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.
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.
Hello lovely readers and a big thank you for the warmth of your response to me finally getting to meet my lovely grandson Dermot.
I’m going to try and keep you up to date on #Shananigansontour with brief posts most days to capture impressions of this trip while they are fresh in my mind.
We finally got here late Sunday afternoon after a few hours delay at Heathrow as a result of sandstorms and heavy winds in Beijing the previous day which had delayed our incoming Air China flight. The upside was that the air had cleared and for once I got to see the city on a stunningly beautiful spring day.
We are staying at East Hotel Beijing which opened just a few months ago down the road from where Shane and Shan live. This part of Beijing, in the north east of the city just outside the 4th ring road and close to the airport, is developing rapidly. When Shane moved in a few years ago it was a relatively sleepy outer suburb (well as sleepy as Beijing ever gets), with a neighbourhood feel and local shopkeepers who greet him warmly to this day.
Now, new developments are springing up all over the place and the city is once more extending its reach. East Hotel is all clean lines and modern high tech fittings – an Apple lover’s paradise of USB sockets, excellent wifi and even an integrated iPod touch with an app on which you can order room service. The staff are warm and friendly, young and casually dressed in teeshirts and hoodies. It’s a far cry from the rundown, older Chinese hotel we stayed in last summer and only slightly more expensive. Young Beijingers are embracing the service ethos with enthusiasm.
Below the hotel sits a modern shopping mall which I haven’t explored yet and behind it a new park is being built which will be covered in winter to allow for seasonal entertainment. The skyscrapers crawl ever further out of the city but the old markets (in the bottom right of the picture below) survive and that’s where MaMa heads every day to buy her supplies of meat, vegetables and spices at a fraction of supermarket cost.
Of course yesterday was all about meeting Dermot for the first time and those are special memories that will always be with me.
And what’s more I get to see him all over again today.
As always food played an important part in the celebration of our arrival. Shan’s MaMa was on hands to welcome me with a huge hug and within moments, dinner was served – a steaming dish of her version of Big Plate Chicken to which she added home made wide-flat noodles.
This was followed by bowls of noodle soup with lamb and tofu, fulfilling the tradition of serving noodles when visitors arrive for the first time to represent the bonds of family and friendship. But these were also “longevity noodles” which are usually served on the day a child is one month old and on subsequent birthdays. MaMa had saved the ritual for our arrival. We ate the noodles with chopsticks from the bowls first and then drank the light, nourishing broth.
Dessert was a platter of fresh fruit including slices of dragon fruit which MaMa tells me is good for the digestion. I think I will teach her the recipe for Saba’sDragon’s Tail cocktail!
Of course MaMa served dragon fruit in honour of Dermot’s pet name of Teng Teng or flying dragon which he was given because he was born on the tail of the Year of the Dragon. In China food always has meaning.
Time to face the day now and a lesson in making noodles for which the requirement appears to be strong arms!
This is what smog looks like on a sunny Monday morning in Beijing.
You feel it in your lungs as soon as you step outside the door. With my new found paranoia, I’ve taken to tracking air quality using the CN Air Quality App. This is how it looks just now, depending on who you believe…
There’s a shop in in Beijing just down the road from Shane & Shan’s apartment called the Shard Box Store. It is crammed with little boxes in rosewood and silver, inlaid with shards of antique porcelain, handmade silver bracelets set with porcelain fragments and necklaces and earrings in white jade and gemstones. I spoke to Mr. Hu the son of the founder of the store, a darling of a man with reasonably good English who would have chatted a quiet Tuesday morning away.
During the Chinese Cultural Revolution (1966 – 1976) keeping antique porcelain at home was illegal and owning such “bourgeois” items could mean the death penalty. So many collectors just broke their porcelain and threw it away. Tens of thousand of pieces of priceless porcelain were destroyed. Just after the Revolution ended Mr. Hu’s father, quite literally, began picking up the pieces with a dream of bringing them to life again. He collected broken pieces of antique porcelain from the Ming and Qing dynasty and began to fashion them into boxes. Around 1983 the first Shard Box was created and now his shop is more than a collection of antique porcelain, it’s a collection of Chinese history. An untold story lies in each unique piece.
The peach tree design on the shard box on the right above symbolises the gift of long life and is traditionally given by a daughter to her mother. I gave it to my mother on return from Beijing as she was celebrating a “significant” birthday.
The juxtaposition of old and new is everywhere in Beijing. The previous day, after a trip down to the south east of central Beijing on the pristine subway, we spent the morning at the Temple of Heaven.
Just a few steps away from the roar of traffic and the bustling urban streetscape lies this vast park laid out in obsessively straight lines and with all the grandeur that befits a place designed for the emperors who visited there during the Ming (1368 – 1644) and Qing (1644 – 1911) dynasties to pray for a good harvest.
Temple of Heaven is striking in its scale and symmetry with its octagonal Imperial Vault of Heaven and the wonderful Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, the glorious dark blue roof tiles representing the heavens. We entered from the south gate so that we got the perspective that would have greeted arriving emperors as they processed from “earth” to “heaven”, albeit with some noisy tour groups in our line of vision – no ordinary mortals were allowed in while the Emperors passed through. We left through the shaded arcade where successive generations of Chinese continue to play cards, mahjong, dance and sing in the early afternoon.
For all its grandeur I couldn’t quite get enthused about the concept of the Emperor as the Son of Heaven administering earthly matters on behalf of the heavens. No essence of spirituality lingers in the place. And yet the idea of a ceremony performed on the Earthly Mount at the winter solstice, which had to be absolutely perfect in its execution lest it be a bad omen for the coming year, resonated with our own Newgrange.
Instead it was the Lama Temple that captured my heart. This Tibetan Buddhist monastery, one of the largest in China is an achingly beautiful and soothing spot in the heart of the city. We wandered into it late in the afternoon from the nerve-jangling traffic outside, just as the tourists drifted away and those that remained were pilgrims burning incense to the Buddhas – the Buddhas of the present, past and future in the Hall of Harmony and Peace and the tall Maitreya Buddha in the Pavilion of Ten Thousand Happinesses. There was something seductive, peaceful and spiritual in the dimming light as the golden Buddhas, some happy and playful, some serene, kept watch over their devotees and I found myself praying to the Buddhist ancestors of our unborn grandchild whose existence we had just learned of the previous day.
Afterwards we wandered across several blocks of the city to meet Shane and his Enter the Panda business partner Dave before dinner. We walked past enormous shopping plazas and the Beijing Bentley store wondering what vehicles the kids playing outside would grow up to use.
Dave took us to all to a Macau Hotpot restaurant for dinner. Hotpot is yet another great Chinese tradition – food for sharing, you just choose the stock poured into your own individual cooking pot bubbling at your table and decide what meat, fish, vegetables and seasonings you want to plunge into it. Intrinsically healthy it was light and tasty and a perfect way to meet the other half of Enter the Panda and his lovely girlfriend.
… and the cycle of life….
Just before we arrived in Beijing , Shane and Shan started a window garden to grow their own chillies. He sent me these photos yesterday. Even the Beijing smog cannot inhibit new growth.
Last Saturday, the day the article on Shananigans appeared in the Irish Times Food File, coincided with the second anniversary of Shane and Shan’s first meeting. Shan’s anniversary gift to Shane was the first scan of their unborn child, the first of a new generation in our family.
“If the heart is bright, the wonderful will appear” – inscription over the Future Buddha in Lama Temple
The Shard Box Store I visited is at No. 2 Jiangtai Rd., Chaoyang District, Beijing
Temple of Heaven is close to the subway stop at Tiantandongmen
Lama Temple is close to the subway stop at Yonghegong
The rituals of food unite us and create bonds that make up for lack of a common language and even, sometimes, for the distance between continents. To start a vending machine franchise go to royalvending.com.au/vending-machines-australia/.
The importance of food to Italians is the stuff of legends. As I struggled to follow the conversation the first time I attended a family dinner in Puglia, I realised that much of the animated discussion was about food – buying it, preparing it, eating it. It was fascinating to discover first hand how similar China is in that respect. Food there is more than a necessity for survival. It is a passion and an obsession. There is endless conversation about the importance of food, the health-giving properties of different vegetables and spices, the need for variety in colour, texture and flavour, the way to achieve balance in the diet, how to make use of every part of a plant and animal.
And there are rituals in abundance – noodles offered at the first meal when you arrive to visit family, a reminder of the ties that bind; dumplings served before you part, to reassure you that family wraps itself around you and minds you even when you are far away.
When we stayed with Shan’s family, in Urumqi, Xinjiang province, Shan’s mother served us freshly prepared lamb noodle soup within moments of our arrival late at night. Day trips out of the city with her brother revolved around finding good locations to eat lunch, snacks or dinner. “Are you hungry? Will you eat?” were the most frequent questions.
Breakfast was regarded as an important meal and often included leftovers from the previous evening’s dinner as food is never wasted. No matter what time we arrived back at the apartment, or how much we had eaten that day, a home cooked meal awaited us as well as platters of fresh fruits and nuts, grown locally. Once a meal was served we all sat down immediately to eat – it would have been perceived as the height of rudeness not to treat the eating of food with the same seriousness and respect as our Chinese hosts did.
Throughout our visit, the family remained curious about our eating habits and concerned about our “small” appetites. We were constantly reminded of the importance of variety in our diet and the reasons why we should eat particular foods. I took my first halting steps to learn a few words of Mandarin as Shan’s mother taught me “Yángròu” for lamb, “Miàntiáo” for noodles and “Jiàozi” for dumplings.
This week we discovered a new way of achieving connectedness through food – the sharing of a meal across three continents as I prepared Shan’s recipe for Black Pepper beef in Dublin while Shane attempted the same dish for the first time in Beijing and our daughter Claire made her version of it in Sydney, Australia – our own unique version of a communal Sunday dinner. Skype, iPhones and iPads all played their part in keeping old traditions alive and starting new ones. Continue reading Creating new food rituals across continents
The city has changed since I was last here 5 years ago prior to the Beijing Olympics. It seems more open, less reserved but, if the taxi drivers and hawkers are anything to go by, perhaps a little less friendly. Prices have risen and of course the RMB is stronger against the euro. Western food and drink – coffee for instance – are more freely available in good quality but with prices higher than in Dublin. Local and regional Chinese cuisine is still fantastic value and quality, if you know where to look.
We started our second day in Beijing with a visit to Enter the Panda HQ and a chance to see Shane in action in his office and meet his business partner Dave. Then we took a taxi down to the Bell Tower (Zhonglou) and Drum Tower (Gulou) climbing the steep steps of both, soaking up the ambience of an earlier age. The Drum performance was worth the climb as were the hazy views over this surprisingly green city and across heavy traffic to the misty outline of the Forbidden City.
Just over six years ago our son Shane travelled to Beijing for what was intended to be a brief visit to a friend who was studying Mandarin there. Thus began a personal voyage of discovery which led to him settling in the city, starting a business called Enter the Panda Ltd. and finding the love of his life Shan to whom he is now engaged. But that is his story.
We visited him in 2008 prior to the Beijing Olympics when he was still a student and got our first experience of Shanghai and Beijing, taking in all the usual tourist sites, including the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square and the Great Wall. That was a typical tourist experience giving us a sense of the “otherness” of the place and some day I will attempt to recall those first impressions, formed while Shane was barely finding his feet in the city.
This summer we travelled back with a different purpose – to spend some time with Shane and Shan in Beijing and to travel into the far northwest to Xinjiang province to the city of Urumqi to meet Shan’s family – an important part of the ritual of “betrothal” in China. We were also to be joined in Beijing near the end of our holiday by our daughter Claire and her Welsh husband Mike who live in Sydney Australia, so the trip provided a rare chance for a reunion with our far-flung offspring and their other halves. Continue reading Upper East Beijing and Yuxiang Kitchen, Lido Square