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!

abai 阿拜

Hello from Taitung!

This is the one part of Taiwan that I had never visited, so we headed straight here the day after arriving in Taibei.

It’s definitely a small town atmosphere, but not just that – the indigenous culture is so evident that it really feels like a different country.

Part of that is the food, which predictably enough has lots of seafood, but also some things like abai that are really unique. From the outside, abai look like the zongzi rice dumplings that you would see anywhere in China, but unwrap the bamboo leaves, and you see another layer of perilla leaves. These are meant to stay on (as I learned when I tried to artfully remove them), and they have a slightly spicy taste. Inside that is the real surprise – it’s not rice but millet.

I love millet. It’s mankind’s original field grain, and I spent two years in Shandong starting every day with a big bowl of millet zhou. Sometimes with little pieces of torn up mantou – or even better, pieces of fried mantou. Oh crimeny, that’s good.

The abai takes this one step further, the steamed millet is stuffed with spices and stewed pork. This is genuine genius. Millet is delicious, but it can be a little pasty, that’s why it’s better for zhou, than for a steamed cake. The fatty pork and the spiciness of the leaves really take care of this.

Yellow Earth

From 15-18 September, the CUHK History and Anthropology AOE and Shaanxi Normal University arranged a field seminar in and around Xi’an.

The itinerary was arranged by Micah Muscolino at Oxford, and took us to about 8 villages in Baishui 白水县 and Chengcheng 澄城县 Counties, along with a large scale water reclamation project, and two gorgeous temples.

 

Most of what we were doing was to see the long history of terracing, which is a way of keeping the water in the soil, and keeping the soil in one spot. This is especially important in the “Yellow Earth” region of central China, where the soil is notoriously soft and wispy. Besides the terraces, the most notable feature of the landscape is deep gullies, which are created from water erosion. Even with plant cover, the ground just doesn’t want to stay still.

On the other hand, because the soil is so soft, it is really easy to work. People compress it into walls between fields to stop the wind, and famously dig houses (窑洞) into the hillsides. Mao and the Yan’an communists lived in these during the 1930s and 40s, and people think of it as a hardship. Surely it was, but the houses themselves are very comfortable – since the walls are two meters thick, the cave houses stay cool in summer and warm in winter.

Lyme disease

Here is a picture of our awesome outing to the springs and oboo in Weinahe. Looks nice  doesn’t it?

 

Other than the fact that we finally have some good photos for our album of 90s college rock, do you by chance notice anything about these pictures? Anything that perhaps separates one of us from the others?  That’s right, one of us is wearing shorts and a t-shirt. Compare me to Marlboro Man Jan Kiely, who did take seriously the repeated and explicit advice to cover up.

And of course, as soon as we got back to the hotel, people started talking about ticks. I found three, including one that had already made its way to real estate that I can’t mention in a family blog. And yes, his head was already detached and lodged in my skin. Think about that for a moment. I sure have.

By the time I got to Harbin a few days later, I was already feeling achy, but figured that was just the stress of travel. By the time I got to Kyoto a few days after that, I was feeling achy, sweaty and dopey, plus the big one – rashy. So I went and got a blood test. Yep, it was blood alright, and moreover blood that swimming with critters that they said was maybe Lyme disease, or maybe something similar, but in any case something that they felt comfortable carpet bombing with antibiotics.

Unfortunately, the antibiotics (no doubt combined with with the stress of months of travel, and the Lyme disease itself) completely knocked me out — literally — I ended up passing out and waking up in a hospital– not once, but twice. That’s a record.

Lesson to be learned? Don’t get Lyme disease. That is also the lesson I learned with dengue, scarlet fever, salmonella and probably some others. I think the real lesson may be just stay the hell home, but “home” being Canberra (for the moment), I probably won’t be taking it much to heart.