famous and which I hadn’t really discovered before. I didn’t try any of them, because that’s not the sort of thing I tend to like, but I did get photos of both “happy pairs” and “wu hill pastries,” as well as of some strange gloopy balls, likely made of dough, that came out of bamboo steamers to wiggle around on platters and show off their strangely colored coatings–I think the pink ones must be the most popular: I saw three or four people buying them straight out of the steamer, but couldn’t find even one sitting out with the other pre-made ones for sale. Oh well. I think these pictures should suffice.

Posted by on December 12th, 2005

The world’s favorite beverage

Tea is the most popular drink in the world, according to one of those amorphous statistics that float out there in the quip ether. From the vantage point of China, and in particular Hangzhou, it would be hard to doubt that claim. The city is famous throughout China for its renowned Longjing tea, a variety of green tea named for Hangzhou’s Dragon Well and grown around its outskirts.

I ventured out to Meijiawu, one of the most picturesque of the tea-growing villages, where I happened upon some gorgeous fields of tea framed by autumnal mountains. I sat outside at a run-down teahouse on the side of the road so I could enjoy the view, and I lucked out in my choice of establishments out of the many, seemingly indistinguishable cha guan that lined the street.

This teahouse was the home of a really friendly (and well behaved) dog named Huan Huan, and her owners, some equally friendly Chinese around my age. They all (the people and the dog) sat with me as I drank my scalding-hot tea and ate some delicious spinach and tofu soup and the absolute best rendition I’ve ever had of one of my favorite Chinese dishes–xihongshi jidan, which is basically eggs scrambled with tomatoes, but which can transport the soul if it’s done well, as it was at this scuffed teahouse fifteen kilometers from the city center.

A few days earlier, I had the chance to experience a very different species of teahouse, a fancy place done up in the truest Hangzhou style located right off of Yanan Lu, the main commercial thoroughfare of the city. L. had told me I was going to have a meeting with his boss, H., at a teahouse, but I had no clue what I was in for and dreaded a really boring morning sipping tea and prattling on about my research with only L. to interpret, since I figured that H. wouldn’t possibly speak English. Well, his vocabulary wasn’t great, but we were able to communicate more than adequately, with L. pitching in to help in the odd moments where his facility was needed. Not only was H. a pretty interesting guy, having graduated from BeiDa (Peking University) and currently planning on getting his masters in public administration in the States next year, but the teahouse itself was incredible.

My first glance at the menu was misleading–I was surprised that a cup of tea would cost 40-60 kuai anywhere in China ($5-7.50), and no food at all appeared on the menu. After a few minutes, though, I realized that not only did that cover a pot of tea with unlimited refills on hot water, plus one change of leaves, but it also included as much food as we wanted from a huge buffet in the main room, filled with fruits, nuts, meats, and various cold dishes, as well as more elaborate items from the carts being wheeled around the building, like soups, dumplings, noodles, rice, and more. In our three-and-a-half hours there, we had: peanuts, pistachios, oranges, grapes, raisins, pomelos, dragon eyes (longyanin Chinese, a fruit related to the lychee, I think, but in any case weird and delicious…small brown spheres that you peel to uncover the soft, slightly sweet, translucent flesh within…you have to watch out for the large pits in the middle, though), wolfberries, cherry tomatoes, chicken feet (no, I didn’t try them), fried noodles, fried rice, soup with dumplings, weird sweet soup that I also didn’t try, surprisingly tasty little cakes, and these are just the things I can remember and could identify. According to L., it’s popular among locals to come to a teahouse like this on weekends or holidays in the morning, order a cup of tea, and sit all day drinking and eating and practicing the finely honed art of good conversation. That’s a cultural practice I could adopt!

Posted by on December 12th, 2005

Making (the daily) paper

The other day I hired a driver to head out to a city about an hour south of Hangzhou called Fuyang. L. had arranged for me to be met by a representative from that city of 620,000 people’s tourism office, Mr. Chang, who tailed me for the rest of the day, paid for lunch, and failed to say more than three or four words the entire time. After lunch, however, which was surprisingly delicious (the best dishes were xihongshi xiaren guoba, crispy rice cakes in a sort of tomato sauce, congyouguiyua large white fish with fresh scallions and no gloopy sauce, shanyao jue, purple Chinese mountain yams wrapped in crispy rolls of something lightly fried, and jiwei xia, steamed shrimp netted from the Fuchun River, gorgeous with bright red and white stripes–I apologize that words have to suffice alone here: I was a bit embarrassed to photograph the lazy susan in front of a number of city officials whom I didn’t know and whom didn’t speak English) he had a reporter from the daily paper, the Fuyang Ribao, intercept us at a park overlooking the river in order to write a story on me. She took photos of me enjoying the scenery, gazing pensively, and taking my own photos of schoolchildren and local women practicing for an upcoming group exercise contest. She asked me a bunch of inane questions about things like my impressions of the city (I had been there for about five minutes), how I thought it compared to other small cities in China, and others of that ilk. I tried to be both obsequious and humorous, quipping (via an interpreter) that if Fuyang were in the States it wouldn’t be such a small city at all. Hysterical, I know. What’s actually hysterical is the fact that my presence as a foreigner in this city of more than half a million people is so unusual as to be newsworthy. It’s not like they thought I was writing a book about Fuyang–I told them it would have a page or two in the book on Hangzhou (which is probably a stretch too). It really just is the boondocks, I guess, even though since it, like Hangzhou, is in Zhejiang Province, China’s wealthiest, it’s a pretty nice second- or third-tier city.

Before lunch, I had the chance to visit an “ancient papermaking village,” which in reality was actually more like a factory in old buildings using manual labor and old-fashioned techniques. I saw the men pulling bamboo frames through a freezing cold suspension of wood pulp and water, crafting perfect sheets of paper with each draw. I saw women printing classic tomes with wooden blocks on loan from a local museum. I got to try both of these things, and they were surprisingly harder than they looked–I guess these skills are actually hard to master. When I asked the man in this photo how long he had worked in the job, I found out that he had studied and apprenticed for three years first, followed by over twenty years of experience at this factory. The site was worth a short visit, especially for someone like me who’s more than mildly interested in/obsessed with paper, notebooks, and the other paraphernalia associated with writing.

Posted by on November 25th, 2005

Street food in Hangzhou

Today I happened upon what can only be described as a “snack street” here in Hangzhou. It was off of Hefang Lu, otherwise known as “History Street,” a pedestrian shopping area where old, probably restored, buildings line the street, housing souvenir shops, restaurants and tea houses. I’m still a bit amazed that the city can be full of tourists without there being more than a couple of other foreigners walking around–they’re just all Chinese. There are so many of them (as if I could ever forget that fact of demography)!

The snack street clearly caters to their tastes, while at the same time highlighting the ghastly specialities for which Hangzhou is famous. I saw giant snails, fried sea creatures on a stick (with their shells still attached below the tempura-like crust), chicken feet, pigs’ feet, unidentifiable feet, duck heads complete with bills, skewered giant silkworm pupae, scary stews and porridges, and some more appealing treats (to my tastes, anyway) like black sesame candy, naan-like bread stuffed with pineapple, rou chuan(r)–the Chinese take on shish kebab–and pancakes with noodles and vegetables inside.

I was actually still full from lunch and looking ahead to dinner with L., so I managed not to eat anything myself, although I did buy some of the sesame candy for my room, and I’m sure I’ll return to snack street at least once before I leave. I mean, who could resist?

Posted by on November 21st, 2005