keito potato

Traditional Tofu-Making Experience in Debao, Guangxi
August 16, 2013, 2:42 am
Filed under: Food-Focused Travelogues, Living in China | Tags: , ,

This summer I spent 3 weeks in Guangxi and Guangdong provinces visiting some of my students.   One of the places I visited was Debao County, a remote mountainous region in Guangxi near the Vietnamese border.  While in Debao County, my student took me to Du’an Village for the day to learn the traditional method for making tofu.

Du'an landscape

Debao County is known for excellent homemade tofu.  Debao people regard mass-produced tofu (what the rest of us eat) as “fake tofu.”  Only homemade tofu is considered “real tofu” and most people only eat tofu that was freshly made that morning.  The tofu-masters get up before dawn to make a batch at home.  Then after dawn they take the fresh tofu to the market to sell.  Before this trip, my student waxed poetically about the tofu from this area, claiming it’s the most delicious in China.  He couldn’t contain his excitement about introducing me to a “tofu master” so that I could learn the old method.

When I arrived in Debao, I was promptly served a meal that included fresh tofu and I swooned.  Their homemade tofu has a wonderful rich fermented flavor, like a good beer or German bread.  It is usually served in simple ways, often pan-fried plain or with garlic.  This fresh tofu has a deep flavor on its own, and doesn’t need a complex sauce to find flavor.


My student introduced me to a woman in her 80s who taught us the traditional method for making tofu.  You can make tofu at home using a blender, however the traditional method creates a richer flavor and better texture.  A big stone grinding wheel is required.  Most homes in these villages have a stone grinding wheel to grind dried corn.  We started that morning by grinding the raw soybeans to lightly crush the beans and take the peeling off the soybeans.  The wheel is incredibly heavy and difficult to turn.

stone grinder

stone grinder

We were told that in the modern tofu-making process, the skins are removed from the soybeans after cooking, or not removed at all, which makes a poor product.  Removing the skins before cooking the beans creates a more even texture.

stone grinder

After the raw soybeans are crushed, the skins are shaken off.  They used a wide, flat basket to shake the skins onto the cement floor.

shaking the peels off

Next the soybeans are soaked in cold water for 30 minutes to soften slightly.  Then the soybeans are ground a second time on the stone grinder.

After the second grinding, the soybeans are cooked in water over an extremely low fire.  A wood fire is preferred.  They use a special kind of wood that perfumes the tofu with extra flavor.

cooking the soybeans

Once the soybeans have come to a rolling boil, a little cold soaking liquid is added to cool the mixture down slightly.  Then a fermenting ash is added.  This fermenting ash is a by-product from the previous batch of homemade tofu.  Once the ash is added, the liquid will start to curdle.  I tasted a little at this stage, and it was delicious.

Then the mixture is poured into a wooden frame that has holes in the bottom for draining.  The frame is lined on the inside with fabric, which creates a pretty pattern on the finished tofu.

wooden frame

wooden frame


After all of the mixture is poured into the frame, and is wrapped gently in fabric, we pressed the wooden lid firmly to help squeeze excess liquid out.

pressing the wooden lid

The tofu only takes a few minutes to set into a firm rectangular shape.  Once it has set, the sides of the frame are removed (like a springform pan).

removable frame sides

Then the lid is removed and the tofu is cut into rectangles.  We used a measuring tape to create lines to guide the knife.

cutting the tofu

The fresh tofu was promptly fried up for lunch.  It had a rustic presentation, but was more delicious than words can describe.  I greedlily ate more than my fair share on that plate.  I was so proud that I helped make this tofu!

fresh tofu

That day while we were making tofu, the orchestra of that village came over to play a concert for me.  The orchestra of Du’an village is the premiere orchestra for Zhuang Opera, which is the Zhuang Minority style of Chinese Opera.  The top orchestra has always come from this village, and they were proud to play a private concert for me to welcome me to their village. It was one of the most incredible experiences of my life.  The musicians are all farmers, and learned by watching their elders.  None of them read sheet music.  They apologized for not wearing traditional concert attire.  Here’s one of the videos that my students recorded.

In the 1950s, the Zhuang Opera orchestra from this village (which would have the elders of the current members), travelled to Beijing to perform for Mao Zedong and Zhoul Enlai.  They played one song for me from the concert for Mao.  It’s a song celebrating farm life, and the instruments are used create the sounds of birds in the early morning.

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!

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!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A glazed pumpkin half. Delicate.

Daikon strips marinated in sesame.

Stir-fried fava beans with chives.

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

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

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

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

Rice sticks. Savory and crispy. Not bad.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Squash blossoms at the market.

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

Fresh and tender bamboo shoots.

Extra-long asparagus in the market.

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

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

Thai Pumpkin with Tofu and Basil
September 30, 2009, 7:18 pm
Filed under: main dishes, recipes | Tags: , , ,

Thair stir-fried pumpkin
Southern California finally got a hint of fall this week, right at the tail end of September. I can actually wear a cardigan in the evenings now. I bought a butternut squash to celebrate the change of seasons, and used a fabulous recipe that my sister Deb pointed me to last winter. It’s an elegant and unusual stir-fry from my favorite Thai cookbook, True Thai by Victor Sodsook. Slices of pumpkin are stir-fried with tofu, basil, and an insane amount of garlic.

Now that the weather is cooling off, I imagine I will make this on a regular basis. It’s a cinch to assemble, and I love making my house smell like garlic.

The recipe calls for kabocha pumpkin, but I used butternut squash since that’s what my grocery had in stock today. I might get in trouble for saying this, but I think many winter squashes and pumpkins can be used interchangeably in most dishes.

For this recipe you will need to obtain a bottle of “crushed yellow bean sauce.” It’s an earthy and delicious fermented bean sauce that reminds me of the black bean paste used in Sichuanese tofu dishes like mapo tofu. You can easily find this sauce in an Asian grocery. My “Healthy Boy Brand” bottle has a funny baby on the label.
Healthy Boy Brand yellow bean sauce


1 pound kabocha pumpkin or butternut squash
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
10 cloves garlic, crushed
2 tablespoons crushed yellow bean sauce (tao jiew dam)
2 1/2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 teaspoon white pepper
3 tablespoons vegetable stock
19 ounces firm tofu, cut into bite-size pieces
3/4 cup loosely packed Thai basil or Italian basil


Scoop out and discard the seeds and fibers from the pumpkin or squash. With a sharp, heavy knife or cleaver, chop it into quarters. Cut off most of the peel and slice the pumpkin into thin, bite-size pieces.

Place all stir-fry ingredients within easy reach of the cooking area.

Set a wok over medium-high heat. (If you don’t have a wok, a wide skillet will do). When it is quite hot, add the oil. Rotate the wok a bit so the oil coats the sides. When the oil is hot, add the garlic and stir-fry briefly, just until golden and aromatic. Add the pumpkin and stir-fry for 3 minutes.

Add the yellow bean sauce and brown sugar, and stir-fry until blended, about 1 minute. Add the white pepper and vegetable stock and stir-fry for 30 seconds. Add the tofu and stir-fry until it is heated through, about 1 1/2 minutes.

Turn off the heat. Stir in the basil and cook for a few seconds, just until the basil begins to wilt.

Transfer to a serving platter and serve with steamed rice and chile sauce.