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An American (foodie) in China


ulterior epicure
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I've finally unpacked, caught up on sleep and have organized my photos. To pick off where I last substantively left off on my food reports from my first night in Beijing atNan Lai Shuen Restaurant, I continue.

Day Two Lunch

The second day, I took a sprint-tour through Tienanmen Square and The Forbidden City - which was amazing. My sprint took so long that I didn't get catch lunch until 2pm.

The people I was with were craving Szechuan, and so we ended up at a less-than-ideal restaurant that one of my colleagues knew about. It was tucked away on the second floor of what appeared to be an office building. The restaurant was simply called "Szechuan Restaurant." The food was pretty pedestrian, so I'll only post the highlights:

The first thing to come out was a "cold plate" - which, from subsequent restaurant experiences, seems like a standard in China. Comparing from previous experiences - even at Chinese restaurants in the U.S., this restaurant's cold selections was pretty unimpressive.

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Cold plate: Orange juice-marinated winter melon ("dong gua"), cold-cut beef, and a roulade of what looked and tasted like pork forcemeat rolled in nori. I found the orange juice-marinated winter melon really odd - tasted just like orange juice. The radish was very soft - almost mushy and impossible to pick up with chopsticks without the batons from collapsing.

Notes:

1. The beef was my favorite.

2. The strips of (yellow) winter melon must have been marinated in some orange juice, as that's exactly what they tasted like.

3. Some kind of mincemeat/forcemeat rolled in what appeared to be a thin layer of wood ear mushrrom and on the oustide, a thin layer of tofu skin.

4. Mixed vegetables - celery, carrots, peanuts and wood ear mushroom.

***

Another interesting dish was a steamed egg custard topped with crispy ground meat.

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Steamed egg custard: The egg was excitingly soft and silky - almost hard to believe there was anything at all when cutting through the supple substance. The crispy ground beef added both a nice textural counterpoint, as well as flavor.

***

While I've had guo ba in the U.S., it's always a novel item:

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Guo ba: Guo ba is crispy rice cake - think rice cakes make of Rice Krispies. Stir-fried meat and vegetables in a thick sauce is poured over the crispy rice table-side. The point is that the crispy cakes soak up the sauce, but still retain its crunch. If you wait too long, the cakes go soggy.

This version featured bamboo shoots and red peppers. I found the sauce really just too syrupy and not very appealing in flavor.

***

Other than a kung pao chicken and a sweet and sour pork, the only other dish that had made any impression on my tastebuds was a beef stew.

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Braised beef stew: Despite looking tough, the cuts of beef had been simmered until absolutely fall-apart. The stew sauce was perhaps the best part - very tasty and rich.

***

The other note I'd have to make is, this meal was the beginning of a string of really depressing soups. Here, we had an egg drop soup with tomatoes. The soups were infinitely better as I moved south. Can someone tell me how the northerners and southerners (Chinese) approach soup-making differently? The soups in the North just tasted like dishwater - an afterthought - salt water with vegetables. :sad:

You can see the rest of the photos from this meal on myflickr account.

Szechuan Restaurant

Zong Ruan Building, 2nd floor

55, Hsue Yuen Nan Road

Hai Ding District

Beijing, China

Tel: 62186618

Edited by ulterior epicure (log)

“Watermelon - it’s a good fruit. You eat, you drink, you wash your face.”

Italian tenor Enrico Caruso (1873-1921)

ulteriorepicure.com

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Day Two Dinner

After the Szechuan Restaurant, I made a quick trip out to the Summer Palace, after which, exhausted, my friends took me Da San Yuan - a restaurant with a smattering of regional cuisine - but the restaurnat is listed as a Cantonese restaurant.

Cold plates included:

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Carrot and dofu skin salad

***

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Dofu skin with celery: Light and cool - refreshing on a hot steamy day.

***

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Salty pickeled winter melon: Sadly, I found these nearly unpalatable due to its saltiness. The opposite end of the spectrum from the orange-marinated winter melon from lunch!

***

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Cold-cut beef: Also called "lu nieu rou."

***

Hot foods included:

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Braised iceberg with brown sauce: Strangely, Chinese people like braise iceberg lettuce, a thought almost unpalatable to an American. The iceberg lettuce is usually steamed and then drowned in a brown sauce.

Notes: I didn't think the steamed iceberg by itself was bad... but the brown sauce was a bit too thick and distracting.

***

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Dofu bao with octopus and squid: The dofu was very soft, as were the squid and octopus. The Chinese really have a way with cooking rubbery seafood.

***

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Pork with mystery mushrooms: At first, we thought these mushrooms were lily stalks - they looked dry, leathery and thing. We failed to see the cap. But, upon tasting them, the stalks were unmistakably shroomy. When we asked, the servers confirmed that these were mushrooms - but the exact type was lost in translation. Can anyone help? See below for a close-up shot.

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***

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Chicken and bell pepper stir-fry

***

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Tza Jian Mien: A Szechuan noodle dish. You mix the meat-based spicy gravy in and add as much bean sprouts and pickled radish (red slivers) as you wish.

***

There was also a sweet and sour pork dish (*YAWN*) and a hot & sour soup that was actually acceptable. But then again, after the miserably sour soup we had at Nan Lai Shuen the first evening, any version of hot & sour soup probably would have impressed.

***

Desserts included:

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Sa Chi Ma: Fried dough clusters stuck together with honey/sticky sugar, and Orange mochi dusted with coconut flakes.

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Cloud bean cakes: Supposedly a sweet treat made fo the emperors of China, these little cakes are made from cloud bean paste. They tasted very much of cloud bean - and were slightly gritty - but not unpleasantly so. Like most Chinese sweets, these little cakes were only slightly sweet.

***

You can see the rest of the meal on my flickr account..

Da San Yuan

50, Jing San Shi Street

Beijing, China

Tel: 64013920

Edited by ulterior epicure (log)

“Watermelon - it’s a good fruit. You eat, you drink, you wash your face.”

Italian tenor Enrico Caruso (1873-1921)

ulteriorepicure.com

My flickr account

ulteriorepicure@gmail.com

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Hey

Nice shots. I think we should all be sharing our photo-taking-during-meal-time-tips around threads like these. I'd take a lot more but it always feels out of place!

And those mushrooms are always awesome. Not sure of the english name but they are literally called Tea Tree Mushrooms (chashugu/???). I always love them in braised or dry-hot-pot dishes.

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Hey

Nice shots. I think we should all be sharing our photo-taking-during-meal-time-tips  around threads like these. I'd take a lot more but it always feels out of place!

And those mushrooms are always awesome. Not sure of the english name but they are literally called Tea Tree Mushrooms (chashugu/???). I always love them in braised or dry-hot-pot dishes.

Thanks. The only pain is uploading the photos - after post-production. Some of these restaurants were very dim.

re: Chasugu. You're right! Click.

re: Food. The meals get better, overall, as my trip progressed. Stay tuned!

u.e.

“Watermelon - it’s a good fruit. You eat, you drink, you wash your face.”

Italian tenor Enrico Caruso (1873-1921)

ulteriorepicure.com

My flickr account

ulteriorepicure@gmail.com

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Hey

Nice shots. I think we should all be sharing our photo-taking-during-meal-time-tips  around threads like these. I'd take a lot more but it always feels out of place!

Thanks. The only pain is uploading the photos - after post-production. Some of these restaurants were very dim.

u.e.

Thanks so much for taking the time to post pictures and text about your trip, U.E.

And, I hope others will do the same, so we could take more of these virtual trips. It really doesn't matter if you're travelling in China, or eating Chinese anywhere else in the world, it's always interesting to those of us at home.

Looking forward to more! :biggrin:

Dejah

www.hillmanweb.com

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Nice pics, U.E. One of the things that I think I would find interesting about dining in China is a comparison of taste values. Would I consider good, dishes that Chinese relish? Would Chinese laugh at dishes that I find interesting or delicious? I would like to think that my spirit of culinary adventure is sufficient to be able to appreciate some foods that are truly foreign to me. Some day I would like to find out for sure.

John Sconzo, M.D. aka "docsconz"

"Remember that a very good sardine is always preferable to a not that good lobster."

- Ferran Adria on eGullet 12/16/2004.

Docsconz - Musings on Food and Life

Slow Food Saratoga Region - Co-Founder

Twitter - @docsconz

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Dejah, you're very welcomed. Photographing, eating and writing about food is a sheer pleasure for me.

On with the show:

Day Three

I had most of the day for my own leisure. I decided to maximize time by rolling two big tours into one day and ended up going with an organized commercial tour. The up-side was that I got to see both the Ming Tombs and Great Wall in one day. The downer was that the organized tour piled us into a deplorable tourist-trap for lunch - which was a cloisonne factory cum restaurant... shop while you eat. :hmmm: Conveniently, the restaurant was located near the Ming Tombs. I saw a good number other tour buses...

Most of the food was pretty unremarkable, and obviously catered to the American tourist palate, including a cold plate of (very American) ham, and even french fries ( :huh: ).

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The plate stacked on the french fries is stir-fry beef and onions.

***

But, thankfully a few dishes are worth commenting on:

Lamb skewers

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These babies were extremely succulent. While I was tempted to think they were all fat - but upon further inspection, and especially in the texture, it was just very very very tender meat - probably from the shoulder. These lamb skewers were slightly musky.

***

Cabbage and oyster mushroom hot pot

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The pot was presented at the beginning of the meal filled with cabbage and oyster mushroom. The server lighted the heater and poured in already hot pork broth and allowed the soup to simmer until we were done eating. Soup, as in the other restaurants, was enjoyed as the last course. Here again, the soup was clear and a bit bland - like dishwater... but the oyster mushrooms and cabbage did a lot to bolster the flavor.

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***

Here's a picture of our whole table:

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The little egg rolls in the foreground were very crispy - the inside was do sa, sweet red bean paste.

*****************************************************************

After a good hike up and down the Great Wall (the Chinese are truly amazing people!), I headed back to Beijing to conduct some personal business. Dinner was with some acquaintences. Being my last evening in the capital city, they insisted (and I was pleased) to try some of Beijing's famous roasted duck.

Eschewing the self-proclaimed mecca of Peking Roast Duck, Quan Ju De, supposedly a very good, but over-run-by-tourists madhouse, my trusty compatriots steered us to a more remote restaurant, Tong Fu Lin Roast Duck Restaurant, tucked away in an inner courtyard behind the National Clothiers (Textiles) Association.

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I was a little skeptical by the kitschy plated roast duck and over-turned cup & saucer over the doorway. :laugh: But, when in Beijing...

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The inside of the restaurant is decorated in yellow, with muraled wallpaper of nature scenes of China.

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***

First, our server presented us with some locally bottled Great Wall label dry red wine.

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I tasted some - and would have to say that it paired remarkably well with the duck later in the meal.

***

Next, we were given a foretaste of the feature dish. The server presented each of us with a iceberg lettuce cup holding a nest of fried noodles holding crispy duck crumbles.

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The duck was analagous to Western confit, but instead, it had been fried crispy in a wok. As you can see, the crumbled meat was very dark (probably from soy sauce?). The textural play was just extraordinary - fresh, grassy and crisp (lettuce), crunch (fried noodles), and meaty and satisfying (duck).

If it weren't for the fact I wanted to save room for the Peking roast duck, I could easily have gone for another.

***

Then, we were assaulted with a number of hot dishes:

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Beef & Onions stir fry

***

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Pineapple Fish. So-called because the fish is flipped inside-out, scored, batttered and deep fried som that the meat explodes out into pineapple-like looking chunks. The sauce is essentially just sweet & sour sauce.

***

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Bok choy with red bamboo - I thought that the orange chunks on top were carrots. But, the taste was distinctly bamboo. I asked my companions, who were confused themselves. Some swore up and down that it was carrot. Other insisted it wasn't carrot, but it wasn't bamboo either. Inquiring with a server, it seems that the foreigner got it right - these were red bamboo shoots. They were great!

***

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Braised iceberg lettuce - Just as other versions I'd had - steamed and covered in a thick brown sauce.

***

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Egg Drop Soup

***

After the soup, the server cleared some of the plates to make way for the feature presentation. First, he presented us with the roast duck's condiments:

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1. Duck plum sauce

2. Shredded scallions and cucumber batons

3. Young garlic puree and large-grain sugar

Then the wrappers:

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He explained to me that the way to distinguish good from mediocre wrappers is that you should be able to squeeze the wrapper up in your palm and then spread it back out without the thin skin sticking, wadding, or tearing. I tried. According to his explanation, these were spectacular - they were like wrinkle-free tissue!!

Throughout our duck tasting (which lasted approx. 1/2 hour), the wrappers, though cooled, never stuck to each other in the serving dish! I wish Chinese restaurants in the U.S. could duplicate this!!

***

A chef then carted out two whole roasted ducks to be carved table-side for the 8 of us.

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The knife-skill was amazing. He dis-assembled two whole ducks within 5 minutes - making razor sharp edged cuts that separate the crispy skin then reconstructing the duck, piece-by-piece, sans bones onto a cute little duck porcelein serving dish.

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Here's the re-constructed duck served to us:

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Here's another, tighter shot:

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(Sorry it's sideways)

The duck was amazing. The meat was moist and surprisingly juicy. The skin was a honey-golden crisp - with just enough fat left underneath to make it a luxiurious eating experience without being excessively greasy.

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The server proceeded to tell us the three most popular ways of eating Peking duck:

1. Traditional way: Scallion, cucumber, plum sauce and duck.

2. Local favorite: Traditional method + young garlic paste.

3. The third was was to simply take a thin shard of crispy skin and to dredge it through the sugar.

As the "guest of honor," the server asked me which preparation I would like to try first. Being a garlic lover - I told him to go for broke and give me the local favorite... when in Beijing... He then demonstrated how to properly wrap the duck and the condiments - with chopsticks - no digits, in the tissue-thin crepes.

This was a party in my mouth. The garlic was so wonderful - young spring garlic is extremely pungent - added to the scallion, it was wonderful. The plum sauce, with its sweetness also complimented the crisp savory roasted duck skin. The meat provided a nice satisfying meaty texture while the cucumber, of course, a refreshing cool crisp snap.

The skin dredged in sugar was unexpectedly good. Not that I doubted two of my companions who were exclusive skin and sugar eaters, but I have to admit, I was not prepared for the complexity of flavors. The sugar, remarkably, brought out the depth of the smokiness in the skin. It was explained to me after I commented on it that the duck had been roasted over wood chips, that in part flavored the skin. However, when wrapped with the other condiments, the smokiness was overpowered by the pungent scallion/garlic and the saucy sweet plum sauce. Sugar, by itself enhanced the wood-smoked flavor. Exquisite.

***

As tradition would dictate, our last savory course was a soup. What better way to end the meal than with duck broth - essentially a cloudy stock made from the bones left over from the duck carving. This soup really did look like dishwater and tasted like salted water in which duck bones had been cooked:

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***

For dessert, our server brought out some "taro pearl balls":

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These little sweet treats were pounded taro rolled into balls, coated with Chinese vermicelli crumbs and deep fried. The outside fried noodles become airy and crisp, while the insides are soft, slightly gummy, and molten hot. Like most Chinese desserts, these weren't exceedingly sweet - just perfect.

***

Overall, I had a great time. It may not have been the *best* roast duck house in Beijing, but the duck portion of the meal was very good. I'm sure that finding the best roast duck house in Beijing is like find the best cheesesteak in Philly, or the best hot dog in Chicago - it just boils down to personal preference. I'd like to return to Beijing one day and try a number of other duck houses to make a more experienced comparison.

At any rate, I had a great time, and if you ever find yourself in Beijing, and without reservations at Quan Ju De, try out:

Tong Fu Lin Roast Duck House

26, Che Men Wai Da Street

Zhao Yang District

Beijing, China

(Inside the Clothier/Garment Association courtyard)

Tel: 010-64175678

Edited by ulterior epicure (log)

“Watermelon - it’s a good fruit. You eat, you drink, you wash your face.”

Italian tenor Enrico Caruso (1873-1921)

ulteriorepicure.com

My flickr account

ulteriorepicure@gmail.com

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more good pics! Nice. I'm usually a fan of some of the steamed varieties of lettuce.. particularly the ones in a thin slightly sweet soy-based sauce or the ones with a slab of bacon on top. But this one just look... gross! Echk too much thick sauce in that photo! Your description of it sounds spot on.

Docsconz:

That's a big opinion topic to get into, and one that interests me VERY much. Part of what I seem to get myself involved with in China often has me trying to tour around and introduce other westerners to good chinese food, after they have explicitely given me their 'do-not-eat' list. The list varies in length from person to person, but all people share one thing in common... they are NOT foodies by any stretch and you'll never find them on Egullet. So i can rant away. So what all this has really done is forced me to 'somewhat' figure out which elements in Chinese food are approachable to westerners, and to what level.. and in what order. Big topic, maybe it deserves its own thread! Anyway through doing all this one sort of gets a clearer view of the specific points where all of our palates are shared and which other aspects require more 'openness' to get. One thing that comes out of this that I find strange and amusing is that most westerners can get around and enjoy the food in Shanghai most of all, whereas most Chinese despise it most of all! Mostly this has to do with them cooking with tons of sugar here. In fact I find that a LOT of food here is similar in many ways to what you can find at those very unspectacular Chinese restaurants in north America. Meat rolled in sugar and deep fried. Anyway, no need to hijack the thread any further... but there's this subtle balance between taste and oh-my-god-what-is-that that determines palatability(?) for non-chinese. eGulleters have the second part usually figured out quite well. So if you come to China you'll find yourself quickly liking nearly everything!

Ulterior:

Do you remember where exactly that restaurant was? It looks so familiar... haven't been back to beijing in a while .. and heading there tomorrow. But it looks like something I've passed (and laughed at) a million times and yet I have no concrete recollection.

Your description of the duck sounds excellent, and on the rare occasions that I have Beijing Duck I like having it good! So thanks for not going to QuanJuDe. Their duck is quite excellent just as many places are, but we need more reviews of non-QuanJuDe duck restos.

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So if you come to China you'll find yourself quickly liking nearly everything!

I very much hope to test that theory someday!

Funny thing is I first got involved with eGullet because i didn't go to China. I was supposed to go back in the spring of 2003 right in the middle of the SARS epidemic. Unfortunately, just before the trip was supposed to leave I came down with a respiratory bug of my own. I was not going to try to enter China then with a pre-existing respiratory condition of my own and was pretty sick so I didn't go. I suddenly found myself with a lot of time on my hands and discovered eGullet while surfing the net. Sometimes good things do come from bad.

John Sconzo, M.D. aka "docsconz"

"Remember that a very good sardine is always preferable to a not that good lobster."

- Ferran Adria on eGullet 12/16/2004.

Docsconz - Musings on Food and Life

Slow Food Saratoga Region - Co-Founder

Twitter - @docsconz

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ah wow, I wasnt' around here back then, but a lot of friends were, and they make it sound like a widespread party for expats (in beijing at least).

Well when you do finally get here, you'll be far more prepared now with eGullet here. I did the same thing right before I came and a few comments in particular really helped focus and satisfy my concerns ....and infatuations with certain foods.

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Other than a kung pao chicken and a sweet and sour pork, the only other dish that had made any impression on my tastebuds was a beef stew.

Question about the sweet and sour pork. It was my understanding that Chinese-style sweet and sour sauce was usually just some rice vinegar (the black stuff) and sugar. The S&S in your picture looks just like North American style S&S. Did your dining companions comment on it at all? I'm wondering if that style has always been present in China, or if it's something adapted for Western tastes.

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Ulterior:

Do you remember where exactly that restaurant was? It looks so familiar... haven't been back to beijing in a while .. and heading there tomorrow. But it looks like something I've passed (and laughed at) a million times and yet I have no concrete recollection.

Your description of the duck sounds excellent, and on the rare occasions that I have Beijing Duck I like having it good! So thanks for not going to QuanJuDe. Their duck is quite excellent just as many places are, but we need more reviews of non-QuanJuDe duck restos.

You're welcomed to the pics, and you're welcomed to the non-Quan Ju De review.

I've posted the address of Tong Fu Lin in the updated posting here. I added more pictures: of the roasted duck and sweet endings. If you do make to Tong Fu Lin, I expect a report! :wink: Would love to hear how your experience was.

u.e.

“Watermelon - it’s a good fruit. You eat, you drink, you wash your face.”

Italian tenor Enrico Caruso (1873-1921)

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Other than a kung pao chicken and a sweet and sour pork, the only other dish that had made any impression on my tastebuds was a beef stew.

Question about the sweet and sour pork. It was my understanding that Chinese-style sweet and sour sauce was usually just some rice vinegar (the black stuff) and sugar. The S&S in your picture looks just like North American style S&S. Did your dining companions comment on it at all? I'm wondering if that style has always been present in China, or if it's something adapted for Western tastes.

Ahhhh, yes. I believe the "sweet & sour" you're talking about is actually tong tsu-style (literally "sugar vinegar")... meat (usually fish) braised in a sauce made from dark sugar (brown) and black vinegar. The effect is very different from the sweet & sour dishes I've posted. You'll see some of the tong tsu dishes I tasted later when I post about my travels further south, in and around Xi Hu (West Lake), where the freshwater fish is prepared in this fashion. Stay tuned!

u.e.

“Watermelon - it’s a good fruit. You eat, you drink, you wash your face.”

Italian tenor Enrico Caruso (1873-1921)

ulteriorepicure.com

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ulteriorepicure@gmail.com

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The fish in question from you photos is a very typical way of preparing it in Shanghai.. its usually described as boneless fish, even though there are usually still the odd bones hanging around. Also I'm pretty sure it does not go by the sweet and sour name (tangcu), though the name escapes me now. Like Ulterior said, TangCu preparation is usually a simple mix of a dark sugar and a black vinegar along with some dark soy. Sometimes they add bits of fruit-related product. The best kinds that I've had like this were in Hangzhou but usually it's actually unimpressive to me and tastes more like a poorer version of what we are used to in north american chinese restaurants. I'd love to hear your thoughts on the ones you've tried. I've had the same Tangcu pork in beijing and it was anything but dark, so maybe they do things differently there sometimes. Also the fish that is reaaally famous in Hangzhou is the sour fish. It is in a brown sauce and is slightly sweet but really sour! A strange taste at first. I'm not sure if thats like what you tried there? ahh I like Hangzhou food quite a lot. ...

And there's always something fun about sending home shots of a tangcu dish on my table and immediately hearing confusion all around me "but that's like Chinese food here !! ??"

Its as though the people that travel a lot assume it can't exist in China and the rest expect every Chinese person to go through a kilo each and every day. I can remember all the times at the montreal chinese restos where someone would say "chinese food is great, but there's no way I could eat this sugar+deepfried meat every single day like the Chinese". Great stuff!

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The fish in question from you photos is a very typical way of preparing it in Shanghai.. its usually described as boneless fish, even though there are usually still the odd bones hanging around. Also I'm pretty sure it does not go by the sweet and sour name (tangcu), though the name escapes me now. Like Ulterior said, TangCu preparation is usually a simple mix of a dark sugar and a black vinegar along with some dark soy. Sometimes they add bits of fruit-related product. The best kinds that I've had like this were in Hangzhou but usually it's actually unimpressive to me and tastes more like a poorer version of what we are used to in north american chinese restaurants. I'd love to hear your thoughts on the ones you've tried. I've had the same Tangcu pork in beijing and it was anything but dark, so maybe they do things differently there sometimes. Also the fish that is reaaally famous in Hangzhou is the sour fish. It is in a brown sauce and is slightly sweet but really sour! A strange taste at first. I'm not sure if thats like what you tried there? ahh I like Hangzhou food quite a lot. ...

Yes, sorry, I think jokhm makes a distinction that my last response failed to make clear. There are two different types of "sweet & sour" preparations, so to speak. One, is more sweet than sour - the (scarily) vibrant orange sauce that most Americans are used to seeing. The other, is more of a tart dark brown/black sauce that is made from a dark sugar and black rice vinegar, or tangcu. Like jokhm added, it is regional to Xi Hu (West Lake) and the surrounding towns/cities - Hanzhou being one of them. In fact, I had tangcu West Lake fish at a restaurant in Hanzhou.

I very much liked the Hanzhou sour fish - but I'll save the remarks for my posting. Please be patient, I've got a lot of work to catch up on.

u.e.

“Watermelon - it’s a good fruit. You eat, you drink, you wash your face.”

Italian tenor Enrico Caruso (1873-1921)

ulteriorepicure.com

My flickr account

ulteriorepicure@gmail.com

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I was supposed to go back in the spring of 2003 right in the middle of the SARS epidemic. Unfortunately, just before the trip was supposed to leave I came down with a respiratory bug of my own. I was not going to try to enter China then with a pre-existing respiratory condition of my own and was pretty sick so I didn't go. I suddenly found myself with a lot of time on my hands and discovered eGullet while surfing the net...

Sounds like a prudent doctorly move! Glad you're with us here on eGullet!

u.e.

“Watermelon - it’s a good fruit. You eat, you drink, you wash your face.”

Italian tenor Enrico Caruso (1873-1921)

ulteriorepicure.com

My flickr account

ulteriorepicure@gmail.com

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Thank you for sharing the food side of your trip with us, U.E... Beautiful photographs and descriptions giving an idea of the wonderful diversity of dishes.

I'm so intrigued by this steamed egg custard w/crisp ground beef. Do you remember the flavor of the custard? garlic? sweetness? more neutral?

Was the ground beef spicy?

...

Another interesting dish was a steamed egg custard topped with crispy ground meat.

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Steamed egg custard: The egg was excitingly soft and silky - almost hard to believe there was anything at all when cutting through the supple substance.  The crispy ground beef added both a nice textural counterpoint, as well as flavor.

...

"Under the dusty almond trees, ... stalls were set up which sold banana liquor, rolls, blood puddings, chopped fried meat, meat pies, sausage, yucca breads, crullers, buns, corn breads, puff pastes, longanizas, tripes, coconut nougats, rum toddies, along with all sorts of trifles, gewgaws, trinkets, and knickknacks, and cockfights and lottery tickets."

-- Gabriel Garcia Marquez, 1962 "Big Mama's Funeral"

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ludja.

The steamed egg custard is usually neutral flavored - although its almost always served as a savory course. The savoriness, so to speak, is from the meat or broth that is usually poured over the custard. In this case, the crispy beef was enlivened by some chile oil. However, I have had other versions where the broth/meat was not spicy. This is really a precursor to the Japanese chawan mushi, a steamed custard that usually incorporates seafood. (Although, the last meal I had in China featured a Japanese chawan mushi with just a gingko nut in it.

u.e.

“Watermelon - it’s a good fruit. You eat, you drink, you wash your face.”

Italian tenor Enrico Caruso (1873-1921)

ulteriorepicure.com

My flickr account

ulteriorepicure@gmail.com

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Meetings and a little sightseeing took me through the morning. I skipped lunch to hurry to Beijing Int'l Airport.

Landing in Xi'an in the late afternoon, I scurried toward town, more than an hour away. Our driver told us that the traffic can get very scary. The town of Xi'an has one of the best preserved city walls - with only four gates: entrances and outlets for cars. Congestion is a big problem.

By the time we got to Xi'an, it was dinner time and we decided to head out for some traditional local food . Xi'an is famous for their dough products - noodles and dumplings. Strapped for energy and time, we decided to go to Defachang - a famous dumpling house (perhaps the most famous?) in Xi'an.

This famous and award-winning dumpling restaurant has been around for nearly 70 years. It is in the Defachang Hotel just near the beautiful Xi'an bell tower. Defachang prides itself in its "dumpling feasts," where elaborate and carefully made dumplings are coursed out in amazing quantities. Our dumpling banquet only featured 17 different kinds of dumplings. The fillings ranged from savory chinese-chive and pork to sweet walnut marzipan.

The restaurant is huge. The first floor was full of locals and families (and noise). It looked a lot like a more dim sum format - women rolling around carts with dumplings and other small plates.

My friends took me upstairs, where there were larger round party tables. They admitted that the place was touristy (I could easily discern that from the number of foreigners), but that it was truly a unique experience showcasing Xi'an's dumpling variety.

As with most meals, a hot pot was presented - although I'm not sure why because after lighting the burner underneath, the servers (it took three to lift the metal pot full of soup - and on fire!) promptly removed it to make room for the dumplings.

The dinner started off with a smattering of small cold plates and hot appetizers. These were some of the best I've had.

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Cold Spicy Nappa Cabbage: The cabbage had been pickled in a very spicy pickling liquid. It was at once light, cool, yet very flavorful.

***

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Cold mung bean and rice vermicelli salad: Dressed lightly with sesame oil. I really liked this dish - the bean sprouts had been dressed and marinated such that the texture was nearly similar to the glassy noodles. Very simple and clean tasting.

***

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Cold sorghum noodles: At first I thought this was Japanese soba noodles - but they were made out of sorghum, instead of the traditional purplish buckhwheat. Still, they were somewhat similar in texture - soft, with a firm chew them - nice texture. The noodles had been dressed lightly with black rice vinegar and sesame oil.

***

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Peanuts fried with corn and strips of dried fish: Peanuts are very popular and are used in a wide range of ways - from simple dishes like this one and sweet peanut soup, where peanuts are the main show, to other, usually savory meat courses where they are used as an accompaniment or crushed and used as a garnish/topping. The thing that really made this peanut dish for me were the pungent strips of dried fish - which not only added flavor and depth (a briney-smokiness), but a textural play as well.

***

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Cold beef tendons: Hands down one of my favorite things to eat - beef tendons. Here, they are cut into chunks (with a little fat and meat mixed in) and served cold with a little drizzle of sesame oil for fragrance. Simple, yet so good.

***

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"Chicken nuggets" on sticks: For a lack of a better description, these are "chicken nuggets on sticks." This was a cultural oddity to me - as they seemed almost - well, Japanese to me. I don't know why I got that impression, but it struck me - and, well, stuck. These cute little chicken-pops were just like chicken nuggets - soft tender chicken covered in a crispy breading (dotted with sesame seeds) and stuck on a miniature popsicle stick. Cute. Popular with the kids at the next table, who happened to have whole plates to themselves. They were German.

***

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Cold spinach salad: Wilted spinach simply marinated in a little vinegar and sesame oil. The greens are studded with meaty yellow soybeans.

***

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Dofu gan noodles: These were mock noodles of dofu gan - a firm, smoked form of dofu. Like most cold dishes, it was lightly dressed with fragrant sesame oil.

***

Of course, we had to have something to wash it all down with. Something special. Something I, as a teetotaler, have had and makes me not a teetotaler: jio niang.

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Jio niang: Jio niang is a drink made from fermented glutenous rice - think intensely sweet rice liquor. It has a very peculiar taste - and is amazingly sweet for having no sugar added whatsoever. I don't know what the alcohol content is, but it tastes like it'd be very high - which explains the small portion. One of my companions was tempted to get another glass, but I think prudence (embarrassment?) kicked in after his face turned bright red after the first sip. :laugh: I've made jio niang before in my home - but I usually cook it to burn off some of the alcohol to make a hot rice porridge (thickened with a little cornstarch - you'll see a great version of this later in my trip). I can post the method if people want - although I'm sure it's already available on this forum elsewhere.

***

Now for the dumpling fun. The servers brought out STACKS of bamboo steamers full of dumplings.

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Here you can see the servers preparing another bamboo steamer for service. As you can see, by steaming the dumpling in these stacks, the "chimney" of bamboo baskets trap the heat and the moisture quite well - even after they've been taken off the boiling water.

***

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Ma la chicken dumplings: (yellow) filled with a spicy chicken. "Ma" in Chinese means "numb." "La" means spicy. The numbness comes from Sichuan peppers.

Seafood dumplings: (white) Filled with minced shrimp, scallop and crabmeat.

***

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Traditional boiled pork dumplings: These are your run-of-the mill traditional pork filled dumplings that are boiled. These can also be panfried as potstickers.

***

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Steamed Chinese chive-pork dumplings: (Transluscent white ones with the slightly greenish tint in the middle). These were one of my favorite - filled with minced pork, ginger and a good amount of pungent and garlicky Chinese chive.

Chicken dumplings

***

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Curried chicken dumplings (yellow)

Curried pork dumplings

***

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Shrimp dumplings (white) These showcased the handiwork - these looked like little shrimp. I don't know why - but shellfish (ie. shrimp)-filled dumplings tend to be wrapped in the white rice flour skins.

Rabbit dumplings (yellow) Nothing particularly "rabbity" about this course - if I didn't know it was rabbit, I would have just figured it was lean pork.

***

This next duo was a real treat - in fact, the highlight of the meal for me.

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Steamed walnut dumplings: These were wrapped in sorghum wheat dough and pinched and formed to resemble walnuts. Amazing. The inside was filled with a sweet maple-y ground walnut mixture. It was very (American) autumnal.

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Pumpkin dumplings: Pumpkin puree-filled dumplings wrapped in a mung bean flour skin. These thing transluscent skins really showcased the vibrantly orange-yellow filling. The pumpkin was very silky and squash-flavored - with a hint of natural sweetness. I doubt, other than salt, and perhaps a touch of white pepper, anything else was added to the pumpking filling. This was one of my favorites.

***

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Ham & corn dumplings (white): Yum - the smokey salty ham with the sweet corn - reminded me of the Midwest (America)!! :raz:

Pork-filled spinach dumplings (green): I was surprised that the spinach flavor come through as well as it did. These dumplings were not only bright clover green and pretty, but the pork inside was well-flavored and juicy as well.

***

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Chicken: You know, after about five different kinds of chicken and pork dumplings, even I started to get confused. I didn't have a pen or paper handy, and my memory has hazed over on this particular dumpling filling... but I do know it's filled with a chicken of some sort. :wacko:

Tomato paste-filled dumplings: (triangular) These tart and tangy tomato-paste filled ones were an unexpectedly tasty treat. I didn't expect anything, but was pleasantly surprised by the nice fresh flavor of the tomatoes. They tasted like freshly stewed tomatoes, perhaps cooked down to thicken it, with little else but a bit of salt and pepper. Maybe a touch of (white) vinegar.

***

Rounding out our savory dumpling feast:

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Pork pot stickers: These were really great. In a twist to the familiar, these pork-filled babies were left open-ended - but the filling never once threatened to slide out. The filling was a wonderfully pungent mix of pork, chinese chive and a heady kick of white pepper. The outsides, as you can see, are crispy and carmelized, while the inside filling remained juicy and hot! Excuse my drool. :raz:

***

Having forgotten about the hot pot soup, I was ready to be wheeled out to bed... but:

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By the end of the meal - the soup was a rolling boil. Miniature dumplings (see below) were thrown in and allowed to cook for a few minutes before the soup was served. There was a cute saying about your fortune depending on how many dumplings you happen to catch in your ladle (and in your bowl). Fortunately, regardless the number, it was good fortune for all. The Chinese are very fair fortune-tellers!

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These little dumplings (here shown before cooking), about the size of your thumbnail, were filled with pork. They are dumped into the boiling soup stock and cooked for just a minute or two before being ladled out to guests.

***

Sweet nothin's - yeah, there was something sweet to cap off the meal - and in true Xi'an dumpling style:

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Sweet lotus paste-filled "dumplings": These dumplings were made of puff pastry - incredibly flaky and light. The sweet lotus (root) filling had a hint of legume-like flavor.

***

Overall, a memorable meal. I was stuffed and slept very well.

Defachang Jiaozi Restaurant

Bell & Drum Tower Square

Xi'an, China

Tel: 029-87214065

You can joing me in food coma by seeing the entire meal on my flickr account here.

u.e.

Edited by ulterior epicure (log)

“Watermelon - it’s a good fruit. You eat, you drink, you wash your face.”

Italian tenor Enrico Caruso (1873-1921)

ulteriorepicure.com

My flickr account

ulteriorepicure@gmail.com

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My mom always served it to me plain as a child. A few eggs, some water to dilute it, some salt, steam and you're done.

Everyone else seems to fancy it up with sauce on the top, though. In my experience seasonings are never incorporated into the custard, just poured on top.

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Cold beef tendons: Hands down one of my favorite things to eat - beef tendons.  Here, they are cut into chunks (with a little fat and meat mixed in) and served cold with a little drizzle of sesame oil for fragrance.  Simple, yet so good.

Have you had beef tendon cut into thin slices? I have seen that preparation more often, usually Szechuan style, drizzled with chili oil.

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Have you had beef tendon cut into thin slices? I have seen that preparation more often, usually Szechuan style, drizzled with chili oil.

Oh, yes. I especially like it when the tendons are "marbeled" with shank meat - braised with a touch of star anise (which by the way, didn't show up markedly in any of my Xi'an meals), sliced cold and served with a drizzle of soy sauce, garlic, a touch of chile and sesame oil... and, of course, garnished with cilantro. I'm drooling!! :raz:

“Watermelon - it’s a good fruit. You eat, you drink, you wash your face.”

Italian tenor Enrico Caruso (1873-1921)

ulteriorepicure.com

My flickr account

ulteriorepicure@gmail.com

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