May 2009 Archives

 

Over the course of our time in Xi'an, we failed at most of the things we tried to do: getting off buses at the right stop, arriving at museums before closing time, buying pants, and biking around the city walls. But we did not fail to return to the Muslim Quarter for most of our meals.

One of the more famous dishes in Xi'an is yang rou pao mo, a mutton soup that is served over broken pieces of unleavened bread. In most restaurants, you are given the bread to tear up yourself, and then a giant kettle of lamb stew is used to fill up your bowl. We went to a full-serve restaurant and were slightly disappointed when the stew and bread arrived pre-mixed. It was still yummy (bread in soup is almost always a good idea), but it seems like the participatory aspect is a large component of the tradition. We also got a chicken stew, shown on the left above, with a very thick chicken broth and long-stewed chunks of tender cartilage and meat. The rich chicken soup actually outshone the lamb stew on this occasion, but the yang rou pao mo is the one I'm excited to try making at home.

While yang rou pao mo is well-known, these two dishes are much more visible as you walk through the Muslim Quarter. They are prepared in large street-side woks and counters, so you're almost never out of sight of one or the other. The transparent cubes are stir-fried bean-starch jelly, a very firm, tasteless, jello-like substance that was coated with a spicy sauce, making for an odd experience of burning heat interspersed with remarkable blandness. The noodles are cool, and served with a dollop each of spicy and nutty (sesame?) sauces. While both were good, getting through an entire bowl of either of them seemed like a test of endurance for some reason — they just seemed more like side dishes than mains.

Another common street food is this fried bread stuffed with meat and vegetables, crisp on the outside and tender and savory inside. In fact, almost everywhere in the Muslim Quarter smells of dough and baking, steaming, or frying bread, especially in the mornings. This is delightful and sorely tempting — how I ever managed to be hungry for dinner when I could have one of these things in my hand at every moment of the day, I honestly don't know.

One last treat from Xi'an was this steamed rice cake, very similar to the steamed rice sweets we saw in Indonesia. Instead of being stuffed with palm sugar, however, this rice cake was dipped in a sweet sauce, sprinkled with sesame, sugar, and crushed nuts.

 

We did venture out of the Muslim Quarter (a few feet out of it anyways) for one meal in Xi'an: a dumpling feast from De Fa Chang. A very well-known and highly publicized institution, De Fa Chang had the feel of a once-grand eatery that had succumbed to legions of tour groups, tourists, and business meetings.

De Fa Chang specializes in set menus of dumplings — although there are other options on the menu, we opted for one of the feasts. We picked one on the simpler and less expensive end of the scale, and were still overwhelmed by the variety and amount of food. While the dumplings ranged from decent to extraordinary in flavor and texture, I was consistently surprised by their fillings and shapes, most of which were unlike any others I've seen. Here's the complete photographic rundown of the dumpling procession:

The meal began with small appetizer plates of cold noodles, peanut and corn salad with a fish dressing, mildly pickled cabbage with tripe, and dark greens with beans. This quartet was an excellent combination of complex flavor pairings: the umami of aged fish and peanuts with the freshness of corn, the crisp cabbage and smooth tripe melded with sour pickle flavor, the blandness of the cold noodles under the deep, tart dressing, and the rich bitterness of the greens with the mellow starch of the beans. Next in line was a light but savory mushroom soup, just barely sweetened with floating goji berries, and a set of fried dumplings, one duck and one sweet paste. Then the dumplings really began in earnest: three trays, each arrayed with four or five pairs of intricately shaped steamed dumplings, a parade of walnuts, ducks, and flowers. After that, when we assumed the meal would be winding down, a gigantic plate of homestyle boiled dumplings appeared, along with a chicken broth soup, full of tiny floating dumplings, heated on a brazier.

This beauty was carefully topped with minced vegetables, while the one below is curled on itself like a flower. Perhaps the most unusual dumpling was the walnut one, carefully colored and shaped to reflect its filling. While its skin was thick and somewhat dry, the filling was moist and richly nutty. Tomato seemed to play a large part in some of the dumplings, which also struck me as uncommon. We also especially enjoyed the vibrant flavors, tender skins, and adorable shapes of the duck dumplings.

The best thing about this dinner is that I feel like it has given me permission to be experimental in my own dumpling cooking. If De Fa Chang can fill dumplings with walnuts and tomatoes, and make them in crazy animal shapes, I can too! The other great thing, though, was the fake dumplings laid out in the lobby, like these fancy birds:

 

We interrupt your regularly scheduled travelogue to bring you a piece of real-time food news. Since I'm back in the country and have access to a kitchen, I'm once again participating in the Daring Bakers challenges.

The May Daring Bakers' challenge was hosted by Linda of make life sweeter! and Courtney of Coco Cooks. They chose Apple Strudel from the recipe book Kaffeehaus: Exquisite Desserts from the Classic Cafés of Vienna, Budapest and Prague by Rick Rodgers.

I was convinced that this was going to be a difficult project, so I tripled the recipe — I was sure that I would screw up the stretching step not just once, but twice. Turns out that I nailed it all three times with no problems whatsoever, so I just ended up with a TON of strudel. During the rolling of the third strudel I looked up and said, completely without premeditation, "you know, this is so easy, I'm going to make strudel all the time - this is just as easy as pie!"

The best part of the strudel process was, unsurprisingly, the rolling up of the pastry. The dough is pulled thin on top of a floured cloth, which is then used to roll the delicate layer of pastry around the filling. With a simple lift, the filled end of the dough tumbles down the slope of the fabric like a snowball, accumulating layers of buttered dough. This rolling maneuver wraps the tissue-thing dough with just the right degree of wrinkling and tautness to manufacture the light layers and buttery crannies of the strudel.

I thought that the original filling of apples with walnuts, raisins, and rum sounded a little autumnal, so I picked up some rhubarb from the farmers market and went with the slightly springier combo of apples, rhubarb, pecans, and whiskey. This mixture created a lot of excess liquid, which I drained off before filling the strudel, in the process leaving behind a lot of the sugar. The resulting strudel was not terribly sweet, but it was not at all soggy, and had lovely, puffed-up layers of super-thin crisp dough.

Apple strudel

  • Dough and technique from Kaffeehaus - Exquisite Desserts from the Classic Cafés of Vienna, Budapest and Prague by Rick Rodgers, filling extemporized by me

Strudel Dough

  • 1 1/3 cups (200 g) unbleached flour
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt
  • 7 tablespoons (105 ml) water, plus more if needed
  • 2 tablespoons (30 ml) vegetable oil, plus additional for coating the dough
  • 1/2 teaspoon cider vinegar

Combine the flour and salt in a stand-mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Mix the water, oil, and vinegar in a measuring cup. Add the water/oil mixture to the flour with the mixer on low speed. You will get a soft dough. Make sure it is not too dry, add a little more water if necessary. Take the dough out of the mixer. Change to the dough hook. Put the dough ball back in the mixer. Let the dough knead on medium until you get a soft dough ball with a somewhat rough surface.

Take the dough out of the mixer and continue kneading by hand on an unfloured work surface. Knead for about 2 minutes. Pick up the dough and throw it down hard onto your working surface occasionally. Shape the dough into a ball and transfer it to a plate. Oil the top of the dough ball lightly. Cover the ball tightly with plastic wrap. Allow to stand for 30-90 minutes (longer is better).

Erica's Experimental Apple-Rhubarb-Pecan Strudel Filling

  • Approximately a pound of apples, peeled, cored, and chopped into small chunks
  • 2/3 cup chopped rhubarb (I would use more next time, aiming for a 1:1 apple to rhubarb ratio)
  • 1/3 cup sugar, plus a few tablespoons to taste, if desired
  • 5 Tbsp butter, melted
  • 1/2 cup chopped pecans
  • 1 splash bourbon
  • Juice of 1/2 a lemon

Worried about crisp or stringy rhubarb, I softened mine on the stovetop with half the sugar and the whiskey before mixing it in with the apples. This was probably unnecessary, but did have the advantage of removing some of the liquid from the rhubarb so it could be strained off later, making the strudel less soggy.

After that optional cooking step, I combined the softened rhubarb with the all of the other filling ingredients except the butter and pecans, and then let the mixture sit for a while to draw out the liquid and let the flavors marry.

Assembling the strudel

It would be best if you have a work area that you can walk around on all sides like a 36 inch (90 cm) round table or a work surface of 23 x 38 inches (60 x 100 cm). Cover your working area with table cloth, dust it with flour and rub it into the fabric. Put your dough ball in the middle and roll it out as much as you can. Pick the dough up by holding it by an edge. This way the weight of the dough can help stretch it as it hangs. Using the back of your hands to gently stretch and pull the dough. You can use your forearms to support it.

The dough will become too large to hold. Put it on your work surface. Leave the thicker edge of the dough to hang over the edge of the table. Place your hands underneath the dough and stretch and pull the dough thinner using the backs of your hands. Stretch and pull the dough until it's about 2 feet (60 cm) wide and 3 feet (90 cm) long, it will be tissue-thin by this time. Cut away the thick dough around the edges with scissors. The dough is now ready to be filled.

Put the rack in the upper third of the oven and preheat the oven to 400°F (200°C). Line a large baking sheet with baking paper (parchment paper). Spread about 3 tablespoons of the remaining melted butter over the dough using your hands (a bristle brush could tear the dough, you could use a special feather pastry brush instead of your hands). Spread the pecans about 3 inches (8 cm) from the short edge of the dough in a 6-inch-(15cm)-wide strip. Drain the excess liquid from the apple-rhubarb mixture. Spread the mixture over the pecans, and if desired, sprinkle a little extra sugar over the mix.

Fold the short end of the dough onto the filling. Lift the tablecloth at the short end of the dough so that the strudel rolls onto itself. Transfer the strudel to the prepared baking sheet by lifting it. Curve it into a horseshoe to fit. Tuck the ends under the strudel. Brush the top with the remaining melted butter.

Bake the strudel for about 30 minutes or until it is deep golden brown. Cool for at least 30 minutes before slicing. Use a serrated knife and serve either warm or at room temperature. It is best on the day it is baked..

 

It was a snappy twenty-hour train ride to Xi'an from Huhehaote, during which chilly, brown fields and pink blooming trees gave way to bright greenness and warmth. Xi'an was on our to-do list because of the famous Terracotta Army, a sight that was at once overwhelming and odd. Giant, eerie hangars shelter the partially-excavated rows of soldiers, which is odd enough, but then there are the booths in every hangar where you can buy statuettes of the soldiers playing baseball and photographs of yourself dressed as one of the warriors. I couldn't shake the feeling that the place was being run more like a profit machine than an institute for historical preservation. Of course, the five malls you have to walk through to get back to the bus stops and parking lot don't do anything to disabuse one of that impression, even though they are mostly empty — after all, how many opportunities to buy cheap figurines does each tourist really need?

Back in the city, we were staying in a hostel next to the Drum Tower, a central landmark and popular kite-sellers' haunt, and steps away from Xi'an's Muslim Quarter, attractions less fraught with mixed feelings for me. We walked in to the maze-like Muslim Quarter for dinner on our first day in the city, and found ourselves back there for almost every meal after that. The variety, and the visibility, of the eating options in this neighborhood were amazing. Almost all the storefronts are restaurants, or else shops selling dried fruits and nuts. The first layer of street vendors is also composed of dried fruits and nuts, spread on top of massive carts. Scattered amongst those are smaller carts, selling an incredible variety of treats: lotus starch paste, steamed rice discs, grilled meat, fried bread, sesame candy, steamed dumplings, lentil and dried fruit paste, and fried stuffed breads and pancakes.

We couldn't eat everything at once, but during that first trip into the market we found ourselves sampling a pretty impressive array. I couldn't resist the bright yellow lentil paste, but to be honest, while I'm usually down with bean sweets, this one didn't really do it for me. It had a little too much distinctive lentil taste and texture — earthy and grainy — that just conflicted with the flat sweetness of the added sugar. We also tried an array of fried, baked, and candied treats, like sesame brittle and fried honey-soaked fritters. Once again, the bean-based treat (the green square with a stamped pattern on top) was a loser, but the rest, well, they seemed like a combinatorics exercise that couldn't go wrong: given the ingredients honey, flour, nuts, and hot oil, how many things can you create?

My favorite street treats from that day were these fried orange discs. I have no idea what they are, or if there are multiple fillings, and my research has turned up nothing. The outside was mild and sweet and squooshy, and the inside was composed of nuts and rosewater. Any clues out there?

Lastly, we bought some of the vibrantly colored dried fruit to have on hand as a snack. When we ate the fruit over the next few days, we found it to be a little hit-or-miss. Some of the fruits were excellent, while others were over-sweetened and sulfury. But they sure do look good, especially those yellow cherries, which seemed to glow from within.

Eventually we made it past the carts and into one of the restaurants, where we had a few trays of dumplings. Most notably, we had soup dumplings filled with lamb, something it had not even occurred to me might exist. While pork still seems naturally more suited for the role, the lamb made for a nice change of pace, particularly when combined with the spicy dipping sauce (which may have been intended for the vegetable dumplings, but worked equally well, or better, with the lamb).

 

I awoke on the morning of my 28th birthday in a business hotel in gray and rainy Inner Mongolia. This had not been the plan. The plan involved yurts, wide open grasslands, horses, fermented milk, and mutton, not 14 cable channels, a business center, and a view of an abandoned highrise.

Huhehaote, or Hohhot, as it is more commonly (and inexplicably) romanized, is the capital of the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region of China. It may well be the least touristed city we visited, although in the summer the grasslands outside the city are a draw. We were there out of season, though, and, thanks to mistakes on all sides, our train didn't make it into the city in time for us to visit the grassland we came to see.

This was pretty heartbreaking to me, as I've developed quite a fascination with Mongolian cuisine. The real stuff, not just the fabricated hot pots and barbecues. The traditional Mongolian diet is primarily meats and dairy, with few vegetables or grains. Mongolians make yogurt and a wide range of other fermented and aged products with not just cow, goat, and sheep milk, but also from mare, camel, and yak milk. That alone is enough to make me want to investigate, but on top of that, the primary meat consumed is mutton. Then there are dumplings and porridges with cream and salted milk tea! I find this all incredibly alluring.

We had a strangely difficult time finding Mongolian cuisine in Huhehaote. Several restaurants our guidebooks mentioned were nonexistent, and the advice they gave about finding traditional Mongolian food (walk into any restaurant with Mongolian script outside!) was just laughably wrong, as, unsurprisingly, ALL restaurants in the area are signed both in Mongolian and Chinese. But I had spent 21 hours on the train for mutton offal and fermented mare's milk, and I was not about to settle for just another bowl of noodle soup. Instead we asked for advice at a hotel desk, and ended up at a sort of schlocky tourist joint with very kind but absurdly costumed waitresses. While we puzzled over the menu, and the waitresses insisted repeatedly that they had run out of sheep intestines, the six-piece house band trooped by, in rainbow satin deels and gold pointed hats — sadly, they were headed downstairs to a private party, but one of them, toting an electric keyboard, did bellow a jolly hello at us as they passed.

Eventually, we managed to order fresh yogurt (just cow's milk, sadly), boiled mutton with a garlicy dipping sauce, and slices of lamb's liver wrapped in fat and grilled. Well, it may not have been mutton stew passed around the yurt, and I have no idea if it bore any relation to traditional Mongolian cuisine, but it was pretty good. The yogurt was incredibly smooth, light enough to drink or sip from a spoon, and mildly tart. It was served with soft granulated sugar that you could stir in to taste, and it was a refreshing contrast to the meaty dishes. The garlic dipping sauce brightened up the mildly assertive sheep flavor of the tender boiled mutton, and together they made a very satisfying meal.

But the fat-wrapped liver... do I even have to tell you how good that was? I'll tell you what, you just go wrap something, a piece of shoe leather, whatever, in a quarter inch of lamb fat and toss that on the grill. It's not looking half-bad now, right? Well, do that with something that is already delicious, like a rich, earthy slice of liver, and there is pretty much no way to go wrong.

 

While Beijing seems to operate on a larger scale than the rest of the world, ultimately its giant spaces tie together small moments in the lives of hundreds of people. Take, for example, Beijing's lake district. Lined with bars, night clubs, restaurants, street food carts, and neon, the Qianhai, Houhai and Xihai Lakes are a center of Beijing nightlife. Their shores are the perfect place to peoplewatch and soak up the reflections of glowing lights on the lapping waters. But, aside from being tourist attractions and giant disco light echo chambers, these lakes are also an intimate part of the lives of the people living in the surrounding hutongs.

One of the best experiences of our entire trip was Greg's birthday surprise for me, an evening of mahjong lessons with China Reflection. They picked us up from the subway station, where we took a pair of rattly three-wheeled motor-rickshaws through one of those lake-side hutongs, arriving at a family-run mahjong parlor. The small room, just steps from the lake, was barely large enough to hold four automatic mahjong tables (a technological marvel — it's pretty much worth the price of the lesson just to watch these things swallow the jumbled tiles, shuffle them around, and then lift them up in four pristine double rows). Unbeknownst to our guide or us, the owner of this particular parlor was in the habit of making dinner for the neighborhood regulars, and she warmly extended the offer to us.

Dinner was fish, caught fresh in the lake that day, stewed in a five-spice broth, and served with bean sprouts and steamed bread, or mantou. While I can't vouch for the safety of fish caught in an urban lake plied by countless tourist boats, it was tender and delicious, and the generous welcome it signified made the meal one of the most meaningful of our trip. We were pressed to take seconds, our cups of tea were never left empty, and while we had to work through a translator, hopefully our gratitude was as obvious as the welcome. After dinner, the plates were cleared away, and we spent the evening amusing the regulars with our mahjong skills (or lack thereof). Other players leaned over our table between their games and pointed out moves or congratulated good ones, and by the end of the evening, we felt completely at ease despite the language gap.

After that meal, the giant, glittering lake seemed to mean more to me. But there were some diners whose meals were linked even more closely to the lake than ours — the photo is a little blurry, but these folks are eating what appeared to be a twelve-course meal on a tiny wooden boat. What the photo doesn't show at all is how violently this boat was bobbing up and down, and how often those diners had to grab the edge of an errant plate. I'll stick with the lake fish served on land.

Another giant landmark that we got to experience a little more personally was the Great Wall. We hiked from Jinshanling to Simitai. While Simitai is one of the more heavily trafficked site along the wall, Jinshanling is pretty quiet, and the hike between the two is probably the best way to see the wall without a thick frosting of tourists. The wall is exactly as imposing, stunning, and mind-warpingly steep and rugged as you might expect, and there is nothing that brings home the reality of it, and the amount of human effort involved in its construction, like spending a morning walking atop it.

There isn't much to eat on the Great Wall, mostly lukewarm sodas and candy bars, lined up with the piles of t-shirts in the shade of the turrets. But next to the funky tour-bus-stop buffet restaurant at the Simitai end of the hike, there were rows of trees hung with corn cobs, drying in the sun. The beautiful but stark brown and white landscape of the day — wall, scrub, fruit tree, dust cloud, wall, brush, dirt — was broken by the happy yellow of the corn, hanging like celebratory wreaths along the road.

These rows of drying corn, a fairly common sight in the Chinese countryside, made me pause a moment to think about the people who make their living under the Great Wall today, most of them probably selling sodas to tourists, preparing buffet lunches, or driving buses to and from the city. I wished I had the words to ask someone about the corn, about where it was grown, how it was dried, and how it would be used.

 

So, it turns out that in the chaos of returning to the States I completely missed The Brave Potato's birthday, which was May 4th. I've been posting here for over a year now — here's to many more!

I'd like to think that I've become a better writer, cook, photographer, and traveler over the course of the last year. I spent one summer eating mostly local, and one spring eating anything but. I've attempted more complex recipes than I ever expected, and tackled several projects I had been planning for a while, like worm composting, curing meat, and making a wild yeast sourdough starter. Perhaps the most important contribution I've made with this blog, however, has been this t-shirt:

designall.jpg

That's because not only does it show off your support for sustainable, non-fossil-fuel-based agriculture, it also puts some money where its mouth is. All proceeds* go to The Food Project, a MA-based organization that brings teens from diverse backgrounds together to learn about sustainable agriculture, social change, and public service. And guess what?! You can still buy one! Plus, now you can buy the design on a tote bag too.

*That's my proceeds - 10% of the sale price. The rest goes to Zazzle for printing.

 

Beijing is a big city, and I don't just mean in the obvious blister-causing way. (The first couple days there we didn't realize how out-of-date our guidebook's subway map was, and ended up walking halfway across the city needlessly, and eventually in great pain.) Yeah, the place is over 2,700 square miles in area and holds almost 12 million people. But it's not just big in the way that most cities are big, not just big in area and population — the very scale of almost everything in the city is massive. The tall buildings, the broad roads, and even the single-story hutongs, vast seas of gray brick and dusty, winding alleys, are huge. As the imperial capital since the fourteenth century, Beijing was designed to impress from the start. The axis formed by the Temple of Heaven, the Forbidden City, Tiananmen, and the Olympic compound is a timeline of gigantic proportions, illustrating Beijing's centrality to China in every stage of its history. The grandness of these monuments, and the time it takes to circumnavigate them, work exactly as well to awe your senses and boggle your spacial intelligence as their creators desired.

And of course, after trying to see all that gigantic history, you will have an appetite to match. Unfortunately, we didn't have the budget for the imperial-style banquet cuisine that would have really fitted the atmosphere and history of the city. Dowager Empress Cixi would have been the person to consult on that topic: she was rumored to have ordered over 150 dishes for a single meal, and apparently spent the equivalent of a thousand dollars on food A DAY.*

So, let's just say that we stuck to one or two dishes per meal. In fact, at our most impressive Beijing meal, we only ordered one thing: Peking duck. Of course, Peking duck isn't just the duck. For example, at DaDong, it also comes with a side of deliciously subtle bone broth and a cleansing fresh fruit platter. And that's in addition to the thin pancakes, hoisin sauce, radish, cucumber, scallion, preserved vegetables and garlic provided to wrap up the decadent slivers of duck into delicate little packets. Some restaurants even send you home with the duck bones to make your own broth.

We apparently did not perform adequately on the wrapping portion of the meal, as the waitress came over and gave us a demonstration on which condiments to use together, a seemingly arbitrary combination that I have, of course, forgotten. But to be honest, pretty much every mix I came up with was delightful. That said, Fuschia Dunlop provides an explanation of the Peking duck eating process that explains the logic of the condiment hierarchy. And yes, just as she describes, the duck's head is tucked underneath all those carefully stacked slices of moist and glistening meat, covered in extra-crisp skin and holding a spoonful of creamy flesh with a flavor like a refined essence of liver.

I can't confirm or deny the widely debated statement that DaDong has the best duck in the city, it being the only duck we had there, but after a slice of that crisp fatty skin dipped in sparkling granulated sugar, I can definitely say it ranks up there in terms of my personal duck experiences.

Another Beijing-sized dinner was at the franchise chain Little Sheep. Little Sheep is ambitious in its distribution: after seeking out a branch on a recommendation, we found ourselves walking past one almost every day for the rest of our trip. We were reassured by its omnipresence, because the food was good and easy to order, so although we never ended up there again, we knew that it would be there if we were too hungry and tired to try something new. And now I see that there are several branches in the US as well, so I am looking forward to revisiting our experience there soon.

Little Sheep specializes in Mongolian hot pot, a pretty much made up cuisine. Which I happen to think is awesome, because prior to eating Mongolian hot pot, my favorite fake cuisine was Mongolian barbeque. Now I think the two are tied for my affections. Anyways, Mongolian hot pot doesn't resemble anything eaten in Mongolia, but it happens to be very close to regular Szechuan hot pot — in fact, the only differences I really noticed were the focus on lamb and the lack (or at least reduction) of Szechuan peppers, in the Little Sheep version. This means that Mongolian hot pot starts with a pot of broth, usually divided into two or more sections to segregate a spicy broth from a mild one. The broth is a white, meaty brew, full of floating dried goji berries, mushrooms, and a number of unidentifiable dried fruits and spices. The spicy side is generally obscured by a solid layer of floating chilies. Then you order plates of meat and vegetables to cook in the broth. Sounds simple, and in practice it is, but the incredibly complex fusion of herbs and spices in the broth means that the flavors are anything but.

* This is a rough approximation based on the oh-so-reliable information provided by teh internets. Her records show expenditures of at least 60 taels of silver a day on food, and possibly as much as 100 taels, (something I believe I've read a number of places but could only find online here: [1]), and during the Qing Dynasty, a tael was maybe worth about 150-220 of today's Chinese yuan (RMB) [2]. The dollar is, in turn, about 6.8 RMB. So, the most conservative estimate based on those numbers is ~$1300 — the larger numbers yield an estimate of ~$3200! I'm assuming this food didn't all end up in her belly, but even so, it's pretty mind-boggling. Please correct me if I've got this wrong!

 

Our return to China filled me with a remarkably strong and surprising joy. Certainly some of this emotion can be explained by the lifting of the economic tension of being in Japan, and some of it by the warm sun that shined dry and hot on us as we walked out of the airport train. Some of it must have been due to the waves of heady food smells that seemed to break over every intersection and ride on every breeze in Beijing. I love Japanese food, but for pure knock-you-to-the-ground aromas, it's got to be Chinese: the scent of pork so rich you can almost feel the fat clinging inside your nostrils, the redolent waft of five-spice mixes, the singe of peppers, and the rich doughy steam of dumplings are aggressive scents that don't just sit idly by waiting to be smelled.

But there was something else about returning to China, something I still haven't figured out, that just felt familiar and simple and good. Maybe we had been traveling so long that returning to a place we had spent even a couple weeks in felt familiar and homey.

So I'm not sure if it was the aura of my good mood that made all of the street vendors and restaurateurs seem so friendly, helpful and indulgent, or if it was their goodness that sustained my mood, but either way, from the first moment in Beijing, I felt that people were interested in our eating well and enjoying their city.

Our first meal in Beijing, in a noodle shop chosen at random, a woman helped us order by presenting a verbal decision tree in addition to the picture menu: "beef, pork? stir-fried? rice? noodles? spicy?" I chose a rich five-spice beef noodle soup with a variety of cuts of meat, tender wheat noodles, and just enough fresh bok choy to keep the dish from being too cloying. Greg had a searing pork stir-fry on a brazier, the slightly stringy and firm meat becoming softer and spicier as it sat over the heat. Somehow it seemed so different from anything we'd eaten for weeks, like it had more body, more bite.

Likewise, a meal we had later in the week, in a tiny Muslim restaurant deep in the network of hutongs south of Tiananmen Square, was so simple and yet so satisfying that it could only be explained by a mystical alignment of glutamic acid, fats and spices. I had a stir-fry of lamb and fried bread with onions, peppers and tomato sauce, while Greg had a similar sauce with noodles and eggs. I think there was something about the crisp and salty fried edges of the otherwise chewy bread, catching savory tomato sauce in all their crannies, that was responsible for the alchemy.

That same restaurant also offered one of Beijing's popular street foods, seasoned and grilled skewers of meat, most often lamb. Beijing's other street vendor specialties included deep-fried fermented tofu and tanghulu, or candied fruit. The tofu is a great snack for after a couple beers, thanks to its stinky cheese quality, crisp fried corners, and spicy sauce.

Tanghulu is made by dipping skewers of fresh fruit, anything from strawberries, kiwis, and mandarins to the ubiquitous round and nicely mushy hawthorn, into a sugar syrup that mostly hardens, enclosing the tender fruit in a shell of super-teeth adherent. The resulting crunchy, chewy, juicy combo is irresistible, even when the fruit inside are a little past their prime — as they often are.

A few street food items we enjoyed but didn't get photos of were a sweetened fresh yogurt drink that came in adorable paper-topped ceramic bottles; a variety of thin, fried, stuffed egg pancakes; and a fruit and nut loaf sold in slices hacked off of blocks so big they have to be carted around on giant wheeled platforms. I'm kicking myself especially for not getting photos of the yogurt, which, in addition to being sold in the cutest containers ever, was perfectly tart and not overly sweetened. Luckily I'm not the only person who's been to Beijing with a camera.

 

We stayed in a fairly gritty area of Osaka, the kind of place where you could believe that the country had spent most of the last two decades recovering from a burst bubble. Our hotel appeared to cater to a mixed crowd of semi-employed day laborers and international backpackers, and was wedged between dirty noodle joints and stores selling coveralls and split-toed work boots. Across the train tracks was the abandoned Festival Gate, an amusement park in a building, like some kind of surreal empty Super Mario level left to the ravages of time and pedestrian traffic. Next door to Festival Gate is the equally gigantic Spa World, one of the largest Asian bathhouses, functional but still oddly silent and looming.

These mega-buildings form the southern end of the carnivalesque Shinsekai, or "new world" area. Once the area was Osaka's hope for economic development, then it was the focus of a clearly not-quite-successful revitalization effort, now it is a mixed bag of restaurants, bars and shops, all garishly proclaiming their wares with giant signs or figures. The most common eats are kushikatsu, deep-fried skewers of meat and vegetables served with dipping sauce, and fugu, its purveyors easily identified by the comically giant blowfish hanging above their doors.

It is hard to argue with deep-fried, especially with the variety the kushikatsu offers: everything from pumpkin to something called beef "hormone" can be had, cooked hot and tender under their crisp jackets of panko. Luckily, "hormone" is just a poor translation of organ meat or intestine — I'm not sure which — I can't imagine how you would get hormones on a skewer, let alone fry them.

Shinsekai, in turn, is the southern end of the seemingly endless series of covered shopping arcades that parade through central Osaka. The shops get ritzier as you move north, and the restaurants follow suit. We passed on the okonomiyaki downtown ($15 for cabbage and pancake batter? Really?) and instead had some simple and pleasant udon. We only had udon a couple times in Japan, but this was probably the best, with just enough bite to the firm, thick noodles to contrast with the ripping of sweet sponge-like deep-fried tofu.

One of the largest disappointments of our entire trip had to be some tiny stuffed pancakes we bought on a street corner near our hotel in Osaka. Greg and I both love these little griddle dumplings, but often longed for some variation from the ubiquitous red bean filling, which appears in so many Japanese desserts. When we saw an older gentlemen frying these up, we couldn't wait for a taste of the custard, cheese, or cream that was clearly being piped into the cooking batter. So, I eagerly gestured to the cakes, held up two fingers, and handed over my spare change. We were several blocks away when we pulled out the still-warm treats and bit into them, only to find.... RED BEAN!!!! It was the first time I felt truly frustrated to be unable to communicate something so simple.

 

When we started planning our Asia trip, one of the first things we decided to do was to see a baseball game in Japan. So we bought some tickets and worked out the rest of our schedule from there. That's how we ended up in Osaka to attend the opening day game of Japan's Central League, where Osaka's Hanshin Tigers faced (and slaughtered) Tokyo's Yakult Swallows. Perhaps I should have been rooting for the Swallows, as they are sponsored by a yogurt-drink manufacturer, but the Tigers fans were just infectiously enthusiastic, and by the end of the game we were singing their fight song as loudly as anyone.

After seeing some baseball-themed ads in the subway for piled-high chili dogs, we were looking forward to finding some really exciting dogs at the game, but there were none in sight. What was actually available were rows and rows of bento boxes, onokomiyaki, takoyaki, and a few limp-looking fries. The one processed pork product was this cold and chewy corndog, a sorry representative of American cuisine. Citi Field this is not.

The bento box I had was pretty good, however, with a nice balance of seafood, egg, pickle, and rice, even if none of it was spectacularly fresh or flavorful. Greg's mediocre okonomiyaki was more of a disappointment, especially considering Osaka is okonomiyaki territory.

For comparison, below are some okonomiyaki and takoyaki we had in Tokyo. Okonomiyaki consists of cabbage, a pancake-like batter, and a variety of toppings, cooked together on a griddle and formed into a patty topped with egg, mayonnaise, bonito flakes, and brown sauce. Takoyaki is a similar concoction based on octopus and cooked in ball form. Since they are naturally street food, usually cooked in front of you or even by you, the lukewarm, precooked pancake at the stadium seemed a needless shame.

The best snacks at the game turned out to be a dried squid, peanut and rice cracker trio. I have to admit, I had never really appreciated dried squid as a snack. I remember a moment in high school when an enthusiastic young teacher received a gift of dried squid from a well-meaning student, and did his very best at making a gracious acceptance. His words at that moment reflect exactly my long-held attitude towards the stuff, which was something like "wow, cool... but do I just eat it, like, by itself?" The answer to his question and mine, is, in fact, no: you eat it with beer! Peanuts and rice crackers make a nice combination as well, for a salty, squiddy foil to the cans of light malty beer or sweet shochu cocktail you brought from home. Of course, if you forgot to carry in your own beverages, there are plenty of girls toting keg-backpacks, who don't even disappear during the 7th inning.

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No, I haven't fallen into the South China Sea - in fact, Greg and I arrived back in the US on Monday. Unfortunately we found a rather difficult week awaiting us: moving trucks, long drives, and much worse than that, the passing of two close family members. I'll be continuing with documenting the last month of our trip next week.

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