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nakji

eG Foodblog: nakji (2011) - Gong Xi Fa Cai - goodbye Tiger; hello Rabb

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恭喜发财!

Greetings from Suzhou, and Happy New Year. I've been living here since August 2009, since moving from Japan. It's a pleasure to be bringing you the beginning of the rabbit year, as I'm 2/3 of the way through a full cycle in the Chinese zodiac, having moved to Asia in 2002 - a Horse year. Will I make it all the way through? I'm not sure yet.

I'll be blogging to bring in the new year this week from Jiangsu, Suzhou as we say around here. To put that on a map for you, it's about 20 minutes on a high-speed train outside of Shanghai. Suzhou's famous for its gardens and canals - locals are fond of quoting the famous saying, "Just as there is paradise in heaven, there are Suzhou and Hangzhou on Earth." I'm not sure how close Suzhou is to paradise, but I've been pretty happy living here.

This week, I'm not quite sure what we'll be seeing, as I haven't stayed in China through the holidays. Last year, to bring in the Tiger, my husband and I took some time off to tour around Malaysian Borneo, but since the Rabbit year is meant to be more quiet, I've decided to hang out at home, soak in the atmosphere, and blog for you.

The New Year is a time when many shops close and most people journey back to their hometown. I say "journey" because it often takes several days to negotiate the traffic and crowds to make it home. Trains and buses are often sold out completely, and planes aren't much better. That's why I'll be staying close to home - no sights of Shanghai for us, I'm afraid. I've stocked the larder, so if every restaurant shuts down, and the market is deserted, there'll still be food to see.

Through the miracle of the Earth tilting on its axis, I've actually already lived Sunday, and am now recapping my first day for you. I'm going to take you on a brief tour of my high street and my daily shops, brunch at my local Cantonese place, and a "Kitchen God" inspection of my kitchen. You all, of course, being my kitchen gods - although I'm warning you now, I have not set out any cakes.

Since I'm not Chinese, there's a lot that I see and experience here that I don't have much or any understanding of - I hope that everyone who does can weigh in on things. Part of the joy of living in a foreign country is learning about the cultural traditions your host country has to offer, and living in China is one of the richest and most exciting experiences I've had overseas so far.

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Looking forward to this...always had a big hankering to see Suzhou...hope there will be lots of photos!

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So - first off - Kitchen.

This is actually probably the nicest kitchen I've ever worked in. I'm famous amongst my friends as always being stuck in small kitchens. Usually they look like something out of a war zone - way too small and completely overstuffed, as if we're waiting out nuclear fallout. "I've got cupboards with cans of food; filtered water, and pictures of you," to quote the Postal Service. This is owing to my habit of picking up interesting looking ingredients everywhere I go. Something tells me I'm not alone with this amongst eGulleters? Not only are they overstuffed and too small, they're usually lacking some key feature that I've had to jerry-rig. For example, when I lived in Hanoi, I had no hot running water. So I used a large pot. My first kitchen in Canada was so small, I couldn't open both the oven and the fridge at the same time, because the doors knocked into each other. So I never made ice cream and baked at the same time. :laugh:

The main flaw with this kitchen is the lack of storage. The cupboards may look nice and white, but they harbour mold. Part of Suzhou's grand plan to keep me at a constant cough. All of my supplies then are laid bare, much to my husband's annoyance. The only thing that really bothers me is that my spices are exposed to light, but I go through them fairly rapidly anyway.

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My coffee set up is a pour-over filter I picked up in Japan, that decants into a teapot. I keep the teapot on top of my running toaster oven to keep it hot in the winter, as the kitchen isn't heated.

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Here's my set up:

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I can hear weinoo gasping in New York. Yeah, it's not very professional. That bullet-shaped thing on the left is a blender attachment. /shame/ Since I only drink a cup in the morning, my infrastructure is minimal. This morning's bean was /more shame/ Starbucks, since my local roaster was out of his Yunnan product. I'm going to go by later this week to see if he has roasted more. Other than that, there aren't any other places that sell whole beans nearby.

Tea, on the other hand - there's lots of that. Later this week I'll go round to some tea shops and show you what's on offer there.

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Looking forward to this...always had a big hankering to see Suzhou...hope there will be lots of photos!

Absolutely! Anything in particular you'd care to see?

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Preserved vegetables?

Canals! And also, though in this weather it's probably not a hot topic, what kind of aquatic vegetables are used in the area? Are carp popular, or too expensive?

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Looks like there's some IKEA happening there.

The mold in your cupboards? Is there nothing that can be done about that?

Anyone, anywhere making coffee with a drip setup and freshly ground beans is OK in my book.

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I didn't eat breakfast after the coffee - I spent the morning trying to cram in my homework before my regular Sunday afternoon Mandarin lesson. Normally I eat a late breakfast and go right to class, but my teacher had rescheduled our class until 2pm, so I had a chance for some leisurely brunch and a quick trip up the high street for some provisioning.

Shi Quan Jie; or Perfect in Every Way Street; is the high street in my neighborhood, and is a historical area protected by the government. Most of the downtown of Suzhou, in fact - the city limits inside the moat - is protected against major development. There is a height limit on buildings, which means the downtown retains a peaceful character. The development is happening around the old city, in two areas called the SND - Suzhou New Development; and SIP - Singapore Industrial Park. In fact, most factories are located there, and most of the services for the Germans and Japanese that come to work in them are there as well, including a large selection of restaurants that cater to these groups. It looks like a completely different city.

My favourite nut roaster is on SQJ -

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They specialize in chili peanuts, fresh roasted chestnuts, and sweet pecans. At 4 pm, there's usually a queue down the street, and the sweet chestnut smell wafts down our alley. I didn't buy any, because I wanted to go to my regular sweets shop for nuts instead.

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A little further along is NorthBay coffee, where Jackie roasts fresh Yunnan and Sumatran beans every week. He learnt coffee roasting from a Japanese friend, and runs a creditable shop that looks over the street. I think he uses Chemex pots - he always does his brewing in behind, so I never see. It's an excellent place for a decent cup of coffee.

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Over the bridge and down another alley along a canal is a place my husband and I favour for dim sum. Mainly because they're close by.

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If we're not in before 12, there's no hope of a seat. We weren't very adventurous in ordering, I'm afraid. We try not to eat meat for more than one meal a day as a focus, and I'd already taken out some pork belly for dinner, so we went mainly veg.

The ordering apparatus:

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The shrink-wrapped dishes - I think this is because the dishes come from an outside dish-washing service. the kitchen here isn't large enough to have one of their own, I guess.

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The tea:

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One thing I learnt the first week in China is that no proper meal is complete without cold dishes. You know, although having lived in Asia for a while, each country has its own take on Chinese food. For example, in Korea, it was always Jjajjangmyeon -a take on zhajiangmian - noodles with black bean sauce; invariably served with yellow radish pickle and sliced raw onion. And sweet and sour pork. In Vietnam, in Hanoi - well, for obvious reasons - there were not a lot of Chinese restaurants. I suppose it's different in HCMC. And in Japan, while I am sure there are numerous very excellent and authentic Chinese restaurants, I never made it to any. I will not speak of my hometown, except to say this summer when I went back to my local Chinese place and asked for cold dishes, the staff were like, "Jeez, we're Canadian. We don't even know how to make that stuff anymore."

So, the first week I was here, I paid close attention to my co-workers as we went out for dinner. "Cold dishes" I thought. "Huh."

We ordered my favourite: cucumbers with vinegar.

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We also ordered lotus with orange sauce:

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When it arrived, my husband said, "很黄很暴力"

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Oh, goody. I propose a new rule – Erin does a foodblog every time she moves somewhere fascinating (and she always seems to move somewhere fascinating). Very tricky, posting your own teaser photos.

You seem to have a lot of non-Chinese pantry staples. Do you tend to cook non-Chinese at home, and then eat out for the real stuff? Also, is Suzhou cuisine similar to that of Shanghai, or does Suzhou have different traditions?

Can you get good, mouth-numbing Sichuan peppercorns in Suzhou?

OK, I'll stop asking questions, but I am greatly looking forward to following along this week.

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Preserved vegetables?

Canals! And also, though in this weather it's probably not a hot topic, what kind of aquatic vegetables are used in the area? Are carp popular, or too expensive?

I can do canals. :biggrin: I've got some pictures of fish coming up as well, but some ichthyologists are going to have to identify them. I can only classify them as "small", "medium", or "large".

Pickled mustard tuber will definitely show up. And there are some aquatic vegetables available, although I will admit to having no idea how to prepare them.

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Erin - that seems huge compared to your last kitchen!

It is, quite frankly! At least two people can physically fit into it at once, although my husband prefers not to put this to proof.

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Fascinating! I am highly impressed with your kitchen, and your abiity to turn out wonderful meals in a tiny space. It's even smaller than mine, which is in turn smaller than any of the three from last week's NYC trio blog.

What took you to Asia?

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Looks like there's some IKEA happening there.

The mold in your cupboards? Is there nothing that can be done about that?

Anyone, anywhere making coffee with a drip setup and freshly ground beans is OK in my book.

Ikea - a small kitchen's best friend. The spice racks are Ikea, and a lot of the bowls; the cutting board; the strainer...and the tea towels, which I adore. Going to the Shanghai Ikea is a bit of trip, in more ways than one, but they are reasonably priced and convenient for people like me who have to re-provision a kitchen every two years or so.

As for the mold (mould?), it can be cleaned. But like many other things in life, it returns. Between the humidity and the poor building quality my best defense is to keep the windows open all day to air everything out regularly. It makes for cold cooking, though.

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Oh, goody. I propose a new rule – Erin does a foodblog every time she moves somewhere fascinating (and she always seems to move somewhere fascinating). Very tricky, posting your own teaser photos.

You seem to have a lot of non-Chinese pantry staples. Do you tend to cook non-Chinese at home, and then eat out for the real stuff? Also, is Suzhou cuisine similar to that of Shanghai, or does Suzhou have different traditions?

Can you get good, mouth-numbing Sichuan peppercorns in Suzhou?

OK, I'll stop asking questions, but I am greatly looking forward to following along this week.

Thanks, Bruce! But I'm casting my buckets down where I stand for a while, so to speak. I plan on being in Suzhou for the next couple of years, if everything goes to plan.

Good eye on the pantry! Yes, I mainly cook Indian, Thai, Korean, or Vietnamese at home. Occasionally some pasta. I do cook a bit from my Chinese cookbooks, but the good stuff is so cheap and so easy to get steps outside my door...I often cave and jiao waimai - call for takeaway.

I usually have vegetables delivered twice a week from a local organic farm, and when they deal me something particularly unique, I haul out Fuchsia, and she never lets me down. This week they're shut for the holiday, so I went to a local veg guy and picked up some lily bulbs. Hopefully someone can help me out cooking those.

/More shame/ I don't actually enjoy the ma (麻) flavour from Sichuan peppercorns. My husband is a HUGE fan; we get them at a restaurant usually, and I eat around them. But they are easy to find and buy.

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Fascinating! I am highly impressed with your kitchen, and your abiity to turn out wonderful meals in a tiny space. It's even smaller than mine, which is in turn smaller than any of the three from last week's NYC trio blog.

What took you to Asia?

There are many advantages to a small kitchen, I think, especially if you are fairly well organized. I have various "stations" for prep - a breakfast station where the coffee and toaster live; a vegetable chopping board and a scraps bowl by the sink; a dish washing area that is under my husband and cleaning lady's purview; oil and sauces next to the range, where they get used; and spices next to that. Once I get going, I'm quite organized. The only thing I really lack is a decent place to put my cookbooks when I use them.

I credit my parents for both kitchen organization and my peripatetic nature. My parents are both from nomadic cultures: my mother the Labrador Inuit, and my father the RAF. My father grew up in Hong Kong and Singapore and taught me how to do a proper mis en place for wok cooking when I was a kid. On Saturdays he would take me to the Chinese grocery to get frozen char siu bao, and we'd heat them up for lunch and he'd tell me about life in Hong Kong. Some part of me always wanted to see if his stories were true, I guess. And I wanted better char siu bao.

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When it arrived, my husband said, "很黄很暴力"

OK. What DID he say?

Fascinating blog!

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It means, "very yellow, very violent!" Chinese net-speak for the dangers of the internet. Yellow is slang for pornography in Chinese, as I learnt in my lesson today. Although I think this lotus root was suffering from too much yellow #5 instead.

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The rest of brunch:

Chive dumplings - very crisp, very tasty.

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Kwai teow:

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They look plain, but the noodles are pure wok-hei. Getting to this place early enough means the chefs aren't in the weeds and have the time to do everything up right.

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My Proustian char siu bao. These are the finest I've had anywhere: they do something special with the filling here. A lot of cassia is involved, I think.

These were a seasonal addition to the menu: bamboo shoots with carrot and shiitake. The skins were nice, but the filling underwhelmed.

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The barbecue counter:

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We didn't indulge this visit, but sometimes I pick some up on the way home for dinner.

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Great to see you blogging, fellow expat in Eastern China. I'm curious to see how you eat differently from me.

I know Suzhou is much smaller than Shanghai, but of course still very populous nonetheless. Would you say that you've been to most of the good restaurants in town or have just scratched the surface?

Just curious, do you buy any food items off Taobao? (For non-Chinese: Taobao is a Chinese Amazon-like site with tons of individual vendors, but the major different is that shipping in China is very cheap, usually about $2-3 for even 10kg orders). I recently bought some whole lump wood charcoal. Today, I'm scoping out some pomegranate juice, blood oranges, lots of stuff that I can't find in shops.

Can you get good, mouth-numbing Sichuan peppercorns in Suzhou?

Yes! You can even get really fresh green ones that are still on the stem. I like these the most as they have more of a vegetal, piney, fruity flavor than the dried ones.

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Great to see you blogging, fellow expat in Eastern China. I'm curious to see how you eat differently from me.

I know Suzhou is much smaller than Shanghai, but of course still very populous nonetheless. Would you say that you've been to most of the good restaurants in town or have just scratched the surface?

Just curious, do you buy any food items off Taobao? (For non-Chinese: Taobao is a Chinese Amazon-like site with tons of individual vendors, but the major different is that shipping in China is very cheap, usually about $2-3 for even 10kg orders). I recently bought some whole lump wood charcoal. Today, I'm scoping out some pomegranate juice, blood oranges, lots of stuff that I can't find in shops.

Can you get good, mouth-numbing Sichuan peppercorns in Suzhou?

Yes! You can even get really fresh green ones that are still on the stem. I like these the most as they have more of a vegetal, piney, fruity flavor than the dried ones.

Hey Kent! Great to see you're here through the New Year, too. This week won't be so typical for me, since I'm not at work. I'll get more of a chance to try restaurants I've been meaning to for a while. When I'm teaching, I basically survive on toast; baozi; beef noodle soup from the shop next to school; and curry for dinner. Very narrow.

I would not say I have even etched the barest whisper of scratch into the Suzhou dining options. As I said, when the term is going, I barely even leave my neighborhood. There's a Sichuan place in SND that I've meaning to try for three months, for example. I hope to get there this week.

I have used Taobao to get things like lemongrass or Thai basil, but mostly the sizes are too big for me to use practically. I have a friend who uses it to get sweet basil. Coffee is an option from Taobao I guess, but I haven't thought about looking there. I've been eying a Vitamix on Taobao for a while, but I can't quite justify it to myself.

Yes! You can even get really fresh green ones that are still on the stem. I like these the most as they have more of a vegetal, piney, fruity flavor than the dried ones.

I would love to see what these look like!

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I should mention brunch cost 70 CNY, at a rate of 6.8¥/1 USD.

After brunch, I walked up the street to my fruit shop where I usually stock up on bananas and oranges.

Today I wanted to get some mandarins for the new year - they're lucky, I've heard.

And I also got a new fruit for me - Hawthorne berries. They're sour and creamy, and unbelievably delicious.

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The Fruit Shop has lots of boxes ready for New Year giving.

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And a variety of citrus on offer.

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A durian for Darienne:

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Lily bulbs and the sugar cane juicer:

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A note on the photos: If it's in focus, with a nice depth of field and good light, my husband took it. If it's out-of-focus, and looks like it has been taken in a dark cave by a one-eyed man, it's mine.

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Have you considered taking the cabinet doors off and replacing them with curtains, it might give the needed airflow to make them usable... I removed some of mine as part of a "renovation" that made my kitchen much more usable but even less attractive (if possible).

send Sichuan Peppercorns LOL

tracey

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Have you considered taking the cabinet doors off and replacing them with curtains, it might give the needed airflow to make them usable... I removed some of mine as part of a "renovation" that made my kitchen much more usable but even less attractive (if possible).

Not a bad idea. Actually, I'm considering trying to negotiate a complete kitchen renovation with my landlord while I'm gone over the summer, since we're planning on signing a new lease. We'll see if new cupboards and (hopefully) a built-in oven flies.

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Wonderful start to your blog Erin. What is that cannonball behind the durian fruit, is it some kind of massive pomelo? Please can we get some more market shots of your local fish and meat this week.

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Thanks! I just hope I can do this city justice.

Please can we get some more market shots of your local fish and meat this week.

Of course! I've got some in the can already.

What is that cannonball behind the durian fruit, is it some kind of massive pomelo?

The cannonball is a smallish jackfruit. There's an open one wrapped in plastic next to it.

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