Archive for the China Category

Weary in Wuhan

Posted in China, Hubei, Wuhan with tags , , on February 28, 2014 by gannet39

Wuhan is the capital of Hubei prefecture in central eastern China. With a population of 10 million it is the biggest city in central China. During my brief stay, there was little that distinguished it for me from other Chinese cities except maybe the air pollution seemed even murkier than usual.

I stayed for three days, most of which were taken up with work or sleep as I recovered from the long journey, via Manchester, Amsterdam and Beijing. Thankfully my luxurious super modern room at the Hotel Marco Polo (Times Square, 159 Yanjiang Avenue) was an air conditioned haven from the heat (33C at the end of August) and pollution outside. I could lie in my bath on the corner of the 15th floor and gaze out over the river and other tall buildings sitting ghostlike in the soupy air. The view should have been much better but visibility was down to just a few hundred metres at times.

The hotel has a very well equipped gym and also a pool but the latter was closed for renovation when I was there so I can’t comment on it. Every staff member I met was really helpful and friendly. My only gripe was that I couldn’t access my BT Yahoo email account. I was prepared for having my WordPress blog and Facebook blocked by the Great Firewall of China but losing email as well was a new one on me. Whether Wi-Fi or cable, in the room or in the lobby, the internet was really slow and eventually I just gave up on it. Unusually though, the hotel did have both BBC and CNN on the TV, both of which are often blocked in other hotels where Westerners don’t usually stay.

20000101_141621The hotel breakfast is pretty comprehensive, catering for both Western and Chinese tastes. A typical Hubei breakfast food that I tried here was Hot & Dry Noodles, the spice coming from the dried chillies and the dryness from the sesame paste which the noodles are tossed in. There was a diced vegetable in the mix but I couldn’t work out what it was. It was edible enough but I can’t say I was wild about it (C+).

20000101_141626I also tried Doupi which is sometimes described as a kind of pizza. In fact it’s two large sheets of beancurd sandwiching a filling of rice and perhaps other ingredients like beef, shrimp or mushroom, although they just had the plain version at the hotel.

I did eat in the rather boring hotel restaurant one night as I was too tired to go out. The food was fine (A) but expensive. I paid double what I would elsewhere for three small beers, a plate of fried rice and some steamed pak choi. On another night I decided to get out and about, so I went to this place recommended by the Eyewitness guide for China.

Yanyangtian (aka Sunny Sky), (Advanced B+), Jiefang Dadao, Baofeng Lukou, Tel 027 8375 0706.

This place is a fifteen minute cab ride from the hotel but as taxis are really cheap it only costs about £2 to get there. There are two floors, a large, noisy and plainly decorated main room at ground level and a more intimate and nicely decorated smaller room upstairs. As is often the case, the staff were pretty shocked to see a Westerner but they were friendly enough. I was armed with my food flashcards (see my post on Getting Fed in China) and dictionary app so communications went fairly smoothly.

20130825_201104On the advice of the guide I tried Nongjia Xiaochaoru which was described as a spicy pork dish but was actually okra tossed in chillies and tiny chunks of cubed pork and some other ‘stuff’, all good (A) .

20130825_202613Usually, alongside my main fish or meat dish, I have a plate of stir fried green leafy veg of some description so I just pointed at something green on the picture menu without knowing what it actually was. In the end it turned out to be green peppers with larger slices of fatty pork sitting on chunks of a hard rice cake, which was fine (B) but resulted in a bit of an overkill on both the veg and meat fronts!

20130825_200353Both dishes were good but the portions were huge (meant to be shared by a group) so I couldn’t finish them. However, even with two 500ml Snow beers and a big bowl of steamed rice, the bill was much cheaper than the hotel even though this was quite a posh restaurant.

The Eyewitness guide mentions a few other restaurants which I list below, even though I haven’t been to them. It’s best to have reception call them first to make sure you can get in and also write the address for the taxi driver. Take the phone number so the driver can call if he’s not sure where to go.

Changchunguan Sucaigan (269 Wuchang, Tel 027 885 4229) is a vegetarian restaurant next to a Daoist temple, the decor of which it mimics. The guide suggests you try Lazi Tianluo, apparently a veggie version of river snails, or Xiaopinpan which is a sample platter of their most popular dishes.

Fang Fang Caiguan (1 Jiqing Jie. Tel 027 8281 0954) is the oldest and largest restaurant in town. Apparently you can pay to be serenaded with pop hits or trad classics which for me makes it sound like a place to avoid, but others might like that kind of thing. The Ya Bozi (duck’s neck) and caiyu lianou (fish and lotus root) are supposed to be good.

Mr Xie Restaurant & Pub (558 Jiefang Dadao, Baofeng Lukou, Tel 027 8577 7288) is a busy expat hangout which lots of locals also go to too. The steamed Wuchang Fish (Qingzheng Wuchang Yu) is recommended.

I wanted to go to Xie’s most of all but the taxi driver told me it was shut so I went to Sunny Sky instead.  I don’t know whether the closure is just temporary or permanent.

Other than this I can’t say much about Wuhan. Important historical events have taken place here (various uprisings and battles) but there is not much to see as far as I can make out. There are a few old buildings with some nice architecture along Yanjiang Avenue. If you turn left out of the hotel and walk straight you will soon come to the former Bank of Indochina building on your left which looks quite nice. There are a few bars next to it that look good but I didn’t have the time or energy to check them out.

Catching the train in China is much like catching a plane, complete with trolley pushing stewardesses and meals in trays that you can purchase on request. The stations in major cities are huge terminals where thousands of people sit waiting to be released onto the platforms. Rather than buy the tickets at the station (involving long queues and ticket sellers that don’t speak English) you should buy them, at least a day in advance, via the hotel concierge. Travelling first class guarantees you a seat but don’t hang about because all the seats in both classes usually sell out very quickly.

It’s also a good idea to aim to arrive at the station 45 minutes early as taxis can be scarce at peak times and traffic jams can seriously delay you (see my Ningbo post for the nightmare I experienced on my last trip). The hotel told me it takes about 20 minutes to drive to the station but they didn’t say that it can take nearly as long again for the bell boys to get you a vehicle. I eventually went out on the street and got one myself after only a couple of minutes but perhaps I was lucky.

Once at the station you need to factor in a bit of a walk due to the size of the building. Tickets and signs are all in Mandarin so you only have the numbers of your train, carriage and seat printed on your ticket to help you. There are usually two entrances down to either end of the platform which are numbered according to the carriages that are at the front or back of the train.

Thankfully after a traffic jam scare, I made it with about 20 minutes to spare. Next stop Xiangyang.

Spicing it up in Chengdu

Posted in Chengdu, Sichuan with tags , , , , , , , , , , on December 24, 2012 by gannet39

Chengdu is the capital city of Sichuan (aka Szechuan), famed for its spicy and very delicious food. The province is also known as the home of the giant panda and for the big earthquake they had in 2008, some 80km north west of Chengdu.

Panda love

The city is also home to the Chinese sister club of Sheffield United (my team), who go by the name of Chengdu Blades. Sadly, due to time and weather constraints I didn’t get time to check out the pandas or the football, so I contented myself with the food instead.

The neon lights of the city’s tall buildings are not quite as awe inspiring as its hilly neighbour Chongqing, but it’s still fun to buzz around the broad streets in a taxi taking in the urban landscape.

Urban neon

Cabs are very cheap here, starting at 8 RMB, so you can get to all the restaurants below for little more than two or three pounds.

Light show

Huang Cheng Lao Ma (High Intermediate A), Er Huan Lu Nan Duan 3,20, Tel. 028 8513 9999

This is a multi-storey restaurant and teahouse in a very modern and impressive building. I went on the recommendation that it was one of the best places to try hot pot (aka steam boat), another very famous Sichuan method of cooking. Unlike the north, where hotpot probably originated over a thousand years ago, the Sichuanese add Hua Jiao (Sichuan peppers) and chillies to make a red soup base.

This style is called ‘ma la’ which means ‘numb and spicy’ to reflect these flavours, but you can opt for two soup bases and have a mild white stock as well. I prefer the hot one though.

Hotpot

You can have hot pot in many restaurants which I’m sure are very good but the great thing about how they do it here is that all the ingredients pass in front of you in small dishes on a conveyor belt so you can choose exactly what you want, and how much,  from a very wide range of options.

Conveyor hot pot

In my case I chose bowls of mushrooms (straw, oyster and boletus), meat (pork, two kinds of beef, liver, tripe) and vegetables (pak choi, water spinach, bean sprouts) as well as tofu and transparent noodles.

The spread

There are lots of fishy dishes on offer too as well as many other things you would need a Chinese friend to help you identify. Once cooked, ladled out and drained the food is then dipped in a bowl of garlic flavoured sesame oil and scoffed, a very enjoyable process.

Bok choi

There are other snacks, desserts and lots of fruit on separate buffet tables too. You pay a set fee of 140 RMB (drinks extra) and eat as much as you like, which is like a red rag to a bull to me! On both occasions I went I’d missed lunch and ate way more than a normal person, so they couldn’t wait to get rid of me by the end of the night! I really enjoyed this place and would definitely recommend it.

Ginko Restaurant (Yinxing Chuancai Jiulou) (High Intermediate A), 12 Lin Jiang Zhong Lu, Chengdu, Tel. 028 8555 5588

Nice traditional style place with a second floor view of the river. I had shredded Spicy Chicken (Ma La Tu Ji) with peanuts, celery and some other unidentifiable things swimming in a pool of chilli oil and sesame seeds, as is the Sichuan way (B+).

Ma La Tu Ji Spicy Chicken

Also the classic Mapo Tofu (A) in a sauce of ground Sichuan peppercorns, black beans and minced beef, doused in chilli oil again.

Mapo Tofu

In addition, Water Spinach stir fried with fresh red chilli (A) and a large Tsingtao which came in an unusual bottle and tasted stronger than usual.

Lovely smiley staff some of whom spoke some English. The Eyewitness guide says the Sichaun roast duck (Zhang Cha Ya) and steamed fish (Qing Zhen Gui yu) are also good here. They accept international credit cards.

Sichuan Mangtingfang Langting Guibin Huiso (Advanced B+), Erhan Lu 15, Nan San Duan, Tel. 028 8519 3111

This is a famous old-school restaurant with an impressive facade but a relaxed atmospheric interior. When I arrived I was given some complimentary strange white pickles (anyone know what they are?) (B) and a plate of fruit which I saved for dessert.

Pickles

The menu has some quite scary items but I bottled it as usual and went for the safer options. For a change on the duck theme I had crispy goose which came with a sweet sauce, plum I think (B+).

Roast duck

The house fried rice is great (A) with lots of tasty morsels mixed in.

Also a huge plate of mushrooms and pak choi In a white soupy sauce (B).

Stewed mushroms

The blandness of the pak choi and mushroom dish contrasted nicely with the mild heat of a bowl of Dan Dan Noodles (B+), another classic local dish.

Dandan noodlesA few points were lost for the lack of cold beer but the food was great.

I stayed at this huge, so-called four star hotel…

Water Hotel (Intermediate C), 53-57 Taisheng South Road, Chengdu, Tel. 028 8298 8888

This place is trying to be posh but it’s actually quite basic with dingy rooms and aircon that you don’t have any control over. There are free Wi-Fi and internet cable connections in the rooms. The staff are friendly but they have weak English skills which made booking restaurants a bit of a chore. The gym is pitiful with tiny, unusable machines. Breakfast is good if you’re Chinese, sparse if you’re not. There are lots of noodle bars down the side street opposite and to the left of the front entrance.

Other than the hotel, I really enjoyed Chengdu and ate very well while I was here. The city also featured in the 2012 BBC series about Chinese food; Exploring China: A Culinary Adventure, (search for it on YouTube) which was aired in the UK while I was here. Although I seemed to have had a lot of the same dishes I wish I’d seen it before I came for restaurant tips. Yu’s Family Kitchen looks to be the place to eat according to the programme. Can’t wait to try it next time…

Drinking in Jinhua

Posted in China, Zhejiang with tags , , , on December 12, 2012 by gannet39

Jinhua is in Zhejiang province, just to the south of Hangzhou. After the hectic streets of Nanjing, Jinhua feels really relaxed and chilled out. The traffic is much calmer and the taxis sometimes actually stop to let you walk over pedestrian crossings! The relaxed atmosphere reminded me a lot of my hometown. It was also the only place I’d been to so far on this trip where it didn’t rain although it was a blistering 35 degrees all the time I was there. Which is where the parallels with Sheffield end!

In terms of food, Jinhau is famous for its ham but I was dissuaded from trying it by two of the local teachers who told me it wasn’t all it’s cracked up to be and is actually quite unhealthy due to the high salt content. Also a small crispy bun (either sweet or savory) topped with sesame seeds called ‘subing’, although I didn’t see these anywhere. Not that was looking too hard. I didn’t do much quality eating in the two days I was here but I did do plenty of drinking! In fact I had the best time here out of any of the cities I visited on this trip.

I stayed at…

Twin towersBest Western World Trade Hotel (Intermediate B+), 737 Bayi North St, Jinhua, Tel. 0579 8258 8888 www.jhsmhotel.com

I like Best Western as they usually have a decent breakfast and the rooms are quite plush. This one met the grade although their plumbing needs sorting out with a whiff of effluent sneaking into the bathroom every now and then. The staff were very nice and not over-helpful as they can be in bigger cities. The buildings seem to modelled on the twin towers of the world trade centre.

There’s a gym with four virtually pristine machines but no mats for floor work. Sports and gyms are a new concept to many Chinese people so they don’t get used much. I saw one guy walking backwards on the treadmill which was a different take from the norm.

Not a joke apparentlyDanny’s Cafe (Intermediate B), closes 9pm. Tel. 5798 230 4799

I found it a bit difficult to find this place but you could phone ahead and ask Danny (who is North American) where it is. Basically, turn left down Bayi St, the main road outside the hotel. After a couple of blocks you’ll see a restaurant called Shannana with red lanterns outside. Turn left down the small side street here and you’ll see Danny’s on the left.

This is a place to come if you are missing Western food. I had a small Spag Bol and a huge plate of chips which were  both fine if nothing special (B). With two Tsingtao beers and two G&T’s the bill came to a paltry 160 RMB.  They have Wi-Fi too so you can hang out for a while but it was pretty quiet when I went. It seems the local customers need a sign to tell them how to use the sit-down loo…

The Red Cactus (Intermediate A), closes 1am.

This is hard to find as well but from the road just outside Danny’s (ask him for directions), just walk straight over the park, crossing the two main roads, and go up the side street to the right of the ‘Facebook’ building. You will notice some fairly decent graffiti on the right hand wall and the entrance is soon after this. The area is very residential with lots of tower blocks but they have a courtyard with tables outside.

This place is a (Canadian owned?) bar and live venue and it was very raucous when I arrived with a band playing Nirvana covers and noisy young patrons playing games of liar’s dice. I quite liked the atmosphere and stayed for a while, taking advantage of their free Wi-FI.

CheersCheers (Elementary A)

One of the Chinese teachers recommended this dive bar, one of many bars along a pretty scruffy street, a taxi ride from the hotel. I couldn’t understand why she would come here at first as the street seemed to be full of brothels and the grotty bar was empty and had no atmosphere when I arrived at 9pm.

Burning BacardiThings livened up around 11 though with more people arriving and a girl taking to the small stage with her guitar to sing a few covers, including some Oasis songs. Before this though Hua, the hospitable owner, treated me to a few shots of dark Bacardi with a flaming lemon and brown sugar top. After a couple of  these we became good friends despite our limited abilities in each other’s languages! I met a few of the other customers too and had a good old chinwag, Cheers style, and after being the first to arrive I was the last to leave. This is a good place to improve international relations!

I quite liked Jinhua and would be happy to go again. If I had time I would have checked out the Architecture Park.

Dumplings in Nanjing

Posted in China, Jiangsu, Nanjing with tags , , , , , , , on December 5, 2012 by gannet39


Nanjing
in Jiangsu province has a long and venerable history, not all of it good. It was one of the greatest cities of ancient China, the capital of the ROC under the Kuomintang and the scene on a terrible massacre in the run up to WW2 which in part explains the poor contemporary relationship between Japan and China. In modern times it is the second largest commercial centre in Eastern China after Shanghai and has a population similar in size to London, although with much less going on. There lots to see here, like the old city walls and the lake area, but I was too busy with work to do much tourist stuff, other than eat…

Nanjing traffic
Just around the corner from the Hotel Lakeview where I staying  is Hunan Lu, one of the main shopping streets in Nanjing, and just off it, Shizi Qiao, a food street with plenty of places to eat. As you walk down Hunan Lu you will see a huge neon tunnel on the right and a stone gate on the left, the latter being the entrance to Shizi Qiao.

Art tunnel
It’s very convenient but unfortunately I don’t think any of the places along here are any good for food. On the left you will see a sign for a Thai place (suggested by Frommer’s) where I was served the worst ‘Thai’ fodder I’ve ever not eaten; Tom Yam chicken soup, fried rice and crab curry (all C/D). The food, in combination with a horrible waitress, led to me asking for my money back (I got about a third off). On the next night the Chicken Curry with Egg Rice in the neighbouring Punjabi restaurant wasn’t much better (C-) and the service was pretty brusque there too.

Hunan Rd neon
For a quick lunch there’s an ok noodle place about halfway down Hunan Lu on the right, called Ajisen. It’s a nationwide chain of Japanese noodle bars (so some things have been forgiven). It’s  basically an ok place to get a filling bowl of pork noodles (B) and maybe a rack of fried gyoza dumplings on the side (B). Not keen on their Pork Rib noodle soup though (C-) and probably not much else on their menu. Noodle soup and gyoza are enough for me here.

Ajisen

For a more upmarket dining experience jump a cheap cab (about 12 RMB) to the 1912 district on the corner of Changjiang Rd and Taiping North Rd. It’s quite commercial but the restaurants here (including an untried Thai restaurant) are much better than anything around Hunan Lu and are probably more likely to satisfy the Western palate.


Bellagio
(Intermediate B+), 1912 District, Building A1, 5 Taiping Bei Lu. Visa and MC not accepted.

This is another nationwide chain serving up Taiwanese and other Pacific Rim dishes in comfortable modern surroundings. I had the Taiwanese Stewed Fatty Pork which is delicious but a bit too fatty for one person to eat a whole plate of (B-).

Stewed Fatty Pork
There are lots of other enticing things on the menu though. I love that they have a range of six greens (Chinese ‘Broccolli’, Bok Choi, Kang Kong ‘Water Spinach’, Guangdong Chinese Cabbage, Spinach, Crown Daisy)(see post on Chinese Greens), from which you choose three to be stir fried (B+). The Rice with Ham was ok too (B).

 

Spoilt for choice
The desserts are quite healthy-looking and feature a lot of shaved ice and smoothies. I had the huge Mangguo Bingshan (meant for 2-4 people); chunks of fresh mango doused in condensed milk and served on a bed of shaved ice (B). Total cost with two small beers a very cheap 126 RMB.

Mangguo Bingshan

Southern Beauty (Intermediate B+), 1912 District, Building 17, 52 Taiping Bei Lu, just a few buildings down from Bellagio above. Visa and MC not accepted.

Continuing the chain theme, this is a restaurant specialising in Sichuanese food which you will find all over the country. The decor looks very plush but the communal sofas are rather rickety. I had an excellent Kung Pao Chicken (A) and the Mapo Tofu (A), both searing hot. Also a side dish of Jacob’s Coat; yet another green vegetable, looking like skinny spinach on the plate but which releases a purple red juice when stir fried (B). With rice and two 500ml Tsingtao’s the bill came to a paltry 258 RMB.

If you want to see how moneyed Chinese youth like to enjoy themselves, you could check out the No.1 Bar a couple of doors down. It’s a glitzy late bar/club playing Western style music and with local singers occasionally vocalising over Chinese tracks. The decor involves throne-like sofas, over the top chandeliers, installations of fake steam pipes and dials, whole walls of video screens and lasers. Guys outnumbered girls about ten to one on the Tuesday night I was there. Everyone seemed to be on their phones all the time as they have free Wi-Fi. A tiny G&T cost me 45 RMB, about £5, roughly the same as the hotel.
If you’re working in the ICF building at Xinjiekou station a good place to eat lunch on floor B1 is the Onion Cafe which does an excellent spicy hot pot set (‘boiled beef and rice’) (A).

Spicy hot pot
The non-spicy version with prawn filled pork dumplings and bok choi (‘steamed meat rice’) is pretty good too (B+). These were the nicest things I had during my short stay but probably not worth trekking here for.

pork dumplings
Both come with rice and pickles and cost about £4. There’s an Ajisen here too.

So sadly I didn’t get to try some of the local delicacies like ‘Lion’s Heads’ and Pig Lung Soup. This wasn’t for lack of trying though but most of the authentic places I tried to go to that were recommended by the DB guide to China no longer seemed to exist or had changed their character.

Hot pot set
An example of this was the highly recommended restaurant at the Hotel Metropole which is now a buffet set up. Luckily though they had a Korean BBQ place in the cellar (disguised as a toilet!) which was ok (B).

BBQ meat
I had a plate of five kinds of beef and pork which was probably meant for four people. Along with all the side dishes it was quite a marathon but I managed most of it!

BBQ Side Dishes

Hotel Lakeview Xuanwu (Advanced B)

Pros: very comfy beds, comprehensive breakfast, good view of the lake from the revolving restaurant on the top floor where breakfast is served, BBC world on the telly, free wi-fi in the rooms, right next to Xuanwumen Subway station.

Cons: annoyingly curvilinear pool, a medium sized gym with ageing machines and no space for floor work, caged minah bird on the breakfast floor, overpriced Chinese restaurant with service that can’t cope with Western customers.

Not a lot in Ningbo?

Posted in China, Ningbo, Zhejiang with tags , on November 29, 2012 by gannet39

To be fair I only spent two nights in Ningbo so this post hardly does it justice. It’s a seaport near Hangzhou in Zhejiang province, so known for seafood and also Ningbo Tangyuan; small glutinous rice balls which are stuffed with pork or sesame seed paste and boiled, although I wasn’t able to track any down.

It rained nearly all the time I was there and I had no time off so I didn’t really get to know the city at all. You can probably tell I didn’t have the greatest of times here but hopefully you will do better. This What’s On guide might help.

The Hotel Hai Ju Wenhua at 293 Caihong South Rd is a rather dark depressing place and isn’t really set up to deal with Western clients. Very few of the staff speak English and the breakfast has very little you’d want to eat unless you’re Chinese, just fruit and toast in my case. There are no health facilities and no English channels on the telly, which makes for quite a boring stay if the weather doesn’t allow you to go out. Also, be warned there are two in the chain so make sure taxi drivers take you to the right one.
On the first night I braved the rain and walked to the Shipu Restaurant in Tianyi Square (Tel. 574 8727 1777) in the centre of town which is very famous for its seafood. I had hotel reception make a reservation for me, give me rough directions (turn right at the church)  and write the name down but still went to the wrong restaurant. However one of the greeters left her post to walk me to the Shipu! That’s how famous it is I guess.

Ship
It’s a huge place, on several floors. Upon entering you go to the aquarium area to choose your victim for supper which is then caught and cooked in the style you ask for.

Aquarium
Rather than a menu there are lots of dishes on display, both plastic and real, which you can point at to get what you want.

Menu display

No idea, you tell meMy translations and flashcards let me down though and I ended up with the most austere meal of the whole trip.
I was hoping for a steamed fish with maybe some ginger, spring onions and black beans but as I didn’t specify these I ended up with a steamed plaice adorned with a solitary sprig of coriander.

Steamed plaice
Also a plate of rather woody stir-fried Water Spinach and a bowl of plain rice. Cheap as chips, but nowhere near as tasty.

Water Spinach
After all that healthy food I felt compelled to pop into a local supermarket on the way home to get a globalised chocolate snack for dessert.

Local shop

At least you know where you are with these things.

Global productOn another night, thanks to a tip off from a local American teacher, I jumped a cab to Lao Waitan. It’s one of those modern touristy entertainment areas that now exist in most Chinese cities which have been designed to simulate the feel of ‘Old China’. The streets are cobbled with grey stone and the ersatz buildings are low rise with traditional tiled roofs. There are heaps of bars and several restaurants along Yangshan Rd and the streets leading off it with The Office being the bar of choice for off duty native speaker teachers.
Needing a change, I went to a Japanese Restaurant (sorry don’t know the name or address but walk around and you’ll find it) which fulfilled its purpose (B-). The Chinese Masta who runs the place had been trained in Kyoto and was delighted to have someone to practice his Japanese with, both of us being at the same low elementary level.

 
While reading the menu I had some Edamamae soya beans which were ok but not great, probably out of season and frozen (C+). The Hiyayakko (Cold Tofu) was much better though. (B+).

Edamame

The Masta insisted I try the Fried Ray Wings which had been dosed in a sugary substance, deep fried and served with mayo. They were a new experience and interesting at first but I couldn’t finish them (B/C).

Ray Wings

After this some California Roll (C+), a Salmon Temaki roll (B-) and some over-cold and tasteless Tuna Sashimi (C), attractively presented on a bed of ice with a small plastic bonsai tree. Some of this was for free, courtesy of my new friend, who even pinched another customer’s umbrella to come out with me in the rain to get a taxi.
I wasn’t so lucky the next day though when I tried to get to the train station. Leaving the hotel at 10am, I’d given myself an hour for the fifteen minute journey but couldn’t get a cab for love or money due to the rain and the never ending rush hour. Eventually I persuaded a dozing tuk tuk guy to give me an unofficial lift but he had to drop me round the corner to avoid the wrath of the professional cabbies. I legged it with my bags and actually made it to the platform while the train was still there. Unfortunately though they wouldn’t open the doors the doors for me and I had to stand and look at it for a whole two minutes before it left without me. Arrgh!

Bullet train
Fortunately, I had been given a mobile to call my local co-ordinator for just this kind of situation. With her help I tried to get another train ticket but they sell out days in advance and eventually she had to book a private car for about £250 to drive me the 6 hours to Nanjing. So, be warned; in cities with no metro, book your train tickets for around midday and leave at least ninety minutes early if it’s raining!

The journey was uneventful but we did stop off at a service area to stretch our legs and get some refreshments. The lady driver bought a bag of these bizarre nuts which I’d never seen before.

Weird nuts

The shells are w-shaped and they have the consistency and texture of brazil nuts but taste much earthier. As my friend John mentions in the comments below they are called ‘water caltrop’ in English.

Wuxi – What to do?

Posted in China, Jiangsu, Wuxi with tags , , , on November 24, 2012 by gannet39

Unfortunately I didn’t find much to do on my day off in Wuxi although there’s always the shopping if you’re running low on Gucci or Louis Vitton handbags. I spent my Sunday walking in Xihui Gongyuan (Xihui Park) which contains Jichang Yuang, a Ming dynasty garden that inspired the gardens in the Summer Palace in Beijing. Just click on the pictures to blow them up.

Near the garden is a group of three wells called Tianxia Di’er Quan (Second Spring Under Heaven) which in the Tang period were considered the second best source for water to make tea in the whole country. Can’t be as good as Yorkshire tea though I’m sure…

You could also go to see the fabled Lake Tai, which was probably formed by a meteor seventy million years ago. It’s also a source for bizarrely shaped limestone formations called ‘Scholar rocks‘ that adorn classical Chinese gardens, one of which you can see in the gallery above (third row, middle picture). They were so sought after that one emperor nearly bankrupted the state collecting them.

From the sounds of things though the modern lake is very polluted and the tourist experience quite tacky so I left it for another time. For the same reason I wasn’t tempted to taste any of the local delicacies that came out of the lake.

Wuxi – What to Eat?

Posted in China, Jiangsu, Wuxi with tags , , , , , , , on November 23, 2012 by gannet39

Wuxi is in Jiangsu province, very near Shanghai which is just to the east. The Grand Canal snakes through the city on its way to the sea and there are lots of smaller canals though these seem to be disused or being filled in now.

Grand Canal

I came in mid-August when it was 35 degrees and extremely humid. You can expect rainstorms in the afternoons or evenings on most days so it’s probably a good idea to carry an umbrella with you when you go out to eat.


Sangfeng
(High Intermediate A-), 240 Zhongshan Lu (next to Bank of China, on the corner with Chongning Lu)

Wuxi is apparently best known for ‘Hong Shao Paigu’ or braised spare ribs, cooked in a ‘red style’, that is, a sauce of rice wine and soya sauce flavoured with ginger, cloves, anise and black pepper. Sangfeng is a famous shop where these can be bought vacuum packed and they have a restaurant above the shop, the side and main entrances to which are just around the corner on Chongning Lu.

Ribs

Unfortunately as a lone diner I found it really difficult to get in here, probably because they only have one room which was full on weekend nights. I managed eventually on the third attempt by going on a Monday night at around 8pm (when most Chinese diners have finished eating) and sneaking in the smaller side door and going straight to the dining room to avoid the nay saying greeters on the main door.

The ribs were worth the effort (A) and the bill was very reasonable, just 71 RMB for a triple portion of ribs, steamed pak choi, plain rice and a beer. The only downside was the staff who were far from helpful. Thankfully there was one young guy who was prepared to try and communicate and he helped me out. I left my brolly one night and although I went back for it five minutes later, it took me another two visits and a thirty minute wait to retrieve it from lost property, with the young waiter’s help! Sometimes getting the simplest things done can take forever in China.

Wuxi Roast Duck Restaurant (High Intermediate A), 222 Zhongshan Lu (on the corner with Chongning Lu, on the opposite corner to Sangfeng above), Tel. 827 57093

Just over the road from is the Wuxi Roast Duck Restaurant who were much more accommodating and had smaller tables for one or two. They have a menu in English and some of the staff have a smattering too.

Having had duck the previous night in Beijing I passed on most of their menu and went straight for the ‘Marinated Spare Ribs in Wuxi style’ that I’d tried to get over the road. They were tasty and tender (just as good as Sangfeng) with the meat flaking off the bone (A). I had them with my usual accompaniment of a bowl of plain rice and a plate of greens, in this case ‘Cantonese Flowering Cabbage’ (Choi Sum) with watery soya sauce (B+).

Choi Sum
I wasn’t quite full so topped up with some local Xiao Long Bao (gravy filled steamed dumplings, another Wuxi speciality, sweeter than their Shanghai cousins) which were pretty good too (B). You should eat these slippery customers with your mouth as near to the plate as possible, to catch the dumpling when it slips and also the juices that spurt out when you puncture it, wearers of white shirts beware.

Xiao Long Bao


Xixin
(Intermediate B-) (first alley on the left as you go down Chongning Lu, near the end on the right)

This is a longstanding local restaurant supposedly with three branches, although I could only find this one. It’s a bit run down and dingy but the (non-English speaking) service was friendly. The ribs here are less tender and refined than at the other places but are basically ok (B-). I also had another local speciality, ‘You Mian Jing’ (Fried Gluten Balls, in this case stuffed with pork), which were ok but didn’t get eaten (C).

Gluten balls
The spinach with ribbon tofu (from the picture menu) was the most enjoyable dish (B+). I don’t particularly like the Suntory beer they have here but its drinkable I guess (C). Massive overkill again but with some boiled rice, the bill only came to 110 RMB. Probably wouldn’t return though as there are better places.

Spinach with ribbon tofu

Blue Bar, Chongning Lu (a fair way down on the right, opposite a police station)

The local teacher hangout but also frequented by locals, this is a chilled American style bar with a pool table and a soundtrack of commercial dance and rock, quite a haven for the local expats I’d imagine. They have Tiger on tap and lots of other bottled beers on the menu, as well as bar snacks. You could come here to get a business card (for the taxi driver) for their sister bar, The Red Lion, at the other end of town.

For a change of scene…

Wuxi’s main bar area is located to the east of Nan Chang Jie, near the Hotel Nikko. It’s just a 10 RMB taxi ride away from the Belgravia Suites which are at the other end of town. Just over the road from the Hotel Nikko is a renovated area by a canal that has a few modern bars and restaurants. There are lots more places directly behind the hotel too, including a Japanese restaurant.

Red Lion, directly opposite the Hotel Nikko at 7-2 Jingtai Yongle Dong Lu, Tel. 8502 5827

Friendly Aussie-owned bar, heavily frequented by the local ex-pat community. The same people own the Blue Bar above. There’s an open mic night on Tuesdays if you want to show off your musical talent. It’s a good place to go after a curry at Ganesh below although Les the owner reckons their Bangladeshi cook makes a better one.


Ganesh Indian Restaurant
(Intermediate B+), behind the Hotel Nikko at 37-39 Yangchun Xiang, an alley off 9 Yongle Dong Lu, Tel 0510 8501 8660, www.ganeshchina.com

Like Irish pubs, most cities seem to have an Indian restaurant, although this place seems to have a foot in both camps as it doubles as a pub selling international beers. Not sure if this plush modern place is the real deal or not but it succeeded in helping me beat the homesickness blues. The lamb curry, basmati rice and garlic naan were fine (all B) but the tandoori chicken was nothing special and the raita a bit watery for my taste (both C). Service is slow but friendly.

Tandoori Chicken & Raita

Blue Marlin (behind the Hotel Nikko, a few doors and some steps down from Ganesh)

A live venue selling cocktails. The music is pretty loud so not great for conversation but the band was pretty good when I was there.

I stayed at the Belgravia Suites at 531 Zhongshan Rd (the main street in the city centre) www.belgravia.com.cn There’s no gym and the breakfast is pretty poor but there is a washing machine which is a godsend in my line of work. The building is so high you have to programme the lift for the floor you want and are wooshed up in a matter of seconds. From the 38th floor you get a great view of other tall buildings disappearing into the distance in a haze of pollution.

View from Belgravia Suites

The city centre was a construction site when I was in town but hopefully they’ll have finished by the time you get there. During a night time lightning storm the scene looked like the gates of hell but the city grew on me slowly the longer I stayed. The local teachers say it’s very comfortable and much less stressful than living in nearby Shanghai. For some free time suggestions, see the next post ‘Wuxi – What to do?’.

Beijing – Fancy a Duck?

Posted in Beijing, China with tags , , on November 19, 2012 by gannet39

The Duck Debate

So, where to go for the best Peking Duck in Beijing? I was tempted to go to Quanjude just for the spectacle, which with its two thousand seats is the biggest restaurant in the city. However, Time Out warns against it as a tourist trap with doughy pancakes and overly greasy meat. Instead they recommend Liqun but this place also gets a good slagging from some for being a tourist haunt with bad service and food, although the hutong location and authentic surroundings might make it worth a visit.

Nice spreadI decided instead to go to Da Dong (Advanced B) which has been voted Best Restaurant Overall and Best Beijing Duck restaurant by Chinese readers of the Beijinger website in the 2011 Restaurant Awards (and for the previous few years). There are three branches in all but I went to the one on the fifth floor of Jinbao Place at 88 Jinbao Dajie which is only about 15 minutes straight walk from the Kapok hotel.

Getting in wasn’t easy though as I didn’t know that it’s best to reserve two days before. Also, they stop taking reservations at 6.30pm but you should call around 1pm to make sure you get a table. I showed up on a Friday night without a reservation to be told I’d have to wait an hour. I took a ticket and decamped to Molly Mallone’s on the ground floor of the Legendale hotel next door for a couple of beers while I was waiting (warning: a pint of Hoegaarden costs £10 here! Other beers less). When I returned I had to wait an additional 20 minutes which gave me time to peruse the gargantuan 164 page menu with its beautiful food photography.

Duck oven islandLike the menu, the restaurant is also very impressive. In the first main room there is a central island, separated from the diners by a moat, with four duck ovens, one in each corner. Chefs bring braces of ducks over the drawbridge to each oven where they are hung above the burning coals by means of a long pole. When the skin reaches a suitable shade of brown they are hung on a hook in the central plating area where the fat is poured out from their mouths and they are put on a tray to go to the table (video here). Not all of them make it and a few charred ducks were sat on the lip of the oven. (Customers are allowed over the drawbridge to take close ups of the action). The birds are carved into small chop-stick sized pieces at the table and beautifully served in layered stacks on the plate (video here).

Condiments and fillingsAfter carving, the chef serving me prepared the first roll (video here). So much for the theatre, what’s the food like? The duck I’m sure is very good as ducks go (A) but it didn’t taste any better or worse than any other I’ve ever had, whether in Beijing or in the UK. Chef Dong’s ducks are apparently “super-lean” i.e. less greasy than elsewhere, but I’m not sure if that comes from the breeding or the preparation. It tasted pretty bland to me and personally I would have rubbed some salt into the skin to bring out the flavour, but then what do I know. The Hoisin sauce was more brackish than the sweeter flavours I’m used to and the Bing (pancakes) were cold and stuck together (C). From the choice of accompaniments, the best flavour combination was duck dipped in sugar, quite a revelation (A).

Duck soupYou also get a bowl of duck soup which tasted very ducky but also quite greasy (C-), so I left it to concentrate on the meat. On the side, a portion of Yeung Chow fried rice which was also a bit greasy and spoiled for me by the addition of celery (C).

Fish maw in egg whiteAnother side dish, chosen purely for aesthetic reasons, was the fish maw in egg white, which did nothing for me taste wise (D) but looked great with its carved Pak Choi garnish.  To finish, some complimentary popsicles, bean or lotus paste I think (C), and a plate of more or less ripe plums, on ice for some reason (B-).

In conclusion then I’d say definitely come for the experience and the spectacle, but don’t expect a culinary epiphany. The wall full of awards and certificates in the waiting area says I’m wrong but all reviews are subjective and this is just how I personally feel, you might love the food. I left feeling content, though not quite enough to justify the £40 I paid out, but also feeling a little sad for the plight of the duck as a species. You wonder just how many a city of 22 million people gets through every year.

RiceThere are two other branches of Dadong. The first at 22 Dongsishitao, Dongcheng, Tel. 5169 0328 and the second at 3 Tuanjiehu Beikou, Chaoyang, Tel. 6582 2892.

There are of course tons of other duck establishments but, as described above, everywhere gets criticised so ultimately it’s a matter of personal taste.

Please see my other Beijing posts for other kinds of restaurants.

Beijing – Dongcheng (Around the Kapok Hotel)

Posted in Beijing, China, Dongcheng with tags , , , on November 18, 2012 by gannet39

Although Dongcheng  isn’t great for food there are plenty of  good restaurants in Beijing. Check my Beijing Bites post for lots of good suggestions, including places offering regional cuisine. The first few are walkable from the hotel.

This is primarily a post for my work colleagues who are billeted at the Kapok Hotel, but if you’re into modern design, you’d really enjoy staying here.

It’s very centrally located on Donghuamen Street  in the Dongcheng district, about 10 minutes walk east of the Forbidden City and 5 minutes from Wangfujing Dajie, the main shopping street (the equivalent of Oxford St in London).

Describing itself as a business boutique hotel, it has modern minimalist rooms with glass walled bathrooms and comfortable beds. Some rooms have outdoor terraces with a small bamboo garden. There’s free internet in the rooms, CNN and HBO on TV and a small but good quality gym in the basement. There are a couple of convenience stores directly opposite so you can refill the minibar with cheaper drinks.

As I said this post is particularly for my work colleagues who often don’t have the time or energy to go anywhere in the evenings. I’m sure the hotel restaurant is fine (speciality: Hunan cuisine) but on principle I like to get out and about. Unfortunately though, I’ve yet to find anywhere nearby that’s any good.

There is a place across the street from the hotel, over to the right, with a red sign and a stone-covered front. Be warned though that in 2010 the staff were quite surly (racist even?) towards me and the food was a C/D. I had a fried rice with a bit of egg in it and hardly anything else, just doused in soya sauce, always a bad sign. My plate of greens never arrived, possibly because I returned the waiter’s bad attitude.

With this in mind I tried another nearby place one night when I was short of time. The Golden Jaguar is at 55 Donganmen St (turn right out of the Kapok, go straight over the lights and you’ll see it on the corner before you get to the line of outdoor food stalls) It’s a buffet restaurant that in 2012 had a flat rate of 200 RMB (about £22) for all you can eat and drink. The scale and range of the food on offer is very impressive, but it’s all low grade stuff (C). Included in the price is all the beer you want, but given that it’s either flat or very frothy Budweiser, its not that much of an offer. I’d only recommend going if you’re desperate for somewhere convenient.

As I mentioned before, the Kapok is only 10 minutes walk from the Forbidden City. There’s a charge to get in (40 RMB in 2010) and you should give it at least 3 hours to see it all properly, the place is huge. There is an extra charge for the ‘museum of treasures’ at the north end of the city but I didn’t have time to go in. You can beat the crowds by entering at the north gate. The gardens are particularly beautiful and the smaller living quarters to the west are worth checking out too. Watch ‘The Last Emperor‘ before you go.

A nice bar to go to when the weather is good is the Lin Bar on the top floor of the Emperor Hotel at 33 Qihelou St. It’s an open terrace that overlooks the roofs of the Forbidden City which are lit up at night until about 11pm. Drinks are reasonable; I paid just over £5 for a fairly stiff G&T in 2012. The owner was partying with his friends there when I went and was very hospitable towards me.

So, other than this place, I have yet to find anywhere in Dongcheng Qu that I’d recommend. However, taxis are cheap and there are plenty of other good places to go. The nearest branch of the famous Dadong duck restaurant is only a fifteen minute walk if you can get in there (see Beijing – Fancy a Duck? post).

Futuristic Shenzhen

Posted in China, Guandong, Shenzhen with tags , , , , on November 16, 2012 by gannet39

Shenzhen, in Guandong province, used to be a fishing village until the late 70s when the government designated it as the first SEZ (Special Economic Zone) to complement neighbouring Hong Kong. It is now one of the most modern and richest cities in the country, quite an amazing accomplishment for a city that’s only existed for thirty five years. The downtown area reminds me a lot of central Tokyo with its super-sized buildings and broad boulevards. The populace comes from all over China, so the predominant language is Mandarin, despite the city being located in a primarily Cantonese speaking province.

OCT Graf
As Shenzhen is such a young city, even the locals feel that “there is no culture here”, whether culinary or artistic. There is very little to see or do other than go shopping, and the days out suggested to me generally involved a one hour taxi ride to somewhere else.

Happy Lion

Also, when I searched for restaurants on the web the only ones I found were suggested by Frommer’s but when I called them up the numbers weren’t working and the hotel receptionists couldn’t find the places on the web so they perhaps aren’t open any more.

One area of some interest though is the trendy Overseas Chinese Town (OCT) in the Nan Shan district, which is about 30 minutes walk from the Hotel Mercure, or a cheap five minute taxi ride (to Jinxiu North St).

Jeep art
There are several converted factories and office blocks which now house modern art galleries, lifestyle shops, design agencies, restaurants and cafes. I spent a couple of pleasant hours wandering around. It’s quite peaceful by day but I’d imagine it gets busier in the evenings.

OCT building
I love Eastern ceramics and found a teapot shop where a nice lady brewed me some Cha in the traditional style using beautiful teapots and cups.

Making a cuppa
You could also check out the bizarre creations in the OCT Contemporary Art Terminal (OCAT) (free entry).

Gallery installation too riveting for some

I also had an excellent bowl of Niu Rou Mian (beef noodle soup) for lunch in the OCT at My Noodle (Intermediate A). They make your noodles in front of you (quite a skilled job, like a game of cat’s cradle with elastic bands), before chucking them straight in the pan (video here).

The broth was fine (B) but the freshly made noodles were some of the best I’ve ever had, silky and smooth (A+). Apologies but I couldn’t get the exact address as the staff didn’t speak English and it wasn’t on the bill. There is no sign over the door but there are white glass orb lamps and brown wicker chairs outside and the interior has varnished wood tables with circular stools and an open kitchen.

Beef noodle soup

I was put up at the Grand Mercure Shenzhen Oriental Ginza in Futian, one of the better hotels I stayed in when I first came to China in 2008, although it’s a little run down now (A-).

I particularly like it because it was the only hotel in the country where I could access internet sites like Facebook and WordPress and watch the BBC on TV. Usually these are all blocked by the Great Fire Wall of China but apparently you can get these media in certain hotels run by Western chains (although the censor will still black out BBC news reports on China if anything sensitive is discussed).

They also have an excellent gym and a 25 metre pool which is all I need to be happy. The youthful staff have always given me excellent friendly service.

The Chinese Restaurant in the hotel is much like any other in that it serves over-priced but attractively presented cuisine in pretentious surroundings. The food is ok but nothing special (B). On the first night I had the Kung Pao chicken with the meat chopped into little pieces with fragments of bone left in, as is the Chinese style (C). I wasn’t keen at the time but apparently if gives the food more flavour.

Kung Pao chicken

On another night, two bowls of plain rice and a plate of stir-fried seasonal greens (Choi Sum?) with tea and a beer came to about £15 which was a lot for what it was. You do get a plate of complimentary fruit at the end though.

Beers in the sports bar upstairs cost a hefty £3.50 for a 330ml. The bartenders will happily give you a game of pool if you’re by yourself. The girl who played me was so serious she even had a glove for her cue hand!

The hotel breakfast buffet is pretty comprehensive with just about everything you could imagine and a whole lot more you couldn’t. They even know how to make proper bircher museli (soaked in hot milk the night before) which is more than many hotels in Europe do. Pictured is the white flesh of Dragon Fruit which looks interesting but is actually pretty tasteless (C).

Dragon fruit
If you want to escape the clutches of the hotel you could try your luck on the back streets of the dingy residential area behind it. It’s full of life in the evenings with hawkers setting up temporary outdoor kitchens and small tables with mini-plastic stools (Initial B). You can get a plate of fried noodles or fried rice (Initial B-) and a 550ml beer for under £2 at these places. Ok, so it’s not haute cuisine and can be a bit greasy but at least you’re not being ripped off.

Street noodles

 

One night my local work colleagues took me out to a big modern Sichuan restaurant which was pretty good. Again I don’t have the address but the neon outside said ‘Elegant Sichuan Food’.

Our dishes included a bowl of Mature Tofu with Black Fungus…

Mature Tofu with Black Fungus

…Tomato and Chilli Soup (B+), White Fish, Celery, Straw Mushrooms, Sichuan Peppercorns and Dried Chillies (B),…

White Fish, Celery, Straw Mushrooms, Sichuan Peppercorns and Dried Chillies

…Deep-fried Rolls which I think contained lotus seed paste (B).

Lotus paste rolls

My favourite was the Fried Beef with Dried Chillies (A) which I think had been dusted in flour and deep-fried.

Fried Beef with Dried Chillies

However I wasn’t as keen on the Congealed Pigs Blood with Beansprouts and Tripe (C)…

Congealed Pigs Blood with Beansprouts and Tripe

…or the balls of vegetable matter which came with a bitter green cucumber like vegetable (C).

Not sure what this is

I relearned the most important sentence of Putonghua (Mandarin) here. My workmates taught me that ‘ii be bing pi jiu’ means ‘one bottle cold beer’, a crucial bit of survival language. You could just take a picture of a bottle of beer and show it to them but odds on it’ll arrive warm. Same if  you ask for a glass of water. The Chinese believe it’s better for the digestion to drink warm drinks.

Police bikeTo sum up then, I doubt you’ll have many good cultural and culinary experiences here, unless you you’re a fan of modern architecture, but on the positive side, Shenzhen is cleaner and more livable than most Chinese cities. In my view it’s a place to make money and do business but not much else.

Memories of Hong Kong

Posted in China on November 16, 2012 by gannet39

Here are some short reviews of good mid-range restaurants I went to in November 2006.

Some will still be valid but I can’t guarantee they are all still open.

Spring Deer, (B), 1st Floor, 42 Mody Rd, Tsim Sha Tsui metro, Open 12-3pm and 6-11pm, Tel. 2366 4012

Perhaps the most famous Peking duck restaurant in town, you have to reserve well in advance but may still have to wait a while, 30 mins in our case. The service is offhand, verging on the downright rude, in classic Chinese restaurant style (think Wong Kei, Soho) but the duck is very crispy.

Yung Kee (C), 32-40 Wellington St, Central metro, Open 11am-11.30pm, Tel. 2522 0631

A famous Cantonese institution known since 1942 for its roast goose (they farm their own) and dim sum (served 2-5pm). We found it difficult to get in and had to wait a while, maybe reserve if you can. Sadly our choices were ill-informed and we didn’t enjoy it very much, but that’s not to say it can’t be good. Next time I will get the goose rather than the thousand-year-eggs!

Leung Hing Restaurant (B), 32 Bonham Strand West, Sheung Wan, Sheung Wan metro, Open 7.30am-11pm, Tel. 2850 6666

A very local back street place specialising in Chiu Chow (or Teochew) food, a regional cuisine from the north east of China, known for its shellfish and vegetarian food, and with a reputation for being very healthy. I had the seafood noodles which were excellent and very reasonable. Just wish I’d been hungrier so I could have tried more dishes.

Kyozasa (A), 20 Ashley Rd, Tsim Sha Tsui metro, Open 12-2.30pm and 6-12pm, Tel. 2376 1888.

This is a very authentic Izakaya, the nearest equivalent to a pub in Japan, except that it serves a very wide variety of dishes. I lived in the Tokyo area for three years and this was just like going back; all the food was excellent and absolutely the real thing. We started with edamame (steamed soya beans) followed by sukiyaki (beef simmered in sweet sauce and dipped in raw egg), grilled fish, miso soup, sushi and sashimi and finishing with sake onigiri (salmon in balls of warm rice). Absolute heaven.

Good Hope Noodle (C), Sai Yeung Choi St Sth, Mong Kok metro, 11am-3am, Tel. 2394 5967

A popular noodle bar, very famous locally for its wonton soups and shredded pork noodles with spicy bean sauce. Can’t say the food blew me away but then not all authentic Chinese food does. It was worth trying though as it was very cheap and near my work hotel in Mong Kok.

The Temple St Night Market (6pm-12am) has lots of small noodle bars and food stands in its northern section (toward Man Ming Lane) where you sit on plastic furniture at the kerbside and watch the crowds go by. Good authentic food in a great atmosphere.

My best foodie experience was on the island of Cheung Chau which I understand to be the last actual working fishing village in HK (most seafood is imported). You can get there on a fast ferry in about an hour I think.

After work the expat school owner (married to a local, so he knew his stuff) directed me to one of a row of seafood restaurants on Cheung Chau Family Walk (I think Hang Lok at 13 Pak She Praya Road) where I had two amazing fish dishes, the steamed fish with black beans, spring onion and ginger sticking in my mind most of all (A+). Fantastic food in a blissful setting. HK is not all city.

The final memory I’ll leave you with is that the Starck designed loos in the Felix restaurant in the Peninsula Hotel have fantastic views of the downtown cityscape! I just went for a drink at the bar (which also has great views) and didn’t having anything to eat. It’s the place to watch fireworks on NYE in HK (the bar that is, not the loo).

Getting fed in China

Posted in China with tags , , on February 1, 2011 by gannet39

Beijing 006It can be quite tough at times to find a square meal in China to suit the western palate. There is of course great food to be had but if you don’t know the Chinese for it you are on a non-starter, quite literally. Some places have picture menus but they tend to be the exception.

2014-11-29 12.41.00By way of example of the perils involved, here’s a picture one of my colleagues sent me of something she found in her food while in Dongguan. She was uncertain whether it was fungus, seaweed or intestine!

My solution is to have friendly Chinese people you meet write down the Cantonese or Mandarin characters (kanji) for the dishes you like when you encounter them. You can ask them to write the pinyin (romanised script) too if you want to have a stab at the pronunciation but don’t assume all Chinese people will be able to read it. Also be aware there are regional variations of pinyin!

With the help of accommodating hotel receptionists and teachers, I’ve built up a set of food flashcards that I can show to waiters to get such staples as fried or steamed rice, various stir fried greens, beef noodle soup and cold beer. It sounds like a bit of a cop out, but your server will appreciate it, and you’ll get the food that you actually want to eat.

There are also picture flashcards, which use the three scripts mentioned above, that you can download for free here and here. I also recommend the Lonely Planet phrasebook which has a handy dictionary with kanji translations you can show to the waiters. Now of course you can download dictionary apps for your smart phone as well.

For specific local dishes, take a photo of the relevant regional list on this webpage and just show the waiter the characters for the ones you want to try. Do it before you travel as you probably won’t be able to access this page (or many other websites) once in China.

You should also remember to say if you want your drinks cold (‘bing’). If you don’t, you will get probably get warm beer or water as Chinese people believe they are better for the stomach than cold beverages. A useful phrase might be 不冰不给钱! or ‘bù bīng bù gěi qién!’ which I think translates to “no cold, no give money!”

Most restaurants close at 2pm lunchtime and by 10pm at night and are pretty rigid about it. There are always night markets and stalls around should you want to eat later.

In the smaller local establishments, hold on to the little packets of tissues they send you as there’s often no loo roll in the toilets.

Airport restaurants are surprisingly not too bad, which is a godsend if you’re like me and can’t abide any of the stuff served on planes.

If you can bring yourself to do it, serving staff can be summoned by clapping your hands above your head football supporter style! I only ever do this if I have been completely abandoned though.

While we’re at it, there are a few local habits that were sources of culture shock for me:

Most (though not all) waiters I have met have been very friendly and attentive, even a bit too attentive at times. Hovering hotel servers will pounce on any plate or spoon that looks used, even reaching over you as you eat in their eagerness to procure it and thereby justify their existence. It’s very annoying but I’ve learned to roll with it or you would be constantly losing your temper at breakfast, admittedly a time when I’m not at my best.

Once I returned from getting a coffee to find everything gone; my milk and spoon I’d just collected, my food and even my newspaper. I went round replacing everything but but by the time I came back my coffee had gone! I just had to laugh. Breakfast can take a while in China…

Probably the most unappealing cultural habit for Westerners is public spitting, which is mainly but not exclusively practised by males. I can live with it on the street but when trapped next to several hockers on a plane, and even a spitter in a sauna! (as has been my misfortune in the past), you risk being driven to the point of insanity.

My solution is to use a PET (Politeness Enforcement Tactic) to make them stop, in this case offering them a tissue to embarrass them! If only there was a flashcard for ‘please don’t hock or spit’. Posher restaurants have signs with this message, both in kanji and cartoon form.  If you see one, my suggestion would be to take a picture of it and show it to any offenders that enter your personal space. People know it’s not acceptable because if was made illegal by city governments during the Beijing Olympics and Shanghai Expo.

Hopefully these tips will make your trip more enjoyable.

Good luck!

 

Chilling in Harbin

Posted in China, Harbin, Heilongjiang on February 1, 2011 by gannet39
Up in the north-east, close to the border with Siberia, Harbin  capital of Heilongjiang, is not the warmest of destinations. In January when the temperature gets as low as -16C, the city hosts an internationally famous Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival. I was here in March when it was still quite chilly, with the odd flake of snow. Bring the thermals is what I’m trying to say.

The city was once under Russian rule and was particularly influenced by Russian ex-pats who came here to escape the revolution, though few remain now due to its grisly past. However the local cuisine still shows many examples of culinary fusion between the two cultures. The local sausages (qui-lin hong-chang) are notable for being more similar in flavour to European ones than Chinese. Harbin is also famous for its bakeries and bread is known as lie-ba, derived from the Russian word khleb. Because of its continuing role as a trade hub between the two countries, there are still a lot of Russian eating and drinking establishments around town, which can make a nice change from the usual.

I stayed at Jin Gu Hotel which is on the main shopping street, a rather bleak Stalinist-style parade of stores all selling the same things, although kite flying is a popular past time at the far end by the river. The ground-floor restaurant attached to the hotel is ok and has picture menus. The wonton soup and the pan-fried dumplings were pretty good. The staff were lovely, just like everyone else I met in the town.

On another evening I went to a place right next to the hotel, which didn’t seem to have a name, but simply said ‘Russia drinks and food’ above the window. It’s very quaint, with a few potted trees outside, and has the atmosphere of a lifestyle museum with lots of art-deco and other period pieces inside. I had the borscht and the cabbage rolls for a change, both of which were very nice. Bizarrely there was also Indian curry and Milanese pork cutlet on the menu but I can’t vouch for those.

Harbin is also very famous for its beer and was the first place to brew it in the country, from 1900 in fact. According to my in-flight magazine, Harbiners are third in the beer consumption per capita tables, after Munich and Moscow. I find this a little hard to believe although apparently beer is consumed at twice the national average, and they do like a drink here as this article shows. Harbin beer certainly is a nice brew, just as good as the better known Tsing Tao.

Drinking Alcohol in China

Posted in China with tags , , , , , , on February 1, 2011 by gannet39
Lager is generally fairly good in China which is, surprisingly (or maybe not), the world’s biggest producer and consumer  of the amber nectar. The ubiquitous Tsing Tao (they have bought up over forty local breweries) is one of the best but other personal favourites include Snow (now the world’s best selling beer), Yangjing (from Beijing), and Harbin which is the oldest brand in the country (from 1900) and named after the city where it’s from. There are a few duff brands to avoid, but they are usually overseas brands like Budweiser (pronounced bai wei’) which is of course the original Duff, and Suntory from Japan. You can read about the history of beer in China here.

Alcoholic beverages have a long history in China. Any ethanol based drink is called Jiu (more facts here) and the most famous stuff comes from Shaoxing in Zhejiang province although I wasn’t that impressed with what the stuff I tried there, it was like drinking distilled dry leaves.  However, the bottle with the red label that you buy in Chinese supermarkets for cooking generally comes from Shaoxing. My favourite brand that I’ve come across so far is Mao Tai, a rice wine of about 40%, from Renhuai in Guizhou.

Jiu is served in thimble size glasses. When drinking with Chinese friends it is traditional to toast one another and thank each other for favours done. If glasses actually touch, you should down all the contents in one whilst shouting ‘gambei’ (empty glass) and show each other the bottom of the upturned receptacle. If you want to avoid getting out of it too quickly then don’t touch glasses, which is what many Chinese women do, if they drink at all. It shows respect to your toastee to place your glass lower than theirs when toasting. Juniors should always pour for their seniors.

Most business deals end with a celebratory drinking party where it can be necessary to toast a lot of people over the course of the evening. Whilst helping to carry my manager out of a private restaurant room after such an event, he informed us that a friend of his had actually died of liver failure in similar circumstances. A salutary tale for anyone thinking of doing business in China!

Personally I’d stick with beer and Jiu as I’m not convince of the quality of the grape wine, although it is improving apparently. The best local tipple is Great Wall Red but I think  it’s overpriced, over hyped and not very good. However, according to Ken Hom who I heard on the radio discussing this subject, it’s now becoming more common for wealthier Chinese to drink wine with their food. Wine imports are growing year on year and there is huge potential for the Chinese market in the future.

Crossing the Bridge in Kunming

Posted in China, Kunming, Yunnan with tags , , , , on February 1, 2011 by gannet39

Kunming is capital of multi-ethnic Yunnan province, in the south west of China, on the border with Viet Nam, Burma and Laos. As you would imagine it has lots of very interesting food and which has attracted some attention in the West. It’s also supposed to be one of the prettiest cities in China and it was very nice to stroll along the paths beside the river. Sadly though I was only in town for a couple of days and had little time to explore the rest of the city or the province.

I stayed at the monolithic Horizon Hotel Yunan at 432 Qingnian Rd, in the central Panlong district, which was fine. The staff were pretty helpful and they have a fairly large pool.

Crossing the Bridge NoodlesIngredients for making Crossing the Bridge NoodlesThe famous local dish here is a noodle soup called Guo Qiao Mi Xian or ‘Crossing the Bridge’ Noodles. It differs from any noodle soup I’ve had before by the fact you have to assemble it yourself. First a plate of bean sprouts, spring onion, ribbon tofu and a raw egg arrives, followed by a second plate of small pieces of chicken and several thinly sliced pieces of pork (and other porkish meats I couldnt discern), then a bowl of fat rice noodles and finally a bowl of hot stock. The ingredients should be mixed into the stock in order and topped off with a few dollops of chilli sauce if so desired. Legend has it that the dish was created by a wife who had to carry food a long way (over a bridge) to her husband who was studying for an exam. Mixing the ingredients on the spot kept the dish from getting soggy.

If you turn left out of the hotel and first left, you will find several places serving it (also a good one near Shane school of English next to the river). Unfortunately most places have no picture menu and operate a pay first system where you are issued with a coloured ticket which is then handed in at the serving hatch. My solution was to loiter and watch what people got for their ticket and if I liked the look of it, pointed at the colour ticket I wanted.

Another local delicacy is Qi Guo Ji, a chicken soup stew cooked in a stack of clay pots, similar in principle to an Italian coffee pot. The resulting distilled broth is delicious and the chicken was ok if you could find the chunks without pieces of splintered bone. I had it with local wild mushrooms (also highly renowned) at a wooden fronted restaurant named ‘Yunan Delicacies Food’ on the street behind the hotel, next to the antiques centre. The menu is in Mandarin but you can see pictures of the clay pots on the first page. I had it with rice, some kind of green veg and specially aged Pu-erh tea for 58 RMB.

Goodbye Kunming, shame I only scratched your surface. Please see my post about Beijing for Yunnanese food in the capital.

Beijing Bites

Posted in Beijing, China with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 7, 2010 by gannet39

Hmm, capital of China, wonder if they have any decent restaurants…

CourtyardDecorLiu Zhai Shifu (Intermediate A), 8 Meishuguan Dongjie (at the end of Wangfujing Dajie) about 15 mins walk from the Kapok. Tel. 6400 5912.

This great little place is about one block before the end of Meishuguan Dongjie, the continuation of Wangfujing Dajie, before it kinks forty five degrees to the left. Make sure you get someone to write the name down in kanji so you can ask for local directions as you could easily miss it otherwise. Look for the last alleyway on the left hand side of the road before the turn (as opposed to the right as Time Out would have it); it’s between a hairdressers and a convenience store. You will see two red lanterns a few metres down the hutong and a wooden door,with a green padded curtain to keep the heat in, on the right side of the alley. Inside this one hundred year old former family home there is a covered courtyard with a trellis with hanging flowers and lanterns, all very atmospheric. There are quaint private rooms too but I was seated at one of the wooden tables in the yard which was a bit cold in November, so make sure you wear warm clothes.

Mung Bean Curd with chilliDeep Fried Peaflour ‘Box’Stewed Chicken with ChestnutsSpinach with peanutsZha GuandungStir-fried Duck Liver with Spring OnionsThe food here is typical Beijing cuisine and there is an extensive picture menu with English translations to help you. I did my usual over ordering act and received, in order of preference; Stir-fried Duck Liver with Spring Onions (A), Pan Fried Mung Bean Curd with I think spinach mixed in, and topped with chilli oil and dried red chillies which had a smooth texture, broken by the occasional crunch of a whole mung bean, and a lovely sour aftertaste (B+).  I also had Zha Gezi mung bean chips or as the menu would have it, Deep Fried Peaflour ‘Box which came with a dip of dark soya sauce and raw garlic (B); nice but I couldn’t finish them unlike the previous dishes. Finally I had Zha Guandung; thin slices of sausage, battered, deep-fried and served with a garlic sauce, which were edible enough but failed to impress (C). The bill came to 98 RMB with two 500ml beers i.e. about £10. On another occasion I had Fried Spinach and Nuts (sunflower seeds and peanuts) which was ok (B-) but I wasn’t overly keen on the vinegary aftertaste. The waitress recommended Stewed Chicken with Chestnuts which included onion, red and white bell peppers and huge unpeeled and for me inedible chunks of ginger. Although I liked the sauce other veggie ingredients, I’m not keen on the Chinese habit of chopping up meat and leaving the fragments of bone in so only scored this dish a C. Bad choices the second time but it wouldn’t stop me going again. They open from 11am till 10.30pm so you can show up anytime. However, according to Time Out, this place is always packed with locals at peak time every night so maybe get there early, as I did at 5pm, or reserve.

Huanghe Shui Shaanxi Miangian (Elementary C), A24 Meishuguan Dongjie (the continuation of Wangfujing Dajie). Open 24 hours according to the sign outside.

Ribbon NoodlesThis is a simple noodle bar selling Shaanxi food immediately opposite the entrance to the alley above, on the right of the road as you near the end. The menu on the wall is in Chinese with only a few pictures so I resorted to pointing to ‘pork’ and ‘chilli’ in my dictionary hoping I would get my favourite soup. What arrived were huge ribbon noodles with shredded pork, a few tiny members of the pak choi family and a dollop of chilli sauce but only a splash of soy based liquid. A kindly waitress came and mixed it all together for me when she saw I was at a bit of a loss. Of course it tasted delicious. It cost 15 RMB for the noodles and 5 for a beer, about £2.

Roujia MoDumplings in Hot and Sour soupOn another occasion I had Roujia Mo, a small ‘hamburger’ with shredded pork and small pieces of green pepper in a bun of unleavened bread, a tasty snack for 6 RMB. After this a bowl of pork filled dumplings in hot and sour soup with spring onion, coriander, sesame seeds and chilli oil. The sour part was the vinegar which spoilt the broth for me but the dumplings were delicious. Thick noodles and the use of vinegar are characteristics of Shaanxi cuisine.

If I’m honest the hygiene standards in this place always leave me feeling a bit queasy but if you’re after a cheap late night snack and a beer, this is a handy place.

From here I walked for about 15 minutes to Nanluoguxiang Hutong. This is a very cool little strip with lots of small bars, intimate restaurants and funky little shops. I particularly liked Reef Bar (on the right at the far Northern end of the hutong) for its laid back atmosphere, comfy leather seats and friendly staff. A Gordons and tonic is 25 RMB here. A more happening place is Salud, about halfway up on the right, but I wanted somewhere more peaceful to write my blog. You could walk here from the Kapok Hotel in about 30 minutes by going straight up Beiheyan Dajie till the end, turning left and first right. A lot of taxi drivers don’t like making such short journeys but you will probably get one eventually, especially if it’s off the meter.

Being the capital, Beijing can offer the chance to try lots of regional cuisines from places I’ll probably never get to. I had some good meals in the restaurants of two local government offices. Both are a bit hard to get to but the food is great and authenticity is guaranteed. Remember to get the names written in pinyin or preferably kanji to show people for directions along the way.

Yunteng Shifu (Yunnan Restaurant) in the Yunteng Hotel attached to the Yunnan Provincial Government Office(Intermediate A), 7 Donghuashi Beili Donqu (between Chongwenmen Dongdajie and Donghuashi Dajie). Open from 11am to 10pm.

Yungteng ShifuFrom the massive intersection of Jianguomennei Dajie and Jianguomen Nandajie, head south while keeping to the right of the slip road, and keep going till you have crossed over two big intersections. On the way you will see some of the remains of the old city wall on your right. When you get to the intersection with Chongwenmen Dongdajie go over the foot bridge, under the railway bridge and two other road bridges, keeping on the same direction to the south. The slip road will curve to the left and fairly immediately you will come to another small road leading off to the right onto a housing estate. The Government Office is on the right at the beginning of this road. You will recognise it by the stone clad drive leading up to it, gold letters going down the side of the building and red letters going across the front above the entrance. The kind doorman confirmed I was in the right place and took me inside, past the hotel reception desk and down into the restaurant at the back. The decor is pretty startling, like being in a plastic jungle, but there’s a nice relaxing atmosphere nonetheless.

Dishes for making Crossing the Bridge NoodlesPutting it togetherCrossing the Bridge NoodlesThe next challenge was ordering the food but it was relatively painless as I had some suggestions courtesy of Time Out and a web review I had read, as well as the help of the picture menu, two waitresses, the chef and my dictionary. The best thing to go for is probably the classic ‘Crossing the Bridge Noodles’ (Guo Qiao Mixian) which arrived on the table as a big bowl of soup stock, probably chicken, and with four small side dishes. The first contains a raw egg which should go in straight away and left a couple of minutes to cook. Next the thick white noodles go in and the dish of four different kinds of ‘meat’, one of which was a cured ham tasting very similar to prosciutto. The final dish had coriander, spring onions, ribbon tofu, something that may have been shredded mushroom but looked like seaweed and some yellow flower petals. It tasted great and had a slight afterburn, perhaps from chilli in the stock.

Rubing grilled goat’s cheesePineapple Rice Bolo FanQuigoji Chicken Soup

In addition to this I had Rubing, Grilled Goat’s Cheese, which came with salt on the side mixed with a strange spice that left my lips numb for a few minutes. It was really nice but there was a lot of it. I also had Bolo Fan, aka Pineapple Rice, which came in a hollowed out pineapple and filled with rice mixed with the fruit and what may have been miso beans (Japanese name), giving it a purplish colour. Didn’t think I would like this too much at first but it grew on me and I polished off the lot. The only thing I didn’t eat was the Quigoji or Chicken Soup which had hunks of meat and what seemed like pieces of prawn crackers floating in broth. I picked out the chicken which was very tasty but left the broth which was a bit tasteless.

Dali Yunnanese beerWith two local Dali beers I paid about 120 RMB which was very good value. Yunnanese food is very trendy in Beijing and you would pay a lot more elsewhere. The province borders with Myanmar, Laos and Viet Nam so the food is an interesting fusion of several cultures. Things I didn’t manage to order (bad pronunciation?)but which are apparently very good were the Dai mint salad, deep fried Bee Pupa (?), battered and fried cactus and rice wine made with black rice. Also there are several types of wild mushrooms (niuganjun, jizhong, songrong) but these were a bit expensive so I’ll wait till I go to Yunnan for those.

Chuanban (Intermediate A), 5 Gongyuan Toutiao, Jianguomennei Dajie, Dongcheng. Open from 4.30pm to 10pm.

As the nights started to get colder I fancied some chilli heat so I headed for this backstreet restaurant in the Sichuan local government office. It’s a bit hard to find but once you get near, keep saying the name to locals and they will point you in the right direction. Walk east along Jinbao St and turn right onto Chaoyangmen Beixiaojie. Cross over the street and take the second small road on the left, there’s a fruit shop on the corner and a red arrow saying Dongzongbu Hutong pointing down the long straight road. The office is a few hundred yards down on the right, behind one of those concertina metal gates on tracks that most institutions have. You will see the windows of the restaurant on the ground floor but once you are through the gate, turn right and go round the back and in through the ornate entrance in the courtyard.

Cosying up to the managementTwice cooked pork with green pepperOn the first night I tried to go they were finishing up at 10pm despite Time Out saying they were open till 2am; however a friendly staff member took me to a Sichuan cafe on the other side of the block and got me fed there. For 23 RMB I got a beer, two bowls of rice and the typical dish of Twice Cooked Fatty Pork which involved what seemed to be belly pork sliced like bacon, sliced onion, spring onion, green and red mild peppers and black beans cooked in chilli oil. Although a bit oily it was just what I was hankering for (B).

Beef lungTwice cooked porkMadofuKungpo ChickenA few nights later I legged it down to Chuanban again after work and got there for 8.45 which meant I could get a table (although a big place it’s very popular and always full at peak times) and still left me time to enjoy the great food. I had Kungpo Chicken(B), Madofu (tofu in a mince and chilli sauce) (B) and Beef Lung(B). The best dish however was the Twice Cooked Fatty Pork again and it was interesting to compare it to the one I had in the cafe above. This was a more classic version with beautifully tender pork and made with spring onions rather than capsicums (A).

Din Tai FungDin Tai Fung (Intermediate A), 22 Hujiayuan, Yibei Building, Dongcheng, Chaoyang, Tel. 6462 4502, Open 11.30-2.30 and 5-10pm daily.

Din Tai Fung RestaurantThis is primarily a dumpling restaurant but also specialises in other dishes from the Eastern provinces of Zhejiang and Jiangsu.The surroundings are modern but rather stark and uninteresting, rather like a hotel breakfast room. The staff are pleasant and efficient and some spoke English and the picture menu also has an English translation.

Xiaolong Bao in steamerCairou Zhengjiao in bamboo steamerXiaolong BaoCairou ZhengjiaoTheir signature dish is Xiaolong Bao, steamed dumplings wrapped in transparent light dough, has won accolades from some quarters for being the best dumplings in Beijing. I had the pork version (they have seafood and crabmeat too) which were wonderfully juicy (B+). Even better were the Cairou Zhengjiao dumplings, also in a delicate dough and stuffed with a small bok choi called ‘youcai’, pork and a little lard to taste (A).

Hairy Gourd with Shredded JellyfishSautéed Water LilyOn the side a dish of Sliced Hairy Gourd with Shredded Jellyfish which was nice enough (B) though the gourd dominated, and a plate of Sautéed Water Lily (B), yet another green vegetable, which tasted err…very green!

Dousha BaoTo finish the rather suggestive Dousha Bao, much larger dumplings in a thicker skin, stuffed with sweet red bean paste which were nice (B) but a bit heavy for my already very full stomach. Total cost for my lunch, with two Yanjing beers was 170 RMB; pretty good considering how much I had.

Han CangInside Han CangHan Cang (Intermediate B), Shichahai Dongan, Xicheng, Houhai (6404 2259). Open 11am – 10.30pm. Get the taxi driver to drop you off on Dianmen Xi Dajie by Qinhai Lake. As you face the lake, walk down the right hand (east) side and the restaurant is the second building on the right.

Continuing my search for minority cuisines, I came here to try the food of the Hakka people; a hearty south-eastern style that emphasises the texture of the food. Apparently many Chinese restaurants in the UK and other countries are owned by Hakka, a sub-group of the Han Chinese.  The ambience is nothing special, crude wooden furniture in two big rooms and the odd black and white photo on the wall but if you get a seat by the window you will get a nice view of the lake, especially in the private rooms upstairs.

Three Cup DuckBoletus EdulisThe picture menu has English translations and is quite scary with spicy donkey, ‘duck chins’, chitterlings and steamed turtle all featuring, but I went for the house speciality, and one of the signature dishes of Hakka cuisine, Sanbei Ya, or Three Cup Duck, where the birdie is braised in equal amounts of dark soy, rice wine and water before futher cooking. It was good but not as exciting as I’d hoped (B). My favourite, and the most expensive dish, was the ‘Boletus Edulis’ (B+), stir-fried with red and green capsicums, garlic, spring onion and ginger, and which tasted just like European ceps/porcini.

'Self-grounded’TofuBlack Bean SproutsI also liked the Ngiong Tew Fou or ‘Self-grounded’ Tofu which had been lightly fried and served in a light brown sauce with small balls of pork on top of each slice (B+). I also had sautéed Black Bean Sprouts with red capsicum, dried chilli (imperceptible)and the odd black bean in a clear sauce(B). I ordered a Baiwei beer but when this turned out to be Budwieser I sent it back and got a Pure Yanjing beer instead. Total cost 172 RMB, massive overkill again but still pretty cheap and very tasty.

Qinhai LakeQinhai Lake dockHardy soulYou can walk it off round the lake and go to one of the many nice bars for a digestif afterwards, although be warned a small beer can cost 45 RMB in some of them.

Guo Yao Xiaochi (Advanced A) 58 Bei Santiao, Jiadoa Kou, Andingmennei Dajie, Dongcheng, Houhai Tel. 6403 1940, Open 10am-2.30pm and 5.30-9pm daily

As you head north up Andingmennei Dajie,  from the crossroads with Jiaodaokou Dong Dajie, it’s the third alley on the right by my calculations, but the fourth according to the Time Out map. #58 is the first building on the right of the alley, with red lanterns hanging outside, whereas Time Out has it at the other end.

Guo Yao Xiaochi dining room entranceGuo Yao Xiaochi dining roomGuo Yao Xiaochi ceilingThis is a great place, still deserving its award for Best Restaurant for Private Dining in 2005 from the Beijing Culinary Association. The food is cooked in the aristocratic Tan style, a cross between Guandong and Huaiyang cuisines, which is very delicate and light. Tan emphasises flavour and uses only the best ingredients (so for example only the most tender stems are used for vegetable dishes), judicious use of heat and intricate steps and techniques. You can see the hands of Chef Guo Xinjun at work through the kitchen hatch on the left as you enter. He has cooked for numerous Chinese leaders and American presidents during his time at the Beijing Hotel.

Guo Yao Xiaochi doorsGuo Yao Xiaochi door detailIt’s a tiny room with just five tables and seats for twenty two and has the feel of being in a museum with aged ornately carved door panels, old wooden lanterns with red tassels, glass-covered tables that double as display cases for more wood-carvings and period pictures pointing face down from the overhead trellis. The service is exemplary with highly attentive waitresses, one of whom spoke English. The menu has an English translation but no pictures. Whilst perusing it I drank some wonderfully perfumed Mou Ti Hua tea and nibbled on some spiced pumpkin seeds.

Nongtang YaduYasi DanjuanTo start I chose Nongtang Yadu, a yellow soup of fish maw (the air bladder) where the stock is made by double boiling chicken, duck, ham and scallop which didn’t look like much but was tasty and full of flavour (B). To follow Yasi Danjuan (A), a crepe filled with shredded duck, spring onion and a little red pepper, deep-fried and cut into slices.

Steamed Baby Napa Cabbage with Glass Noodles in GarlicI also had Steamed Baby Napa Cabbage with Glass Noodles in Garlic where the noodles were hiding under a topping of red pepper and spring onion in a sauce of light soy (A). I grabbed rather too many of these with my chopsticks and they wouldn’t separate as my sticks went higher and higher towards the ceiling which caused one waitress to leave the room in a fit of giggles while the other rushed to my aid with a knife and fork to cut them up, although I think scissors would have been more appropriate! Anyway they were beautifully presented and completely delicious (A), if a bit much for one.

Almond Paste SoupTo finish I had a bowl of hot almond paste soup, again quite simple (B)but very warming for a cold November day in Beijing. Total cost 128 RMB with a bowl of rice and a beer i.e. about £12. The sausage is also apparently good as are the other dessert soups made from peanut paste or osmanthus flavoured red bean paste. All wonderfully satisfying food; a must visit I would say.

Three Guizhou Men (Intermediate B), 6 Guanghua Xili, Chaoyang, Tel. 6502 1733

Guanghua Xili is a side street next to the Mexican Wave restaurant on Dongdaqiao Lu. As you head North it’s on the right, quite near the beginning of the road. Don’t get in confused with Guanghua Lu which is a main road. Go through the arch adorned with red characters and it’s the second building on the right. On the windows there is a picture of a mask and the words 3G Chairman. There are other branches around town but there flagship branch near the Worker’s stadium doesn’t answer the phone so may be closed, although it’s still up on several websites.

Guizhou is a prefecture in the south-west of China, bordering Sichuan province, so the food is hot and spicy. The chain intentionally lowers the heat (still pretty hot) and uses less oil so the food makes a healthier alternative to Sichuan cuisine where the food is often submerged in chilli oil. The dishes they serve are apparently a fusion of popular dishes of the region. My waitress was helpful, writing the pinyin translations for me, but we needed the English picture menu. The decor here is pretty plain and uninteresting, surprising given the original three owners are supposed to be artists. The soundtrack was quite appropriately the Spice Girls’ first album.

Guizhou PaocaiXiangban BoheTo start I had Guizhou Paocai /paushai/, a pickled dish with cabbage and another indiscernible vegetable which you dip in a dry chilli powder similar to peperoncino i.e. with the seeds still in, but more finely powdered. Also Xiangban Bohe /bohoye/, a peppermint salad with more peperoncino and a soya sauce dressing. Both were interesting with powerfull flavours (B) but too much for one person.

Fried Spicy PrawnsWith these dishes I also had Guizhou Fried Spicy Prawns /shaa naa sha/ with a chunky dressing of peanuts, dried red chillies, Sichuan peppers and spring onions. The prawns had been deep fried so you could eat them whole; shells and all. Very tasty (B+) but there were about twenty of them so I left the heads to save room for what was to come.

Beef on FireFor round two I ordered Beef on Fire which is a dish of marinated and pre-cooked beef on a bed of chives with red and green capsicums and onion. The food is on a wire rack on top of a plate containing petroleum jelly (hot coals at other branches?) which the waiter lights to heat the food rather than cooking it as such (B+).

Ants Climbing a TreeIn addition I had Ma Yi Shang Shu, which translates as Ants Climbing a Tree; glass noodles with chilli oil and some unknown but pleasant enough flavouring and garnished with spring onions (B). As usual, it was total overkill but the bill only came to the equivalent of about £18 with two large beers. Next time I go I’d like to try the spare ribs, Guizhou mashed potato and the aubergine with coriander.

LAN Club (Advanced A) Floor 4, LG Twin Towers

Being a lover of modern design, I had to go to this Phillipe Starck styled restaurant, bar and club, even if a lot of his other creations leave me cold. After coming here though I can just about forgive him for that ridiculous lemon squeezer.

LAN 003LAN 022LAN 027LAN 005LAN 004LAN 011LAN 020LAN LooLAN 013It’s a huge place with lots of private dining rooms for corporate entertainment and smaller ones that can be curtained off. The decor is an amazing blend of influences, freaky plastic chandeliers, fragments of Renaissance paintings facing down from the ceiling, cowhide sofas, ceramic mushrooms, metallic faces and display cabinets of Maoist porcelain, stuffed birds and medicine jars. The air conditioning pipes in the ceiling are left exposed in true modernist style but there’s also the odd shoplifting camera up there for some reason. Each bathroom has a beautiful water tap in the form of a silver swan. The soundtrack is a mixture of acid and latin jazz befitting the trippy atmosphere.

Sashimi SetAbaloneDipsOystersThe prices are pretty steep as you’d expect with most things around 250 RMB. Time Out recommends sticking with the Szechuan classics on the menu, as opposed to the Cantonese and Fusion dishes, but I went for the Sashimi Set for 198 RMB which turned out to be a good choice. It included two oysters in shot glasses with a slice of lemon, two sliced pearl abalone beautifully presented in their glittering shells, three slices each of smoked salmon, yellowtail and white tuna and some diced scallops and shrimps served in a chrysanthemum leaf in a shell. On the side came Kikkoman soya sauce (essential) and Tabasco (not essential).

RiceI filled up with two orders of Rice in a Bamboo Bucket, which came with tiny pieces of ham, peas and corn with pickles on the side. At only 10 RMB this is a cheap way to fill up if you need to. The service was rather hovery but friendly and not at all snooty which can be a problem in these kinds of places. With a couple of beers my bill came to 390 RMB, one my more expensive meals in China but although the food is good, it’s really the surroundings you are paying for and they are quite spectacular.

Wangfujing MarketThe star of the showSpidersSilkwormsAnother must visit on the foodie front is Wangfujing Food Market, more for the shock factor than to acutally eat anything, although I am gearing up to munching on a scorpion which aren’t too bad apparently. You know they are fresh because some are still moving! A stall holder told me the tastiest things are the big spiders, but it might take me a while for me to get round to them.

Kapok atrium

Kapok room

Another really nice area to walk around is Hou Hai, one of 3 lakes to the north of Beijing. Catch line 2 to Gulou Dajie and take in the drum and bell towers which have commanding views of the hutongs around the lakes. The streets immediately around the Silver Ingot Bridge at the south-eastern end of Hou Hai are very pleasant to walk around in the daytime with lots of nice shops and old buildings. You can hire a rickshaw for a tour if you wish. The southern shore of the lake is lined with bars and is perhaps the best area to go out to in the evening. In the daytime, the Mansion of Prince Gong on nearby Liuyin Jie is an extensive former royal residence with beautiful gardens; it costs 20 RMB to enter. Right next to the entrance is one of Beijing’s oldest restaurants, Sichuan Fandian, selling spicy food from that province. I didn’t get to go myself because I arrived at five past two and missed lunch, but Deng Xiaoping has eaten there so it must be good.

Nearly all the eateries and bars described in this post were gleaned from the Time Out Guide to Beijing, the best guide for urbanites as far as I’m concerned. However, be warned the maps in the 2005 edition do have some errors and their directions to some of these places could be better. Always get the restaurant name written in kanji so you can ask locals for directions and the telephone number so the driver can phone the place. I would refuse to get out unless I could see the sign! The 2010 Time Out came out just after I came back, so hopefully the mistakes have been rectified. A useful website is www.thebeijinger.com The restaurant and nightlife scene in Beijing is constantly changing (for the better) so there are probably lots of new places to try by the time you read this. Personally I can’t wait to go again.

Beijing also features in Episode 1 of the 2012 BBC series about Chinese food; Exploring China: A Culinary Adventure.

Guangzhou goings on

Posted in China, Guandong, Guangzhou with tags , , , on December 5, 2010 by gannet39

After shivering in 5C in Beijing at the beginning of November it was bliss to step off the plane into 20C in sub-tropical Guangzhou, capital of Guandong. Of course the city is still shrouded in pollution but at least it’s warm pollution.

I stayed at the four star Riverside Hotel which is a bit old and run down but cheap (£45 a night) and very central. The breakfast is pretty average and the waiters are so bored that they hover like vultures waiting for your used teaspoon. Each level also has a floor captain whose main job seems to be pressing the lift buttons for you. I found the front desk staff to be very friendly and helpful however. There is a small 10 metre pool and a gym with several old weight machines and one serviceable running machine, for an average-sized person that is. The sauna is pretty pointless with cracks in the door jamb letting all the heat out. The pool terrace, and hopefully your room, has a great view of the Pearl River which is quite a spectacle at night when the waterfront buildings, bridges and pleasure boats are all lit up in multi-coloured neon.

Pearl river at nightBridge and ferryFerry

Freaky ferry
Dong Jiang Hai Xian Jiu Jia aka Hong Xing (East River) Seafood Restaurant, (Advanced C). Turn left out of the hotel and walk along the riverside for about ten minutes, continuing nearly as far as the first bridge, you will see the restaurant on the right just before Hai Zhu Square.

Hong Xing Seafood Restaurant
Hong Xing is the best of their many branches. In Britain we like to think that Chinese people will eat just about anything. In China the saying goes that Cantonese people “will eat anything with four legs except the furniture”. Cantonese people in turn say that about people from Guangzhou, and in Guangzhou this is probably the place where you can get them all, as well as two, six and multi-legged life forms.

Hong Xing Sea World

Come on thenCrayfishRazor shellsDeath to all crabsRed lobsterScallopsWith five floors of dining rooms and seating for two hundred and fifty on my floor alone, excluding the private rooms, you would think this would have to be the biggest place in town, but apparently there’s somewhere even bigger (Fisherman’s City in Panyu).

Normally I would avoid such places but it is quite a spectacle, mainly because of the big tanks full of various kinds of sea life on the ground floor. It’s kind of like being at Sea World, except you can pass the death sentence on anything you see.

Paint spiral shellsFingerling

Geoduck ClamLoad of balls

Water beetlesCroc
The atmosphere is pretty raucous, like any busy restaurant in China, but made more so on the night I went by the close basketball final of the Asian Games between China and South Korea on the telly. (China won 77 points to 71).

China vs South Korea

There are tables outside on the ground floor but if like me you’re a lone diner you’d probably better arrive sometime between lunch and dinner (3-5pm) to stand a chance of getting one.

The twenty page menu has plenty of scary pictures but rest assured there are plenty of other highly edible things you can tolerably eat. This is primarily a Cantonese restaurant but there are pages for Japanese Sushi, Szechuan and Thai food.

Scorpio soupStone fishHoptoadSea horseGoose footTongueFoot and cumberSteamed crocCumber with honeyFish heads

 

My friend John tells me there are even good veggie options but other than a page of greens and the odd bunch of mushrooms, these didn’t jump out at me.

I’m a huge sushi fan so I jumped at the chance to have some fresh sashimi and went for the Sendai Sashimi Platter for 380 RMB. For that I got nine kinds of raw seafood (octopus, white tuna, whelk, sea bream, two cuts of salmon and three cuts of mackerel, one with red sea-urchin roe and another with a yellow roe I couldn’t identify). You get four slices of each on a bed of ice with a flower arrangement and a garnish of lemon and erm… maraschino cherries.

Sashimi platter

The roe/fish hybrids were something new, as was the white tuna (bottom right on the plate), which I’d never come across when I lived in Japan.

Sashimi

The reason I found out later is because it’s banned there for health reasons! It seems there are two fish which are both misleadingly called ‘white tuna’ in some countries. One is Albacore tuna which actually has light pink flesh in relation to other kinds of tuna, and the other is Escolar which isn’t tuna at all but a deep water fish, also known as Butterfish.  It seems the wax esters (similar to omega fatty acids) it contains can have negative effects on some people (not me) if eaten in large amounts but a few slices of sushi shouldn’t do anyone any harm. Here’s the debate on Chowhound.

I thought all the sushi was generally ok, except the sea bream was still partly frozen and soya sauce wasn’t Kikkoman (pretty essential) and the waiters had no idea of how much wasabi to put in the dipping dish. It was nice enough (C+) and fulfilled my craving but I wouldn’t have it here again.

I also love bean curd so I also incongruously ordered the ‘house special’ of braised tofu but sadly this wasn’t special at all when it arrived (C-).

The picture

Eight thick slabs of overcooked tofu in a meaty sauce which looked nothing like the picture in the menu (a common problem in China).

The reality

At the bottom of each page there is the disclaimer “the real dish is up to the cuisine, the picture is only a sample” which translated into Yorkshire means “tha’ll get what tha’s given and effin well like it”. There was little to no chance of being given a clip round the ear here though so I pushed it to one side.

To finish I had an order of six piping-hot Portuguese egg custard tarts which I couldn’t fault them too much on (B) except there were too many and I could only manage five!

Tartlets

RIP

At 541 RMB (with 3 beers, a bowl of steamed rice and another round of salmon nigirizushi because I like it so much) this was my most expensive meal so far in five weeks of being in China but it was my penultimate night before leaving the country so a treat was in order (any excuse).

I put this place in the advanced category simply because of its sheer size but to be honest the food is nothing special, and fairly expensive. It’s worth going though just for the experience, although you could just walk in, take pictures and leave.

With thanks to John Harrop.
Bingsheng (Advanced A), 33 Dongxiao Lu.

This is a famous time-honoured restaurant that my friend and work colleague Nicky took me to for a great meal.

Bingsheng

Bingsheng interior

He knows the manager so bagged us a private room although I wouldn’t have minded sitting in the large modern main room.
Nicky and me
While we perused the menu, a couple of appetisers arrived. The first was raw cucumber with a shot glass of soya sauce and wasabi for dipping, a nice combination I hadn’t considered before (B).

Cucumber with soy wasabi shot

Less inviting was the beef tripe that came with it but I literally swallowed my inhibitions and got stuck in and it was delicious! It came in a white liquid with small chunks of carrot and giant radish (mooli or daikon) and had a very peppery aftertaste that was very pleasant (B).

A load of tripe

Nicky ordered for us, taking into consideration my desire to try the suckling pig which is very famous in Guangzhou. The first taste of little piggy was two squares of fatty pork skin on a gem lettuce leaf with small chunks of pineapple and peach in a white sauce, utterly delicious (A).

Pork two ways

We also had a dish of two kinds of pork, one which seemed to have been steeped in honey and barbequed (A) and another perhaps grilled and tossed in hoisin sauce (B).

Sweet little piggy

Bean curd (dofu) seems to be a speciality here too with three pages of the menu given over to it. We had the ‘three style bean curd’ which had two slabs each of white, cream and black silk bean curd made from three different kinds of bean in watery soy based sauce and sprinkled with chives, again wonderful (A).

Three styles of curd

We also had some roti-like fried pancakes which seemed Indian in origin to me but are apparently a local dish (B).

Roti

On the veg front we had Huai San, a kind of root vegetable paired with mange tout and tossed in a sauce of minced pork, which was interesting but didn’t do much for me (C).

 

Huai San

Much better was my favourite of stir fried baby pak choi (called something else here) which I just couldn’t stop eating (A). Great food in a great restaurant, go if you can.

Pak choi

Another famous place for roast suckling pig is Datong at 63 Yanjiang Xi Lu (Tel. 8188 8988 or 5933) but Nicky says it’s not as good as it once was. They are also renowned for inventing a dish of crispy chicken skin and have good dim sum in the mornings. The restaurant takes up several floors with great views of the river from the roof top terrace. Another famous dim sum place is Tao Tao at Dishipu Lu.

Guangzhou also features in Episode 4 of the 2012 BBC series about Chinese food; Exploring China: A Culinary Adventure.

Chongqing Home of the Hotpot

Posted in Chongqing with tags , , , , on December 3, 2010 by gannet39

With 31 million people Chongqing is the biggest municipality in China, bigger than Shanghai and Beijing and possibly the largest in the world.

Chongqing at night

The city is known for its fog and heavy air pollution due to massive industrial development, earning it the nickname ‘Fog Capital’. It’s particularly bad in winter and the November day I arrived on was no exception with visibility down to a few hundred meters, which is a shame because its hilly terrain and huge buildings make it an awe inspiring place to drive around, especially at night when it’s lit up. Apparently things are improving though and a drive to reduce air pollution by the municipal council has led to an increase in ‘blue sky days’, though I have yet to see one.

It’s also very near Yao’an which suffered the devastating earthquake in May 2009.

Chongqing is the capital of Sichuan province, which has one of the most famous cuisines in China. They like it spicy here and many dishes will include dried red chilli, Sichuan peppercorns, ginger, garlic and black beans. Chonqing Expat is a useful website that lists specialities and restaurants.

Chongqing is where hot pot (huo guo) originates from and the Cygnet Hot Pot Palace is accepted by most as the best place for it in town. There are several branches all over town but their flagship on Minzu Lu in Yuzhong is the place to go if you would like some live entertainment (folk dance, music, theatre) with your meal.

Entertainment

The location at 22 Minzu Lu is a little hard to find if you are illiterate in kanji like me, (make sure you have the name written down by hotel reception) but the entrance is in an elevated square next to the Chongqing bank, the lift to the sixth floor is on the right as you go in. They have a swan symbol before the name so you know you’re in the right place when you see it.

The Cygnet shows the way

Sadly it was just finishing when I arrived at 8 (inept taxi driver) and many people were already leaving in a state of loud inebriation. It’s quite a party place.

Lao Sichaun Dajilou doorway

The friendly lady on the door looked after me really well and found an ancient menu in English for me to look at. Ducks blood, chicken gizzards and pig snouts were all in evidence but sticking with the maxim ‘what tastes good is what tastes familiar’ I went with the safe bets: sliced fatty beef, ‘silver’ mutton, sheets of bean curd, ‘drumstick’ mushrooms, Chinese leaves and Cos lettuce. I also got an unasked for plate of local ‘jack fish’ but my chopstick skills weren’t up to deboning it so I abandoned it as a mangled mess.

My choices

For the stock I opted for the classic ‘red and white composite hot pot’ which consists of two sauces in concentric bowls, The central red stock was a searing combination of red chillies and Sichuan peppercorns (you should shake these off the food or spit them out to avoid a numb tongue), oil, ginger and lemongrass with other unknowns floating around while the outer white stock is without any spice but with scallions and cucumber bobbing on the surface.

Stocks

About halfway through the meal a chef came and replenished both rings with the same kettle of white stock so I guess they have the same base. Needless to say I went for the red every time and soon had a small mountain of tissues next to me as the heat from the gas ring and the chillies started to take their toll.

Taking a few pinches of uncooked ingredients at a time, you simmer them briefly before fishing them out and dipping them in a watery brown sauce thickened with a big dollop of raw minced garlic and a pinch of a salty powder (not MSG because that was in another dish) or in soya sauce before making the final journey to the eagerly awaiting gob. Utterly delicious if a bit messy. They even had Snow beer, my favourite Chinese ale, on hand to cool things down.

Snow beer

To finish some complimentary cooling watermelon and err… cherry tomatoes (a dessert fruit here). Total bill a mere 78 RMB. A must do I would say.

The oldest and most famous restaurant in town is Lao Sichaun Dajilou (Old Sichaun Hotel) which the locals abbreviate to ‘Lao Su’. The address I was given was 186 Minzu Lu but the taxi driver seemed to disagree so perhaps it’s moved or there are two locations.

I meant to get some recommended dishes written in kanji (such as wool beef, smoked duck rice, cold pork garlic and chrysanthemum aubergine) but it was hard enough just getting the name and address of the place so I didn’t go there. Unfortunately there were no English translations in the menu but it did have pictures so I played it safe and just pointed at safe and familiar looking dishes (as opposed to the beautifully presented but daunting sea cucumbers/slugs and what looked like a deck chair made of tripe!).

Tripe deckchair

First to arrive was a dish of steamed pak choi with chopped red and green chillies doused in soya sauce.

Pak choi with chillies

This came with another dish of chopped greens with shredded pork and dry red chillies. Both dishes were great for me as they played straight to my soya sauce and chilli addictions.

Greens with pork

To go with this I thought I’d ordered crispy duck pancakes but this turned out just to be just duck skin covering a mound of prawn crackers. No problem, the skin was delicious wrapped in the delicate pancakes with cucumber and spring onion and smothered with hoisin sauce.

Duck skin pancakes

Alongside was a huge bowl of rice, enough to feed eight people, as well as a couple of local Shandong beers.

Shangdong beer

Don’t quite know how but I managed it but I ate about two thirds of the food, excluding the rice, despite massively over ordering. The bill came to 112 RMB, under £12, so I didn’t feel too bad.

They were starting to switch the lights off at 9 on a Thursday evening so I’d get there early if you can.

Last time I was here in 2008  I stayed at the five star Harbour View Hotel and found it very pleasant, though the pool is a bit small. The hotel is very central and within walking distance of Minzu Lu and Wuyi Lu which have lots of good restaurants.

On this occasion I stayed in the 5 star Park Hotel which is on the other side of the river from the downtown. It’s absolutely huge, 32 floors that look out onto a Blade Runner cityscape and high speed lifts on the outside of the building that give you a bird’s eye view. From inside I could only look down the central atrium for a split-second before my vertigo drove me back from the edge.

The rooms and bathrooms are large and comfortable and have free internet via a cable connection but only CNN and HBO on the telly. There is a well equipped gym in the basement but the whiff of car fumes from the underground car park opposite make it rather unpleasant to be in there on some days.

I tried the Japanese restaurant in the basement for lunch once but the ingredients of my raw fish set, although nicely presented, weren’t as fresh as I would have liked. The waitresses didn’t want to let me in at first even though they were still officially open at ten to two. I also had a lunch of Youngchow fried rice, steamed Pak Choi with black beans and a beer for RMB 100 from the second floor Chinese restaurant which was very tasty but a bit pricey. I also thought the prices in the bar were rather extortionate at 45 RMB for a Tanqueray and tonic (30 RMB in Wenzhou) but when they added on another 7 RMB service charge I nearly choked on my peanuts.

If you go down to the basement floor and past the breakfast room, there is an escalator that will take you down to the entertainment city which is under the urban park in front of the hotel. Besides a supermarket, there are more restaurants here, as well as pubs, karaoke and hostess bars, betting shops, amusement arcades and internet cafes. There is a swimming pool down here somewhere too but I couldn’t find it.

Although it’s easy not to go anywhere when everything you need is on your doorstep in the hotel, one good reason to go to these restaurants is the taxi ride there.

Crossing the river

You get some amazing views of this futuristic city when it’s all light up at night.

Imagine the electricity bill!

 

Taxis are cheap as chips too, just a couple of quid, though you may have to wait a while on the street to get one for the return journey.

Hanging out in Hangzhou

Posted in Hangzhou, Zhejiang with tags on December 2, 2010 by gannet39

PavillionPagoda

If I was going to set up home somewhere in China I would probably choose Hangzhou, one of China’s most attractive and livable cities. The West Lake, upon whose shores the city sits, is one of the country’s biggest tourist draws, especially now that it only takes only 40 minutes on the bullet train from Shanghai. It’s a very wealthy area with the highest GDP in China. Dingy communismShiny capitalism

It’s very pleasant to take an early morning walk through Yongjin Park by the lake early in the morning where you can see groups of locals practising Tai Chi with fans or swords. Close dancing seems a popular way to start the day too. You can walk around the entire lake (it took me about 2 hours 15 minutes at a brisk walk via the causeways) or hop on a passing buggy if you feel tired. Pleasure boats cross the lake from all sides too.

Hefang StBrass BhuddaHefang St carvingHefang St shopGinseng shopHangzhou, capital of Zhejiang, has an ancient and venerable history with successive emperors choosing it as their playground. Little remains in the way of old buildings but Hefang St has been reconstructed to give you a feel of what it must have been like in the past. This is a fun area to come at night as there are lots of street stalls and shops selling take home trinkets. The parallel Gaoyin St has lots of restaurants. There is also a night market at Huixing Rd, 5 minutes from the Friendship Hotel.

The local cuisine is known as Zhejiang Cuisine, one of China’s eight famous cuisines, and has a reputation for using fresh ingredients in subtle dishes. Famous local Hangzhou delicacies include Beggar’s Chicken, West Lake Sour Fish (xi hu cu yu), Steamed Dumplings (xiao long bao), Dongpo Pork, Longjing Shrimp Meat, Jiaohua Young Chicken, Steamed Rice Flower with Pork wrapped in Lotus Leaves, Lotus Root Powder Soup and Braised Bamboo Shoots.

Wang Xingji fan shopThe city is a centre for some of the best silk and tea in China, perfect items for the homeward suitcase. For silk, go to Jiankang West Rd, which is between Fengqi Lu and Tiyuchang Lu. It’s a long pedestrian street lined with at least 100 silk stalls, with more off side the streets. I bought Pashmina scarves here for 18 RMB, and a silk dressing gown for 100 RMB. Fans are a famous product too; Wang Xingji on Hefang St is the best shop for these.

Hefang St tea shopThere are tea shops all over town selling the famous local brew, Long Jing (Dragon Well) green tea. The best stuff comes from Xi Hu, a village near Hangzhou. There are five grades, rated according to date of harvest, position on the branch etc. Ming Chien and Yu Chien are the best, Yu Hou, San Chun, Si Chun less so. Prices are usually on the jars but you should ask which grade is which, and then proffer the amount you would like to spend. I paid 100RMB for 250g of Yu Chien, which seemed reasonable.

The biggest downside to life here is the traffic, as any local will tell you, but hopefully this will change when the new subway system is finished. Getting a taxi during rush hour is a major task, as bizarrely this is also when all the drivers change shifts and many will refuse your custom if you’re not on their way to the garage. Expect to wait on the street for at least 20 minutes if you’re trying to get a cab between 3.00 and 6.00. A fair few private cars will offer you a lift but at least double the price.

I’ve stayed twice at the four star Friendship Hotel which has become a little dingier over the years. The rooms are pleasant enough, although the bathrooms are a bit poky, and most have great views of the lake (remember to specify you want one with a good vista). The only English TV channel I managed to get was the local CCTV. There’s internet but most things I wanted were blocked. There is a gym with a couple of serviceable running machines, although the rest of the equipment is a bit clunky. The extensive breakfast buffet is in the revolving restaurant on the top floor. Although the views are great, I’m not a fan of eating while slowly turning in a circle. Although you can barely feel the movement, except for the occasional shudder, I always leave with a faint feeling of motion sickness. It got too much once so I tried to leave with a piece of fruit to eat elsewhere, only to be told by the banana police that I had to eat it in the restaurant. I tried the food up here in the evening too a couple of years back but wasn’t too impressed.

Lou Wai LouInsideThe most famous and supposedly oldest restaurant in town is Lou Wai Lou, at 30 Gushan Rd on Solitary Island. Walk along the Bai Causeway on the lake and it’s about the fourth building on the right as you come on to the island. This is perhaps the best place to taste many local delicacies, including my choice, Beggars’ Chicken. Beggars Chicken Stage 1whack it with a hammercut it open

Legend has it that a beggar had a chicken but didn’t know what to do with it so he wrapped it in a lotus leaf and buried it in mud. On another day, when one of his friends was starving, he dug it up and threw it on the pass the parcelooh the suspenseand here's dinnerfire, still covered in mud, with apparently delicious results. These days it’s slightly more sophisticated with more flavour added by a marinade of local Shaoxing wine. The bird is smashed into small pieces with a hammer and the wrappings (newspaper, plastic and finally the lotus leaf) are cut with scissors and the bird revealed for you to pick through. It was an experience but I could only give it a B, too many bone fragments and not sure what the beef was doing in there.

Kui Yuan GuangSpice potThere is a great noodle bar near the hotel called Kui Yuan Guang, famous in Chilli pork noodlesHangzhou since 1867 although the building is pretty new. (Turn right out of the Friendship hotel, immediate right and turn third left onto Jiefang Rd, it’s about 3 blocks down on the left). They do an excellent (A-), if slightly oily, pork chilli noodle soup for 12 RMB, which goes great with a cold beer. There are 17 noodle soups on offer in all, in three different sizes, all with English translations. Remember to slurp your noodles as the extra oxygen adds to the taste, as well as cooling them down. People will think you are strange if you don’t!

Zhuan Gyauan GuanThere’s another famous noodle bar on picturesque Hefang St called Zhuan Gyauan Guan which serves Shaanxi style noodles. They have a picture menu but I needed my dictionary and some help from an English speaking waitress to work out what everything was. Zhuan Gyauan Guan noodlesIn the end I plumped for beef noodle soup with green chillies, which was delicious (B+) but needed a few dollops of chilli sauce to bring it up to my heat level. The menu is pretty scary; one noodle soup seemed to be topped with a whole turtle! There are other non-noodle dishes too.

Wan Grun XingWang Grun Xing ribs and pak choiAnother supposedly old restaurant (since 1738) in an ersatz building on Hefang St is Wan Grun Xing. The carved wooden interior is quite nice and it looks like it should be a good place. However, I got the worst service I’ve had so far in China from a gaggle of rude and lazy staff who were too busy chatting and shouting at each other to do any work. I was shown to a bare table with rubbish strewn on the floor around it. All the tables in the rest of the place were beautifully laid out but I just got a plate with bare chopsticks shoved onto mine. I don’t mind if people don’t understand me but kind of resented the fits of giggles that attended my presence as all the waiters tried to get out of serving me and get their mates to do it instead. I nearly walked out at this point but my beer arrived so I stayed and got my camera out and started taking pictures and writing notes, which seemed to change their behaviour. Or at least the manager realised what I was doing and started to get the others into line a bit. I wanted to try the house speciality ‘Fishhead Bean Curd’ but my appetite went when I saw the bulbous opaque eyes staring back at me from the vivid picture menu. Also I’d forgotten to get their other special ‘Door Board Rice’ written in kanji so didn’t get that either. Instead I played it safe again and got spare ribs in a chilli and sugar sauce and a plate of steamed pak choi with small shitake mushrooms. The ribs didn’t look anything like the picture, small and without the fancy garnishing and just splattered onto the plate, as if the chef was making the least possible effort. Everything tasted good however and with rice and two beers, only came to 77 RMB. Never going back though.

Lotus soup dragonLotus root powder soupAlso on Hefang St there is a shop selling Lotus Root Powder Soup, another famous local product. It tastes of nothing but is famed for it’s health giving qualities. I didn’t get the name of the place but look out for a huge teapot with a dragon spout. The guy who does the pouring is quite a character.

Edamame, Tofu and KimichiTuna sushi and squid sashimiJust over the road from the Friendship Hotel, on the first floor of the Marco Polo Hotel, is an all-you-can-eat-and-drink Japanese restaurant (which is like a red rag to a bull to me). They give you two hours for a set price of 140RMB. The food isn’t great but no worse than a very cheap Izakaya in Japan, and you can’t argue with the price. I like to go here just to have fun with the waitresses as we practice our rudimentary Japanese on each other.

I was working evenings but didn’t get time to try any of the local bars. However my friend, and Hangzhou native, Xin Shu recommends a reggae bar called Gen Jiu Ba at 131 Xueyan Road, near Wen’er Rd (Tel 86575749).

A chilly lunchBamboo ShootsSizzling carpDuck down pak choiChicken and spring onionsBean paste and buffalo milk pud

Xin Shu also took me to a great little restaurant somewhere on the West shore of the West Lake. You need a car to get there and everything was written in kanji so I don’t know the name but we had some great food; bamboo shoots. ‘duck down’ pak choi, carp in soya sauce and rice wine and my favourite, chicken and spring onions. The pudding was made from water buffalo milk and bean paste, a new combination on me and very healthy. It was a bit chilly but the secluded location and bamboo and wood decor made it a lovely place to be, and some of the best food I had in Hangzhou. Xin Shu, if you read this, please share the name and contact details!

Other famous places I didn’t get time to try this time are Shan Wai Shan at 8 Yuquan Rd (Tel. 8798 6621) and Zhi Wei Guan at 83 Renhe Rd (Tel. 8706 5871). Here’s a useful local website with a list of restaurants.

Wontons in Wenzhou

Posted in China, Wenzhou, Zhejiang with tags , , , , on November 29, 2010 by gannet39

Wenzhou is a prosperous port and industrial city of a couple of million people on the Eastern seaboard. Shrouded in dense smog and without any cultural aspects to speak of, even the locals I spoke to weren’t particularly keen on the place. There’s no real reason to come here unless you are doing business, particularly in shoes, fertiliser, electrical goods and fakes of all kinds. Historically it has been isolated from the rest of the country by a mountain range and has developed a different culture as a result.

On the culinary side of things, it’s known for its seafood and inhabitants who have a reputation for travelling overseas and starting restaurants in other countries. However a survey of travel sites and guides failed to bring up any recommended places to eat at all. Unusually there was nothing on Trip Advisor, Virtual Tourist or Chow Hound and only one mention of an eatery selling local food in the Lonely Planet, which turned out to be factually incorrect.

Chang RenLP lists Wenzhou Mingdian (which suspiciously translates as ‘Wenzhou Restaurant’) as being the oldest restaurant in the city (100 years) and a good place to try the local specialities Yu Yuan Mian (fish noodles) and Yu Bing (fish cakes). Maybe things have changed since they were here last, but the business at the same address (195 Jiefang Jie) is actually called Chang Ren and is famous for its Wonton soups. Rather than an ancient restaurant, it’s more of a dilapidated cafe in a relatively modern building with plastic tables, rudimentary fittings, a filthy floor and a downmarket clientele who will be very surprised to see you. No matter, the main thing is the food, and it’s great! Hun TunFire DumlingsI had the shrimp wontons (hun tun) which come in a clear broth with shredded carrot, spinach, seaweed, spring onions, a couple of tiny prawns and something else pickled and green. On the side I had a plate of ‘fire dumplings’, which I guessed contained pork and spring onion, and a saucer of vinegar and soya sauce for dipping. The dumplings were good, if a bit singed (B), but the wonton soup was wonderful (A) and everything was really cheap. Share them with a loved oneOther varieties of wontons are available too (pork, beef, chicken) but its best to get your choices written down by a Chinese person before you go as there is no menu at all, just signs in Chinese on the walls. They don’t sell beer either, or in fact any drinks, but there is a wine shop about a block down on the same side. It’s very close to Wuma Jie, a pedestrian shopping street where you can take a stroll afterwards.

If you do want to eat Yu Yuan Mian, there are a lot of little places in town that specialise in them. Here are two links (one and two) to some other local delicacies that I didn’t get to try in the 18 hours I was there.

On my first trip here in 2008 I had an unmemorable stay at the Dynasty Hotel. This time however work put me up at the much nicer Ex Palm D’Or Hotel on the next corner up. It’s a very pleasant boutique hotel with small but comfortable rooms which have free internet and a Bose speaker system that you can plug your music player into. There is no gym or other facilities but they do have an Italian Restaurant which I tried for lunch as I was pushed for time. Spaghetti VongoleThe Spaghetti with Clams, Cherry tomatoes and zucchini didn’t of course taste like it would in its country of conception but it was well cooked and nicely presented, if a bit steep at 88 RMB. There were two types of clams, one exactly like vongole verace and another with a grey shell I was unfamiliar with.

I ended up in the hotel for lunch because my first choice from my last visit, the Taj Mahal, had moved to a new location and was closed by the time I found it. Originally at 532 Nampu Lu, about 10 minutes from the hotel, it has now moved a block down onto the other side of the street to a more modern second floor location. If you can’t find it (the English sign is tiny and very missable), ask the people in the Italian Restaurant at the original address where it is, as both have the same owner. The curries are ok, if rather mild, but it’s good if you are feeling a bit homesick and fancy a change.

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