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Rou jia mo

16 May

We stumbled on rou jia mo almost by accident. We’d been researching the Shaanxi Folk Custom Culture Restaurant and were warned the menu was only in Chinese, with no pictures, so luckily a few blogs gave some suggestions of what to order. When we asked for “yi ge rou jia mo”, we actually had no idea what was going to be delivered to our table. But thankfully we were experimental that night because what we got started a love affair that will probably last our entire time in China. I think we ended up ordering another two or three of them.

Rou jia mo (肉夹馍;  ròu jīa mó) is a Chinese-style hamburger. With a round thin roll, crispy on the outside and a little doughy on the inside, the pocket is cut and stuffed with pork or beef that’s been simmering for hours and hours in star anise, five spice, cinnamon and other spices. The meat is chopped finely (by this stage it’s melt-in-your-mouth tender) and sometimes coriander is added to give a little bit of fresh greenery. The result is an amazing little snack, usually demolished by Dan in under a minute. We’ve tried a few of these delights in Beijing – both at the Shaanxi Folk Culture Custom Restaurant (the owners now know Dan and what he orders there) and also from the Paomo Guan’r restaurant nearby our house.

On a recent visit to Xi’an, in Shaanxi province, we were told to watch out for the good rou jia mo, as that’s where they apparently originated. As Xi’an is known for it’s Muslim cuisine, the rou jia mo there mostly used beef rather than pork. Unfortunately though, we found we were disappointed. One of the ones we asked for the less fatty meat, and we were surprised to see the seller get out raw meat and sauté it in his wok with green peppers and bean shoots – additions we hadn’t ever had before. He added cumin and other spices, and stuffed it in a larger bun. Despite feeling virtuous that we’d eaten the less fatty meat, it was a little tough, and the bread was not warmed. Lesson number one of what makes a great rou jia mo: warm the bread before adding the meat.

 The same night we saw people eating what looked like the real deal – smaller buns with meat and wrapped in the ubiquitous half-paper bag they normally come in. We tried it the next day, and while it looked like what we were after, we were also not taken by the taste. The meat was too salty – it tasted like brisket – and the bread was tough and too doughy. Lessons two and three: spice the meat well but don’t oversalt, and use thin mo bread.

Back in Beijing, Dan decided to go back to Paomo Guan’r to try their rou jia mo again, as the first time I’d bought one for him, he’d been very ho-hum about it, perhaps as he was trying to skype his mate in New York. When I asked him later if he liked it he said it wasn’t bad but not amazing. Funnily enough, the next time he tried it, he raved about it. Lesson number four: take the time to enjoy your rou jia mo.

It’s not hard to make a good rou jia mo, although it does take time, and effort. At Paomo Guan’r during lunch and dinner peak times, there are normally three or four cooks in their special mo open kitchen. Some are kneading the mo dough, others shaping it and cooking it, another stuffing the rou jia mo…It’s a very impressive work train. These guys don’t need any lessons from us though. They are doing them perfectly.



6 May

The day I introduced Dan to jianbing, he told me it made his day – and it was only lunchtime. Now, we both love our food, but I reckon it’s fairly rare that I hear Dan say that about something like a 3.5rmb street vendor’s pancake.

But, to be fair, there is something about the jianbing, a thin pancake crepe cooked on a griddle over coals, an egg cracked on top, sometimes sprinkled with black sesame seeds, coriander and spring onions scattered over, flipped, sweet red bean paste, chili and a darker fermented bean sauce added, and then finally a deep-fried piece of crisp put in the middle, folded, chopped and handed to you in a plastic bag.

There’s jianbing sellers on most street corners; some who have set up real shopfront stalls and also mobile ones who ride around with their griddle and ingredients in a glass contraption on the back of their bike. Eaten at any time of the day – breakfast, morning tea, lunch, afternoon snack, dinner, or after a night drinking, this snack is loved by almost everyone. I love watching the technique of swirling the batter around the griddle – some sellers have a very watery, thin batter, while others have a thicker, stickier one. They all have a wooden paddle which they swirl it around the giant circular cooktop, using the same method to then spread the cracked egg over the crepe. Deft wrist flicks help them flip the pancake over halfway through the cooking process, almost perfectly every time.

I’ve eaten them from many vendors, at many times of the day and night. There’s a great permanent stall on Jiaodaokou Dajie which lets you choose between three types of pancake batter – millet, green bean or purple rice. This seller also lets you choose a big or two small wafers, and puts it in an environmentally-friendly paper bag for you to take away. It’s popular – I’ve had to line up most times I’ve gone there. I’ve seen others order meat sticks chopped up and put inside, as well as chicken that’s been roasting on a spit. But I’ve never diverged from the original path.

Another jianbing seller I went to often on a Tuesday or Thursday as a dinner before my Chinese language class added a slice of lettuce to the top of the wafer, which gave it a nice fresh flavour. I was told one night though by my Chinese teacher, after showing up with my jianbing and explaining it was dinner, that Chinese people would never eat a jianbing just for dinner! It’s considered more of a snack.

I’ve got to admit though, I have tried a not-so-good jianbing. I didn’t think it was possible to stuff up this near-perfect food. But a shop in Raffles City mall at Dongzhimen (no longer there actually) made me a jianbing that wasn’t up to scratch, and there was definitely a weird taste of metal in either the sauce, lettuce or pancake. It was often busy though, but when I was at the mall recently I’ve noticed a fries shop is about to open in it’s place.

Probably the best jianbing I’ve tried so far was the first one Dan tried (thankfully I seemed to choose well that day!). A man in a permanent stall near my work, who always seems to have a line for his jianbing, whether I’m going to work, walking there around lunchtime, or leaving work. He does something right…I loved the way he sprinkled black sesame seeds onto the egg. The favourite part for me though, was the chunky peanut pieces in the sweet red bean sauce, which added a whole other dimension to the regular jianbing. They didn’t overpower, just gave extra crunch and flavour, to a snack I never thought actually needed any extra flavour!

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!

Egg tarts

24 Jan

I find it too easy to love egg tarts. The flaky, light buttery pastry encasing a smooth silky egg custard. Done right, they are heaven in about two bites.

I don’t remember my first one in China, but I knew I would like them. Some bakeries keep them in a warmer, so they are delicious and warm to bite into. Others you eat cold, and they are almost just as good. Having just returned to Beijing from Hong Kong last weekend, I also got to try lots of delicious eggy custards with both flaky puff pastry and shortcrust pastry. Apparently they originated down in Hong Kong and are seen often on yum cha menus – we had some when we had yum cha dim sum at Maxim’s (picture below). One bakery I saw sold coconut and egg white tarts for $HK4. The Peninsula Hotel’s egg tarts (picture above) were small yet divine.

I’ve tried versions made with puff pastry and shortcrust pastry, and have read that food purists like the ones made with puff pastry better. At a university dining hall near my work, a bakery stall sells small egg tarts for 2.5rmb, made with puff pastry, and large ones for 4rmb with shortcrust. The large ones are divine, the pastry is crumbly and there’s more egg custard than pastry, a ratio that doesn’t always occur in the smaller variety.

Even the egg tarts from my local Wu Mart are hen hao chi (very delicious), and you wouldn’t always say that about things from supermarket bakeries back home! Even KFC sells them!

I always go for the ones that have a little more brown burnt custard on the top. I’m not sure why – and maybe I go for the ones that others would leave behind. I like the look of them and knowing they’ve had a good dose of flame. They also look a little more like Portuguese tarts that way as well. Luckily there’s a Bread Talk in Chinatown in Sydney…I may just be addicted to these little sweeties.

Beard Papa’s

30 Dec

On my first visit to China in 2007, the hostel I stayed at was around the corner from this little shop with the strange name of Beard Papa’s. The only reason we went in originally was because my Dad was looking for a cup of coffee (Beijing’s come a long way in three years with coffee!) and we thought they may make one. Delightful aromas of sweet pastry, chocolate, caramel and sugar mixed to make a divine smell, which I’m sure is almost as bad for you and gives you half the calories as eating the actual cream puffs the store is famous for! The chain started in Japan in 1999 and branched out across the world – they now have more than 250 stores in Japan and 300 worldwide.


When we were in Beijing last time we could buy bite-sized choux pastry puffs filled with whipped cream custard in a range of colours and flavours like vanilla, chocolate, coffee, green tea, strawberry, pumpkin and Earl Grey tea. The other day they had a chestnut special one too. I discovered one at the Ginza Mall above Dongzhimen subway station recently and now pass it almost four times a week, inhaling the heavenly smells, which I tell myself suffices for eating one. I did share a green tea one with a friend and it tasted good. But instead of the little bite-sized ones they are bigger, fist-sized ones, which come plain, covered in chocolate, chocolate pastry and a number of others. Back in Shanghai I knew I wanted to try another, so got a vanilla custard with chocolate icing. Despite the girl getting my order wrong twice, and piping coffee into the pastry shell instead of vanilla, it was worth the wait, although the casing was crunchier than I remember and could have been filled a little more.

But I got severe food envy when I saw a friend had ordered the chocolate fondant one – a gooey molten chocolate cake heated up and popped in the pastry. It oozed out and looked amazingly decadent…and got a little over her face, which is a sure sign she enjoyed it! That’s for me next time!

Shanghai xiaolongbao

28 Dec

Ever since I tried the delicious xiaolongbao at Taiwanese chain Din Tai Fung in Shanghai in December 2007, I’ve been hooked, and searching for another little bundle of goodness just like it. Thankfully Din Tai Fung opened a branch in Sydney so I know where to find them at home. But coming back to Shanghai, where the steamed bun is from, I knew I’d be able to find them on most menus and satisfy my cravings for them. Although they look like dumplings, they are actually a steamed bun – or baozi – made traditionally in small bamboo steamer baskets…xiaolong means small steaming basket. Although not all of them are necessarily soup dumplings, the xiaolongbao I was on the lookout for have a delicious hot soupy stock inside them which fills your mouth when you bite into it.

They are pinched at the top before being steamed, so are circular-shaped, while jiaozi are mostly made from round pieces of dough and folded in half, making them crescent-shaped. They are often filled with pork, but other meats, seafoods and vegetarian options are also found.

Part of me was happy to accept xiaolongbao for what they were, not needing to know the secret to getting piping hot soup inside an encased skin. But my interest in food and curiosity got the better of me and I eventually read how they are created by wrapping solid meat aspic inside the skin with the meat filling. Steam and heat melts the gelatine-gelled aspic into a soup, thus creating the perfect ooze of soup followed by meaty bits when you eat it.

But a warning for those who like to dig into their food quickly – these little morsels can be dangerous if you decide to gobble them as soon as their steamy goodness is placed in front of you at the table. I have scalded my mouth more than once by not being patient enough for them to cool down. At Din Tai Fung they recommend putting the bun on a soup spoon, nibbling a little of the skin until the soup oozes out into the spoon. You then suck out the soup and then devour the rest of the filling and skin, along with vinegar and finely sliced ginger.

Crab roe xiaolongbao

In Shanghai, back to celebrate Christmas this year, we made a beeline for the Nanxiang Bun Shop at the Yu Gardens. People line up for ages to buy their takeaway xiaolongbao, or they head upstairs to the restaurant to pay a little extra and have them delivered to your table. Perhaps xiaolongbao are something people the world over will line up for – we also have to at Din Tai Fung in Sydney, but the wait is so worth it, especially watching the chefs make the buns through the open kitchen window. Nanxiang is a town near Shanghai where the buns were meant to have been invented (thankyou Nanxiang-ren!!!).

For the uninitiated and unfamiliar with eating the xiaolongbao it can be an interesting experience watching as they take their first bites – with soup sometimes streaming out because they pierce the skin with their chopsticks before it even leaves the basket, or the soup spurting out either onto your clothes or the face of your dining companion opposite. I reckon I’ve got my technique down pat though, and am able to gently pick up the bun, have a little nibble and suck the soupy juicy goodness out before the rest of it. During my stay in Shanghai I tried numerous xiaolongbao, all which were delicious and exciting to eat.

This isn’t just me raving about something – I’ve read the Shanghai government has put the xiaolongbao on a list of the city’s “protected traditional treasures”, and along with a stroll along the Bund, is something I believe that needs to be experienced while in Shanghai.
I like the NYT food blogger Daisann McLane’s description of eating good xiaolongbao: “It was like eating matzo ball soup, inside out”. I love matzo ball soup too!

But now I’m back in Beijing, and short of going to Din Tai Fung here (which is actually quite pricey), I’m trying to find a Shanghai restaurant where I can eat them. Or perhaps even find them in the frozen section of my local Wu Mart, if it’s possible to cook them frozen. That would be heaven for me.