Archive for Food

Adventures with L.

After I had disembarked the Hainan Airlines Boeing 737 at Hangzhou airport and grabbed my suitcase from the carousel, I passed through the doorway into the meeting area and a young, skinny, well dressed (not as in a suit and tie but more like not wearing the shitty sorts of casual clothes in which a Chinese 28-year-old might be liable to show up) guy called my name. It took a second to realize that my boss had asked me to send her a photo last week–I hadn’t thought it was so that L. could recognize me when I arrived. It’s a much better method than the usual tacky sign that I’d expected. L.’s boss had made him bring one of those anyway, in case he didn’t recognize me, but he showed me how he’d folded it up and stuffed it in his back pocket. He’d only gotten his driver’s license two months ago, so, since my plane landed at night, he had been uncertain of his ability to drive the long distance to the airport on the highway; instead, he had a company driver, Mr. Chang, as he was introduced to me shuttle us both in a white minivan. The ride into town took about a half hour, and we passed some of the futuristic houses the wealthy farmers of Zhejiang province like to build, though it was too dark to get a decent photo.

We went first to my hotel, so I could check in and drop off my bags, and then the three of us headed toward a Korean barbecue place, since L. was excited about the chance to eat there. He promised that we’d have plenty of chances to eat Hangzhou food together, and I think he was even a bit disappointed that his chosen cuisine wasn’t new to me. I told him how I eat at a Korean barbecue restaurant in New York whenever my brother can convince us to shell out the cash (at home it’s really overpriced, which I guess it tends to be in China too, although the “prices” are so low here that “over” is hard to calculate), which usually happens only on or around his birthday. On our way over to the restaurant, L. called ahead to reserve a table and found out that the kitchen was out of lettuce with which to wrap the barbecued meat. He and Mr. Chang were so disappointed that they asked me if it would be alright to stop at the supermarket before dinner so we could buy our own! Of course I said okay. That moment marked a most auspicious beginning for this journey. Dinner was delicious, we had lamb, beef, and squid to cook on our table-top grill, as well as scallion pancake, shiguo banfan (better known to Americans by its wonderful Korean name: bibimbap), and my first taste of Hangzhou’s favorite beer: Siwo, which seems to be an attempt at non-pinyin transliteration of its Chinese name, which is, unsurprisingly, Xihu Pijiu, or West Lake Beer. It was at that very lake that I would end up spending most of today.

Posted by on November 16th, 2005

Durians and breadfruit and jackfruit, oh my!

So, when I said that the foodie gods had bestowed some divine luck upon me and let me see durians just sprouting from the trunk of a tree on the beach–I lied. Or, more accurately, I was mistaken. I was so excited about seeing them that I hadn’t made the effort to confirm my suspicion that they weren’t actually the infamously odoriferous and dangerously spiky and heavy fruit but rather some other Malaysian treat. They hadn’t seemed sharp enough, and that is the distinction that makes all the difference. In addition, I’d been told that they don’t usually grow out of the side of a trunk, but only in the branches. After some research, in which I came across this blog, which has terrific pictures and fair descriptions of many fruits native to Malaysia and the surrounding region, and a number of other sites that were a lot less interesting, I think I have narrowed its classification down to the jackfruit or some special local variety thereof, like the chempedak or the marang. That’s still pretty exciting, especially after looking up some facts about the jackfruit here:

Jackfruit is the largest tree-borne fruit in the world, reaching 80 pounds in weight and up to 36 inches long and 20 inches in diameter. The exterior of the compound fruit is green or yellow when ripe. The interior consists of large edible bulbs of yellow, banana-flavored flesh that encloses a smooth, oval, light-brown seed. There may be 100 or up to 500 seeds in a single fruit, which are viable for no more than three or four days. When fully ripe, the unopened jackfruit emits a strong disagreeable odor, resembling that of decayed onions, while the pulp of the opened fruit smells of pineapple and banana.

Since it also says that the jackfruit can “appear on short, stout twigs that emerge from the trunk and large branches, or even from the soil-covered base of very old trees,” I think I have probably found my fruit.

The weirdest thing is that jackfruit and breadfruit both are distant cousins of the fig–reminds me of the taxonomical closeness of elephants and hyraxes.

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Posted by on October 16th, 2005

Fantasy Island?

Lonely Planet calls Pulau Perhentian Besar, the island on which I’ve spent the past two days, a real-life “Fantasy Island,” but I would have to disagree. At least this late in the season, with most of the facilities on the island scheduled to close in two weeks until March, and the beginnings of the monsoon already upon it–with incredible storms both nights I was there from 7pm until late at night–there wasn’t much of a crazy party scene going down. The island is beautiful, though: the surrounding water of the South China Sea a deep turquoise, spotted with purple splotches were the coral lies below the surface, the coconut palms abundant, the buildings the most rustic I’ve experienced on an island vacation but perfect for the setting.

Once I took a taxi from the Kota Bharu airport to the jetty at Tok Bali and caught the fast ferry across to the island, I went for a quick sunset swim and met up with my friend A., her boyfriend J., and his friend J.U. We ate at my hotel: hot and flaky roti canai (similar to the parathas of Singapore’s Little India), fish pineapple curry, which was terrific–the kingfish freshly hooked, the pineapples super-sweet, and the curry itself perfectly spicy–for dessert a fried banana with honey, and all accompanied by what would prove the first of many glasses of orange-pineapple juice. (Since it’s in a heavily Muslim region, the island isn’t exactly a bastion of alcoholic reverie…this late in the season, only one bar-restaurant even had any beer left in stock, Tiger and Chang. I had Tiger, it was just as A.F. had described it, “like Heineken but less bitter.”) After dinner we played poker and then made it an early night. They headed back to their overpriced resort, while I tucked myself in to a small bed under a ceiling overhung with lizards (that’s a good thing, since they eat the things that are bad) at Paradise, my cheap island hostel.

The next morning, I made a startling discovery. I thought I had been snorkeling before (once, with turtles and a family friend in Barbados), but that was nothing compared to this. I floated above thousands of fish feeding from the small coral reefs just offshore in the bay for almost an hour before lunch, entranced by the beautiful colors and patterns of their bodies and overwhelmed by my entrance into this entirely new world. It inspired me to inquire about diving certification at the dive shop, but I wasn’t going to have enough time on the island to finish the course–it will have to wait for another vacation, perhaps to Thailand.

Still, snorkeling satisfied me for the rest of the day, after a lunch of local noodles–kue tiau goreng, which were thin and broad and mixed with chicken, egg, and cabbage and other good vegetables. With my friends, I swam across the entire bay twice, the first time to reach the cove with all the terrific fish I’d observed that morning, the second to backtrack to where one of them had earlier spotted a giant sea turtle. It was a successful mission, and I had one of the most incredible experiences of my life. I was hovering for almost fifteen minutes right above this tremendous sea turtle. It was at least eight feet across, and below its giant flippers it actually sheltered two small sharks, a purple one and a yellow one. I tried the entire time to untangle the complicated relationship that was clearly at work, but I’m still not sure whether they were protecting or hurting the turtle, whether their interactions were symbiotic or antagonistic. I guess I should look it up somewhere.

Posted by on October 5th, 2005

Little India

Yesterday afternoon, A.F. went off to run some errands, and I headed out on my own to explore Little India. He’d been an incredible guide, knowledgeable about the answers to all my questions, explaining Singaporean history, culture, sociology, education, and filling my head with data like the fact that 85% of Singapore’s residents live in public housing, which is actually really nice, and that six years ago, when the government implemented the famous electronic road pricing system, all the cars in the country were assigned an exact date and time to have the necessary device installed. Still, I figured I knew by now how to wander a foreign neighborhood and navigate a new subway system, especially in a country where English is the official language, despite the fact that most people speak Chinese, Malay, or Hindi at home as well. So I hopped on the MRT at Orchard Road, where we had been browsing at the Apple Store and at Border’s (I read the The New Yorker and Harper’s, but didn’t buy them because they cost about $15 each after all the shipping charges had been incorporated.), and got off three stops and a line-change later at Little India. There, I walked the streets, explored a little market that had been set up to sell special goods for Deepavali (aka Diwali, the Hindu version of Hanukah that lasts a month around the same time as Ramadan), ate, as I’ve already written, a paratha and drank some heavenly mango lassi, and checked out the famous 24-hour electronics department store, the Mustafa Centre.

Posted by on October 3rd, 2005

Food in Singapore

If I had to describe Singapore in one word, it would not be “clean,” “sterile,” or “strict,” but “yum!” The diversity of cultures and the way its inhabitants prize good cuisine is striking, and it means that there are tons of unique and delicious foods to try. Last night, my friend A.F., who grew up there and now works for the government, and his girlfriend C., originally from San Francisco but now a writer for The Straits Times, took me to Maxwell Food Centre, a hawker center in Chinatown, where we ordered an array of native foodstuffs and incredible tropical juices (soursop, star fruit, sugar cane, and watermelon). I took some photos, but it was dark out so they didn’t come out too well. Still, the first one is of what the locals call Carrot Cake, which is the result of someone’s bright idea to dice up the traditional dimsum treat of turnip cake (my boyfriend P.’s favorite thing to order) and fry it with an egg and chiles. The second is Hokkien prawn noodles, which is a dish beloved of the straits Chinese (Nyonya), who originally left Fujian Province (where Xiamen and Fuzhou are, and where the unusual dialect of Hokkien, different from both Mandarin and Cantonese, is spoken) to settle throughout southeast Asia in the late 19th century.

Earlier yesterday, I grabbed a snack in Little India, at a little vegetarian restaurant called Komala. I couldn’t help but order the traditional roti paratha, which in Malaysia is known as roti canai (and which I’d had at the restaurant Penang in New York a number of times as a kid). It was both doughy and flaky, steaming hot off the griddle, and served with a small cup of delightfully spicy curry. I also(had the joyful opportunity to drink what was in my experience (limited as it is by not having yet made it to India) the best mango lassi in the world.

For breakfast, A.F. met me at my hip and clean hostel, where the in-house restaurant, Wild Rocket has been making a buzz among Singaporean foodies. We ordered mojitos (crisp and well-mixed) and pancakes with strawberry compote and fresh cream (buttery and brown outside and nice and soft within). Since the food took a while to come, the chef, Willin Low, sent out complimentary grapefruit and basil granitas (herby and refreshing). I had actually grabbed dinner there the night before, when I arrived, since it was 10:30pm and I was worried that by the time I found my way to a restaurant outside the hostel anything I found might be closed. Then, I tried a lychee martini and crabmeat linguini in a lightly piquant tomato cream sauce, both of which were spectacular as well. If only Beijing had food like this–and at such affordable prices!

Oh, and at some point, I popped into one of the 25 or so 7-11s I saw around town to check out potato chip flavors and other assorted local snacks. The best one on the shelves was this bag of “Ethnic Flavor” chips.

Posted by on October 3rd, 2005

The taste of Chinese chips

It’s well known that the Chinese have a taste for many delicacies that would make much of the world grimace: pig trotters, chicken feet, shark fins, snakes, intestines, stomachs, and tree fungi, among seemingly limitless others. You’d think, however, that they couldn’t make even that prized delicacy of the American cupboard–the potato chip–seem revolting. But America’s own storied snack manufacturer, Lay’s, has perverted the standard chip into something resembling the more traditional Middle Kingdom snack of dried shrimp or shriveled, puckeringly sour plums. Sure, I’ve seen ketchup-, ham-, and pickle-flavored chips in Spain, but those still seem to somehow belong to the same genre: you could eat chips with any of those things and it wouldn’t seem out of place at a Fourth of July picnic. These Chinese varieties (and I’m not even talking about homegrown brands, which create Frankensteinian flavor-powders that I’m sure rival even these, but who package their products exclusively in Chinese and therefore inaccessibly to my current powers of interpretation) will perhaps offer some insight into the nature of the Chinese palate, and into why even I, a pretty die-hard chowhound (slash foodie, but only when I have the money), find myself a bit intimidated when eating here, especially without language to help decipher what it is I’m eating.

Posted by on September 15th, 2005

Internet food delivery

My friend S. turned me on to a dirty secret a few weeks ago: in Beijing, as in Boston, New York, or many other American cities, you can order your dinner online. The site, www.beijinggoodies.com, became something of an addiction for me of late, though I’ve had to cut back since the prices it charges are assinine, with a 100RMB minimum charge plus delivery fees. Dinner from Mexican Wave or Tandoor to fulfill cravings for exotic cuisines ends up costing between fifteen and twenty dollars–an outrageous amount in a city where I could stuff my face at a normal Chinese restaurant (preferably Sichuan, if I had my way) for 20RMB or $2.50. On top of that, they’re not quite modern enough to take credit cards yet, so it really is an out-of-pocket expense. It’s cheaper to order pizza from Annie’s, which has its own free delivery service, even though you have to actually call them to place your order. (Beijing Goodies confirms orders on their site by text message to your cell phone.) Still, just knowing that a service like this exists changes my sense of how small the differences really are between life here and life anywhere else in the developed world. If you can order cheese enchiladas or garlic naan online and have it show up at your door thirty minutes later, you are definitely not in the third world.

Posted by on September 4th, 2005

China’s greater metropolis

I was in Shanghai for a few days this week on a short vacation. I left suitably impressed by the city’s expanse, its modernity, its vibe that stands out against the staid hesitance of most of the rest of China, even by how very different it seems from Beijing, which is somehow more provincial and backwards. I stayed on the 70th floor of Jin Mao Tower, the fourth-tallest building in the world, at the Grand Hyatt, and out the window of my room the famed TV Tower dominated the middle-ground of the panorama, while the postcolonial relics of the Bund hovered above the opposite shore of the Huangpu River. Skyscrapers of varying degrees of imaginative design faded into the distance almost to the hazy horizon. On the other side of town, the blossoming district of Xintiandi, which stands in the former French Concession, transported me with its small shops and pedestrian streets to some nonexistent European city. M on the Bund wowed me with culinary stylings worthy of a New York setting (but still at Chinese prices)–a Continental menu, impressive wine list, incredible fresh-baked breads, and desserts composed of ingredients vastly more appealing than red bean paste. Shanghai really is a whole other world from the rest of China.

Still, some things persist despite the steady flow of big money, and the Chinese worldview is one of them, albeit with certain more cosmopolitan accents. Shanghai’s taxis all bear a list of rules and regulations on the back of the driver’s compartment. That these appear in both Mandarin and English is one point that differentiates the city, but their content connects it to a broader Chinese paradigm. Item number seven in a list of twelve was my favorite, and the one that really emphasizes how the Chinese mindset is distinct from what we’re more used to in the West. In the various translations employed by the different cab companies, I saw two versions of it, both of which make my point: “No schizophrenics or drunkards to take the taxi without a guardian,” and “No psychos or drunkards to take taxi alone.”

Posted by on August 28th, 2005