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I <3 DURIAN

23 May

Ever since growing up in Hong Kong, my family (with the exception of my brother) has developed a taste for this oft reviled fruit. I have fond memories at almost every stage of my life sucking down on some durian. These may include having the Farmington Fire Department called (not once, but twice!) to investigate the scent of natural gas in the senior dorms which mysteriously emanated from an airtight container in three plastic bags in the fridge; and chowing down on some of the best durian ice cream right after a bout of food poisoning in Saigon.

The extremely sweet flavor and the custard-like texture lends itself especially well to frozen desserts… like ice cream, milkshakes, and popsicles! I found the above box while on a food excursion in the Westgate area with Bethia and Angela at Westgate Import Market. It tastes just like the real thing! I coerced B into having a bite (he loved the milkshake at Thuy Trang Restaurant in Detroit!) and watching his facial expressions was just priceless! I will convert him yet! For the time being, this is one thing I won’t have to worry about keeping stocked in the freezer.

Shanghai 2010: New Obsession, Crispy Pan Fried Buns (生煎饱)

14 Oct

 

Ceramic Wall Decoration in the Forbidden City

 

A couple days ago, while strolling through Hocking Hills, Kyle asked me what my favorite meal was in China. It’s hard to say… there are so many styles and so many types of food to eat. Two years ago, without hesitation, I would have said that my number one was soup dumplings (小笼包). But I think I had so many during that one trip that the flavor is burned upon my palate and I no longer crave it as much as I used to. More recently, I’ve become obsessed with a close cousin of the soup dumpling, pan fried buns (生煎饱, literally, raw fried buns).

Much like a soup dumpling, pork, pork tallow, and pork fat are wrapped in a thin dough and sealed shut with a twist. Unlike a soup dumpling, these babies are lined up in a huge cast iron pan, covered, and fried with the seal side down. You can see the upside down dumpling twist on the left in the pic above. I didn’t get a good pic of the big cast iron pan, but you can find one here, from the exact same purveyor I visited (Lil’ Yang’s Crispy Pan Fried Buns): Flickr pic of 小扬生煎饱.

My goals for successfully eating these crispy pan fried buns are the same for soup dumplings: don’t spill the meat juice, add finely julienne ginger and red vinegar to each bite, and don’t burn my tongue or palate! My technique is the same: nibble a hole at the top of the bun, stuff ginger in said hole and spoon in some vinegar, allow to cool for 15 seconds (if I can wait that long), and then it’s a one bite deal from there. There’s no better feeling than having a mouth full of juicy pork, crispy dough from underside, and ginger&vinegar to cut the richness of the pork fat. This is the new number one eats on my list for my next Shanghai trip.

Mutton Pao Mo (羊泡馍)

12 Oct

When I left Columbus in late August, it was hot and a touch muggy. But it was no match for the humidity that greeted me when I landed in Shanghai: we’re talking so incredibly humid that air-conditioned buildings regularly “sweat” (condensation from the air builds on walls and windows) much like how a cold beverage “sweats” on a hot summer day. A welcomed respite from Shanghai’s weather came in the form of a three day trip to Beijing. It was cooler, drier, and I couldn’t have asked for better weather. It hasn’t been that long since I’ve been in Beijing (a little less than two years) but since my bro hasn’t been since he was young, we crammed in several obligatory tourist sites. We spent a half day in the Olympic Park (Water Cube: 水立方; Bird’s Nest: 鸟巢), a couple hours on the grounds of the Summer Palace (颐和园), many hours wandering the hutongs (胡同) in Beihai (北海公园), a couple hours inside the Forbidden City (故宫), and my favorite, sunset at the Temple of Heaven (天坛).

The single number one item on my list of foods to eat in Beijing is pao mo (泡馍). It is a regional specialty from Shan Xi (陝西) province whose largest city is home to the Terracotta Warriors (兵马俑), in Xi’An (西安). Traditionally, travelers would pack a couple of these unleavened flour discs because they kept well. These things are about as round and hard as a hockey puck. Since we had a late breakfast and my brother hadn’t had pao mo before, we decided to share one puck. We saw some folks put down two and three of these pucks in one bowl!

Once arriving at their hosts’, travelers would break apart these pucks into pieces about the size of a chocolate chip. We spent about five minutes breaking apart this puck. It’s kind of a pain in the nards, but if you have bigger pieces, it’s so dry and hard that it’s impossible to eat.

Once that’s done, the host pours steaming stock or soup over the bread pieces. In our case, the restaurant (we went to 西安饭庄, there’s a painted portrait of Mao Zedong’s visit on the wall!) took our bowl back to the kitchen and added a rich mutton soup with chunks of tender mutton, a couple pieces of leafy greens, and just a touch of rice vermicelli for textural interest. Unlike Western/European stocks, Chinese stock is almost a pure meat and bone broth (no aromatics or mirepoix). The bread pieces soak up the broth and end up with a surprising al dente texture, moist and with a little chewiness. In general, Chinese folk feel the same way about lamb and cheese: either you grow up on it (halal restaurants are common in Northern and Western regions) or like my aunt, wrinkles her nose, covers her mouth to hold down the nausea, and runs the other way as fast as she can. For the non-mutton eaters, there’s also beef broth. My brother and I both love lamb/mutton/game so this was a hit and we almost wish we would have ordered a portion for each of us.

As accompaniments, we had a plate of pickled cabbage and carrots (泡菜), sugar fermented whole cloves of garlic (糖蒜), fresh cucumbers, and hot sauce and cilantro to garnish the bowl of soup.  Warm, meaty, gamey, chewy, soupy, this is my type of comfort food. I really hope I don’t have to wait another two years to have this meal again…

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.

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!

Travelling!

29 Aug

Oh my little fledgling bloggy.

I regret having to taper off my posting after so much excitement you’ve brought me recently; not to mention, the perfect excuse to order another course (!!) or to take an eating centered day trip. Unequivocally: I am not abandoning you. I’m traveling to Shanghai for a couple weeks and there will be MANY eating and drinking opportunities to document. However, I’m not entirely sure what internet connection availability I will have. I didn’t bring my own personal machine so I’ll have to rely on an outdated PC and probably very limited DSL. That said, I am SO EXCITED to share with you all the deliciousness that will occur! I’ve got soup dumplings up the wazoo, grilled pigeons to pick over, and savoury soy milk to slurp for breakfast. Photos galore!

In the meantime, I took Asiana Airlines from Chicago’s O’Hare to Incheon Seoul for a five hour layover (where I’m sitting now, updating). I left ORD’s international Terminal 5 (servicing Royal Jordan, Etihad, Aero Mexico, Asiana and other airlines) at 1am and the only available edibles was McD’s. Not so great from a foodie perspective, but it made for AWESOME people watching. The Arab Muslims, Eastern European Muslims, East Asians, West Europeans, were all chowing down on some Big Macs and fries. Great scene. 

I was personally holding out for what was promised to be the best economy class airplane food in East Asia. There was indeed bibimbap for dinner. And it came in a CERAMIC bowl, absolutely unheard of! AND there was REAL silverware!! Certainly delicious for in-flight. Pics forthcoming!

Forgive me for cutting this short, Incheon’s duty free stores beckon. Toodles!

Putting the Pan in Pan-Asian: Leafy Greens

10 Aug

New theme! Putting the Pan in Pan-Asian! Get it? Har har, I’m so funny. This first installment is also known as “The Old Wives’ (太太) Tale Edition.”

When I moved back to the U.S. for high school, I had a really hard time getting adjusted to the veggies available in the dining hall. On the steam table, there were always perfectly cut carrots with murky peas or mushy zucchini with undercooked summer squash. Blech. The salad bar was a little better with fresh romaine, broccoli, cucumbers, shredded cheese, bacon bits, and seven types of goopey dressing. Mmmm, Aramark.

It would be a looooong time before I learned about kale, collard and mustard greens, and even longer until I met Elizabeth Telling’s braising greens. But what I longed for were simply sauteed/stir-fried spinach (菠菜), water spinach (空心菜), amaranth (苋菜), Chinese broccoli (芥蓝),  napa cabbage (白菜), Chinese celery (芹菜), bok choy (调羹菜), and on and on and on. I still have these longings and luckily there are a good number of Chinese groceries that I can now drive to. (!!!) It doesn’t make up for the fact that these greens are a PITA to trim and wash.

The pic up top is water spinach. In Chinese, it’s transliterated as empty heart vegetable. (Kangkong/kangkung in Malaysia, the Philippines, and Indonesia.)  You can see why, the stalks are totally hollow, except at the joint with a leaf. Amongst more conscientious eaters in East and Southeast Asia, it’s rare that this leafy veggie is ordered outside of the home. Water spinach is particularly difficult to wash because it’s grown in mud and/or marshes. The hollow stalks are said to harbor lots of critters that make their home in swamp land, most prominently leeches and worms. There are a bunch of urban legends floating around about how someone ate unclean water spinach at a hawker stall and perished from leech breeding in the belly. Yeaaah.

For this batch, I spent quite a bit of time trimming and washing. First, I soaked the veggies overnight in water. In the morning, I trimmed: snapped off and discarded the toughest part of the stem, then for each leaf, I pinched off a stem segment about half an inch above and below the leaf joint. Lastly, I washed and rinsed twice, just to make sure I got all the mud and dirt out. Finally, my favorite style: sauteed with tofu roo (sauteed with belacan, fermented shrimp paste, also very good).  Let’s just say that cooked Chinese leafy greens aren’t exactly the easiest to photograph.

These greens above are amaranth. They are my father’s favorite greens in the whole world. It’s got the tannic quality like spinach but has a more vegetal flavor. Do you see those violet veins? Once amaranth is sauteed/stir-fried, it exudes this gorgeous magenta cooking liquid. Not sure if this is superstition or old wives’ tale, but it is said that this veggie is good for promoting blood flow and recouping lost blood (monthly bleeders, take note). I washed and rinsed these about three times to get the dirt off and sauteed them simply in garlic. I had almost no cooking liquid so no pics, but if you’re interested in a recipe and more pics of amaranth, Serious Eats recently featured them in their Seriously Asian segment.