Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Sunday Street Style, Kaili

I love an octogenarian with attitude. I spied her one Sunday in Kaili Old Street, with her hair and specs rather eccentrically arranged. She was embroidering herself a new belt.

Sunday is no day of rest in China. In fact, it's often the busiest day of the week as families, groups of friends and workers head for the shops on their one and only day off. Kali, in Guizhou Province, is no exception as the Sunday Market gets into full swing, starting in the old part of town and spreading like topsy into the surrounding streets.
Kaili Sunday Market

Local Miao and Dong women wear 'everyday' dress but still look so elegant in their traditional hairstyles as they shop for embroidery patterns.

Sunday is also when the street barbers do their best business - a dollar a cut.
Not everyone is happy about having a hair cut.

The chicken vendors gamble at cards until the last live chicken is sold.

And the vegetable sellers bring home-grown roots, herbs and greens. At the end of the day they loop their wire baskets over each end of a bamboo pole and carry them home.

The la jiao guys pound dried chilies into powder. They're completely immune to the chili vapours and smells in the air, but as soon as I enter I'm coughing and wheezing and my eyes start to stream hot tears. I buy a bag to take home.
The spoon guy sells his hand-carved spoons from a sack on the ground. Eighty cents each. 

And the shoe repair lady sets up on Sundays in an alley off the main street. Her shop unfolds from a cupboard and a table to reveal a sewing machine and a hundred little tools for fixing leather. Nothing is considered too worn or too old to be resurrected by her clever hands.

Sunday is street life. Find yourself a corner in the market and watch it all unfold.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Farm to Table Feast, Miao Style

Farm to table. It's an well-worn phrase on city restaurant menus, but what does it really mean?

Many would say it means using seasonal ingredients, with the fewest delays and distance possible between farm and plate, and a high degree of transparency in this process. Others would say it means local farmers deliver directly to restaurants. In rare cases, it means that some items on the menu are actually grown in the restaurant's own kitchen garden. But that's pretty uncommon.

The appeal of farm to table is obvious - the food is fresh, local, and has maximum flavour because it's at its seasonal peak. I would argue almost all our food should be 'farm to table. The disadvantages of our current food supply are that we don't know exactly where our food comes from, how long it took to get to us, or what was done to it along the way.

As New York chef Pichet Ont says:

"Food travels a lot. The shrimp that you eat could have been caught a whole year ago and traveled around the world before it gets to your plate. I just don’t think that that’s what we should do. We should strive for a model where food travels a lot less."
Amen to that sentiment.

Two weeks back, in stunning Guizhou once again, I had a revelation. After eating four very special home-cooked meals in four different Miao homes, and watching the preparation of these meals, I realised that here was the fundamental essence of farm to table. 

The farm-to-table distance was less than fifty metres, the farmer was also the cook, and every single thing on the plate had been grown, raised or made by the person cooking the food. It was magic. It's also how Miao people eat every single day. 

Here's how they do it:
Miao villages are almost always on steep hills (Guizhou is all steep hills). Rows of homes are interwoven with terraced rice paddies and vegetable plots. Fish are grown in the rice paddies and chickens wander freely eating insects.

Every family raises one pig, on household scraps and dried corn. Aside from New Year, when fresh pork is eaten, the remainder of the meat is preserved to make la rou, or smoked bacon, to add a depth of flavour to dishes.

And every family grows their own rice supply for the year. Here: three generations of one family plant spring rice seedlings. Rice is also used to make rice flour, fermented rice, and rice wine.

Anything that can't be used fresh is dried or preserved - chilies, scallion roots (see below), summer green vegetables, pork, air-dried chicken, dried and salted rice paddy or river fish. 

What this means for a Miao family is an abundance of home-grown fresh foods in spring, summer and autumn, supplemented with dried and preserved foods in winter. 

Here's a typical Miao farm to table feast (and one I enjoyed enormously!):

Potato shreds stir-fried with garlic, scallions, and green chilies.
Chinese purple yam flavoured with pork and scallions
Chinese ingenuity at its best - washed and air-dried scallion roots, tossed with a little rice wine vinegar (home made)

Green beans, scallion tips, garlic
White corn, green chilies, pork, cherry tomatoes

The knock-out dish - sweet, fiery green chilies charred in a hot wok. 
Home made tofu, scallions,  red chilies. So full of flavour - the tofu and been partially fermented.
Rice paddy fish - crisp fried (also seen in image at top)

Sunday, October 19, 2014

A Life Without Boundaries | TEDxBrisbane

I'm an introvert, born without a single extrovert gene. If I go to a party I get all anxious and wobbly at the thought of talking to people I've never met before. I worry about what I should say and then worry what I've said isn't witty/interesting/serious enough. It's an affliction.

And public speaking? An introvert's worst nightmare. The thought of standing up in front of a group of people, even people I know and love, makes my voice box seize up. I'd honestly rather just send them a little written note. This may explain why I love blogging - it's like public speaking without saying a word. 

But then back in July a message popped into my inbox.

Hi Fiona! How are you? I wanted to invite you to give a talk at TEDxBrisbane. We think you'd make a wonderful addition to the day if you were interested? I hope so!

TEDx? I thought.

Isn't that PUBLIC SPEAKING? Like, in front of LOTS OF PEOPLE??

I immediately broke into a cold sweat and pretended I hadn't received the message. For two days.

For those of you in the dark about TED, it's an organisation devoted to 'ideas worth spreading'. Invited speakers talk for 18 minutes about an idea they're passionate about. TEDx are independently organised TED events in places like my home town, Brisbane.

To be honest, I was terrified at the thought of speaking at TEDx. It made me feel physically sick. I really, really wanted to say no, but deep down, I knew I really, really needed to say yes.

Why? Because I knew from experience that when something scares me witless, that's just the thing I ought to do. Like travelling alone to rural Thailand as a naive 21 year-old. Like helicopter rescue as an emergency doctor. Like publishing my first blog post. Like writing my first book. All of these were terrifying, but I knew they would somehow be good for me if I could just overcome the fear.

So I said yes, partly because it was such an overwhelming honour to be asked to speak, but mostly because one of the organisers said to me - "Just think of it as the message you'd like to leave your children." That spoke directly to my heart.

What happened next was truly life-affirming. I spent days and weeks thinking about all the disparate elements of my life; medicine, my children, my long happy marriage, writing, China, eating, photographing, and road trips; and somehow distilled it all into 18 minutes of my life's philosophy, with a few funny China stories thrown in.

At forty-five years old the chance to do this, to really deeply reflect on what is important to me, was a great gift. It made me enormously grateful for the rare and special opportunities life has thrown my way, and all the wonderful people I've met on my path through life. And suddenly, the zig-zagged journey to where I am now made some sort of crazy sense. 

I could be a doctor. And a writer. And a photographer. And I could stop feeling guilty about wanting to be all those things.

And telling it all to more than five hundred people? Well, that part was truly terrifying. I wrote, and re-wrote, and re-wrote the words I wanted to say. I practiced like a fiend, in secret, then in front of my husband and a few friends whose opinions I really trusted. I sweated and fretted and drove myself crazy with anxiety. I meditated. I pretended it didn't matter if I stuffed it all up on stage in front of everyone. And then I spiralled into black panic attacks thinking about what that would feel like, to make a big mess of it while someone was filming you and five hundred people were watching.

So I just tried to think of it as the story I wanted to tell my children. And it turned out OK.

So tell me: what would be the story of your life?

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Nine Famous Noodles You Need To Know

There are almost as many famous noodles in China as there are cities in which to eat them, and they're all good - believe me, I've tried most of them.

Traditionally, five noodles were named as China's Five Famous Noodles, considered the pinnacle of noodle eating. They were Shanxi's hand cut noodles dao xiao mian 山西刀削面, Beijing's zhajiang noodles zhajiang mian 北京炸酱面, Guangdong and Guangxi's fried noodles, Sichuan's dan dan noodles dan dan mian 四川担担面 and Wuhan's hot, dry noodles re gan mian 武汉热干面.

Earlier this year the China Ministry of Commerce and the China Hotel Association expanded this list of five to China's Top Ten Noodles but caused no end of controversy when the list failed to include, for example, any of Shanxi Province's hundred types of noodles. What? No cat's ear, willow leaf or scissor-cut noodles? And how about the noodle dishes of China's far west?None of them made the list either. 

It got me thinking - which noodles would I list as the best, and why? Here are nine favourites I've chosen from all over China.

1. Oat Noodles, Shanxi

Oat noodles (yao mian 莜面) are a Shanxi province specialty, nutty-tasting and steamed in an intriguing honeycomb shape. The individual noodle tubes can be pulled apart and dipped in a tomato and garlic sauce in this famous noodle dish, kao lao lao 烤栳栳. These oat noodles are unique in all of China, both in flavour and in taste.

Read more about Shanxi's foods here

2. Laghman, Xinjiang
Laghman is the Uyghur way of saying pulled noodles, known as la mian in other parts of China. These thick hand-pulled wheat noodles are topped with a hearty stew made from seasonal vegetables - usually tomato, celery, eggplant, potato and spinach - and mutton, with added chilli.

Read more about Uyghur foods here

3. Crossing the Bridge Noodles, Yunnan
The best name for a noodle dish, ever, goes to this DIY noodle hotpot from Yunnan. Guo qiao mixian 过桥米线  consists of a tureen of simple broth is served with cooked rice noodles, sliced cold meats, sausage, chives, scallions and bean sprouts, and a single quail's egg. You add all the ingredients to the soup to make a delicious meal.

The dish derives its name from the wife of a Chinese scholar who crossed a small bridge each day to bring him his lunch. Lucky devil.

Read about the most famous Crossing the Bridge noodle restaurant in Kunming here

4. Mi xian, Guangxi, Guizhou, Yunnan
If I had to choose a favourite amongst these nine noodle dishes, this would be it. Found in Yunnan, Guangxi and Guizhou provinces, you could map these neighbouring lands with borders marked by small local differences in how this dish tastes and what toppings are used.

The base is a tangle of cooked rice noodles topped with broth. The toppings then add flavour, texture and colour to the dish. Choose from minced savoury pork, sweet braised pork belly, sliced cold beef, scallions, coriander, peanuts, chopped pickles, chilli and occasionally great shattering pieces of pork crackling.

Watch the dish become more sour, more pickle-y and more spicy as you head from west to east through Yunnan to Guangxi then to Guizhou. 

5. Dan Dan Noodles, Sichuan
Fine wheat noodles, clear broth, and a sauce made from an intriguing combination of minced pork, mustard pickles, sichuan pepper and scallions is what makes dan dan mian 担担面 so special.

Hailing from Sichuan province, where it is usually served in a soup, variations of dan dan mian have spread across the world, often including sesame paste sauce but no broth.

More: Ten must-try foods in Sichuan

 6. La Mian, Gansu
 Originating with Hui Muslims in the capital of Gansu Province, Lanzhou pulled noodles (literally la mian 拉面) are one of the most popular street foods in all of China. If you eat la mian at the source, it comes like this: A bowl of beef broth filled with freshly pulled wheat noodles covered by a camouflaging slick of chill sauce and oil. Served alongside are cold beef slices and various vegetable accompaniments including pickled pink radish.

It's a fiery experience.

Read more on Lanzhou's award-winning la mian restaurant here

7. Pot Lid Noodles, Jiangsu

These buckwheat noodles from Zhenjiang in Jiangsu Province (you might know it as the home of Chinkiang black vinegar) have a markedly different taste and texture to wheat noodles - they are dense and chewy with a definite bounce. You can add to them whatever takes your fancy - tiny cubes of potato, chopped salty sour pickles, finely diced sweet pork, sesame seeds, boiled peanuts, chillies fresh and dried. No matter what you add, the real star of this dish is the noodles themselves.

Read more about how these noodles are made here

8. Hand cut Noodles, Shaanxi
If you have ever seen these noodles being made you will know the skill and dexterity involved. A block of dough held up near the shoulder over a steaming pot of boiling water, and a sharp knife shaving long strips of dough into the pot. These knife-cut noodles are known as dao xiao mian 刀削面 and are served stir-fried with a thick sauce, or in soup topped with spicy beef and vegetables, like this.

Read about dao xiao mian in Xi'an here

9. Flag Flower Noodles, Qinghai
Flag flower noodles - qihua tang mian 其花汤面 are so delicate and pretty floating in a simple soup with spinach, peppers, tomato and white pepper.

They come from far-off Qinghai Province, but can also be found in Shanxi where they are served with a sauce rather than in soup. I love them because they are cut by hand and very unique - certainly not what you first think of when you think of noodles.

Top Ten Dishes of Qinghai - here

Here's to noodles - I love them all and this list of nine has only barely scratched the surface!

Monday, September 8, 2014

Shanghai Specialty Food Stores: The Insider's Guide to Chinese Delicatessens

They're mysterious places, Chinese specialty food stores. But if you're interested in Chinese food you will inevitably find yourself wandering into one and contemplating the rows of strange foodstuffs and intriguing smells, wondering where to begin.

For a long time living in Shanghai I felt depressed about the lack of a really good European delicatessen, the sort of place where I would go back home to look at acres of cheese and sample four kinds of prosciutto. The great news is that the  equivalent does exist - think Harrod's food hall and Dean and DeLuca with Chinese characteristics.

Most specialty food stores have a similar range - cured, dried and preserved goods; baked goods and confectionary; fresh foods, and freshly-prepared meals to eat at home.

Here are three of Shanghai's best:

1. Shanghai First Food Hall 上海市第一食品商店
Recently refurbished, the Shanghai First Food hall on Nanjing Road is the oldest and most respected specialty food store in Shanghai. If you want to buy a food gift with prestige for someone important, this is the place to get it. The building dates to 1925 but the interiors were renovated in 2012, and it's very swish.

The first floor features premium seasonal fresh foods from around China (for example, the best of the best Shanxi persimmons), top range meats, food gifts, and international foods (don't get excited here - it really means biscuits and confectionary).

The second floor houses traditional dried and preserved foods including seafood, hams, sausage, mushrooms, dried fruits and pickles.
The hams here are the best you can buy in Shanghai, and come from all over China.
The dried mushrooms are absolutely best quality, but you will pay for the privilege. The matsutake mushrooms (below left) are selling for 2380rmb per 500g. That's almost $US800/kg. Gasp.

The selection of barbecued meats and freshly prepared cold dishes is outstanding here, although again, quite expensive. But all the staff are very, very helpful. 

The third floor is packed with small eateries including branches of Yang's Fried Dumplings and Nanxiang xiaolongbao. For the time being, the fourth floor has non-Chinese restaurants.

Shanghai First Food Hall
shànghǎi shì dì yī shípǐn shāngdiàn

720 Nanjing Dong Lu
Open daily 9am - 10pm

2. Shanghai No 2 Food Store 上海第二食品商店

The Shanghai No. 2 Food Store has branches all over Shanghai, but I most often visit the one near Shanxi Nan Lu - it's pretty representative of what they have to offer. It's an every day specialty food store (if that isn't an oxymoron), with more affordable prices. The fresh food section is small but is balanced by a huge snack and confectionary section.

For festivals and holidays No. 2 Store always has a seasonal special food, often sold from a street food-style cabin at the front of the store.

This is one of my favourite bargain buys - hawthorn paste (shanzha gao). It's sweet and tart and perfect with sharp cheddar or blue cheese. Use it exactly as you would use quince paste (and at a tiny proportion of the cost). I've actually come to prefer its more delicate flavour to quince paste.
Dried persimmons - also great with cheese

Ground black sesame - now you know where to buy it!

I'm also kind of addicted to No. 2 Store's sweets - the good old White Rabbit milk candies, and their miniature peanut nougats. Buy by weight - just grab a bag and fill it up.

If it's your thing, they also have a trustworthy supply of Chinese spirits. And yes, a good bottle of baijiu will set you back more than 2000rmb.

Shanghai No 2 Food Store
shànghǎi dì èr shípǐn shāngdiàn

994 Huai Hai Zhong Lu
Open 7 days

3. Shanghai Changchun Food Store 长春食品商店
The Changchun Food Store is my own favourite in Shanghai. It's small enough not to be overwhelming, has very helpful staff (although non-English speaking) and the food is very high quality. As an added bonus it's directly across the road from one of the city's best Shanghainese restaurants - Guang Ming Cun

They have an extensive cold foods section - 

Air-dried chicken and duck

The best hams

L to R: white poached chicken, Shanghai roast duck, Nanjing salt duck

Cold pig's ear salad (front) and duck tongues (rear)

Kaofu - a Shanghainese specialty with five-spice braised gluten, wood ear mushrooms, and peanuts

Marinated chickens' feet

Vinegar jellyfish, Shanghai style

And an equally extensive dried goods and baked goods section:
Dried fruits and sweets

Dried fish snacks

Air-dried fish from Shaoxing. Incredibly good.

L: Fresh Suzhou style moon cakes - savoury and sweet. These are the store's biggest-selling item.
R: Many foods have a small 'taste jar' so you can sample first and figure out whether it is animal, vegetable or mineral

Shanghai Chang Chun Food Store 
cháng chūn shípǐn shāngdiàn

619 Huai Hai Zhong Lu
Open 7 days 9am-10pm

Have another food store you love in Shanghai (or elsewhere in China)? Let us know below - it would be great to have a nation-wide list of the best!