Sunday, August 30, 2009

Franschhoek in Beijing

Last night we had some of our good Beijing friends over for a dinner composed (mostly) of dishes from my newest cookbook, Reuben Riffel's "Reuben Cooks". Reuben Riffel is the chef-owner of Reuben's restaurant in Franschhoek, South Africa, where we ate once during our trip in May. The cookbook is beautifully designed, and includes several dishes that we enjoyed during our meal there, though if I have one complaint about the book it is that some recipes are written to serve 2 people, others for 15, and there are not that many that fall in between.

We were ten people at the table altogether, including a new colleague from work, three old colleagues from work, and some non-work friends, so it was a nice varied group, and the conversation flowed very well. But most of the people who I know read this blog don't care about the conversation, they care about the menu. Here it is:

During the "cocktail hour" we served our famous Edamame with Spicy Sichuan Peppercorn Salt and my Palestinian Hummus. After that, the Reuben's dishes started to come:

Caramelized Onion and Blue Cheese Tarts with Tomato Chutney

We then moved to the table for the main meal:

Braised Squid with Green Olives in Pernod-Orange Sauce
Braised Pork Belly with Ginger-Caramel Sauce
Chinese "Springbok" Tataki with Colcannon
Steamed Chinese Vegetable with Aged Balsamic Vinegar

and for Dessert:

Homemade Plum Ice Cream with Muscat Crème Brûlée

The Chinese "Springbok" Tataki was the only dish that required a major substitution: springbok loin just is not available here, so I replaced it with beef tenderloin, which I cooked in a salt dough crust that I learned about from Alton Brown's "Good Eats" show. In this dish the beef tenderloin is baked in a salt-heavy dough "sarcophagus" that infuses the meat with the salt and herbs that are mixed into the dough, resulting in a truly succulent piece of meat. I think that it nicely mimicked the strong flavor that springbok (or other game meat) should have.

And for the dessert, which in his book Reuben shows served on a flat plate with a ball of ice cream next to a ramekin of creme brulee, we instead found some great plates at a local pottery store called "Spin" that had a sort of folded-over corner with a deep indentation that could hold the ice cream, and a nice flat space (with a lip) to hold the ramekin and our garnish. I got a picture of the dish, but not as it looked with the desserts on it. Next time...

And speaking of photos, here they are.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Black Sesame Kitchen Dinner Photos

I have posted the photos on my photo page. Click here to see them.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Black Sesame Kitchen Evening

One of my colleagues and his wife invited me to join them last night at a private dinner at the Black Sesame Kitchen, a small cooking school/foodie haven in the Nanluoguxiang area of Beijing that was founded by Jen Lin-Liu, a writer for numerous US publications, who also wrote a memoir, "Serve the People", about her experience apprenticing with several local chefs around China as she tried to master the art of Chinese cuisine. The venue is a nicely restored courtyard home with a demonstration kitchen and a few small rooms for diners to sit and watch the action. The event was less of a cooking demo, though, than an occasion to meet Sandra Huang, a US-born Beijing resident who maintains a very useful website, SavourAsia, through which I have made several great restaurant discoveries.

As it turns out, the only guests for the evening were my colleague, his wife, a friend of theirs and a friend of the speaker, so there were just six of us eating. The meal, prepared by Chef Zhang, a Shaanxi noodle specialist who figures prominently in Jen's book, prepared a home-style menu of 7 courses (they promised ten, though, a fact that I ribbed the manager of the venue about mercilessly, prompting her to add one more course to shut me up), including fried stuffed lotus root, red cooked braised eggplant, Gong Bao chicken with cashews, a dry-cooked mushroom dish, smoked tofu with pork belly, and caramelized fried apples with homemade ice cream. The food was pretty good (though not really my favorite style, and the cashews were added to the Gong Bao chicken raw, rather than fried or roasted, so they were not crunchy at all), but the conversation was great, and we had a lot of fun.

Sandra was going to talk about Chinese food blogs, but a) there aren't all that many of them worth talking about and b) we kept digressing and veering off on tangents that turned out to be at least as interesting as her intended topic, so we just let the conversation take us where it would. Before we knew it it was past 10pm and time for us to head home and get ready for another day at work. But there was one topic that is worth mentioning, if only because of the hilarity that ensued. My colleagues and their friend are all Jewish, though only one of them makes a nod in the direction of keeping kosher by avoiding pork (except in cases where he chooses to ignore pork's presence), and one told us about a trip to the US to visit family who do keep kosher. They were in lobster country, though, and after a few days her kids begged her to sneak them out to grab a lobster meal. This they finally did, and she was rhapsodizing about how great the lobster was, and only $3.99 a pound. I pointed out that, according to the Talmud, lobster is kosher if it's on sale for less than $5/lb, leading to great hilarity around the table, followed by recriminations for the tinge of anti-Semitism that the joke entailed.

Photos to follow.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

A Disappointing Chaîne Dinner

Last night was the latest get together of the Chaîne des Rotisseurs here in Beijing, held at Vascos restaurant in the Wangfujing Hilton. The menu sounded very promising, featuring dishes from places around the world associated with Portuguese exploration or colonies. Thus the menu began with a dish from the Canary Islands (aren't they Spanish??), then on to Cape Verde, proceeding from there to Mozambique, then Kenya and Calcutta (uh, isn't that British; why not Goa??), and finally back to Lisbon. The dishes sounded like they should be good, too, with things like fried oysters, quail b'stilla, and roasted lobster, but in fact the best dish of all was the palate cleansing sorbet between the lobster and beef course. Problem was that the flavors were insipid for the most part, and several of the dishes were served in such a way that we were not sure how to eat them (with fingers, or utensils?). Some of our dining companions blamed the Portuguese head chef for the problem, arguing that the Portuguese just don't know how to cook, since their cuisine is so simple (mind you, he was German, so not exactly arguing from a position of strength...).

Not only was the food disappointing, but the restaurant itself seems to be the space that the hotel uses for its breakfast buffet or something, since the room was pretty lacking in charm, and the tables were long rectangles that were not conducive to conversation at all, so we ended up chatting only with the people seated immediately next to us. At least they were interesting, so that made for a bit of a diversion, but overall the meal was a real downer, and we even left feeling a bit hungry!

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Infection Control Theatre

Much has been made in the news about what people call "security theatre", those things that are done at airports and in subways etc to make people *feel* safer but that don't really have much of an impact on their actual safety. The Chinese government has not done quite as much in the realm of security theatre, but they have a corner on the "infection control theatre" genre. WIth the global fears over the H1N1(a) virus, the Chinese government, which has memories of the SARS crisis, avian flu, and other health scares frontmost in its mind, has decided to leap into action and do everything in its power to prevent the spread of this disease.

Among the things that the government has done is to festoon the streets with posters instructing people how to avoid the virus (interestingly, most of the posters show H1N1 sufferers as being red headed foreigners), enforce body temperature controls at the entrances to hotels, hospitals and schools, and require visitors arriving from overseas to go through several temperature checks at the airport, sometimes even on the arriving aircraft itself. As part of this last control, all passengers must fill out a quarantine form that includes all the usual demographic information (name, country of citizenship, passport number, contact info) but also flight number, seat number, and city where you were coming from. All that is fine, up to a point. But what really is bizarre is that someone actually phones each and every person who lands at Beijing airport (from certain places, at least) the day after they land to check on how they're feeling. When we had visitors last week, I got a phone call from the Changping district hospital asking about the visitors' well being. At first I could not understand why the Changping hospital was calling, since we live nowhere near there, so when they called for the second time that day (90 minutes after the first call) I asked them, and learned that they had mistakenly believed that our address was in that district. The mistake corrected, I then got a call from our district hospital asking the same questions about our guests' temperatures.

But that's not the best part. When J2 returned from the US on Sunday, he also filled out the forms, giving his own mobile phone number as his means of contact. Sure enough, yesterday morning on the way to work his phone rang, and someone on the other end started yammering away at him in Chinese. He kept responding "hello, hello, do you speak English, I'm American, etc" but the person on the other end could not speak anything but Chinese. The number calling him was the same number that called me last week to check on our guests' health, so we knew it was the hospital, and I offered to speak to them, but J2 insisted that, if they're going to try to pursue this ridiculous policy with foreign visitors, they had better learn to get some foreign language speakers on the job. The person hung up, but then phoned back a few minutes later! J2 did the exact same routine, not even trying to speak Chinese with the person, who eventually hung up again. But then he phoned back EIGHT MORE TIMES, at no point actually using an English speaker, even though they knew that he is American. How useful can this process possibly be?

Sunday, August 16, 2009

New Food Finds

A few weeks ago, probably around July 4, I suddenly found myself suffering from an insurmountable craving for a hot dog. It's not like I eat a lot of hot dogs; even living in NYC, where good hot dogs are available on many street corners, I did not eat very many of them. But perhaps with the onset of Independence Day, which is so closely associated with hot dogs, the cravings would not go away so I decided to do something about it. But nowhere could I find a restaurant serving hot dogs and I would not stoop so low as to eat a Chinese "hot dog", which have a color and aroma that I do not associate with things edible by humans. In the end, I went to Schindler's German butcher and bought myself some raw frankfurters that I then cooked at home on my indoor grill. Indeed, they were excellent, and my craving was satisfied.

But in recent weeks, several of the expat-oriented magazines have published listings of where to get Beijing's best hot dogs, and my cravings returned. As it turns out, my whole premise of looking for the hot dogs at "restaurants" was a mistake, since the places that were listed fell into two categories--bars and kiosks. The bars were categorically places I would never go to, since they tended to be the sort of bars where young Chinese women pounce on the foreign guys in hopes of landing a ticket out of China. But the kiosks sounded promising, and two of them were within a short walk or bike ride from our apartment.

The first of these places is called "No More Bunz", and is on Xindong Lu just south of the Canadian Embassy (on the south side of Dongzhimenwai Dajie). It's literally a hole in the wall, with a grill in front. They have several kinds of dogs on offer, including 100% beef, German, and Italian, and they offer a huge range of toppings, including all the old favorites. Prices are also very good, with the small sizes costing around RMB 15-20. I stopped at this place on Thursday on my way home from work during lunch to let the dogs out, and they were delicious. I had the German and the 100% beef, and had them with all the fixin's. Would definitely go back.

The other place I have been to so far is called Stadium Dogs and is located near Gate 10 of the Workers' Stadium. This place is a bit larger than No More Bunz, and even has some seating. They also offer a few varieties (100% beef, American, Italian and German), which also come with a large range of toppings, including beef chili, sauerkraut, tomatoes, etc. The dogs cost RMB 20, but the big menu on the wall says they cost RMB 25 (they have lowered prices recently). I had the Italian and it was also very good, though perhaps not as good as No More Bunz. The one advantage of this place is that you get to put your own toppings on and they have a huge selection of mustards and ketchups (and also it's closer to our apartment). They also have a nice selection of beers.

The other food find that I want to share with you is the dish called Ma La Xiang Guo (麻辣香锅). This is a dish that is sweeping the city, it seems, since more and more places that serve it are proliferating. What it is is a kind of dry hot pot, where the diner chooses what items will go into the dish from a long list of possibilities (meats, vegetables, mushrooms, rice cake, tofu etc) and the level of heat (at our local place, from 1 to 7). The kitchen then mixes your ingredients with the appropriate number of chilies, cilantro, garlic, ginger, Sichuan pepper, etc., and stir fries it. It then comes to your table in a big stainless steel bowl and you pick through it. Unlike hot pot there is no broth, so it's a bit easier to find the bits you want. The first time I went to our nearby mala xiangguo place I tried to order a level 6, but they wouldn't serve it to me, saying it was too hot. So I reluctantly had a level 5, and then spent the evening alternately taking a mouthful of the dish and mopping my brow with a soaking wet towel and trying to douse the flames with a beer. Since then we have ordered level 4, which is certainly hot enough. (We also went out with Alpha and Diana, our trainer and his wife, and had level 2, since they're wimps; we found it to be utterly un-hot.) The dish has wonderful flavors, and is now one of our favorite things to have for a bit of a splurge-y meal (the dish is relatively expensive, and with all the oil it's not exactly dietetic).

I'll try to bring more dining finds as we find them!

Friday, August 07, 2009

Beijing One Year Later

It's hard to imagine that it's just a year ago that the Olympics opened in Beijing. So much has happened in the intervening 12 months, what with the emergence of the international economic crisis, the American election, and the death of Michael Jackson (to name the single most important events of the period...). But this blog is not about all those weighty things. Instead, I want to write about what is left of the Olympic spirit in Beijing 365 days after the opening ceremonies.

Much was made of the pollution problem in Beijing in the lead up to the Games, and indeed for a while the pollution problem seemed to have been somewhat resolved. Many people thought that the traffic restrictions put into place during the Olympic period may have had a role to play, so it was decided that the restrictions would continue afterwards. Of course, limiting people to be able to drive their cars only 1/2 of the time would have been very inconvenient, so instead the rule is that each plate has one day a week when it cannot be driven. Unfortunately, this does not really have that much of an impact on the pollution (or the traffic), and there are stories of people buying second cars to get around this. So chalk that up as a failure.

There were also a lot of campaigns in the pre-Olympic period to stamp out or reduce spitting, improve queuing etiquette, and reduce smoking in public places. Although J2 disagrees with me on this, I don't see any reduction in spitting, and as far as queuing and smoking are concerned, those programs seem to have been completely forgotten.

Also, what about those massive and impressive buildings that were the highlight of the Olympics, the Bird's Nest, Water Cube and the rest of the Olympic Green? Well, the Bird's Nest is hardly used for anything other than as a tourist attraction (RMB 50 for a ticket to see the inside), and the Water Cube has been turned into a shopping center and public swimming pool (at least that last part makes sense). The Olympic Green is popular with Chinese tourists, but otherwise it's got no reason for being any longer, and the Government's fear of groups gathering means that they won't set it up as some sort of venue for activities like they might do in London or somewhere else.

And finally, there were hopes that the Olympics taking place on Chinese soil would encourage more Chinese to get into sports and become more fitness oriented. It was in this spirit that Alpha and we opened up our little fitness studio, but nothing we've seen leads us to conclude that attitudes toward sports have changed, or that more Chinese are becoming concerned with their fitness. What sporting facilities there are for the public to use are generally derelict with no one but old people using the "gymnastics" equipment that have been installed (even since before the Olympics were awarded to Beijing) around the city.

So, I think it's safe to say that the Olympics came and went without leaving much of an impression, other than making the Chinese proud of being the hosts for such a major event.