keito potato

Icy Harbin: Two weeks in a North Korean-Chinese Home
September 24, 2014, 11:21 pm
Filed under: Food-Focused Travelogues, Living in China | Tags: , , , ,

Last winter I spent two weeks in Harbin, a northeastern Chinese city near the Russian border.  I lived in my friend’s home for those weeks and celebrated Spring Festival (Chinese New Year) with her family.  My friend recently graduated from the Master’s program at my school in Nanjing.  When she lived here, she had become one of my best friends in Nanjing, so she invited me to travel north to celebrate the holiday with her family.  She is ethnically Korean, from a family who came to China from what is now North Korea a few generations ago, before the Korean War.  Several of her family members still live in North Korea.

In Harbin I enjoyed the thrill of the freezing weather and the beauty of the Ice Festival, but the highlight was living with this family for two weeks, cooking together, playing majiang, and celebrating Spring Festival.  It truly felt like going home for the holidays.  I’ve traveled extensively in China, and this was probably my favorite experience thus far.

Harbin Ice Festival

Harbin has an annual ice festival, in which they build an entire village out of ice.

Harbin Ice Festival

The ice buildings are lit up at night.  This ice arched bridge was extremely slippery to walk on.

ice slide

There were several ice slides at the ice festival.

Ice Festival

An ice Parthenon lit up at night.

ice carousal

The ice festival isn’t the only place for ice sculptures.  Some of the downtown streets were lined with ice art like this ice carousel.  I can’t imagine sitting on this for very long.

Russian Orthodox Church

Located near the Russian border, Harbin has a strong Russian influence.  The downtown has several Russian Orthodox churches, and many of the streets reminded me of the architecture in Moscow and St. Petersburg. I had numerous flashbacks to my two trips to Russia in 1995 and 2002, when I visited my sister who lived there for several years.  Elsewhere in China people ask me where I come from.  In Harbin, people just assumed I was Russian.

Harbin synagogue

Part of Harbin’s Russian influence comes from the city’s history of welcoming Jews who were fleeing Russia and Europe around the turn of the century.  This synagogue is now a museum dedicated to the history of Harbin’s Jewish community, many of whom were business leaders and prominent professors and musicians in the city.  They built much of the downtown which gives the city its distinct non-Chinese character.

jade menorah

My favorite object in the synagogue museum was this jade menorah.

Songhua River

My friend’s mother and I became fast friends.  She and I took regular walks along the frozen Songhua River.  You can see a family here walking across the ice.

ice rink on the Songhua River

Here is an ice rink built right into the frozen Songhua River.

Harbin farmers

Some farmers just outside of Harbin hauling a load of wood.

Harbin farmhouse

A farmhouse outside of Harbin.

Harbin cat

Most of the animals I saw in Harbin had grown enormous coats of fluffy fur to protect them from the cold.  This cat’s fur is amazing.

frozen bus stop

A solitary bus stop outside the city.

Michelle at Harbin's seminary

My friend now teaches at Harbin’s seminary.  The architecture of their library resembles a stack of books.


I also visited this pastor on the right, who was my student during my first year in Nanjing.  She is a vivacious head pastor of a small church.

Dawai neighborhood

My friend took me to a neighborhood called Dawai, an area of old buildings built around the turn of the century that are condemned but still inhabited.  The facades of the buildings are Russian in style, but the interiors are built in the Chinese courtyard style.  The buildings are falling apart, but people are still living there.  We saw clothes hung out in the courtyards.

frozen staircase

A frozen dilapidated staircase.

old movie theatre

An old movie theatre.

Harbin Mosque

We visited Harbin’s mosque and chatted with one of the imams at the Halal bakery.

Michelle in Dawai

My friend posing with a candied-haw vendor cart.

North Korean ice skating

We happened upon an ice skating performance by a North Korean troupe.  They displayed a giant patriotic video behind the ice skaters.  A surreal experience.


While in Harbin, I visited “731,” the site where Japanese soldiers tested chemical weapons and performed live vivisections on Chinese citizens during WWII.  Horrific.

Spring Festival fires

During the weeks leading up to Spring Festival (Chinese New Year), every night I saw people burning fake money in the streets as part of the ritual.

Spring Festival fireworks

Firecrackers in China are all about the noise.  People set them off on the sidewalk even during the day.


The highlight of my Harbin trip was spending time with my friend and her mom.  We became really close.  She said I was like another daughter to her, and she cried when I left.  My friend had to work several days during my visit, so her mom and I would spend the days together cooking, taking walks along the frozen Songhua River, and playing majiang with her friends.  Her friends usually come over to play majiang a few times a week, for 4-5 hours straight with no break.  These majiang afternoons were so great for my conversational skills.  None of them speak English, so all of the game play – and all of their strategic advice to me – was in Chinese.  After a while I realized I was understanding everything that was said and it felt easy and natural, so I was proud of myself.  My majiang playing also really improved, but apparently we were playing “Harbin rules” so I would have to relearn some things if I were to play elsewhere.  I wish I had a group of older Chinese friends in Nanjing that I could play majiang with.


When we took our long walks, she kept stopping to pose for photos.  This little wooded area is next to the river.


I especially like this dancer’s pose.

Russian popsicles

Since this is a food blog, I’ll transition to writing about food in Harbin, starting with a few Russian influences in cuisine.  Here my friend and I are eating Russian-style yogurt popsicles on the street.  I remember that it was popular in Russia to eat ice cream on the street in the winter.  It’s a rush.

Russian borscht

Russian tomato-based borscht, with a hint of white vinegar.

Russian bread

My friend wanted me to see these loaves of Russian bread, and she encouraged me to hit them to feel how hard and solid they were.  When I started to buy one, she was shocked.  She said she just likes looking at this funny hard bread, but wouldn’t think of eating it.  I insisted on buying a loaf despite her protests.  Chinese bread is so pillowy-soft and sweet.  It’s hard to find substantial European style bread and I didn’t want to pass up this opportunity.

Russian bread

I loved this Russian bread, but it was way too hard for my friend and her mom.  They each ate a small chunk slowly and painfully to be polite.  I didn’t want it to go to waste, so I baked a few batches of bread pudding.  They loved it and insisted it was much better than plain hard bread.  Actually, before my visit, my friend bought an oven so that I could teach her how to bake.  We made a few bread puddings as well as a carrot cake and apple cake.

Michelle's grandma

This is my friend’s grandmother.  She moved to Harbin from what is now North Korea when she was a teenager.  She never learned to speak Chinese because she stayed at home as a housewife.  Now she mostly stays in her apartment watching Korean channels on TV.  We visited her a few times to cook lunch for her.  This is some fried tofu, dipping sauce, and some shrimp.

Korean mochi

The dessert for lunch at her grandma’s home was the  Korean version of mochi dusted with powdered nuts.

daenjang jige

My friend’s mom cooked a combination of Korean and northeastern Chinese dishes.  For most breakfasts she made a Korean soup called daenjang jige.  The soup base is fermented soy bean paste so it’s similar to Japanese miso, but heartier with chunks of potatoes, tofu, and zucchini.  This soup was accompanied by rice and fried tofu.

breakfast soup

Some mornings we had Chinese style egg and tomato soup, accompanied by rice and fried tofu and vegetables.

vegetables for Korean pancakes

We made two kinds of Korean pancakes.  On the left is the base for zucchini pancakes, and on the right is shredded potatoes for potato pancakes.

Korean pancakes

Frying the pancakes in a skillet.

Korean pancakes

She likes to place a thin slice of carrot in the middle of each pancake to make it prettier.

fried potatoes and garlic shoots

My friend’s mom cooked a range of Chinese stir-fried dishes that were simple but utterly delicious.  This is potato slivers stir-fried with celery and garlic.  Northeastern Chinese  cuisine is known for meat, but there are also numerous tasty vegetarian dishes.  The dishes have stronger flavors and more garlic than the light cuisine here in Nanjing (which is usually too plain for my taste).

fried rice

She made several simple fried rice meals.

making jiaozi

It’s a tradition to make jiaozi (dumplings) for Spring Festival.  Here we are making jiaozi together.

making jiaozi

My friend and her mom with the jiaozi.


Homemade jiaozi and Harbin beer.

leftover fried jiaozi

The next day we fried the leftover jiaozi, along with fried tofu.

jiucai hezi

The same egg and leek filling is also used to make “jiucai hezi,” a northeastern large dumpling that is pan-fried.

jiucai hezi

Rolling out the dough for jiucai hezi.

jiucai hezi

A freshly fried stack of jiucai hezi.

chun bing

We also made chun bing, which are the northeastern thin pancakes or flat breads that you stuff and roll with various things.  We went out for these in restaurants and also made our own at home.  Two pancakes are rolled out and cooked together, so the layers are softer on the inside.  You start with two small balls of dough on top each each other, and them roll them out together.

chun bing

A stack of rolled-out dough.

The fresh chun bing.  We stuffed ours with potatoes stir-fried with garlic shoots and a classic savory preserved bean sauce.


You need to pull the layers apart and use them separately.


My chun bing filling.  Looking at this photo brings back memories and makes me really hungry.


My chun bing.

wild vegetable balls

One my favorite northeastern vegetarian dishes, wild-vegetable balls.  Chopped wild-vegetables and aromatics like garlic and onions are formed into balls with a light batter and then deep fried.  They are incredibly delicious.

di san xian

When I lived in Dalian in northeastern China in 1998, this dish became my favorite.  It’s a classic northeastern dish of potatoes, eggplant, and green peppers in a garlicky sauce, called “di san xian,” literally “the three fresh things.”  I can find this dish in Nanjing, but it’s never as good as it is in the northeast.

di san xian

Di san xian at another restaurant.  I pretty much ordered it every time we went out to eat.

braised cabbage with noodles and garlic

Braised baby napa cabbage with glass noodles.  The topping looks like ground meat but is actually richly brown garlic, so the dish was vegetarian.  Delicious.

fresh tofu

We went to a restaurant that specialized in homemade soft tofu, which is seen here on the right.  It was fresh and soft like a souffle, still wrapped in fabric when brought to the table.

gan doufu

Gan doufu is like a tofu skin or leather, and here it was stir-fried simply with green onions.

Japanese tofu

This kind of custardy yellow tofu is called Japanese tofu “riben doufu” in China.  Here it was deep-fried and served in a savory onion based sauce.

bean sprouts

“Douya fensi,” bean sprouts stir-fried with glassy noodles made from sweet potato starch.

dong bei rice

“Dong bei mifan,” or northeastern rice, is famous throughout China.  The climate and soil creates high quality rice.  Some restaurants mix in a little red rice for color.  And here in the background you can see yet another order of di san xian, that potato and eggplant dish.


We ate jiaozi several times in Harbin, and actually my favorite jiaozi cafes in Nanjing are ones run by families from Harbin.  They are soft but also chewy, and you can easily find a variety of vegetarian fillings.

vegetable market

I’ll close with a few photos of vegetable stalls in street markets, which are generally enclosed in glass to keep from vegetables from freezing.

vegetable market


What an trip.  I hope I have a chance to go back.


A Pilgrimage Back my Three Gorges Home After 11 Years
August 1, 2014, 11:45 pm
Filed under: Food-Focused Travelogues, Living in China | Tags: , , ,

Last summer I made a pilgrimage back to the Three Gorges area, where I used to live for two years before the region was flooded by the Three Gorges Dam.  From 2000-2002 I lived in Wanzhou (previously called Wanxian), a small remote city built on steep mountains on the banks of the Yangtze.  If you’ve read Pete Hessler’s book Rivertown, I had a similar experience as I lived in a nearby city just 2 years later than his term.  At the time I was one of only 5 foreigners in the whole city.

Wanzhou harbor 2000.  The iconic clock tower was demolished because of the floodwaters.

Wanzhou harbor 2000. The iconic clock tower was demolished because of the floodwaters.

Wanzhou harbor, 2000

Wanzhou harbor, 2000

Wanzhou is built on the sides of steep mountains.  It is a city of winding, curving roads and countless staircases that cut between the curved lanes.  I never saw a bicycle in the city because it’s simply too steep.


Wanzhou is the river town that was the most impacted by the Three Gorges Dam.  I lived there during the years that the city was preparing to be flooded by that dam.  A full third of the city was flooded by the dam, so during the preparatory years the government pumped money into the area to demolish all the buildings near the water, and build new buildings on top of the cliffs.  All over China there is a great deal of demolition and construction, but this area experienced particularly extreme changes because of the dam and strategic flooding.

During those two years, I learned to live with loss as I saw building after building demolished.  On one of my last weekends I was moved when I discovered the old Catholic church was reduced to a pile of rubble, with only the front door arch remaining.  By the time I moved away in 2002, the lower sections of the city were mostly piles of rubble.  

Over the years I have wondered nostalgically  what happened to my former home after the dam was completed, always wanting to return and explore the changes.  A few months before this pilgrimage I had a dream that I returned.  It was meant to be.

Wanzhou construction

Now that I live in China again, teaching in Nanjing, I had the opportunity to return to visit Wanzhou.  My jaw hung open in shock as I saw a new glitzy waterfront, complete with a smooth riverside boulevard lined with stylized street lights, a luxury hotel, and a shiny mall with an H+M.  It was a new city.  

new Wanzhou waterfront, 2013

new Wanzhou waterfront, 2013

As you can see, the historical structure of the city before 2003 had no river walk.  The buildings were pushed right to the edge of the water.

Wanzhou harbor, 2000

Wanzhou harbor, 2000

The current waterfront has a wide, empty space below the riverwalk boulevard which is set aside for dining al-fresco in the summer.

Wanzhou riverwalk 2013

Wanzhou riverwalk 2013

I visited my old campus where I had taught, and saw many new buildings, including new apartments which now cover up part of the green cliff behind the college track.

Three Gorges College track 2002

Three Gorges College track 2002

Three Gorges College track 2013

Of course It was incredibly emotional for me to make this pilgrimage back to Wanzhou after 11 years away, especially because the city had changed so drastically.  Part of me felt nostalgic for how the city used to be, with the tight alleys and cluttered markets.  But another part of me understood that most of the residents like that their city is cleaner now.  The small city used to be incredibly filthy (a few months after I moved home, there was an outbreak of cholera… and I have numerous terrible rat stories that I don’t want to share here).  Now the streets are much tidier and the sky is clear and blue.  The air pollution used to be horrendous.  I don’t know if I visited on a fluke clean weekend or if some factories have actually moved away.

It is common for Western observers of China to lament the loss of old architecture in China because recent years have seen incredible demolitions all over the country.  I’m usually in the camp of lamenting the loss of old buildings, but after numerous conversations with Chinese friends I can understand their desire for new buildings.  When we as outside visitors are appreciating old architecture in China, we are usually walking around taking photos.  We don’t have to sleep in those rooms or cook in those kitchens.  We don’t have to experience how uncomfortable the crumbling buildings are day after day.  I’ve softened my view over time after empathizing with friends who want cleaner, solid homes.

Yangtze River

My pilgrimage visit was more meaningful because one of my current students in Nanjing happens to come from Wanzhou.  She and I met during my first week in Nanjing and quickly became close friends.  When I returned to Wanzhou last summer she was also home on vacation so I stayed in her home and went to her grandparents’ place for a homecooked meal.  My friend knows exactly what local foods I had missed, and made sure to take me on a thorough culinary tour.

Here is my friend’s cute grandma preparing lunch for us.  She cut the si gua gourd roughly in her balcony kitchen.

my friend's grandma roughly cutting si gua for lunch

my friend’s grandma roughly cutting si gua for lunch

grandma's table

Grandma's lunch table

Her grandma also prepared dou ban, a local dish of pressed bean curd served room temperature in a spicy marinade.  It is slathered in plenty of hua jiao.

dou ban

In various places in China, a common street food it stir-fried potatoes in a huge wok.  I have to put it out there that the Wanzhou variation of street potatoes is special.  I’ve tried street potatoes in other Chinese cities, but they taste like plain fried potatoes.  In Wanzhou they are deeply spicy with a strong shot of cumin, sesame, and numbing hua jiao.  When I was walking around downtown, I usually picked up a bowl for about 20 cents.  My friends who visited me in Wanzhou remembered these potatoes as an essential flavor of Wanzhou.  Now living in Nanjing, my Wanzhou friend and I reminisce about those incredible street potatoes.

Wanzhou street potatoes


The local noodle specialty is xiao mian, meaning literally “small noodles”.  They are called “small” because the preparation is a quick assembly of strong flavors.  It requires various types of chili sauce and fermented vegetables, plus garlic, huajiao, greens like kongxincai, and various other aromatics.  It’s not something one usually makes at home because it requires small amounts of so many ingredients, and also because you can find it all over any town in the Chongqing region as a regional staple.  When I lived in Wanzhou I ate these xiao mian noodles all the time and didn’t realize how regional and special they were.  They were just street noodles to me then.  Wow, how I missed those flavors.  Here on the return trip I had them for solid and satisfying breakfast.

xiao mian

xiao mian

Here is the xiao mian preparation.

xiao mian prep

The noodles are served in a loose sauce but the proper method is to toss the noodles for awhile until they fully absorb the sauce.

xiao mian

xiao mian

Here are some various preserved vegetables and beans in the market.

various pickled things

Wanzhou still has staircases everywhere.  These stairs lead down to a vegetable market.

Wanzhou stairs

This is a classic Chongqing regional soup, sour preserved vegetable and noodle soup, suan cai fen si tang.  This was another favorite of mine in Wanzhou, and since then when I eat in Chongqing-style restaurants, I often ask for this simple soup.  It’s clean and restorative.

suan cai fen si tang

Classic mapo doufu.

mapo doufu

Late at night we went out for shao kao, which is essentially late-night street grilling.  People eat it out on the sidewalk sitting on low plastic stools.  The marinade is chili, cumin, hua jiao and sesame.  My friends ate the meat pieces the photo, but there are always plenty of veg options like various incarnations of tofu, eggplant, taro, rice gluten, green beans, cauliflower, and every kind of mushroom.

shao kao


When I lived in Wanzhou I ate hotpot with friends pretty much once a week, but I didn’t have time to eat hotpot during this pilgrimage trip.  The following weekend my Wanzhou student and I met in Chongqing and made a point to have a hotpot meal with her boyfriend and his mom.

huo guo

Wanzhou landscape

Where Tea is Oil Soup and Bridges are Art
July 9, 2014, 11:27 pm
Filed under: Food-Focused Travelogues, Living in China | Tags: , , ,

Last summer I spent two weeks visiting students in Guangxi Autonomous Region in Southern China.  My last stop was a few days in the home of my student from the Dong ethnic minority, in Sanjiang County.  The Dong ethnic minority group is one of the smallest minorities in China, and they are known for their intricate wooden architecture and their picturesque villages tucked away in this mountainous corner of northern Guangxi, near the border of Guizhou.

drum tower




Adventurous backpackers pass through to admire the old covered wooden bridges and stunning drum towers. 





wooden bridge


Most villages are adjacent to a river, and in the Dong tradition, they have built covered wooden bridges to provide a breezy and shady spot for people to rest.  

wooden bridge

men on bridge


Each village also has a tall, triangular drum tower that served to warn the village of dangers.  Nowadays most drum towers are communal spaces where old men play chess and take naps. 

drum tower

drum tower


men in a drum tower

Sadly because the delightful Dong architecture is wooden, it is susceptible to fires and numerous recent fires have destroyed bridges, drum towers, and even whole villages,  This particular village clinging to a steep mountain burned down a few years ago, and the villagers are currently rebuilding the whole village using the traditional style. 

village and terraces


Instead of staying in a backpacker guesthouse, I was lucky to have the opportunity to stay in my student’s home in a village off the beaten backpacker path.  I was roughing it on this trip, as we had to walk 20 minutes along a grassy path to fetch drinking water, and we washed our hair in the river.

children swimming under a wooden bridge



Their wooden homes are lovely in photos, but exposed to the elements with open walls.  Birds and wasps wander in and out, and I imagine it would be frigid when it snows in the winter.


wooden building

My student’s parents and in-laws are farmers, picking green tea leaves as well as various fruits. This is my student’s mother-in-law.  I stayed in her home.

My student's mother-in-law.  I stayed in her home for a few days.

My student’s mother-in-law. I stayed in her home for a few days.

Surprisingly when the locals keep some of the tea leaves for themselves, they don’t use the leaves to brew tea as a beverage.  This region is so remote that common Chinese tea culture didn’t penetrate it.  They grow tea here, but do their own thing with the leaves.  They make soup out of it.  The Dong use tea leaves to steep a green tea soup for breakfast.  It’s simmered in oil before the water is added, so the name for the soup is “oil tea” – “you cha.”

These green tea leaves are drying on the 3rd floor of the family house.

drying green tea on the 3rd floor

drying green tea on the 3rd floor


First peanuts are fried in a wok.

frying peanuts

The peanuts are removed.  More oil is added to the wok, and next puffed rice is fried in the oil.  

adding oil

frying puffed rice

frying puffed rice

The puffed rice is removed and finally the green tea leaves are fried in oil.  After a few minutes hot water is added so the leaves simmer into a soup.

frying tea

frying tea

boiling tea soup

To serve, the fried peanuts and puffed rice are dropped in a bowl, then topped with oily tea soup.  It is eaten for breakfast alongside fried eggs and stir-fried dishes.

oily tea soup


breakfast table

breakfast table


water buffalo




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.

Making Bamboo Rice in Debao, Guangxi
August 7, 2013, 5:50 am
Filed under: Food-Focused Travelogues, Living in China, recipes | Tags: , ,

This summer I spent 3 weeks in Guangxi and Guangdong provinces visiting some of my students.   One of the places I visited in Guangxi was Debao County, a remote mountainous region near the Vietnamese border.

Debao landscape

While in Debao, one of my student’s friends wanted to teach me how to make bamboo rice, which is the method of cooking sticky rice in bamboo poles over an outdoor fire.  Because it is a slow process, this is normally something that children in Debao do for fun.  Adults generally don’t have the time or patience for it.  I guess in this region children learn how to use machetes at a young age.  Making rice in bamboo poles takes time, but the finished steamed rice is incredibly fragrant from being cooked inside the bamboo.  I’m outlining the process for you in case you want to make this at home (and have a machete).

eating bamboo rice


Start by using a machete to chop down some bamboo.  Use strong, dark green poles of bamboo.  Wash it well.  We washed ours in the stream.

washing bamboo in the stream

You will steam the rice in hollow sections of the bamboo.  The sections are marked by the horizontal lines on the outside of the bamboo.  Use a knife to cut a hole in one of the horizontal dividing walls inside the bamboo.  The hole should be a little less than an inch in diameter.

bamboo rice

In a large bowl, combine raw sticky rice with room temperature water, and add a little salt.  My friends didn’t measure any of this.  Use a soup spoon to scoop rice into the bamboo.  Then use a chopstick to push the rice around until it goes through the hole.  If you get ahead of yourself and put several spoonfuls of rice over the hole before pushing it through, it will be harder to push through.  Just be patient and use a spoonful or two at a time.  You might want to have one person spoon the rice and another person using a chopstick to push the rice through the hole.

sticky rice

When you think the rice has filled the section of the bamboo to the halfway point (you can use a chopstick as a dipstick to measure the level of the rice), then stop adding rice, and pour water into the hole to fill the section of bamboo with water.  To close the hole, shove a big carrot into the hole to seal it.  When it’s finished cooking, the roasted carrot is edible.


Repeat this process with as many bamboo poles as you are using.

Make a fire outside using wood, and ideally include bamboo branches and leaves for fuel.  Place the bamboo poles on the fire, only 2 at a time.  Roast over the fire until it is cooked.  My friends did not set a specific time for roasting.  One benefit of cooking bamboo rice is that the rice won’t burn inside the bamboo, as it might in a metal pot.  The bamboo walls will keep the rice moist.  The bamboo pole will char a bit, which is fine.  However if the bamboo gets hot enough after charring to actually catch on fire, then pull it away from the fire.  You don’t want the bamboo rice cooking longer than that.

cooking bamboo rice

cooking bamboo rice

Pull out the roasted carrot with tongs.

finished bamboo rice


Use a machete or large knife to cut open the bamboo, lengthwise.


Scoop out the sticky rice, or eat it straight out of the bamboo as a bowl.

bamboo rice

bamboo rice

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

Karst mountains around Debao

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

Debao landscape

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

Juan tong fen

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

juan tong fen stall

pouring rice batter

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


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

fresh rice paper

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

adding fillings

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

rolling the juan tong fen

juan tong fen

Many people drizzle a little soy sauce on top.

drizzling soy sauce

This little boy was waiting patiently for his breakfast juantongfen.

waiting boy

Eating at Bangkok’s Chattuchak Weekend Market
July 2, 2013, 6:50 am
Filed under: Food-Focused Travelogues | Tags: , ,

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

When in Bangkok, I was determined to visit the Chattuchak Weekend Market, also called Jattujak, or “JJ.”  The market attracts about 200,000 visitors each weekend, and seems to the be the size of a small town.  Stalls sell everything from traditional handcrafts to hipster fashion labels to exotic pets.  I bought several blouses at a stall that sold used clothing from Japan.  Food stalls are strewn throughout the market, and there are also a few larger food areas.

Chattuchak weekend market

Thai iced tea

It was so incredibly hot that day, and I think I drank about 5 Thai iced teas.

Malaysian halal food stall

We had lunch at this Malaysian Halal food stall.

curry noodles

My friend had this bowl of Malaysian curry noodles for lunch, topped with crisp fried onions (and Thai iced tea).

pad thai at Bangkok's Jattujak (JJ) weekend market

I had pad thai (and Thai iced tea).

coconut ice cream

Fresh coconut ice cream, served in a coconut shell, and topped with peanuts.

eating fresh coconut ice cream

Here I am eating fresh coconut ice cream.

boat noodles

At this stall they were making huge vats of “boat noodles.”