Billiards boasting of Expo 2010 greeted us as we entered the city limits of Shanghai.  Quickly approaching the population mark of 23 million, it is currently China’s most populous city.  In the last 20 years there has been a period of rapid growth development, pushing Shanghai into the modern world as an influential entity in all things related to finance, commerce and fashion.  However, what I’m really looking forward to in this booming city is over 130 years old… the xiao long bao.  It is a real gastronomical treat and a joy for the insides of your mouth, as far as I’m concerned.

Xiao long bao is a small 18 pleated bun that is filled with a wonderful mixture of meats and aspics, and then steamed to perfection.  It is best eaten hot as the heat melts the aspic into a nice savoury broth.  Ideally, you’d pop the whole bun into your mouth and wait for the burst of flavours as it explodes against your taste buds!  I must’ve had this at least 3 times, and I had planned on many more as they sold them on the street as well.  However, our ever cautious tour guide advised me against eating these as my digestion system might not handle street food very well.  Drats.

...yummy bao...

...street style yummy bao...

Venturing back into the modern aspect of Shanghai life, we visited a Haagen Daz restaurant, which I was surprised to find were quite popular in China.  Yes… a restaurant!  They don’t have these in Canada, or in the US, and it was almost like visiting a Death by Chocolate.  A maitre ‘d greeted us at the front door, in full-on uniform complete with vest and matching beret.  Shortly after we are seated, and given our 10 page photo spread menu to peruse, our waiter visited our table to take our orders.  Thank goodness for the pictures because being able to point at what we wanted made ordering so much easier, not speaking Mandarin perhaps the only way it was possible.  Our silverware was laid out, our water glasses were filled, and we sat back listening to the contemporary pop that was playing over the speakers.  I don’t think I’ve ever been in such a classy joint for ice cream!

...ice cream time...

...ice cream arsenal...

The next morning, I had to say a sad farewell to the xiao long bao as we made our way into Hangzhou.  This is where the famous Longjing (aka Dragon Well) tea is grown and harvested.  In fact, the entire country-side seemed to be covered in tea plants, hills and hills of neat rows of green everywhere you glanced.  And if there’s one thing I’d learned during my time in this country is that Chinese people are serious about their teas.

Our visit to a longjing tea plantation began with a short seminar by a government official dubbed “Dr Tea”.  He had a degree in Tea Sciences (I didn’t even know such a thing existed!) and he worked as a Quality Inspector at the federal level.  Dr Tea began his lecture by explaining the anti-oxidant effects of longjing tea, and preformed a simple, but visually effective, demonstration which involved rice, iodine, water and tea.  It had everyone’s attention; hook, line and sinker.  “I must have this!” my brain told me, and next thing I knew, we were paying $140 for a half kilo of premium grade-A longjing green tea.  Interestingly, the AA stuff is reserved only for the government’s use, while the lower quality of grades B and C are also available for public sale.  Grade D is kept for export… Makes you go hmm doesn’t it?

...toasty tea leaves...

...anyone got hot water??...

...Dr Tea...

Specialty dishes that originated from Hangzhou include the Beggar’s Chicken, and Dongpo Pork… both of which are very tasty.  The chicken is stuffed with a mixture of pork, shrimp, various veggies and seasonings, and then it is wrapped up in layers of lotus leaves, and encased in salted clay.  It is then baked for anywhere from 2-4 hours, and once the clay is cracked, the chicken is falling-off the bone tender and smells wonderful.  It’s not a dish that you can just order off the street; due to the amount of time and labour involved Beggar’s Chicken must be ordered in advance.

...beggar's chicken...

Dongpo Pork is fatty pork belly that is braised in soy sauce and wine until it barely holds up together.  A nice fatty pork is key, the fattier the better in fact!  My parents actually make a version of this at home, but as much as I love Momma’s cooking, I gotta say that the real deal tastes so much better!  Yeah I know what you’re thinking, but it’s worth every fatty, artery-clogging calorie.  And it’ll be alright… I have all that longjing tea to clear everything right up!  But I digress.

The pork is so rich; we’re only each given 3 small inch cubes of meat, served in small individual bowls.  The tender meat is merely a side note and the fatty main star literally just melts away in your mouth.  Mmm… so good… and while it’s very oily, there’s no lingering taste of grease left on your tongue.

We finished off our decadent meals in Hangzhou with fresh raw sugar cane.  The stalks are peeled and cut into manageable sizes, which you then bite off and suck on, draining out all the sweet juice.  Developing the ability to remove the leftover fibres from your mouth discreetly was also quite the experience.

...suck on this...

And that was pretty much how we ended our culinary adventures in China.  It was definitely an eye opener on how different the cuisine was when compared to Chinese food in BC, and even the difference of preparation between each region.  And while I can’t wait to return to China to eat my way through again, I’m actually quite happy to be eating sweet and sour pork again here at home.

The first thing we noticed when we landed in Nanjing was that it was raining, and it was coming down fairly hard.  The second thing we noticed was that the food just got even greasier and saltier!

As I had mentioned in my previous post, Nanjing is considered the capital of duck.  These people are crazy about ducks, but specifically… duck’s blood.  Weird right?  But they just eat that stuff right up!  Besides the blood though, one of their regional specialties is the salted duck, which dates back to over 400 years ago.  And it actually tastes a LOT better than it sounds.  The duck is marinated in a brine that contains different seasonings, mainly salt, for a few hours.  Just when it’s about time to serve it, the duck is steamed and it can be served hot or cold.  The best time to eat this dish is ideally around autumn because this is when duck is at its fattest.  But even when it’s lean it is still very tasty… we must’ve had this dish in at least 3 or 4 other restaurants during our time in China.

...salty chicken anyone?...

Then in no particular order we also had braised duck wing tips, steamed duck heads (I just couldn’t make myself try this one however), and salted duck eggs.  The eggs are typically preserved in a salty charcoal paste for a period of time.  Once they are cleaned and boiled, the egg white becomes really sharp and salty, while the egg yolks become rich and fatty, but slightly sweet.  The salted duck eggs here are slightly different from the ones I’m used to having in Vancouver… the folks of Nanjing definitely prefer their eggs saltier, as I had found, and the yolk wasn’t as orange or rich as what I was accustomed to.

...wings only please...

...heads only??...

...this ain't your typical egg...

Another regional speciality is, of course, the Duck Blood Soup.  You can’t just eat the meat you know… you have to make use of all that blood too evidently!  Blood of a freshly killed duck is kept in the fridge until it is ready to use, and as it cools the blood begins to congeal into a solid jelly-like mass.  Then it is cut up into cubes to use as you please.  I had to try it since I’d already wimped out on the duck heads.  It began to get a bit surreal though as the other people at our dining table, my parents included, began to debate about the differences in textures between duck and pork blood… why won’t they let me just eat this in peace!  Well, it actually wasn’t bad at all… I even finished my entire bowlful.  I thought the blood was very smooth and almost flavourless, and it reminded me very much of tofu.

...blood with your soup anyone?...

It was in Nanjing where we visited our very first Chinese McDonald’s… I think Kid Brother mentally went down to his knees in relief before we ventured inside.  Unsurprisingly, no one there spoke a lick of English, but luckily they had placemats with pictures of all their food which you could point to, and indicate with your fingers how many of that item you wanted.  It was genius.  Kid Brother had a spicy chicken filet burger, and Mr O ate a cheeseburger.  It wasn’t really anything to write home about… apparently McDonald’s will always be just a McDonald’s.

Our next stop took us to Wuxi which is situated along Lake Tai, the 3rd largest freshwater lake in China.  As such, this city has a thriving pearl industry and they will make it into just about anything, including your typical jewellery.  Facial creams, supplement capsules, and even tea… pearl tea!  It was costly though, and not something I’d ever drink at home, but it was definitely a novel idea.

I thought the food in Wuxi was a bit more… humble… than the two cities that we’ve visited thus far.  Freshwater fish was served, and it was steamed beautifully with soy and green onions, but it was incredibly bony which made it almost too exhausting to eat.  And there was a dish, akin to mashed potatoes that were shaped in the form of a dragon and drizzled over with mayo.  This was Chinese food?  I didn’t even know they had mayo in China!  Lots of tofu dishes, eggplant, fungi, and bamboo shoots were available to eat as well.

...the potato dragon...

...bony fishies...

We also got to walk around another market.  Vendors lined the streets with fresh produce and seafood products, as well as a Granville Island Market-like bazaar where you could find all types of meat, veggies and more seafood.  Some of the more unusual items available included: freshwater eels, turtles, frogs and, of course, fresh duck blood.  It sounds like the ingredient list for a witch’s brew right?  But everyone here seemed to have a more open-minded attitude about what is allowed to end up on the dinner plate… and with over a billion people they must be doing something right.

...eeeeeeels!...

...more fishies...

...fresh veggies galore...

...mmm... fresh blood...

Our next stop took us into Suzhou, which is often dubbed as the “Venice of China”… and rightly so with their canal systems and stone bridges.  The food here was much like the food we’d tried in other cities with emphasis on duck, freshwater fish and tofu.  It was here we had a beautiful duck dish that was a completely deboned bird, except for the drumstick, that’s been stuffed with stir-fried sticky rice and braised in a sweet and salty sticky glaze.  It was absolutely to-die for and one of my favourite dishes we’d had so far.  And there was also a deep-fried fish served a la sweet and sour style… the first of its kind since we landed in China… everyone on the Canadian home-grown team literally attacked it.  Oh how we find comfort in familiarity.

...more over turkey... it's stuffed duck...

...it's sweet and sour time!...

Tune in shortly for the last segment of my culinary adventures in the land of the Far East as I explain what a xaio long bao is and why you should drink more green tea!

Recently I had the opportunity to visit China over the spring break, and so today I thought I’d take a little break from our regularly scheduled program so that we can re-visit my culinary adventures in the country.  This was my first time in China, as well as my siblings’ and parents’.  This was also the first time Mr O had ever traveled for any period of time with my family, so that in itself was an adventure.  But in this article we will be discussing the food I ate and not the drama that is my family.

First off, a little bit of history so that we can all be on the same page… If you’ve ever had Chinese food in the province of BC, there is an extremely good chance that it was served in the Cantonese style.  This probably stemmed from the influx of citizens from Taishan that immigrated over in the late 1800s, which is a city found in the province of Guangdong (Canton).  So that being said, since my Momma grew up in Hong Kong, which is practically in Guangdong, I was raised knowing only about Cantonese food.  In other words, I was not quite prepared for some of the stuff that came to find its way across my plate as I was about to eat my way through parts of the Northeast coast of the country.

My first impression of Northern style Chinese food is how much greasier and saltier they prepare their food.  One tour guide joked that you can always tell how well the economy of China is doing by how much oil and salt they can spare… judging by these words I’d say China is quite the prosperous place right now!

We had touched soil in Beijing finally after 12 hours of being cramped inside the cattle class section of the plane.  Although my internal clock was telling me it’s about 2am, I had to accept that it was now really 5pm the next evening.  Dinner time!  We were left to our own devices for dinner, as our guided tour had not yet officially begun, and we thought to play it safe by eating at the restaurant inside the hotel.  Once we were seated, we realised how unprepared we were for Chinese food in China… no one spoke a word of English, nor could anyone understand Cantonese, which is the only dialect my family knows.  The wait staff stared helplessly at each other as us foreigners started to pull our hairs out in frustration… and all we wanted was an extra menu to look through!

Names of dishes did not seem to ever truly convey what they were made of… Heavenly Gates of Broken Dreams could mean meatballs for all we knew.  But alas, after a series of charades, and with the aide of Momma’s terribly broken Mandarin, we managed to order 5 different dishes to try.  We thought we had a rough understanding of what we were getting and ended up having dishes like fried chicken knuckles delivered to our table.  Oh well, what can you do but shrug and eat it?  Besides, it ended up being quite a tasty meal, even if we don’t know to this day what we ate.

Beijing (formerly known as Peking), the country’s capital city, is famous for the invention of Peking duck.  It is duck that is prepared in a way that makes the skin really crisp, and it is served in 2 or 3 stages.  The chef prepared the duck tableside to us, and we watched as he skilfully handled a large cleaver around the bird’s carcass.  The meat and skin was sliced thin, which you wrap up in a very thin pancake, accompanied by slivers of scallions, cucumber and a sweet-bean sauce.  Then they cart the bones away, and later on during the meal a soup that is made from these bones is served.

...duck carving...

There was a definite difference in how they prepared it a la Beijing style, versus the variations you’ll find in Vancouver.  I’m used to a crispier skin than what we had in China, as well in Vancouver the skin and meat is served separately, with thicker pancakes and fresh iceberg lettuce to use as wraps.  Despite these slight deviations, and my own slow acceptance of differences, it was still delicious.

The next meal was a Mongolian style feast that was served inside of a yurt… this restaurant is literally a few acres of land with a small community of yurts!  Each yurt, a traditional Mongolian tent, was filled with several huge tables.  It was akin to having dinner in a medieval themed setting, but with the obvious Mongolian details instead.  At a time during the Ming dynasty Beijing was often at war with Mongolia, and so you can find lots of foods which are heavily influenced by the Mongolian culture.  Our meal included goat… and lots of it!  In one dish, it was cut up into bite-sized cubes and braised with tomatoes.  Another was a hot goat’s milk soup, which was served with bits of crouton-type bread pieces right in the liquid.  And the pièce de résistance were the roasted goat legs.  At first, I was a bit wary about eating so much goat, because I’m usually not a fan of animals that will eat anything, though I do love pigs hmmmm?… I don’t even care for lamb all that much to be honest.  But I have to say I am now a convert.  It was absolutely the tenderest and most flavourful meat I’ve ever had!  I’d eat it again in an instant.  Um… the goat milk soup can stay right where it is though, it literally tasted like hot milk with soggy bread… no thanks.

...one yurt...

...many yurts!...

...insides...

...tomatoes and goat...

...goat milk soup?...

...pure goat baby...

The next day we found ourselves at the Golden Hans for lunch… a German themed restaurant if you believe it.  The waitresses were even dressed up in lederhosen, and the waiters bearing fake moustaches.  The set-up here is there are small grills built into the middle of each table, where you are seated before you go off and venture around the “buffet” of raw meats.  After making your selections you bring them back to your table and cook.  This didn’t sound very German to me, but my very limited experience of German food consisted only of schnitzel, sauerkraut, and bratwurst… anything else was outside my realm of expertise.  And although it sounds like a pretty straight-forward procedure, it really wasn’t.  Our small group circled around the meat coolers, where individual trays upon trays of thinly sliced meats were stacked, like lost wide-eyed children.  Everything was labelled clearly so you can see which tray contained which meats.  Unfortunately for us, it was all written in Chinese, which none of us knew how to read.  My parents were no help either… much of mainland China has adopted a simplified style of writing, whereas my parents only know how to read traditional style writing… so they pretty much guessed what they were eating too.

...pick'n meat... heh...

After bringing back our small stack of somewhat recognizable meat (the dim lighting absolutely did not help at all), we began to dutifully grill our food and ate what we began to label as “mystery meat”.  Some of it was not recognizable to the palate at all, although we knew which mystery meat tasted better than the other.  Although I know it would anger some if I did not mention the other Golden Hans specialty that was included with your buffet, all you can drink beer!  How long till this great Chinese tradition finds its way to the Puddle? By the time we were done, all full but with uneasy stomachs, the Canadian home-grown team was starting to get a little exhausted by the cuisine in this country and craved for something simple and uncomplicated like a burger.  Would we find a Golden Arches in China?

...stack'n meat...

...cook'n meat...

Later that night we visited Beijing’s equivalent of Vancouver’s Robson Street where a permanent night market exists, much like the ones found in Chinatown or Richmond, selling thousands of different foods.  Here there would be no mystery about what we were eating.  Though I did try to keep an open mind about certain “delicacies” and promised myself that I’d try anything at least once if ever given the chance it was not until this last evening in Beijing that the opportunity came up.  We were walking along Donganmen Street, the location of the night market, where food vendors were jam packed next to one another all yelling at you as you strolled by.  Enticing promises that their food was the best and freshest all compete for your attention.  It was particularly amusing watching them try to get Mr O’s attention with their broken English.

There were stalls and stalls full of kebabs of candied and fresh fruits; skewers of different kinds of meats and seafood just ready to hit the grill; freshly shucked oysters and baked crab; piles and piles of chowmein, and tofu of all sorts.  However, what caught our group’s eye were the displays of skewered bugs.  Yep, bugs!  There were silkworms, crickets, and scorpions of varying sizes.  The silkworms were a huge *NO* for us, because they looked too plump and truly too gross to eat, as were the large scorpions with their giant shiny black pinchers.  In the end we settled on a skewer which impaled through 3 small scorpions, all for only 15 yuan (which works out to roughly $2.30 CDN).  That’s one for me, Mr O, and my kid brother.

...squidies and octopus...

...meat on a stick...

...steamed crabs...

...nature's candies...

...silkworms, scorpions and crickets, oh my!...

We paid for our creepy crawlies and watched in morbid fascination as it was briefly deep-fried and salted before our very eyes.  Mr O bravely took the prepared skewer from the vendor and we scurried off to the side, out of everyone’s way, to furiously take pictures of it… even some of the locals had to stopped to watch us eat it (although I suspected what they really wanted was to watch the white guy eat a bug).  One by one, we each took turns to dropping these crispy arachnids down the hatch.  Kid brother ate it first, and you can literally pin-point when his expression of trepidation became one of “Hmm… not bad.”  Seriously, it wasn’t bad at all… a lot of crunchy, and a little salty… it’s like eating a deep-fried prawn tail from the end of a sushi roll.  I don’t think I’ll ever do it again though, as a huge picture of a scorpion kept flashing in my mind with every crunch that I took.

...open wide!...

The following morning we had a 4 o’clock morning wake-up call so that we could prepare for our morning flight out of Beijing to Nanjing.  It’s the capital of duck, apparently.  Stay tuned!