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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Hot dogs around the world

There seems to be a phenomenon where hot dogs have become popular all over the world. Putting aside local delicacies and cuisines, who could resist a good ol’ hot dog as a form of comfort food? Indeed sometimes a hot dog is the best thing out of a bunch of choices, especially for the budget-conscious traveller. After going through my collection of photos, I found out that I too have had many a hot dog throughout my travels. Let’s take a look.

(Date eaten: January 27, 2014) Baejarins Beztu Pylsur in Reykjavik, Iceland apparently literally translates to “the town’s best hot dog”. The joint was in a corner, not so easily noticeable, but supposedly there is always a line up. I went for a hot dog one day because as you may have realized, Iceland is rather expensive and I didn’t want to be TOO broke. The hot dog looks humble and nothing too fancy, and I can’t remember what that sauce was, though I’d guess that it’s some sort of mustard. I do remember, though, that I loaded the bun with a thick bed of crunchy onions underneath the hot dog itself, and the onions did turn out to be the highlight. RATING: ★★★★★★★☆☆☆ (7/10)

(Date eaten: May 3, 2014) TORONTO STREET MEAT! This isn’t technically a travel hot dog because I live in Toronto but c’mon, we can’t miss out on Toronto hot dogs because they are so damn good, perhaps the best I’ve ever had. Not only do you have many types to choose from (Italian, Polish, German, all beef, etc.) but there are rows of toppings and condiments to go with the already delicious hot dog – your typical sauces like BBQ, ketchup, mayo, plus pickles, hot peppers, onions, jalapeno peppers, etc. etc. etc. I usually like a perfectly grilled spicy Polish dog with mustard, ketchup, pickles, fresh onions, and crunchy onions, enough toppings to compliment the hot dog but not so much that it oozes out when I bite into it. Oh my goodness my mouth is watering just thinking about it. So unhealthy, yes, but a guilty pleasure when I visit downtown Toronto and one of the more unconventional “must-haves” of Toronto – at least in my eyes. RATING: ★★★★★★★★★★ (10/10)

(Date eaten: December 24, 2014) Hot dog #3 was from a Christmas market in Prague. I only got this because I was there on Christmas eve and many stands were almost closed when I arrived (it’s a tradition for locals to eat a big meal at home on Christmas eve). This was one of the few things that were available. This was evidently a very long hot dog, and I added the classic condiments, ketchup and mustard. Tasted quite good, plus points for size 😛 RATING: ★★★★★★★★☆☆ (8/10)

(Date eaten: March 20, 2017) I’ve also had a hot dog at the University of Glasgow cafeteria when I worked there, which was not like me at all because I usually don’t get things like pizza or burgers or hot dogs at the cafeteria (and I rarely go there anyway). That day I saw hot dog on the menu and started to have a huge craving for it, so I took one and added an order of potato wedges to go with it. The hot dog was rather average but not horrible, and it was enough to quench my cravings so I was satisfied. RATING: ★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆ (5/10)

(Date eaten: October 16, 2017) Away from the centre of Oslo stood a hot dog joint, Syverkiosken, like the one in Reykjavik. Again, as a budget-conscious choice (since Norway too was soooooooo expensive), I went for a hot dog – or two, because I was hungry. The interesting thing about the hot dogs here is that they put a piece of flat tortilla bread on each hot dog. And the hot dogs already came stuffed with toppings – one had potato salad and the other I think had shrimp salad, if I remember correctly. They were both really good but the one with potato salad caught me off guard – I didn’t know potato salad would be such a good compliment to a hot dog…INSIDE a hot dog! Plus points for uniqueness! RATING: ★★★★★★★★☆☆ (8/10)

(Date eaten: November 19, 2017) Finally, JAPADOG. So this is supposed to be a thing that is unique to Vancouver and I had to try it. Japanese style ingredients + hot dog? WANT. During the three days I was in Vancouver, I ate twice at JAPADOG but only took this photo of the first meal with the classic “kurobata terimayo” (with teriyaki sauce, mayo, and seaweed) and a side of karaage, or Japanese fried chicken. Good? Yes you bet it was good. It was like biting into a hot dog and a takoyaki at the exact same time – imagine THAT! The hot dog was a bit on the small side but hey that’s typical of Japanese food items – small but delicate. RATING: ★★★★★★★★★☆ (9/10)

Where is the Barber of Seville? (cont.)

I was in Seville for a day and a half and in the previous entry I only posted photos from the first day. Of course Seville is too beautiful to be condensed into only one post, so here is day 2 in a nutshell.

On the second day in Seville, I visited the Alcázar of Seville, the major attraction of the city aside from the cathedral and the Plaza de España. The Alcázar is a royal Moorish palace with nice architecture and some beautiful gardens. It is situated right in the old town beside the cathedral, but it took me a while to find the main entrance because I kept circling around the outer walls of the palace, according to Google Maps. Then when I found it, I felt so stupid as it was RIGHT THERE, with a long queue (~30 minutes) to get in! Afterwards I went to the Metropol Parasol, which is a massive wooden structure that resembles…waves? Trees? I dunno. I quite liked this contemporary style though, and was rather surprised to find it so close to the old town. I didn’t go to the top but I think I should have – will keep that in mind for future visits!

Obviously I had to have tapas in Spain, and this is only a small selection of what I tried over the two days. I have to especially mention the “Secreto Ibérico”, or the “Iberian Secret”, which is the hunk of meat on the potato slices. I actually didn’t have high hopes for this pork dish because its presentation paled in comparison to the others – merely meat on some potatoes. Even though I ordered a half portion, it was still so huge that I thought I wouldn’t finish it. WRONG. As soon as I took a first bite, I was awed at how juicy and flavourful the meat was…oh my it was delicious! You certainly don’t judge pork by first impression, and this got me really wondering…what IS the secret of Iberian pork?!?!

Oh, and some ice cream was also very appreciated in the scorching heat!

26 days in China, part 7 – Kunming

We’re nearing the end of the “26 days in China” series with two more posts to go. One destination that was a spontaneous addition to the itinerary was Kunming, the capital city of Yunnan province. As I travelled to different cities along the east coast of China in search of friends whom I have met either in Bordeaux or Glasgow, I felt a bit regretful that I wouldn’t be able to also see XQ, who was living in Kunming, as Kunming was in the southwest and kind of out of the way. Then one day I thought: I’m in CHINA, which doesn’t happen often – it would be foolish to not make a trip to see XQ in her hometown. Who knows…I might not get another opportunity. I had around 12 days to spend in Guangzhou anyway, so what the heck, why not. There and then I decided that it’d be worth it to take two days and head to Kunming to see my dear friend as the flight was only 2.5 hours one way and was rather affordable. Alas, a new destination was added, and I couldn’t wait to see the “Colourful Clouds of the South”, a beautiful name for Yunnan (which itself directly translates to “Cloud South”).

With limited time, I was only able to get a condensed tour of the city of Kunming, guided by my friend XQ who had returned to Kunming from Glasgow just a few months earlier. We first headed to Cui Hu Park (literally “Green Lake Park”) in central Kunming for a relaxing stroll around the area. “Leisure” would be the word that I’d use to describe Kunming as everywhere I went gave off a relaxing vibe. There was no rush like in the big cities, everyone went about their business at their own pace, and it just felt…nice.

A curious sight that could only be experienced during the winter is the migration of the red-beaked seagulls at Green Lake. Apparently these birds come to the south in December because of Kunming’s warm climate, and flocks and flocks of them dwell around Green Lake, so many that they’ve become a tourist attraction themselves. People have taken advantage of this migration and started businesses of selling bird food around the lake, and a common activity was indeed feeding these seagulls either with the special bird food or just with white bread. Throw a piece of food and a bird would target it and catch it mid-air as if it was a trained expert. They almost never miss!

Never would I imagine that seagulls would be of any interest to me, especially since they’re usually a nuisance, but I have to admit that I was quite awed at seeing perhaps THOUSANDS of these seagulls all swimming on the lake. Now, here’s one that landed quite close to me…hi there!

Scattered around Green Lake Park were pavilions and public areas where people assembled in small groups to sing, play music, or just hang out. In fact, outside the perimeter of the park, there was a series of what I called “free outdoor concerts” where groups of different musical styles performed for people passing by. Soft rock, 60s Chinese jazz, classical, opera…you name it. Many of the performers sounded quite professional, and I was rather impressed. I particularly liked this small group of musicians consisting of a vocalist, a flutist (I play the flute myself), and an elderly gentleman who was just…observing the flutist?

Aside from music, there were also other forms of artistic activities taking place. My favourite would have to be the man with the gigantic calligraphy brush writing on the pavement with water, as if the road was an open ancient scroll. This was right up my alley because I have developed a keen interest in Chinese calligraphy and even took lessons several years ago. Every stroke was laid down so firmly and aesthetically, and every character was constructed with so much precision. What gorgeous penmanship, even when magnified!

Moving away from Green Lake, XQ took me to another landmark of Kunming – Dian Chi, or Dian Lake. This wasn’t a city lake like Green Lake, but one on a rather large scale, stretching onward for tens of kilometres beyond the city limits. To experience Dian Chi to the fullest, we had to head southwest from Kunming to Xi Shan, or the West Mountains. It was said that “If you don’t visit the West Mountains, then you haven’t REALLY been to Kunming”. Not sure if that’s an old saying or a slogan for publicity’s sake, but that matters not. Upon arrival, a cable car took us to the top. The view of Dian Chi was amazing especially as we were moving up slowly and could take our time to enjoy the moment.

Of course, the second part of the above “saying” is, “If you don’t go to the Dragon Gate when visiting the West Mountains, then you’ve pretty much visited in vain”. Uh huh. In fact, the cable car took us all the way to the Dragon Gate, which was a series of temples, caves, tunnels, and stone steps along the cliffs of the West Mountains. At the peak of the mountain stood THE Dragon Gate, as written on the stone tablet above the gate in front of a temple. Having travelled up to the top via cable car, we were glad that the part of the journey that was on foot was DOWNHILL as we passed by people walking up in the opposite direction, sweating and panting as they charged onward. Normally I’d be up for the hike but on that particular day, I preferred to just take it easy with XQ ^_^

Time for food! As a host, XQ certainly kept me very well fed during my stay in Kunming. In addition to introducing me to some local eats, XQ took me to a special restaurant that serves Dai-style food. Dai is one of the many ethnic minority groups of Yunnan province and I am perfectly happy to admit that I’ve never heard of more than half of the things that were on the menu – still quite excited to try them! During dinner I found out that another friend from Glasgow, Mrs. Cai, was also in Kunming and was joining us for the meal. Selfie time with the food before our chopsticks touched the plates!

If I were to choose, I would say that Kunming gave me the best new dining experience during the entire China trip. I only chose five dishes to represent the whole experience but trust me, there were a whole lot more. Top left: Dai-style dish, stir-fried bajiao (banana?) flower. This is one of those things that I was hearing about and trying for the first time, and though it may look like chicken, it was meat-free, colourful, crunchy, and delicious! Bottom right: Dai-style dish, pork belly and cheek platter, so greasy yet sooooooo sinfully tasty. Top left: Breakfast food item, er si (no idea how to translate this) with soft shredded pork. It was like a bowl of really good noodles with a slightly different texture soaked in excellent broth, except they were…not exactly noodles. Sliced flour? Rice cake shreds? Middle right: Miao-style sour daikon and beef slices. Surprisingly the daikon complemented the beef extremely well, and the whole thing was made perfect with a bowl of rice. Bottom right: Definitely not leaving Kunming without trying the “Over-the-bridge” rice noodles, an iconic favourite of Yunnan province. The noodles were soaked in steaming broth with an assortment of side items including pork slices, crispy pork rind, scallions, and leafy greens. THE BOWL WAS SO HUGE it might as well have been a wash basin…

Two days was not nearly enough time to experience all that Kunming has to offer, not to mention the other more well-known places in Yunnan province – Dali, Lijiang, Shangri-La, and Xishuangbanna, just to name a few. I hope that the “Colourful Clouds of the South” will await my next visit and hopefully my good friend XQ will still be there to show me around!

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!

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