Qinghai!

Call Professor Oak, I’ve caught them all.

I had already traveled through most of China in the late 1990s, but Qinghai is the one place I had never been.

I finally made the trip last week, and just to celebrate the occasion, the gods of travel decided to make it plenty hard to get here. I took an early morning flight from Hailar to Beijing, and then after seven hours was told that all flights were grounded due to bad weather. That’s bad enough, but what followed was chaos as hundreds of pissed off and exhausted passengers tried to get refunds or rerouted. There were tears, there were fist fights, and there was precious little order, but by 11:00 or so, I was on a bus to a hotel where I could at least get a snack and sleep for four hours before my 6:30 flight to Xining.

Xining itself is another world. There are very large Tibetan and Muslim populations that give the city a very different flavor. The first thing I did on my 4k walk from the airport bus to the conference hotel was to have a homemade yak yogurt, which was delicious. The second thing I did was realize that a 4k walk with a backpack feels very different at 2,200 meters.

So just like last time, I gave my paper (on milk – see, this blog has total internal continuity!) and just like last time, everyone was very generous. The students were especially sweet. On the day I arrived, while I was wandering around for hours eating yak yoghurt and wondering why I was so winded by a gentle incline, two of them were waiting for me in the hotel lobby. They cheerfully accepted my panicked apologies, and then we went for a nice lunch.

After the conference, Renmin University Professor Zhang Jijia and two of his students invited me to join them on an overnight excursion to Qinghai Lake. Well, I wasn’t saying no to that.

We drove up to Kumbum Monastery (塔尔寺), about 45 minutes out of the city, and from there straight up into the mountains — and mind you, we started at 2,200 meters. The top was this pass at 3,800 meters, which is a big difference to absorb in a few hours.

I felt fine when we got to the lake, but another group that met us at dinner informed they were experiencing a 50% puke rate.

Undeterred, we pressed on, driving through stunning country, that changed from steep, green hills covered in livestock, to semi-arid scrub that was also covered in livestock, albeit ones that looked somewhat sadder. By about 9 that evening, we reached our lodgings and went to sleep, but not before setting our alarms for 5 am to see the sunrise.

Of course, I was the only one who did get up, and yes the sun did rise (you’re welcome, everyone), and moreover, I got to commune with this baby yak.

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Just look at that guy

Unfortunately, things went downhill from there. As we drove around the lake, I started feeling off, and after driving two hours through semi-desert to reach the Chaka salt lake, it was getting bad. The lake itself is stunningly beautiful, stark white under a blazing sun. Walking around with hundreds of people covered up in wraps and wading around in the water, I felt like I had somehow been transported to the Ganges. I ate lunch, which immediately returned with a vengeance.

But this was all a prelude. The trip down was hell. The headache started and got worse as we descended, and by the time I reached Xining, I wanted to cry. I waved a quick goodbye to the group and went to my hotel, where I went straight to bed–salt, sweat and all.

So what have I learned from this trip?

Surprisingly, quite a lot about yaks, which is knowledge that I hope someday to put to good use. I also learned that gas contents of any closed container expand at altitude. Closed backpack becomes a balloon. Tube of toothpaste – balloon. Human intestines – oh you’d better believe it.

Milk of Mongolia

Did you know that I am very interested in milk?

Most people who have spent more than two minutes with me tend to become aware of that, at which point they decide that two minutes was already more than enough, thank you.

I am still in Hulunbuir, having had a very eventful couple of weeks, starting with a big academic conference on what is called 民族心理学, or “ethnic psychology.” It’s somewhere between ethnic studies and development studies, and this was quite a big event.

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Now that’s how you start a conference!

So I gave my presentation, and that was fun enough, but that was just the beginning. The next day, we all hit the road in a caravan of 16 SUVs for a two day trip through and across the grassland, arriving the next evening in a place called Shiwei, waaaaaaay up on the Russian border. There we were treated to some fun and dancing with some elderly Russian women who have clearly handled tour groups before, plus a very well organized bonfire. The next day we all packed up and came home, arriving back in Hailar in the early evening.

 

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I’m also known for the Flintstone flop

Now what was amazing about this trip (beyond the fact that I was invited) was just how big Hulunbuir is. I have done the east-west trip many times, but this was my first time to go far north – and I mean far. Just the grassland is as big as South Korea. And it is an incredibly gorgeous landscape.

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told ya

Beyond that, it is incredibly rich in pastoral resources. Much of my current work involves the history of how these resources got to market.

One of the stories is how the cows become beef. I have done a round of trips to small, local slaughterhouses, and while they are not what I would call happy places, they were not nearly as horrific as I initially feared. Among much else, I did learn that they really do not like to be photographed. No sir, not one bit.

Milk is another story, and a rather more pleasant one. I have been visiting dairies, interviewing old workers and managers, and over the last few days – reading 60 years of newspapers about milk.

And what have I discovered? First, I have discovered that milk was incredibly important, especially in the 1950s. Much of China’s development was Soviet modeled, and the Soviets were crazy about the stuff. I’m giving a paper on this very topic next week in Xining 西宁.

The other thing I have learned? The dairy products here are just delicious. I have been drinking milk and yoghurt like I’m in post-apocalyptic Britain, and am still not tired of it.

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One step closer to my childhood dream of eating ice cream professionally

There’s one dairy in particular called 青溪绿源 that’s way better than most, and nicely enough their one retail store just around the corner from me. We started talking about markets and production, and these guys know that they can never compete with the mega-producers like Mengniu and Ili. Instead, they focus on high quality organic milk that is only sold locally.

And also, they make an extremely nice cafe latte, which given my memory of the old Nestle powdered coffee days, is something I never thought I would live to see.

 

Back in Hulunbuir – dry fried beef 干煸牛肉丝

Well, I’m an idiot.

My original plan was to take the slow and winding train trip from Shenzhen to Hailar. This was actually two trips, about 28 hours from Shenzhen to Zhangjiakou, and then another 33 hours from Zhangjiakou to Hailar. I did the first trip, and met lots of fun people, including the manager of one of the largest sheep farms in China. I’m visiting him in a few weeks, so stay tuned, kids!

After two days in Zhangjiakou, I was ready to get back on the train for part II of my mystical journey, and realized too late that my train had left at 2 AM, not 2 PM. Since I had to be in Hailar relatively soon, had to scramble to get a train to Beijing, and then a plane ticket. And I still got in a full day before my train.

Well in any case, I am back in Hailar, and ready to get to work. The past few visits have really just been laying a foundation – meeting people, and getting a sense of what was important.

One thing that I did and still do is just wander around stores and markets. You can see a lot this way, about preferences, local culture and where things come from. In Zhangjiakou, I talked to a woman from a small dairy that is trying to wedge their way into a market that is overwhelmingly dominated by two mega-producers, Mengniu and Ili. Lo and behold, you couldn’t find their yoghurt on store shelves, even in that city.

It’s hard to describe just how crazy people here have become for dairy in just a few years. Every store fronts displays of milk, milk candy and especially yoghurt, a lot of which comes packaged in gorgeous gift boxes. What’s interesting is that most of this milk comes from very far away–even here in Hailar, which used to be a center of dairy production, a lot of the yoghurt sold is produced hundreds of miles away in Hebei.

Something similar was true for beef. In Zhangjiakou one display of beef was was shipped in frozen from Anhui. Another consisted of dodgy looking precooked frozen steaks imported from Australia. Local beef was on sale, but looked more like what you would get in an outdoor market, hunks of meat lying there unwrapped. When I got to Hailar, I did the same tour of markets and to my relief, there was no Anhui beef, all local stuff.

Just sorting out this spaghetti bowl of supply chains is going to be a challenge, but in the end, I think it will tell us something quite important.

After all this looking at food, I went to visit my friends at a nearby restaurant, and had a dish called dry fried beef 干煸牛肉丝.

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This is a variation of the well known Sichuan dish 干煸四季豆, and is made roughly the same way. You cut beef into very thin strips and basically deep fry it in oil until it dries out. There is no preparation of the beef, no starch or salt, but the cutting is very important because a thick piece would be essentially leather. Set the fried beef aside and fry strips of dried red chilis, Sichuan peppercorn until fragrant. When I say fry, I of course mean in a wok in about 1-2 cm of oil — it just won’t work any other way. Add sliced celery, ginger and onions and fry until just soft. (Chinese long onions are the best here, but sliced white onions would work as well, as would the white part of spring onions.) Return the cooked beef to the hot pan, add salt (not soy sauce, though I could imagine that a small amount at the end couldn’t hurt) and sesame seeds, cook just enough to mix the ingredients together and serve. All this has to be done over high heat, stirring constantly.

The result was an incredibly concentrated beef taste, offset beautifully by the fragrance of the chilis and ginger. The onions and the celery are less necessary, but add variety to the dish that would otherwise be a little too heavy.

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Zhangjiakou – terminus of the Mongol trade

For years I have wanted to visit Zhangjiakou.

Sure everyone says they want to go there, but how many people actually do? Wait – what I meant was that nobody says they want to go there. In fact, why don’t you just go ahead and enjoy that first sentence again, since I’m fairly sure that nobody has ever experessed that sentiment before.

Zhangjiakou is a city in the north of Hebei province, way up in the mountains. Back in the 1940s, three intrepid scholars spent months walking the hills of this and a neighboring county, poking into every village, and recording every religious artifact, all while the Chinese civil war raged around them. Their research is what started my interest in Chinese local religion. One of the three was the great Li Shiyu, who many decades later advised my dissertation research in Tianjin.

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Now imagine it without the roads or bridges

Zhangjiakou was also an important point on the caravan trade with the grassland. It’s right on the Great Wall, and some older maps will call it Kalgan, from the word meaning “gate.”

So this is where the frontier started, making it hugely important as a center of commerce. All of the trade firms were represented, not just Chinese but also American, British, Japanese and Russian.

I came up here as part of my research on animal trade. I was hoping just to get a feel for the city, and was amazed to discover these Qing-era buildings still intact. Not just the trade buildings, but the whole walled city center, which is now a neighborhood called Baozili 堡子里.

Chinese cities were traditionally built walled, which restricted their size. A map of walled city would typically look like this.

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Inside the beltway

That’s not everything, just everything that mattered: official buildings, temples and academies. Most ordinary people lived outside the walls.

I have seen this sort of map a hundred times, but never actually seen an old city. Most city walls were destroyed in the 1940s and 50s, and most remaining buildings were lost to development decades ago. You might see a temple or two, but not the actual street grid.

Except here. For whatever reason, most of the old buildings were left standing, and a even a bit of the wall remains where the Jade Emperor Temple sits on top of it. You can easily see the square shape of the old city on a modern map.

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Walking around the old city, you can really appreciate just how close everything was. All of the power players were within a few minutes walk of each other.

Another surprise was that most of these buildings had Maoist-era slogans still visible. In most other places, these slogans would have been assiduously scrubbed off or painted over. But here they were faded but completely legible. So basically, it’s a museum of the 1860s and the 1960s.

Is it worth a trip on its own, maybe not, but definitely worth seeing if you are in the area.

Cows in Hong Kong (no brisket)

And… now I am in Hong Kong!

If there are two more different places on this planet than Bozeman, Montana and Hong Kong, I have yet to see them. Strangely, one thing that the two places share in common is cows.

Let me explain.

The way we see the world is situational. If you are hungry, you see restaurants. If you are on a long road trip, you see coffee. Back in the day, when travel in China was quite different, I would instinctively scan the horizon for bathrooms. That was my geography – how far do I need to travel from any given spot to get to a bathroom. Ah, memories.

Anyways, now that I am working on this new research project, I see cows. This was rather straightforward in Bozeman, where one sees them everywhere in a variety of forms: living cows, cow statues, barbecue joints, the whole deal. You kind of expect it.

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Above: It’s not just hiking directions; it’s a way of life.

Here’s the thing, the same is true in Hong Kong, if you are seeing the world through bovine eyes.

Yesterday, I went to my favorite place in Taipo Market 大埔墟 to Taipo to have my favorite Chaozhou steamed brisket, and hopefully to geta bit of information about why beef would be a local specialty of that area. As it turns out, the place was packed, and nobody had time to chit chat. So ignoring the universal rule that if a restaurant is empty, there’s probably a reason, I went to the place across the street, and was predictably disappointed.

To cheer myself up, I went for a little walk around, and saw cows everywhere. Stores that specialized in selling beef. I learned that Korean beef is now the big thing, but nobody could explain why. (I blame K-Pop)  I saw plenty of beef specialty restaurants, like this one here for beef stewed in a clear soup.

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Not pictured: fifty other people who had the same idea.

 

I even a notice to look out for feral cattle in Sai kung.

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Also, don’t hug them. This does need to be said.

Eventually, I ended up a pop up display in the Taipo Mall from none other than Dairy Farm. Now, Dairy Farm was originally a British milk concern, though it is now owned partially by Nestle. As a historian, I am academically very interested in Dairy Farm, and had planned to go up to Pok Fu Lam near Hong Kong University to see the newly restored original site of the dairy.

Instead I found myself here, with about two dozen little kids who were lined up to milk this giant plastic Holstein. (Yes, they did have little rubber udders on the thing, and a bucket, but more than that I didn’t want to know).

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Look away, Bessie. Look away…

Now, all this is fascinating from the larger perspective of my research, which takes a very broad view of animals in our world. So far, I have been focusing on tangible elements like production chains, but eventually I want to spend as much time on cows as companions, who share our human space as friends, food, or dead eyed statues in a Hong Kong mall.

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This wouldn’t happen in Sai Kung

So I didn’t get my brisket, but I did get an ice cream, plus some face time with Bessie.

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Montana! (smoked beef brisket)

Neat title, huh?

Maybe I’ll do this from now on – instead of separate travel and food entries, I’ll just write about where I am and what I am cooking/eating.

Where I am now is Bozeman, Montana, where my sister and her family live. Jen and Garrett both work at Montana State University (science!), and I came by to help out while Jen recovers from surgery. I have been here for about a month, driving and personal cheff-ing for them and the three kids, Xavier 9, Dominic 6, and Mimi 4.

Above: Mimi discovers the joy of creating art on a spherical canvas

It’s been profoundly educational. Among much else, I am reminded how important it is to have health and family. I have also learned from Dominic and Mimi that there is a significant difference between different types of macaroni and cheese, and you’d damn well better know the difference.

Montana is glorious. We are on the doorstep of Yellowstone, and the scenery in the Gallatin Valley is stunning. Snowcaps on all sides of the horizon, trails to everywhere you want to go. Bozeman clearly has a healthy respect for community, and funds gorgeous public amenities like a beautiful town library and the Museum of the Rockies.

Above: Xavier and Uncle Tommy make tasty ricotta!

Now if you are going to be cooking for a family, this is a great place to do it. This is not far from ranching country, and the produce is beautiful to behold. I was raised in the Midwest, and the myth that grain-fed beef is somehow superior to grass-fed. “It’s softer,” we would tell ourselves, “and just look at that marbling.”

I’ll be blunt, grain-fed beef is gross. It’s the only way to say it. One of my favorite party tricks (no, really!) is to put two pieces of the same cut side-by-sideand compare. Grain-fed is pink, with visibly more fat, while grass-fed is darker color, with smaller amount of fat that is more concentrated. Depending on what the animals have been eating, the fat in grass-fed  beef may be yellow, compared to the typical white.

Cooked exactly the same way, grain-fed beef is mushy and tasteless. Grass-fed has more bite, and has much more taste. This difference is somewhat counter instinctive, since fat is so important to taste profile. You can even taste the difference in ground meat. Grass-fed hamburger tastes different, and significantly better than grain-fed.

So cooking in Montana, where grass-fed beef is readily available, has been a treat. We have had bison and beef burgers (remember that 50% of us are under 10), but also a couple of briskets in the oven or bbq.

Yesterday, we smoked a grass-fed brisket. Brisket is a fatty cut, and usually comes with a big ol’ fat cap that bastes the meat as it cooks. That sword cuts both ways–it makes for a piece of meat that is tasty, but fairly sickening after a while. Often you end up throwing out big pieces of fat from brisket, either before or after it is cooked.

This piece looked nothing I have ever seen. There was no fat cap, and almost no visible fat between the layers. The color was darker. It looked more like venison than beef.

Naturally, I was concerned as to how a tougher meat would cook without all that fat, but in retrospect I shouldn’t have been. We did the usual tactic: gave the raw meat a spice rub and cool smoked it by putting the meat on one side of the grill and the fire (and wood chips) on the other. The temperature stayed under 200 degrees, so the meat didn’t cook.

From there, we finished in the oven at 250 degrees for a few hours. Still concerned about dryness, I overdid it with the moisture, and really loaded up the pan with raw onions. The idea was that the onions would cook down, and steam the brisket in the covered pan. That they did, but it worked too well: the onion taste was too overpowering. I would do the same tactic, but cut back on the amounts.

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The last thing was to let the meat rest–really rest–almost returning to room temperature, before cutting against the grain. This step is vital. Like many meats, brisket often looks good when it is first cut, but dries out immediately after. Letting the meat rest keeps the moisture in the meat, and in the case of other cuts, transforms the liquid collagen into a gorgeous gelatin.

Seriously, that picture above is the meat at room temperature, after everyone decided they were full. Too many onions or not, that’s a beautiful thing.

Leizhou festivals in town and country

I made these short videos a few years back, after Robert Antony kindly allowed me to tag along on one of his field trips to the Leizhou peninsula in the far south of Guangdong province. They show two sets of celebrations for Tianhou (the Empress of Heaven).

Village processions in the countryside

And in the Tianhou Temple in Leizhou City

Enjoy!