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Tang hu lu

25 Apr

There’s not many people I know who will mourn the passing of Beijing’s winter. The trees that have been ghostly bare for almost more than seven months suddenly burst into cherry blossom and leaves herald the beginning of the short spring. Winter was long and harsh in Beijing, but there’s at least one thing I know I’ll miss during the hot summer months.

Although Wikipedia refers to tang hu lu as a traditional winter snack especially for children, I beg to differ. I’ve seen every age of person buying the candied hawthorne fruits on sticks – young kids, old grandparents, young groups of teenage boys, trendy businesspeople, parents, well-off, not so well-off. The sweet snack is loved by all. And what isn’t to love? I originally thought the fruit was a crab apple, but hawthorne fruits are different. A small, round fruit, with red skin, usually about six or seven are pierced onto a skewer, then rolled in hot toffee. The toffee solidifies and you have what’s similar to a toffee apple. Only the toffee is thin and easy to bite into and you get a lovely sweet : sour tang of the fruit ratio. And the fruit is small enough to be the perfect mouthful! This is the original version, but I’ve also seen pineapple, orange, cherry tomatoes, strawberries and banana toffee on sticks. There’s also sprinklings of sesame seeds, peanuts, walnuts and rice stuffed into haw fruit.

But they are a winter snack, and I’ve already noticed my local tang hu lu seller in Wu Mart isn’t open until 9pm as he used to be open. The fruits are winter ones, and although they may be seen in summer, I’ve been told they will be old fruit and nothing like their cold weather counterparts. So perhaps I’ll have to quickly have my fill, until that long Beijing winter rolls through again.

Beijing’s best milk teas

21 Apr

Being a fan of milk teas back home – particularly those from the Easyway chain in Australia – I’ve been trying a few over here.   Most places that sell milk tea in Beijing offer a good variety of hot and cold drinks over and above milk tea. For example, coconut milk with pearls, slushy/icey desserts, fruit drinks etc. I must admit that I haven’t tried most of these and generally stick to cold milk tea with pearls (ie little tapioca balls)  . I love tea, I love cold milk and I also love the tapioca pearls, so for me it’s a great combination and I find it very refreshing. The tapioca pearls also make a nice snack when you’re peck-ish, which kills two birds with one stone.

In Beijing, for delicious flavour and milk that’s very close to being organically produced (so they say), Wondermilk is definitely the cream of the crop. It’s located at Sanlitun and I must go through four or five a week from there. Comparatively it’s not cheap (18 yuan for a small cup), but I’d sooner go one of these than any of the other milk teas I’ve tried over here. There’s the real taste of tea through the milk, and perhaps it’s the use of fresh milk rather than powdered that gives it an extra special taste. We both love the frozen yogurt and their fruit “Wondershakes” made from frogurt too and we often use the milk to make our own yogurt – you can buy it from their shop or in some western supermarkets.

Next up for taste would have to be Happy Lemon. Coming in at 5 yuan, you get a good sized cup (bigger than Wondermilk) and it tastes a close second to Wondermilk. Their menu of teas is extensive – many milk teas including Oreo and malt, or the cocoa milk tea with cream puff (don’t ask, I haven’t tried it!). Jess also had a Blueberry with Nata Da Coco, one of their specialty drinks (the ones with a little yellow smiley face next to them) which was a delicious blueberry syrup with jelly pieces. Their range of lemon teas also looks interesting. I’d put Taiwanese dessert shop iTea and Hong Kong chain MRT on an equal footing in terms of taste and value. MRT is the name of the Hong Kong subway and is an interesting little shop. They have plenty of flavoured teas (including the famous Hong Kong milk tea) and the cold milk tea is quite strong, but still nice. Unfortunately they don’t make it with tapioca pearls – not at the shop we visit in Dongsi anyway. They make up for it with their delicious egg tarts, warmed up if you desire.

Coming in last would have to be the milk tea at Jack Hut. I’d only have one from there if all the others were closed and I was desperate.

A similarity at all of these tea shops is the overwhelming size of their menus. They offer tastes for everyone – hot, cold, milk, black tea, fruity, icy, pearls, jelly, slush, pudding, yoghurt, ice cream…whatever you’re after, a milk tea shop is bound to have something for you.

My absolute favourite (including those from overseas) would have to be … drumroll … the taro milk tea with pearls from Easyway – it’s a light purple in colour. It’s very hard to resist buying one every time I walk past that store!

Din Tai Fung

6 Apr

According to Din Tai Fung – rated one of the top ten restaurants in the world by the New York Times (in 1993) - there is a tried and tested way to eat their steamed specialty pork dumplings (xiaolongbao) filled with a soupy liquid.

Ginger is served in the sauce dish, soy sauce and vinegar added to personal taste, but a recommended ratio is 1 soy: 3 vinegar. “With chopsticks, grasp Steamed Specialty Pork Dumplings (from hereon known as SSPD) and dip in the sauce. Place the SSPD on your spoon. Using your chopsticks, carefully poke a small hole in the SSPD to release the hot broth inside. Place some ginger on the SSPD and eat together with broth. ENJOY!”

Despite these detailed instructions (in four languages – Chinese, English, Japanese and Korean), Dan still managed to squirt a whole xiaolongbao across his shirt. Don’t ask me how. I’ve got to admit, I didn’t follow the Din Tai Fung prescribed instructions for eating their world famous and amazingly delicious xiaolongbao recently – I prefer to put some sauce and ginger at the bottom of my spoon, put the bun on my spoon and take a little bite of the skin. As I do that I suck out a little of the soup, and let the rest cool down and escape onto the spoon. You don’t want it to escape anywhere but your spoon! Not the steamer basket, not in your soy vinegar mixture, most definitely not on your shirt.

We went to Din Tai Fung for a farewell dinner to old Melbourne friend Sarah, to send her off with tasty memories of Beijing dining. We ordered baskets of pork xiaolongbao, crab roe xiaolongbao and shrimp and pork xiaolongbao, along with a delicious cold entrée of duck flavoured and scented with Chinese five spice, and sautéed Asian greens. The chain has strict requirements for their buns: five grams of skin, 16 grams of stuffing and 18 pleats. We were surprised that “must be orgasmic” wasn’t added as a fourth.

Our first encounter with Taiwanese chain Din Tai Fung was in Shanghai about four years ago, and since that first fateful meeting, we’ve told anyone who cares about dumplings about the beauty of xiaolongbao. Thankfully, a branch opened at World Square in Sydney, and in Melbourne, although it’s not Din Tai Fung, a restaurant called HuTong Dumpling Bar opened in the last few years selling almost equal xiaolongbao. We’ve even been told by fellow food lover and food blogger JT that some Asian grocers in Sydney even sell frozen versions, which we’ll definitely be looking for when we arrive home.

Din Tai Fung in Beijing doesn’t fail to impress. Service is quick and efficient, the dumplings are pleated to perfection and look almost too good to eat (we said almost!). But it’s not a one-hit wonder – the side dishes are also tasty and well worth coming for. We also love the option of not having MSG, which some dishes have a little symbol next to (although it looked like a nuclear sign). Unfortunately we were too full to try one of their icy mountain-like desserts, but this wasn’t our last trip to Din Tai Fung, so we didn’t need to try everything on the first Beijing visit. There’s no doubt you can get cheaper dumplings in Beijing – these are definitely on the pricier end of the scale – but will you get better? Tough question. We think it’s hard to top these.

P.S In our last post about xiaolongbao, we referred to them as buns…but Din Tai Fung calls them dumplings. Frankly, they are so good we don’t care if they are buns or dumplings!

LOVE cupcakes

31 Mar

Cupcakes were big in New York, then Sydney, then Melbourne, so it’s only right that they have found their way to China and Beijing.  There are a few cupcake bakeries now popping up around the city, to cater for expats missing home comforts and Chinese sweet-tooths. I remember Dan once buying me a selection of the Cupcakes on Pitt delights about four years ago when I visited him in Sydney. I loved them. You can hardly go 100 metres in Sydney or Melbourne without stumbling on a cupcake shop (Cupcakes on Pitt, Sparkle Cupcakery, and my personal favourite and friend’s store, Cupcake Central [no bias there either, I promise!]). Walking down NanLuoGuXiang this weekend we noticed the familiar floral stands announcing a new store’s presence in the street. It’s the strip’s first cupcake shop, called LOVE. Walk down the shop’s fairy-floss coloured corridor with black wall adornments until you are met by around five or six shop attendants and a window with delicious-looking cupcakes.

As it was their first day, they explained the window wasn’t as full as it normally would have been. Lemon cheesecake, blueberry, raspberry and marshmallow cupcakes were in the window, and as our luck would have it, a tray of fresh pear and brownie cupcakes were being brought out. The cake-part actually was a brownie, so technically not a cupcake. Not to worry though, although the consistency was a little dry, crumbly and nutty. We would have liked it to be a little moister inside. The icing was sweet but didn’t really taste of much, but the poached pear on top provided the much-needed moisture in the cupcake and we wished there could have been more on top. So until we get back to Melbourne to eat some more of Sheryl’s divine salted caramel cupcakes, we’ll maybe have to make do with these, or also start “sampling” (in the name of research) other cupcakes around Beijing.

Jin Ding Xuan

28 Mar

Many cuisines seem to have their version of small, bite-sized tapas-style meals…The Spanish, Italians, Greeks… The Cantonese version (I think) is dim sum. And what better way than to spend a Sunday morning among friends, eating delicious morsels of dim sum? There is a reason dim sum rhymes with yum.

Jin Ding Xuan is a chain in Beijing – I think there are four restaurants – but I’ve only been to one of them…the behemoth four storey building near Yonghegong. As much as I’d love to have been there at 2, 3 or 4am in the morning for a late night barbecue pork bun, I can’t say I’ve tried it yet. Hopefully I will before my time in Beijing is up. I cycle past this place to and from work, and have never seen it empty. There are always people enjoying the food here.

Anyway, we were here on a Sunday morning, as a friend from Melbourne, Sarah, had arrived the night before, and I wanted to ease her into China with food that wouldn’t be too scary, spicy or plain weird. A group of us got a private room on the fourth floor, with walls covered in old Chinese newspapers and a few bird cages hanging for ambience. I hear Beijing dim sum restaurants don’t do the trolley service like they do in Hong Kong or Guandong, which is a shame, but the extensive menu has lots of old favourites and many new tastes to try as well. They also have a massive Sichuan menu which we don’t even bother looking at. The one food menu and separate drinks menu are enough. Drinks here range from hot and cold milk teas to fresh fruit juices, to a refreshing miniature orange and honey drink.

We order many things to try, as well as old favourites, like the barbecue pork buns (which are light and fluffy dough filled with sweet meat), juicy shrimp dumplings and thick rice noodles, as well as some new tastes, like water chestnut cake (a delightful texture change with crunchy chestnuts and jelly-like cake), mushroom soup (which has mushrooms and tasty gnocchi-type noodles). And of course we get the flaky, light egg tarts, the first things to arrive. So the meal started backwards in a way. I’ve read some reviews online that don’t like Jin Ding Xuan at all, but for the prices, the chaotic atmosphere and fact it’s open whenever I’m craving yum cha, I can’t go past it. And I’ll definitely be back…maybe even at 4am.

Jing Zun Kao Ya

15 Mar

Is it considered a little indulgent to have a whole Peking roast duck (Beijing kaoya) for just two diners? We don’t think so either. Living in Beijing means we need to know the ins and outs of a good roast duck. We’re not going to get that kind of knowledge simply by just looking at ducks hanging in the windows of restaurants, so we almost feel like it’s our duty to try as much as we can of this delicious dish, while we’re here, in the spiritual home of the dish.

But, Peking duck can come with a high price tag. Da Dong, Duck de Chine, Quanjude…they all have pretty pricey ducks, particularly for a volunteer to be dining out on. So luckily we heard of Jing Zun Kao Ya, off Gongti, one of three restaurants of the same name, selling good quality duck at amazing prices (around 80rmb for a duck, with all the trimmings). Sure, perhaps it’s not the Beijing King of Beijing Duck, but for the price, we are definitely not complaining.
You can call ahead to book, which means you can tell them in advance to cook the duck and when you’d like it ready for. But we have just gone there and waited a short while. I think the longest we’ve waited was around 40 minutes, and the wait was not unbearable, and the duck was worth it. Red lanterns swing in the breeze and fairy lights make the front deck a nice-looking place to eat for the summer. Entering the restaurant you walk past the raw ducks hanging in the window and the wood-fired oven where other ducks are already being cooked, which adds to the experience.
The first thing most waiters and waitresses say to you as you walk into a restaurant in China is “ji wei?” (how many people?), and at Jing Zun, the second thing they ask you is if you’re there for the duck. Of course we are! They leave you to peruse the rest of the menu while they tell the chefs to put another duck into the woodfire oven. Last time we went, taking my Australian friend Sarah, the waitress tried to tell us there was no duck, much to our horror. But with a little more explanation we managed to get out of her that there were none cooked so we’d have to wait 40 minutes. Your waitress will normally announce to you when your duck is on the carving table and being carved up. Perhaps it’s not so theatrical as Quanjude, but it’s the no frills that we also like about this place.

The duck comes served with thin pancakes, sliced cucumber, thinly sliced scallions and dark sweet plum sauce. We’re left to our own devices to wrap the pancakes, which I’m happy to do, smearing some black sauce with a piece of cucumber, layering the slices of duck meat and fat on top and then lastly thin scallion slices. Roll it up (with fingers or chopsticks, to me it doesn’t matter) and then eat. The mix of fresh cucumber, sweet sauce, with the slight fattiness of the duck and wheaty pancake are glorious flavour combinations, and sadly the pancake is over too quickly – in only a few small bites. But that’s when it’s lucky if there are only two or three of you eating the duck!

Although you can request to take the duck carcass home to make into a soup, we’ve so far only taken the lazy option and ordered the soup made in the restaurant. It comes with a strong flavour and taste of white pepper, plenty of duck meat on the carcass, tofu and cabbage, in a milky broth. It’s the perfect way to finish the duck meal.
We’ve tried other dishes from here, which have been mostly good, but what we really come for is the duck, and we haven’t been disappointed yet.

Huntun Hou

2 Mar

Despite the restaurant sign outside telling me I was at Huntun Hou (Hou Won Ton), the two menus plonked in front of me by the brisk waitress had me worried about what I’d be eating for dinner. That’s right, two menus, and not one of them featuring any wonton soups! A little exchange between us, with her asking me if I’d come here to eat (chi) or drink (he). From my Chinese lessons, I know that you don’t “eat” soup in China, you drink it. But me saying I’d come to drink only caused more confusion, with the waitress pointing out the beers. Finally, my Chinese prevailed, and she produced a little scrap of paper with only Chinese characters and prices, explaining that this was the wonton soup menu. As I couldn’t read any of the types, I went simple for my first try, and ordered pork wontons in soup (Xian Rou Huntun). They must be the “default” ones, as they are at the top of the small scrap of paper. You pay as soon as you order at this no-frills place, and within five minutes my steaming hot bowl of wontons and soup was in front of me. Not sure if my pictures capture the steam rising off the top of the soup, but they were piping hot.

Ever since our Christmas trip to Shanghai, where we ate huge bowls of hot wonton soup for breakfast, I’ve been craving more wontons. Hun Tun (wonton) Hou is known for their wonton soups, and luckily for me, there’s one around the corner from my house, in Longfusi Street. As I mentioned, it’s no frills, but it was full of happy diners enjoying wonton soups and dumplings, that I didn’t mind that the decor and ambience wasn’t anything flash.

Anyway, back to my dinner. As I write this, I can feel my sore, burnt tongue. It’s a result of digging in too quickly to the soup. I’ve learnt my lesson now, but then I just couldn’t help it. It smelt delicious and I was hungry, but I learnt my lesson. The soup was light and flavoursome, and didn’t have the coating of oil that so many soups leave your lips feeling oily after eating them. Fresh chopped coriander, seaweed, pickled ginger and dried shrimps were floating among the 10 wontons (the menu tells you you’ll get 10 in your bowl) and soup. And for 8rmb per bowl, I was pretty satisfied. I hadn’t tried the dried shrimp like this before, but they added a nice salty taste to the soup, the coriander was fresh and chewy, with the pickled ginger adding some zing. Most other tables were ordering the wonton soups, and while I’m not sure what type of wontons they were eating, I reckon all the wontons here would be good. I’ve also heard that there’s fabulous wontons stuffed with crab meat (Xie Rou Huntun). Sure, the bowl may not have been as big as the one in Shanghai, nor the wontons as huge (they were hard to eat and so slippery!), but it really was so delicious and tasty, and something I’ll definitely be going back for again.

Shaanxi Folk Custom Culture Restaurant

26 Feb

Acting on a tip from our fellow bloggers at Beijing Houchi, we decided to give Shaanxi Folk Custom Culture Restaurant a go. On Gulou Dongdajie, the restaurant itself is fairly small, plain and simple. The English name above the door is the only English you’ll find here. We came for the “biang biang” that the Houchi bloggers sung the praises of – thick noodles that are named after the sound they apparently make being made. An interesting note is that the character for “biang” is one of the most complicated in modern Chinese – it’s made up of 57 strokes!!

We ordered three dishes, two of which were noodle-based. I don’t normally get excited about predominantly noodle dishes. Don’t get me wrong, I love noodles,  but I tend to steer clear of large amounts, particularly as I haven’t signed up to a gym here yet and feel quite out of shape. The first noodle dish we ordered – the you po che mian – was absolutely delicious. The taste and consistency of the noodles remind us of the ones we get in a duck ragout at a great little Italian restaurant back home in Sydney – Il Baretto. The noodles were wide and thick – and long! Sometimes hard to eat with chopsticks without having them slip off back into the sauce. The noodles are topped with vegetables – some green bits of bok choy, then garlic, chili flakes and chili oil. The light flavoured, dark-coloured Shaanxi vinegar sauce in this dish is incredibly moreish.

The second dish we ordered – sao zi che mian – was a noodle soup with greens. The soup was a sour and spicy style, with small meat bits. Not too shabby but for me it didn’t compare to the dry-style noodles.

The piece-de-resistance – rou jia mo – was a real treat. It looks and feels like a mini hamburger … extremely tasty shredded pork that’s been simmering in flavoured soup between a warm, light, slightly crispy and not too doughy round bread bun. We initially ordered one but we were so impressed we ordered another two more. We drizzled some chilli oil over the meat and wolfed them down. In future, if it was a choice between a late night kebab and a rou jia mo, I might well choose the latter – I’d definitely do a special trip to this restaurant just for a few of these. If we had had more room after the other two noodle dishes we ate, we would have definitely ordered more of them.

In summary we highly recommend Shaanxi Folk Custom and Culture Restaurant. Next time we would consider ordering one of the massive bowls of catfish soup that most of our fellow diners ordered – they were huge and looked very tasty. Finally, a big thanks to the Houchi bloggers for putting us on to this one – thanks guys!

Hot pot face off

24 Feb

He says: Jess and I have such divergent views on hot pot that we’ve decided to have a bit of a face-off on the topic. Since I arrived in Beijing a month ago, Jess has been desperate to get me to try the hot pot on offer here.

However, ever since I was young I’ve just never seen the point. I guess it all started with Mum’s steamboat lunches, which for me were excruciating. First, the steamboat used to take a while to heat up – torture and boredom to a hungry young lad. Second, with all the food being put in at different times, how was one to know when it would be cooked properly? Third, being the youngest in my family, there was intense competition from my older siblings for the best pieces, plus I could never quite fully reach the steamboat to see the food properly anyway.  Fourth, as a fellow hot pot loather recently pointed out to me, it’s a fine line between a nicely cooked potato and goo-ey mush. I could go on, but you get the idea. Overall I found these lunches very frustrating and usually ended up in the kitchen eating something else.

And so it is for me with hot pot. After much prodding I eventually gave in to Jess and we journeyed to the Wangfujing branch of Haidilao Huo Guo, voted Beijing’s best hot pot and outstanding Chinese restaurant in the Beijinger’s 2010 Restaurant Awards.

In its favour, the food at Haidilao is very fresh, the staff incredibly courteous, and the ambience quite nice. The guys who do a little dance while spinning noodles are also quite entertaining, if a little gimmicky. I’ll let Jess describe the food but all my old issues with steamboat lunches came back. I did give it a fair crack though, so much so that I felt like I was going to explode … another point I can add to my dislikes of hotpot is that it’s so easy to lose track of how much one eats during the meal! Even Jess felt like she ate too much? Right Jess??

She says: When I first moved to China about four months ago, one of my friends told me she didn’t like hotpot. I thought she was an anomaly. Couldn’t understand it. Even the arsenic stories weren’t enough to put me off this delicious style of dining and food. Now the hot pot haters seem to be coming out of the woodwork. Since Dan’s professed to not liking it, I’ve also spoken to two other friends who also aren’t fans. But for me, the communal cooking of the hot pot is part of what makes this such a fun meal. I can’t say I’m a fan of the individual style ones – I think it detracts from the joint nature. Anyway, back to Haidilao Huo Guo, which offers free manicures and shoe shines if you have to wait a long time, as well as games, snacks and sweet black tea. You can even order half sizes of meat and vegetables, perfect for couple dining. Our extremely friendly waiter ran us through the menu, even allowing Dan to photograph the “fresh grass crap slices” and “crap head” soup (easy spelling mistake to make, I think). We got beef, lamb, lotus root, sweet potato, potato, coriander, tofu skin and cabbage, plus some of the unique Haidilao noodles – hand pulled by your very own hip-hop dancer at the table. Quite fun I thought, and something that makes the night a bit different.

There’s a self-service sauce bar, which we made our own sesame sauce concoctions, and our waiter ladled out fresh broth from the un-spicy side of the pot. He also mixed up some soybeans, chili, dried meat, coriander and spring onions to make another type of soup. Free peanuts, shredded potato, shredded tofu and fruit were nice touches too. But as Dan is having issues with the “mala” – incredibly spicy and numbing Sichuan peppercorns – I was left to eat the hot side of the pot while he ate from the fragrant side (aka the ying yang hotpot). I do agree with Dan though that although it didn’t feel like we’d eaten a lot, we came out feeling absolutely stuffed, to the point of feeling sick. That was the only downside of the meal. Oh, and now having to find a new hot pot partner. :(

Tomato and egg soup

23 Feb

In Italian cooking, tomato and basil are a match made in heaven. The Maltese pair tomato paste with crusty white bread and good olive oil. The Spanish fry chorizo with tomato and in Australia you couldn’t have a barbecue without tomato sauce. Basically every culture has something they love to pair with tomatoes, something that just…goes. The Chinese have their version too: tomato and egg. It’s something I’d never been able to get my head around before – Dan loves tomato sauce on his fried eggs. To me, I can’t think of anything worse. But the tomato and egg noodle soup I eat here in Beijing is fabulous – the flavours just go so well. There’s a Shanxi noodle place near my work which sells small, medium and large bowls of it, and another about 10 minutes walk from my house, which always seems to be out of that soup (not sure if it’s the eggs or tomatoes they don’t order enough of) and during winter when I’ve craved soup, I’ve gone to both to warm myself up with lovely big tasty bowls of the stuff.

One of my favourite soups is tomato, but whereas that is a pureed version, these versions have a tomato liquid, big chunks of tomato floating among thick eggy strands and underneath are lovely chewy noodles. There’s often a few green slices of bok choy or something similar floating in it. But while I’ve noticed many Chinese people eating the noodles and substantial parts of the soup, many leave the broth to waste! What a tragedy. The egg is pretty damn tasty too – perhaps that’s from MSG or salt… :( Anyway, while I eat this soup, I forget about the MSG that may or may not be lurking in the broth, because it’s too good to leave any in the bowl.


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