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.
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.