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US Air Services, Step Up Your Game

19 Sep

This is Shanghai's subway. It is gorgeous.

This post has been smoldering on it’s own tab for a good four days now. I had written a long rant about the deficiencies of US air services and the terrible experience I had at Chicago O’Hare’s Terminal 5…  Which included piss poor crowd control by TSA and by discomfort structures (low, thick rails lining walls to prevent people from sitting on the floor against the wall), crappy SYSCO food offerings with disgruntled service, ego-tripping TSA barking out orders to passengers and generally treating us like cattle, non-functioning electrical outlets (so passengers can’t recharge their phones/comps/etc.). I also quoted President Obama’s Labor Day speech, about how transportation infrastructure, particularly railways and airways, need massive funding to bring us into the 21st Century — to be on par with the rest of the developed and developing nations. But it was a little too removed, a little too level headed for an impassioned blog post.

I understand there are systemic problems with our air service that include pitifully low wages, towering operating costs, aging airport structures and design, and oh yeah, “security.” But these issues do not preclude treating passengers like piggies at a trough or the next terror suspect. To make matters worse, none of these crowd control strategies are used at locations that desperately need it, i.e. right in front of security, where immigrant families and extended kin come see off their beloved’s return to the old home (老家).

China, whose population is known for poor manners compared to our East Asian neighbors, puts their airports about an hour outside downtown to discourage non-ticketed passengers from seeing off their travelers. The staff at security screening say “Please,” “Thank you,” and use the body language of a butler rather than of a police officer (officer, officer, over-seer). If you want to eat, Beijing’s domestic airport offers independent sit down coffee shops, a Thai restaurant, a Korean restaurant, a buffet, and fast food joints specializing in regional cuisine. And this pales in comparison to Tokyo’s Narita or Seoul’s Incheon airports. If you make even the slightest glance at an eatery while walking past, you are greeted and someone is immediately available to take you order.

It makes me so angry that our second largest airport is in such a disarray. That my $10 roast beef sandwich came on a styrofoam plate and was nothing more than two pieces of rye, three slices of roast beef, two watery tomatoes, and a pinch of shredded iceberg lettuce. That many airlines see it perfectly fine to use disposable plastic and paper everything during service. That a two hour flight in the US yields a “snack mix” and four ounces of a beverage.

And since this is a food (& beverage) blog, let me show you exactly how far we must improve. Let me start with the crappiest in flight meal I had this trip: the offering on a 90 minute flight between Shanghai and Beijing on Air China. The chicken and noodles were so-so but the saving grace was the four pieces of hami melon (similar in flavor to cantaloupe but crisper like an Asian pear).

Below is an example of one of Asiana’s non-big time meals, probably the lowest quality of the four I ate but still very delicious (‘cept the brownie cake). But the butter for the bread was from New Zealand and the fish nuggets in gravy were tender and delicious. Other ones included pickled daikon/carrots/cucumbers and cut fruit. Note, that fork is made of real stainless steel (and it has real tines!) and the white dish is real ceramic. O_o

Behold Asiana’s big time meals on long haul flights. This is Ssambap, it’s basically leaf wraps with rice, bulgogi (or kalbi, or anything else), and a condiment made from soy beans. On the side, a seaweed and egg soup, a container of kimchi, egg rolled with seaweed, and three slices of pineapple. The sheer variety and crispness (aka freshness) of the leaves was overwhelming! They included shiso/perilla, napa cabbage, and romaine. It was so much food and by far one of the best meals I’ve ever had on a flight (Emirates comes close).

Another one of Asiana’s big time meals: Bibimbap. The rice came in a sealed microwavable packet and was perfectly done, not mushy and not hard at all. So many fixings for the bibimbap! And kimchi, and egg drop soup, and soba noodles with sauce! And fruit! There was even a super cute tube of a chili paste. It may or may not have made it to my purse.

And the crowning glory? The airport food at Incheon was very very good. This (non-instant) ramen noodles in spicy seafood broth came from a fast food service type cafeteria. You order at the main counter, then you go up to one of a several stations that each specialize in something different. This came from the Japanese station. Enoki mushrooms and sliced hotdogs with rice cakes and dumplings too?  It was so very very good. The menu listed it as “hangover ramen” and I’m sure that I’d be revived with it’s spicy, rich, fishy and shrimpy, broth.

And lastly, after the 14 hour long haul flight from O’Hare to Incheon, this ox-bone soup warmed and relaxed from from within. If you’ve never had it before, it’s a very mild and (non-dairy) milky broth that is flavored simply with salt. A salt cellar is brought with the soup and customers add to their liking. The macaroni and mayo banchan was a little weird but the garlic scapes with baby shrimp shells was delicious.

There are definitely airports in the US that are on the up and up. CMH is one of them. Free wifi, Cup O’Joe, Columbus Brewing Company beers, and a Wolfgang Puck is not shabby. I just wish we had more flights to bigger destinations.

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I’m Back! (And Five Pounds Heavier!)

14 Sep

This is Shanghai on a surprisingly clear day. Most days during the summer are oppressively muggy, hot (in the low 30C, low 90F range), overcast, with 90% humidity.  Actually, it’s wet and gray year round, the London of the East. Blech. In the foreground, the circular building is the Shanghai Museum which sits right in the heart of the City, People’s Square. Along the perimeter are municipal buildings, the city government, the Grand Theater, and there is a massive underground mall with hundreds of small shops ranging from three chair salons to snack vendors to clothing shops. To the left, you can kind of see the Pearl TV Tower which is the pink globe on the needle, which is located across the HuangPu Jiang (黄浦江, Yellow River) in PuDong (浦东, River East). The two tallest buildings in the background are also in PuDong and at different times, held the honor of being the tallest building in the world. The one of the left is the Grand Hyatt with it’s hotel lobby on the 61st floor. I have very fond memories of celebrating my 19th birthday up there, but can’t recall for the life of me what I ate; to say the least, the view is a bit distracting, ha. There’s also a couple stories about the building on the right, about having been funded by Japanese developers and another about the “white space” being wide enough to fit a Boeing 777. If you’re interested, comment, and I’ll reply. Cuz as much as I love talking about Shanghai, I really LOVE talking about what I ate. ONWARDS!

So I thought I’d start off my travel posts with one of my favorite restaurants in Shanghai. It’s the place my brother and I go as soon as we step off the plane and also the last meal we have before we get back on the plane to come back to the U.S. And it’s actually considered a Taiwanese joint. AND it’s a chain. GASP! It’s homestyled food, nothing fancy, but what they do, they do incredibly well. And they do many of the Pan-Chinese dishes extraordinarily well. It’s called 千秋膳房 (qian1 qiu1 shan4 fang2, thousand autumns something house) and gets good scores on the Chinese Yelp (DianPing) and on Shanghaiist. Of the seventeen meals I had in China, I had three of them at 千秋膳房.

The star of the show is always this pancake roll-up (牛肉大饼卷) filled with sliced brisket, cucumber, scallions, and a house hoisin spread. The texture of the pancake is very much like a thin scallion pancake, crisp in spots and chewy in others. My brother and I bring one of these on our flight so we don’t go hungry between the meager two meals on the thirteen hour fight. It’s like a Chinese burrito! Also in this pic, sour&hot soup (酸辣汤), millet congee (小米粥) with pickled veggies, and a small plate of diced pickled green beans.

A close up of the sour&hot soup: you can see chunks of tofu, pig/chicken blood, egg drop, julienne carrot, julienne wood ear mushroom, julienne bamboo, and cilantro. Not terribly different from the sour&hot soup we find at the American Chinese restaurants in the U.S, but worlds more delicious. The lack of unnecessary fillers (like julienne pickled veggies) and cornstarch (to thicken up the already hearty broth) makes a big difference.

We also get at least one bamboo steamer (蒸笼) of soup dumplings (小龙饱). Soup dumplings are considered a Shanghainese specialty but the Taiwanese execution is exceptionally reknown, more on this in a later post!

And when I’m just in the mood to slurp down a bowl of noodles, this red-braised beef noodle soup (红烧牛肉面) is the best. I wish I had it around on call for wicked hangovers, colds/flus, or anytime because it’s the best cure-all. The beef is braised with a little liquid, chili oil, and tomatoes for hours on end, and the sauce ends up being the base for the soup broth. The noodles are hand made to order and at once chewy and tender. As always, there’s ample fresh cilantro and scallions to scent the soup, and some simply blanched greens thrown in for good measure. Pure umami goodness.

This restaurant also has great homemade soymilk. They bring it either unsweetened, steaming hot, in a soup bowl with ultra light brown sugar on the side or sweetened and cold in a cup. I’m going to miss this place, but the promise of those beef roll-ups makes the long haul flight and two layovers worth it. I seriously can’t wait to go back, already!

Under the Weather

23 Aug

This past week has been utter grossness. B’s battling this summer cold that has been going around our social circle and I’m trying hard to nip it in the bud. So I bought twenty bucks worth of Alka-Seltzer cold meds, twenty bucks worth of Emergen-C and Airborne, and another twenty bucks worth of produce to juice. B’s family is a huge proponent of juicing. His mom bought all the kids their own Jack LaLanne juicers and his sis is on her third. I’m a total convert so a lot of the cocktail ingredients (ginger, watermelon, musk melon) at the restaurant (Nida’s Thai on High) go through a Jack LaLanne too.

We juice for hangovers, for cocktails, for colds, and just because. Our base is almost always watermelon and we add whatever fruits and veggies we have on hand. Since both of us were feeling under the weather, I added way more ingredients than usual: ginger, oranges, carrots, beets (and beet greens!), and parsley. The beets add a gorgeous magenta color to the pink watermelon juice. We heard that greens are good for vitamin C and antioxidants so in went the parsley and beet tops. Oranges and carrots added another vitamin C punch, and ginger is well, ginger, and awesome, so in went that as well.  It was so delicious, I forgot to take a picture.  Oops!

While B craves pizza and other such related stuff during his colds, my sore throat was calling for brothy noodles. This is a turkey stock leftover from last Thanksgiving, mixed with a tablespoon of tom yum paste. The noodles are locally made Chinese/Cantonese noodles and a couple stalks of Chinese broccoli to round out the meal. GUH. Total comfort food.