keito potato

Italian Arugula and Fennel Salad with Basil Dressing
August 4, 2012, 11:12 pm
Filed under: recipes, salads | Tags: , , , , ,

This salad was one of the show-stoppers at a recent vegetarian cooking group meal.  My friends Nina and Tim planned an Italian menu, and this flavorful salad was phenomenal.  I have become addicted to it in the last two weeks, and have probably made it five times in that period of time.  I normally love the black-pepper-spiciness of arugula salads, and this one is unique with refreshing fennel slices, and the thick basil dressing.  The green opaque basil dressing is as thick as pesto, but with more flavor and less oil.  I would love to use this in other dishes where I used to use pesto.  The lemon, fennel fronds, and touch of honey all lift and brighten the basil flavor.  It tastes like the essence of summer.

You will need a sharp vegetable peeler to shave the fennel bulb.  I tried making this one time by slicing the fennel, but the slices were too thick and crunchy.  The fennel really needs to be shaved, so that it is fluffy and feathery. Many stores sell vegetarian parmesan (without animal rennet).  Trader Joe’s has a handy guide about various types of rennet in their products, and their vegetarian parmesan is shredded and comes in a bag.


2 bunches of arugula

1-2 fennel bulbs

1/2 bunch fresh basil

1/2 lemon

1 teaspoon fennel seeds

5 tablespoons olive oil salt and pepper

1/2 teaspoon honey parmesan or pecorino cheese


Zest the lemon.  With a sharp knife, remove the white pith.  Put the inner part of the lemon into a food processor.  Add the basil, fennel seeds, the fluffy fennel greens from the stalks, 4 tablespoons of olive oil.  Puree.  Gradually add the 5th tablespoon of olive oil, if needed.  Now add the lemon zest, honey, salt, and pepper to the dressing.  Puree again to mix.  You can make this a few hours ahead of time, and chill in the refrigerator, if needed. Grate the parmesan or pecorino cheese.  Arrange the gratings onto a lined baking sheet into little flat 2-inch circles.  Broil these in the oven until they melt and turn into little disks.

Arrange the arugula in a large bowl or a wide platter.  Use a sharp vegetable peeler to shave the fennel bulb.  Add the fennel shavings to the salad.  Top the salad with the dressing and disks of broiled cheese.

Congolese Romaine-Lettuce Stew with Peanut Sauce
July 28, 2012, 7:07 pm
Filed under: main dishes, recipes | Tags: , ,

I recently spent an afternoon cooking with some Congolese friends Florimond and Gisele, and this lettuce and peanut stew blew me away.  When I took the first bite, I almost got tears in my eyes because I was so overwhelmed by the fantastic flavor.

I had never heard of stewing romaine lettuce.  They explained to me that while spinach and other dark greens are often used in DR Congo, romaine lettuce is imported as a delicacy, and is revered for the delicate flavor and texture.

The recipe calls for cherry tomatoes, but you can substitute large tomatoes.


3 heads of romaine lettuce

3 tablespoons olive oil

1/4 of a head of celery (several stalks)

1 onion

2 garlic cloves

1 bunch of scallions

10 cherry tomatoes (or 2 large tomatoes)

1 can of tomato paste

3/4 cup to 1 cup of natural peanut butter

garlic salt to taste


Wash the romaine lettuce leaves.  Slice the leaves cross-wise, then wash them again.  Place the lettuce in a large pot with 3-4 cups of water.  Bring to a boil, then lower to a simmer.  Continue simmering for about 20 minutes. 

In the meantime, prepare the rest of the vegetables.  Slice the onion.  Mince the garlic cloves.  Chop the celery.  Slice the scallions in 1/2-inch pieces.  Chop the cherry tomatoes.

Heat the olive oil in a skillet.  When hot, add the onions, garlic, celery, scallions, and cherry tomatoes.  Let it sit a few minutes before stirring.  Then stir, and add the can of tomato paste.  

Add the peanut butter and stir again.  The peanut butter is stiff, so you will need to stir with some pressure.  

Add 1-can of water, using the tomato paste can to measure.  Cook a few minutes in the skillet, then add the sauce to the lettuce.  Stir, add a few shakes of garlic salt.  Don’t cover the pot, so that the lettuce will keep its color.  

Let it simmer about another 30 minutes.  Taste for salt at the end.  Serve with rice or fufu.

Spinach, Neon Rice, and Black Bean Casserole to use as a Filling for Burritos or Soft Tacos
June 26, 2012, 2:07 pm
Filed under: main dishes, recipes | Tags: ,

My mom found this recipe over 10 years ago in the LA Times Food Section, and my family often makes this for casual summer meals with guests.  She actually altered the recipe and submitted it to the Simply in Season cookbook in the Mennonite community, and got it published in the cookbook under her name.  This is a casserole built from contrasting layers of garlicky spinach, neon-yellow rice pilaf, and spicy black beans.  The casserole is used as a filling for vegetarian burritos or soft tacos.  The components of the casserole come together in a snap.  While it’s in the oven, you can prep the toppings which can include avocado, cotija cheese, lime wedges, salsa, fresh herbs.


For the Rice:

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 medium onion

1 garlic clove

3/4 cup rice

3/4 teaspoon turmeric

1  1/2 cup vegetable broth

1/4 teaspoon salt

For the Spinach:

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 tablespoon minced garlic

20 ounces fresh spinach

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

For the Black Beans:

2  15-ounce cans of black beans

1 tablespoon chili powder

For assembly:

1 cup grated jack cheese


Optional toppings:

lime wedges

cotija cheese

sour cream or Mexican crema

avocado or guacamole

salsa or hot sauce

cilantro leaves


For the rice:

Mince the onion and garlic.  Heat the olive oil in a saucepan.  Add the onion and garlic to the saucepan and saute until soft.  Meanwhile rinse and drain the rice in several changes of water.  Add the rice to the saucepan, along with the turmeric, vegetable broth, and salt.  Bring it to a boil, then reduce to a simmer, covered, until the liquid is absorbed, around 15-18 minutes.

For the spinach:

Heat the olive oil in a wide skillet.  When hot, add the garlic.  After a few seconds, add the spinach a few handfuls at a time.  When the spinach wilts and reduces in size, add another handful, and repeat until all of the spinach fits into the skillet.  Cook, stirring often, until all of the spinach is wilted.  Add the salt and pepper.

For the beans:

Rinse and drain the canned beans very well in a colander.  Combine the black beans and chili powder in a medium mixing bowl.  Mix well.

For the assembly:

Spoon half of the garlicky spinach in the bottom of a 2-quart casserole dish.  Layer the neon rice pilaf on top, then the beans, then the remaining spinach.  Top with the jack cheese.  At this point, the casserole could be made in advance and refrigerated overnight.

Bake at 375F for about 45 minutes, covered with a lid.

Meanwhile, heat the tortillas on a griddle or skillet on the stove.  You can also use this time to prep the various garnishes in small bowls to be served at the table.

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.

Mustard Green Saag Paneer
January 8, 2012, 7:35 pm
Filed under: main dishes, recipes | Tags: ,

Saag paneer is an Indian dish consisting of a pool of soft spinach stew studded with cubes of firm paneer cheese.  The spinach is “saag” and the cheese is “paneer.”  This traditional dish is improved with the revolutionary addition of mustard greens, as well  a thoughtful balance of spices.  I made this mustard green saag paneer twice over the holidays because my family kept requesting it.

I am sometimes cautious about ordering saag paneer in restaurants because the flavor can be bland when prepared for timid American palates.  However I was fortunate to discover this perfect and vibrant recipe in Raghavan Iyer’s cookbook 660 Curries, which is also the source of the fabulous and spicy version of muttar paneer that I shared over the summer.  Not only is the spice blend here lovely, but Iyer’s insight to add mustard greens makes the dish more pungent and flavorful.  This is a wonderfully enjoyable way to eat your greens.

For those of you unfamiliar with paneer, it’s a dense Indian cheese that holds its shape when folded into hot curries.  It is often pan-fried before being added to curries (although many Indian restaurants cut corners by tossing in small cold cubes).  You can find paneer in Indian groceries, and some Arab markets in my area carry it as well.  When I visit Indian groceries, I often buy several packages of paneer, and store it in the freezer so that I always have it on hand.  If you freeze yours, remember to thaw it before using.  If you are unable to find paneer in your area, the greens in this dish are so delicious that you could easily enjoy it without the paneer.  Alternatively, you could substitute the paneer for big chunks of steamed potato, which would create a delicious “saag aloo.”


6-8 ounces fresh spinach leaves

1 large bunch mustard greens

1 teaspoon whole coriander seeds

1/4 teaspoon cumin seeds

1/4 teaspoon black peppercorns

3 cloves

cardamom seeds from 3 green cardamom pods

1 dried red chile

1 medium onion

6 medium-size garlic cloves

2-inches of ginger

2 tablespoons canola or olive oil

2 tablespoons tomato paste

1 cup water

1/2 teaspoon turmeric

1  1/2 teaspoon kosher or sea salt

14-18 ounces paneer cheese

1/2 cup heavy cream

1/2 teaspoon garam masala


Soak the spinach leaves and mustard greens in a large bowl of cold water.  Let them sit a few minutes to soak which will loosen any dirt clinging to the leaves, then pull out the leaves.  Finely chop the spinach and mustard greens.  One way to easily chop the large mustard green leaves is to stack about 5 large leaves on top of each other.  Roll them up like a cigar, then thinly slice the roll.  This technique of slicing a “cigar” of stacked and rolled leaves is called “chiffonade.”  At this point, you can easily chop the leaves more finely.  Repeat this stacking, rolling, slicing, and chopping process with the rest of the leaves.

Make the spice blend by combining the coriander seeds, cumin seeds, black peppercorns, cloves, cardamom seeds, and dried red chile in a coffee grinder or spice grinder.  If you are using a coffee grinder, you will probably want to wipe the grinder before and after with a damp paper-towel.

Prepare the paneer by cutting it into inch-size cubes.  

Pan-fry the paneer in a wide skillet with about 1/4 cup or less of oil.  Rotate the cubes to fry on all sides until the color is honey-brown.  This will take about 7-10 minutes.  Let them drain on a paper-towel.

Slice the onion.  Roughly chop the garlic cloves.  Slice the 2-inch piece of ginger into long slices.  

Heat the 2 tablespoons of oil in a skillet over medium heat.  Add the onion, garlic, and ginger, and stir-fry until the onion is light brown, 8-10 minutes.  Remove the skillet from the heat, and stir in the spice mixture you made in the grinder, plus the turmeric.  The heat from the onion should be just right to lightly cook the spices without burning them.  

Transfer the mixture to a blender or food processor.  Add the tomato paste and 1/4 cup of the water.  Puree to create a smooth paste.  Return the paste to the skillet.  Pour the remaining 3/4 cup water to the blender or food processor, and whir the blades to wash it out and capture the remaining paste.  Add this to the skillet as well.

Place the skillet over medium heat.  Pile handfuls of the greens into the skillet, cover it, and let the steam wilt them.  Stir, and repeat with the remaining greens.  Once they are all wilted, cover the skillet and cook, stirring occasionally, until the greens are broken down to a sauce-like consistency and are olive-green in color, 10-15 minutes.

Stir in the salt, garam masala, paneer cubes, and cream.  Continue simmering the curry, covered, stirring occasionally, until the cheese and cream are warmed through, 5-8 minutes.

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!

Spinach Dal Soup with Lime
August 8, 2011, 7:30 pm
Filed under: recipes, soups | Tags: , , , , ,

A clean, earthy,vibrant, and restorative soup.  This makes an intriguing first course for an Indian meal, and can also stand on its own for a healthful supper.  This evening I ate two bowls of it in the backyard. 

I adapted this soup from a dal recipe in Yamuna Devi’s cookbook, The Best of Lord Krishna’s Cuisine.  I have doubled the amount of spinach which I have  proclivity to do.  I also have substituted lime juice instead of lemon, and have quadrupled the amount of the juice.  You are welcome to serve this over rice, but because of its thin consistency I prefer to eat it straight as a soup.

A small amount of asafoetida powder gives this soup an intoxicating twist.  You might need to visit an Indian deli/grocery to find it. Be forewarned that when you unscrew the lid of the jar, the raw asafoetida powder will smell a little weird.  But relax: once the asafoetida cooks, its weirdness will calm down, and dissolve into the soup as merely assertive and interesting.

This soup calls for split “mung” (or “moong”) dal, which is apparently the most popular dal in Northern India.  If you can’t find split mung dal nearby, you can easily substitute normal orange lentils.  I’ve done that substitution a few times in a pinch, and it works fine.


2/3 cup split mung dal

6  1/2 cups water

1 teaspoon turmeric

1  1/2 teaspoons ground coriander

1  1/2 teaspoons grated ginger

quick dollop of olive oil or vegetable oil

1 lb. fresh spinach (Yamuna Devi uses 1/2 lb.)

1  1/4 teaspoons salt

2 tablespoons olive oil or vegetable oil

1 teaspoon cumin seeds

1/4 teaspoon asafoetida

1/4-1/2 teaspoon cayenne

juice of 1 lime (roughly 2 tablespoons)


Sort, wash, and drain the mung beans.  Place them in a heavy saucepan, along with the water, turmeric, ground coriander, grated ginger, and a quick dollop of olive oil.  Stirring occasionally, bring to a full boil over high heat.  Reduce the heat to low, cover with a tight-fitting lid, and gently boil for 1 hour.  The dal should be soft and fully cooked.

While this is cooking, roughly chop the spinach.  I admit that I rather enjoy getting out my big Chinese cleaver and chopping a huge pile of spinach.  The movement feels as soft as cutting marshmallows, and works well to calm the nerves.

When the dal has cooked for an hour, off the heat, uncover, and add the salt.  Beat with a wire whisk or hand-held immersion blender.  Add the fresh spinach, cover and boil gently for 5-8 minutes more.

Have your cumin, asafoetida, and cayenne measured out so that you’ll be able to work quickly.  Heat the 2 tablespoons of oil in a small saucepan or skillet over moderate to moderately high heat.  When it is hot, pour in the cumin seeds and fry until they are brown.  Add the asafoetida and cayenne, and fry for just 1-2 seconds more.  Then quickly pour the fried seasonings into the soup.  Cover immediately. 

Let the seasonings soak into the hot dal for 1-2 minutes.  During this time, juice the lime.  Add the lime juice, and stir.  Taste for salt.  I often add 1/2 – 1 teaspoon more salt at the end, but it’s safer to start with less, and work up to what you need.