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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

A Trip to Tianjin

I may be writing right now from an internet cafe in the small city of Shangzhi, two hours northeast of Harbin in Heilongjiang Province, but the story of what I’m doing here will come at a later date. For now, I wanted to post some photos from the trip I took down to Tianjin last Saturday.

I wanted to head someplace out of the city for a day, so it had to be close by, and I had heard that the old treaty port south of Beijing offered a lighter taste of Chinese urban life, flavored with the leftover architecture of Victorian-era international banking and government institutions. The crumbling, faded European-style buildings were a departure from the hulking, monumental behemoths of the capital, for sure, but they weren’t anything particularly special, and a walk down the main street downtown proved a poor way to start the day. It left me wondering why I had spent a whole 30 kuai ($4 or so) to take an almost-two-hour train ride down there. The unexciting lunch that followed, over which I lingered drinking a second diet coke and nearing the conclusion of the book I had brought down with me, didn’t help much either.

However, after my long and late lunch I was inspired to check out a completely different part of the city, the “ancient culture street” area in Tianjin’s old “Chinatown.” It’s funny to think of a city in China having a Chinatown, but back in the days when various global powers each had their concessions in this trading hub, Chinese people were only allowed to live in one small section of the city.

I have been to other reconstructed streets that attempt to mimic the ambiance of daily life in the Qing Dynasty, but Tianjin’s version is even more successful than the one in Hangzhou, and by far more realistic and interesting than anything Beijing has to offer along these lines. Artisans demonstrated their crafts on the street, vendors sold sweets like spun sugar and candied fruit, and accolytes stepped over a high wooden door jamb to enter the Tianhou Temple, which otherwise seemed barely distinct from the commerce around it.

The rest of my photos from Tianjin are up on my photos page, as well as on my flickr page in the Tianjin photoset.

Posted by on October 1st, 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

Mountains and markets and mystique

I’ve posted my photos from Dali now as well–a varied bunch of shots from two days spent exploring the old town of this beautiful ancient capital of the Bai people, hiking on the mountain that stands above it, surveying street food and produce, and basically taking it all in (with exhausted breaths due to the altitude…). They’re up on the photo page in this album and posted on flickr, as usual.

Posted by on March 31st, 2006

Hundreds of photos, dozens of stories

That’s what I have to share from the past few weeks. It’s too much to deal with all at once, especially while I have to work, so I’ve decided to go at it in reverse chronological order, roughly. I’ve uploaded my photos from Lijiang, the final stop on my short trip to Yunnan with my brother, to flickr and to an album here. As soon as I get a chance, I’ll write a bit about their context, but for now here are a couple of my favorite shots from our two days in that ancient town, home to the Naxi culture.

Posted by on March 30th, 2006

The east is red

If I’m up at dawn, I might as well take pictures of it.

Posted by on February 8th, 2006