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.

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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 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.

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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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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.

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.