keito potato

Juan Tong Fen — Rice Rolls in Debao, Guangxi Province
August 6, 2013, 8:25 am
Filed under: Food-Focused Travelogues, Living in China | Tags: , , ,

Karst mountains around Debao

This summer I spent 3 weeks in Guangxi and Guangdong provinces visiting my students’ homes.  It was a sort of learning tour for myself to learn about my students’ lives.   I spent a week in Debao county, Guangxi province, which is a remote mountainous region near the Vietnamese border.  The mountains are the same kind of vertical karst mountains that are so famous in Guilin, but tourists don’t visit Debao because the region is so remote.  The first roads in the area were built 20 years ago, and in some villages only 10 years ago.

Debao landscape

Debao county also isn’t on the tourist path because it doesn’t have any special lovely traditional architecture to lure tourists.  It’s a Zhuang minority area, but people don’t wear traditional clothes anymore.  Guidebooks dismissively say that the Zhuang have assimilated into the mainstream Han Chinese culture, but after spending a week there living with a family, I can say there are some special aspects to life there.  Some distinctions include the local language of Debao county, which has some similarities with Thai, and it’s the only place in China where the work animal is the pony!  The cuisine is also special, with a few Vietnamese influences.

Juan tong fen

One of the Vietnamese culinary influences is found in the rice rolls, called juan tong fen in Mandarin.  Juan is the verb for rolling things.  Tong is the noun for a rolled object, and fen is for rice flour.  These rice rolls are a common street breakfast in Debao.

juan tong fen stall

pouring rice batter

The stall we visited made the rice sheets fresh to order, which made the rice rolls warm, soft, and slightly thicker than the Vietnamese rolls I’ve had before.  They were slightly reminiscent of crepes.  The process starts with a bowl of batter for the sheets, which consists of rice flour dissolved in water.  She uses a ladle to spread a thin layer of batter on a piece of cloth that is stretched over a steamer.  Then it is covered with a lid to steam for about 20 seconds.


After the rice sheet has steamed, it is removed with wooden sticks.

fresh rice paper

There are a variety of fillings, and customers order a combination of 2-4 fillings.  Many of the fillings are preserved items, so the juan tong fen has a mild sour edge.  Some of the fillings were chopped green beans, preserved bamboo shoots, soy bean sprouts, sour pickled vegetables, and some meat, all chopped fine.

adding fillings

Then the juan tong fen is quickly rolled up.  Because the rice paper is fresh, it is thicker than store-bought rice paper, and it is soft and warm, quite comforting for a breakfast food.

rolling the juan tong fen

juan tong fen

Many people drizzle a little soy sauce on top.

drizzling soy sauce

This little boy was waiting patiently for his breakfast juantongfen.

waiting boy

Sweet Potato Muffins
February 13, 2012, 12:43 pm
Filed under: breakfast, recipes | Tags: , ,

If you read my blog, you know that I love to bake out of Kim Boyce’s cookbook Good to the Grain, which uses whole grain flours in exquisite ways.  Every single thing I have baked from the book has been absolutely perfect.  This is a favorite muffin recipe, which uses leftover roasted sweet potatoes.  Half of the sweet potatoes are whipped into the batter, and the rest are stirred in at the end, leaving soft pockets of sweet potatoes in the muffins.  The first time I made this muffins, I was astonished at how light and fluffy they were.  I had expected muffins built on sweet potatoes, buttermilk, yogurt, and dates to be dense and heavy, but they are so light and delicate.  Kim Boyce knows how to coax magic out of her batters.

They’re simple to pull together for a weekend breakfast if you roast the sweet potatoes the day before.  To save energy, you could throw the sweet potatoes in the oven while you’re baking something else.

Alternatively, you could use this batter to make a coffee cake.  Butter a 9-10-inch square cake pan or loaf pan, and spread the batter into the pan.  Bake for about 35-40 minutes at 350F



2 sweet potatoes or one medium sweet potato (about 3/4 pound total)

1 cup whole-wheat flour (I used whole-wheat pastry flour)

1 cup all-purpose flour

1 tablespoon cinnamon

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon kosher or sea salt

1/2 teaspoon nutmeg, freshly grated

1/4 teaspoon allspice

1/2 stick (4 tablespoons) cold unsalted butter

1/4 cup sugar

1/4 cup dark brown sugar

1 egg

1 cup buttermilk

1/2 cup plain yogurt (I used labneh)

6 large Medjool dates, pitted and finely chopped


Preheat the oven to 400F.  Roast the sweet potatoes for 1 to 1 1/2 hours, depending on their size, until they’re tender when pierced with a fork.  The bottoms should be dark, even burnt-looking, and the juices beginning to caramelize.  Set aside to cool, then peel and leave whole.

Lower the oven heat to 350F.  Rub muffin tins with butter, or line them with muffin papers.

Sift the dry ingredients into a large bowl.

In a small bowl, whisk together the buttermilk and yogurt.

In the bowl of a standing mixer, add the butter and 2 sugars.  Mix in high speed until they are light and creamy, about 3 minutes.  Using a spatula, scrape down the sides of the bowl.  Add the egg and half of the sweet potatoes and mix on medium speed for about 1 minute, until thoroughly combined.  Again scrape down the sides of the bowl.

On low speed, so that the flour doesn’t go flying everywhere, add the dry ingredients and mix until partly combined.  Add the buttermilk mixture and mix until combined.  Add the chopped dates, separating them over the surface of the batter so they don’t clump together.  Add the remaining sweet potatoes and mix until barely combined.  There should be pockets of sweet potato in the batter.  Use a spatula to scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl.

Scoop the batter into 10-12 muffin cups, using a spoon or ice cream scoop.  To encourage even baking and allow each muffin enough room to have an individual dome top, fill alternate cups in a 24-cup tin, or use two 12-cup tins.  The batter should be slightly mounded above the edge.

Bake for 30-40 minutes at 350F.  Rotate the pans halfway through.  Take the tins out of the oven, twist each muffin and place it on its side in the cup to cool.  This ensures that the muffin stays crusty instead of getting soggy.

These muffins are best eaten warm from the oven or later that same day.  They can also be kept in an airtight container for up to 2 days, or frozen and reheated.

Buckwheat Scones with Boozy Fig Jam
December 28, 2011, 3:30 pm
Filed under: breakfast, recipes | Tags: , , , ,

Honestly the best scones I’ve ever tasted, even better than Some Crust Bakery, I may venture.  I made these for a special breakfast on Christmas Eve morning.

These buckwheat scones are perfectly flaky and moist, with a richly fragrant aroma.  The buckwheat and fig flavors are complex and complementary.  The recipe comes from my favorite baking cookbook, Good to the Grain (which I have used for several of my favorite cookie recipes including whole wheat chocolate chip, cornmeal cranberry cookies, and whole wheat gingersnaps).

Because you roll the scones into swirls like cinnamon rolls, they take a little longer to prepare than regular scones.  However it’s entirely possible to roll them into logs the day before, and simply slice and bake them in the morning.

The homemade fig preserves also take a little while to cook, but you can prepare that sometime in the preceding month (as it keeps that long in the fridge).  The fig jam recipe makes double the amount required for the scones, so you can have extra on hand for spreading on anything and everything.  Alternatively you could double the scone recipe and use all of the fig jam at once.  The fig jam is boozy because of the addition of 1 cup of red wine and 1/2 cup of port.  It will make your kitchen smell incredible when it simmers on the stove.  The recipe calls for 12 ounces of dried Black Mission figs, which is coincidently the exact size of the packages of dried figs at Trader Joe’s.



1/2 cup sugar

1/4 cup water

2 whole cloves

1 star anise

1 cup red wine

1/2 cup port

12 ounces dried Black Mission figs, stems removed

1/4 teaspoon cinnamon

4 ounces (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened


To poach the figs, measure 1/4 cup water and the sugar into a small heavy-bottomed saucepan.  Stir the mixture together with a wooden spoon, incorporating the sugar without splashing it up the sides, to avoid forming crystals.  Bring the mixture to a boil over a medium flame and cook for 7-10 minutes, until the syrup is amber-colored.

Add the red wine, port, figs, and cinnamon, standing back a bit, as the syrup is hot.  Don’t panic when the syrup hardens; this is the normal reaction when liquids are added to hot sugar.  Continue cooking the mixture over a medium flame for 2 minutes, until the sugar and wine blend.

Reduce the flame to low and simmer for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.  The figs will burble quietly as they are jostled together by the flame; they are ready when the wine has reduced by half.  Remove the pan from the stove and cool to room temperature.

Fish out the star anise and cloves.  Pour the cooled figs, with their liquid, into a food processor and puree until smooth, about 1 minute.  Add the softened butter to the fig paste and process until smooth.  The fig butter can be spread right onto the buckwheat scone dough or stored in the refrigerator for up to 1 month.  If it is refrigerated, bring it to room temperature before using.


1 cup buckwheat flour

1  1/4 cup all-purpose flour

1/2 cup sugar

2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

4 ounces (1 stick) cold unsalted butter

1  1/4 cups heavy cream

1 cup boozy fig jam (recipe above)


Sift the dry ingredients into a large bowl.  Add the butter to the dry ingredients by either cutting the butter into 1/4-inch pieces, or freezing the butter and grating it into the flour using a cheese grater.  Rub the butter between your fingers, breaking it into smaller bits.  Continue rubbing until the butter is coarsely ground and feels like grains of rice.  The faster you do this, the more the butter will stay solid, which is important for the success of the recipe.

Add the cream and gently mix it into the flour with a spatula until the dough is just combined.

Use a pastry scraper or spatula to transfer the dough onto a well-floured surface.  It will be sticky, so flour your hands and pat the dough into a rectangle.  Grab a rolling pin and roll the dough into a rectangle that is 8-inches wide, 16-inches long, and 3/4 inch thick.  If at any time the dough rolls off into a different direction, use your hands to square the corners and pat it back into shape.  As you’re rolling, periodically run a pastry scraper or spatula underneath to loosen the dough, flour the surface, and continue rolling.  This keeps the dough from sticking.  Flour the top of the dough if the rolling pin in sticking.

Spread the fig jam over the dough.  Roll the long end of the dough up, patting the dough as you roll so that it forms a neat long 16 inches long.  Roll the finished log so that the seam is on the bottom and the weight of the roll seals the edge.

Use a sharp knife to slice the log in half.  Put the halves on a baking sheet or plate, cover loosely with plastic wrap, and chill in the refrigerator for 30 minutes.  (The dough can be kept covered, in the refrigerator, for 2 days).  While the dough is chilling, preheat the oven to 350F.  Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper.

After 30 minutes, take both logs out of the refrigerator and cut each half into 6 equal pieces about 1  1/4 inches wide.

 Place each scone flat, with the spiral of the fig butter facing up, on the baking sheet, 6 to a sheet.  Give the scones a squeeze to shape them into rounds.

Bake for 30-42 minutes, rotating the sheets halfway through.  The scones are ready to come out when their undersides are golden brown.  

Savory Bread Pudding with Fresh Corn
August 20, 2011, 8:58 am
Filed under: breakfast, main dishes, recipes | Tags: ,

I made this for the first time yesterday, and it was a huge hit at a backyard party.   This savory bread pudding is fragrant with herbs and sautéed leeks, and absolutely filled with freshly-cut sweet corn.  Frozen corn will work in a pinch, but fresh corn cut from the cob is worlds better.

I found this recipe in the cookbook Deborah Madison’s Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, when I was searching for an unusual recipe utilizing fresh sweet corn.  This dish was so incredibly delicious and easy that I imagine I’ll make it all the time now.  It calls for a bunch of sliced scallions, but I happened to have a leek in the fridge and used that instead.  I imagine I would use leeks in the future as well because of their lovely, delicate taste. 

The original recipe is not specific about the type of bread, but I recommend sourdough for the added flavor.  Serve this savory bread pudding with a lemony green salad, or alternatively at a brunch paired with fruit.  Leftovers are lovely for breakfast.



1 tablespoon butter

1 bunch scallions, including half of the greens (or 1 large leek)

4 cups fresh corn kernels (or frozen in a pinch)

1/2 teaspoon paprika or ground red chile


1/3 cup chopped parsley

1 tablespoon chopped basil

4 eggs

2 cups milk

5 cups cubed bread, lightly dried out (I recommend sourdough)

1 cup grated sharp cheddar

1/2 cup half-and-half or milk


Butter a 3-quart gratin dish or casserole pan.

Slice the scallions or leek.  Shave the corn from the cobs.  Chop the parsley and basil.  Cube the bread.  If it isn’t dry, then lightly dry it by heating it in a 200F oven on a cookie sheet for 10-20 minutes.

Heat the oil in a wide skillet over medium-high heat.  Add the scallions or leek, the corn, and paprika or chile.  Cook until the scallions have softened and the corn is heated through, about 4 minutes.  Season with 1/2 teaspoon salt and stir in the parsley and basil.

Whisk the eggs and milk with 1/2 teaspoon salt and pour it over the bread cubes in a bowl.  Add the corn mixture and grated cheese and transfer the mixture to the prepared dish.  Pour over the half-and-half.  Bake until puffed and browned, about 45 minutes. 

Shirred Lemon Eggs
January 9, 2011, 3:36 pm
Filed under: breakfast, recipes | Tags: , , , ,

My friends Deborah and David are raising a variety of 8 colorful chickens in their backyard.  The colorful chickens lay colorful eggs, some of which are a pale turquoise.  At the end of a dinner party last night, they sent each guest home with 6 eggs as a sending gift.

This morning I wanted to make something special to show off the lovely flavor of good eggs, so I used a new favorite recipe from Marion Cunningham’s Breakfast Book.  Shirred eggs are eggs that are baked gently in a buttered ramekin.  This recipe of shirred lemon eggs takes the simple concept over the top with lemon zest and a touch of cream and parsley.  Lemon naturally pairs well with eggs, as we know from Euro Pane’s famous egg salad sandwiches with lemon.

This recipe is dead-easy, but delicate and pretty enough to serve for special occasions.  My family made these lemon shirred eggs for our Christmas breakfast this year, but they tasted better today with the fresh eggs.  They had a deeper, lovely egg flavor.

I have written this recipe for one person, since the ramekins are assembled individually.  Multiply the recipe per number of people.


butter for the ramekin
2 tablespoons heavy cream (separated)
1/2 teaspoon lemon zest
1  1/2 tablespoons grated Gouda, Gruyere, or jack cheese
1 egg
salt and pepper to taste
roughly 3/4 teaspoon minced parsley


Preheat oven to 325F.  Liberally butter the ramekin.

Pour 1 tablespoon cream into the bottom of the ramekin.  Sprinkle 1/4 teaspoon lemon zest over the cream.

Sprinkle the cheese over the cream.

Gently drop an egg into each ramekin.

Add salt and pepper to taste.  Measure 1 tablespoon cream and gently spread it over the egg.  Scatter the minced parsley over the top.

Bake at 325F for 12-16 minutes, depending on how soft you want your yolk.  I prefer a set yolk, so I lean toward 16 minutes.  Marion Cunningham serves her’s at 12.

The yolks have a lovely bright orange hue.

Serve them with good toast for breakfast, or alongside a green salad for lunch.