Dim Sum — with special guest star!

For those who don’t know, the University Services Center at CUHK is an amazing, globally unique collection of materials on 20th century China, much of which dates from a time that Hong Kong served as a sort of listening station for the mainland.

So it’s a sort of Mecca for China scholars, and a pretty common occurrence to see colleagues whether you wanted to or not. In this case, I really wanted to, because that colleague was Tia Thornton, who I first met many years ago at a workshop in Canberra, and who happens to be a truly lovely person, and somewhat more incidentally, also a very smart one.

Here’s us enjoying a nice evening of dim sum in Taipo market, which those of you who really read the hell out of this blog (anyone?), may remember as my old hangout during my semester at CUHK.

North beef-south beef – carnivorizing about in Shenzhen

When I was first learning Chinese in Taiwan, I remember being told that one of the teachers (who I didn’t know) had become gravely ill because of “wind.” This of course put my imagination on edge – was it pollution? extreme flatulence? They couldn’t explain, and I couldn’t ask.

I discovered the answer some years later, when I went to teach English at a school of Chinese medicine in Shandong. “Wind” in fact has many specific meanings in Chinese medicine, as do other ideas like “lethargy” or “heat.”

People often talk about “rising heat” (上火), which is not so much an affliction as a condition, specifically one of imbalance, often (but not always) caused by eating too many “hot” foods. These would include meat, especially sheep, but also some fruits like lychees. Rising heat will give you pimples, sore throat and shortness of breath, and the way to get rid of it is dissipate the heat. Some foods like ginger are very good for this, which is why ginger tea is so good for an oncoming cold.

My reason for bringing all this up is that like all food, Chinese people think about meat in a specific nutritional context. Beef (we knew we would get there eventually!) is a warming food. That’s why it is good for the elderly or ill. It’s also why it is often paired with ginger, not just for the taste, but to balance out the excess.

I knew that Cantonese food included a lot beef, but I have been surprised at how common, and how good the beef is in Shenzhen. Of course, I shouldn’t be surprised, since this whole area has a long history of trading beef cows.

The taste is clearly different than the beef I had in Hulunbuir, though I can’t really explain how, especially since it is cooked so differently. Yesterday I had hot pot, which is of course the most common way to eat beef or lamb, but what was interesting was the way the meat itself was prepared. In most places, you get meat that’s been frozen and thinly sliced, which produces a kind of melting effect. Here, it’s all fresh meat that is hanging up in the front entrance, you point to the piece you like and they prepare it for you. It’s still very thin, and very soft, but has a much meatier quality.

Today I went looking for lunch, and saw this giant boiling bowl of beef bones, and inside saw a big crowd all eating rice noodle soup.

I wasn’t passing that up, and as soon as I walked in, they asked “20, 25 or 30?” Having no idea, I said 30, which worked out well, because 30 (yes, they did mean price) meant that I got soup with three items: sliced raw beef, braised intestines and beef balls. You often see this combination in pho restaurants, but the taste was different, among much else, the soup clearly had cinnamon and ginger.

And you know what it did not have? MSG! Boy did that made for a much nicer afternoon.

Shenzhen – double skin milk

Its been a couple of weeks and a few thousand kilometers since Bayannuur.

After that, I went on an epic train journey through Hohhot, Chifeng, Tongliao and Qiqihar – arriving three days and some visible beard growth later back in Hailar.

Hailar was basically the three r-s, resting, riting, and running so apart from the fact that I had fun doing all three, there isn’t much to report. After a couple of weeks, I finally got back on a plane and headed to Shenzhen, crossed into HK and ended up at the Hyatt, which was inexplicably not only the cheapest option, but also the one that upgraded me to a suite.

IMG_6487I subsequently moved to a cheaper option, but eventually thought since I can’t use the CUHK library on weekends, that I should get out of HK and go back over the border to Shenzhen, a place that I have repeatedly been through, but never spent any time in.

So I did, and apart from much nicer hotels (not you Hyatt, I will always love you), Shenzhen is – interesting!  I aways had the bias that Shenzhen is not worth seeing because it’s a new city, which it was when it was founded over 30 years ago. For those of you counting at home, that’s a long time, and Shenzhen is now an interesting, and pretty fun place.

Since Shenzhen is full of migrants, it has food and culture from all over China, and especially from all over Guangdong. One dish that immediately caught my attention was something called “Shunde double skin milk.” (顺德双皮奶)

This is for two reasons, first milk – duh – and second because Shunde is a place that I associate with a specialty water buffalo cheese (酪). I saw a place selling this as I walked from the train station to my hotel, and a few hours later traced my steps back.  Here’s what I found.

IMG_6505Basically it’s a steamed milk custard. I asked why it was “double” skin and nobody seemed to know. What they did know is that I should also order this:

IMG_6510That’s right kids, it’s fried milk, that same stuff you see in every American Chinese restaurant. I had always assumed that fried milk was up there with fortune cookies in its sheer fakeness. Whenever I saw it on a menu, I felt it my responsibility to roll my eyes and heave an audible sigh.

Well, it turns out I wasn’t dead, I was just in Kansas. And also fried milk is delicious. More specifically, it is delicious once. It’s pretty heavy stuff.

Double skin milk, on the other hand, yeah, I definitely wanted that again, so I went to another place that looked and was older – they have been making this same dish for twenty years. Even better than yesterday. This one was made with actual water buffalo milk, which they get delivered every morning. The taste was richer, and the skin on top was a layer of butterfat.

IMG_6515IMG_6517IMG_6519IMG_6546

 

Seriously, Bayannuur, what the hell? (also, sheep)

Here’s a trick for you. The next time you find yourself in the mountains, or specifically find yourself leaving the mountains, make sure to bring a loaf of bread. Pack it nicely so it doesn’t get smooshed in your luggage, and then open it up at sea level.

I did this recently when I left Lanzhou. Packed a nice loaf of fluffy bread at about 2000 meters, then got on an overnight train to Linhe 临河 at significantly fewer meters, and ended up with what was essentially naan. Hilarious!

Why Linhe? Because my fine friend invited me to visit his sheep farm in Wuyuan 五原, about 80 km from here. And he wasn’t kidding – this was in fact the largest sheep production facility in China (I know these details because I have spent the past few evenings translating some of their corporate literature into English), and I have to say, was a pretty amazing operation. Among other things, it was huge – that one farm has about a hundred thousand sheep, which by any standards is quite simply one hell of a lot of sheep.

GetMap.ashx

The fun part was that the management and most of the workers all came from Liaocheng, waaaaaay over in Shandong, and quite near Ji’nan where I spent two years right out of college. They wore that accent as a point of pride.

Anyhoo, back to Bayannuur. This is the name of the region around Linhe, all of which most people would consider to be the train equivalent of “flyover country.” (go-through-real-fast country?) It’s certainly not a place that calls for you to get off the train, especially when said train arrives to the station at 5:00 am.

IMG_5434

Pictured: Too early for this sh-t

That’s a real shame, because Bayannuur is charming. For one thing, the KFC let me hang out for about three hours while I waited to check into my hotel. Gotta be grateful for that. For another, the places just across from the KFC served some of the best noodles I have ever had. I also stopped and had a sheep milk yoghurt, then a cow milk yoghurt, then a latte, which were lovely, but did add some urgency to the hotel check in.

But the real prize was the park.

I love Chinese parks, especially in small towns like this one. They are nice spaces where everyone comes out to have fun.

They also have nice exercise equipment, which is good when you are traveling. I am very partial to the monkey bars.

Sometimes these parks feature some real feats of athleticism. One of my friends in Hailar was a regular at the riverside park. We started talking when I saw him doing some serious routines on the pull up bar. He was not trained– just saw the routines on the Internet and just decided to learn them. Seriously.

Every park has a few of these superhumans, but Bayyan nuur seems to populated entirely by them. Seriously, one small park in one small town features a badass brigade practicing chain whip style martial arts, these hackeysackers, that would shame 1995’s best:

IMG_5704

I bet you guys don’t even like Jamiroquai

And the cruelest blow of all – get the action on my beloved monkey bars:

Everyone – old, young, very small children, men and women – everyone had a monkey bar routine. It was like one of those dance lines on Soul Train – everyone stands on two sides and you do your thing through the middle.

IMG_5694

Plus, the cutest little traffic jam, ever

And the best part is that it was all so nice and friendly. When I finally got my turn and did my monkey swings, people clapped and called me “mini Vin Diesel.” Interestingly enough, it’s actually not even the first time I have been called that exact same thing, but I will say that it might be favorite.

Wait, wait, oh yes, sheep.

Well as charming as they were, the sheep were also delicious. I mean seriously delicious. Back at the ranch (literally) in Wuyuan, we had the usual dish of 涮羊肉, which is thinly sliced lamb that you dunk in a pot of boiling soup. It’s a universal winter dish and is often served with a spicy Sichuan-style hot pot broth, and a separate dish of sesame paste with chive flowers or garlic.

At our first lunch, I was given the usual deep red broth, but everyone else was using plain water with a couple of dates floating in it. The reason was obvious – the meat was so good that spices took away from the taste. I asked for the same, and saw my social standing immediately rise from “rank amateur” to “has potential.”

Wow, were they ever right. This meat was amazingly delicious with nothing but salt and a tiny bit of sesame paste. Anything else might as well have been a burnt steak with ketchup.

Lanzhou night market – sweet egg milk

Hello from Lanzhou!

This is the big industrial city of the Northwest, once known for its horrific pollution. Now that the pollution is mostly cleaned up, I’m not sure what it’s known for, but my guess would be noodles. Every city has at least one Lanzhou beef noodles shop.

Since I am pretty tired of noodles, and had a good day of writing, I saw fit to reward myself with a trip to the Lanzhou Zhengning night market.

To be honest, I wasn’t expecting much. Every city has a night market of some sort, and they tend to be filled with the same stuff, much of it awful. The Northwest in general is not what I would call sophisticated in its food traditions, lots of meat and bread. Its filling, but it ain’t Chengdu.

I was so very wrong.

The first thing you notice about the market is that it is very orderly. Nobody screaming through on a motorcycle, no blasting techno music forcing you to speed walk through, and a large, but remarkably polite crowd of patrons.

The second thing is that the food is diverse, fresh and good. Since I showed up very hungry, I almost made the rookie mistake of grabbing the first thing I saw. That would not have been terrible, as that was a fried mixture of green chilis and diced lamb (the market is about 80% Muslim) that is served on a dense bread that is sliced in half.

Ok, I lied. I did have one. It was delicious. I regret nothing.

After that, however, I decided to be more discerning, and take a walk up and down the whole street before proceeding. This is what I saw.

Good grief, just look at that lamb! It is sliced and skewered after you order! And that pot with the red on top – that’s a good six cups of dried chilis. The ice cream isn’t ice cream – its mashed potatoes. It didn’t really work, but you have to admire the ingenuity.

Any one of these stalls would warrant a star spot in a recipe blog, but the star of the show was a drink called 脑枣鸡蛋牛奶, which translates roughly to egg milk with dates. I was told about this drink, and in about one stall where people wait in huge lines. Although there were about ten stalls serving the same drink, this particular stall was not hard to find.

So being a follower by nature, I got in line and had about 15 minutes to chat with the people in front and behind, and eventually to watch the man making them. This is a Xinjiang dish that is made by boiling milk in a shallow pan, adding a scrambled egg and stirring vigorously. Since the milk is on a fast boil, the egg immediately cooks into little slivers. From there, add raisins (the green and slightly tart ones that come from Xinjiang are best), crushed peanuts, and black and white sesame seeds. The name seems to suggest that it should have Chinese red dates (though I have never heard them called 脑枣 before), but nobody I saw was adding them.

And that’s it. There were plenty of other people making the same drink, but for some reason (nobody seemed to know what it was), everyone waited in line that was extra slow because he only cooked one small pan at a time.

I’d say the wait was worth it. Only very slightly sweet, and nicely balanced with the nuttiness of the raisins and dates. The egg gives it richness. This would be lovely on a winter morning, but even on a scorching hot afternoon, it wasn’t bad.

Qinghai – and the best yoghurt in China

Someone call Professor Oak, because I’ve officially caught them all.

I had already traveled through most of China in the late 1990s, but Qinghai was the last one – 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 of waiting 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 somehow sadder. By about 10 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). Moreover, I got to commune with this baby yak.

IMG_4722

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 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 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.

Yes, yes, but what about the food?

Honestly, I can’t say that it was memorable. We had some nice lamb sticks at what we were told was the best place in the city (the long line confirmed that we were told correctly), but you can get these anywhere, and honestly, I think the guy on the campus at Hulunbeier University does a better job. There was one place that did very nice beef noodles – the official dish of the entire Northwest – including a mixed noodles (拌面) that was unusually good.

But no, my favorite part was – get ready – the yoghurt. Xining had something you really don’t see much anymore, private farmers who come and sell milk and yoghurt on a street corner. Since I am here to learn about milk, I visited ten or so different ones on different corners and asked the usual questions about their cows, where they sell, and so forth. And in such a case you really have to buy something – it’s just good manners – so I ended up doing something like a daily pub crawl, but with yoghurt. Absolutely no hardship involved – the stuff was delicious. I think the altitude might concentrate the fat content, or maybe they just used better cultures, but really – yum.

 

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.

IMG_3456

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.

 

dav

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.

IMG_3643.JPG

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.

IMG_3702

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.