Sunday, 26 October 2014

China... A New Food Culture and Adventure

Readers, things have been quiet on the blog the last few weeks as What Claire Baked has been hanging out overseas.  Google and Google platforms are currently banned in the country I was in, so keeping up with my foodie fans was impossible. I also had to go cold turkey on social media due to bans. Apparently it is good for the soul... yes food friends, I was in China.

This post will be a little different from most… not a recipe or a how to or even a photo of what I've made. This is sorely focused on the food discoveries I've made over the last few weeks touring around Northern China.

Being in China isn't comparable to anywhere else I've been in the world. I expected it to be a little like Thailand... its not.  Here people stare at Westerners, they spit in the street and the "squattie potties" are a whole new level of foreign experience... Google it. Not for a foodie blog.

Aside from the slightly bizarre mentality and fondness of western spotting, the people of Northern China sure know how to cook. I plan to share with you some of the regional delights we encountered during our trip.

So sit back, relax and prepare to be taken on a journey of culinary discovery.

Beijing... Hutongs and Huge Portions

The Hutongs of Beijing are the old neighbourhoods where many Beijingers lived for decades.  They are narrow winding streets with courtyard houses and home to some of the most amazing eateries in the city.   We stayed in one of the Hutongs on our return to Beijing in an amazing little boutique hotel called The Orchid.

Let me tell you a little about The Orchid. It's fantastic value.  It has a roof terrace.  The breakfast is to die for.  It's mid range on price.  You get a memory foam mattress and a rain shower.  The staff are lovely.  The wine rack rocks.  They make hot chocolate.  You get free fruit and water.  Aaand guests get Apple TV in the bedroom and the use of a smart phone during their stay.  I considered moving in for good at one point...
Stairs to The Orchid Roof Terrace at Night. 

Our bedroom at The Orchid was through the archway

Right across the road was one of the best dumpling houses in Beijing.  Mr Shi’s dumplings.  A little window in the corner of the restaurant was a viewing platform into the world of steamed or fried dumpling making.  The menu was huge… filled with a  selection of meat and veggie dumplings.  We went for a selection of 15 to share and accompanied by 2 soft drinks, out bill came to less than £5.00.  Not bad for dinner for two!  They offered up dessert dumplings but trust me, you won’t have room for them!
Master Dumpling Maker!

Inner Mongolia... Hotpots

We had an amazing experience in Inner Mongolia.   We were invited to stay with a family in the grasslands who were sheep farmers.  There were huge yurts for us to sleep in.  We were lucky and had a private one…It was cold and we had a very bizarre sheep killing experience… in the field one minute on the plate the next.  Sorry vegetarians, it’s a fact of life.

Mongolia is famous for its hot pot.  The locals choose a meat, add some vegetables, fry potatoes and throw in some hot sauce/stock (think a very chunky meaty soup).  It’s then served in a pot with a flame underneath to keep it bubbling whilst it’s passed around the table.   We were lucky enough to enjoy two hotpots during our stay.

Hello Hotpot!

Da Tong...Hotel Dinners and a Family Run Restaurant

There’s very little I can say about this city.  We arrived late at night, so didn’t see much of it and ended up having dinner at the hotel.  Yes it was decent, it cost £3.50 per person for a mass of food, but it was in a restaurant surrounded by smoking chinese people and wasn’t anything special.  We weren’t there long enough to try any regional specialities.

Around an hour and a half from Da Tong is the Hanging Temple which we spent a morning at.  On the way back we went to a local, family run restaurant at the bottom of the mountain, which served some delicious food.  Their vegetables were beautifully dressed and everything was full of colour and flavour. I've included some photos for sheer drool factor!

Pingyao... Corned Beef on Sticks

Ahh Pingyao… a wonderful walled city, with lots of character and plenty of history… home to the first bank in China if you are interested!

We had a bit of an experience with the street food in Pingyao.  We found a fantastic vendor who sold what looked like a meat pastry roll… Think sausage roll.  Tasted delicious and was mixed with a selection of vegetables.  We couldn’t wait to share the experience with Vincent our guide, who straight after informed us…. “Good effort guys, that was donkey you tried today.”
Scene of the donkey sausage roll incident

Aside from Donkey Gate… another regional speciality favoured in Pingyao is corned beef.  Not in slices as we know it in the Uk.  It’s served on skewers, normally hot, with a sauce accompaniment.  You’ll also find it in hot pot as well in local restaurants.
Corned Beef Skewers... Delicious!

Xian... Markets and Muslim Quarter

Xian has a fantastic Muslim quarter, home to some of the best street food in China.  They had everything – from savoury products, to lamb wraps, to corn cake with fruit sauce and what tasted like chapatti filled with Chinese style meat and vegetables.  We tried both of the above at lunchtime.  The corn cake was an odd experience.   Think cold rice stuck together and finished with fig drizzle. 

The savoury dishes were wonderful and the smell of the spices filled the air all around the market street.  Top tip – look for the stalls with queues of people who look local, they are usually the best options for you to try.
Look at those spices!

The corn cake we sampled

Cooking street food in Xian

How to cook Tofu!

Beijing... Taking a taste of China home and The Duck Experience

Our trip started and finished in Beijing and I realised I’ve forgotten to mention our great experience at the Jingzun duck restaurant at the start of the trip. It might be right across the road from a Holiday Inn Hotel, but don’t let that stop you!  It’s one of the best duck restaurants and the most reasonably priced in the city.  The duck is fresh, cooked whole (yup including the head) and is made in a glass windowed kitchen where you can see the chefs preparing it for you.

Every visitor to Beijing needs to try the city’s most famous dish: Peking Duck. It’s not like duck in the UK.  It’s served sliced, not shredded.  The pancakes are similar and the hoisin sauce is to die for:  it’s home-made, thick and full of flavour.  At Jingzun, a whole duck and the trimmings set us back £12.80… At least half of what you’d pay at home.
peking duck

The window into the kitchen at Jingzun Duck

To finish off our tour of China, Mr What Claire Baked and I spent a day at the Hutong Cuisine Cook School.  I’ve said so much so far, that that the cook school deserves to be recognised in it’s own right.  Look out for a post coming soon on that experience.

Here's what I made at cook school... More coming soon!

In a nutshell, China was a foodie dream.  If you ever plan to visit, I have some advice for you… Never judge a book by its cover.  Many of the restaurants look like the UK equivalent of a greasy spoon, but if you want they authentic experience, they are the ones to go to.  They’ll prepare the best food, with local chefs at the helm.  You definitely wont leave hungry!

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