keito potato

Issan street food carts in Thailand
July 2, 2013, 5:41 am
Filed under: Food-Focused Travelogues | Tags: , , , , , ,

I spent a month in Thailand during my holiday for the Chinese New Year.

I fell in love with Issan street food carts.  Issan is a northeast region of Thailand, bordering Cambodia.  The weather is super-hot, so the cuisine is based on salads and refreshing lime and chile flavor profiles.

green papaya salad

This is one the most famous Issan dishes, the green papaya salad.  It has a lime-chili salad dressing, and is garnished with peanuts.

Issan lunch cart

This Issan lunch cart on Koh Tao island made phenomenal food.  It’s where the locals in the neighborhood came to eat.

green papaya salad

This green papaya salad on Koh Tao had a good dose of shredded carrots.

Molly's green papaya salad

Molly’s green papaya salad was so delicious that she wanted to inhale it.

gaang aom

I read this e-book guide about eating vegetarian food in Thailand, and learned about gaang aom, a phenomenal Issan soup made from pumpkin, mushrooms, baby green eggplants, and leafy greens.  I absolutely fell in love with this refreshing, restorative soup, and ate it for several lunches in Thailand.

baby green eggplants

These are the baby green eggplants that are used for the gaang aom soup, as well as a myriad of other Thai dishes.

gaang aom

Another amazing bowl of gaang aom soup.

 in love with gaang aom

I was in love with gaang aom soup!  It’s served sticky rice, which you can dip into the soup.

mushroom soup

This mushroom soup is similar to the gaang aom soup, but has fewer greens.

fermented bamboo salad

Fermented bamboo salad, garnished with mint leaves.  It has a chili-lime dressing, and a tiny bit of ground toasted rice for texture.

fermented bamboo

Shredded bamboo in the vegetable market.

M + A

Enjoyed Issan lunches with friends Molly and Andrew.


M + A

Friends Molly and Andrew are tucking into mushroom soup and green papaya salad.

Issan lunch cart

Another Issan lunch cart.


A Week of Eating in Chengdu
September 2, 2012, 7:11 am
Filed under: Food-Focused Travelogues | Tags: , , , , ,

I just moved to Nanjing, China a week ago.  On my way here, I spent a week in Chengdu for a conference with Mennonite Partners in China.  I used to live in that area of China, so I am familiar with (and also smitten with) that spicy Sichuan cuisine.  Here are a few photos of the food I enjoyed in Chengdu!

I ate this spicy noodles for a breakfast during a few of my mornings there.  I wouldn’t want to eat this every morning, but it’s a fun breakfast for people who like spicy food.

While I ate the spicy noodles, a woman chopped chilies with a cleaver over at the next table.

Hot soymilk is common as a breakfast beverage all over China.  I picked this up most of my mornings in Chengdu.  It’s hot, nutritious, and restorative.  American soymilk has stabilizers so that it will look more like dairy milk.  This real soymilk is delicious, but I wouldn’t put it on cereal — it’s for drinking.

This stall had 2 blenders going at all times making the soymilk.

Peanuts were served as an appetizer.  Because it was Sichuan, they were covered in huajiao (numbing Sichuan peppercorns).  Love that combination.

Mapo doufu is one of the most famous Sichuan dishes, and was invented in Chengdu.  As a vegetarian, it’s a top-favorite.  I love the “mala” flavor, which is the Sichuan flavor profile for the combination of the of the numbing huajiao (Sichuan peppercorns) mingling with the heat of the chilies.  I think I ate it five times during my week in Chengdu, but only took photos of it four times.

Jiachang doufu is homestyle-tofu.  The tofu is sliced and then panfried.  It’s removed from the pan, while you make a quick sauce with garlic, ginger, chilies, spicy bean paste, and green onions.  Once the sauce is going on the stove, you slide the fried tofu slices into the sauce, and they simmer a few minutes to absorb the rich flavors.  I love this dish.

Ganbian siji dou, dry-fried green beans.  One of the most famous Sichuan dishes.  I’m glad I can find good versions of this here in Nanjing.

Chao tudou si is the common Chinese dish of stirfried slivered potatoes.  It’s a great side dish.  This version includes a smattering of green chilies.

This potato dish is ganbian tudou si, which means the slivered potatoes have been dry-fried, in the way that you’d made the classic dry-fried green beans.  Flavor-wise, a “gan-bian” or dry-fried dish usually includes a strong presence of garlic, ginger, and chilies.  In Sichuan, they “gan-bian” a number of vegetables, including potatoes, lotus root, and doufu gan (tofu leather).  Today I heard from some students that in Shanxi province, they make ganbian noodles!

Here’s an extra-spicy version of the dry-fried potatoes.

Ganbian tudou pian.  This dish is the same as the one above, except that the potatoes are sliced instead of slivered.

Ganbian ou is dry-fried lotus root, cooked in the same dry-fried style as the green beans and the potatoes.  Even though I’m happy I can find good ganbian green beans outside of Sichuan, the ganbian lotus root is really hard to find.

It’s more common across China to find plain stir-fried lotus root like this.  Plain lotus root is still good.  I love the crunch of it.

Kongxin cai, also called morning glory or water spinach.  The Chinese name literally means “hollow heart vegetable” because the stems are hollow.  This is one of the most common vegetable side dishes in China, usually stirfried with a heavy hit of garlic.  In Sichuan they often also throw in a few chilies.

Yuxiang qiezi is so-called “fish-fragrant eggplant.”  It doesn’t smell like fish, but rather it’s prepared in the same method that is often used for serving fish: spicy and slightly sweet.

Tiger skin peppers (hupi qingjiao) is another distinctive Sichuan dish.  Green chilies are seared in a dry wok until their skins start to loosen and peel back.  Then soy sauce and black vinegar are added to the wok, and the dark liquid collects in the loosened skin, giving the illusion of tiger stripes.  It’s cute and spicy.

Tangcu baicai is sweet and sour cabbage.  Sweet-and-sour in Southeast China means there will be an orange glaze.  In Sichuan, sweet-and-sour means a little sugar, vinegar, garlic, and ginger.  I like the Sichuan version of sweet-and-sour better…

A simple egg fried rice, “dan chao fan.”

Fanqie jidan tang, egg and tomato soup.  Scrambled eggs are often mixed with tomatoes as a dish, but I usually prefer eggs and tomatoes combined in a soup like this.  Think of an egg flower soup, but with a savory tomato soup base instead of a clear soup.  In China, soup is usually eating at the end of the meal.

While in Chengdu, I ate at the Lanzhou lamian place a few times.  Lanzhou is in Northwestern China, where the cuisine is different, and influenced by Central Asian cuisines.  One of the things they’re famous for is the noodles.  These ones were as wide as Italian  paparadelle, and were hand cut right after I ordered.  Here the noodles are combined with hot and sour cabbage for a vegetarian meal.

The next time I went to Lanzhou lamian, I ordered the same kind of wide noodles, but this time with hot and sour potatoes.  It was a starch bomb, but so tasty.

These noodles are hand cut, but you don’t roll out the dough and slice them.  Rather, you hold the ball of cold dough in your hand, and then sort of whittle strands of noodles off the the ball of dough, using a sharp little knife.  I know a few places in LA that make this kind of noodle.  The noodles end up being irregular and chewy.  “Like fettuccini on steroids” as the food critic Jonathan Gold once put it.  Here they’re sauteed with a tomato and bell pepper sauce, with some scrambled egg thrown in.  As I mentioned before, Northwestern Chinese cuisine has some interesting influences outside of China, and this dish with the simmered tomatoes and peppers seams quite Mediterranean.

I actually didn’t have regular lamian at this place, the thin pulled noodles.  Here one of the guys is pulling the noodles by stretching the dough, doubling it over, then stretching it and hitting it on the table.  This is the difficult cooking skill that I really want to learn while living in China.  Actually tonight as I watched Chinese TV, a game show came on in which the contestants took turns trying to pull noodles.

These mango smoothies were wonderful.  They were topped with white tapioca, sweetened condensed milk, and some fresh cubes of mango.

Here are the smoothie toppings, including fresh fruit, but also things like white fungus and red beans.

This is the maze of cafes outside the school gate, the area where I ate many of my meals that week in Chengdu.  Let’s go back!

May 2012 Nanjing Trip
June 1, 2012, 1:12 pm
Filed under: Food-Focused Travelogues | Tags: , , , , , ,

I will be moving to Nanjing, China in the fall to teach at the national seminary there.  I am thrilled because I previously lived in China a few years.  It’s fantastic to have an opportunity to move back to China, and with a very fitting job.  I just spent two weeks in Nanjing for job training at the seminary.  I learned about my new job, and also spent time getting to know students.  They are extremely friendly and welcoming, and I feel good about moving there.

Since this is a food blog, I’m sharing the food photos from the trip.

This little hole-in-the-wall dumpling place is open 24 hours a day.  Good thing to know about.  They have two kinds of vegetarian dumplings, and this plate includes both kinds, half-and-half.  They make the classic leek and egg dumplings, but my favorite was the carrot, mushroom, and egg ones.  A plate of twelve was about a dollar US.  And the lime green chopsticks are cheerful.

Di san xian literally means “the three fresh things” and it’s a classic dish in Northeastern China.  When I did a study abroad term in Dalian in 1998, I ate this dish quite frequently.  It’s a combination of potatoes, eggplant, and green peppers, all cut in roughly the same size and shape, and served in a garlicky brown sauce.  It’s seriously delicious.  I ate this at a restaurant quite close to the Nanjing seminary campus, so I’m happy to know I can walk over and order a plate any time I need it.

Ganbian sijidou, dry-fried green beans.  This is one of the most famous Sichuan dishes, and this photo is of a great version at a restaurant near the seminary in Nanjing.  You can see it has plenty of whole hua jiao (Sichuan peppercorns) on top.  I don’t know how to say “addicted” in Mandarin, but I got addicted to the numbing sensation of hua jiao when I lived in Sichuan.

Cabbage stir-fried with chilies, garlic, and ginger.  This is fresh and savory.  I absolutely love simple Chinese stir-fried cabbage — I personally think it’s so much more delicious and interested than American raw cabbage coleslaws.  At home I usually stir-fry cabbage with garlic, ginger, and sherry or white wine.  That reminds me — I should post that recipe for you soon!

Morning glory is a classic in China, stir-fried with garlic.  It’s called “kong xin cai,” literally “hollow-heart vegetable” because the stems are hollow.  It’s a tasty and common side dish.

Homestyle tofu is usually sliced thin, fried until crispy on the edges, and then braised in a spicy sauce.  I ordered homestyle tofu with a friend who can’t eat spicy food, so they put together this mild version with black fungus.

Love hot and sour stir-fried potatoes.  Usually they are tossed with lots of chilies and some vinegar, but this version has chile oil instead.  Tasty and bright red.

Some students took me and another teacher out for lunch, and this watermelon drizzled with cream was the appetizer.

Preserved eggs.  This dish is a bit scary for many foreigners, but it’s mild, a few bites are not bad.

Lotus root stuffed with sticky rice.

“Songren yumi,” corn with pine nuts, is a classic combination in China.  In my experience dish usually also includes green chilies.  Thinking about the pairing of jalapenos in savory cornbread, it seems that corn and chilies are a perfect pairing that separate world cuisines discovered.

These tofu noodles are almost like tofu skin, but a little thicker.  They’re paired here bok choi and mushrooms in a satisfying dish.

The students who took us out to lunch also gave us this cake topped with fruit.  The little message on the cake says, “Jesus loves you” which was cute and sweet of them.

Asparagus cut on the diagonal and stir-fried.

Here is another simple and savory version of homestyle tofu.

We were served this vegetable at a special lunch on campus with school administrators.  The vegetable is so rare and special that the cook had to explain it to everyone.  It is similar to a scallion, but is somewhere in between a scallion and a lotus root.  The hue is slightly green, and also slightly grey-lavender.  The cook kept insisting we try it because she said it’s so delicious.  It truly is surprisingly delicious, and extremely flavorful.  I’m sorry that I forgot the name of it !

A simple dish of spongy squash combined with soybeans.

While I ate a few special meals on this trip, most of my meals were with students in the school cafeteria.  The meals were simple and it was great to sit with students and get to know them.  Breakfasts were standard Chinese breakfasts, and it’s a good thing I generally enjoy Chinese breakfasts.  For lunches and dinners, the cafeteria offered about 6 dishes per meal, and usually 2 of the dishes were vegetarian.  The servers behind the counter quickly learned that I am a vegetarian, and would simply put the vegetarian offerings on a metal tray for me.  Since I love cooking, when I move here I will probably prefer cooking for myself in my apartment instead of eating in the cafeteria.  However, because it’s a great place to spend time with students, I will probably still eat there a few meals per week.

Here is a typical breakfast at the student cafeteria.  There were always a few baozi options.  Baozi are the steamed buns that are filled, and then pinched on top.  This one happened to be filled with black sesame, which is delicious and not too sweet.  In my experience, sometimes baozi at breakfast can be dry, but the cafeteria knows how to make them well.  They are fresh and hot.  You can also see a plan steamed mantou bun in the back corner.  There were always hardboiled eggs available, and sometimes they were tea-eggs.  Chinese tea-eggs (cha jidan) are hardboiled eggs steeped in tea, soy sauce, and star anise.  They are richly flavorful and delicious since those strong flavors are infused into the hardboiled egg.  The cafeteria also always offers some sort of porridge.  Sometimes it was plain rice porridge (xifan), but most days on my trip is was this babaozhou, the 8-treasure porridge which includes all sorts of grains including red beans and peanuts.  I think it’s more interesting than plain xifan.

Eating in the cafeteria: here we have morning glory (similar to spinach), a simple and watery cabbage soup, and cold vinegary gluten cubes.  The cold squishy gluten is common in Sichuan, so I learned to enjoy it sometimes.  I once heard that while Americans are usually fond of crispy and crunchy textures, the Chinese are equally passionate about rubbery textures in their food.  So you’ll find lots of rubbery and glutenous items on Chinese menus.

Eating in the cafeteria: fensi noodles with cabbage.  This was tasty.  The dish in the back corner was potatoes with eggplant.

Eating in the cafeteria: simple morning glory in the back corner, and classic leeks with eggs in the front.  They also accidentally gave me “cuipi doufu,” crispy skin tofu, which had pork in it, so I didn’t eat it.

Eating in the cafeteria: stir-fried lettuce in the back corner.  While I’m a person who really enjoys greens, I actually don’t really care for stir-fried lettuce.  It might be too bland?  In the middle we have stir-fried tomatoes and eggs.  I enjoy the egg and tomato soup, but haven’t been a fan of the stir-fried version.  My extended family on my mom’s side all has an aversion to tomatoes, so this dish isn’t my favorite.  The tofu in the front was the star of this meal for me.  Strips of chewy tofu were stir-fried with bean sprouts, green chilies, and lots of ginger.

Eating in the cafeteria: I’m always a sucker for Chinese stir-fried potatoes, so I loved these.  The other vegetarian dish that day was sliced onions with egg.  I felt like this combination has potential, but that the onions were too sharp and overpowering.

Eating in the cafeteria: garlicky cabbage is tasty and enjoyable.  I also enjoyed the cold and vinegary squishy gluten cubes.

I’ll close this post with a photo of students doing late-night eating in a bustling shopping area near the campus.  This shopping area is in between several universities, and is geared toward college students with lots tiny shops selling cheap and cute things.  You can see that the area also has rows of snack places, and many of the stalls had Chinese-Muslim food, which is the unique cuisine from Northwestern China.  This neighborhood also had rows of boba tea and juice places.  In the months to come, you’ll probably find me here snacking.

Baingan ka Shahi Bharta — Indian Creamy Mashed Eggplant with Peas
February 13, 2012, 11:39 am
Filed under: main dishes, recipes | Tags: ,

This is one of my favorite Indian recipes, and is in regular rotation at my house.  The luscious texture comes from roasting the eggplant whole.  It’s simple to pull together for a weeknight, and I made a triple-batch yesterday for a church potluck.   I tend to make it on the spicier side, but the recipe has a sliding scale for the chilies.

The recipe comes from Neelam Matra’s cookbook 1,000 Indian Recipes.  It was considered to be the best recipe in the cookbook by Food and Wine.  Instead of chopping the onions, I puree the onions in a food processor with the garlic and chilies to make a smooth paste before sauteeing.  Making a paste with the aromatics in this way is a common technique with other Indian recipes, and it allows you to focus on the texture of the soft eggplant, without pieces of onion getting in the way.  I also puree the tomatoes as well.


1 large oval-shaped eggplant (about 1 pound)

1 large onion

1 large clove garlic

1-3 fresh green chilies

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 tablespoon ground coriander

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1/2 teaspoon garam masala

1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper, or to taste

1/2 teaspoon paprika

1 teaspoon sea salt, or to taste

1 large tomato, or the equivalent of canned tomatoes

1 cup frozen peas

1/4 cup heavy or light cream (half-and-half)


Poke a hole in the eggplant with a fork or knife.  Place it on a small baking sheet, and roast the eggplant under the broiler in the oven.  Broil it for about 10 minutes on 2 sides.  Pull it out of the oven and let it rest for a few minutes until it’s cool enough to handle.  Cut a long vertical slit down the side, and scoop out all of the eggplant flesh with a spoon.  Discard the purple skin, but be sure to save all of the roasting juices.

Slice the onion, garlic, and chilies.  Puree them in a food processor until finely minced, or in a a smooth paste.  This will make the final dish smoother.

Heat the oil in a heavy pan.  When hot, add the onion mixture, and cook for about 10-15 minutes, stirring occasionally.  Mix in the coriander, cumin, garam masala, cayenne, paprika, and salt.  Stir for 1 minute.

Chop or puree the tomato.  I generally puree it with a hand blender until smooth.  You may want to grate the tomato with a large-hole cheese grater for a more rustic texture.  Add the tomato to the pot, and cook for 5-7 minutes.  Mix in the mashed eggplant and the peas.  Reduce the heat to medium-low and cook, stirring occasionally, for about 15 minutes.

Mix in the cream, and cook 1 minute.

Macedonian Eggplant and Chickpea Stew
October 14, 2011, 8:46 pm
Filed under: main dishes, recipes | Tags: , , ,

I’m joining the cool kids, and am beginning to learn how to grow vegetables in the backyard.  This week, a few of the eggplants look ready, so I wanted to find a delicate eggplant recipe to highlight a super-fresh vegetable pulled right from the garden. 

After perusing all of my Middle Eastern cookbooks, I happened upon this Paula Wolfert recipe from The Cooking of the Eastern Mediterranean.  Her long introduction to this recipe was exuberant and poetic, and I knew that if the stew made her this electric, then I would love it as well.  Paula first tasted this dish at a conference in Greece on traditional Greek food-ways, at a special Lenten meal accompanied by clerical prayers, candles, and ancient Christian music.

This dish takes some time to cook  — 2  1/2 hours in the oven, or all day in a crock pot — but is pretty easy to assemble.  The advantage of slow-cooking is that the delicate eggplant softens to melt in your mouth, and you don’t have to worry about last-minute kitchen management before supper.  I enjoyed smelling this cook all afternoon while I read textbooks in the next room.  If you like something like a French ratatouille, this is somewhat similar in terms of ingredients, but is far superior and delicate because of the slow-cooking.  The flavors have time to marry and soften. 

Note that you’ll need to plan ahead and soak your dried chickpeas overnight.  You could used canned chickpeas in a pinch, but the dried chickpeas have a better texture, and are cheaper.  Paula Wolfert says the ultimate version of this stew is achieved from baking the stew in an earthenware pot, but I think most of us don’t own clay pots, or at least not yet.  I baked mine in an enamed cast iron pot (Le Creseut) and it was lovely.

The large pepper and hot chili provide an appropriate soft echo of heat.  Along with the eggplant, I was also able to use a larger pepper and a smaller chili (jalapeno) from the garden as well.


1/2 pound chickpeas, soaked overnight

1-pound eggplant

coarse salt

1/4 cup olive oil

2 cups chopped onions

1 large green frying pepper

2  1/2 teaspoons chopped long green chili

1  1/2 teaspoons garlic

2 cups canned tomatoes with juice

1/2 cup chopped parsley

1 teaspoon oregano

1 bay leaf


Drain the chickpeas after soaking overnight.  Place in a saucepan, add fresh water to cover, bring to a boil, and simmer, covered, over low heat until half-cooked, about 45 minutes.  Set aside.

Meanwhile, peel the eggplant and cut into 1-inch cubes.  Sprinkle lightly with salt and let stand in a colander to draw off excess moisture, about 45 minutes.  Set aside.

Chop the onions.  Chop both the large pepper and small chili into small pieces.  Peel and crush the garlic with pinch of salt.  I used a mortar and pestle for this.

Preheat the oven to 300F (if baking instead of using a crock pot).

Heat the oil in a 12-inch skillet.  Add the onions, frying pepper, and chili.  Stir 3 minutes.  Add the eggplant and saute without browning it, 2 more minutes.  Add the garlic, tomatoes with juice, parsley, oregano, and 1 teaspoon coarse salt.  Cook at a simmer 10 minutes, stirring often.

In a 4-quart oven-proof cast iron pot, bean pot, clay casserole, or crock pot, mix the chickpeas,  1  3/4 cups of their cooking liquid, the bay leaf, and the contents of the skillet.  Cover and bake in the oven 2  1/2 hours, or alternatively all day in the crock pot.  The aroma will be extremely fragrant, and the chickpeas very tender.  Remove the lid and bake 10 minutes more to allow excess moisture to evaporate. 

This stew is so completely satisfying that Paula Wolfert suggests that it only needs to be accompanied by dense, chewy bread.  I served it with a rice pilaf today.

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!

Summer Eggplant Parmesan
July 24, 2010, 9:25 am
Filed under: main dishes, recipes | Tags: , , , ,

A light and delicate take on eggplant parmesan for summer suppers. This is worlds away from your typical casserole, nothing like those bricks of heavy breaded eggplant.

This concept comes from Deborah Madison, who layers broiled eggplant slices with basil leaves, fresh mozzarella, and a light tomato sauce. I typically make this with slices of regular globe eggplants, but my local Arab market is currently selling tiny baby eggplants, truly as small as eggs. I thought I’d throw a version of this together with these baby eggplants. It turned out to be one of the cutest baked dishes.

The photos document my baby eggplant version, but the instructions cover both versions.


  • 1.5 pounds eggplant
  • olive oil
  • tomato sauce ( I like to use mine, but feel free to use another fresh tomato sauce recipe)
  • basil leaves
  • 4 oz. fresh mozzarella ( I have also had good results substituting goat cheese, if you want to go in that direction)
  • grated Parmesan


I usually start the assembly by starting to simmer the tomato sauce.

Trim the stems and slice the baby eggplants in half lengthwise. Sprinkle with salt and let stand 30 minutes. Then blot dry with a paper towel. I confess that I forgot this step. I remembered when I bit into one, and it was slightly bitter. The salting step removes the bitterness.

Fry the baby eggplant halves in a skillet on each side until golden, and soft when poked with a fork. Season lightly with salt and pepper. When I use the globe eggplants, I broil the slices in the oven, but since the baby eggplant slices were thicker, I guessed they would cook slowly and more evenly in a skillet.

If you are using globe eggplants, slice them into rounds 1/3 inch thick. Salt and blot them, as described above. Brush each with olive oil, and broil in the oven. Let them broil 5-6 minutes per side, until golden brown and soft. Season lightly with salt and pepper.

At this point, I finish my tomato sauce, removing the onions, whirring it with a stick blender. For this dish, I also add a handful of torn basil leaves to the sauce at the very end.

For assembly, coat the bottom of your baking dish with tomato sauce. Arrange the baby eggplant halves. Top each with a slice of fresh mozzarella, a small basil leaf on each, then another eggplant-half to create a sort of sandwich.

Gently top each “eggplant-sandwich” with tomato sauce to lightly cover, then about a teaspoon each of grated Parmesan.

If you were using globe eggplant slices, you would overlap the slices in a layer, and proceed in the same assembly order.

Bake in a 375F oven for 25-35 minutes, until the cheese is melted and the sauce is bubbling.