keito potato

September China Trip
September 20, 2011, 3:21 pm
Filed under: Food-Focused Travelogues | Tags: , , , ,

A food-focused travelogue of my recent China trip.

I recently spent two weeks in China as part of a delegation from my grad school, Fuller Seminary.  Through a big grant, they send teams of alumns, professors, and students to China about four times a year to build relationships with universities, seminaries, 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 years.  On this recent trip, we visited Shanghai, Nanjing, Beijing, and Hong Kong, and I presented a paper I had written.   I also enjoyed visiting several friends who live in China.  

Of course I ate well.  This is ample evidence that you can eat well in China as a vegetarian.

I’ll start with salads and appetizers. 

This was a great chilled appetizer of wilted spinach with peanuts.  The combination of the greens with peanuts was fantastic, and I plan on making variations of this at home.

I ordered these cold spicy noodles for the group at one meal, and later overheard a few folks complaining about how weird they were.  These grey-colored noodles are made from yam starch, and are chewy and also slimy since they are coated in vinegary chili sauce.  It’s a flavor and texture that makes most American queezy, but I’m crazy about them because I used to live in Sichuan where cold, spicy noodles like this were found everywhere as street food.  I soon grew to crave this cold, chewy, spicy stuff.  My other expat friends in Sichuan know what I’m talking about.  When I would visit my friends in Nanchong, we would get cold spicy noodles stuffed inside hot and crispy whole wheat pitas as late-night street food.  I loved the contrast of textures (slimy versus crunchy).  When I departed for this recent China trip, my friend Christina (who used to live in Chongqing)  told me to eat some cold noodles.  And here I was in Beijing eating cold spicy noodles, and I pretty much had the bowl to myself.

Cold rice noodles with sesame dipping sauce.  This was a more refined version of Sichuan street food.  These noodles aren’t vinegary or spicy, so the flavor is more mild and palatable.

Deconstructed salad = spears of lettuce ready to be dipped in sesame dressing.

Fava bean salad marinated with sour preserved vegetables.

A similar sour preserved vegetable salad made with soy beans instead of fava beans.

We had this chilled eggplant salad topped with garlic at FuDan University’s restaurant.  It was  soft enough to melt in your mouth, with the bright addition of garlic as a garnish.  FuDan University on the outskirts of Shanghai is considered the #3 university in China (you know, like Princeton).  That’s where I gave my presentation on theodicy to the religion department faculty.  You can easily guess that I was intimidated.

Salads are more common now in China at fancier restaurants.  It’s hard for me to wrap my head around the idea of salad in China, having lived there a long time ago, when you never saw raw foods or salads (because of tradition as well as safety).  This was a frisee salad with preserved vegetables instead of a dressing.

Here we see eggplant cylinders filled with spikes of fresh bamboo.  This artistic plating was a bit silly.

This was a garlicky green pea puree made into a round mold, then stuffed with something shredded.

These strips of tofu skin were tied in adorable little knots, and marinated with peppers as a salad.  Love this.

Here is some plain doufu (tofu) gan, as a dried tofu leather appetizer.  Simple and clean.  In Sichuan, they would say that regular soft tofu looks like the pale delicate skin of young women, and that dried tofu leather (like the photo) is darker and firmer like the rough and sturdy skin of men.  When friends in Sichuan would ask about my favorite Chinese foods, I usually forgot this metaphor, and would often said I liked to eat tofu.  This invariably caused students and friends to snicker, because it sounded like I enjoyed the delicate skin of young girls.  Then I would remember the joke, and quickly change my answer to dried tofu instead, or really any vegetable I could think of to get them to stop laughing.

These egg rolls utilized tofu skin as the crunchy wrapping, and were filled with mushrooms, carrots, and peppers.

Chilled enoki mushroom salad with bell peppers.  Little cuties.

Slices of lotus root stuffed with sweet sticky rice.  This is pretty, but not my favorite way with lotus root since I don’t have a sweet tooth.  I generally prefer lotus root prepared in the dry-fried or “ganbian” style with chilies, or else vinegary with lots of garlic.

I went out to vegetarian dim sum in Hong Kong with friends there,  at the Three Virtues Vegetarian Restaurant on Nathan Road in Kowloon.  I’d recommend it to anyone living in or visiting Hong Kong.  The food was delicious and light, and the restaurant was bustling and cheap.  This wonton soup there was my favorite dish.  The wonton filling was gingery and crunchy.

Veggie Dim Sum Item #2: Egg Rolls filled with crispy taro.

Veggie Dim Sum Item #3: Japanese-style gyoza with spinach

Veggie Dim Sum: Lettuce Wraps, with a filling of pine nuts and mushrooms.  I totally want to make this at home.

Veggie Dim Sum: Two kinds of delicate dumplings.

Veggie Dim Sum: Vegetarian fake meatballs.

Veggie Dim Sum: A variety of steamed buns.

Veggie Dim Sum: Here is a big dumping filled with vegetarian fake shark’s fin and fake abalone.  It’s a fun idea, but I prefered the other wontons in soup that didn’t try to be fish.  In the background you’ll see a rice-based savory pancake with olive leaves of all things, apparently.  It reminds me of the flavor of Korean pancakes.

Veggie Dim Sum: Flaky pastry filled with daikon.  This was quite interesting and tasty.

Here I am drinking jasmine tea at the end of our great vegetarian dim sum experience.  Now let’s move on past the appetizers and salads!

Here is a perfect version of hot and sour stir-fried potato slivers (suanla tudou si).  Most Americans don’t think of potatoes as a traditional Chinese vegetable, but this side dish is definitely one of the most common all over China.  This hot and sour version is more popular Sichuan, but other areas of China would stir-fry the potatoes with things like garlic and leeks.  The flavor of this is earthy and addictive.  I got Jen (the other vegetarian on the trip) hooked on these.

This sweet Minzu University student from Gansu province made me a vegetarian version of mushu pork.  He took one of those delicate Chinese pancakes, and wrapped it around a bundle of the hot and sour potatoes.  So thoughtful. 

Joy is showing Dr. Hanciles how to wrap something in a delicate Chinese pancake, in a method that works like something like mushu pork.  This was a refined version of the wraps, with the ingredients displayed on a wooden rack on the table.  Dr. Hanciles looks skeptical.

Here’s a pretty photo of ganbian sijidou — the classic dry-fried green beans.  This one has a good sear, and plenty of chilies.

Bok choi with dark mushrooms is a classic, classic combo.

Another take on bok choi with mushrooms.  This time they’re stirred together, and the button mushrooms are sliced horizontally.

A pretty plate Chinese broccoli (gailan).

Here’s an  unusual combination of wilted spinach with wedges of fresh bamboo that were darkened with soy and vinegar.

Broccoli stir-fried with garlic.

Garlicky spinach (bo cai) at Nanjing Union Seminary.

Spinach with fava beans in Hong Kong.

In the same vein as garlicky spinach, here is garlicky morning glory (kong xin cai), literally “hollow heart vegetable” because the stems are hollow.  I ate this several times on the trip.  Jen and I were so happy being vegetarians in China!  We both admitted later that we loved eating together just the two of us without the rest of the group because we didn’t have to share our vegetarian dishes with others.  We could just graze on greens and spicy stir-fried potatoes.

Stirfried lettuce with garlic is totally fine, but not necessarily my favorite garlicky Chinese green.  It doesn’t have as much flavor as spinach or morning-glory.

At Nanjing Seminary, the sweet and charming cook remembered me as a vegetarian from my visit last summer.  She brought out as many vegetarian dishes as she could, and finished with this stellar soup, chrysanthemum leaf and egg flower soup.  She said it’s a speciality of the city, and isn’t made outside of Nanjing.  I love the strong green flavor of chrysanthemum leaves, because you can taste the vitamins in the dark leaves.  This light soup is clean and restorative, and I could eat it everyday.

You’ve gotta love black fungus.  It’s chewy, funny, and super-rich in vitamins.  It’s one of the things that Chinese grandmas recommend when people are feeling under the weather.  It apparently is full of iron and makes your blood “strong.”

On our last day in Beijing, Jen and I happened upon a vegan restaurant called Phoenix Vegan.  We ate very well here, and ordered this dish in the photo.  I’m assuming that “Pastoral When Greenstuffs” means that we feel peaceful when we eat green things?

Our dish looked exactly like the menu photo.  It was a variety of mushrooms, including delicious big orange ones that look and taste like chanterelles, as well as white fungus, which is one of my favorites.  This dish also included a scattering of fresh bamboo.

The Beijing restaurant Phoenix Vegan makes this stellar mushroom and spinach dish on sizzling rice.  We simply had to order it because it’s awfully difficult to find vegetarian dishes on sizzling rice.  That’s usually reserved for meat.

At Phoenix Vegan, we ordered these vegan wontons, that were served in a dark Japanese-style seaweed-based broth.  This wonton soup was rich, complex, and restorative.

These are little log-shaped croquettes of mashed yam, about the size of a thumb.  I’m not sure what kind of powder they’re rolled in to become purple on the outside.  They have a mild, sweet flavor, and function as a decent side dish in a large meal.

Ganbian (dry-fried) radish.  I’m used to eating dry-fried potatoes with chilies and huajiao (Sichuan peppercorns), but the radish version was new to me.  They look like spicy french fries, but maybe they’re healthier?

I’m so crazy about “hua jiao” (Sichuan peppercorns) that I scraped these leftover bits onto my rice.  These are the peppercorns that are a pinkish-brown color, and make your mouth slightly numb as if you’ve been eating detergent.  Huajiao are scattered on numerous Sichuan dishes, so when I moved there years ago, it took me a few weeks to get used to it.  I quickly got addicted to them however, and soon started ordering dishes with “extra” huajiao.  Maybe I’m crazy, but I think they’re fun.

Here is a perfect, delicate eggplant dish.  It’s sautéed with garlic, chilies, and a handful of green beans.  I love simple garlicky Chinese eggplant dishes.  The eggplant is so pillow-soft that it melts in your mouth.

We were brought this plate of fresh bamboo shoots as an apology for getting our order wrong. 

Spicy tofu with lots of fresh chilies and ginger.

We had this tofu at a Chinese-Islamic restaurant in Beijing.  This didn’t have the complex flavors of a mapo doufu, but was rather clean and straightforward in its spiciness. 

Tofu skin was cut into noodles, and served with soy beans and sour preserved vegetables.  This brings the experience of umami to life.

We ordered this vegetarian version of Chinese-Islamic hand-cut noodles.  The sauce almost tasted Italian with the tomatoes, bell peppers, onions, and garlic.   It’s the same flavor as the vegetarian Muslim noodles I used to eat in Wanxian, except that this particular place in Beijing added scrambled eggs.  So delicious.  I heard that others in our group went back to this restaurant 2 more times for these noodles, and then I got jealous!  I guess I was spending most of my free time in contemporary art galleries, and missing out on noodles…

I ordered this salad version of Korean bimibap in a cute restaurant in Beijing’s 798 arts district.  Spicy and refreshing on a hot day.

I met up with my Fuller friend Peter in Beijing, and we went out for dumplings.  These vegetarian wontons were filled with a classic combo of scrambled eggs and leeks.  Very tasty.  I had been craving dumplings, and this hit the spot.

These scrambled eggs had a similar flavor as the wontons just above.  They eggs were scrambled with sour preserved vegetables, and have a mild and earthy flavor.  This was a lovely combination, although I’m not sure if I would make it at home myself.

I ordered Japanese udon noodles stir fried with bell peppers and onions at a tepanyaki joint in Nanjing.

Later, the tepanyaki chef made a scallion pancake on the grill.

I ordered these Cantonese vegetables at a Hong Kong diner one day for lunch.  The best thing about this bland type of Cantonese food is that there are usually a decent selection of chili sauces on the table!  This dish is quite pretty, but tastes as plain as the mixed vegetable dish at Bill-Lee’s restaurant in downtown Bakersfield.  I have to admit however that the mushrooms here are more varied and interesting, including oyster mushrooms and black fungus.  And you know I love fungus.

Here is a dark and blurry photo of a fantastic Indian meal in Hong Kong.  I went out for dinner and drinks with my friend Mike and some of his friends from his Cantonese class.  Hong Kong typically has stellar Indian food, and this place was no exception.  The dishes were spicy and flavorful, and the chutneys were delicious.  We had dum aloo, which literally means “breathed-in” potatoes, and typically has large pieces of potato that are pan-fried, and then cooked slowly in a spicy and nutty sauce.  This version of dum aloo consisted of potato croquettes stuffed with nuts, raisins, and cheese, then fried and simmered in a complex sauce.  We also had a yellow dal, mattar paneer, and garlic naan.

Sometimes in China if there aren’t many vegetarian options on a menu, I simply ask the waitress for egg fried rice with vegetables.    It’s a trustworthy back-up plan.  Here’s a version in Nanjing with scrambled eggs, spinach, green onions, and ginger.  Totally comforting.  I got Jen hooked on egg fried rice on the trip.  At home, I made egg fried rice for breakfast quite often.

In Hong Kong I ordered this egg and vegetable fried rice at a little neighborhood diner.  It was filled with thin horizontal slices of gailan (Chinese broccoli).   It’s normal in those Hong Kong diners to sit together with strangers because of the cramped space.  After I had been eating about 5 minutes, two cute Hong Kong girls were seated at my table, and one exclaimed, “Oo-ooh!  That looks good!!  What is that?”  And they proceeded to order the same thing.


This fried rice in Hong Kong was flavored with spicy pickled vegetables (pao cai).  This is a fun way to incorporate pao cai into meal.  Think of spicy kimchee, but without the foundation of fish flavor.

Cong you bing (tsong yo bing), which means it’s a round roll made with green onions and fried in oil.  These are tasty when hot and fresh.

The “jian bing” is a classic breakfast street food in Nanjing.  It’s a thin Chinese pancake coated with scrambled egg on the inner lining, then rolled around a “you tiao” (salty donut stick), preserved vegetables, green onions, and chili sauce.  I love the strong combination of flavors, and ate this every morning in Nanjing.  However, I couldn’t really convince the rest of the group to dig preserved vegetables and chili sauce first thing in the morning.  I tend to like savory and spicy foods for breakfast, so I’m into this.

On my first morning in Beijing, I woke up early and scoured the neighborhood, doing reconnaissance work to find the best breakfast street food.  I tried about 10 joints, and spent less than 2 USD total.  Most things were pretty mediocre, so I ate only 1 bite before throwing them away while I walked, but this place was the clear winner.  It was a small stall where they were baking flaky Chinese Islamic breakfast pastries, rolling out the pastries behind the counter, layer by flaky layer.  They were the size of biscuits, but far more flaky — almost as flaky as puff pastry.  They were hot and fresh right out of the oven.  They offered 8 varieties, some stuffed with slightly sweet black sesame paste, some with plum jam, others with sesame and honey, and one savory version with salt and pepper.  Later that morning I brought the rest of the group back, and they agreed that it was an interesting and comforting breakfast.  It became our group’s breakfast stop during our 4 days in Beijing.

The pastry stand was also popular with Minzu University students.  This was the shortest line during my 4 days there.  As I learned from Anthony Bourdain, street food is generally safe at places that are popular with locals.

On my first morning in Hong Kong, I ordered this breakfast combo at a little neighborhood diner near my friend’s apartment.  The fried eggs, buttered toast, and coffee were all standard, but I was totally surprised that they were able to turn the oatmeal into congee!  Congee-style porridge is a little slimy, and is something that I can eat sometimes, but not everyday.  It’s decent with a little sugar.

On this trip, I drank pearl (boba) milk tea several times as a snack.  This chain “Coco” was consistently good, and made some interesting teas and juices like jasmine milk tea with boba, and also lemonade with floating halves of little green kumquats. 

This is the fancy way of drinking jasmine tea.  The jasmine tea leaves are sewn into a chrysanthemum shape with a flower in the center, then dried into a tight ball.  When the ball is immersed in the hot water, it slowly unfolds to create the chrysanthemum, and then the delicate flower emerges.  It a slow, zen-like dinner theatre.  I have one of these glass teapots, and make this fancy kind of jasmine for guests from time to time.

I love iced coffee in Hong Kong.  I’m not necessarily thinking of iced coffee at Starbucks or Costa, or any of the Italian or American coffee places scattered across the city.  Rather, I like the Vietnamese-style iced coffee with sweetened condensed milk that you find for half the price at the casual local diners.  It’s yummy and refreshing.  It’s the difference between sweetening the iced coffee with condensed milk vs. syrup.  I got this iced coffee at a busy place in an alley while I relaxed with a novel.

A cute cucumber-twig garnish.

A garnish painted out of sauce.

When I arrived in Hong Kong, my friend Ramy gave me these Kello Kitty tomato-flavored sticks as a snack.  I thought they were funny, and also a little bit yucky.   They taste just like ketchup, so your opinion of them will depend on whether you like to eat ketchup… by itself.  I wonder what other foods you could dip these sticks in, as a nice combo with ketchup flavor?  Sorry Rames, don’t be sad — it was a super-cute idea!

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Love it! Let’s go back!

Comment by Jen

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