Saturday, April 11, 2015

A Beginner's Guide to Green Tea

Picking Dragon Well tea, Hangzhou 
Qingming Festival, on April 5 this year, is a day when families pay respects to their ancestors by tending their graves. It's also an important date on the annual calendar of Chinese teas because it marks the harvest of the first flush of early spring tea leaves. I've been lucky enough to catch two Qingming harvests of Dragon Well tea in Hangzhou, while there was still a winter chill in the early morning air followed by the growing warmth of the spring sunshine. 

After picking was over for the day I sat and sipped tea in the cool air of the tea terraces There really is nothing quite like the chestnut aroma and clean grassy taste of freshly-roasted green tea - it makes all the worries of the world fall away.

Green teas are a perfect introduction to the family of Chinese teas because they are more lightly flavoured and easy to prepare, with a taste everyone enjoys. Here's an easy guide for learning more about Chinese green teas.

Dragon Well tea leaves. The picker's fingers are stained with tea oils.

Chinese Tea: The Basics
It helps to consider Chinese teas in three main groups based on the degree of oxidation (the effect of air on the enzymes and chemicals within the tea leaf):

1. Unoxidized: green tea, white tea

2. Partially oxidized: oolong tea, yellow tea

3. Fully oxidized: pu'er tea, black tea

Just like the influence of terroir on wines, the altitude at which tea is grown, the age of the bushes, the mineralization of the soil, the water supply, the hours of sunlight, the rate of oxidation once picked and the skill of the tea artisans controlling the oxidation process all add to the unique flavour profile of different teas.

  

An Introduction to Green Tea Types
There are dozens of green tea types, some well-known, some produced and drunk entirely in the homes of the farmers who grow it. Try a few for yourself to see which you like best, and be sure to enjoy the experience of different local green teas when you travel in China. Here are some of the most well-known for starters.

1. Dragon Well Tea - longjing cha 龙井茶
China's most famous green tea grows on the tea terraces south of Hangzhou's West Lake, in Zhejiang Province. Longjing tea is considered the pinnacle of China Famous Teas, and some would consider it the best green tea in the world.

The name, longjing 龙井 or Dragon Well, is thought to have come from the heavy water of an old well. When rain fell, the lighter rainwater would swirl like a dragon's tail as it joined the more dense well water. 

Longjing tea is harvested twice a year, in spring and again in autumn, although the spring harvest is the most important. Harvest begins about ten days before Qingming Festival, and continues for around six weeks. 

Just after picking the leaves are gently wilted, then wok-roasted by hand. The roasting halts any oxidation and flattens the leaves into their typical grass blade shape.

Longjing tea comes in various grades according to the location of the tea terraces, and the time of picking. Pre-Qingming tea, known as mingqian cha, is thought to be the most refined in taste and fetches the highest price, sometimes in excess of $1000/kg. 2015 Mingqian is just starting to appear in shops now.

Longjing tea has a light, pure colour and a pleasant chestnut/grass aroma with floral notes. The taste is complex - savoury, nutty, grassy without any bitterness, with a lingering slightly sweet aftertaste.



2. Blue Conch Spring Tea - biluochun 碧螺春
Biluochun tea
Grown on the shores of Lake Tai in Jiangsu Province, biluochun 碧螺春 is a green tea with a very delicate appearance and taste.
The leaves are silvery green, and after spring harvest they are dried in a hot wok using a different hand motion to longjing tea. The leaves are lightly twisted to impart the shape of a spiral shell, hence the name. 
Biluochun is very light, with a pale colour and light floral aroma. The tea terraces are found amongst persimmon, peach and apricot orchards and when these trees come into blossom they are thought to impart some of their floral sweetness to the tea bushes. 




3. Gunpowder Green Tea ping shui zhu cha 平水珠茶
Gunpowder green tea, or pearl tea
The British thought these tightly-rolled balls of green tea looked like gunpowder pellets, hence the name, but the Chinese prefer to think of them as pearls. The tea is named for the town of Ping Shui in Zhejiang Province.
Gunpowder green tea has a robust flavour and a deeper colour than other green teas due to the release of tea oils from the leaves during the tight rolling process.




4. Yellow Mountain Fur Peak Tea - huangshan maofeng 黄山毛峰
Coming from the slopes of Huang Shan (Yellow Mountain) in Anhui Province, the high altitude means this green tea has small white hairs (mao毛) on its leaves, and the dried leaves have an appearance similar to Huangshan's pointed peaks, hence its name. The tea has a sweet, mellow taste. 


5. Jasmine Tea - molihua cha 茉莉花茶
Technically not a pure green tea, jasmine tea is nonetheless a beautiful partly-green tea. I have included it here because it is usually made with a base of green tea leaves, and also because it is one of the most widely known and popular teas outside China, making it easily accessible for new green tea drinkers.
The best jasmine teas come from warm Fujian Province, where summer jasmine blossoms are mixed with dried spring green tea leaves and left to infuse their scent for several hours. Jasmine 'pearls' slowly unfurl in hot water, releasing both the jasmine blossoms and their beautiful scent.



Brewing the Perfect Cup of Green Tea
Cup, glass or pot?
Green tea actually doesn't require any fancy tea equipment. It can be brewed in a cup, a glass, a traditional gaiwan (above), or even a teapot. 
Many Chinese tea drinkers prefer a clear drinking glass so they can see the beauty of the unfurling leaves. Others prefer a gaiwan 盖碗 (a lidded cup) particularly for longjing tea, so the leaves can be brushed gently away from the surface of the water when drinking.
Tradition dictates that each person has their own glass or cup, so they can control the steeping time to taste and also so that the tea leaves can be regularly refreshed with hot water. For these reasons a pot is less preferable because the leaves can become over-steeped and bitter.

Brewing Green Tea
For all green teas a water temperature of 80C (180F) is preferred because green tea leaves are delicate, and boiling water will destroy many of the subtle aromatics. Use a temperature controlled kettle, or boil the water and then leave it for five minutes to cool a little.

Place a pinch of leaves in your glass or cup, and add water. 

(If the leaves are a little dusty, you can rinse them first by pouring water on the leaves and draining it off after four or five seconds. This won't affect the taste.)

Wait until the leaves unfurl and fall to the bottom of the glass. Steeping times vary with each tea and each tea-drinker's taste, usually 3-5 minutes.

Add more hot water as needed - most green teas can be steeped four or five times, with subtle flavour differences between each steeping.

Storing Green Tea
Green tea will keep well in a dark or opaque container with a tightly fitting lid, away from light, humidity and heat. A Chinese tea jar is perfect.


You might also enjoy: A Beginner's Guide to Pu'er Tea


Tea Footnote:
Qingming was a rewarding time for me because it marked the date of my very first, very tiny, publication about Chinese tea for Saveur, a food magazine I consider one of the world's best. It has been a long-held dream to write for them, however small! 


Tuesday, March 17, 2015

New York in Pictures: Where to Eat, What to Read, Where to Stay

Manhattan, as seen through the Brooklyn Bridge
I spent last week in New York, and as my friend Jules says, "Yeah, it sucks to be you." I know.

Yet travel has never been optional for me. I feel most alive when I'm on the move. If an opportunity arises (this time, a business trip taken by my husband Matt) I feel almost obliged to take advantage of it. My feet are permanently itchy, and as a result I'm pretty much permanently in debt.

But how wonderful is New York! It snowed heavily most of the week and so I waited until the sun came out to take most of my shots. Matt and I took a long rambling walk from midtown to downtown, across the Brooklyn Bridge, all over Brooklyn and Williamsburg, and finally back across the Williamsburg Bridge to Manhattan. The day was sharp and clear and well below zero but what a stunning day!

North Manhattan skyline
Central Park after 8 inches of snow
Statue of Liberty and southern Manhattan
Midtown, from Central Park South
Brooklyn. Those brownstones!
Williamsburg Bridge and brave sub-zero jogger.

Earlier in the week, during the rainy/sleeting/snowing weather, I kept my heavy Nikon in the hotel and committed myself to exploring New York armed only with an iPhone. Forgive the grainy nature of some of the shots, but I have to say a phone takes a pretty good photo these days.

Tribeca. And the obligatory subway steam vent.
Snow, to sleet, and back to snow. 
I love the gilt mosaic tiles of these old subway place names. So beautiful.
And Grand Central Station. Having my Holden Caulfield moment. Sigh.
Then the snow began, in earnest.
I was forced to take refuge in the meat room at Gallaghers steakhouse. Those guys are serious about aged prime rib. 
And I may have needed coffee and pastries after. To ward off the chill.

New York was wondrous. I can't wait to go back again with my girls, because I know they would love it too.


If You Go:
Reading:
Must Eat NYC - a great book recommended by Julie at Scrumptious Reads in Brisbane. Divided into areas, it comes with its own app so you don't need to lug the book around. I still lugged the book around. It's really beautifully photographed.






Bonnie Slotnick Cookbooks - Bonnie specialises in vintage and antique cookbooks, books about cooking and old recipes and ephemera. I spent several happy hours here and found a few treasures.

Catcher in the Rye - A New York classic. You have to read it. And if you've already read it, read it again. It will forever inform the way you see New York.


Eating:
Places I ate at and enjoyed, in no particular order.

Little Park, 85 West Broadway Chef Andrew Carmellini is some kind of genius. Exquisite food, reasonable prices, and in a week where every meal was an opportunity to try something new, I went twice. Really good.

Prune, 54 East First St Gabrielle Hamilton's Lower East Side restaurant is a tiny crowded gem, where every single customer seems to be a regular. Gabrielle wrote Blood, Bones and Butter, the memoir of her life as a chef; and Prune the Cookbook has just become a NYT bestseller. Marvellous food, marvellous fun.

Stumptown Coffee Roasters Originally from Portland, Oregon, Stumptown coffee can be found in many of New York's best cafes. They have their own at 29th and Broadway. The coffee is excellent. The queue is long, but afterwards you can sit in the cosy lobby of the Ace Hotel (see below) to drink it.

Gallaghers Steakhouse 228 W 52nd Street Eat here if you're seeing a Broadway show. Dark wood panelling, waiters in white coats, very serious cocktails and even more serious steaks (did you see their meat locker, above?)

Buddakan I feel slightly reluctant to include this, simply on the basis that it was the scene for an episode of Sex and the City. I've never seen the episode. The dining room, however, is spectacular. And the food is well-executed, but you are definitely paying for the location. Dress up.

Staying:
I don't have a long list for you here. We stayed here because a friend recommended it, and now I'm recommending it to you.
Ace Hotel, 29th and Broadway Very cool, much cooler than I am. But I like a hotel that has taxidermy and free wifi in the lobby so everyone in the (creative) neighbourhood spends their mornings, afternoons and evenings there drinking coffee. Industrial style, great location. Stumptown coffee downstairs.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Eating at Shanghai's Street Food Night Market: At Zhangjiang Hi-Tech Park 张江高科站夜市

Zhangjiang Hi-Tech Park street food night market
Happy Lunar New Year! Here's to the Year of the Sheep, and plenty of eating in good pastures for all of us.

I've been searching Shanghai recently for that elusive place, a night market full of atmosphere and great cooking smells, bursting with people. Shanghai has to have one of those, right? 

There is the tourist-y one on Sipailou Lu near Yu Gardens. It has great hustle and bustle, but the vendors are jaded and routinely rip-off tourists of any denomination. Locals don't go there at all.  

I was looking for a local street food market, where people might go to hang out after work with friends. I followed several blind leads,  and took late night jaunts with my family in tow to the campuses of various universities in Shanghai where I heard night markets existed, only to discover they were sad jumbles of a few stalls and a strip of indoor restaurants.

The crackdown on street food vendors in Shanghai has meant that impromptu, unauthorised gatherings of street food vendors are becoming a thing of the past. And, I wondered if the rising wealth in Shanghai meant people no longer wanted to eat outdoors, especially in winter. 

It was with a sense of impending failure that I dragged my long-suffering husband, children and brother-in-law to the Zhangjiang Hi-Tech Park station to see if this, the last on my list, might be the one. 

Zhangjiang Hi-Tech Park is not really a park, but a zone dedicated to technology research and development. Thousand of people live and work in the area, possibly providing the critical mass of people necessary for a night market to flourish.

When I stepped out of the metro into the frigid night air, the first thing I noticed was the welcome smell of char-grilled meat and roasting chestnuts, and a stream of people eating street foods as they walked. Success!

The market has about forty regular vendors, with a great variety of street foods. Here's a tour: 

Dumpling vendor, Zhangjiang Hi-Tech Park

The Auspicious Thousand Miles Dumpling Shop will serve you twenty delicate hundun 馄饨(wontons) in a bowl of soup for 10 yuan (about $US1.60). Or choose from one of nine dumpling varieties including pork with Chinese greens, pork and celery, or Three Treasures.  



Baozi street food vendor, Zhangjiang Hi-Tech Park
This vendor makes giant fried beef baozi (牛肉包子), as big as a man's fist. These were utterly new to me - soft baozi fried to a crisp n the outside, and filled with a steaming savoury beef filling. The vendor told me they're Hui Muslim in origin. Five yuan (about US80 cents) each. 



Hanbaobao street food vendor
 Hamburgers, yes, but not as you know them. Hanbaobao 汉堡包 (or hanbao for short) are really filled fritters. Batter is poured into the circles on the griddle, then the vendor cracks an egg, adds minced beef, scallions and in this case, carrot, before pouring more batter on the top to seal the whole thing. She then flips it to brown and serves it with hot chilli sauce in a paper bag. Five yuan (about 80 cents) each. 
Hanbaobao griddle












Cooking chao mian
No market would be complete without a chao mian 炒面 fried noodle vendor. And yes, that's where chow mein comes from. Pick your noodle type, then the add-ins (meat and vegetables), and he will turn it into one big delicious bowl of fried noodle goodness in about two minutes flat. About 7 yuan/bowl depending on add-ins (about $1.30).




Fried potatoes, Zhngjiang Hi-Tech Park
"What are these called?" I asked the vendor, looking at a griddle tightly packed with baby potatoes, slowly bathing in oil until they turned golden and crisped.

She looked at me strangely. "Potatoes," she replied. 

That there is no special name for this incredible street food snack is a crime. They are the most delicious potatoes you will ever taste, as you pop a whole one into your mouth and the buttery, salty crisp outside bursts into soft starch. Thousand Mile Golden Potatoes? Prosperity Gold Nugget Potatoes? Five yuan per bucket (about 80 cents).



Grilled squid
Char-grilled chicken 
Shao kao 烧烤 or barbecue is always one of the most popular stall at any night market. We chose grilled squid and char-grilled chicken legs, both salty, smoky and tasty. We paid 32 yuan (about $5.10) for three chicken legs and a giant skewer of waving squid tentacles. 




Jiucai hezi street food vendor, Mrs Pan
At the Pan Family jiucai hezi 韭菜盒子 stall, Mrs Pan fills a soft square pancake with egg and lots of bright green jiucai, or Chinese chives, which she then fries on a griddle until crisped. Four yuan (about 65 cents) each.




Roujiamo vendor, Zhangjiang Hi-Tech Park
My husband Matt has been telling me about this roujiamo 肉夹馍 guy for years. "He makes the best roujiamo in Shanghai!" Matt always told me. The problem was, we didn't know where his stall was. 

"On our way to the foundry in outer Pudong we always stop at this one metro station" Matt said, by way of directions. 
"Which metro station?" I asked, but Matt could only guess it was "one on the way to the airport", which narrowed it down to twelve possible locations. 

So you can imagine how happy I was to finally run into the guy at Zhangjiang Hi-Tech Park.  And yes, his roujiamo are excellent - a bread bun toasted on the griddle then filled with slow-cooked meat chopped together with green peppers.

If you're visiting the night market and not sure if you have the right fellow - he's the one grooving to techno-pop and wearing a Hello Kitty apron.

Rou jia mo, Zhangjiang Hi-Tech Park





Roasting chestnuts, Zhangjiang Hi-Tech Park
A night of street food wouldn't be complete without the sweet, nutty taste of roasted chestnuts, a street food I always associate with Shanghai in winter. Ten yuan's worth (about $1.60) is plenty for several people to share.

There are many more stalls at the night market - smoky Uighur lamb kebabs, fresh fruits, noodles, xiaolongbao and more. Next time!



Zhangjiang Hi-Tech Park Night Market

张江高科站夜市
Pudong New Area
Open every day from morning til about 9pm
(some vendors keep longer hours) 

Take Line 2 to Zhangjiang High Tech Park station. The market immediately surrounds the station exits.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Stunning Embroidery of China's Miao People - a Photoblogger's Perspective



Guizhou is, for me, the most beautiful place in China. I'm very excited to be able to introduce this lovely part of the world to you in a series of videos created by British production company True North.

Guizhou's unique Miao culture deserves to be better known, and True North agreed - together we filmed four five-minute documentaries in all, with more coming up soon on Miao food and Miao silver jewellery.

True North were commissioned to develop a Youtube channel devoted to the discovery of China. Already massively successful since their launch late last year, China Icons gives viewers a China that is very different to popular perception - a young, vibrant, quirky, and interesting China, featuring the everyday voices of Chinese people and expats.

When True North approached me I admitted to them I had never filmed anything before, being much more comfortable behind the camera than in front of it. But this was a project I felt very passionate about, and so I put my performance anxiety aside and just tried to enjoy the process as much as possible! Filming happened over two hectic days and eight gorgeous locations.

Miao women of Diwu village, Guizhou
This first video was shot in the remote Miao village of Diwu, where the local women are regarded as master craftsmen. They wear a type of embroidery that takes months to complete, sometimes years, using a method of finely folded silk scraps sewn into patterns like fish scales or bird feathers.
Miao embroidery - bird

Here's a close-up of the Miao embroidery using overlapping folded silk pieces 




















Embroidery is deeply meaningful to Miao people. Although Miao spoken language is rich and complex, no written language exists and so stories of their ancestors, their gods and their daily lives are told through embroidery.

It's a living art form practiced by every Miao woman from a young age.
Miao women embroidering sleeve panels
I look forward to bringing you the other three videos soon - it's a look into a world few have visited, but now everyone can enjoy vicariously!


More on Guizhou:

Guizhou - The Most Overlooked Destination in China (But You Need to go Now)

Ten Must-Try Foods in Guizhou

Miao New Year Guzang Festival

The Miao Sisters Meal Festival

Miao Farm-to-Table Feast

Shidong Market


Monday, January 12, 2015

Bali Street Food: Ten of the Best

Bali - a place of frangipani blossoms, lush humidity, and the scent of clove cigarettes and diesel. I spent the last week there relaxing, and of course, sampling as much street food as I could. 

Here are ten top Balinese street foods to try, exemplifying Balinese flavour combinations of ginger, galangal, coriander, fresh turmeric, white pepper, palm sugar and chili. I've deliberately tried to avoid typically Indonesian dishes like nasi goreng and gado gado and instead stick to those foods native to Bali. 

Enjoy the feast! 

Simple food terms:

babi: pig
ayam: chicken
bebek: duck
kambing: lamb

nasi: rice
mie: noodles

goreng: fried
campur: mixed

warung: small shop or stall

So... ayam goreng = fried chicken, mie ayam = chicken noodles. There you go! Speaking like a local already!


1. Babi Guling: Roast Suckling Pig
Babi ruling is roast suckling pig with crackling skin like shards of toffee hiding the tender, juicy meat. But it's also so much more than that. Every part of the pig is used to make several side dishes that accompany the pork in a harmony of tastes and textures.

Sides include: 
kuah nangka - a small bowl turmeric-heavy broth with pieces of cooked young jackfruit and pork

urutan - a dark air-dried sausage, made from the pig's intestines and stuffed with a mixture of finely chopped heart with grated coconut and spices. The sausage is then wound around bamboo to air-dry, then fried in pieces

fried blood - fried with shallot and garlic until set and firm

satay lillit - a single fish and coconut satay on a sugarcane stick, for contrast and sweetness

pork skin puffs - crouton-like crunches of puffed fried skin, they lend a great crisp crunch to the meal

fried chitterlings - fried intestines

sambal - chilli, salt, garlic and oil 

lawar - the quintessential babi guling side dish: see below



2. Lawar
Made to accompany babi guling, lawar is made from shredded coconut, minced pork, spices and chilli, with the addition of fresh pig blood to make the authentic red version. Both blood and non-blood versions are remarkably light and fresh, cutting through the richness of the roast pork.



3. Bakso: Chicken Ball Soup
Bakso is a simple dish of clear soup with noodles, chicken balls, tofu and egg balls. It's a snack for any time of day, and every street in Bali has a roving bakso vendor looking for business. Simple and satisfying, and very cheap - about $1 a bowl. You can add chilli sauce and kecap manis (Indonesian sweet soy sauce) to taste.



4. Satay
Although satay originated in Java, every Indonesian island including Bali has their own way of cooking it. In Hindu-majority/Muslim minority Bali, the satay is usually marinated chicken or lamb (although pork satay is also available). The satays are char-grilled and served with a peanut sauce mixed to taste with kecap manis and chili.




5. Ayam Betutu
Ayam means chicken, and betutu is the method of cooking. The chicken is marinated in a blend of galangal, ginger, fresh turmeric, garlic, lemongrass and spices, then slow-cooked wrapped in banana leaves. 

It's the most tender way of cooking the meat - and packed with Balinese flavours of turmeric, galangal and pepper.

An alternat variation is bebek betutu - duck betutu, richer and darker.

6. Nasi Campur
Nasi campur, mixed rice, is a wonderful way to try tastes of several dishes at once. Like many Balinese foods the combination of textures is as important as the different tastes. Served on a round of banana leaf, a mound of rice is surrounded by (clockwise from top) - cucumber and spicy sambal, a marinated egg, satay ayam, mixed vegetables, ayam betutu (see above), and crunchy spiced tempeh. 

The extra crunch comes from a huge thick krupuk rice cracker - I became addicted to these in Bali!



7. Nasi Jinggo

Sold in a folded banana leaf pinned close with a toothpick, nasi jinggo is a pyramid of saffron rice served with a tiny palette of mixed tastes and textures - some soft wheat noodles, a spicy sambal, sweet toasted coconut, crisp-fried tempeh, and fried shallots. 

It's usually eaten as a night-time snack, and is full of flavour despite its simple appearance.


8. Balinese Sweets
The length and breadth of Balinese sweets could sustain a happy eater indefinitely. Most are made from sticky rice or casava flour and flavoured with pandan leaf, palm sugar, coconut or banana. My favourites were definitely klepon (seen covered with fresh grated coconut in the bottom left above). These green pandan-leaf flavoured parcels are stuffed with palm sugar that turns to syrup on cooking When you bite into them the golden syrup squirts into your mouth (or down your chin if you're unprepared). Utterly delicious.




9. Pisang Goreng: Banana Fritters

Golden crispy-fried fritters made with tart-sweet lady finger bananas. Enough said. The minimum purchase seems to be about ten fritters, which is enough for two (but only if the other person really doesn't like bananas). 



10. Es Teler/Kacang Ijo: Ice Desserts

Es teler translates loosely as 'ice intoxication', and it's a mad, colourful mix of crushed ice (yes, be careful) with red beans, coloured jellies, tapioca pearls, carnation milk and syrup. 

The traditional Balinese version, kacang ijo, looks rather plain by comparison - sweet green mung beans are mixed with ice, coconut milk and carnation milk. Refreshing.



Where to find Bali street foods:
Street food is everywhere in Bali! You don't have to go far to find a vendor selling something delicious. But if you'd like to try a lot of street foods in one place, you can't go past the Pasar Kereneng night market in Denpasar.

Pasar Kereneng Night Market
Open 5pm -11pm daily
Map here