Saturday 7 October 2017

10 foods you must eat in Beijing that are not Duck or Dumplings

A countries food looks very different through a tourists eyes than through a residents eyes.  This is particularly true with Beijing.  As a tourist you tend to focus on the dishes you could quite easily get back in the western world - your roast duck and pancakes and your dumplings.  But what about everything else?  What do local people look forward to eating when friday evening arrives?  Now entering my fourth year living in Beijing here is my list of things to really eat here.

Number 10: You Po Mian(油泼面)- Hot Oil Ribbon Noodles

These were my favourite noodles in Beijing until I came across number 9!  Often just one extra long ribbon of noodle they are spicy with a slight numbing from the Sichuan peppers.  I good starting point for people not use to the Sichuan flavour.  Not too dissimilar to the more famous Biang Biang Mian (middle picture) but definitely tastier.  Biang Biang is only more popular because it has the most difficult Chinese character of all characters(right picture).  As far as spicy ribbon noodles go it is You Po Mian all the way!  You can find it here

Number 9: Chong Qing Xiao Mian (重庆小面) - Chong Qing Noodles

Slightly more soupy and maybe a little spicier than number 10 these noodles are the ultimate in flavour.  I do prefer a thinner noodle but the mixture of minced meat, beans and the rich spicy broth is delicious.  Hands down my favourite noodles in China.  The best bowl can currently be found above Lugas in Sanlitun.

Number 8: Huo Guo(火锅)- Hot Pot

Ma La Tang
Zhang Mama
Hot pot does come next on the list after Duck and Dumplings as things you will almost certainly eat as a tourist.  But it is the type of hotpot that distinguishes a tourist from a local.  HaiDiLao is the main DIY hotpot that both tourists and locals enjoy.  But there are a ton of places to eat hotpot and a ridiculous amounts of different types to choose from.  I have translated a picture I found online to help you understand the types.  The main feature is a shared boiling pot of broth (usually with a heck of a lot of numbing spice in it!) in which you order raw foods to bathe in it.  My favourite is having your own personal lava bowl at Zhang MaMa's where you dunk precooked items and eat it with as much rice you can possibly fit into your mouth to counter the heat.  The Ma La Tang (麻辣烫)option is an easy and healthy way to get a lot of veggies down you and popular among my vegan friends.  Delicious, though less healthy, when topped with the optional (compulsory!) sesame paste sauce. 

Number 7: Yu Xiang Rou Si (鱼香肉丝)- Fish Fragrant Shredded Pork

Don't be put of by the name.  It is fish fragrant which means that it just smells/tastes (in Chinese the word for smell and taste is the same!) like fish.  There is actually no fish in this dish and many would argue that it does not actually smell or taste of fish.  It is more of a hot, sweet and sour flavour with lots of veggies thrown in and of course a touch a sichuan pepper.  This dish can be found in most Chinese places and shouldn't set you back more than 20rmb.

Number 6: Gan Bian Si Ji Dou (干煸四季豆)- Sichuan style spicy green beans 

"Eat yours greens!" my mum always said.  She probably did not mean these.  Fried, salty, crispy and spicy you can try and convince yourself that these green beans are good for you.  To add to this a spoon of deep fried savoury minced pork is also in the mix.  Yum.  Like number 7 this is a Chinese staple and found in most places.

Number 5: Ma La Xiao Long Xia (麻辣小龙虾)- Spicy Crayfish
There is a whole street dedicated to this dish called Ghost Street (Gui jie - 鬼街)where 90% of the restaurants there serve spicy crayfish.  Be prepared to take a ticket and sit outside as they can get very busy,  but don't worry they will bring beer and free sunflower seeds to you whilst you wait.  I have waited over 2 hours before and even when we had finished eating, gone midnight, people were still queueing!  Once you are in you select the size of crayfish, how many you want and wait for them to bring out your crustacean tower on a tray.  Put on your absolutely useless plastic gloves and get stuck in!

Number 4: Eat some offal
Cow stomach number 2
Paddywack on the left, throat on the bottom.
I am not one to support stereotypes but world famously "The Chinese eat anything".  Now this of course is not true but they do enjoy a slightly more adventurous palette.  Whilst in Beijing I thoroughly recommend getting on board with this!  I have grown to love and understand that though flavour is important, It is texture that they adore here.    Sliced cow stomach dipped in sesame sauce is popular and prices range depending on which of the 4 cow stomachs you eat.  You can buy a bag a deep fried chicken knee caps and probably pay more than you would for a bag of deep fried chicken breast!  Knee caps!?  But the most bizarre for me has to be two separate parts of a cow that I never even considered eating.  The first one - sliced cow oesophagus; soft and spongy dipped in a spicy, vinegary sauce.  The second one - google translated to cow paddywack... What on earth is a paddywack I thought!  Further research told me that cows have an extra strong tendon, of which it's sole purpose is to hold their enormous head up.  It's most common use around the world, if used at all, is keeping your pet dog entertained for several hours as it tries to gnaw though it.  It was chewy beyond belief - like eating a hot water bottle.  I chewed for 5 minutes, took it out of my mouth and found it to be exactly the same as when it was served to me.

Number 3: Jian Bing (煎饼)- Pancake
Made to order pancakes with the egg fried onto the outside.  The inside is filled with lettuce, soybean paste, chili oil (optional), spring onion and some fried crispy thing.  After that you choose what extras you want to add from peanuts to sausages.  If it costs you more than 10rmb you have been totally ripped off.  Don't worry it happens to the best of us, especially on the great wall!

Number 2: Kao Leng Mian (烤冷面)- Roasted Cold Noodle (directly translated...)
Imagine a giant A4 piece of paper sized noodle fried so it is slightly crispy, slightly chewy.  Then fry an egg onto it, slice up some spicy chicken, sprinkle on sliced spring onions and coriander and smother it in soybean chili sauce.  This thing you are imagining probably looks nothing like a Kao Leng Mian; my description is awful so just go out and buy one and try it out for yourself.  Usually found from the same street vendors making Jian Bings.

Number 1: Kao Chuan (烤串儿)- Chinese Barbecue

There is no real order to my list of 10 apart from the number 1 slot.  This is my all time favourite thing to eat in Beijing and you can do nothing better on a warm summers evening.  Bottles of cold beer cost 4rmb and each skewer ranges between 2-5rmb depending on what it is.  Cumin lamb skewers are probably the most popular item to order but just point at the massive variety of things on sticks in the fridge.  Feel free to avoid the chicken heads and sheep testicles also popular at these places.  Pay a bit more and get a whole lamb shank grilled to perfection.

Eat all ten and feel like a proper "Beijing ren".  Though you would be excused to skip number 4.  How many have you eaten?  Have I missed anything?  If I have please do contact me, I'll just be out sipping on a cold YangJing and chowing down on some Chuan.  :o) 

Saturday 29 July 2017

Canada - Summer 2017

Stamping around
Wednesday, 12 July

How it has taken me this long to come to Canada I have no idea!  If it wasn't for super proud Canadian colleagues waxing lyrical about their home towns I may never have witnessed such an awe inspiring, beautiful place.  I am spending two weeks in the lush greenery of British Columbia and Alberta and my hiking boots have never smelt better...
So what's a foodie to do when they touch down in Vancouver early evening?  Go and eat poutine of course!  What's he to do the following morning?  Go and check out some Montreal Smoked Meat! We checked in to Vancouver Guesthouse and set out on foot to explore and seek out Mean Poutine.  Most of Vancouver feels like a leafy suburb from a teeny chick flick where every house has a different shape, size and colour, fresh cut lawns and a warm sea breeze.  Across the bridge to downtown Vancouver sees the buildings get taller and the greens and browns turn into the gay pride rainbow! Entire buildings are painted showing their support with shops, banks and restaurants proudly waving their flag.  It doesn't take you long to feel settled here; People talk to you like they know you and help you like you're family.  The poutine was as expected - It's not like I haven't eaten chips cheese and gravy before!  The curds were squeaky on your teeth, the gravy was meaty and the chips were half crunchy and half soggy; pretty much everything you want in a comfort food.  For breakfast the following day we stumbled across Siegel's Bagels and inhaled a delicious Hot Montreal Smoked Meat Bagel.  The bagel on its own was incredible but when you add layer upon layer of this thinly sliced smoked meat, a light spread of hot mustard and a dill pickle you get taken to a whole other world.  A great start to a long day!

Our first full day was dedicated to Stanley Park, the winner of TripAdvisors best park in the world 2014.  We bought a day pass for the bus for $10 and got the bus to the park edge.  We walked most of the day following the coastal path along sandy beaches and sleepy forest trails deep into the centre to Beaver Lake.  The park is essentially an enormous forest in the middle of the city and I really think it says a lot about Vancouver for not choosing to build on it.  With extra bagels and a pot of flavoured cream cheese for a lakeside picnic it's an easy full days worth of activity admiring the flora and fauna.  Without a doubt the number one thing to do in Vancouver is put on your walking boots and spend a day here.

Cramming all the Canadian food in the first 24 hours I had booked us in to "Salmon n' Bannocks", a restaurant focusing on the aboriginal cuisines of Canada.  America has its Native Indians, Australia has the Aborigines, I never really thought about first nation Canadians.  We ate smoked, candied, pureed and grilled "Sockeye" Salmon with the aboriginal bread called bannock.  Tasty food and nice to experience some history via food.  My favourite kind of history!

After just one full day in Vancouver we flew to Calgary.  Ideally we would have spent a little longer in Vancouver but there was one thing I really did not want to miss - The Calgary Stampede!  We arrived with no expectations simply because we had no idea what to expect.  I knew nothing about it other than it is a big deal in Canada and draws in over a million visitors every year.  I booked tickets for an evening show (again with absolutely no idea of what it was showing!) which included entrance to the park in the day.  Even now I can't really explain what exactly we experienced.  It was a thoroughly entertaining day where we ate a ton of fried food from whole deep fried onions to maple dipped corn dogs.  We petted horses,  listened to big band and country music, watched daredevil motocross stunts and supported a "cutting competition" where the competitors had to separate a cow from a herd on horseback (video below).  It was all very serious with a large sum of money for the winner (in the tens of thousands!).  The entire day opened my eyes to a whole new world that I never experienced before.  We ate competition winning BBQ ribs (pork and beef) for dinner before sitting down for the show I booked.  Why don't we do Beef ribs in England?!  Done well it is the best morsel of meat you could ever put in your mouth.  I went primal and got a whole box of just ribs!  Succulent but not fall off the bone (I hate fall off the bone why do people make out that it's a good thing!? I want to bite and pull the meat off!) The evening show ended up being a waggon racing competition followed by a full on production called "Together" - a show celebrating the relationship between the British, French and Aboriginal communities in Canada.  Everything about the stampede was more than I anticipated.  I may be leaving a stone heavier and with slightly more clogged up arteries but I'd do it again!

Keep calm and play dead
Sunday, 16 July

We picked up a car and drove out of Calgary up into the Rocky Mountains to a village called Field.  We had rented a small log cabin (Stephen Creek Guest Cabin) for two nights and use this as our base to see the area.  It was a beautifully scenic 3 hour drive with a stop off in Banff for groceries. We are in the heart of bear country and so our cabin came with a can of bear spray.  Unlike mozzy spray you don't spray yourself with it!  It's not bear repellent but more like a pepper spray strong enough to take down a 300kg beast.  We had mixed thoughts about having a grizzly encounter but part of me was definitely disappointed not to see one.  Our cabin is 5 minutes drive from the stunning, perfectly named Emerald lake.  The most deliciously bue-green colour draws you in for a swim.  The biting cold glacial water gives you second thoughts.  With canoe hire at $60 for an hour we decided to dip our feet in and take the two hour hike around the lake instead.

Our cabin in Field is cute and the lack of wifi was somewhat liberating.  You could walk from one end of Field to the other in about 10 minutes and so there is pretty much only one place to eat - Truffle Pigs!  Luckily it's a damn good place to eat without ridiculous "you have no choice but to eat here" prices.  My best Caesar was drunk here; Caesar is to Canada as Pimms No.1 is to the UK (or Gin and Tonic?!) accept slightly more adventurous maybe.  It is like a bloody Mary with a superb umami hit.  The main ingredient is "Clamato Juice", a tomato and clam broth mix that you can by anywhere here.  Mixed in with vodka (though the English in me preferred the Gin version!), horse radish, Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco sauce and a bunch of unknown spices, finished with a spicy/salty rim and a pickled green bean or asparagus.  I love it, Becky hates it - it's certainly not for everyone!  A hearty meal set us up well for our full day hike the following day.  We picked up a map and information on all the hikes in the area from a very helpful information centre at Emerald Lake.  They recommended the "Twin Falls" 6 hours round hike and gave us advice on staying safe with the bears.  The advice was as follows:

1) "Don't surprise the bear. Play music, talk loudly, walk in big groups so the bear knows you are coming."  If the bear is hungry, however, your noise will only tell it where to find lunch.
2)  "first work out if the bear is in predatory or defensive mode". In other words does the bear want to kill you and eat you or just kill you.
3) "If in predatory mode spray it in the eyes with the bear spray", kick it in the nuts and run away.  The bear spray only lasts 7 seconds until empty so make sure you are close enough to smell its breath and have a good enough aim.
4) "If defensive... play dead." Sorry what?!  You want me to lie on the floor whilst it sniffs me as I question my ability to distinguish between a predatory and defensive bear?

All sound advice but didn't do much in easing our bear fears.  Nonetheless, the hike was divine!  I love a hike where the destination is inaccessible by any other means.  The fact that you can drive to Machu Pichu makes the 4 day hike so much less desirable.  The hike itself, though tough, had wonderful waterfalls, creeks and natural wonders to awe at.  The twin waterfalls at the top of the hike was absolutely breathtaking and a perfect spot to sit on the rocks with your feet in the water and eat your Montreal Smoked Meat from a Banff deli packed lunch.  The hike back down is via a glacial lake and an avalanche devastation zone where the snow is still piled high covering a ton of felled trees.  There was so much snow that we couldn't actually work out where the trail was so we ended up walking back and going the way we came.  After Emerald lake and the hike of a lifetime the actual top tourist attraction in the area, Lake Louise, ended up being a bit underwhelming.  Take away the fluorescent blue water, add a thousand more tourists and double the price of the canoes (over $100!!) and you've got Lake Louise.  The snow capped backdrop is iconic but you will wait hours if you want a photo of it without another person taking a selfie in it.
After Lake Louise, by complete accident from missing our junction, we drove the longer scenic route to Banff through Bow Valley Parkway.  Now it's pretty much impossible to drive anywhere in this region and it not be a "scenic" route but this place was the next level!  We even saw a black bear foraging on the side of the road.  We eventually arrived and checked into Banff International Hostel.  Having spent a few hours roaming along Banff Avenue we took a recommendation and ate at "The Grizzly House" restaurant which specialises in fondue of all kinds.  Not at all Canadian but the area has a strong Swiss influence for some historical snowy mountain based reason that I read all about at Lake Louise and then instantly forgot.  A starter of cheese fondue with crusty bread pieces, a mains of hot oil fondue with steak and chicken and a dessert of chocolate fondue with mixed fruit.  Plain deep fried meat wasn't really to my liking but I could do the cheese and the chocolate again!

Banff is a beautiful little town with a lot to do in the summer but you can clearly see that it is built for the winter.  We spent an evening in the hot springs which really just turned out to be an over crowded uncomfortably warm swimming pool.  In the winter, however, it would be a perfect place to spend your evening surrounded by the snow.  Other activities include using the various ski lifts to get to the top of peaks for the views and hikes.  We took the Banff Gondola which was pretty expensive at $62 each but there were spectacular views at the top and an overly curious Golden-Mantled Ground Squirrel (yes I Googled it!) provided much entertainment as it was adamant that we had food.  A "lunch" of Beaver Tails filled us up before our drive back to Calgary ready for our flight to Vancouver the next morning.  Beaver Tails aren't actual tails from beavers (I'll admit this discovery was slightly disappointing to me) but flattened out deep fried dough drizzled with sweet stuff.  We initially intended to share one but then Becky wanted a whole one to herself... I agreed.  Goodbye to the Rocky Mountains, it has been an absolute pleasure!

Camping with Orca
Tuesday, 25 July

The final leg of our trip is what I was looking forward to the most.  We have booked a 5 day camping adventure with Wildcoast Orca Camp for a kayaking whale watching experience.  It took the best part of a day to get to the remote starting point on Quadra Island from central Vancouver.  A bus, a ferry, a bus and then another ferry later we arrived at April Point Resort; a real treat with our room balcony hanging over a small crystal clear harbour.  We had a family of Orca Whales swimming alongside our ferry over here and so we were super excited about experiencing some nature.  The seals swimming by whilst I enjoyed a Caesar only got us more ecstatic.  We went to bed feeling like it was christmas eve with an immense sunset painting our entire room orange, then pink, then blue, then black.

We were picked up by Wildcoast from the little harbour in the morning and taken two and half hours up the Johnstone Strait by boat.  We really are camping out in the sticks.  The Orca Camp site was the perfect balance between glamp and camp.  As close to zero environmental impact as you can get but still the luxuries of a hot shower and slap up meals.  That's without mentioning the wood fired sauna and hot tub!  That's right, we're camping 2.5 hours from civilisation and we get to sit in a hot tub and watch the sunset on the sea.  Situated just across a narrow creek to an ecological reserve we have 4 days on the doorstep of whale paradise.  This indeed is whale paradise but at a very particular time of year.  This is the bay where the salmon start their annual run back up the rivers to lay their eggs.  The kind you've seen on TV being swatted by bears.  When the salmon arrive they arrive in their thousands and with them bring along all the marine life that love to eat them.  Including 500+ orca whales.  Unfortunately the Salmon arrived just a few days after we left;  I know this because I have been watching the orca live stream set up from the ecological reserve.   As I am writing this right now the water is swarming with salmon jumping out of the water and orca whales just chilling.

Kayaking is by far the best way to feel close to the marine life.  When the weather is right the water is like a polished mirrored floor that we just glided along.  There is no better atmosphere than sitting quietly waiting for a black fin to split through the mercury surface or a blow hole to break the silence.  When the porpoises (like dolphins but apparently not dolphins) turned up it felt like we were sitting right with them - eye to eye!  We saw these on two occasions and both felt magical.  At sunset when I was salmon fishing from the kayak a humpback whale swam by!  It was in the distance but close enough to make the hair on your neck stand.  I pretty much went fishing whenever we had free time and it was so peaceful and chilled.  I would not have cared if I didn't catch a salmon but the fact that I did made it all the better!  I had caught a rock fish and couple of tiddlers that were put back but finally a beautiful pink salmon found its way on to my hook.  One of the guides gutted and cleaned it up within minutes and I asked if I could have a go at preparing some sashimi.  They gave me a knife and a chopping board and that kept me entertained for a good half hour.  It was fresh, lean and everyone agreed that it was delicious.  Evenings were spent in the hot tub and when you got to hot there was always the ice cold creek to dunk in.  We may not have seen orca whales but that only gives us a reason to come back to this brilliant camp.  The food, the socialising, the hot tub, just everything was what you'd hope for.

We had a couple of spare days in Vancouver before and after the camp which we used to see a bit more of the city.  A trip to Capilano Suspension Bridge was expensive but we enjoyed it.  More ideal for families really with lots of activites and treasure hunts prepared for kids.  We did another visit of Stanley Park but this time by tandem bike and had a potter about Granville Island Market.  You have to cycle the Stanley Park sea wall at some point as the views and breeze are awesome whilst cycling.  Bike rentals are right next to the park and not too expensive at all.  Granville Island is perfect if you have some spare time or souvenirs to buy.  Nice little food court there too but any local I spoke to said that it is all over-priced and aimed at tourists.  For our final meal before catching the plane I insisted that we queued for well over an hour to have breakfast at Jam Cafe.  Is it ever worth to queue for that long just for breakfast!?  Turns out yes! Yes it is!  Becky had pulled pork pancakes and I had buttermilk fried chicken and waffles.  What a dream it would be to be able to make my way through the entire menu; the two dishes we ate were incredible.  The perfect end to our time in Canada was an enormous, hearty breakfast.  Few countries do I say that I'd be back and maybe the lack of orca whales this time round influence my thoughts a little but without a doubt I will find myself on Canadian soil at least once more in this life time.  :o)