May 5, 2013

China Eats: Everything with Legs, but the chair...

As you know, we recently returned from a 2 week vacation in China.  We did as much sightseeing as we did eating, and we're going to share some of the deliciousness we enjoyed from across the world.  I'm typically not one to take pictures of food in restaurants, so I apologize for the limited number of pictures.

After landing in Beijing, and getting settled into our hotel, I quickly noticed the room service menu in our room, and the unusual offerings...
The first item listed is "Chinese Food".  I'm not really sure what that would entail since we were in China, and most food we'd be eating would be Chinese food.  If you keep moving down the menu, the next dish that caught my eye was the "Combine taste jellyfish head".  I'm not sure why they would just serve you the head, and not the entire jellyfish, nor am I really sure what "combine taste" is.  Next is "Sprinkle agaric".  Now, I have no idea what agaric is, but upon further investigation, it seems to be a Mario Bros.-esque mushroom of some sort.  Then we come to "Staple food".  I'm hoping this means rice or noodles, or some mainstay dish that you would have at every meal, but who knows.  But I think my favorite is the "Mountain bacteria soup".  I'm sure this was just some kind of mushroom soup, but I couldn't help but laugh at the idea of eating "mountain bacteria".  Though our room service menu offered tempting items, we met up with a family friend who treated us to a delicious meal at Metro Duck where we enjoyed course after course of delicious food.  This was our first taste of Peking duck in China, and it was served with thin, crepe-like pancakes, green onion, and cucumbers, as opposed to the steamed buns we're used to getting here in the States.  We also enjoyed some pork spare ribs, fried peanuts, and meatball dumplings.

From there, we flew to Xi'an to visit the terracotta warriors.  Within the city, there is a vibrant Muslim Quarter, bustling with various street vendors selling goods and food.  There were these fried quail eggs on a stick, which were cooked in quite an ingenious device.  Half-circles were carved into the block with a divot for the stick.  So they'd just crack the eggs into each circle, plop the stick in place, and once they'd cooked on one side, give it a flip.  Voila!  Eggs on a stick!  There were also these guys smashing peanuts into a chewy candy.
We didn't try either of those treats, but we did sit down for a bowl of their traditional lamb soup.
We had to work for it though.  Once we sat down, we were presented with a bowl and 2 pita-like pieces of bread.  This bread was hard almost seemed stale.  We were instructed to tear the bread into tiny pieces and place them in the bowl.

Once we had enough bread bits, we clipped a number onto our bowl, and gave it to the server so they could make our soup.  We had a choice between lamb or beef, but since lamb is the traditional protein of choice for this dish, that's what Justin & I went with.  Minutes later, our bowls came back with piping hot soup.
The bread bits absorbed the oily broth, and became little dumplings in the soup, along with the rice noodles and lamb.  To cut the grease, they served it with sweet (pickled) garlic, and some chili sauce.  The garlic definitely helped cut the oily feel in my mouth, and I probably could've eaten an entire head of that sweet garlic.  We'll try to recreate it here, and share the recipe with you once we've mastered it.  It was quite a filling meal, and I only used 1.5 pieces of bread!  Since we had such a late lunch, and the bread really stuck to our ribs, we didn't even eat dinner!
The only street food we tried in Xi'an was some fried tofu, seasoned with cumin, five spice, and secret hobo spices.  The vendor gave it a quick sear on their flat top, sprinkled it with the seasonings, and presented it to us with a bunch of toothpicks.  It was a great little snack!

The next day, we had lunch at the museum where the terra cotta warriors are housed.  They had chefs preparing freshly shaved, and freshly pulled noodles.  I didn't get a picture of either, but for the shaved noodles, the chef held a block of dough over a pot of boiling water, and using a sharp knife, sliced off thin strips of dough right into the pot.  These were topped with a pork sauce, that kind of reminded me of an Asian-style bolognese.  The pulled noodles were exactly that...pulled and stretched, until they formed thin noodles.  This was served more as a noodle soup.  What I did get a picture of was this bottle of "Seahorses tokay wine".  Now, I'm no biologist, but I'm pretty sure the creature in the jar is some type of lizard, and not a seahorse.  But as you may have noticed, there were some hilarious/entertaining translations.

For dinner, we had 16 courses of dumplings at Defachang Dumpling Restaurant.  Dumplings came in all shapes and sizes, with a variety of fillings.  I think our overall favorite was the spicy chicken, and the duck.  But there was also a tomato-filled dumpling and a pumpkin dumpling that were quite delicious.  The fun part was seeing how each dumpling was wrapped, especially the ones that were filled with meat, since they were in the shape of the animal that was stuffed inside.
 This is what we looked like after eating all the dumplings!

From Xi'an, we traveled to Lhasa, Tibet, where we ate our fair share of naan and yak.  Considering Tibet's location, it's no surprise that there is a heavy Indian influence when it comes to the food.  Most menus included curries and naans, along with some Chinese, Nepalese, and Western dishes.  We at yak at just about every meal.  Similar to beef, the yak is leaner and a bit more tender.  We had it in momo (dumplings), stir fry, curry, noodle soup, and burgers, along with some of the best garlic naan I've ever tasted.  If you are ever in Lhasa, be sure to check out Namaste Restuarant and get the spicy naan.  Another traditional Tibetan staple is yak butter tea.  It was fairly rich from the butter, but also a bit salty.  We also sampled the sweet tea, which was more of a sweet, milk-based tea, which I preferred over the butter tea.  Since we were in Tibet for five days, we had a chance to try some other staples, such as thukpa (Tibetan for noodle), served with, of course...yak! Not to be confused with shomday, which is a traditional breakfast food consisting of fried rice with raisins and mixed with a yak milk-curd yogurt.  It was on the sweet side, but the yogurt offered a nice tang.  We didn't get a chance to try tsampa, which we saw many of the religious pilgrims consuming.  Tsampa is roasted barley flour mixed with butter tea to make a porridge.  However, we did try out the local beers, Lhasa Beer and Hans.  They left much to be desired.
We did come across a little bakery called Bread Talk, where they were baking fresh breads and pastries.  Despite items being listed in Chinese and English, no one spoke a lick of English, which made ordering coffee a bit difficult.  Luckily, the pastries were self-serve.  Mom & Dad tried their raisin bread, while Justin & I tried a pastry filled with a chocolate mousse.  They were both really tasty, and we were hoping to pick up some goodies for the train, but they didn't open early enough.  The one item Justin really wanted to try was the Yam Tornado...mostly because it came with a warning (see photo).

Once we were back in Beijing, we made our way to the Nanluoguxiang hutong.  It's a cool little neighborhood with an eclectic mix of old buildings, filled with new hip bars and shops.  The streets were bustling with locals, and there were plenty of walk-up windows dishing out a variety of hand-held snacks and drinks.  Since we hadn't really had lunch, we were ready for a snack, so we decided to try churros with chocolate sauce and soft serve.  That's right...that's not whipped cream on those churros, it's soft serve.  I was expecting it to just be vanilla, but it had a slight coconut flavor to it.  The churros were warm and crisp, and tasted great with the soft serve.

For dinner, we made our way to Hatsune, a great sushi restaurant.  The fish was so fresh that the spines on the uni shell were still moving when it was served.  Our favorite roll had spicy salmon and spicy tuna on the inside, and shaved bonito on top.  The smokiness of the bonito was a great complement to the spiciness of the fish.  I'm a sucker for a good salmon skin handroll, and Hatsune did not disappoint with their version in the form of a maki roll.  Inside was the crispy salmon skin along with some smoked salmon and cucumber, all rolled up and topped with with raw salmon.  Now if I can just find a sushi bar in DC that will make that for me...

The next night, we met up with mom & dad for a little complimentary happy hour at their hotel, followed by dinner at GL Cafe, a 24-hour "diner", serving up Cantonese-style food.  The stand-out dishes were the bbq pork, the spicy head-on shrimp, and the ma po tofu.

After our day trip out to the great wall, we ended our day by dining at Made in China.  Here we ordered hand-pulled noodles with pork belly, scallion pancakes with pork, and eggplant for our vegetable.  The noodles were great with the crispy bits of pork belly.  I could've done without the scallion pancakes though.  I had envisioned them as being topped with ground pork and a delicious sauce, but instead, they were essentially stuffed with a pork patty.  They were a bit heavy for me.  But the eggplant was delicious; cooked in a hot pot with a tasty sauce.

On our last full day in Beijing, we went out with a bang.  We started with lunch at Pass By Bar in the Nanluoguxiang hutong.  We'd passed by it before, and their variety of beers caught our eyes.  They have a nice little courtyard, and tons of entertaining posters hanging around the space.
My favorite is that one in the middle that says, " Work is for people that don't know how to enjoy drinking beer."  They had several refrigerator cases full of beer from all over the world.  We grabbed a couple, along with a lunch of tempura, spicy beef stir fry, and Thai curry.
To continue on our quest for tasty beer (after drinking all the local brews), we searched long and hard for Great Leap Brewery, a craft brewery tucked away in the hutong.  After seemingly walking in circles, Justin's internal GPS honed in on the hops, and got us there.  We were greeted by Liz, a Seattle native, that takes care of all their marketing.  We settled in at the bar, and opted for 2 samplers, so we could taste 8 of their 15 beers.
The hands-down favorite was the chai masala stout.  It had the malty, roasty taste of a stout that you would expect, but the distinct spiciness of the chai masala.  We each ordered a pint, and snacked on some ma la peanuts, the Chinese version of bar nuts.  These peanuts were toasted with some dried chilis and Sichuan peppercorns to give them some spice and tingly deliciousness.  This is another thing we're determined to recreate, so be on the lookout for a recipe.  They're getting ready to open a 2nd location, which will be a bigger brewpub that will also serve up food.

We couldn't leave Beijing without having more Peking duck.  We met Mom & Dad at Da Dong, which came highly recommended to us by several people.  As on our first night in Beijing, the duck was served with thin, crepe-like pancakes, along with plum sauce, green onions, and cucumber.  Considering Beijing is the birthplace of Peking duck, it pains me to say that I've had better here in the US.

But our trip really wouldn't be complete without a visit to the Wanfujing Night Market, where you can find an assortment of bugs on sticks, fried for your eating pleasure.  There isn't much to say about it, so I'll just let the photos speak for themselves...
That's right...centipedes, scorpions, seahorses, starfish, squid, snakes, lizards, tarantulas, and sparrows were all available to eat.  Now those were the more unusual offerings.  They did have more normal items, like candied fruits, tofu, and meats.

Justin couldn't resist the small scorpions on a stick though, and he was the only brave one in the bunch to indulge.  The 3 small scorpions were fried twice, and seasoned with secret hobo spices.  He said they tasted like fried chicken and over cooked shrimp.
Needless to say, he walked away from the night market without getting sick.

It was an exciting journey, eating our way across this huge nation.  We sampled yak on the roof of the world, ate fresh fish from the sea, and ended our adventures with appetizing arachnids.  In true Chinese fashion, we ate everything with tails except coins, everything with legs but tables and chairs, everything in the water but a boat, and everything that flies except a plane.

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