Monday, 30 January 2012

Beijing Eats: Peking Duck

Peking Duck
Da Dong, Beijing

Going to Beijing and not getting Peking duck would be rather like going to Argentina and not having a steak. It has to be done.
There are many places for Peking duck in Beijing and many guides telling you where you must and must not get it.
With our trip drawing to an end, we decided to visit one of the cities restaurants that catered especially for Peking duck. And as a change from the usual cheap eats cafes, to go to one of the higher end recommended restaurants- and so we found ourselves in Da Dong.

Da Dong was different to the kind of eatery we were used to- large and ornate, with huge wall panels and unnecessarily ostentatious chandeliers. But it was clean and bright, and had an amazing aroma of freshly cooked duck and delicate spices.

Before ordering our duck, we started with our classic dish of peanuts in vinegar, a personal favourite. Whilst picking at these, we studied the heavy duty menu, laden with beautifully presented, beautifully photographed dishes.
Before we had time to stray from the original plan, a waitress arrived, barking 'duck' at us in a manner that was more of an order than a question. So meekly we nodded.

Before the duck arrived, we were presented with individual enamel trays- rather like a very elegant TV dinner. This is something I hadn't encountered before with Peking duck, but highly approved of. There would be no waiting (im)patiently for the cucumber, or fighting over portion control with the soy, or any panic over how much spring onion was left in the bowl.

Each tray contained freshly grated garlic, sugar, grated pickled ginger, sliced spring onion and radish, and of course the thick, sweet Hoi Sin sauce.

The duck was next to arrive, sat fatly on a pile of entirely redundant lettuce leaves. It was a generous portion with a good duck to fat ratio- some of the cheaper places leave very little to eat, once the reams of fat have been greasily pulled away.

The duck was accompanied by 'duck soup'. This is traditionally served alongside Peking duck, making the most of the bird in true Chinese fashion by using every inch of the carcass by creating a soup from it's marrow. More often than not these days, duck soup is no longer served, and so we used this as a gauge for a good, traditional Peking restaurant. Da Dong safely passed the test.
Tradition aside, my soup went almost untouched- spare a few floating leaves of cabbage, there was very little to it, and very little flavour aside a slightly greasy saltiness.

The duck was devoured (good duck to pancake ration, though I believe we asked for extra pancake.) and the plates were cleaned away. My issue with duck is that I never find it entirely filling- but that's a problem of mine rather than the duck itself. Bizarrely, we were subsequently presented with a gum course- a sheet of Wrigley's chewing gum placed lovingly on a large plate with- even more bizarrely- a fork. This intriguing palate cleanser proceeded another unrequested (but appreciated) dish; a large plate of sliced watermelon and a pile of satsumas, presented on a grill over dry ice.

All in all the meal was a good one- in culinary respects, it was very good quality Peking duck. The meat was plump without being fatty and the condiments were fresh and true to the dish. Whilst I love the little local diners and cafes, the higher end restaurants (this meal still came to no more than £5 a head) present a far less greasy, delicate and often no less genuine fare.
The entire ambiance leaned a little to the bizarre side though, with the Waitress rushing us through the meal (the bill was presented whilst we were still eating and dishes arrived, unordered, whilst their predecessors were still making their way to our lips) and the bizarre effect of the chewing gum course and fruit on dry ice.
I would whole heartedly recommend getting Peking Duck if you find yourself in Beijing, and unusually for me, recommend going to one of the more well known Peking Duck restaurants- but if you like to make eating into an event, then maybe Da Dong is not the place for you...

For those inquisitive linguists out there- Da means 'big'. I'm just going to leave you with that thought.


Beijing Eats: Street Food

Beijing Street Food

Although there are so many amazing dishes and restaurants to choose from in Beijing, there is nothing I love more when travelling than street food. Not only is it practical to pick up something warm and cheap whilst on the hoof, I learnt a long time ago that you often get some of the most authentic and beautiful food that a country has to offer when it's cooked in a dustbin out on the pavement. China is absolutely no exception, and some of my fondest food memories were born on its streets.

Street food in China can be amazingly diverse- not just in the range of food available; from the classic dumpling stalls to the Muslim influenced grills of Northern China- but also in it's ability to both delight and horrify.
The vast wok of steaming animal entrails, above, was a teaming mass of undefined animal product- tripe, intestines, brain... nothing is wasted in China, and every part of every animal is common on every menu.
This particular concoction smelt about as good as it looks- I didn't try it.

A street food favourite! There are a few variations of Jiān Bĭng (煎饼- pan fried pancake) , but this one was one of the best. Huge pancakes are cooked and topped with egg, which almost melts into the batter. The vast pancake is then topped with a thick sauce (similar to that of Peking duck), spring onion, lettuce (probably the only lettuce you'll be finding in Chinese cooking!) and a sheet of batter, which adds a crunchy texture to the pancake wrap.
This dish costs about 5 kwai, the equivalent to about 50p. However, as a wài guó rén (foreigner) expect to ripped off- this crafty little fellow cut our wrap in half and attempted to claim the cost was in fact 5 kwai per half. This did not fly.

Food on sticks in very popular- sausages, scorpions, quail's eggs... But the most common is kebabs, a Northern Chinese food that is found all over Beijing.

Talking of food on sticks... Natalie could not resist the sausage in sweet waffle batter, sold around the lakes during Spring Festival. Sweet and savoury is a not uncommon combination- The Chinese like their baked goods to be saccharine in the extreme, and it's almost impossible to find baked goods that aren't laden with sugar. Even their bread loaves is topped with a sugar glaze or sprinkled with icing sugar, and their sausage buns are made with super sweet brioche- like bread.

No, really. The Chinese love their sugar. Keep an eye out for the caramelised fruit on sticks- often a colourful array of strawberries, kiwi and satsuma- or even a stick of five or six ful sized sugar coated apples. But be on your guard for the little red skewers. When it comes to sweet and savoury, these guys love to mess with your heads. They aren't cherries and they aren't little apples- they're sugar coated tomatoes.

A slightly healthier street side snack- It's easy to find men selling hot sweet potatoes, cooked in situ in large dustbins. You can pick the size of potato that you like and take it away with you- the ultimate healthy and comforting fast food and a real relief in the bitter minus temperatures of Beijing in January.

Beijing treats- a popular dessert during times of Festivity; Moon cakes!

Beijing Drinks...

Oh Bubble tea, I miss you already... A bit of an addiction of mine, even when I'm in London- though a lot cheaper! My first experience of hot bubble tea, it made a great on-the-go replacement for coffee in the morning, when heading out early to explore the city.

From ice cream to rice cakes, I've tried all sorts of matcha (green tea powder) flavoured products. Though I loved the squidgy glutinous rice balls, coated in icing sugar and with a peanut butter centre (honestly, they taste better than 'glutinous rice ball' suggests...) I really enjoyed the green tea latte. Sweet, frothy and an adorable shade of pea green!


Beijing: Eating Out

Beijing Eats: LouLovesFood Favourites

I am a very lucky girl. With a twin sister living in Beijing, I couldn't possibly miss the opportunity to bring in the (Chinese) New Year and celebrate Spring Festival in China itself. With its mix of high end hotels and hutongs, street vendors and cocktail bars, it's one of my favourite cities, and was the perfect excuse for a exploration of Asian eating. Having visited China a number of times, I have a repetoir of dishes that have, as a da wei wang, become as close to my heart as the city itself...

Most of my favourite Chinese dishes seem to be the simple ones- in this instance, peanuts soaked in rice wine vinegar. They're great to have on the table to pick at as you eat, or wait for the other dishes to arrive.

Another dish that gets ordered with almost every meal, and another dish that is brilliantly simple- egg scrambled in sesame oil with tomato. One of China's more healthy options, and impossible for my sister and I to resist.
You can find a variation of this dish in every cafe- the second photo being scrambled egg with Chinese chive and pepper.

An absolute family favourite, very much a part of my childhood memories of China- we almost never eat out without ordering Kung Pao ji ding (宫保鸡丁) .
Pao has to be done correctly- the dish is essentially chickens in a Kung Pao sauce, served with peanuts (not cashew nuts folks- the peanuts are integral to the dish.) It also contains chilli, sechuan pepper and spring onion.
Gung Bao is Sechuan in origin, and has the distinctive Sechuan 'ma', Mandarin for 'numbing' and it is the pepper that gives this dish the distinctive and authentic numbing sensation. Sechuan pepper is a fragrant berry that is often fairly over powering, burning the tongue like chilli, and causing the mouth to tingle. It seems to worm it's way into many Beijing dishes, sometimes adding a delicate and aromatic Asian flavour to the dish, but more often than not, over powering the sense and leaving the mouth feeling like it's been rinsed in washing up liquid.
This particular version had been topped with sesame coated glazed walnuts. An unexpected but very welcome addition!

For lunch, a calzone like pancake, sealed like a pasty and stuffed with egg and leek. A light dim sum option that proved itself to be a delicious relief amongst all the fried, oily, (somewhat overcooked) and fatty meat dishes that are found in abundance in every meal.

Possibly one of the most important foods of China would be its jiaozi and biozi- dumplings and steamed buns. Sold in restaurants, dumplings houses and as street food on every road, they are essential to the Beijing eating experience. Our favourites are the pork and leak fried dumplings (though they have many many manifestations) and the char sui pork Boazi (steamed buns made with a fluffy white dough and stuffed with meat)- although there is something beautiful about a sopping wet plate laden with damp steamed dumplings.

A very beautiful example of boazi (包子)- these are the miniature versions. The larger, traditional boazi are much bigger than dumplings, relative in size to a baseball. Though served in restaurants and cafes, boazi are also an archetypal street food, cheap, filling and readily available. For my guide to Beijing street food, keep clicking back...


Thursday, 19 January 2012

Winter Warmer: Mushroom and Herb Polenta

Ottolenghi's Mushroom and Herb Polenta
with mixed mushrooms, truffle oil, tarragon, thyme, rosemary and tallegio.

Whilst most Ottolengi recipes vary on the side of light and spring like, this one is definitely a winter dish -Warm, comforting and nourishing, and one of my favourite recipes from Plenty.

Follow the recipe step by step and you will be rewarded by an incredible intensity and variety of flavour... Skip the truffle oil and a few of the herbs, and you'll still have a very presentable and bloody fine dish. Just as a good recipe should be.

I feel I should point out, the more rustic the bowl (or flat serving plate) you use to serve it, the better it'll taste...


Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Eastern Meditteranean Supper

My current obsession (I think it would be fair to call it such) is with Eastern Mediteranean cuisine. It's a passion that been building over time and seems perfectly natural - I've always loved street food and prefer to eat mezze style over a more British set plates and courses. I love flatbreads and hummus, vegetable based dishes and healthy, natural food.

Discovering Ottolenghi, and owning his cook books was a definite milestone in my culinary explorations. This awakening led me to the Bierut Street food of Yalla Yalla, and meanderings onto Edgware Road.

A few nights ago, I held a Lebanese supper, with recipes taken from a Ottolenghi and Silvena Rowe..

Radish and broad bean salad, with preserved lemon- A light, sharp salad with a bit of bite.

Pastry boreks with feta and spinach

Burnt aubergine, with tahini and pomegranate molasses and seeds

Pistachio Revani, with a pomegranate seed syrup


Sunday, 15 January 2012

Food Fact of the Day

You can now get Begals in Beijing that compete with the New York Bagel, in almost any flavour- including fig and walnut- but never the traditional poppy seed.
This is because poppy seeds of any variety, for any purpose, are banned in China, due to their connection with Opium, and the reminder they bring of the Opium Wars.

From Our Correspondant, in Beijing- Boazi. Many Thanks.