Food


Egg TartPortuguese egg tarrrrrrrts. Ha! OK, trust me, if you knew what Portuguese egg tarts were, you’d find that joke funny. Maybe.

About an hour away from Hong Kong by super-fast ferry, the former Portuguese colony of Macau actually was home to pirates until the early 20th century. So pirate jokes are particularly appropriate here.

As for egg tarts, they’re probably the best food I had in China. The tarts combine egg custard (like eggy crème-brûlée) with a pastry crust and a thin layer of browned sugar on top. The originals are found at Lord Stow’s Bakery on Coloane Island, although KFC also makes a surprisingly good version.

Coloane is a laid-back, relaxing place with waterfront views and a tiny village that still has a colonial feel. Other good restaurants on the island include Cafe Nga Tim and the wonderful Espaço Lisboa. My favorite main dish in Macau was African Chicken, which is baked with coconut, peppers, peanut butter, garlic and Chinese spices — flavors borrowed from several Portuguese colonies.

The atmosphere on the island contrasts sharply with that in the rest of Macau, where hotel and casino development has been exploding. For years, the casino scene in Macau was dominated by places like the Casino Lisboa, where crowds of people in smoky rooms play Chinese dice and prostitutes hang out nonchalantly in the hallways. But the monopoly was broken a few years ago, and now major Las Vegas companies are moving in. Just a couple days after we were in Macau, the largest casino in the world — a replica of the Vegas Venetian — opened on one of the islands. Vegas is betting (ha! another clever joke!) that China’s economic growth and love of gambling will make Macau a huge destination for Asian tourists.

But even if you go to Macau for the gambling, I recommend taking a break from the tacky buildings and heading to Coloane, at least for a meal.

One of my favorite things about traveling is sampling the street food in different countries. Fortunately for me, Beijing has plenty of delicious roadside snacks. To give you a taste of some of it, I went to the Donghuamen Night Market. It’s touristy, but it’s in a central location, is quite clean and has a lot of variety in one place.

Roasted or fried kabobs are always a good bet here, as are fried dumplings and vegetables wrapped in savory, thin pancakes. But the biggest draw is probably the fried scorpions and centipedes. These are mainly for the tourists, and I never saw another place in Beijing that had them. But, after all, most tourists in China are from China, so you can say Chinese people do eat this sort of thing, at least sometimes. I’m pretty squeamish about eating bugs, but I didn’t want to look like a total wuss, so I tried some with the camera rolling.

In case you’re concerned about the cleanliness of all of this, you should know that I haven’t gotten sick once since I’ve been in China. I just make sure not to eat chicken if it’s been sitting out raw, and I don’t drink the tap water. But food that is hot, fresh and cooked in front of me tends to be OK.

Time to make the youtiaos
Time to Make the Youtiao: At the stand across the street from my university campus, people line up early for the fried oil strips.

I’ve never been to a country that didn’t have fried dough. If you’re aware of one, let me know, and I’ll make sure to never go there. I’m convinced that fried dough — particularly the kind made at street stalls and festivals — is one of the most important characteristics of a culture, and I don’t know why I’d need to bother with a society that hasn’t even had time to develop this most basic item.

Fortunately, with thousands of years of civilization behind it, China has had ample time to perfect its fried dough, and it has come up with something called the youtiao. The literal meaning of “youtiao” — oil strip — doesn’t sound that appetizing. But I’ve never met a fried dough I didn’t like.

It took me a while to find youtiao, even though I knew they were there. Despite guidebooks and online testimonials claiming that this fried dough could be found “anywhere” in “the morning,” I couldn’t locate it. My morning classes run from 7:30 to 11:30 every day, so I would go out on the weekends at what I thought was breakfast time, about 9:30, looking for the dough. No luck — until I realized that people in Beijing have a definition of “morning” that is different from mine. Their breakfast-food stands open before 6 a.m., and by 8:30 or so they pull a Keyser Söze — like that, they’re gone.

I had my first youtiao before class one day, cooked in front of me by a man named Mr. Liu, who gets up every day before sunrise to set up the youtiao stand. As their name suggests, youtiao are long (like strips), which makes them ideal for dunking in warm breakfast cereals like oatmeal and congee. Like most other fried-dough items, youtiao are delicious, but they should be eaten right away, and there is a clear limit to how many you can eat at once before suddenly feeling disgusting. (My limit is two.) Their consistency is closer to that of a beignet or zeppola than that of a doughnut. And, in a new fried-dough development for me, they do not come with toppings or fillings of any sort.

No matter where I go, fried dough never lets me down. So if you know of any fried dough you think I should check out, please let me know, and I’ll add it to the Very Important List of Fried Dough I Must Try.

Menu listing Chicken Fried Steak, or fragrant crispy beef steak
In Chinese, it’s “fragrant crispy beef steak.”

Whenever I go abroad, I’m tempted to try the local version of Tex-Mex food. In big cities, there is almost always at least one restaurant claiming to serve the stuff. In Bangkok, for example, offerings ranged from the puzzling “Mexican noodles” to tortillas so awful that I couldn’t finish eating even one.

Every time I travel, I tell myself I’m not going to make the same mistake again, because it always leads to disappointment. And every time, I’m drawn to the one Mexican-food place in the guidebook. This time, I was able to hold out for five weeks.

One of the Chengdu restaurants recommended by my trusty Lonely Planet is called Peter’s Tex-Mex. Before I got on the plane, I thought, “That’s absurd. This isn’t even Beijing. There is no way I’m going to this place.” But the restaurant also found its way onto the list provided by my youth hostel. I kept telling myself it was a ridiculous idea, but I finally decided that, at best, I’d get a good meal, and even at worst, I’d have a funny story. So I bit the bullet.

The dining room was almost empty when I walked in, and that was a little scary. But I soldiered on, through the country-style décor and a bizarre mood music that consisted mostly of American children’s songs (I’m talking the ABC song and Itsy-Bitsy Spider, here). I took a look at the menu …

Hamburger. Chicken burger. Chips. Burrito. Quesadillas – that could be promising. Oh, guacamole. Look at that. Oh, and tortillas! Could they possibly be real? And then it hit me. The chicken-fried steak. With cream gravy. Now, I can’t even get a good chicken-fried steak in New York City. So could it be true? A real chicken-fried steak in China?

Chicken Fried SteakOh, yes. Yes it could. And I have photographic evidence.

I had a chicken-fried steak with mashed potatoes, green beans and broccoli. The breading on the steak was a little odd at first. It seemed kind of spiky, the way tempura is spiky. But it tasted fine, and upon softening a bit in the gravy, it was indistinguishable from regular chicken-fried-steak breading. I also had an order of tortillas, which were obviously homemade and tasted great. The waitress, who does not know me and therefore did not understand why I would order plain tortillas, brought me some salsa to go with them. That tasted good too.

Now, I obviously am not grading this restaurant on the same scale I would use to grade one in Texas, but it is better than the Tex-Mex restaurants in New York. It even has migas at breakfast. And on one of the tables is a framed certificate from the Texas House of Representatives, honoring the restaurant’s namesake. I was flabbergasted, so much so that I Googled the owner as soon as I got back to my hotel, figuring I’d see a tale of a Texan who came to Chengdu for some reason and opened a restaurant. After all, the guy’s name is Peter, and he has a certificate from the Texas government.

Except that the guy’s name is actually Lou Zong Hua, which is not anything like “Peter.” A woman who came to China from the U.S. took him under her wing and taught him to cook American comfort food. Their story, should you wish to see more about it, is available here at the always-interesting Christian Science Monitor, where I also learned that Peter’s has a Beijing branch. I’ll probably last another couple of weeks before I give in and go try the migas.

huajiaoThis weekend I took a little sojourn in Sichuan, home of the spiciest food in China. As a Texan, I’m ashamed to say that my tolerance for spices isn’t high, but I figured I’d give the Sichuan food a go – at least a mild version of it.

One of the most important spices in Sichuan cooking is the small, dried pod called huājiāo. It’s not really hot per se, but it has some strange properties. Some people charitably describe its flavor as “lemony.” I prefer the more accurate “like swallowing dish soap.” I know what I’m talking about, because when I was in fourth grade I took a big swig of what I thought was a frosty glass of refreshing lemonade, only to come to the horrible realization that it was soapy water. This spice tastes just like that.

But I don’t think the supposedly lemony flavor is the point of this spice. I think the point of it is that it makes your mouth numb. Seriously. Not as in, “It’s so spicy it’s almost making my mouth numb,” but as in, “It is somehow chemically deadening my nerves.” It makes you feel like you just had some kind of dental procedure, and I hear rural dentists in fact use it as an anesthetic. I’m not a big fan of the numbing effect, at least not when combined with the awful soap taste. It does, however, have one selling point: It makes the real peppers less painful and thus tastier.

If you’re interested in trying huājiāo, I hear it’s now legally available in the U.S. You should be able to find it at a Sichuan restaurant.

Menu ItemsJules: What do they call a Big Mac?
Vincent: Well, a Big Mac’s a Big Mac, but they call it le Big-Mac.

Around much of the world, the line from “Pulp Fiction” holds true: A Big Mac is a Big Mac is a Big Mac. But not in China. In China, a Big Mac is a 巨无霸, or jù wú bà, which I think would literally translate to something along the lines of “Great Feudal Warlord.” McDonald’s itself is 麦当劳, or mài dāng láo, which obviously sounds like McDonald’s but translates to the meaningless “Wheat Facing Labor.”

Recently, my program received a visit from Gregory Gilligan, the head of government relations for McDonald’s here, who discussed a few more issues the company faces in translating a quintessentially American business into a completely different cultural framework. Among the highlights:

• Unlike in the U.S., it’s not possible to do much business in China without government approval. So it’s crucial to use government ideas and catchphrases in pitching business plans. Currently, promoting a “harmonious society” is key. This is true even with dealing with China’s NGOs, which, of course, aren’t truly independent from the government. (Some people call them “gongos” — governmental non-governmental organizations.)

• China’s one-child policy is having a vast effect on business, including foreign companies. The country’s pampered kids already have changed the way marketers approach and cater to consumers. But most interesting to me was the assertion that all these only children seem to be having a tough time with business cultures that emphasize teamwork. That could be a problem as companies like McDonald’s hire and train local executives.

By the way, in honor of Mr. Gilligan’s visit, I went to McDonald’s to check out their Chinese menu. They don’t have pig ears or anything shocking on there. They have pork sandwiches, cups of corn and some strange neon-colored-beverage-ice-cream things that I was scared to try. But their offerings were, on the whole, similar to those in the U.S. I had a crispy chicken sandwich, fries, a Coke and a pie. The chicken sandwich was made out of dark meat rather than white, which was a surprise, and it was quite spicy. The fries were as one would expect. But the pie. The pie was worth the effort.

Eds. Note: For those interested in purchasing-power parity, Jacob passes along this timely link to the Economist’s regular Big Mac Index.

Red Bean Paste BaoziAfter multiple requests for restaurant reviews, last weekend I decided to make a sacrifice for the sake of my readers and try as many dumplings as I could. Several of my classmates and I headed to Din Tai Fung, which is a famous, relatively high-class chain with branches in Japan and the U.S. as well as several cities in China. The service was great, the restaurant was sparkling, and the food was absolutely wonderful. Plus, even though the restaurant is expensive by Beijing standards, we had more than enough food and drinks for five people and paid less than 250Y (about $30). Total. Let me repeat that, for all you New Yorkers. Thirty. Dollars. Total.

And now, I present to you The Parade of Filled Dough. (The main links go to my photos. Most other links go to Wiki articles.)

Pork Xiăolóngbāo: Din Tai Fung is famous for its xiăolóngbāo, which are pockets of unleavened dough filled with pork and soup and then steamed. “How do they get the soup in there?” you ask. Well, I’ll tell you. After they mix the soup, they freeze it into little cubes. Each dumpling gets a cube inside, and when the dumpling is steamed, the soupcicle melts, filling the xiăolóngbāo with sloshy, drippy goodness. Genius!

Shrimp and Pork Shāomài: These open-top dumplings are stuffed with pork and have a very small shrimp (is that redundant?) on top. I don’t even like shrimp or pork, but I liked these. My love for dough can overcome anything, apparently.

Vegetable Jiăozi: Jiăozi are referred to as gyoza in Japan. Our dumplings were steamed and filled with vegetables. They were quite tasty, but they don’t top my list. Compared with the baozi, they were a little dry. (See the fillings.)

Various Bāozi: Unlike the previous filled-dough entries, these bāozi are made with leavened dough that is delectably soft and a little sweet. We didn’t have any chāshāobāo, because we were already having so many pork products that I didn’t even think about looking for more, but chāshāobāo belong to this group. (See the innards.)

Dòushāshāobāo: These dessert bāozi are of the unleavened variety, and they are steamed and filled with a sweet paste made out of red beans. (See the squishy inner workings.)

We also had some vegetables and noodles and so forth, but those are out of the scope of my filled-dough study. Out of all of these, the vegetable-filled bāozi might have been my favorite dish. Or maybe it was the xiăolóngbāo. Or the red-bean bāozi. Maybe I’ll have to go back and see if I can decide.

For the “proper” Mandarin pronunciation of all of these (in order), you can check out this installment’s audio link.

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