keito potato

June China Trip
July 12, 2010, 6:13 pm
Filed under: Food-Focused Travelogues | Tags: , , , , , ,

In June I spent 2 weeks in China. My grad school sends groups of professors and students to China 4x a year to build relationships with schools there. I was probably picked up for this particular trip because I previously lived in China for 2.5 years. I can’t express how grateful I was to re-visit the Middle Kingdom, and to explore current issues with professors and students there.

Of course it wasn’t a trip about food, but this is indeed a food website. Therefore this little travelogue is food-focused.

I couldn’t help but eat well in China. For those who have asked me over the years how I could have lived in China as a vegetarian, these photos are ample evidence of eating well. On this trip I missed Sichuan food (the spicy food of the region that used to be my home) but I thoroughly enjoyed the regional cooking of the places we visited: Beijing, Xi’an, Nanjing, and Shanghai.

In Shanghai we discovered this dumpling restaurant that was bustling all day, but particularly busy for breakfast. I ended up eating a bowl of wonton soup there 3 out of 4 of my mornings in Shanghai. The wontons were freshly folded behind the counter, stuffed with scrambled eggs and leeks, then served in a light and tasty broth. The pickled greens on top provided the pungent counterpoint. I asked for the vinegar, and was presented with a white teapot filled with vinegar. The vinegar-teapot was passed from table to table to enrich the soup broth or create a dipping sauce.

Looking at this photo now, my stomach clenches with wistfulness. I would love to eat wonton soup for breakfast at home, but I don’t have a team of wonton-folding pals to make that happen in an efficient way.

Our table of 4 shared this plate of deep-fried wontons as a breakfast side dish. They had the same egg-leek filling as the others, but were crisp and chewy.

Enjoyed a freshly-grilled street crepe in Shanghai. It was so hot I could barely hold it.

After the crepe batter is spread thinly, it was topped with beaten egg, chives, and chili sauce. The hot dogs were not mine.

This is a similar version that I found in Nanjing. The Nanjing version is called a “jianbing“. Not only is it filled with scrambled eggs and chili sauce, but the jianbing is also stuffed with preserved vegetables and “youtiao,” a fried bread that’s reminiscent of a salty doughnut. This superb breakfast “wrap” is over the top.

This variety of mushroom is almost like a chantrelle, rich, complex, and earthy. Can’t believe we were served a huge platter of them.

A showcase of 4 varieties of mushrooms, garnished with an orchid. I wasn’t familiar with the thick sliced mushrooms in the foreground. In the back you can glimpse a dish of asparagus spears with ginko nuts and lily petals.

These wild mushrooms were sliced, then stirfried with chilies. Spicy and rich.

I’m most happy in China with simple dishes like garlicky greens. When this particular cook in Nanjing heard I was a vegetarian, she pulled out the stops, bringing every seasonal green to the table, presenting them to me while blushing. Here are her tasty diagonal slices of Chinese broccoli.

She even whipped up a batch of the best vegetarian baozi I’ve ever tasted. Soft, and ever-so-fresh. Filled with garlicky greens. I greedily ate 3 of them.

I had these garlicky chrysanthemum leaves elsewhere in Nanjing. Rich with that strong-green-leaf-flavor, as if you can taste the density of vitamins in the leaves. If you know of a place in LA that serves chrysanthemum leaves, let me know.

While I’m on the subject of garlicky greens, morning glory (kongxin cai) is one of my favorites. The Mandarin name is literally “hollow heart vegetable” because the stems are hollow. Other than that particular feature, it’s pretty similar to spinach. Kongxin cai is always fabulous stirfried with garlic, and a cold beer on the side.

Typical ganbian sijijou, dry-fried green beans. The beans are slowly cooked in minimal oil, so that their skin has time to wrinkle. Then they are tossed with garlic and ginger. If this was Sichuan, it would also include chilies and hua jiao (Sichuan peppercorns). From time to time I’ve also had this tossed with preserved vegetables.

These green beans were brought to the table on a wok and portable flame. The green beans were sitting on a bed of sliced onions, which gradually perfumed the beans during our meal. Toward the end, the sliced onions were fully grilled, rich and delicious.

A dish of yuxiang xiezi, spicy and garlicky eggplants. The name initially puzzles foreigners because “fish-fragrant eggplant” sounds like it should smell like fish. The name really means that the eggplant is cooked in a similar method to that of fish — spicy and garlicky, with a hint of sweetness.

Here is a similar eggplant dish at a different restaurant, but with delicate lavender eggplants. Almost too pretty to eat.

A glazed pumpkin half. Delicate.

Daikon strips marinated in sesame.

Stir-fried fava beans with chives.

Had to order this classic a few times. Stir-fried potato slivers, chao tudou si. Most Americans wouldn’t think of the potato as a Chinese vegetable, but this dish is actually one of the most common vegetable side dishes. The potatoes are quickly stirfried, and usually arrive at the table slightly crisp. This version is flavored with slivers of green pepper. In Sichuan, stirfried potatoes are invariably made spicy with dried red chilies in the mix.

Cuipi (tsway-pee) doufu, or crispy-skin tofu. Soft tofu is breaded and deep-fried, then topped with a sweet and spicy sauce.

The menu said this was also cuipi doufu, but what showed up was a spongy tofu braised in garlic and green onions. Not what we expected, but was definitely tasty and satisfying.

Tiger-skin peppers (hupi qingjiao). Found this Sichuanese dish in Shanghai. The big peppers are cooked dry, without any oil. Eventually the skin loosens and peels back, creating wrinkles or stripes. Then when black vinegar and soy sauce are added, the black sauces gather in the wrinkled skin, creating the illusion of tiger stripes. Cute. And spicy.

Rice sticks. Savory and crispy. Not bad.

In Xi’an we had a North-West version of hotpot. Usually hotpot entails a communal cauldron simmering in the middle of the table, with raw ingredients to pop in and cook. This was the first time I had experienced individual hot pots for each person. Evidence of change in China, perhaps? At least it was easier for me to eat vegetarian with my own pot. Here is my dipping sauce. Mine was mostly sesame paste, chili sauce and hua jiao oil.

A platter of 5 varieties of raw mushrooms to add to the hotpot.

I was surprised that this was my only glimpse of someone “pulling noodles” on this trip — and it was a touristy experience. This boy was brought to our table to whip around a piece of dough until it stretched into a single long noodle. Then he slipped it into someone’s hotpot to cook. His yoyo-acrobatics were more for our benefit than the noodle’s. Aside from this spectacle, the typical way I’ve witnessed noodle pulling involved stretching, pulling, slapping dough on a table, and doubling-up the dough over and over to create a pile of noodles. I seriously regret not learning this skill as an apprentice when I lived in Sichuan. At the time, I took lessons in vegetable carving, but noodle pulling would have been more fun.

These flaky pastries were filled with delicate and complex durian custard. Can you believe this was my first taste of durian? I was smitten. Our host then told us that his dogs are crazy about durian. That’s quite a peculiar pet treat, and probably an expensive one.

Soon after, I tried a slice of real durian in the market. I’m a new convert.

For those of you interested in markets, here’s a basement vege market I stumbled across in Nanjing.

Squash blossoms at the market.

Dried chilies, star anise, chili sauce, and bottles of chili oil.

Fresh and tender bamboo shoots.

Extra-long asparagus in the market.

Wandering through Xi’an’s Muslim Quarter at night, I couldn’t help but try these quail egg skewers. A tiny quail egg was broken into each mold. The eggs cooked around the skewer and were rotated carefully until they puffed up. They were finally liberally doused with chili-cumin sauce. Delicious, and completely worth the chili sauce dribbling on my hand as I walked down the street.

By now you’re probably either exhausted from this long post, or you’ve already hit the road to find the closest noodle joint. I’ll just close with an empty wok.

6 Comments so far
Leave a comment

You have certainly caught my fancy. So entertaining to read and I could almost savor every featured dish. You are for sure a seasoned foody, with a tantalizing flair for capturing the flavor of a true connoisseur!!!

Comment by Mirial

Makes me want to leave on the next plane for China!

Comment by jane raser

Jia you, jia you! You should add more foodie travelogue pics and comments the next time you’re in China.

Comment by andersonabella

[…] and churches there.  I went on one of these trips last summer as well, and wrote out a similar food-focused travelogue for that trip.  I’ve been involved with this program because I previously lived in China for 2.5 […]

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