Monday, August 25, 2014

Shanghai Street Food #36 Big CrispyPancakes: Dabing 大饼

For many people, dabing 大饼 is their first introduction to Chinese street food. And what a great place to start!

A huge round of flaky bread, leavened or unleavened, dabing is cooked in a contraption that looks like a giant waffle maker, leaving it oil-crisp on the outside and flaky, chewy and soft within. Dabing are always savoury - topped with white sesame seeds and green scallions; or brushed with a red, spicy, garlicky sauce made from pixian soy bean paste.

Bing 饼 is an all-encompassing word describing any food that is flat and round. The fine wheat pancakes used to eat Peking Duck are bing, the small flaky scallion filled pastries of Shanghai are bing, and moon cakes, whether savoury or sweet, are also bing. The word isn't exclusive to Chinese foods either - French crepes, pizzas, and tortillas are all types of bing. Da bing 大饼 (big bing) simply refers to a large flat round. 

Da bing are eaten at any time of day as a snack, but in Shanghai they are one of the 'Four Kings of Breakfast', the other being deep fried dough sticks (youtiao); sticky rice balls filled with salted egg, pork, and pickles (cifan); and fresh soy milk (doujiang).

To buy dabing, simply nominate a monetary amount - one yuan, two yuan, and so on, and the vendor will cut up a triangular slice for you of the correct weight.

Dabing vendor with folded dabing ready for sale - plain on the left, spiced on the right
Leavened dabing with sesame and scallions

Dabing cooking in the bing-maker
Flaky unleavened dabing with spiced soybean and garlic sauce

Shanghai Street Foods - The Complete Guide:

Number 1   Roast Sweet Potatoes
Number 2   Snack-on-a-stick 
Number 3   Liangpi - a spicy cold noodle dish
Number 4   Langzhou Lamian - hand-pulled noodles
Number 5   Cong You Bing - fried shallot pancakes
Number 6   Baozi - steamed buns, Shanghai style
Number 7   Jian Bing - the famous egg pancake
Number 8   Dan Gao - street cakes
Number 9   Shao mai - sticky rice treats
Number 10  Summer on a Stick - fresh fruits

Number 11  You Tiao - deep-fried breadsticks
Number 12  Dan Juan - egg rolls
Number 13  Shao Kao - street barbecue
Number 14  Bao Mi Hua - exploding rice flowers
Number 15  Chou Doufu - stinky tofu
Number 16  Bing Tang Shan Zha - crystal sugar hawthorns
Number 17  Mutton Polo
Number 18  Yumi Bang - puffed corn sticks
Number 19  Mian Hua Tang - cotton candy
Number 20  You Dunzi - fried radish cakes

Number 21  Suzhou Shi Yue Bing - homestyle mooncakes 
Number 22  Gui Hua Lian'ou - honeyed lotus root stuffed with sticky rice
Number 23  Cong You Ban Mian - scallion oil noodles
Number 24  Guotie - potsticker dumplings
Number 25  Nuomi Cai Tou - fried clover pancakes
Number 26  Da Bing, Shao Bing - sesame breakfast pastries
Number 27  Ci Fan - sticky rice breakfast balls
Number 28  Gui Hua Gao - steamed osmanthus cake
Number 29  Zongzi - bamboo leaf wrapped sticky rice
Number 30  Shengjianbao - pan-fried dumplings

Number 31  Mala Tang - DIY spicy soup
Number 32  Salt and Pepper Fried Chicken
Number 33  San Xian Doupi - Three Delicacies Wrapped in Tofu Skin
Number 34  Jidan Bing - savoury egg puffs
Number 35  Shiliu Zhi - Fresh pomegranate juice
Number 36  Dabing - big crispy pancakes

Monday, August 18, 2014

Night in Shanghai - In Conversation with Nicole Mones

I fell for the writing of American author Nicole Mones a few years ago when I first read her love letter to Chinese food, disguised as a novel called The Last Chinese Chef (2007). Mones writes beautifully about China and the intersection of cultures, from Lost in Translation (1999) to A Cup of Light (2002), and now her latest work, Night in Shanghai

Night in Shanghai brings the decadent, seductive jazz age of the 1930s to life as seen through the eyes of African American pianist Thomas Greene. It's a vivid, lyrical, musical novel that draws the reader in to the world of Ye Shanghai, with its powerful underground gangs, irresistible jazz, and heady mix of Russian aristocracy, Chinese elite, and wealthy foreigners. Thomas finds that in Shanghai he can become whoever he wants to be, but as the Japanese grip on the city tightens we are left with a sense of impending loss - these might be the last days of old Shanghai.

Night in Shanghai is also the extraordinary true-life story of how the city of Shanghai saved the lives of 25,000 Jewish refugees fleeing Europe at the start of Word War II. At a time when every other nation in the world rejected thousands of terrified Jews (including the United States, Great Britain and Australia), Shanghai opened its ports and welcomed them in. 

In an unbelievable twist Mones and her researcher uncovered evidence that the Chinese government also had a well-established plan to re-house 100,000 Jewish refugees in Yunnan. The evidence of this plan has all but been swallowed by history, and deserves much wider recognition.

When Mones' publicist sent me a copy of Night in Shanghai out of the blue, I read it, loved it, and emailed to ask if Mones might be interested in an interview. I admire her so much as a writer but didn't think for a million years she would say yes, so imagine my surprise and utter delight when Nicole herself emailed to say she had been a follower of this blog for some time and would love to do an interview. I felt like the kid who gets to ask the Prime Minister a question. 

Here's what we talked about - I hope you enjoy the conversation.

FR: In Night in Shanghai the city of the 1930s is brought vividly to life. Why was this era important to you, and what does it represent to you in terms of Chinas history?

NM: The last hundred years of Chinese history have always enthralled me, maybe because as someone who started doing business in China at the close of the Cultural Revolution, I've been able to observe China's present stage of modernization pretty much from the start. I feel like the struggle to modernize--personally, socially, economically, in terms of governance--has been the story not just of the current era, but of the whole last century in China. Shanghai has always been at the edge of modernization, and there have been some periods when things happened so fast, you could see life changing before your eyes. One of those times in Shanghai was the 1930s. Another is right now.

Speaking of researching the era… I found it so interesting that when historian Hanchao Lu interviewed elder residents of Shanghai about their memories of the 1930s, they expressed special wistfulness over the songs of the food peddlers. Roving snack vendors used distinct melodic chants to draw residents out of their homes and into the lane—chants which elder Shanghainese could still remember, sixty years later.

I thought of those memories when I read your epic series on Shanghai’s street food. I’m so grateful you’ve created this urban ethnography, beautifully photographed, and accessible to all. It’s important. Because just as the roving, chanting snack peddlers were largely wiped out by years of war and revolution, it could be that the street foods thriving today will one day vanish under roaring development as well. And then nostalgia and memory will collect around what you have captured on this site.

FR: The story of 25,000 Jewish lives saved in Shanghai in World War II is one still barely known around the world. Your research uncovered some unexpected findings – in particular a plan to relocate 100,000 European Jews to a resettlement area in Yunnan in 1939, a plan ultimately abandoned by Chiang Kai-shek.  Can you describe what it was like finding these documents, and how it changed the course of your novel?

NM: You can tell I am someone who loves research, but this had to be one of the peak discoveries of my life—and I didn’t even discover it, my brilliant researcher Daniel Nieh did. He was combing through a Chinese military history database, pursuing an unrelated question, when he stumbled on documents detailing the Jewish Resettlement Plan of 1939, which aimed to save 100,000 additional Jews from the Holocaust by establishing a Jewish resettlement zone along the Chinese-Burmese border. It failed, of course—but not before two lives (and a pile of money) were lost trying to make it happen. Amazingly, my draft of Night in Shanghai already had some of the plot elements needed to include this true story:  Shanghai’s Jewish refugee musicians were already integral to my protagonist’s survival during the years of the Japanese Occupation in Part Two, and H.H. Kung, the architect of the Jewish Resettlement Plan, happened to already be a side character.  Rewrite the novel? Of course.

I was surprised that such a large Holocaust story had been forgotten by the West; my publisher could find only two references to the Plan’s existence in books published in English. The unique role China played in saving lives during the Holocaust—and that includes the 25,000 Jewish refugees who rode out the war in Shanghai—is something in which all Chinese can take pride. 

FR: I loved the frequent and easy use of chengyu and slang phrases and insults throughout Night in Shanghai. Tell us about your relationship with the Chinese language – how easy or difficult did you find learning Chinese?  And how does having a second language at your disposal shape the way you write?

NM: First of all, my Chinese is very poor, and I’m not just being polite; it is. Still, because I started doing business in China in 1977, an era when almost no English was spoken, I had to try to learn. At first it was about gaining freedom of movement, and the freedom to talk to people. For a lone operator like me, it also seemed like the best way to improve my business. I dawdled for five years, deluding myself that I was going to pick it up on my regular trips to China, but once I finally faced the fact that I had failed to get past ‘hello,’  ‘goodbye’ and ‘where is the bathroom’, I went back to school at night. Everything I’d hoped for followed, and much more. As soon as I started to understand how people framed their thoughts and feelings, how they mediated and organized the world around them, China as a whole began to make more sense to me. Language is a lens, bringing the civilization behind it into focus.

Which is why I like to play with language now, in writing about China.  The natural Chinese idiom (for both the moment and the person) gives distinctive voice to a Chinese character, in either thought or dialogue. Sometimes I don’t actually quote the expression so much as fold it into a character’s consciousness, like the moment when Song privately recognized that ‘she was only a girl, with no more power than a grain of millet in a vast sea.’ Articulating mindset through an idiom feels right, partly because a certain part of Chinese consciousness truly is the product of accretion, the long accumulation of shared culture, remembered and referred to through language. Pure gold for limning consciousness. And if I get sidetracked for an hour or two, poring over dictionaries and phrase-books in search of the perfect cheng yu, those are always happy hours. Mandarin is endlessly rich in references and allusions. And don’t get me started on curses and insults—the best.

FR: Some of the most beautiful passages in Night in Shanghai are those describing music, just as The Last Chinese Chef featured deeply beautiful and sensual scenes describing food. Where does your love of jazz come from, and what do you think of the Shanghais modern day jazz resurgence?

NM: I love music, it is the language I admire most. I learned the musical staff at the same time I learned the alphabet, and as a teenaged piano student, took the same theory classes at Peabody that (my protagonist) Thomas Greene took when he was growing up. Unlike Thomas, I lacked the talent to become a musician, but that is one of the great things about writing novels—the chance to live a few lives that are out of one’s reach.

Though music was a big part of my youth, I never heard jazz until I was out of university, just past my 21st birthday, working at a radio station in Texas as an on-air person and music programmer. Late at night, listeners would call up and request jazz. I noticed these callers were male, cerebral types—not like the local cowboys, who always asked for alt-country and southern rock. They were a niche audience, but passionate. So I listened, starting with ragtime and Dixieland, and coming forward, and what startled me was how jazz multiplied in complexity with each decade, pushing the envelope of structure and melody and improvisation further and further. Writing about 30s music—the Swing Era—was only possible for me because that  sound was still pretty close to the basic American song form, with orchestral texture, and improvisation that was controlled and decorous. I could grasp it. I could understand Thomas’s hands on the piano, and his arc as a bandleader. I don’t think I could have pulled off writing about hard bop, or the cool school, or anything in the genre that came after.

It thrills me that jazz players from all over are gigging in Shanghai these days, and people are listening. Do you know, in the late 70s, foreigners who were in Shanghai used to scoff at the notion that the once-great city would ever rise again. “Shanghai is dead!” they’d declare. “It’s never coming back!” And now, not only is it back, it’s young… with cafes and nightspots where people gather to hear jazz. In fact, there’s more jazz being played in Shanghai right now than in a lot of American cities, which also feels like a return to an old pattern.

FR: Lastly – I understand you have been a frequent traveler to China since 1977 and all your novels have introduced readers to significant aspects of Chinese culture and history. Have you faced any barriers in getting the English-speaking publishing world interested in China? And what are common misconceptions about the country you come across?

NM: I feel the English-speaking publishing world is very interested in China, though in movies and novels alike, public tastes in the West tend to favor romantic historical works (like the film ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’) that have little to do with what China is like today. I wrote an essay about this for the Washington Post just before the 2008 Olympics opened.

And it’s not exactly a misconception, but the biggest frustration for me these days, as someone who lives in the U.S., is that most Americans continue to focus the bulk of their attention on China’s human rights issues. Those are very important issues, of course. But I wish, as a nation, we could focus on doing whatever we can to help slow down China’s environmental damage. I feel this is the real emergency.  And maybe the right to a healthier environment underlies all other rights.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Old Fashioned Tofu at Kung Woo Beancurd

Tofu pudding, silken tofu, firm tofu, golden tofu puffs, folded tofu skins, spindly white soy bean sprouts, hot sweet soy milk,  red fermented tofu, tofu knots.  

Kung Woo Beancurd in Sham Shui Po illustrated the soy bean in all its manifest expressions. 
After I learned to make soy milk in the traditional way with a grindstone, and then learned (often disastrously) what was involved in making tofu at home, I was fascinated to search out places in China still making old fashioned tofu. You know, the kind that's made for taste; not for shelf life or low cost, using beans, water, a grindstone, and wooden molds that impart the faintest flavour to the curd.

What I have discovered is there aren't many of them left - traditional tofu makers are a threatened species and the last are disappearing fast. 

So when I heard about Kung Woo Beancurd from Hong Kong food writer e_ting I knew I had to visit on my recent trip to Hong Kong.
The shop is on a chaotically busy street in Kowloon where it sits occasionally billowing out steam from the simmering soy milk out back. There is a makeshift front counter where you can buy fresh milk and tofu, and a griddle where cooked tofu snacks are fried. Inside are a few tables and stools if you're eating in rather than taking away.

The owner continues to keep the same 'cash register', a rattan basket filled with money on a pulley above the counter, as his father did. His portrait hangs on the retro tiled wall at the back of the shop. 
I started with a plate of assorted fried tofu bites. The shop is quite famous for their tofu squares stuffed with fish paste, but I loved the light ricotta texture of the tofu fritters studded with sweet scallions.
Then I moved on to Kung Woo's other famous snack - their tofu pudding or tofu fa. It came straight out of the refrigerated cabinet at the back of the shop, wobbling like jelly and smooth and cool like custard. I sprinkled it with brown ginger sugar, every slippery smooth mouthful delicately bean-flavoured. Heavenly on a day so hot we were all damp with sweat.

I drank a glass of warm fresh soy milk. This was the staple ingredient from which everything else in the shop originated, and it was good. Rich, with a fresh grassy bean taste. Sensing my level of interest the owner allowed me to wander into the kitchen to have a look at the tofu-making operations. Very impressive stacks of wooden tofu molds were racked next to wooden buckets filled with soy milk strained through muslin. 

One of the wooden buckets had been freshly set into tofu pudding, and the next job was to spoon the wobbling pudding into Kong Woo's signature bowls. Those who like their tofu pudding served hot rather than cold were patiently waiting for a bowl.

In short, if you're as passionate about tofu as I am, or even just curious about tofu, seek this place out. It was frantically busy on the day I visited and doesn't look like sliding into extinction any time soon…but  you never know.  

Tofu squares with fish paste, waiting to be fried

Kung Woo Beancurd

118 Pei Wo Street
Sham Shui Po
Kowloon, Hong Kong

Nearest MTR: Sham Shui Po

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Eating Michelin with Kids: Le Parc les Crayères

Is it wrong to take children to a Michelin-starred restaurant? And exactly when is it too early to introduce a child to the delights of really, really good cooking?

I'm expecting this post to generate a very healthy and vigorous debate, if my web search for 'children in restaurants' is anything to go by. The topic appears to polarise everyone.

There are those who think parents are the problem:

"If you say your kids are angels, that they never get up and run around, never throw French fries, never talk loud, never spill Cheerios, you're lying." (New York restaurant owner Christian Pappanicholas)

"Let me make it clear - if your kid is a jerk in public and you do nothing about it, then you're a bigger jerk and I hope your kid vomits in the car on the way home" (Guardian writer and parent Ben Pobjie, who later in his piece about children in restaurants argues that banning kids from restaurants just means they will never learn how to behave in one).

Then there are those who think they have every right to reproduce the mayhem of their home in public:

"Guess what people, I'm very aware my kids make messes! That's why I bring them out to eat with us so I can have a night where I don't have to clean that shit up at home!" (mother, ScaryMommy forum)

Michelin three-starred chef Grant Achatz of Alinea in Chicago sparked debate earlier this year when he tweeted about a couple dining with a crying eight month old baby:

He ended up on Good Morning America defending his point of view as parents-who-believe-their-kids-have rights-too and diners-who-believe-all-kids-should-be-banned scratched each other's eyes out in the twitterverse.

But food critic and writer Ruth Reichl thinks it depends on the child in question. "If you are a parent who goes out with your child and your kid starts fussing, you take the child out. That's all there is to it. It's that easy. But I would be deeply offended if I took my child to a restaurant and I was told no you can't come in."

I'm with Ruth, although I also appreciate the view of writer Victoria Moran:

"We do children an enormous disservice when we assume that they cannot appreciate anything beyond drive-through fare and nutritionally marginal kid-targeted convenience foods. Our children are capable of consuming something that grew in a garden or on a tree and never saw a deep fryer. They are capable of making it through dinner at a sit-down restaurant with tablecloths and no climbing equipment. Children deserve quality nourishment."

I not only want my children to learn how to behave in restaurants (from fine dining restaurants establishments to street food stalls) but I want to help educate them about why food is important and what it means, culturally and socially, for us as humans. 

So please shoot me, I took my children to a Michelin-starred restaurant, Le Parc les Crayères, in Reims. 
To be fair, my children are no longer little. The youngest stopped sitting in a high chair about nine years ago and the oldest hasn't thrown food on the floor for more than a decade. And without sounding parsimonious, my girls are well behaved. Not in the way that many parents think their children are well-behaved (but secretly everyone thinks they are brats), but understanding of what it means to be well-behaved. To be mindful of other diners. To be quiet. To use good manners. They are silently shocked when another child is allowed to crawl under the table, or have a screaming fit.

But they didn't get that way by accident - they got that way by learning over many years the behaviour expected of them when eating out. We spent a lot of time on footpaths outside cafes and family restaurants waiting for the squalling tempest to pass, and ate plenty of meals in shifts - one of us inside with a knife and fork, the other outside with a whining toddler.

And we never, ever ate at a fancy restaurant with children under seven.

(Okay, that's a lie. We did once or twice but learnt our lesson very quickly. For me, as both a restaurant patron and parent, small children and fine dining are a mutually incompatible occurrence. There, I've said it.)

Le Parc les Crayères: The Food
I thought my girls, now ten and thirteen, would enjoy the experience of true fine dining in a country that does it best: France. More than that, we would enjoy the pleasure of their company for lunch. 

Le Parc les Crayères is set in an old chateau in beautiful gardens. The dining room is all eau-de-nil and fine silver.

Here's how Philippe Mille, head chef, describes his cooking:

"My cooking? Pleasure, generosity, greed, childhood memories, respect for the products and their seasonality. Briefly, a kitchen that conveys sensations."

We commenced with an amuse-bouche - a sliver of foie gras, a quail's egg on a wafer, a tiny round of dill-crusted salmon, a smoked boudin-blanc.
A celebration of summer vegetables: salad of white asparagus cream with fennel, artichoke, and sundried baby tomatoes
Risotto with shaved white asparagus, black olives and parmesan foam.
Lily watches wine being decanted before serving. The waiters were very gracious with the girls, and treated them like grown-ups. As a result the girls put on their best behaviour, rising to the occasion. I was so proud of them both.
Rabbit loin with black olive mash, and summer vegetables dressed with plum kernel oil. Served with Fresia (Italy) 2010. Savoury, fresh, perfect.

Mint souffle, light as air and pale, pale green, with red fruit and mint sorbet and served with poured limoncello. Not the world's most attractive dessert, but a triumph of taste - the delicately textured mint soufflé a wonderful contrast to the bright fresh flavours of the sorbet and limoncello.
The winning dessert, according to the rest of the family: layered chocolate and Tahitian vanilla mousse gateau with caramel and gold leaf. Magnificently rich.
Lastly we were served a tiny treat with coffee - a coconut mousse, a crisp chocolate lollipop, a rich chocolate ganache, and a densely flavoured summer fruits jelly in pastry. 

So what did the girls think?

They loved it. For them, it was the best experience of their holiday, after the Eiffel Tower and Euro Disney. Because after all, they're still kids.

And I loved sharing the experience with them. 

So what's your opinion about children and restaurants? 
As readers of this blog you probably lean in a  certain direction, but perhaps not.  Do you take your children out to eat? Do you think it's important for children to experience good food? Or do your think children should be banned from restaurants? Let me know your thoughts!

Le Parc les Crayères
Two Michelin stars
64 Boulevard Henry Vasnier
51100 Reims, France

Restaurant open Wednesday to Sunday for lunch and dinner

Lunch: 69 euros without wine