“I’m an alien. I’m a legal alien…” – the words of the Sting song get stuck in my head as I read the sign in the lift as it climbs to the 21st floor in Shane & Shan’s apartment. Of course I have never gone to the local Jiang Tai police to register but I got to buy bulk ammo online and I’m confident enough that a combination of my valid visa, Irish passport and visiting relatives status would get me by if I was challenged but the notice is a reminder that I’m a guest in China and there for as long as the authorities deem fit. My friend and I never had such a problem with our Visas New Zealand. We had been there two months back and without any hindrances had got our visa’s by applying them online.
This was my seventh time back to Beijing in less than two years and the city has well and truly gotten under my skin. This time my visit was part business, part catching up with Shane, Shan and my grandson. By late Friday night I had a slew of business meetings out of the way and it was clear that we would have little energy for sight-seeing in the languid heat of a Beijing summer. Those who have any kind of air-conditioning tend to stay indoors during the hottest part of the day and surface outside for a walk or an evening meal when the temperature drops to a bearable level. But of course I’m not a local, I’m a mad Irish woman. So each day, around the time that Dermot went down for his mid-day nap, I would don a pair of runners and take off on foot in the neighbourhood of Chaoyang, wandering without purpose or target until I had clocked up about 10 km.
It’s a wonderful way to soak up the feel of this suburb of the city. One minute I was in the upmarket Indigo shopping mall, the next strolling through Jiang Tai market where stall-holders played cards and mahjong in the listless afternoon and the occasional shopper picked over the exotic range of vegetables and fruits. Women on stools outside their hutong homes called to me in Chinese to ask where I was from as their washing flapped in the light breeze. In 798 Art District the young middle class girls flaunted their designer clothes and a five year old switched seamlessly from Chinese to English as she chatted to her Beijing Daddy about how he had lived longer in China than her Australian mother (“don’t be silly Daddy. I can’t do gan bei. That means “dry glass” and I can’t drink my water that fast.” Dermot in four years time I thought to myself. A citizen of the world.
At one point I wandered off the beaten track towards the eastern perimeter of Beijing, facing only fields, scrublands and a railway line. It always astonishes me that in a city of 20 million people you can find yourself suddenly alone, no skyscrapers or even houses in your field of vision. And then you round a corner and your way is blocked by a half completed apartment complex that seems to have sprung from nowhere. But the canny locals have carved a makeshift path around the perimeter through tumbledown walls and fences and even planted a small kitchen garden. There’s something in the Chinese psyche that finds a way around everything.
Later, at around 5.30 pm each evening, we go out for dinner. Shane and Shan might not miss the heat or air quality in Beijing when they return to Ireland but they will certainly miss the wonderful choice of restaurants within 20 minutes walk of their apartment. As the city has stretched its tentacles out to what was a working class suburb just inside the 4th ring road when Shane moved in four years ago, up-market chain restaurants have opened branches offering great value and quality. Typically a meal for the three of us plus Dermot costs around €40 to €50 including drinks. We ate surrounded by other families – usually young couples with their one precious child and the husband’s parents. We ran into several neighbours from the apartment block all of whom stopped to chat and compare their offspring with ours noting their respective ages, size. development and even their number of teeth.
On Saturday night we ate in a Korean place – IKI BBQ Dining Bar – with marinated meats cooked at our table in a stylish setting. There are four IKI branches in Beijing including one I’ve visited before in Sanlitun. This one is even nicer and they do a great range of Belgian beers to complement the food.
Sunday it was off to a Middle 8th – a Yunnan restaurant that has opened recently in Indigo Mall, one of a small chain that delivers what it promises, typical Yunnan cuisine. This region is going right up in my estimation. It’s food is spicy but lighter in touch than Sichuan or Hunan cuisine. One of the dishes was “Black Three Chops” which Wei Wei had taught me to make at our last Chinese lesson. I will blog that soon.
On Monday Shane was travelling on business so Shan, Dermot and I went to my old favourite Yuxiang Kitchen Sichuan Restaurant in Lido Square. This is the restaurant where I first tasted the Sichuan Dry-fried Green Beans that led me to starting the blog. We always have green beans when we go there and they do a chilli-free version which Dermot loves. This time we also had a Sichuan take on crispy chilli beef with cumin, sichuan pepper and long green chillies and also goose slow-cooked with strips of mandarin peel, bamboo root and chilli. Figuring out both of those recipes is now on my to do list for the blog. The goose recipe had me dancing a jig with excitement at the flavours.
And then, all to soon, it was Tuesday morning and time for me to head off on my own to Hong Kong. Id’ gotten used to my mornings with Dermot, him clattering around with his cheeky sense of humour, playing silly games with me, nattering on in his version of Chinese with many words now intelligible to his parents if not to me, pulling out books and clambering up to snuggle beside me on the sofa so that I would tell him “Guess how much I love you” or scare him with Red Riding Hood’s wolf (“grandma” has become “nai nai” in our version) or Boris. Every arrival to see him casts the shadow of the inevitable parting but that just makes the experience of time with him all the more intense.
So I was off at the crack of dawn to catch a plane which sat on the runway in Beijing for two and a half hours before takeoff without any explanation. I arrived in Hong Kong late yesterday afternoon and, by the time I had taken three MTR trains to reach my hotel in Mong Kok, I was disoriented by the change of pace and culture. Where once Hong Kong had seemed more western and familiar with its colonial exoticism now it felt strange – the Chinese characters the same, the sounds so different; young people forming orderly queues for trains reading their Samsung phones while they walk like a scene from “Her”; pedestrians stopping at traffic lights; cars, taxis and even bikes stopping at traffic lights; fresher air and freer internet and dim sum everywhere.
When I had regrouped I took the MTR over to Hong Kong Island and walked from Admiralty Station in search of Ding Tai Fung in Causeway Bay. I discovered very quickly why locals don’t walk any distance at this time of year, they hop taxis or cars to avoid the humidity and criss-crossing streets by stairs and walkways. However I had picked a night when about 300,000 cheerful young students had taken to the streets in a pro-democracy march and I seemed to be the only one walking against them. But you can’t keep a hungry woman from her xiao long bao and the good humoured protesters and helpful young policemen made a little space for me to get through.
Today was a day for business meetings but when your meetings are held high in the buildings with some of the best views of Hong Kong and lunch is Dim Sum in the China Club in the old Bank of China Building styled on a traditional tea house in Shanghai , it somehow doesn’t feel like work. I ended the afternoon sitting on the terrace of Isola in the IFC building enjoying the view of Victoria Harbour and sipping a Green Dragon cocktail in honour of our own little year of the dragon child Dermot before wandering back to Mong Kok as night fell and the streets came alive with food stalls.
Victoria Harbour rivals Sydney Harbour in its beauty and, at that very moment, my daughter Claire was preparing to board a plane from Sydney to join me here in the morning, one of those half daft things we scattered families do to get to spend a few days together. At the weekend she and I will travel up to Beijing and her Dad across from ireland so that for just two days we will all be together.
Every reunion casts the shadow of the next goodbye but for tonight as I wait for Claire’s plane to land in Hong Kong, it is all about looking forward to a few special days.
Well hello there. I’m the pool of liquid on the sofa in Shane and Shan’s Beijing apartment trying my best to reconstitute myself into human form. I am back in China for a second time in as many months and it is hot, hot, hot. Summer has arrived with a vengeance. The temperature rises from 28 degrees C at 6 am to a humid high of 36C in the early afternoon and then slowly drops again overnight. Even now at 11 pm on a Saturday night it has barely slipped down to 32C and the timid air-conditioning in this 21st floor apartment is making little impact. I am nearly as well cooked as the slow-cooked pulled pork in the recipe below.
It is my fifth visit to Beijing in less than two years and I am reminded how definite the seasons are here – the cold, sharp winter followed by a short Spring, a long stifling summer and a short autumn. The locals adapt. “Beijing air-conditioning” is the preferred attire of the menfolk with their t-shirts rolled up to allow any breeze to cool their bellies. The women carry home enormous water melons tied up with string to eat in wedges or press into juice. The streets in this residential area are teeming with people and makeshift stalls have sprung up all over the place selling juices and yoghurt drinks. Girls in pretty short dresses carry floral umbrellas to ward off the sun’s rays. The skies are uncharacteristically clear of smog and a soft wind rustles the trees providing limited shade on the uneven sidewalks. In the evenings groups of every age gather in any open space they can find to perform exercises to music.
My visit this time is part business, part family reunion and it comes with the unparalleled pleasure of knowing my grandson Dermot is sleeping soundly in the next room. In the six weeks since I last saw him he has changed again from toddler to small boy. He has the same impish sense of humour but it now comes with a patter of conversation in Chinese and I’m struggling hard to learn new words as fast as he does. By our next reunion he will have will have long passed me out and he already understands what is said to him in Chinese and English.
I will fill you in on some of my dining experiences on this trip over the next few blog posts but first I owe it to my loyal followers to post the recipe for barbecued pulled pork which I have been working on for the last while.
When I started the blog in the Summer of 2012, my first original recipe was for Sichuan Seafood Duncannon Style, named for the little fishing village in the south east of Ireland where I like to spend my weekends. The recipe was subsequently included in Goodall’s A Modern Irish Cookbook, which was recently awarded “Best in the World” at the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards. This is a book of recipes from Ireland’s thriving food blogging community and represents what Irish home cooking looks like today in all its diversity. All the profits are donated to Cork Penny Dinners and Crosscare charities and it can still be downloaded from www.goodalls.ie for €2.99.
Anyway the excitement about the award reminded me that it was about time that I came up with a new recipe. I wanted to create one that would use the best of Irish ingredients, have at least a hint of Chinese flavours, be influenced in some way by Duncannon and be capable of being cooked on the Big Green Egg as, after all, that’s where I do most of my BBQ cooking. Cue Twitter to the rescue. My friend Sinead @BumblesofRice happened to mention the fabulous pulled pork she had tasted at Roches Bar in Duncannon during our #Funcannon June bank holiday weekend.
A tweet to Cindy @RochesBar was all it took to get hold of the recipe their chef Craig Power had used. He has recently returned from England to his family home in nearby village of Slade and he cooks his pork shoulder in the oven for 12 hours at low temperature using a five spice rub and Stonewell Craft Cider. Like all good chefs he doesn’t use measurements so the recipe below is my own interpretation of his basic idea adapted for the barbecue. Along the way I consulted other Twitter friends and BBQ experts – @bbq_joes and @RoomOutside – and of course I can never fire up the Egg without reading every relevant recipe from @AdamPerryLang – my favourite BBQ guru.
This day last week, Summer Solistice -夏至 or xia zhi in China- was the perfect day to try it out. It was a glorious day in Ireland and one that made me dream forward to when Dermot comes to live in Ireland and can roam free in the clear, fresh air of an Irish summer in our Duncannon garden.
So with thanks to my Twitter friends for the inspiration, here goes. This could be cooked on any covered BBQ using indirect heat. Just allow yourself plenty of marinading and cooking time, starting with rubbing the pork the night before and getting your BBQ on early the next morning for an evening dinner. It needs very little minding but including the time it takes to light the BBQ and rest the pork it takes about 11 hours. Believe me, it’s worth the wait, it tastes delicious.
Shananigans Duncannon Pulled Pork
- 1 bone in whole pork shoulder, fat scored
- 2 bottles Stonewell Craft Cider or any dry cider
- 4 star anise
- 1 cup apple juice
- ½ cup water
- 2 tbs light brown sugar
- 1 tbs salt
- Dash of soy sauce
- 3 tbs soft brown sugar
- 3 tbs Chinese five spice powder
- 1 tbs salt
- 1 tsp ground pepper
Cider Mop Spray
- ½ cup apple juice – I used Crinnaghtaun but any tart apple juice will work
- ½ cup water
- 2 tbs cider vinegar
- 6 tbs honey
- 2 tbs apple juice
- Hoisin sauce – any good quality bottled sauce or make your own from the recipe in the post for Big Green Egg Peking Style Roast Duck
- Hoisin sauce
- Homemade apple sauce – simply peel and chop a large cooking apple, add a tablespoon of water and sugar to taste. Simmer gently in a saucepan or cook for 5 minutes in a covered bowl in a microwave until softened. Stir before serving and adjust sweetness to taste.
- Chinese pancakes (the type used for wrapping Peking Duck which you will find in the freezer section of your local Asian market)
For the BBQ
- Oak lump wood
- Apple wood chips (optional)
The night before
- Combine the rub ingredients and mix well.
- Pierce the pork fat all over at about 3 cm intervals by inserting a small blade deep into the flesh and twisting aggressively to create small holes.
- If using the injection, mix the injection ingredients until the sugar is dissolved and inject the mix deep into the pork butt with an injection needle.
- Season the pork all over with the rub and massage it into the holes, reserving any leftover rub for later use.
- Let it stand in the fridge overnight, on a plate or in a covered bowl, to absorb the flavours.
Prepare the Big Green Egg
- Remove the pork from fridge and allow to come to room temperature while the Big Green Egg is heating up. Sprinkle with the remaining rub.
- Prepare your grill for indirect cooking using oak lumpwood and heat to 130 degrees c. Soak some apple wood chips if you have them and drain them and add to the Big Green Egg when it has come to temperature. Insert the plate setter with legs up and place a drip pan under the grill rack. Add a bottle of cider and the star anise to the drip pan.
- Place the pork butt, fat side up on the grill. Mix the ingredients for the cider mop spray and place in a spray bottle. After about 3 hours, when a nice crust has formed on the pork, spritz the pork with the spray. Spritz it at hourly intervals thereafter. Cook for about 6 hours before wrapping in foil.
Six hours later
- After 6 hours get two large sheets of foil and place them on top of one another. Remove the pork from the grill and place it on top of the foil. Combine the honey and apple juice for the wrap mix. Drizzle the wrap mix over the pork. Wrap up the pork to make a sealed parcel. Return it to the grill and cook for 2 hours or more until an instant read thermometer reads 88 degrees C.
- Remove the pork from the grill. Wrap the foil package in heavy towels and rest for at least one hour.
- Carefully unwrap the pork, reserving the honey and apple juices. Spritz with the apple spray. Drizzle the reserved juices and some hoisin sauce over the pork and return it to the grill for up to 30 minutes to tighten and carmelise the glaze
- Serve the whole shoulder of pork on a platter. Pull the melting, tender pork apart into shreds and chunks with two forks or “Bear Claws”. Serve with apple sauce, hoisin sauce and pancakes on the side and allow your guests to help themselves by spreading some of the sauces on each pancake and wrapping them around the pork shreds.
It’s Friday night and I have been watching Des Bishop on the Late Late Show, clips from his “Breaking China” series a welcome reminder of our time in Beijing.
Truth is I am homesick for my home from home. And this time it’s not just Shane, Shan, Dermot and his squdigy hugs that I’m missing. I’m feeling the loss of place and pace – the group of nai nai in the lobby of Shane’s 25 floor apartment block greeting me with warm smiles and a chorus of “ni ha0 nai nai Teng Teng” as they noticed me on my own seven months after they last saw me; the manic traffic and crochety taxi-drivers; the guy careering along on a rickshaw with a full suite of furniture on the back; the unexpected greenness of the city at this time of year, tall trees shading the streets and softening the skyline of endless high-rise buildings; the extraordinary ease with which you can find a quiet space in a park or by a lake in a city of 21 million people. And of course the food.
Yes I can understand why Des Bishop is staying on in China. Beijing and its people have a habit of getting under your skin and into your soul.
My thoughts stray back to this night last week. My qing jia mu, Shan’s Mama, arrived back from her holidays in a whirl of energy and good humour. She and a friend had spent a month in the village of Bama in Guangxi Province in the south of China. Bama is known as “longevity village” and Mama and her friend had rented a simple room there for about 400 RMB (€50) for the month.
She wanted to see us before we returned to Ireland so she took a train from Nanning, the capital of Guangxi. It took 31 hours and 28 minutes to reach Beijing South Station and she hadn’t had a sleeper or even a seat for the journey. Then she took several buses to cross the city. She arrived looking rested and refreshed. She had travelled light, with only a small back pack for her belongings and a bag of luscious, ripe mangoes from near the border with Vietnam, oozing golden juices. Dressed simply in a black tunic and cut off pants, with her hair cropped short by her own hand and her skin lightly tanned, she looked way younger than her years.
Bama Yao Autonomous County is an extraordinary place. It’s inhabitants are lean and fit and rarely suffer from ill-health. At last count there were 580 villagers over the age of 90 with the eldest aged 113. Their longevity is attributed to many factors – the breathtakingly clean air and water, the particular magnetic field of the earth where traditionally they went barefoot, their diet of mainly fruit and vegetables with only small amounts of meat, all eaten in moderation: the hemp or cannabis soup that is used locally; the way they shin up and down the steep hills of this very beautiful place.
Mama’s perceptions were interesting – she says the villagers do eat meat but in small quantities – fatty local pork which may help to lubricate their joints. They work hard at all ages. Every generation has their own chores and it’s not uncommon to see elders hard at work well into their nineties. She agrees that the hilly terrain keeps them mobile and nimble on their feet. A local saying goes “if not climb for one day you feel unfulfilled; if for two days, you feel anxious; for three days, you feel your body run sour”. They all have slim figures, she says, and as for the cannabis oil – it just makes you sleepy. Despite fears by some observers that the place is being overrun by tourists and will lose the very qualities that have made it such a healthy place, Mama says she didn’t see one westerner during her month there. She herself is a testament to the health-giving properties of the place. It seems literally to have renewed her.
The following day we all took off, including Mama, to a small village on the north eastern fringes of Beijing where Elvis, an American friend of Shane’s had organised a BBQ in the courtyard of a small hutong. Two families live in the four rooms that surround the traditional-style courtyard and, in return for a contribution to the rent, they allow Elvis organise his get togethers there on summer weekends. These “Grill Mates” events are a long-standing tradition. Elvis, has lived in Beijing for over 15 years and has been cooking on a grill for even longer so his reputation as a barbecue chef is well established .
Word of an upcoming Grill Mates spreads rapidly via We Chat among their wide circle and the crowd is a happy mix of Chinese, American, Canadian, Irish, English, Scottish and Welsh friends and relatives. There are babies about too. Elvis and his wife Dongue have a little boy, William, just six weeks older than Dermot. A little blond boy of seven months old, half English, half Scottish and the four month old baby son of Shan’s close friend Wei are the youngest guests. There is a multilingual older boy too conversing effortlessly with the daughter of the house. The toddlers find a whole new use for a pool table while the adults release their inner musician, discovering drum kits to play with and a guitar.
Everyone who attends contributes a small amount to cover the costs. The table is replenished regularly with bowls of pasta salad and coleslaw and the beer and wine flows freely. Elvis works away at the grill producing platter after platter of chicken pieces and slow-cooked pork while the man of the house leans over a traditional chuan’r grill and sizzles the lamb skewers with chilli and cumin so that they taste just like the street-food in Urumqi in Xinjiang Province. A large tray of sausage rolls appears, brought it seems by one of the few people in Beijing to make authentic British sausages. And finally, Elvis’ signature dish and excuse for many corny jokes – beer butt chicken – is ready to be devoured as the flesh melts away from the bones.
As the convivial conversation swirls around me in many accents of English and Chinese and the little ones get giddy with heady freedom in a contained space I begin to feel sad. Well happy-sad, the kind of rueful musings that come with recognising that the world your children inhabit with ease is so vastly different from the one in which they were raised; the kind of teariness that comes with the realisation that the holiday is about to come to an end and that the next time we will spend time with Dermot he will have changed again as he does so rapidly from baby, to toddler, to small boy; the kind of rush of emotion that makes you wish you could change everything but knowing that you wouldn’t change one iota, even if you could.
We all strive to live in the moment but sometimes it is easier to fully appreciate these special moments, created by the magic chemistry of good friends and families together, with the perspective of half a world of distance and a little time elapsed. As I sit here now a week on I can watch it all unfold in my minds eye without the overlay of anticipated partings and enjoy it once again.
Thank you Elvis and Dongue for your hospitality. Oh and by the way, you can expect to see a recipe for Beer Butt chicken on the Big Green Egg any week now on the blog.
Some random snapshots of the day are below.
Thank you for your patience kind readers as I indulge myself with a post a day for the nine days of my #NaiNaiVisit to Beijing. The trip is drawing to a close and normal slow-moving service with a post every week or two will resume shortly. But whatever about the rest of you, I’m hoping this series of posts will fix in my mind a special and gentle time with our grandson whose personality becomes more apparent with each passing day but who is still small enough to be always within sight when we are out and about – if we can keep up with him that is.
It’s been something of a toddler’s tour of Beijing as a result of his tender age. We haven’t made repeat visits to any of the major sights and we haven’t ventured far outside Beijing. There is a limit to how long a 15 month old can be kept entertained in the back of a taxi with no rear seat belts or baby seats.
Where he has been great is at tolerating our almost daily outings for lunch or dinner and joining in proceedings with gusto. It’s fun watching his reaction to foods he is tasting for the first time. We have kept the spicier foods away from him but he loves to try whatever we are having when we let him.
On Friday night we made a return visit to Yuxiang Kitchen – Yuxiangrenjia – at Lido Square, the Sichuan Restaurant that inspired me to start the blog in the first place and which I first wrote about here. There are now 14 branches of Yuxiang Kitchen in Beijing and six in Shanghai but this branch is just 10 minutes down the road from Shane & Shan’s apartment so it is our local.
At 6.30 pm on a Friday evening the place was teeming with young families, work groups and a party of Chinese tourists in celebratory banquet mode. Sichuan spices assailed our senses as we crossed the threshold. The noise levels were ferocious, the pace of service was brisk but none of this distracted Dermot from relishing his first encounter with Sichuan Green Beans. He dug in to the beans like a pro and also gobbled up jiaozi made with pork and Chinese chives and shrimp spring rolls. That’s my grandson 🙂
The food was even better than I remembered it from our first visit nearly two years ago. Apart from the dishes Dermot shared we also had
A cold noodle dish with chicken slices
Deep fried radish and shrimp cake
Spiced mu ‘er – a cold dish of cloud-eared fungus
A mushroom and octopus dish made with baby octopus, dried tea tree mushrooms and another type of long mushroom
Crispy duck breast
Chicken with fresh green and red chillies, garlic, ginger and bunches of fresh green Sichuan peppercorns that brought “mouth numbing” to a whole new level
Chilli beef made with long fresh green chillies (the milder ones), dried red chillies, black beans (dou chi), ginger, garlic onions, coriander stalks and leaves and Sichuan pepper.
This time we didn’t order the fish heads in boiling oil.
This was accessible food that packed a powerful Sichuan punch. It may not be quite as authentic as our hotpot meal the other night but I will be a very happy amateur Chinese cook if I can figure out how to replicate those beef and chicken dishes at home.
As Shan says we “eat like soldiers” when Dermot is with us, not prolonging our conversation or lingering past his bed time. As we left, sated and mouths on fire, I was still ogling the dishes being served up to other diners and planning what to eat on my next visit.
The total cost of our meal for four including beers and tea was 526 rmb or €63.
As a postscript, Shan was amused and bemused to discover that when I googled Yuxiang Kitchen to try and find their website, one of the first things to pop up is a photo of her and Shane that I took there on the night in July 2009 when they revealed to us she was pregnant with Dermot, such is the power of the internet to capture moments for posterity.
The English wooden sign on the door simply says Yun Nan Restaurant Bar but Shan tells me the Chinese characters read Feng Huang Zhu – which translates as Phoenix Bamboo. It is an unprepossessing place from the outside, one of the many little hutong houses just around the corner from Drum and Bell Towers and a short walk from Hou Hai lake.
I love this area of Beijing. It is touristy but oozing with character and if I blot out the tackier souvenir shops, the traffic jams of tourist rickshaws and the swarm of Chinese tourists with matching check caps following their guide I can easily imagine myself as a child forty years ago chasing down the alleyways on bicycles as described by YiYun Li in Kinder than Solitude. It also is home to my favourite coffee shop in Beijing, the tiny sitting room that is Excuse Cafe on Bell Tower Square.
Pushing in the door at lunchtime on a sunny May day, we entered an oasis of tranquillity from the raucous street outside. A rippling water feature adorns the entrance hall complete with waterfalls, a turtle and fish which enthralled Dermot. A simple dining room is laid out with stools and wooden tables. Lanterns, hanging lamps and Yunnan artwork transported us to that southern province of China near the border with Laos, Vietnam and Thailand. Only one other table was taken at that hour of the day so the owners focussed on giving us the best of service.
This was another of Shan’s Groupon finds. She knew Yunnan was my second favourite cuisine even though I haven’t yet visited Dali or elsewhere in the province. But we did have a great Yunnan meal at Dali Courtyard in Beijing two years ago which I wrote about here.
The beautiful province of Yunnan has the largest diversity of plant life in China. Its is closer in style to Thai and Vietnamese cooking than to the food of other parts of China. The food is hot and spicy with a focus on natural produce, like beautiful wild mushrooms foraged from the mountains and unique varieties of plants plucked from the countryside. Herbs are used in abundance especially lemon grass, coriander and mint. Sauces are lighter in consistency and because the quality of the raw ingredients is so good there is less emphasis on coatings – the meat, fish and vegetables are allowed to be the stars of the show.
When Shane first came to China seven years ago he spent time in Dali and almost settled there. He mused today that if he had his life might have taken a very different path. Oh the unknowing choices we make as we go through life.
Shan’s deal entitled us to a set menu. The owner looked dubiously at the three lao wei (foreigners) she was with and warned her some of the dishes were very spicy. She replied “bring it on”.
What followed was an extraordinary feast for the senses, especially the eyes and the tastebuds. The dishes he served us were:
Cold set jelly made from peas and drizzled with a spicy sauce
A garlicky mint leaf salad
Yunnan chilli beef laced with chillies – this is a recipe I have to track down
Stir-fried bitter green leaves – these didn’t taste bitter to me, just light and delicate
Cold rice noodles with shredded vegetables
Black three mince – a warm minced pork dish with preserved vegetables
Chicken stewed with whole small chillies, whole cloves garlic, cardamon, star anise and other spices I couldn’t recognise – another dish of stunning flavour
Tofu baked in banana leaf with spices and chilli
A barbecued whole fish stuffed with coriander and lemon grass and scattered with spring onion and chilli – I far prefer fish served this way. The skin had a crunchy texture and the flesh had absorbed the flavour from the herbs neutralising any muddy odours. It had been barbecued on a banana leaf which added to the aromatic flavours.
Bowls of rice.
We washed down this superb meal with glasses of warm water as it was too early in the day for beer. Each element of the meal was a success and the dishes all complemented one another. Dermot loved the pea jelly, fish and rice noodles and the owners fed him wedges of satsuma for dessert.
The total cost of the entire meal for four adults was 199 rmb or about €24 right in the centre of Beijing.
We walked the perimeter of Hou Hai lake afterwards, enjoying the peace once we escaped the busy tourist strip and noticing families enjoying a way of life that hasn’t changed much in 100 years despite the city growing upwards and outwards around it. And as we walked I hatched a dream to learn enough Mandarin to visit Yunnan and take some cooking lessons there. I will do it too… someday.
Every now and again I have a meal in China that pushes me outside my comfort zone. I shouldn’t be surprised by that. Many travellers to China find the food challenging at times, the myriad tastes and textures that Chinese people find interesting because of their “mouth feel”, the range of body parts considered edible and the appeal of bony things from which they like to suck the flesh.
But I consider myself well used to the food at this stage, at least when it comes to eating in Beijing and I’m usually relatively unfazed by what is put in front of me. Yet inevitably, on one day on each visit, there’s a moment that screams at me “give me steak and chips…”
Yesterday was that day. Shan knows Sichuan is my favourite Chinese cuisine so with another one of her Groupon type deals she tracked down a Sichuan seafood hotpot restaurant called San Zhi Er. (Three Ears). This is one of a popular chain of Sichuan hotpot restaurants in Chengdu in Sichuan Province and elsewhere in China. There are two outlets in Beijing.
If you’ve been following the blog for a while you will know that Sichuan Province is deep in the centre of China. “Don’t be afraid of chilli heat” is a local saying so expect ma la – mouth-numbing hot and spicy food. Typical dishes that I have cooked for the blog include fish-fragrant pork and aubergine, MaPo Dofu (tofu), Dan Dan noodles and twice-cooked pork. Boiled fish is in chilli oil is also a regional specialty. Sichuan peppercorns add the distinctive mouth-numbing character to the food which once tasted is not forgotten.
We arrived at San Zhi Er around 5 pm just as the restaurant was opening for dinner. We had walked through sticky afternoon heat from the Blue Zoo – the Ocean Aquarium near Worker’s Stadium. We lifted Dermot’s buggy up two flights of stairs and into the large dining room with rows of booths, each with its own hotpot burner sunk into the middle of the table, a hook on the panel outside for aprons to stop you making a mess of yourself while cooking and eating and a trolley for the ingredients to be added to your hotpot.
Dermot was cranky from the heat, lack of a nap and a head cold and not very enthusiastic about being confined to a high chair that was too big for him and oh so tempting to escape from. Believe you me a busy hot pot restaurant with trolleys laden with fish, meat and vegetables that he just longed to push about, waiters carrying steaming bowls of hotpot to the tables and a button at each table to switch on the burners is not an ideal environment for an adventurous 15 month old boy. But as always in China the friendly waiters never baulked at a toddler running amok. They got down on their hunkers to chat to him and he, charming as always with strangers, repayed their kindness with shy smiles, giggles and high fives.
As we took it in turns to attempt to corral him I surveyed my surroundings. Over in one corner the staff were lined up and, in sing song voices, reciting their motivational mantra about good service before the customers arrived. As each new guest came to the reception desk, a call of welcome was relayed up the stairs to one waiter after an other and carried all the way back to the kitchen.
In a cordoned off area a buffet of fresh fruit was laid out including honeydew melon, watermelon and orange slices. Along side it were dishes of condiments and sauces to make up your own preferred dipping sauce for your hot pot. I chose douban jiang chilli paste mixed with sesame paste, sichuan pepper oil, fried garlic, spring onions and a little soy – a taste combination reminiscent of the topping on dan dan noodles. Black vinegar is another option for the base and you can make your sauce as mild or spicy as you like.
Back at the table some starters arrived – the first was Husband and Wife Beef Slices – Fuqi Fei Pian – this was made in the traditional way with thinly sliced beef and beef lung treated with vinegar and seasoned with chili oil. As so often with Chinese dishes, there is a romantic story told of its origin. Guo Zhaohua and his wife sold their beef slices by trundling along with a small cart on the street. No one could resist the spicy smell and people liked the food so much they gave it the name Husband and Wife Lung Slices. I’ve had this dish in China Sichuan, Dublin made with just the sliced beef so I knew what delicious flavours to expect. The texture of the lung was new to me but not unpleasant. There were also sesame pancakes rolled into buns, bashed cucumber and slices of spicy pear.
Two dishes of hotpot stock came to our table – a spicy Sichuan stock flavoured with douban jiang, star anise and chillies and a milder white soup flavoured with tomatoes. They already contained chunks of river fish on the bone with the skin still on which had been cooked in the stock. To be honest I’m not all that keen on boiled or steamed river fish in China. To me it always tastes muddy and I found picking the flesh out with chopsticks from the bones and skin a bit of an ordeal.
Once we had eaten as much as we could of the fish, other items were brought along to be cooked by us in the hotpot. They included thinly sliced beef streaked with fat, triangular wedges of tofu, hard boiled quail’s eggs, pressed fish paste, enoki mushrooms, chunks of wo sun (the asparagus like vegetable from Shan’s home-cooked dinner), various green leafy vegetables – spinach, Chinese cabbage and the like – duck blood set in a red jelly that turned brown and into a consistency more like liver when cooked and finally tripe.
I could handle all of it apart from the tripe. I convinced myself that the duck’s blood wasn’t that far removed from the concept of Irish black pudding. I picked away at the fish and inhaled the rush of Sichuan spice from the steaming stock. But the greyish black tripe with a surface like a tongue gone wrong… nah… I couldn’t hack it despite its inoffensive taste… and I defy anyone to get a pretty picture of it.
So I have to admit to myself that while I love the kick of Sichuan spices, I have a way to go before I can manage the more far out ingredients that I am likely to encounter if I ever immerse myself in Sichuan Province.
All the same, if you ever find yourself in Beijing or Chengdu and want to try a genuine Sichuan hotpot, I would recommend San Zhi Er just don’t be afraid of the chilli heat or some of the other strange ingredients that might arrive at your table.
The total cost of our meal was 320 rmb or about €38 for four people including four beers and lots of glasses of warm water.
The Blue Zoo is also well worth a visit, especially if you are visiting Beijing with young children. They will enjoy the performing seal show. We were the only westerners in attendance yesterday and a source of fascination to the local grandparents and parents. They all want to know where Dermot comes from as he seems exotic to them. The walk through tunnels under the “sea” included sharks and real life “mermaids” (but mercifully not in the same tank) as well as some stunningly beautiful but deadly poisonous Lion Fish.
So it was a case of two ways with fish yesterday and I’ve included some photos of the living kind to take the bare look off that tripe!
This is how the blog began – with Shan teaching me how to cook authentic Chinese dishes at home. Looking back at my very first post in July 2012, it all seems such a long time ago. At first it was a way of getting to know my daughter-in-law to be as well as a gaining a deeper understanding of her culture. Since then this blog has developed in all sorts of unexpected ways. While Shan got diverted by her pregnancy with our first grandchild and the early months of being a mother, I went on to explore Chinese cuisine in cookery books, restaurants and any classes I could find.
There’s nothing like watching a Chinese home cook in action though and last night (Tuesday) it was back to basics and to Shan cooking in her tiny, dimly lit Beijing kitchen, rustling up a meal to rival any we have eaten so far on the trip, while I took notes and snapped amateur photos on my iPhone.
Here is what she cooked in the order she cooked it:
Duck soup made with the carcass of the duck we had in XiHeYaYuan on Saturday night, flavoured with dried bamboo, dried tea tree mushrooms and dried seaweed (kelp). Nothing ever gets wasted in a Chinese kitchen and the same is true of eating out in restaurants. It is quite normal and acceptable to take home any leftovers and put them to good use.
A thick asparagus-like vegetable called wo sun sliced and stir-fried with the same kind of smoked pork served at our Hunan meal at Pindian on Monday night. Wo sun also featured in the XiHeYaYuan menu. It has a lovely translucent colour and delicate texture when cooked and absorbs the flavours of other elements of the dish. Hunan specialities such as the smoked pork can be hard to find even in Beijing. Shan is great at tracking down regional ingredients on line and having them delivered by courier from distant parts of China.
Stir-fried broccoli with garlic. This is one of my favourite side dishes back home as Shan had shown me how to prepare it over Christmas. It is a simple dish that adds colour and texture to a meal.
Long green chillies – la jiao – fried with slow-cooked pork shoulder left over from a joint given to Shan by her friend Wei. These chillies look like green versions of sweet long red peppers but they have a mild chilli taste less fiery than their smaller green cousins.
Xinjiang stir-fried rice noodles with celery, red and yellow peppers, cooked egg and some of the same left over pork. This is a typical dish from Shan’s home province. You can make it with what ever vegetables and left over meat you have to hand and spice it up to taste with Sichuan pepper, chilli oil and other seasonings.
Shan cooked everything on just three gas rings with one stockpot for the soup, a saucepan to boil the noodles, blanch the broccoli and wo sun and one wok. I took note of everything she did because needless to say there were no written recipes involved. I will do my best to recreate them and post the recipes when I get back home.
While she worked and I watched she chatted about her approach. As all good Chinese cooks do, she prepared all of her ingredients in advance, lining them up so that she could cook fast at the end. Her soup was on the go from early in the day but she only added salt for the last half hour of cooking. She cooked the lightest stir-fried dishes first and the rice-noodle dish last so as to avoid the need to clean the wok. Her approach to seasoning was entirely intuitive – taste and correct, taste and correct judging the spiciness of the green chillies for instance which can vary with every batch.
Shan was at pains to point out that there was nothing special about this meal. It is typical of the number and variety of dishes any home cook would prepare for four people, working with what is is season and using up any leftovers to hand.
We served all the dishes at the table at the same time and we ate them in sequence in our rice bowls as is the Chinese way, finishing with the soup. We washed it all down with a cheeky little Tall Horse Shiraz, cheap, cheerful, robust enough to complement the spicy food and a nice reminder of our giraffe encounters at Beijing Zoo on Monday.
Take a bow Shan and thank you for being my teacher.
I have to hand it to my daughter-in-law Shan. She keeps pushing out the boundaries when it comes to our dining experiences in Beijing – both geographically and in terms of the food. She has been trawling through the Chinese equivalent of Groupon for deals on line and reviews by Chinese diners to find places that might appeal to my ever-broadening tastes but that also serve dinner early and have high chairs for Dermot.
Last night’s excursion took us a 20 minute taxi ride further out of the city to Wangjing, a sub-district of Chaoyang and one of those new suburbs that has sprung up on the ever expanding perimeter of Beijing since the early 1990s. It is in the north east corner of the city just inside the 5th ring road. So many Koreans live there that it is known locally as Koreatown. The name translates as “View of Beijing” but you would be hard pressed to catch a glimpse of the city through the endless rows of sky scrapers. It is an unlikely place to find Hunan food but Shan had tracked down a restaurant called Pindian there that serves an authentic version of the cuisine.
Hunan is one of the steamy inland provinces of China, not as far west as Sichuan province. Its chefs and home cooks produce very hot, spicy, bold and colourful food for a hot and fiery people, with an emphasis on sourness. Local chefs use boiling, roasting and steaming to make dishes that are hot and sour, charred and mouth-numbing, fresh and fragrant, crispy and tender. The recipe for Chairman Mao’s Red-Braised Pork from my archives is a good example as is Hunan Style Crispy Chilli Beef.
Cookery writer Fuchsia Dunlop’s Revolutionary Cookbook is my bible of Hunan cooking and I get lost in the world she depicts of the birthplace of Chairman Mao and the exotic, spicy dishes created there. Ihave tried many of her recipes at home but, apart from a few recipes I learnt at Hutong Cuisine cookery school when I last visited Beijing, such as Hunan Steamed Fish, I have never tasted the food of this region while China.
I plan to get to Hunan Province some day but, like any capital city, Beijing is a melting pot of all regional cuisines and I was delighted to be getting the chance to taste the real thing here. I knew to expect it to be even spicier than Sichuan food but without the same addiction to numbing Sichuan pepper. Apart from that I had an open mind and I have one rule when eating out with Shan – try everything put in front of me at least once without asking questions.
Pindian was on the first floor of a modern block and was a large, well-lit room with tables designed to cater for family gatherings and private dining rooms off to one side. It’s layout with Chinese lanterns and double happiness pendants dangling from the ceiling was typical of thousands of family restaurants through the city and millions throughout the world. A large fish tank filled with enormous goldfish lined one wall and was ideal for distracting Dermot. Our table was at a window overlooking the suburban street as workers made their way home from the city.
The Groupon deal Shan had found included a set menu to which she added two other dishes so that Dermot would have something less spicy to eat.
To start with we were served a jug of warm and rather sweet corn juice and glasses of warm water and we ordered some Yangjing beers to go with them.
The first plate to arrive at our table was gan guo niu wa – a dish made with bullfrog and served sizzling at our table. Shan was surprised I had never eaten frog before, not even frogs legs in France. The meat was very tender with a consistency a little like chicken but lots of small bones to be dealt with. It was scattered with chillies, spring onions and peanuts. The flavour and cooking style was similar to the “drying pot” potato we had at our Peking Duck restaurant, XiHeYaYuan on Saturday night
The dish of wide flat rice noodles stir-fried with Chinese cabbage that was served next was a lovely light accompaniment to this and the other dishes that followed.
Sizzling beef with green chillies was lip-tingling hot and the star of the night. The chillies – hang jiao – used are spicy hot but full of flavour.
Shan had ordered dried radish with smoked pork which is a regional specialty but what was served involved equally tasty dried green beans. I loved this dish. The smoked pork is bought part cooked, thinly sliced and tossed with the dried vegetable, mashed whole garlic, ginger, chillies and spring onion. And the good news is that Shan has ordered some of this smoked pork on line so that we can try out a variation of this dish at home.
Steamed whole fish came in a soy sauce and facing me with doleful eyes. I fear I will never get fond of the appearance of whole fish but the flavour was good. It was served splayed so that you could remove all the flesh from the bones without ever having to turn it over as that would be unlucky – it symbolises a fishing boat turning over in water.
A free range chicken was chopped into pieces and cooked in a rich broth flavoured with ginger, spring onion and other spices. In northern China it is typical to remove the meat from the soup with your chopsticks and eat it boiled rice before drinking the broth at the end of the meal as a soup. It was delicious.
A plate of little deep-fried buns rounded off the meal. I wasn’t sure whether they would be sweet or savoury when I bit into them – one of the hazards of eating out in China. In fact they were like sweet little donuts.
With the Groupon deal the total cost of the meal for the four of us was 242RMB or about €28. By any standards this was excellent value.
And now, if asked about Hunan food, I can say “I’m partial to a bit of bullfrog myself”.
I remember my own first trip to Dublin Zoo, petting the donkey at the Children’s Corner and posing at the Wishing Seat in a little pink coat to have my photo taken. I can’t have been more than four years old.
When Shane and Claire were young we had a family membership and we used to visit often. On Shane’s first visit, at about the age Dermot is now, he had blonde hair, chubby cheeks reddened from teething and spent much of his time dozing in his buggy. His second visit was to see Ming Ming the Giant Panda on loan from Beijing Zoo. Maybe something seeped into his subconscious that day that led him to China years later and to calling his business Enter the Panda.
When Dermot was in Dublin in January I took him on for a walk in Phoenix Park and I was sorely tempted to introduce him to the Zoo but I resisted, knowing his parents would want to share that moment. Today he turned 15 months old and Shane and Shan decided to repay my restraint by taking us to Beijing Zoo.
We were joined by Shan’s cousin Jing Jing, who had come to Ireland for their wedding, and her two year old son Xiao Jiu. (An aside here – Xiao Jiu means “Little Nine” and he is so called because nine is the largest number and signifies longevity. He was born in the Year of the Rabbit and the Chinese have a saying “as short as a rabbit’s tail”. His pet name is intended to bring good fortune and counteract the risk of a short life because of his birth year. Dermot’s pet name is Teng Teng which symbolises the wavy motion of a dragon’s leap as he was born at the tail end of the Year of the Dragon). Jing Jing greeted me with hugs, smiles and delight at meeting again so soon. She is one of my favourites in our new extended Chinese family.
Beijing Zoo is located in the west of the city close to the northwest corner of the 2nd Ring Road beside the Beijing Zoo Station on Line 4 of the Subway. We stepped through its gates from a wide and noisy city street lined with skyscrapers into a leafy oasis of calm – another one of those unexpected green lungs in this city full of surprises. The Zoo covers about 220 acres and has over 450 species of animals. It is laid out like formal Chinese gardens with dense groves of willow and bamboo trees, a river, streams and grassy stretches making it a pleasant, well-shaded spot to spend a sunny day. On a Monday the place was not too crowded and all the visitors seemed to be Chinese apart from us, parents and grandparents with young children.
It has been a zoo in some shape or form since 1906 but by the end of the second world war had only 13 monkeys and one old, blind emu in residence. It’s renewal was interrupted again by the Cultural Revolution but it has developed again rapidly in recent years and is now home to several rare and endangered species including of course the Great Panda.
For the most part the animal enclosures look well kept and the animals content with their lot. One polar bear looked rather depressed turning in circles but may just have been waiting his turn for the swimming pool next door where another was turning tricks with a metal oil drum and using it to create a makeshift shower. Indeed some of the toys for the animals to play on seemed a bit bizarre to our western eyes but the monkeys were very partial to their rocking deer.
The star attraction, the Giant Pandas, were all having their morning nap when we passed through their enclosure prompting Shane to consider renaming his company “Enter the Giraffe” but that doesn’t have quite the same ring to it. Still we got to see lions and tigers and bears as well as giraffes, zebras, rhinos and monkeys. Dermot was just old enough to appreciate them, staring in wide-eyed amazement at their size and their antics. He was especially taken with the fast moving young cheetahs and the many multicoloured ducks and birds including flamingoes and cranes. We even discovered a bird named for Gao Shan – a Himalayan Griffon to be precise. Watching the ducks and swans kept him happiest of all and I liked to think he remembered feeding the ducks with me in Stephen’s Green in January.
There are plenty of cafes inside the grounds and we found one improbably named the Australian Style Cafe – this seemed to be because it had a few boomerangs on its walls. Still it served decent coffee and edible Chinese takeaway which we ate outside in the afternoon sun.
Beijing Zoo is definitely worth a visit. Jing Jing has an annual family pass which covers it and other Beijing attractions. Shane and Shan plan to follow suit, in keeping with family tradition.
Day 2 of #NaiNaiVisit and I’m fighting off jet-lag, falling asleep at odd moments in the middle of the day, drifting off on the sofa as soon as we get back from dinner and awake writing blog posts at 2.30 am. Between naps I brushed up on my culinary Chinese from Sybaritica. I love John’s posts from the far reaches of Northern Canada. I’ve learnt a lot about Chinese food from him and his Culinary Chinese blog posts are an invaluable aid to eating out here.
For breakfast today we had jiam bing – a Bejing pancake folded and layered with spices which Shan picked up from the local shop for a few kuai, the equivalent of about 6oc. Later we took a leisurely stroll around the neighbourhood here in Upper East Beijing. It’s easy to forget you are in a city of 21 million people in these tree-lined streets and, on a sunny Spring Sunday, the local park could be any suburban park in the world, the sheen of greenness not yet parched by the summer sun and trees lining the skyline wherever you look.
We had a quick lunch in Element Fresh near the Lido Centre. My ex-patriate son sometimes has a longing for an English/Irish/American breakfast but the quality and value is patchy in these parts. I stuck with Asian options. The Lido Centre is where we had the Chinese meal that led me to starting the blog with this post. More recently the Lido Hotel has become notorious for being the temporary home to the Chinese relatives of those on board the doomed flight MH370. They have left now, their questions about the fate of their relatives unanswered, and the security detail has gone too.
Shan’s heat-seeking ability to find interesting restaurants led us to Taikiku for an early dinner – a Japanese fusion restaurant in Dongfang Donglu about 30 minutes walk from us in the Chaoyang District. I can only find one English language review on line in That’s Beijing.
We were joined by Shane and Shan’s friend Carl, himself an occasional restaurant reviewer, and led across slate steps past a striking water feature to our private wood-panelled dining room where two Korean style BBQs were sunk into the dining table with seating for the six of us including Dermot in a high chair.
Shan ordered in Chinese and the staff entered the orders on iPads which transmitted them straight to the kitchen. The option we went for was “all you can eat” from the a la carte menu, with a few of the more expensive items being out of bounds. The owner imports his own Waygu beef from Australia and the restaurant has earned a reputation locally for the quality of its meats and sashimi.
The dishes came in waves so fast that I found it hard to note them all. They included:
Vietnamese spring roll with avocado and shrimp, Waygu beef sashimi, sashimi of tuna and scallops and later sea urchin, all of first grade quality, two salads – one of avocado and asparagus, the other of organic vegetables, a stir-fried vegetable dish and a kimchee hot pot brimful of seafood and soba noodles.
On the BBQ at the table Shan and I cooked whole fresh shrimp, platters of Waygu Beef, beef tongue, oysters and – a first for me – pork intestines chewy, slightly aromatic and tasty. The Waygu beef came thinly sliced so that you could cook it in a few moments or in long strands that you could cut into bite size pieces with a scissors before cooking. The cuts we had were short-rib and dragon cut (inside skirt).
Dermot’s favourite dish was grilled eel although he was partial to the noodles from the kimchee hot pot too.
All of this came washed down with seemingly endless quantities of sake, green tea and Japanese beer. Despite the quantity of food it was all very light and easy to digest because we had no starchy dishes such as rice or potatoes.
The bill for all five of us was 1262 RMB or about €145. There was no charge for Dermot as he is under three and, bless him, he is remarkably patient at adult dinners once you allow him join in the food and the conversation and explore a bit at the end.
As a footnote I had my first experience of a Japanese toilet there this evening with heated seats, jets that can be directed at the touch of the button to various parts of the anatomy with controlled pressure and a built in dryer – a far cry from some of my more traditional Chinese toilet experiences but that’s a whole other blogpost.
While Shane and Shane took Dermot home to bed by taxi, we walked home through the balmy suburban streets and I soaked up the atmosphere of neon lit restaurants, Sunday evening bustle and men fishing by flashlight on the banks of a murky canal. Because I had being studying Sybaritca’s blog post on the Mandarin characters for Beijing, I seemed to see them wherever I looked in the names of restaurants and hotels. Bei Jing – Northern Capital – a city that works its way under your skin and into your heart.