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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

打印 - 地图

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.


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.


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


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


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).


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.


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.

IMG_2876 2.JPG

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.


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


What’s behind the rapprochement between China and the Vatican?

Originally posted in East Asia Forum
23 February 2017
The authority to appoint bishops has been a key point of contention in the restoration of relations between China and the Vatican. Since formally severing relations in 1951, China has refused torecognise any papal authority over the Chinese Church, particularly in appointing episcopal leadership.
For its part, the Roman Church does not recognise the legitimacy of the seven bishops that have been named by the official Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CCPA) in defiance of papalauthority. As a result, Chinese Catholics are led by two separate sets of bishops, one recognised by Beijing, and the other by Rome.
Earlier this month, Cardinal John Tong Hon of the Diocese of Hong Kong announced that the Vaticanand the Chinese government had come to an initial consensus on the appointment of bishops for the Catholic Church in China. Culminating one year of intense negotiations by a working group, thisannouncement marked a milestone of progress in the long, and at times highly acrimonious, relationship between Beijing and the Holy See.
The draft agreement [1] charts a path to the resolution of these problems. While the Chinese sideremains loathe to allow any foreign intrusion into the authority of the state-led CCPA, it seemsprepared to recognise the ultimate authority of the pontiff to confirm or reject bishops that havebeen chosen by the Church in China, as well as a willingness to politically recognise the more than thirty underground bishops that have previously been appointed by Rome.
For its part, the Vatican would accept the apologies of the CCPA-appointed bishops and allow theChinese government to conduct and act upon its own investigation of the three Chinese bishopswhom the Church has accused of “moral misconduct.”
The question is: why is this long-delayed rapprochement coming now?
On the part of the Vatican, the change is clearly generational, and reflects the personal priorities of Pope Francis. Although policy since the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s has subjected Catholicsto the laws and customs of secular authorities, decades of mistrust, dating back to the open persecution of the Chinese Church during the 1950s, have left China a rare outlier.
Papal diplomacy under Pope Francis has affirmed the need for accommodation with political authorities. In addition to China, Francis has initiated dialogue with old enemies, such as the Castro regime in Cuba, and sparked controversy by publicised meetings with Catholic social justice activistsin such places as South Korea.
Dissenting voices within the Church have rejected any suggestion of ceding papal authority to the CCPA. Cardinal Joseph Zen, former bishop of Hong Kong and the highest ranking cleric in China, has been particularly outspoken [2] in his criticism of the planned reconciliation, suggesting [3] Guardian that the pope is “a little naive” and “doesn’t have the background to know the Communists in China.” Zen has elsewhere charged that the rapprochement would create a “false freedom” for Chinese Catholics, and proposing that under such circumstances, the faithful might simply pray at home. 
China has much to gain from improved relations with the Vatican. In addition to improving its image with the United States and neighbours such as the largely Catholic Philippines, rapprochement withRome has the potential to woo the Vatican away from its close relationship with Taiwan [4] (including influential Catholics such as vice president Chen Chien-jen). 
But the real benefit for China is domestic. China has struggled to find a solution to the religious resurgence that has been growing since the 1990s. The quiet downgrading of the campaign against Falun Gong [5] suggests that authorities understand the limits and cost of criminalising religion.Recently promulgated revisions [6] of the 2005 Religious Affairs Regulations confirm continuation of the policy that accommodates the socially progressive elements of religion.
Most importantly, the policy of rapprochement with the Vatican removes the risk of China’s 12 million Catholics being siphoned off into an underground Church. Given the continued attempts to suppress underground Protestant churches [7], the benefits of having the Vatican as an ally in a legal Catholic Church are obvious. 
Rome clearly recognises what is at stake for China, and for the Chinese Church. Its own pronouncements on the issue highlight the principled subservience of the Church to secular authority and emphasise that China’s Catholics, including the unrecognised bishops, are law-abiding citizens. In what is perhaps a premonition of the new spirit of cooperation, the Vatican publicly denounced 
[8] a priest in Hebei who had named himself bishop in the underground Church, and claimed theauthority to elevate others within what would essentially be a splinter church.
While there is no way of predicting how the agreement will play out, official channels within bothChina and the Vatican have been publicly sanguine about the future, and agree that the task movingforward is to build trust, and that this will be a long-term process.
URLs in this post:
[1] draft agreement:
[2] has been particularly outspoken:
[3] suggesting:
[4] close relationship with Taiwan:
[5] campaign against Falun Gong:
[6] Recently promulgated revisions:
[7] attempts to suppress underground Protestant churches:
[8] Vatican publicly denounced:

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.