Eat China

June 27th, 2006 · 2 Comments

chinaEat China

Jason Chin
Eat Vancouver editor

Report One – Traveling to Shanghai

Sitting on a chair in an airplane for 12 hours is an interesting undertaking – moments of lucidity followed by moments hunched over in your chair, mouth agape, followed by attempts to do work along with snippets of Woody Allen’s Matchpoint seem to cycle endlessly – and interesting as it may be, the destination is always at the front of your mind, or at least it is for me. China is by far the farthest I’ve ever been from home, and I would be lying if I said I wasn’t quite excited at the prospect of seeing (and tasting) a land so far from my own.

Before I continue, a brief apology and promise for recompense: I did not bring the cable that connects my camera to the laptop, so pictures will be sparse to nonexistent until I return, at which point I will post them as soon as I can.

So, the day began at quite an early hour for me, about seven o’clock in the morning Vancouver time. I enjoyed the remains of last night’s dinner, a frittata made with onions, potatoes and red bell peppers, and nearly as good cold in the morning as it was hot the night before. This was followed soon by tearful farewells as Martie the Master dropped me and my traveling companion, Des, off at the airport. We were very early, leaving time for smoked salmon sampling at the various touristy duty-free shops in the international terminal of the airport. They all tasted as if they had been sitting out a bit too long, but on to the flight.

feastHere in the Economy section we got our choice of beef or chicken for lunch, as well as any drink we would like. I have been drinking Caesars constantly since boarding the plane under the assumption that it is not too late to exercise my taste buds in preparation for the fiery cuisine of Sichuan. They have also kept me pleasantly sedate. So I opted for the chicken and what arrived was a not-overcooked breast of chicken along with diced potatoes and various greens surrounded by a nondescript gravy. All in all, it wasn’t bad and a much better choice than Des’ beef, which turned out to have a very unique texture: crumbly. Both meals came with a packet of hot sauce, which was actually kinda spicy, and a little plastic fish full of soy sauce. The highlight of the meal (besides the Cesar) was the salad of lettuce, potato salad, and smoked salmon with capers. The smoked salmon was actually pretty good – smooth texture, just the right amount of fishiness.

I wish I could say dinner lived up the precedent set by lunch, but sadly it did not come close. The choice this time was “beef or pork” and the correct answer turned out to be the vegetarian plate the guy behind us got. The beef was thinly sliced with vegetables in some kind of red wine sauce. Plain, bland, and tasted of a hospital on a rainy night. Not that I expect a lot from Air Canada economy class food, but I was hoping that it would have at least been as good as lunch. Unfortunately, it was not, and instead boasted a boring fruit salad and stale bread. Oh well, all the more room for the various delights of Shanghai in two hours.

Until next time!

Report Two – First Night in Shanghai

The final meal on the plane yesterday was a cup of noodles. The flight attendants came around and poured “hot” water into them, which turned out to be lukewarm water and thus the noodles never cooked. Most people didn’t even bother eating them. Shame on you, Air Canada!
Luckily, this little setback was followed by a delightful dinner last night. Making it to that dinner, however, was a bit of a journey. It started with a Y155 cab ride from the airport to the hostel, which is somewhat creepy, but clean and air-conditioned. The cab ride was incredibly long because it was rush hour and the streets were crazy. The drivers here are happy to swerve in an out of traffic and use their horns quite liberally. Apparently there are two kinds of honks: I’m behind you so watch out, and get out of my way!

I was amazed by the juxtaposition of the older colonial buildings against the huge modern skyscrapers just across the river. It’s also an absolutely huge city that would take days and days to explore properly.

feastOur hostel is in the Bund, so it’s fairly centrally located. Still, our tour guide for the night, Tim, told us that most of his favorite restaurants are in the French Concession, so we decided to just walk around until we found something desirable. Our walk took us to Nanjing East road, the city’s largest walking road, with lots of bright lights and shops. Actually, one thing Shanghai is certainly not short of is shops – I’m told that going out mainly involves shopping here. So we walked around for a while until we found a good enough looking Shanghaiese restaurant, called guan bao. It was a cute little restaurant upstairs in one building on the Nanjing East, with a very attentive staff. We ordered a round of xiaolong bao, sheng jian mantou, and several bowls of soup of noodle soup with various toppers – I had a barbequed pork chop on mine. The xiaolong bao was the best I’ve had, much better than anything I’ve had in Vancouver. The structural integrity of the exterior held together remarkably well, and the soup inside was extremely flavorful, perfectly balanced spices and a rich meaty flavor. I also really enjoyed the shen jien mantou, which were balls of dough, steamed and then fried with pork inside. The resulting texture – a little bit chewy and a little bit crunchy – was absolutely delightful, especially paired with the soy sauce and hot sauce at the table. Speaking of hot sauce, the one served at most Shanghai tables is interesting. It appears to consist mainly of chili, crushed slightly such that there is still a good deal of whole or semi-whole chili, and a lot of salt. The result isn’t too spicy but it has a nice salty spicy kick. I’m excited to see what Chengdu in Sichuan will offer though. Dinner was Y100 for three people, or about 15 Canadian.

So night one came to a close, and I’m excited about what the remainder of the trip will hold.

Report Three – The Trip Begins in Earnest

feastDay one, or what would turn out to be our busiest of the Shanghai run, was full of culinary excitement. It started off at the breakfast place near the hotel where we had a nice satisfying breakfast in preparation for a busy day. We had bowls of sweetened soy milk, an omelet pancake, a dumpling filled with strings of daikon, and some sticky rice dumplings. I thoroughly enjoyed everything, with the exception of the sticky rice dumplings that I thought had very little flavor. Breakfast for two was Y15, or less than three dollars Canadian.

After lunch, we walked the very impressive Bund, which boasts elaborate French and English buildings from the colonial times. The architecture was unlike anything I’ve seen, with the various buildings seeming to outdo the previous. From there, it was on to old town, or the counterpoint to the Bund. Old town is the area of the city controlled by the Chinese during the same time period. Within old town, we visited the Yuyuan garden and bazaar, the former of which was extremely beautiful and serene. Afterwards, we had lunch in the bazaar at an unfortunately touristy and expensive dumpling shop. We opted for the taster’s lunch, which included more xialong bao and several of their top choices. I especially liked one dumpling that was filled with various chopped herbs and garlic as it was very fresh tasting. Lunch for two was quite pricy by Chinese standards, Y100 for two, or about 15 dollars Canadian.

From Yuyuan we walked to the French Concession, with several detours along the way. The most interesting were the poorer, less developed and older streets. The homes were extremely old and run-down, often with a little shop downstairs and housing above. I literally thought that one kick would knock of these places down. I really wanted to come back and try some of the street food some were selling, including steamed bao and green onion pancakes fried in a huge cast iron skillet.

Also on the way to the French Concession was Huaihai street, which, like Nanjing is very commercial. You can find just about any shop you desire here. The surrounding streets are also nice, but seem to cater to Western tastes, with a couple of steak and Brazilian restaurants. A quick look at the menu revealed that they are also quite expensive, even compared to Vancouver standards.

feastThe French Concession was very nice with quieter tree-lined streets, a nice reprieve from the busy and noisy Shanghai streets. We dined at an extremely interesting Uighur restaurant. Uighurs are an ethnic class in China that happen to Muslim. We tried a few specialties, including smoky lamb kebabs flavored heavily with cumin. They were just a about perfectly made, interweaving pieces of meat and fat for a spicy and delicious start the the meal. Next were lamb “tacos,” a mixture of chopped lamb and carrots came to the table, seasoned much in the same way as the kebabs, with some pancakes. Along with a salad of tomatoes and cucumbers, seasoned similarly to pico de gallo, these actually did remind me of Mexican cuisine, and a bit of Middle Eastern cuisine. It was very unique and I would love to try it again soon. Actually, I think a Uighur restaurant would do quite well in Vancouver. Finally, we tried a chicken dish called dapanji, that although complex and interesting, was not something I’d like to eat again. They apparently stewed chicken with every flavor they had access to, and the result was overwhelming. I’ll list the various flavorings of the stew: anise, garlic, hot peppers, cinnamon, and juniper berries – all in huge amounts. These are all strong flavors and the result was a strange concoction, with each bite unlike the last. The flavors didn’t particularly compliment each other and overall, it was strange. Still, I’d gladly try Uighur food again.

feastAll in all, an exciting day, but there is still much to do and eat in China.

Report Four – Shanghai Nights

Our second full day of travels in China was eventful, but not as interesting as the past days in terms of culinary excitement.

The day began, much like the day before, at the breakfast place near the hotel. I again had a bowl of sweetened soy milk and a shredded daikon bao, and also tried the pot stickers. I thought the pot stickers were a bit greasy, and weren’t anything beyond what I’ve had before. It was at this point when I started to feel the need to have something fresh for breakfast, such as fruit. My normal diet consists of a good deal of fresh vegetables and fruit, and so I have found the style of breakfasts I’ve been eating in China have left me feeling a bit sluggish. Despite this, Des and I had a lot planned for the day, so we chugged on.

Des and I heard that the canal towns near Shanghai are not to be missed, so we visited Zhouzhuang on this day. Zhouzhuang is the most famous of the canal towns because of a painting of one of its bridges that was displayed by the UN. Many of its buildings and bridges date back to the Ming dynasty (and it shows), so it is an interesting historical landmark. Still, there isn’t much to see, and it can be seen in less than two hours. The rest of the time, you will be mobbed by locals who want you to buy their (mass produced at some factory) wares or try their restaurants. I’m an adventurous eater, but even I was put off by the overall stench of the place and unsanitary conditions (I saw a woman washing plates in canal water, which was pretty much the opposite of clean) so we decided to forgo lunch and head back to Shanghai early.

feastLeft at an odd place before dinner, but past lunch, we decided to look for a small bite near the metro station at People’s Square. The huge mall that we arrived in upon exiting the metro station seemed like a worthy enough spot. Ramen is really popular right now in Shanghai, with a lot of the locals – especially teenagers – really into this Japanese soup. Although mass quantities of teenagers aren’t always the best source for culinary advice, Des and I decided to see what all the fuss is about. We tried the popular chain, Ajisan Ramen. I had the volcano ramen (it was supposed to be spicy) and Des had the Ajisan special spicy noodles. Neither were particularly good, with my bowl being oddly sweet and Des found the flavors of his overpowering, with the anise drowning out the rest of the flavors. The cheese croquette we had to start was nothing special, but there was nothing wrong with it. I thought serving it with simply ketchup was a bit boring. They did not had any napkins at the table and when we requested some, they told us they charge for napkins. At a fucking soup restaurant. Go fuck yourself, Ajisan Ramen.

After a disappointing early dinner, Des and I walked around the food court a bit more and found a juice place called Ever Fresh juice, that uses completely fresh ingredients (even the apple juice is fresh squeezed). I ordered a pair-kiwi juice and it was amazing, simply bursting with refreshing fresh fruit. We downed our juice with a nice Portuguese egg custard tart from a vendor at the mall. The tarts were just out of the oven and delicious.

Although the post-ramen activities were quite nice, Des and I still felt defeated by our exploration into the world of ramen and decided to call it quits early. Although we didn’t have the best of days, I was hopeful for what the next day would bring.

Report Five – Shanghai Ends

Saturday was our third and final full day in Shanghai, as we would leave on the next day for Yangshuo, a small town Southwest of Shanghai. Morning began at the same breakfast joint near the hotel, where I was already getting a bit tired of the same old thing. Instead of hot soy milk, I opted for bubble tea, which was actually very good. The pearls had just the right texture, being chewy but soft enough as to not be annoying. As for eats, we focused on the dakion baos, which is probably their strongest dish, and egg pancakes, which are also quite good, if not a bit too greasy.

feastDes and I split up for the rest of the morning, off to do various bits of business. I went for a walk and then spent most of the morning at the only place I could find that had free wifi. It should have advertised free 2 minutes of wifi, because that’s about all I got – the service kept going in and out. The place was called Pizza Ruzzi and it had an Italian menu. I ordered some fried calamari and lemon iced tea. The calamari was actually pretty good, cooked just long enough to crisp it up and cook through, but leaving it perfectly tender. The aioli wasn’t very good though, being somewhat waxy tasting. I loved the iced lemon tea, it was actually made with oranges and had a slight caramel taste. So, Pizza Ruzzi: shitty wifi, decent food.

Later in the afternoon we met up with Des’ friend Morgan, a French expatriate who went to Cambridge with Des. It also turned out she was pretty hot. We stopped by her apartment in the French Concession and she then showed us to the market where you can buy fake Rolexes and Chanel bags. It’s a huge place and if you stop too long at a stall they start harassing you to buy stuff. They will quote you a high price and you have to start very low, threaten to leave a few times and then they will give you something reasonable. I hear it’s okay if you don’t mind that it’s fake, as some of the clothes, such as the lacoste shirts, aren’t that poor a quality. We ate some steamed baos as we walked, that were bought at a street vendor. They were only about Y2 a piece and were very fresh tasting. I had a pork, mushroom and vegetable bao and the herbs and vegetables worked perfectly in the light bao dough.

feastWe later attempted to see some museums, but they were closed, so we met Tim for dinner at a Hunanese restaurant in the French Concession that he quite fancies. I’m not sure the name, but it started with Laonxiang. It was a cute little restaurant, with a tank of frogs in the middle of the restaurant, and extremely dirty bathrooms. We ordered several dishes, but my favorite was the sour green beans with cured pork. I loved the combination of the sour beans with the salty pork, which was essentially bacon. And well, pork and beans, how can you go wrong? The tea smoked duck was also a favorite, with the fragrant tea accenting the rich duck quite nicely It was also cooked perfectly, such that the duck was still moist, which I imagine is no easy feat. For some reason, the tomatoes with sugar on them was also a hit, although it could simply be that the fresh and sweet flavors were such a nice reprieve from intense Huananese food. I wasn’t a fan, however, of the beef flank hot pot. It was of the sort that was served over a heating element so the flavors of the beef, peppers and potatoes continued to adapt and combine as the dinner went on. Unfortunately for me, the beef was flavored with and odd sweet seasoning that I could not place, and that I did not find very appealing. My companions liked it, and there was nothing off about the dish or the way it was prepared beside that flavor, so I’m willing to write it off as just me being weird. The final dish was celery stir fried with a thinly sliced nut called bai he. A very simple dish, yet it worked quite well, perhaps as a mild foil to the spicy food.

Des, Tim and I then hotfooted it over to a pub called O’Malley’s because Des wanted to see the England vs. Paraguay match. I left kinda early into the match because I happen to think Soccer is the most boring sport ever invented. On my own to navigate the city, I like to think I did quite well. After a small snafu in which I walked for about 20 minutes and ended up back at the pub, I managed to find the subway and then the hotel quite quickly.

So another day comes to a close, and Sunday would be a day mainly of travel. Until then, goodnight!

Report Six – On the Road Again

We arose early Sunday morning for our flight to Guilin. I was a little sad to be leaving Shanghai, just after I was finally starting to get the hang of it. Still, I was happy to be leaving the big city for a more rural area as the pollution of Shanghai was starting to get to me.
Breakfast, for the final time, was at the breakfast joint near the hotel. Hoping to lighten things up a bit – with all the heavy meals I was starting to feel very sluggish – I had a glass of OJ and a daikon bao. The bao was as good as usual, but the OJ wasn’t really OJ, but more like Tang. Don’t get me wrong, I like Tang as much as the next guy, the next guy was just really hoping for a real glass of OJ. Regardless, the breakfast joint near the hotel would be sorely missed.
So Des and I checked out of the hotel and cabbed it down to the airport. The cab ride, check in and finding the gate were all pretty uneventful. The best part of the airport experience was when security almost confiscated Des’ maple syrup (a gift for a friend in Beijing). Ah, the dangers of Canadian maple syrup.

feastAfter arriving to the gate, we learned that our flight was delayed at least two hours. We were a bit disheartened, but when I made Des ask if we could get meal vouchers, we learned that they would give out a boxed lunch at another gate if we showed our tickets. SCORE! We did so, and received a pretty disgusting boxed lunch consisting of steamed corn off the cob, rubbery noodles with dry beef ribs and rice with what I can only describe as Chinese bologna on top of it. The best part was the Japanese energy drink they served with it, and the peach wasn’t bad.

Not long after the boxed lunch, the plane boarded and we were served another meal. Des wasn’t in the mood, but I inhaled this as well because I figured I had paid for it anyway. This lunch was a little better: chicken with Chinese broccoli and rice. The sides were watermelon salad and a stale bun. I sort of liked the chicken – it was quite tender and the sauce had a pleasant sourness to it, that tasted a bit like mustard. It was unfortunately a bit salty for my taste.

We arrived at Guilin in the late afternoon and had the daunting task of finding transportation to the bus station. The airlines ran a shuttle that costed Y50 each, which seemed a bit steep. Cab drivers said it was a Y80 fare to the bus station, which was slightly cheaper and we couldn’t find another bus or shuttle to take us. Luckily, however, we were approached in the parking lot by an off-duty cab driver who said he’d take us for Y40. The only downfall we could see was that he may rob and kill us. Needless to say, we went with that guy, and since I’m writing this now, it’s clear he at least left me with my laptop and my life.

We then hopped a bus to Yangshuo, which was miserably cramped and hot, but we got here. Finding a place to stay was extremely stressful. We were mobbed by women trying to get us to stay in their home or hotel, shoving pictures in our faces and yelling at us. In the end, we found a place recommended in our guide book (The Bamboo Café and Inn) and it’s quite cheap and clean. If ever in that situation again, I would tell the people that we have reservations somewhere, because they ended up following us the entire way and it was extremely annoying.
We were just desperate to find any dinner, and most of the restaurants here cater to Western tastes, unfortunately, so we had no high hopes. We dined at the green lotus on stir fried fungus and pork, as well as eggplant. The eggplant was alright, taking a more Italian flavor since it was stir friend in tomatoes and olive oil. Still, it wasn’t bad. The pork and fungus was actually quite good, with a healthy amount of chili and garlic giving it a bright spicy flavor. The green lotus gets one star.

So another day came to a close. The next day will focus on exploring Yangshuo and perhaps finding some more interesting local food.

Report Seven – In Search of Beer Fish

Yangshuo is known as a backpacker town, and it’s easy to see why. It’s a very scenic town, with green mountains jutting dramatically from the ground, several trails for biking or walking and rice paddies all around. One of the main streets in town caters mainly to Western visitors, with restaurants with European and American sections of their menus and plenty of souvenir shops. It’s probably not the best place for a culinary excursion, but it is scenic and relaxing, as well as a nice change of pace from busy Shanghai.

The Bamboo Inn, where we are staying is overall a pretty good find. The staff is entire Christian and are somewhat prone to proselytizing. Luckily, they focus their energies on Desmond, because he speaks Chinese.

feastWe got up pretty early on Monday, having passed out quite early the night before. We were both in the mood for a Western style breakfast, so we went to one of the many backpacker friendly places on the strip. The one we chose is called the Red Star Café, but it could easily be any one of the restaurants here. I chose the Set Breakfast IV, which came with orange juice (from concentrate, damn it), coffee, a vegetable omelet, and cheese toast. The cheese toast was edible, with some sort of mild white cheese on crispy white bread. The omelet was also not bad; except I’m pretty sure the contents of broccoli and onions were once frozen. Overall, a nice respite from the constant Chinese breakfasts of days before.

After walking back to the hotel, the management recommended a boat tour of the river for Y50, and Des and I agreed. They took us up to the bus station, where a bus took us to a nearby village and then we walked up to the boat. The boat fit about ten people and they took us along the shore where we saw several nice vistas. The landscape here is really quite beautiful, with lush fields and steep green mountains. Eventually we went to a little landing where some people were waiting to sell us stuff. There was also an old man riding a water buffalo who wanted to take pictures with us for money. I found a pretty rock here and I kept it.

The bus ride back to Yangshuo was somewhat interesting, and by interesting I mean the scariest hour of my life. The bus driver was absolutely insane, even by Chinese driving standards. All of the roads were one lane going one way and one lane going the other way, and he felt the need to pass any car or truck he came along…even in a tunnel with a car coming towards at about 80 miles per hour. I guess he was betting the car would swerve first, and luckily for us it did. The most insane moment was in the queue to get back into the bus station. We were literally five seconds from getting into the bus station when he decided to cut in front of the bus in front of us into on coming traffic, just to save two seconds. Needless to say, it was a bold move.

feastAfter the boat trip, Des and I decided to have an early dinner, and as well, for forgo the Western style restaurants on the touristy strip. We walked along the part of town where the locals frequent and found and interesting little restaurant. I’ll admit up front that it was completely filthy, probably due to the fact that there were only three walls. The front wall was taken out and there was some kind of home-built apparatus that created a lot of heat and was used to cook little clay pots. The chef could cook about 12 at a time and oftentimes he did, as the place was packed by locals. The restaurant was called Lao wan tong sha guo fan, which roughly translates to the old child’s earth pot rice and that’s pretty accurate. You would first go up to the old child’s wife and she has several raw meats and veggies sitting out in the intense heat. You’d tell her or point to what you want. I had beef rib, chicken, pork, onions, noodles and sausage. Then she’d give it to the old child, who had some clay pots with rice and a salty brown sauce in it, and he’s dump your selections into said pot and cook it over the intense heat. While we waited in the filthy dining room – there was dirt and old food all over the floor – she gave you a bowl of melon soup, which was quite plain but delicious. It had a slight meatiness from the pork base, but the melon lent a smooth freshness that I really enjoyed. Eventually, you were called up to collect your clay pot, at which you could doll it up with any manner of pickled peppers and hot sauces. The small yellow pickled peppers were quite hot and tangy, and the pickled beans were also nice. I thought the crushed chili was a bit bland. Overall, everything steams together and it’s a very delicious and interactive meal. I’d love to start one of these up in Vancouver, but I’m certain the health authorities would close me down immediately.

After being chased home by the rain, I did a little work in the hotel lobby while sipping the local brew, Ly Quen. A wonderful day in Yanshuo it was, and hopefully a taste of what was to come.

Tuesday in Yangshuo will probably go down as the least eventful day of my China trip. Des and I fancied another Western breakfast, so we went to the backpacker friendly King Fisher. I had the continental breakfast (these labels, we found, are completely meaningless). It included orange juice, tea, banana muesli, fried eggs, and French toast. It was a pretty forgettable meal, except for two highlights. The orange juice was freshly squeezed, as in right before it was served, and was quite good. The banana muesli was also surprisingly nice. I wasn’t really sure what muesli was before trying it at the King Fisher and I’m still not quite sure. What I got there was yogurt with bananas and dry oatmeal on top – an altogether pleasant combination. I think what made it come together really well was that the yogurt was served at room temperature, which made it taste very natural and smooth.

After breakfast, I got to work on a paper I was writing and Des went for a bike ride with some hotel employees. He was gone nearly six hours, so I had a good amount of time to nearly finish. Upon his return we went out on a mission to try a local specialty – beer fish, or fish caught in the river near town, and stir fried in the local beer with chili, garlic, onions and tomato.
We walked for a bit, towards a part of town more frequented by locals and found a promising restaurant. Well, to be more precise, it found us. Restaurants in this area have the habit of placing a few restaurant employees at the front of the restaurant to coax in passersby. The lady in front of the restaurant that roughly translates to Big Sister Chen’s Beer Fish drove a hard bargain, so we decided to give Big Sister a try.

feastBig Sister’s occupies a fairly nondescript restaurant, not the cleanest or fanciest around but certainly not the dingiest. There were a few generic decorations hanging on the wall, but little more. Big Sister was fairly nice and she gave us some helpful advice. One thing that did piss me off was when I asked for an English menu so I could understand better what he was looking at, I found that the English menu had prices that were consistently Y10 higher than the Chinese one. Translation fee, I guess.

We decided on the beer fish, with a local fish that costs Y40 per catty, bitter melon stuffed with pork and hollow heart vegetable stir fried with garlic and fermented tofu.
The beer fish turned out to be quite good. The fish was obviously fresh given the clean taste and soft texture. The beer sauce turned out to accent the fish quite well, with the beer being mostly cooked off but leaving a slight beer flavor that really worked with the fish. The garlic, onion and chili were also welcomed additions to the dish, but I’m afraid the tomato really served no purpose other than to distract from the fresh fish.

I also enjoyed the stuffed bitter melon. It was steamed and then apparently pan fried in a thin salty sauce. The pork stuffing didn’t really benefit from the extensive cooking, as it became dry and relatively flavorless, but the melon really did benefit. Most of the bitterness was cooked out, but there was a hint of it that hit your palate really late. It was a really dynamic dish and I enjoyed it. The hollow heart vegetable dish was executed well, but I didn’t enjoy it. I simply don’t like fermented tofu so this dish was more for Des, and he happily consumed it. To summarize, Big Sister’s turned out pretty well, but at around Y90 for dinner, it was one of our more expensive meals.

After dinner, Des pretty much passed out because of his bike ride and still had some more work to do, so Tuesday came to a close.

Report Eight – Lychees are Good

Wednesday, or yesterday as I write this, turned out to be one of the more eventful days so far, if perhaps the rainiest We woke up really late, around 11am and so it was a late breakfast for us. We went to a joint called seventh heaven café, also on the backpackers strip. It wasn’t really our first choice, but the monsoon like rain chased us towards one of the closest places we could find. I tried to order a Chinese breakfast, but they were all out so I had a hamburger. It was one of the worst hamburgers I’ve ever had. The meat didn’t taste quite like beef, and I suspect it was something else. We saw a rat scurry by our feet (perhaps he was also avoiding the rain) as we were eating, and that of course popped up as a possibility in my mind. But wouldn’t it take quite a few rats to make a burger? I have to hope the sheer volume would make such an enterprise prohibitively costly. Maybe dog. On a brighter note, the bun was actually really good, light and buttery and browned on the top. The French fries were limp and tasteless, however, and the “salad” was comprised of unflavored tomato and cucumber.

We waited out the rain in the hotel until about three, at which point it finally let up and I went for a bike ride. Once I got out of the city it was actually not a bad ride. Even if exceedingly muddy, I preferred the country roads to the bigger ones because of the aforementioned driving of the locals. The main roads were also quite polluted. I found some nice trails and some really beautiful scenery and pastures, which made it a worthwhile trip.

I was famished by the time I got back to the hotel, so we took a walk to the night market. We were a bit discouraged at first to stumble upon the only beer fish district, considering we wanted to broaden our horizons a bit. Still, the walk took us by the river for some magnificent views. Desmond bought some really nice Lychees, which were also a welcome addition to the walk. Eventually we found another night market and decided to dine there.

feastThe night market consisted of several carts with raw meats sitting out, with some fish and snakes playing around in tanks near the carts. Each cart had a big wok, where they would cook your selection. Des and I opted for a Uighur cart with some nice cumin lamb kebabs cooked over burning embers as well as some delightful flatbread. Much like my first experience with Uighur food, this was quite good. Even better was the price tag, ten kebabs at Y1 a pop, two breads at Y1 each and a huge bottle of beer at Y4 was Y16, a filling meal for two normal people. Now, Des and I aren’t normal people so we went over to the rice noodle stand and ordered a stir fried rice noodle with chili and pickled green beans. It was also quite fresh and quite good, with a really fragrant smell coming from an ingredient I couldn’t quite put my hand on. It was it this point that Des made quite a bold move and ordered, sight unseen, the egg cooked in rice wine advertised at the noodle stand. It was Y3 and took a while to come out, but it was worth it in every respect. It was unlike anything I’ve had in recent memory, a sort of eggy soup that tasted of wine that hadn’t been cooked off and egg, which gave it an interesting mucus like texture. The best part was that it was slightly sweetened with sugar, yet the way it all came together gave it a nutty, almond-like flavor. The perfect example of the whole becoming more than the simple addition of the parts. I loved it.

After a shower, and little writing, I slept quite well this night.

Report Nine – On the Way to Chengdu

This is to be our last day in beautiful Yanshuo, and I’ll be somewhat sad to see it go. We’ve done just about everything there is to do in this town though, and it is probably about time to see what other parts of China have to offer. I have detected a pattern in our travel habits though. The day we left Vancouver was the nicest day in a long while and today it’s the first really sunny day in Yanshuo. So we have either really bad luck, or we are harbingers for bad weather, or both. Yangshuo should be happy to see us go.

So, breakfast today was at the hotel we are staying at, since DES couldn’t be bothered to leave the hotel. Just between you and I, he’s really starting to get on my nerves. I had a banana milkshake. I know, it’s not very Chinese, but I was in the mood. I also had some steamed dumplings, which were not very good. The dough was kinda chewy and flavorless and there was very little filling. What was there was pretty flavorful though. Too bad there wasn’t more of it. Des had a tomato and cheese omelet, which he reports was quite alright.

Since our plane leaves at eleven tonight, and we didn’t to go out and get all hot and sweaty, without access to a shower, we have been tooling around town most of the day. I bought some souvenirs for people who don’t want to tell me what they would want. It’s tough making those kinds of decisions, but I guess I’ll survive. We’ve been sitting around a café for the rest of the day, biding our time. I think I will get more Uighur food tonight, or perhaps wontons. We shall see.

feastWell it turns out that wontons were the way we went since we found an inexpensive place on the way to the bus stop that specialized in wontons and dumplings. The restaurant itself, called Fujian Folk Snacks was dirty and small, with few decorations to speak of. Still, it looked family-run (the mom and two kids were in the back of the restaurant stuffing wontons) and honest, so we gave it a go. I’m glad we did.

I ordered a bowl of wontons in broth for Y3, and Des got water duck noodle soup for Y6 and we shared a large portion of boiled dumplings for Y6. I received a surprisingly large portion of wontons in a delicious broth. Usually I don’t order wonton soup at your generic Chinese restaurant, because the broth usually tastes of chicken broth and little else. The broth at the wonton place in Yanghuo was different. It had hints of anise, chili and ginger, with a fresh hit of green onion when you first taste the broth. The broth is also flavored, of course, by the very fresh wontons, so you get that slight starchy taste from the noodle, which was very delicate and quite nice. The filling was just as it should be: the right combination of pork, sesame oil, ginger and garlic. Overall, a delicious bowl of wontons, and for less than 50 cents Canadian, quite a steal.

The boiled dumplings were similarly good, with the same fresh dough as the highlight of the dish. I also enjoyed the little concoction I made with the various condiments at the table. There was a bowl of super-hot dry chili at the table, which I mixed with soy sauce and vinegar, as well as with the wet hot sauce to make my dipping sauce. I loved it because the heat from the dry chili would kind of hit the back of your throat and make it tingle, while the other ingredients hit a little earlier.

feastAnyhow, that’s enough about the little wonton and dumpling place we found, although I only wish the rest of the day was as exciting. Des and I left Yangshuo via bus not long after eating. It was a nicer bus that what we came on, but the driver still made tons of stops along the way, asking people if they wanted a lift. By the time we got to Guilin, the aisle was full of people squatting on little overturned pots he had. Quite annoying. Anyhow, we got the Guilin and then the airport in one piece. One gripe about the Chinese and queuing up – they don’t do it, preferring instead to just rush the opening of the bus or train and push and prod their way to the front. Okay, this kind of makes sense for buses and trains were space is limited, but I don’t quite understand why they do this on planes, where seats are assigned. I was at the front of the line, about to give my ticket to the flight attendant, when some dudes came up and just pushed me out of the way. I eventually got on, and I didn’t put up a fight because I didn’t really care when I got on the plane, but it was highly annoying. This happened on the earlier flight, too.

So anyhow, Des and I got to Chengdu (the home of Sichuan cuisine, woohoo!!) alright, and found another sketchy off duty taxi driver to take us to the hostel. Unfortunately, this one was extra sketchy and made us wait 15 minutes while he found someone else to take along the way. Oh well, it was cheaper. So we got to the Dragon Town Hostel and it was/is pretty run down. Our room had no AC so last night was pretty brutal (as you will see, we were able to change the next day). The more annoying thing, however, was that England scored the winning goal as we were checking in, and some obnoxious British woman was running around the room hugging people and making a scene. I can’t wait for the world to realize what Americans have known for years: soccer is boring. The whole situation kinda reminds me off back when everyone thought the world was flat, until an enterprising young man proved that wrong, and his name was Christopher Columbus. And if the history I was taught in Arlington, Virginia is true (and it certainly is), didn’t Columbus also discover America? Coincidence? I doubt it.

Report Ten – The First Day in Sichuan

Arriving the night before I was pleased to find out that although hot, the heat in Chengdu is a bit more dry as compared to Shanghai and Yangshuo. Driving to the hotel at 2 in the morning, I was also pleased to see that a good proportion of the restaurants were still opening, and people were enjoying themselves, dining outside. This carefree attitude of the Chengdu’s denizens was a theme that would present itself the next day as well.

So, Des and I got up kinda late on Friday morning, having arrived in Chendu late the day before. Our first order of business was to change rooms, because the AC wasn’t working in the last one, and it was simply too hot to be comfortable without AC. After that, we walked around Chengdu a bit. The alley our hostel is located on is very pleasant, with several street food vendors, with all varieties of spiced meat kebabs. This day, however most residents of this alley were just hanging out in the shade, drinking tea and playing cards.

We first visited People’s Park, which was full of small gardens, rivers, tea houses, and parks for kids. It was a beautiful sunny day, and although it was a weekday morning, the park was full of people just lying in the shade, playing cards with friends, or singing and dancing. The people of Chengdu certainly seem laid back, and a bit lazy.

feastAfter buying some plane tickets to Beijing, Des and I walked around looking for a restaurant to have our first meal in Sichuan in. We somehow found ourselves in the pig trotter district, as there were several restaurants in one block that advertised having the best pig trotter soup in town. As it seemed like a local specialty, we found one and went in for a try. The place we entered was called Lao ma ti hua (old mom’s pig trotter place). Although the specialty was pig trotter soup, we were both immediately fascinated by another special, called the house special noodles. So, in what could have been a mistake, we both opted for that, along with spicy beef ribs (another special) and some stir fried lotus root. The noodles came in a dark broth, with some minced peppers and beef on top. It immediately reminded me of Taiwanese beef noodles in its flavor, although the noodles were skinnier. The broth was rich and beefy, while also fragrant. I liked it, but it wasn’t anything special. The ribs were much better, beef ribs on the bone cooked dry with dry chili, garlic, ginger and onions. What’s not to like there? Still, I was slightly disappointed, but that was perhaps only because I had Sichuan so built up in my mind. The dish was very good, but just as spicy as I have in Vancouver, and the flavors were also nothing new. Luckily, as we will see, Sichuan completely redeemed itself at dinner time.

Before dinner, Des and I walked all over Chengdu. Our main destination was a Taoist temple called the green ram, or something like that. It was very impressive, with several small temples and many statues of various deities. Des tells me that the number of Gods is always in flux and it is silly to assigned numbers to it, but to me, it seems like there are lots of Gods. And, as he admits, there are more male than female gods.

feastWe walked around quite a while before settling on dinner. We found a place eventually that advertised that it specializes in a certain fish cooked in chili, called Huang Shi Ji Yu (Hwang’s Ji Fish). The restaurant was very busy, but the wait staff was nice and helpful. The restaurant was slightly dingy, but tastefully decorated. I didn’t quite like walking through the alley to use the restroom, and washing my hands in a big sink in the alley, but that’s not uncommon in China. Actually, it was nice a bathroom was even accessible.

We ordered one caddy (I think it’s about one pound) of the house special fish, twice cooked pork, and stir fried celery and what I think was shallot. They also brought a delightful and complimentary bowl of pickles to the table. The fish was simply amazing. It turned out to be a small white fish, so small that our one pound order contained about four fish. It came resting in a large bowl of sauce, which was not oily by Sichuan standards, but slightly think and full of onions, garlic, ginger, and tons of chili. Still, the flavor of the fish definitely came through and created a delicious combination with the sauce. I think the base of the sauce was definitely at least partly fish stock, so that might explain the combination. Still, it was a masterful dish. The twice cooked pork was also excellent, well exemplifying Sichuan cuisine in Chengdu. The pork was cooked with what appeared to be red and green bell peppers because they were cut so largely. If this had been a dish anywhere else, that’s probably what they would be, but after one bite, I soon realized the green peppers were actually halved jalepenos and the red ones were certainly not bell peppers, and actually a spicier cousin. The dish also contained juniper berries, a nice touch, and twice cooked noodles. The twice cooked noodles, which had been deep fried and then fried with the dish were slightly chewy and added another textural element to the dish. My only compliant is that if I were here for more than a week, I would certainly be carving years off my life. They love their oil here.

After dinner, Des and I enjoyed a nice walk over to see the statue of Mao. It was too dark to get decent pictures, but I will report that it is an impressive statue. Afterwards, we headed back to the hostel for a well deserved rest.

Report Eleven – Pandas and Hot Oil

feastSaturday in Sichuan began early to make an early date with the pandas at the giant panda research and breeding base. We left the hostel around 8 as to see the pandas feeding, apparently the most active part of their day. The pandas were super-cute, but it’s not hard to see why they are nearly extinct – they eat a ton, but only of a few certain varieties of bamboo and then they sleep the rest of the day. But they are damn cute.

After returning to the hostel, we went out for a quick bite to eat before exploring the city a bit more. We got lunch at a small little eatery where we had some fresh bao as well as soup. Everything was pleasant and nourishing, but not especially exciting. I enjoyed the vegetable bao most, because the filling was very flavorful and fresh tasting.

Afterwards, we walked around more. We went to the Wenshu temple, which is an old Buddhist temple. It was very impressive, but all temples are starting to look pretty similar. We wanted to have some tea here, but the place was closing so we weren’t able to. Afterwards, we decided to look for a Sichan hotpot restaurant, because we heard they are very popular right now. Luckily, we found one that was nearly packed, so we decided to try it out.

feastThe hotpot restaurant we chose had tons of options, as most hotpot restaurants do, and with little experience with hotpot, we did our best to make some good decisions. We opted for two “soups” to do our cooking in. One was a mild soup that turned out to be mushroom-based and also fairly oily. It had a very nice, understated flavor, which was a very nice contrast to the spicy soup. Speaking of the spicy soup, it was just that. I wouldn’t really call it soup, as much as hot oil with chili and juniper berries. I liked it at first, but it got to be a bit much for me by the end. For our meats and vegetables we chose fatty beef, pork, eel, trumpet vegetables, a leafy green, mushrooms, and tofu. Everything worked out very well. I especially liked the eel in the spicy soup and the trumpet vegetables in the mild one. We also ordered a pitcher of watermelon juice with our meal, and that turned out to be an excellent idea to balance and refresh after the heavy spicy food. Afterwards, they gave us some kind of lemon tapioca jelly to refresh ourselves, and although it was nice after the meal, it wasn’t a particularly good combination. Overall, I enjoyed the hotpot night, but it’s not something I could do often.

Report Twelve – The End of Sichuan and Beijing in Three Days

Day Three in Chengdu, Sichuan.

Day three turned out to be a non-day, as I came down with some combination of a cold and heat exhaustion. I stayed in bed for most of this day and only had some pretty awful fruit salad from the hostel.

Day One in Beijing

For day one in Beijing, I still was feeling a bit ill, so we mostly hung around the apartment we are staying in. Speaking of the apartment, it’s one owned by Des’ friend, so we get to stay free of charge, and it’s actually quite nice.

feastAround lunchtime we made it to a Manchurian restaurant near the apartment for an interesting experience. The restaurant is very kitschy, with all of the waitresses and hostesses in matching floral outfits. They sing a little song for you when you come in as well. The odd thing is that that’s where the good service ends and from then on you have trouble ordering and receiving food. Once we got the food, however, it was quite good. We ordered two rounds of Manchurian style dumplings, one filled with tomato and egg and the other with pork and onion. Both orders were cooked perfectly and quite good. I especially enjoyed the tomato and egg because it was different from any other dumpling I’ve had, and a bit lighter than the usual. Both were served with a dipping sauce that appeared to contain soy sauce and garlic – super heavy on the garlic. I tasted that sauce at least 6 hours after consuming it. We also ordered a warm eggplant salad, which was also very good. It basically consisted of greens and cilantro topped with warm eggplant. Everything came together very nicely.

That was pretty much it for day one in Beijing – at that point I was just hoping to rest and reacquire my appetite.

Day Two in Beiijing

I was feeling a lot better on day two, good enough to sightsee, but not really to eat China. After working out our train tickets back to Shanghai, Des and I visited the Forbidden City. The City itself was quite grand and I was very impressed by the various throne rooms, gardens and holding rooms for concubines, and the overall scope of the place. I was more impressed by the two Chinese teenagers who asked to have their picture taken with me, saying that I was handsome. Perceptive kids, I love it.

feastAfterwards, Des and I walked down through Tiananmen Square and to a very famous Beijing duck restaurant. I’ve had Beijing duck in some pretty well known places in the DC area, as well as in Vancouver, and I have to say that this place is miles beyond anything I have had before. I think it probably has to due with less stringent health laws in China, that allow them to prepare the duck the traditional way, hanging it up over night to ensure maximum skin crispiness. I really can’t praise the duck enough – it was mostly skin, which is the best part. It was incredibly flavorful and the meat that was present was juicy. Overall, I loved it. The duck soup afterwards wasn’t quite as good, warm and nourishing, but lacking in flavor.

Des and I then went down to the Russian district to a pub frequented by expats who enjoy playing a trivia game after work. Although we didn’t get to get involved in the game, it was interesting to watch.

Again, we turned in early that night due to my condition, but I had high hopes for the next day.

Day Three in Beijing

For day three, Des and I tried to go to the great wall, but we got to the bus station late and the guy wanted 10 times as much as the earlier bus and 30 times as much to take us himself. It seemed like a con-job so we decided to go to a museum at Tiananmen Square instead. The museum was actually quite alright. I especially liked the wax museum, where I saw such greats as Chairman Mao, Yao Ming, and Bill Gates. Afterwards, we went to a little stand on the street and had delightful little sandwiches of grilled bread with ham and a spicy sauce. It was the perfect snack, with the freshly made bread balancing out the salty pork and spicy sauce very well.

feastDes and I had a brief rest, and then treated his friend we were staying with to a nice dinner out. We had a nice Beijing style restaurant recommended by Dr. Schoenweiss and his lovely wife, so we went there and had a delightful final dinner in Beijing. My favorite dish of the night was something I have never had before. It consisted of minced pork with various diced vegetables and chili with little buttery buns that you stuffed with the aforementioned mixture. It was basically like little sandwiches, but no sandwich I’ve had before – spicy, salty and delicious. We also had some sweet walnuts and a shredded cold vegetable that I was told was asparagus. I don’t think it was asparagus, but it was nice and refreshing after the pork. Still, I’m not sure I would order either dish again, because they nice, but nothing special memorable. We also ordered a steamed fish, which was very fresh (they brought it live to the table before cooking it), and quite delicious.

After dinner we had drinks at a very nice bar called “bed” down a street that certainly didn’t look like it would house a posh bar. Bed consists of several rooms where group can hang out, one having no roof. They actually mixed a decent mojito.

Day Four in Beijing (the finale)

I spent a good portion of day four shopping for gifts at the local tourist/knockoff/haggling bazaar. Haggling is tough if you don’t like to be rude to people, but if you don’t mind (I only partially do), you can get pretty good deals. After a fun day of haggling, Des and I went back to the Manchurian restaurant. We had a decent meal, but it wasn’t as good as the first time. The dumplings were excellent, but the crispy pork dish was way over-garliced.

Afterwards, I headed to the train station, my stay in China coming to an end. I thank you all for sharing this journey with me.

Tags: Chinese

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 sarah // Aug 7, 2006 at 9:55 pm

    hey you!
    i too ingested shanghai cusine this summer.. must say, hunan was the favorite. it was a resturant a block away from the main contemp art gallery..because of being vegan most of my diet was limited to peanuts, pickels and cucumbers but these were the best of the peanuts, pickels and cucumbers i think i will have. and even better if i cut out the memories of the cockroaches crawling around.

  • 2 Jason // Aug 31, 2006 at 10:49 pm

    sounds like a good time, except for the cockroaches!

    it’s too bad you couldn’t try more of the food, but it sounds like you made the best of what was around.

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