Recently in Travel Category

 

Well, this is it, officially the very last post about our trip to Asia. After three months of beautiful temples, significant historical sites, and baffling metropolises, I can truly say that our view of the world has drastically changed. Our understanding of history, culture, and foreign relations is wider and more complex, and our memories of the places we saw and people we met will always be with us. Plus, my confidence in my ability to navigate difficult and confusing situations has skyrocketed. And I hope that my work in the kitchen will be more diverse from now on as well.

As amazing as our trip was, by the time we got to the airport in Hong Kong, I was ready to be back in my mother country. I was excited by the prospect of our own beds, hot showers, and routines. (And I am almost as excited now to be able to stop talking about the trip and go back to this blog's original focus, cooking.)

I never missed American food while we were in Asia, and I could count on one hand the western meals we ate there. The few western dishes we did have were mediocre imitations at best (except the french fries, which somehow manage to be pretty decent most places), so it would have been a mistake to try to fulfill any culinary longings for home we might have had. That said, the minute we touched down on American soil, all my absent cravings appeared with a vengeance and I made a beeline for the airport concessions. Which, considering what we all know about airport food, means I had it pretty bad for some Yankee chow.

Greg, unsurprisingly, opted for a hot dog, which was probably a good choice, since our layover was in O'Hare, and his meal was slightly less disappointing and overpriced than the other options.

To accompany my junky yet heavenly meal of doughy, over-cheesed bagel and ambrosial Jamba Juice, I also grabbed some traditional junky reading material, something which I actually had missed pretty consistently throughout the trip. I tried reading Chinese fashion mags, but it just wasn't the same!

 

On the very last night of our trip, in between finding our hostel (located in the Mirador Mansions, a building in the mold of, and neighbor to, the infamous Chungking Mansions) and repacking our souvenirs for the airport, we met up with some family and friends for one final Chinese-style banquet. The food was delicious, and everything seemed familiar and nostalgic, even dishes that were new to us, like the delicate little puff pastries filled with tender pork.

The meal, and the expat audience, provided the perfect opportunity to reflect on our experiences. They asked us all the questions we were prepared for (Were we sad to go? Were we happy to be done with the hostels and trains? Yes to both.) and some we weren't (Would New York really satisfy us after seeing the streets of Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Tokyo? We couldn't be sure, but so far the answer is a resolute yes!). They also asked the most incisive questions about what sort of things we had learned from our travels, what kind of thoughts would we be taking away with us.

While we were talking, I realized that the way our trip had most deeply influenced me was in seeing differences in attitudes towards physical possessions. In many places that we visited, consumer goods are scarce, nothing is considered disposable, and every resource is used and reused to its absolute limit. In others, anything imaginable can be bought, but consumers are reserved in their purchasing habits and tend to prefer owning fewer, more durable items. Still others are more similar to America's own culture of conspicuous consumption and disposable goods. The same held true for edible goods: how about a hand-raised peach, sold for $12 and wrapped in swaths of non-recyclable plastic, compared to chicken feet from a chicken raised in a backyard and used to make stock before being eaten?

I am still looking for the right balance between these attitudes in my own life, so these observations were very valuable to me, even though I still haven't fully absorbed their implications months after returning home.

We continued to linger over our discussion after dinner at Honeymoon Desserts, which specializes in sweet fruit and jelly soups. I had vanilla ice cream in a mango-pomello soup, while Greg had this green tea ice cream in a vanilla soup with something that I suspect is basil seeds. The menu doesn't specify and our friends' theory was tapioca, but either way, they added a pleasant variety of texture to the sweet, refreshing soup.

 

Macau, our next-to-last stop, looked about as fresh, bright, and peppy as I felt when we arrived there. I had come down with a cold sometime in the middle of our last, and most eventful, overnight train ride.

We were running late when we arrived at the Shanghai train station, where we tried to change our tickets to a more direct route to Macau — we failed, but not before the tickets had been stamped for refund, so we weren't certain, when we arrived at our gate, running flat out with all of our luggage, whether they would let us on the train at all. Then we realized that we had to leave the station and return again through customs to board the train to Hong Kong. With approximately three minutes until departure, we slid through passport control, and onto the train, just under the wire. They let us on, despite our "refund" stamped tickets, but we had hardly found our bunks before being asked to swap seats to another compartment. Flustered, out of breath, and incapable of communicating, it took us a long time to figure out what our compartment-mates wanted and why. In the end, we were happy to change so that the family could sit together, and we found ourselves in the top bunks of a new compartment. We had just gotten settled in, when the group below us spread out a feast... a feast of pickled and preserved meats and vegetables that filled the compartment with an intense odor, soon joined by clouds of cigarette smoke.

I was worried for a little while, but once Greg and I ventured down from our bunks to order some dinner, we quickly found ourselves sharing beers and chicken feet with the friendly group below us. Probably the best chicken feet we had the whole trip, too! Unfortunately, the jollity was eventually subdued when I found myself exhausted, and I woke up in the morning coughing and faintly feverish.

The ensuing trek by subway and ferry was not the most pleasant part of our trip, with both the air and my head full of dense, humid fog. But we managed to find our way to our room at the strange flophouse we had booked, and I spent the rest of the day lying on the grungy bed and staring at the lack of a ceiling. (The rooms were basically low partitions below a high, unfinished roof.)

Greg valiantly ventured out to procure some irresistible Macau egg tarts, which we first tried in Hong Kong back in January and were a big part of our decision to visit Macau on our return trip. The Macau egg tart is very similar to the little custard tarts you might get with a dim sum meal, but with a flaky puff pastry crust and a blistered and caramelized top. They are actually a hybrid of Portuguese and English tarts that was developed in Macau.

Much later, Greg convinced me that we needed to eat dinner, and we decided on a fancy Portuguese restaurant. The knife and fork actually baffled me for a few minutes, but the roast pigeon that the restaurant was purportedly famous for was quite good.

The next morning, feeling mildly better, we walked around the sights of Macau and sampled a few more egg tarts. Macau has several other culinary specialties, including giant flat squares of meat jerky and a variety of nut cookies, all sold at just about every third storefront throughout the city.

So that about sums up our Macau visit, except for one thing: what the heck is "Greek Mythology Service", and why can you get it at the Macau ferry terminal?

 

As I've mentioned before, the last couple weeks of our trip were markedly less energetic than the earlier parts had been. Our pace was pretty leisurely in Shanghai. We lingered over the exhibits of antique seals at the Shanghai Museum and bizarre historical ephemera at the Propaganda Museum. We spent an evening walking along the Bund, eating candied fruit in the chilly wind off the neon-lit Huangpu River. Best of all, we met up with a group of friends of friends, who were wonderful enough to take us in — or out, I should say — for a couple nights on the town.

Not only was it incredibly awesome to have some normal conversations about non-travel-related topics, it was also pretty great to let some other people, people with some actual knowledge of local cuisine and language, do the ordering. We went out to two massive dinners, and I honestly can't tell you what half these dishes are, but I can tell you they were delicious, and I didn't have to point or gesture or guess about one of them. In fact, the two items I had a role in selecting — cold pickled chicken feet and pickled duck tongues — were probably the only disappointments of the lot. Unsurprisingly, I like them both better hot in temperature and flavor.

 

Since my last post was about making xiao long bao, sometimes referred to as Shanghai soup dumpling, it seems fitting that I've made it to the Shanghai stop on our travelogue. Shanghai was a very comfortable city for us. English was everywhere, the weather was nice, and the city presented numerous pleasant walks (and a convenient subway for any time walking was not so pleasant).

One of the best walks was around the West Lake in Hangzhou. While technically outside of Shanghai, the lake is a common day trip, and it's not hard to see why: the lake is beautiful, and it is ringed by charming teahouses, perfectly landscaped parks, and some of the best people-watching in all of China. We played cards in the shade overlooking the lake, slowly sipping endless glasses of tea, and watched the designer shoes stroll by.

We also did some exploring around our hostel, and found a popular noodle spot. The place was tiny, with a huge, completely indecipherable menu on the wall, and after a few minutes of holding up the line while wildly paging through our phrasebook, we tried asking the order-taker what he recommended. Though the tactic had been hit-or-miss before, this time was its most spectacular failure. The man took the book, glared at the question on the page, shook his head, and then pointed at the menu on the wall, waving his hand around to indicate its entirety. We still looked confused, so he pointed more vigorously, the look of contempt on his face clear. What kind of idiots were we to suggest that anything at his restaurant was less than the most delicious thing possible!

So we ordered, half at random, half based on a couple recognized characters, and ended up with one beef soup and one mystery soup. I was pretty sure that the mystery was freshwater eels, little tiny slivers of softly scaly flesh, but I spent the whole meal looking up the characters to prove myself correct. The man at the counter glared at me when I took this photo.

And, did you think I would make it to the end of this entry without some soup dumplings? Of course not! We hit up a place downtown for trays of pork, pork and egg, and crab xiao long bao. Far more beautiful than the ones I made over the weekend, these perfect little full moons. The most interesting were the crab, because their flavors worked so differently than the pork dumplings. Both are incredibly rich, both are paired wonderfully with ginger and vinegar dipping sauce. But in the case of the pork dumpling, the tartness of the ginger and vinegar break the intense savoriness of the broth, while with the crab, it acts as a foil to the sweetness instead — two completely different taste combos in the same adorable packaging.

The dumpling shop also offered a mild soup of congealed blood cubes with bean curd strings. The blood cubes had a pleasant, velvety texture, but the soup itself was on the bland side.

 

The trip from Chengdu to Shanghai was our longest train ride yet, something like 36 hours long. We managed to trim a few hours off the trip by stopping in Suzhou and then taking a faster train (because, of course, the cross-country train is one of the slowest they've got) into the city the next day, and we got a day in Suzhou out of the deal as well.

Suzhou is famous for its many well-preserved classical gardens, and the lush early spring was a beautiful time to visit, full of flowers, bobbing peony buds, and fluttering leaves. We skipped the largest, most famous (and most expensive) garden so that we could see several smaller ones. We started with the Lion Grove Garden, a maze of stones, all worn and distorted into pillars of melting Swiss cheese by years of resting on a lake bottom, and then polished smooth here and there by the passage of many hands. The stones are cunningly assembled into winding paths that cross over and under each other, squeezing twists and tunnels into tiny corners and then suddenly opening to reveal pavilions, lakes, and waterfalls.

Other gardens are less, well, gimmicky, but no less beautiful, focusing instead on quiet, manicured courtyards, polished wooden halls, and naturalistic groves. Each area of a traditional garden is usually given a name that refers to both the specific aesthetics of the garden and to lines from poems and famous quotations. The only problem with this is that much of the wordplay, and the nuances of the characters chosen, is untranslatable, and is therefore completely lost on those who do not have an encyclopedic knowledge of Chinese literature and the ability to read characters. Perhaps inevitably, Greg and I spent most of the day guessing the titles for the courtyards we walked through and making up alternate ones.

Spending all day walking through gardens works up an appetite, so we also spent some time in the charming shopping districts of Suzhou looking for local specialties. The Jiangsu province is well-known for the sweet and tender flesh of xiao long xia, a small, lobster-like crustacean, similar to the crayfish. Beer seems to be a popular accompaniment to xiao long xia: many restaurants we passed around town had large window signs picturing bedewed beer bottles looming over bright red tails and legs akimbo. Our gigantic bowl of xiao long xia, which we ordered by pointing at a lobster-shaped cut-out window decal, certainly benefitted from a beer chaser, since they were served in a super-salty broth, rich with five-spice and loaded with chilies. The light tang of a beer, like the cilantro served on top, helped cut the sultry broth, and that combination of richness, spiciness, and freshness brought out the flavors of the sweet flesh.

We also ordered some twice-cooked pork, a dish of Sichuanese origin, which turned out to be completely superfluous in terms of volume of food needed, but essential in terms of deliciousness. The pork was fried to a melting crisp, and the peppers blistered and slicked with oil.

The tourists pouring in to see the gardens also flock to another of Suzhou's legacies, the many historic restaurants that line "Gourmet Street", and after an afternoon of more gardens, we joined them. This is another place that I would have liked to do more research, because while several of the restaurants had little plaques relating the history of the restaurants, they weren't very helpful in deciding which one to visit, and the milling crowds and neon signs didn't help either. We picked an unassuming-but-ancient noodle shop, where our bewildered staring at the menu prompted a friendly manager to pull out a ratty little notebook filled with mostly-nonsensical English dish titles. We picked some pork noodles, some dumplings, and something that turned out to be crispy duck: simple, comforting food, believably something that could have been served on that spot a hundred years ago or more.

After a full day of garden-viewing and two heavy meals, we hit the hostel early so we could wake up in time for our train into Shanghai. In the morning, the sun was bright and clear on the white plaster of the alley outside our hostel, and on the buns, breads, and boiled eggs that the street vendors were selling from entryways and alcoves. We browsed the street up and down, observing egg-filled crepes, stuffed breads, tea eggs, and a dozen kinds of dumplings and buns before settling on some steamed chicken buns and little fried scallion dumplings. Steamed buns are a breakfast I would eat any day — I actually woke up that morning craving congee, but I think the combination of the moist and savory filling and slightly sweet fluffy exterior could cure a pretty wide range of cravings, especially when accompanied by these little oily scallion dumplings. The freshly fried morsels develop a chewy edge on their thickish skins, yielding up their aromatic filling only after a satisfying crunch.

 

While we were lazing about Chengdu's parks and teahouses, we were unfortunately missing out on a huge number of regional delicacies and street treats. One of the first things I did after we decided to go to Asia was to read Fuchsia Dunlop's memoir of living in China. Her description of eating fried rabbit heads in Chengdu immediately enchanted me, and they soon topped my list of street foods to try. So it might be my greatest failure of the trip to have spent three nights in Chengdu without even a glimpse of a rabbit head. I finally saw an advertisement for them as we entered the train station on our way out of town, and I almost made an about face to rectify my oversight, but it was simply not to be.

That's not to say we didn't have some great little treats. Just nothing as exciting as rabbit heads! Chengdu's markets seemed to have an abundance of breads, buns, and cookies, as well as pre-cooked meats. One thing that I saw nowhere else were these steamed corn flour cones, which were hollow and fluffy. I am not sure if they're traditionally eaten with something else, but I ate one straight from the steamer, and it was warm, moist, and softly corny.

Another food we saw a lot of in Chengdu was street-side barbecue tables. I don't have a photo of this, but here's one of a similar meal earlier in our trip. This is one of those cuisines that can be found all over China, but I was particularly charmed by the place we ate it in Chengdu. In the evening, long folding tables pop up on sidewalks all over, covered from corner to corner with skewered meats and vegetables. You pick out what you want to eat on a tray, and pass it to the person behind the grill. Somehow you communicate whether you want it spicy (you do!), and then they pull out a shaker and liberally coat your selection in the most delicious mouth-numbing powder (the recipe for which, by the way, I would kill for) and then grill it while you wait in the twilight at your tiny sidewalk table, watching the neighborhood bike by. Selections include, among many, many, many other things, chicken legs, chicken heads, meat and offal cuts, whole fish, eggplant, cabbage, potato, and, perhaps most genius of all, battered and deep fried veggies. When your tray arrives you hunch over it and grab the still-too-hot food with your incisors, huffing and puffing to cool it and your spice-burnt lips. When you're done, someone comes by and counts your skewers (fancier foods might have several skewers each) and charges you one yuan for each skewer. It's a meal that's pretty unbeatable in every respect.

Lastly, we strolled in an appealingly gimmicky historical-reconstruction tourist alley — quite literally a tourist trap, as it appears to provide access between two major streets, but is in fact a giant, maze-like cul-de-sac. The treat of the day here were sugar candies poured or puffed into a variety of shapes. These were doodled out, but others were blown like glass. We didn't eat any, but they brightened our day nonetheless.

 

By the time we arrived in Chengdu, we were exhausted. We'd been traveling for weeks, and the only real break we'd had was the time we spent on Ko Phi Phi in Thailand. (I know, poor us!) I felt bad for letting our great experiences wear me out, but there is such a thing as too much of a good thing. Especially if that good thing involves a lot of overnight trains and communicating in hand gestures. So when we found ourselves staying in a cozy hostel equipped with a dvd lending library and a bar, it's not surprising that we succumbed to spending a day lounging in the garden reading and drinking Tsingtao.

Luckily, Chengdu is a great city to be lazy in. First, you have as your example the laziest creature on earth, the Giant Panda, which can be viewed up close and personal at the Chengdu Panda Base, a research and breeding center. You do have to get up pretty early to catch these guys at their morning feeding, however, as it's the only time of the day that they begin to approach frisky: the rest of the day they are napping, so they can digest their fibrous feed.

Second, one of the central features of Sichuanese society is the teahouse. While you can find these pleasant enclaves all over China, Chengdu is particularly well-known for them. I was especially fond of the many outdoor teahouses, like this riverside establishment. The best part is that once you select the kind of tea you want and hand over some cash, you are presented with a giant thermos of hot water and left to lounge with your effectively bottomless drink for as long as you like. Greg and I played hand after hand of cards, read our books, and dozed in the warm, hazy sun. Every teahouse has its own vibe, whether it is quiet and relaxed like this one, or full of chatter and the clatter of mahjong tiles.

Lastly, if you are feeling sort of sedentary, you can make up for it with some culinary adventures, thanks to the Sichuan pepper. Sichuan pepper, was, until recently, actually illegal to import to the US, so I was totally unprepared for it, despite having read descriptions and tasted a mild version of the tiny red-hulled seeds. The best way I can describe the experience of eating Sichuan peppers (or, more accurately, their husks) is that it is like having a mouthful of bees: your mouth actually vibrates with the fuzzy numbness of the peppers' heat and anesthetic properties. I made the mistake of putting four of the little berries in my mouth at the same time and biting down, after which I had to sit very still for several minutes for fear of vomiting because of the intensity of the sensation. It felt like an electric current was running through my mouth.

If you are smart, however, and eat your Sichuan peppers as they are served, in a mixture with other foods, rather than popping them in your mouth like candy, the buzzing sensation is quite mild and pleasant, and is accompanied by a woody, herbal flavor that melds nicely with chilies. In our first couple meals in Chengdu, we had Sichuan peppers in two very famous Sichuan dishes: hot pot and mapo tofu.

We had our mapo tofu at Chen's, an establishment that apparently dates from the mid-1800's. We tried to order several other tofu dishes there too, but they seemed to be out of most of the things we had considered, so we hurriedly picked out some replacement dishes. We ended up with these (slightly overdone but still addictive) deep-fried cakes served with sweetened condensed milk, and this thick-sauced chicken served over crisped rice. The mapo tofu itself had all the elements of a fantastic comfort food, particularly if you find spiciness to be comforting. It is oily, smooth, and a little mushy, sort of like a pudding or a porridge, exactly the sort of thing you'd crave when you had a head cold.

Hot pot is a popular dish with many variations, and while its history is murky, Sichuan province often comes up in discussions of hot pot, so I was excited to try it in Chengdu. We saw hot pot variations all over northern China, from the "Mongolian" style we tried in Beijing, to restaurants in Xi'an where trays of ingredients on skewers were presented buffet-style and your bill is calculated by the number of skewers littering your table at the end of the meal.

In Chengdu, hot pot broth is liberally stocked with peppers, both Sichuan and chili, and the ingredients are as varied as your imagination. In addition to the flavorful broth, you get a dish of soy dipping sauce, which you can doctor with garlic, sugar, and other additives. We ordered a variety of vegetables, lamb and beef, and (after a brief argument with the waitress) duck intestines. The duck intestines, by the way, had a nice snappy texture, and tasted more like chicken than duck to me &mdash although they were, of course, smothered in numbing, burning spices.

This blog is licensed under a Creative Commons License.