Annie Bananie en Europe

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Living in Wuhan – Food and dining

Ah, food, my favourite subject ever. I’m surprised myself that the first post in the China mini-series wasn’t about food but about transportation, but it’s never too late to talk about food, so let’s get started.

There’s nothing too extravagant or unusual about eating and dining in Wuhan. As someone who grew up eating Chinese food and LOVES it, I couldn’t complain about having it every day. Compared to other provinces of China, Hubei (the province that Wuhan belongs to) doesn’t have a very well-defined “characteristic cuisine”, per se. Take Sichuanese or Cantonese cuisine, for example. The defining characteristic of Sichuanese cuisine is its “numbing spiciness” whereas for Cantonese cuisine, it’s the preservation of the original “freshness” of the raw ingredients. Nothing really comes to mind if you mention “cuisine of Hubei”. It’s not particularly spicy or sweet or salty or anything, and at least in terms of overall taste, it seems to be a blend of all types of cuisines.

Lotus root stuffed with glutinous rice, one of the regional specialties of Hubei province.

That is not to say that there’s nothing special about food here in Wuhan. Hubei cuisine uses a lot of lotus root in their cooking, and I’m not surprised because I see a lot of lotus ponds in the city as I walk around. As a result, I’ve had the pleasure of trying a few lotus-based dishes, including lotus root pork bone soup, lotus root tip, and glutinous rice-stuffed lotus root (photo shown above). You’d also see people selling lotus seed pods everywhere and they’re actually pretty good if they’re freshly harvested! (Some people may not feel comfortable with their appearance though…)

Lotus seed pods in their original form (left) and after being extracted (right). The shell of the pods themselves need to be peeled, exposing a white interior with a core that is sometimes bitter and should be avoided.

Of course we can’t forget the signature “hot dry noodles” of Wuhan (literal translation), which means…breakfast! If you’re not too familiar with Chinese-style breakfast, it’s very different than what you’d have in either North America or Europe. Stuff like pancakes, eggs/omelettes (not as uncommon), bacon, sausage, ham, waffles, etc…nope, not getting any of that. Instead, typical Chinese breakfast involves one or more of the following (or a variation of it): congee, dumplings, buns, and noodles. Often there are street vendors along the side of the road that I take to get to the bus station, and it’s super convenient to grab what you want and either eat it along the way or while waiting for the bus.

Breakfast stands on the side of the street. The first lady sells hot dry noodles and cold noodles, and the other vendors sell dumplings, buns, fried dough, etc…

My favourite breakfast item has been pan-fried dumplings from a particular vendor, but lately I’ve started getting hot dry noodles from another stand. I actually love hot dry noodles, but they’re just a bit more inconvenient to eat while walking, so I sometimes opt not to get it. What ARE hot dry noodles, you ask? They are a very popular Wuhan street food, though also sold at many sit-down places, that is most often eaten for breakfast (or whenever you want, really). As the name implies, they are VERY HOT (temperature), as they are strained right out of boiling water, and VERY DRY, even though a sesame-based sauce is poured onto the noodles. A variety of sides can be added, including pickled radish, pickled green beans, scallions, etc. A good bowl of hot dry noodles to get the day started – sounds like a perfect morning to me!

Hot dry noodles! Not the ones I got from the lady at the breakfast stand, but they’re similar. I like it with a lot of sesame paste and a lot of scallions. One bowl is super filling!

There are also lots of regional cuisines all over the place. J (the boyfriend) and I recently discovered a nice Cantonese restaurant that serves authentic dim sum – MY STAPLE as a Cantonese! – and a variety of Cantonese dishes, like white-cut chicken and stir-fried beef noodles. The menu is a bit limited but it’s got the most essential items, so it’s definitely a necessary dose of home once in a while. We also frequent this small restaurant that specializes in noodles of the Xi’an region in Shaanxi province. It’s close to where we live, cheap, and everything we’ve tried so far has been super delicious. I especially like their “biang biang” noodles, which are really wide (about the width of a waist belt) and really long. They were as good as the ones I’ve tried in Xi’an, though I should bring my friend from Xi’an to this place next time she visits, to validate its authenticity. In contrast to the Cantonese restaurant, this one has quite an extensive menu, so it’ll take many more visits to try everything! If you’re in the mood for something super spicy, there are quite a few Sichuanese restaurants, some specializing in hot pots. Recently we visited a place that serves “mao cai”, which is just a mix of everything you’d have at a hot pot all in one bowl at once. “Slightly spicy” is often already too spicy for us, so next time we’ll skip spiciness and just add chili sauce ourselves, thank you very much!

 

(Click to view the full image.) Cantonese cuisine (top row), Shaanxi cuisine (bottom left and middle), and Sichuanese “mao cai” (bottom right). We’re also discovering new restaurants every week!

Of course, these are just a few of the many types of regional Chinese cuisine scattered around the area. There are also international options, like Italian, Japanese (man I miss good sushi), Korean, and French. These options are rather limited, however, and they tend to be on the pricey side, so they’re more like a treat/splurge/indulgence for special occasions only. I’m craving a good steak right now…*drools*

Do we eat out all the time? You ask. Oh, we certainly do not eat out all the time, or else we’d be broke. Since J works at a university and I live close by, we like to go to one of the many university canteens for dinner. (That doesn’t count as eating out…does it?) The canteen themselves are quite an impressive sight and so much larger than the canteens or cafeterias I’ve been to in Canada or in Europe. And the variety of food is insane – from noodles to barbecue to soup dumplings to bi bim bap, if you could name it, you could probably find it! It’s almost like a hawker center in Singapore, and whereas you’d usually expect canteen food to be subpar, the food here is not bad at all! For less than $3 Canadian I can get a decent rice dish or several small portions of meats and vegetables. Maybe I should consider enrolling as a mature student in a Chinese university…just for the food 😛

One of the larger university canteen at the Huazhong University of Science and Technology. I heard there are around 30 canteens of various sizes at this university and I’ve definitely been to no fewer than 5. They’re only open at specific times during lunch and dinner and so they’re usually super crowded. You’d be lucky if you didn’t have to share a table with someone.

Oh, we do cook. Even though the kitchen at my small apartment is tiny, it is still a functional kitchen and from the first day I moved in, I intended to make good use of it. The thing is, after I started working, I’m too tired to cook when I get home (around 7pm by the time I arrive). Cooking at home now mostly occurs on weekends, when J and I would take turn cooking and washing the dishes. One thing I did notice when we did groceries was that meat and fish are rather expensive here. Well, compared to fruits and vegetables, that is. While 1 jin (the unit of measurement used here, equivalent to half a kg) of green beans cost 4 yuan (approximately 80 Canadian cents, all prices hereafter are stated in Canadian dollar), 1 jin of potatoes cost 60 cents, and a large watermelon costs $2.5, 1 jin of beef may cost around $6. And it isn’t even high-quality beef! Quite ridiculous, if you ask me. As a result, my meat intake has decreased significantly and I’ve been eating a lot more vegetables recently. Healthier, I suppose, but I do miss my chicken and salmon sometimes!

First home-cooked meal after moving into my apartment! Steamed spare ribs, stir-fried potato, and green beans with ground pork. Add a side of egg drop seaweed soup, please. Very satisfying!

Meanwhile, it’s almost dinner time and I’m waiting for J to come home after his basketball game so we can make our only home-cooked meal of the week. And I’ve got some lotus seed pods next to me that we gotta finish tonight. Life is good 🙂

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26 days in China, part 6.3 – Eating in Guangzhou

Warning – do not read this post if you:

1 – are hungry.
2 – cannot handle the sight of strange things that Chinese people eat (e.g. a cow’s internal organs).
3 – dislike good food.

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way (I trust that none of the three listed items applies to you), let’s get onto the Cantonese food edition of the Guangzhou mini-series!

I had written a post awhile back describing my food experience in Guangzhou during a particular visit, but one could never get enough of Cantonese food. There’s a Chinese saying whose literal translation is “Eating in Guangzhou”…it doesn’t exactly sound too impressive, I know, but it embodies the view (or I’d say FACT) that Guangzhou is the best place to EAT in China. Whether it’s because we, the Cantonese, eat the weirdest things you could imagine, have the widest variety of cooking methods and delicious dishes, or are obsessed with delicacies, many would agree (though some do debate) that Guangzhou is well worthy of the title of the best city for food in China. You could go on with historical and cultural explanations of how it came to be, but I’ll show you with photos and in the process of doing so, make myself drool…

I’m going to start with dim sum – again, even though it’s already appeared in the previous post – because it ain’t a post about Cantonese food without some dim sum. With my friend LS, I went to Tao Tao Ju, one of the most locally well known dim sum restaurants in Guangzhou with a history of over 100 years. Here we have the classic shrimp dumplings (ha gow, middle), spare ribs (bottom right), chicken buns (top right), pork dumplings (siu mai, top middle), and spring rolls (top left)…

…followed by beef rice noodle rolls (top left), crispy pork puff (haam shui gok, bottom left), and “boat congee” (right), a variety of congee that originated from old Guangzhou. The great thing about dim sum is that each dish is small so that you could order a whole bunch and try a huge variety of it. Don’t forget my tea!

Next up we’ve got a lovely bowl of beef brisket noodles. Perhaps they are not as popular as the wonton noodles, but the beef brisket noodles would be a close second, I would say, in terms of popular noodle dishes. A good bowl of noodles consists of tender beef brisket, al dente noodles, and very importantly, a flavourful soup base. You could be that this bowl was entirely empty with not even a drop of soup left when I was done with it.

Now we come to something that some people might consider strange – steamed pig intestines. I’ve mentioned before that this is one of my favourite things to eat though I admit, it doesn’t sound too appetizing and not everyone could stomach it. Once you get over that fact that they’re intestines and have gotten used to the chewy texture, though, you just can’t get enough of it!

At the same restaurant, we ordered stir-fried thin beef slices with choi sum, which translates to…cabbage stem? Anyway, this is one of those green Chinese vegetables that I always miss when I’m in Europe because it’s not commonly found other than in large Asian supermarkets. The beef slices are new to me in that I’ve only ever eaten them hot-pot-style before and didn’t know you could stir fry them – and it turned out very good! I’d like to try that at home one day too.

My mom and aunt, as the true locals, specifically searched for a good restaurant that served only “lai” noodles, which are very thick rice flour noodles. They are usually made in a thick, mushy soup/congee-like base. I wasn’t a fan of the traditional thick consistency, so I ordered a variation that came in a clear soup based with the “four treasures” of Xiguan (old Guangzhou), which were fried fish skin, fish balls, and fish skin dumplings (I don’t remember the fourth…)

For a simple, delicious, and filling breakfast, I liked to get the congee and rice noodle roll combo. Here with my mom, I got the noodles stuffed with beef while she got the one with pork. I liked this place in particular because the taste kind of reminded me of the type of noodles that I would get on the street carts as a child, which no longer exist. Some nostalgia is always welcome!

I decided that I was not leaving Guangzhou without having at least one portion of cow offal – internal organs – and because there was so much other good food to eat, I ended up having ONLY one portion. This would be similar to the pig intestines – it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. I said to my Scottish colleague that she shouldn’t find this TOO repulsive considering that they have haggis (chopped up sheep’s liver, heart, and kidneys encased in sheep stomach), and she kindly remarked that at least they have the good manners to mince it up. Hmph, I’m not convinced that it makes a difference, especially since in my opinion, cow offal served in bulk taste so much better than haggis!

This final one isn’t as much of a “Cantonese” item as it is a dose of nostalgia, like the rice noodle rolls. As children, we often drank beverage, whether it was pop or soy milk, in tall glass bottles. This isn’t as popular now as it used to be, but some food joints still serve drinks in these glass bottles. For remembrance’s sake, my mom and I got some glass-bottled soy milk and toasted to the olden days in Guangzhou, when it was only her and me by each other’s side in this small neighbourhood. Cheers to the fond memories!

26 days in China, part 6.2 – Guangzhou (continued)

Though I planned my China trip so that I’d spend most of my time in my hometown, “most of” still only meant ten days, which was rather short. The happiest part of my segment in Guangzhou was spending time with family and friends, hearing the soothing sound of Cantonese, and feeling like I was part of the city again!

In the last post there was a group photo of my relatives on my mom’s side of the family, and this time it’s one of my dad’s side, only without my dad being present. Some of them came all the way from Hong Kong to be with us for Christmas!

In Guangzhou I also got to meet up with my very good friend, LS. It’s a shame that we don’t get to see each other often but I love this girl so much and am still indebted to all that she’s done for me in France. Here we are at Shamian Island (again for me) as I got to be the guide of my own city ^_^

Of course we had to meet up with the Lam family again before we went our separate ways, so it was like another mini Bordeaux fellowship reunion after the one we had in Hangzhou and Huzhou. It’s amazing how the friends I met in France all those years ago are now scattered all over the world, yet we still have these rare opportunities to meet and reconnect, all by the grace of God. Take care, my friends – I will see you again in Zhuhai or Xi’an or Lanzhou or Malaysia or…wherever you guys happen to be next time I decide to find you guys!

One phenomenon that has been very widespread in China in recent years is that of “square dancing”. Nope, not the western-style square dancing. “Square” here refers to any public open space where people could gather and dance to very catchy music with a good beat. Apparently this is especially popular with middle-aged women, and it’s more like a form of socializing or physical exercise. I gotta say…I almost couldn’t resist joining because it looked like so much fun! Watching the people dance and enjoying the music has become my guilty pleasure and it is my secret wish to join them one day…if it is still popular when I’m 40?!

On a perfect sunny day, I revisited Sun Yat-Sen (known to use as Sun Zhongshan) Memorial Hall, a tourist attraction in Guangzhou. I wanted to go back to Sun Yat-Sen’s statue because I remember a foolish thing I did as a child. Pointing to the statue, I ignorantly asked my aunt, “WHAT is this thing?” The funny thing was that I didn’t even ask “who” it was…I literally asked “WHAT” it is, as if Mr. Sun was a “thing”. My aunt didn’t know whether she should laugh or cry, and when I told LS this story, she jokingly said that I’ve committed the crime of disrespect to our “Father of the Nation”. I’m sorry, Mr. Sun…please forgive my stupidity as a child!

Guangzhou’s subway tends to get quite crowded, and Chinese people will know what I mean when I say “people mountain people sea” (a literal translation of the Chinese expression meaning “extremely crowded”). Squashed into a corner on a subway, I saw a woman carrying this bag with the words “Jesus Loves You” in English and Chinese. I didn’t manage to visit any churches in Guangzhou this time around, but I’ll make it a goal to do that next time I go home 🙂

Here I am with two of my favourite people in the entire world – my beautiful mom and my aunt Yaya, who was almost like my nanny/caretaker for many years when I was young. Every time I go back to Guangzhou, Yaya is the one I look forward the most to seeing. As for my mom, spending 26 days with her (more like 20 because actually some of the days were without her) was a luxury especially now that I’m living away from home again. Back in Glasgow all by myself, I’m missing her all over again 😦

I also miss some good ol’ shrimp dumplings (ha gow) that are arguably the most classic Cantonese dim sum. These are sexy, irresistible ha gows right there – large and translucent with the perfect shrimp-to-skin balance. The shrimp was bouncy and the texture of the skin was on point!! One of the most beautiful creations of mankind ever… ❤

And I end the Guangzhou posts…with tea. Ah yes, good tea with good conversation – that’s livin’ the Cantonese lifestyle. Another cup is always welcome!

Side note: My Welsh pastor once asked me, “Are you Canadian, Chinese, or a strange mix of the two?” I had to smile and commend him because there’s really no better way to describe me than “a strange mix of the two”. This trip back to Guangzhou, though, made me feel slightly more Chinese. Perhaps nostalgia kicked in harder than it ever did before when I went back, and perhaps the familial ties, which are such an important Chinese value, are also pulling my ever so subtly. You know…if I were to return to this city of my roots, I think I could get used to living here, but still, the notion that I’m considered a “foreigner” instills in me so much uncertainty…

Re-discovering Cantonese food in my hometown

In April, I spent a week and a half in my hometown in China – the city of Guangzhou, otherwise known as Canton. It’s been 3 years since my last visit. Having previously realized that I don’t know much about the city anymore, I decided to be a tourist for 10 days and (re-)discover Guangzhou, the new, the old, the good, the bad, and of course…the food! Cantonese people are known worldwide for amazing, delicate cuisine. While people who are into heavier and stronger tastes might think that Cantonese cuisine tends to be bland and tasteless, we focus on preserving and bringing out the fresh flavour of each ingredient without adding too many spices – that is the unique essence of Cantonese cooking, and even without the heavy spicy and salty flavours, Cantonese dishes are delicious!

But OK, I’m not here to give a lesson about Cantonese cuisine. As I’ve mentioned, food exploration was one of my main missions during this hometown trip, and I sure ate a lot of great food that I’ve missed in Europe, especially in Scotland 😛 This post, however, will not highlight the types of food that you will often see on the dinner table in Cantonese restaurants – stuff like seafood, roast meat, stir-fried vegetables. Instead, I’ll be highlighting dim sum, street food, and home-cooked food.

Let’s start off with dim sum. I’m definitely no stranger to dim sum and in fact, as a Cantonese, it is a semi-staple for me. However, I’ve never experienced the full glory of dim sum until the visit to Guangzhou this year, and just look at this magnificent scene. Let’s not ask ourselves why we needed 5 orders of ha-gow (although we did have a lot of people), but I’ll take any amount of ha-gow (shrimp dumplings) and spring rolls and chicken feet and pan-fried dumplings you throw at me, ha! And really, no one does dim sum better than Guangzhou, where it originated. Proud to be Cantonese, indeed! I just got super hungry…and unfortunately I only managed to take individual photos of two dim sum items because I didn’t want to be a jerk and make my companions wait too long before they get to eat 😛

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The art and science of cooking, part 2

As promised earlier, here is part 2 to the food series, being posted slightly later than I had intended, but better late than never! I’ll skip the introduction since it has already been presented in part 1, so without further ado, let’s get to the goodies.

Did someone say sushi? Yes indeed! I made sushi for my friend Cindy’s birthday party last month and mmmmmm, it was worth every bit of effort. Certainly, sushi is one of those things that takes a lot of preparatory work but is also a lot of fun to make in the process. I had five main ingredients as the fillings: raw salmon, shrimp (with mayonnaise), cucumber, avocado, and crab sticks. For each maki roll (I tried to make nigiri sushi but failed miserably) I mixed and matched random ingredients and out came our delicious Japanese favourite!

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