Uighur food ranges from exceptional to inedible. The variation is mostly a function of the quality of the meat, and whether or not said meat is offal. We’ve never eaten so much sheep meat in our life, and the best stuff is just wonderful.
Everyone in Asia claims that Marco Polo went back to Europe inspired by their noodles. I think that’s most believable coming from the Uighurs. Their noodle dishes are spicy and mostly without sauce so they don’t taste Italian, but the texture and shape of the pasta does have an Italian feel. We’ve seen some shops selling something that could have come straight from my treasured fresh pasta machine at home.
Big cities have a reasonable number of western fast food outlets, especially in the richer areas. In Zhengzhou, featured in the photo above, we noted six separate KFCs in the square out the railway station. In fact, KFC seems to be the fast food of choice. It’s telling that McDonald’s also offers fried chicken in a kind of can’t-beat-them-join-them sort of way.
We confess to having sampled some k-fry, once when famished on our return from the Great Wall. Once when sort of lost in a train station. We can recommend the sichuan style burger and the prices. You’re looking at about $4NZD for a combo. That’s certainly not the cheapest meal available, but it’s cheaper than a flat white at the Shanghai branch of fuel. Other western brands are priced similarly.
There are no western fast food brands in small town or rural China. None. And by small town we mead small town in a Chinese sense, say, cities under a million people. That, combined with the pricing leads us to conclude that China is a stage 3: Western fast food is available in most towns or cities and is an aspirational brand for the middle classes (with a price tag to match).
Nothing can be more delicious than Jiaozi. And nothing can be more comfortable than lying down to sleep.
This is without doubt our favourite Chinese proverb. We are big fans of both dumplings and lying down to sleep.
Jiaozi are the half moon shaped dumpling variety that is a key part of northern Chinese cuisine. They can be boiled or fried.
Today we visited an excellent Jiaozi restaurant and at our fill. Two dozen dumplings. Bao Yuan Jiaozi came highly recommended by a friend in New Zealand and an online reviewer put it like this: ask a Beijinger whether they like Bao Yuan Jiaozi, if they say no, disregard everything else they tell you about Beijing food.
We ate four kinds of dumplings:
Pork and coriander. A delicious classic.
Minced beef, tomato, onion and mushroom. Evocative of Italian cuisine and a timely reminder of how close Jiaozi really are to ravioli.
Peanut, preserved pork and picked chilli. The peanut was the predominant flavour, but the pork had a pleasing almost bacony taste.
Lotus root, zucchini and minced pork. The vegetables remained crunchy, which was excellent.
To distinguish between the different morsels that arrived piled high on a single plate, the restaurant used naturally coloured dumpling wrappers. Of these the purple coloured red cabbage flavour was the most striking.
Our dumplingathon was our last adventure with authentic northern Chinese cuisine. We’ve been very pleasantly surprised. Flour is the dominant carb. So there are egg and wheat noodles, unleavened breads in abundance, pork buns and doughnuts, and excellent dumplings. Lamb and duck are prominent meats. Both come in exceptionally good roasted varieties. Northern Chinese is probably my favourite cuisine so far, and Fiona rates it second behind Sichuan. But, we’ve yet to get our teeth into Western cuisine. That’ll be our new culinary focus in Xi’An and beyond.
We continue to luxuriate in Beijing’s excellent cuisine. Tonight we enjoyed a leg of lamb. Yes, a whole one. And yes, there were only two of us, but that was the smallest portion size available.
The restaurant was highly recommended. Its tables spilled up and down the hutong, and all its customers seemed very happy. We were too.
The tables had a rectangle missing into the middle, just enough for a metal box of fiery hot coals, and a grill. Over that they placed a leg of lamb on a spit. The idea was that you rotate the spit, carve off bite sized pieces and, should they need extra cooking, fire them up on the grill over the charcoal. We had a good go at this method but, truth be told, after ten minutes or so, the heat from the charcoal, atop the already baking Beijing air, was too much for us to manage. The wait staff took pity on us and returned our leg of lamb cut into pieces ready for cooking.
One massive benefit of this method as against a standard lamb roast is that every bite could be cooked to just the way you like it. No labouring through the tough bits to get to the pink stuff required. We also loved the condiments that accompanied our lamb: a kind of tomato based chilli and cumin sauce and a peanut based dhukka which had a slightly Moroccan taste. There were some tasty side dishes, but they got about as much attention as the poorly executed potato salad that’s common at home.
As well as being all round delicious this was another great opportunity to challenge our perceptions about what food is ‘Chinese’. We’ve eaten authentic North Chinese cuisine for the last four or so days now, and not a single grain of rice had passed our lips. No other single country that we have visited has demonstrated such variety in indigenous cuisines.We’ve also been thinking about how amazing it is to cook things over fire. Maybe it’s to do with science, but it’s delicious. A large share of our best travel food experiences have involved charcoal cooking: Argentina, of course, but also street barbeque in Hanoi and grilled fresh fish in Makassar. Here’s to many more things cooked with fire.
We’ve done the Forbidden City and the Summer Palace. Tonight was time to tick off another of Beijing’s big ticket items: the Peking Duck.
We were lucky to dine with friends of friends who are native Beijingers and could show us what it’s all about. They were excellent hosts and insisted that we eat most of the tasty tasty meat. We obliged.
The duck was roasted over fire, but it had hot water inside (magic, unsure how this is done). The chef that carved adjacent to us was careful to produce exactly the ‘correct’ number of slices of the different parts of the meat. The fruits of his labour were three plates – one of tender meat, one of crispy skin and one of of meat with a sliver of skin.
Traditionally the skin is eaten first as it is less pleasing cold. You dip it in sugar. This blew our mind. Fiona said it tasted like a cronut. First the taste is sugary sweet and crispy, but that quickly gives way to an almost pastry like creamy taste. To me it was like a combination of a chicken wing and creme brulee. But, you know, delicious.
The rest of the meat got wrapped up in small pancakes with soy-based sauce, cucumber and shallots, like you might wrap a soft Mexican tortilla. They took a little chopstick dexterity to assemble but the effort was well worth it. Fiona declared it was her favourite Chinese food, well, at least first among equals. Many delicious equals.
Since our first forays, we’ve gotten more comfortable ordering in Chinese restaurants (though our more adventurous ordering is normally done by our hosts). Here are some things we’ve noted:
Wait staff deliver your menu and then literally wait for you order. It’s like they expect you will be able to pick up the menu of hundreds of dishes and make your suggestions so quickly it’d be inefficient for them to go away and come back. Our hovering waitress tonight had what seemed to be freshly learned English – at one point she used her iPhone app to translate ‘giblet’. When Fiona said to her “we’ll just need a minute” she started frantically searching through the menu to find a dish of that name.
Dishes are made to be shared. It’s common to have whole fish on the menu, or things that come in big hot pots. This adds to the congeniality of eating and China accounting for one third of the world’s cases of Hepatitis B. When smaller groups go out to eat it seems common to still order heaps of dishes and just leave lots behind.
Courses aren’t really a thing. Sweet and savory flavours are mixed. We ate one big shared meal that included, all at once: four kinds of spicy chicken, duck tongues, fruit salad (with salmon, mind) and green tea flavoured biscuits.
Rice is optional. Sometimes it is served at the end of the meal, and sometimes not at all.
Dishes tend to have three or four key ingredients. You are much more likely to get pork with red capsicum than pork with mixed vegetables. You’re also likely to get beans, just beans. Stir fries are not about stirring many things together.
Food is cooked quickly, and it arrives very hot. There’s no need to rest a stir fry, I suppose. Many Chinese also eat very quickly. Restaurants get two parties through the tables around us in the time it takes us to lunch.
I asked Fiona what insight I should share about our cooking class today. “That it was excellent,” she said. That is my key message.
We started out in the market shopping for ingredients. Toting cane baskets we worked our way through the fresh produce and spices. Our meat had been pre-procured from a supermarket, but apparently in China it’s fine to buy meat from open-air markets if you do so in the mornings. Freshness is ensured by daily slaughter. I never really thought a sentence with the word slaughter would be comforting, but that one is. In what is hopefully a further indicator of hygiene in these parts, raw pork is eaten as a delicacy.
Most Chinese food we consume in the West is from the Cantonese school of cooking. Hong Kong Chinese, who are Cantonese, have had more freedom of movement than their mainland counterparts, so they were the ones who went out and set up smorgasbord restaurants and Chinatowns around the world (including in Peru). Other cuisines are a long way from what we tend to think of as ‘Chinese’. For example, cuisines north of the Yangtze River seldom features rice.
The kitchen we cooked in was very Master Chef. It included some pretty sweet cleavers. I had dreams of confounding judges with perfectly executed macaroni cheese in response to every quick fire challenge, and nightmares that one of the eight cookers would be voted off the island after each of our three dishes.
The first dish was a salad using dry tofu. I’m not a big advocate of tofu, but in its defence it does tend to take on the flavours you put with it, and we used, among other things, an exceptional sesame oil. Continue reading A day at Chinese cooking school→
Today we ate Michelin recommended dim sum. Tim Ho Wan was tracked down by a New Zealand friend who is currently living and working in Hong Kong and hosted us at the restaurant for yum char. Yum char is the name of the meal, effectively brunch, whereas dim sum is the name of the style of dining, effectively tapas. Cantonese speaking China, including Hong Kong, is ground zero for dim sum and we were lucky to sample some of the very best on offer.
The food was outstanding, of course. I especially enjoyed the fried roll with beef, pepper and tomato. Fiona liked the steamed fish on garlic toast. Everyone liked the dumplings of every stripe. And anyone with any sense anywhere would have appreciated the baked pork buns. We all liked how much we could order and how little it cost. The menu was a variation on what we might see in a Chinese restaurant at home, but less muddled by Western tastes. There were chicken’s feet instead of chicken wings, for example.
Two things stood out in terms of the experience that you wouldn’t get at yum char at home. First, the waitress actually scolded us for taking too long to make our order. We were distracted by chatting, she said. Scolding’s probably not something they teach you on a kiwi host course, but maybe not unreasonable when there’s a queue of people snaking out the door and into the baking Hong Kong sun. Second, the restaurant supplied hot tea for us to wash our utensils and bowls before using them (and more to drink). Apparently this is done so you can be sure of their hygiene yourself. But in the context of Michelin stars we were pretty comfortable it was mostly for tradition.
We left concerned only that we might turn into dumplings, for we had consumed so many, and otherwise sated in every way.
Buenos Aires surely ranks with Rome, Naples, New York and Chicago as one of the great pizza cities of the world.
The pizza here has a distinct style all of its own. The base is thick and doughy and there is a copious amount of cheese. At the pizza by the slice place we visited for lunch today the cheesiest was in the hottest demand. When a fresh pizza was slapped down on the counter for slicing it wiggled and oozed like jelly. It was that covered in cheese.
The ingredients tend towards simple: ham, olives, and peppers. There’s also a special style that has bundles of sliced onions piled on called fugazza.
It isn’t a quite a match with our tastes, but it is very tasty. It’s also cheap and filling. We can see why people crowd for a slice or two at lunchtime. There’s even individual tables to facilitate quick eating for one.
Peru is the first country that we’ve been to on this trip that has had a cuisine. We don’t just mean a collection of national dishes. We mean a sell-cookbooks-to-tourists and look-forward-to-trying-new-things-at-mealtimes cuisine. It’s also having something of a resurgence. Lima is now often called the gastronomic capital of the Americas.
The ingredients used in Peruvian cuisine aren’t markedly different from neighbouring countries. But what they do with them involves more thought and effort. For example in Colombia you might well get beef, potato, tomato and onion. But it’d just come as beef, potato, tomato and onion. Here in Peru it’s called lomo saltado. The beef is marinaded, sliced and cooked together with the onion and tomato and the potatoes as chips, and served with rice. It’s excellent.
Peru also has some things of its own. Ceviche is from here and is delicious. Trout is a big deal. Fresh, tangy, Andean cheese is an important ingredient. Alpaca meat is as common as beef. There’s large and moderately spicy chillies to be stuffed and baked. And there are potatoes. Always potatoes.
The humble potato is quite possibly the Inca’s biggest gift to the world. There are a huge number of varieties here with skins and flesh of white, yellow and purple. They have subtly different flavours if you use them right.
It’s still extraordinarily cheap. None of the dishes featured in the pics above cost more than $18NZD and most were well less than ten.
We’re still left wanting for fresh veg a bit, but, overall, we’re big fans of Peruvian cuisine and we’re enjoying food being an exciting part of our travels again.