Friday, July 31, 2015

The Travelling Nutmeg: Goodbye, Jiefangbei 解放北,再见

From above, Jiefangbei 解放北 boasts of dazzling lights, immense skyscrapers and constant bustle. Look further in and you'll have to brace yourself for 24 hour access to the heartbeat of the capital.  You will meet a city that is home the world's 3rd longest river(长江), which made it the perfect military base during the Sino-Japenese war and continues to reign as a popular provincial landmark. The large clock monument towers in the middle of square as the first tallest structure and as a memorial to those who lost their lives in the war. You see, this city, for many, represents the constant resurgence of the human race. Hard workers run it by day and even harder players keep a fire going by night.

It was poetic justice that I spent my final night in Chongqing here. A place where both foreigners and locals have learnt to coexist through a wonderful intertwine of activities and events. At this monument, I've had one too many unwillingly "OMG, IT'S A FOREIGNER" photos taken by dozens of locals, which says a lot because people only come here to take pictures with the clock.

 It's also the place where it feels criminal to browse high end stores, because it always ends the same way. No matter how happy you are to see familiar brands, knowing that the knock-off around the corner would suffice is a load of guilt that no consumer should bear.

Without hesitation the best time Jiefangbei has to offer is on New Years Eve, December 31st. It's not only epic because it's the first of two New Year celebrations. Believe it or not. It's the balloons.

View image |

They jump from 5 yuan to 20 yuan in the space of 12 hours. Yes. 400% increase. But it never matters. Everyone from all four roads that lead to the monument fiercely holds on to one. Everyone, as in the hundreds of thousands gathered there.

Then you attach your resolution at the end and release it when the clock strikes 12. It's mesmerizing.

Let's get back to the present though. 

 There are three things guaranteed to see in Jiefangbei

1. Famous Luohan temple 罗汉寺 under restoration, like the eye of a pedestrian storm.

2. A couple sports cars of some kind (said like a true sports car non-enthusiast). Today a BMW, I think, for your viewing pleasure *hides face*

3. And random skin exposure by various people not excluding men of the uniform. #whydoinit

After some last minute activities known as um shopping (I'm not an addict tho, I promise), we made a lunch stop at Pizza Hut, one of the many foreign restaurant outlets situated in Jiefangbei, and honestly, the easiest way to get a slice of pizza. In a country where pigs are much more important than cows, when you find a place that serves good cheese, you bless it again and again with your presence. And if the name of this website isn't indication enough, I love me some cheese.

One wonderful surprise I have to mention is seeing Sorrel drink on the menu. It was labelled as 'Roselle Tea for the Summer Heat' and was sold out. No doubt, sorrel has seduced many an international tongue. However, there was no way we were having tea with our pizza. Sike!

Creamy choocalate and coffee goodness vs. Citrus Apple juice with a sprig of mint
For dessert, none other than my new best friend, Green Tea cake. I'm not sure how many times I have to blog about this until you take me seriously, but this cake changes lives and goes really well with chocolate. The Pizza Hut spin is vanilla cake with green tea ice cream topped with whipped cream sprinkled with green tea powder, based with chocolate..MAMAMIA!

Thou shall not publicly lick thy plate
Of course this was just to put some gas in the tank. So pretty soon, we were back to shopping. Can you blame me? H&M has the best summer sales. We may have spent quite some time in there though because by the time we exited.......

Yea. It was night. Good thing is we were hungry again and the best city grub is always found after dark. This time, I was craving local cuisine. My Chinese friend hoped to introduce me to one of the top five noodle bars in the squares, three years running, but alas they were closed.

We settled for the next best authentic thing. And I don't believe it can be any more native than this.

This meal shocked me and probably not for the reasons you think. Some of these dishes were new to me. Even after five years. Starting at the back with a bowl of chicken soup and noodles, coming forward to rice porridge, those were personal favourites. Green stuff on the plate? Bitter gourd which, true to the name, I had to train myself to like before I even came to China. The spicy pickled meat there, definitely a first. It pairs very well with the blandness of the porridge. The winner though, are those two glasses of 'juice'. Left side being snow fungus and on the right, green lentil peas. Guy walked pass us with two flasks, which I assumed held hot water. My friend stops him and suddenly these were being served. Very cold, very sweet and very delicious.

It was then I got an important lesson in the double meaning of Chinese cuisine characters.

Coca cola 可口可乐-Very Delicious, Very Happy!

Sprite 雪碧-Snow Jade as in precious drink of snow.

Pizza Hut 必胜客-Always Winning Customers!

Buy/Carry soy sauce 打酱油- As the legend goes, a family once lived in very cramped quarters. So when the parents wanted alone time, they would send the kids to buy soy sauce, instructing them to carry it by cupping their palms all the way home. Now, it's commonly used if you want to claim ignorance about a situation. "Hey, what's this big crowd here for, free food?" "Man, I have no idea, I'm just here buying soy sauce" But I have to say, if it's food related, the soy sauce will have to wait. 

The rest of the night took us through the Jiaochangkou's 30 Degrees Night Market. Unlike Beijing's strange array of foods, Chongqing has many strange named restaurants and psychedelic lights. Or maybe my appetite had already been satisfied.

Last stop was surprisingly not the clock monument, but in the opposite direction to an old village called Shi Ba Ti 十八梯, rightfully translated as Eighteen steps. 700 years of history laid to waste. Once a beautiful central community space, now left to collapse upon itself, as it has been overrun by new malls and skyscrapers on every side. 

Most of the villagers spend the night selling trinkets and dancing the traditional square dance. They seemed oblivious to the pain or well versed at masking it.

New Urban Plan for Shi Ba TI
Meanwhile there are plans for a revamped Shi Ba Ti 十八梯 . And that's the truth of Jiefangbei. 

Just like the 嘉陵江 and 长江, those two rivers in the map above, the giant meets Jack, the old clashes with the new and the foreign fights the native causing a hybrid to establish itself. A true reflection of the state of my life after 5 years away from my home, the Caribbean. What new habits will stay? What should be left behind? Will I find noodles back there? or more seriously Will I remember to apologize when I accidentally knock into someone? 

I said self (Yes, I talk to my self in second person) "You have to keep embracing change." It was a leap of faith that brought me to China. Now it's time to leap again in another direction, this time bolder, wiser and more prepared.

Bigger things are coming!
See you there
The Travelling Nutmeg

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

China taught me: The Old, New and Improved

It was only a matter of time before I had to admit how much being China has helped me to grow my food character. I am returning home a bachelor's degree in Food Science, a blog that not only documents all my food travels but one that helped me to open up my palette, pushed me to visit new places, allow myself beautiful dining experiences and spend more quality time in the kitchen. When it comes to the kitchen, I naturally leaned to baking. All the ladies in the family have a sweet tooth and sweet fingers. Finding out that I had to potential to follow in those foot steps was only possible by coming out here and finding that my cravings could not be satisfied at the local bakery. Pretty soon, I became that person on my floor, the one who never left the kitchen. Shushu would always frighten me at 3:00am when coming to check the lights as I waited for second and third batches to finish. Baking really brought home life to China and being able to share that with my friends was the ultimate blessing. But after one year and chabuduo 3 months, I will have to leave this baking life behind. I'm returning home and I probably will find everything I want to eat there but now I ask myself, 'What is the definition of everything?'.

First attempt at Red Velvet Cake
So to commemorate this parting with my oven, I did an old, new and improved version of my baking history and hopeful started a new baking tradition. I told people that I just wanted to finish my ingredients (to maintain my cold exterior) but the Lord knows and some how truly orchestrated this moment.

For the old, my first bun recipe from Ms. Wegman. The first recipe I ever baked in my new oven last year Easter.

I always liked making them into cookies because the outsides would get nice and crispy. Even though I didn't have dried fruits around, I did have a whole bag of grated coconut so, there was no stopping me.

For the new, I tried my hand at a green tea (matcha) chiffon cake and surprised myself. Previously, I made green tea frosting at a friend's request and that helped me get over the fear of adding green tea to cake. In fact, I even bought one at the bakery last week. Is it possible that I've been here too long?

It was also my first time to try a chiffon cake with real eggs (I'll explain later). Beating egg whites and yolks separately and recombining, the best trick in the book and apparently the basis of all Chinese baked goods. I may be late to the party but I'm not leaving any time soon.

This cake was so moist and sweet. I couldn't convince my country mates to join in the green tea but I'm sure my Indonesian sisters would be proud of me.

For the improved, Red Velvet and I had a bone to pick (Caribbean for unfinished business). Couple weeks ago, I read scores of comparisons of apparently America's most popular cake and was extremely daunted. When every one claims to have the best of something, you end up not even trusting yourself to make a decision. However,  I eventually went with version because the pictures and ingredients 真满足我的要求.

That vinegar and baking soda taste was too pungent and colouring, lackluster. Well, what are the odds that someone would give you a tin of beets in China.

I interpreted this as a sign that I should try again. By using a puree and 10ml of red dye I got an even softer cake than the previous cake which was made with cake flour and the cleanest, smoothest toothpick withdrawal evuuuur. 

The flavor was amazing. Not just a red chocolate cake, but actual velvety tasting cake. If only there was frosting.

This was really the perfect way to part. I could only dream of what next I will be a part of, whether it's more baking, some actual cooking, more blogging or all of the above. Because sometimes, you should get to have your cake and eat it too!

Till we see again at another location
Watermelon and Cheese

Find the recipes here

Coconut Bun Cookies:

Green Tea Match Chiffon Cake:

Red Velvet Cake:

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Bite me: 烤包鱼 Grilled Fish in bag

As uni students you find a few grub holes, establish a few food patterns that craft their way into your daily appetite. Yes, you with the fried ant in your mouth, we see you. In China, steamed dumplings 饺子, sour spicy noodles 酸辣粉, roasted pig brains; the only limitation was how far you were willing to go. And for most of us on a weekend night, BBQ was a necessity. Actually that's a really broad term due to the variations that exist but today let me introduce you to grilled fish in a bag.

The fish is prepared in oil, grated and whole garlic cloves, ginger, chives and the like and of course chilli and prickly ash pepper. All the cooking takes place as the fish is wrapped on the heated plate.

After about five minutes, the fish is completely cooked, richly seasoned and ready-to-eat. 

The enchanting smell that rises to the nostrils immediately arms your fingers with chopsticks, in preparation to launch attack.

This fish can feed up to four persons ideally. And vegetables and other meat can be added to the grill plate.

The results are just as stunning. To first timers, this may see a bit oily, but it isn't genuine if it isn't oily.

But when it starts to overflow, there are mechanisms in place for that.

The experience is as rich as the taste. So if you are new to Chongqing, be sure to put it on your list of dishes to devour. And if you're already sworn into Chongqing night cuisine, then 好好吃 next time around. 

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Cooking @ Dawn: Masala Oats

New revelation for this Caribbean chica. No it's not about chocolate or chicken. It's oats and it's not boring. Today breakfast becomes dinner.

One of the things the green tea Oreos, shrimp Lays, hawthorne Tang and rice meals in KFC taught me is that the food industry doesn't just carbon copy its products. Oh no! The market determines the expectations. The customer forever is right.

My India friend and I got caught up in cuisine comparisons within five minutes of conversing. In India, Quaker Oats comes in masala and lemon grass and vegetable flavour. Maggi, another Caribbean favourite also produces a masala flavoured seasoning mix. Before I could register this shocking news, my friend picked up my oats and a pack of her masala and headed to the kitchen.

I have always been vehemently against the idea of savoury oats but since I had been wrong in the past (remember sweet potatoes and yogurt), I was willing to be schooled.

This dish is so simple. Starting off with a heated frying pan, melt two spoons of cream cheese. Add in about a cup of oats and allow it to toast and cook on high heat. At this point add the seasoning, a least one packet to start, and allow that to toast as well. This allows causes the flavours to 'activate'. You can add a little more cream cheese if you desire but if not, pour about half cup water and allow the final cooking to take place. Easy peasy cheesy, spicy oats.

And if I wasn't sold on the idea, I certainly won't be posting it here. You totally forget that you're eating oats.

Masala is a mix of coriander, cumin, bay leaves, mace, fennel, cloves and cinnamon. So if you don't have access to the mix, try some of the ingredients. Whatever you choose, know that savoury oats is a must-have!

Friday, July 24, 2015

The Travelling Nutmeg: Ciqikou 磁器口- Foodie Paradise

Take me back! Take me back! :'(. Do you know where to find all of Chongqing's cuisine in one place. Then you need to visit Ciqikou 磁器口. As the name suggests, from the mouth of the river leads out into bridges and ancient buildings of beautiful carvings and designs.

These patterned side-walks lead you to a land of food. Think Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs before the genetic distortion...grilled kebabs, freshly squeezed juices, ancient and modern tea brews, traditional yoghurt, fun cotton candy, hand made noodles, freshly made spice oils and pastes.

You may even see a dancing squid guy or a coconut having a smoke. You know, the things you can't make up. All this is coupled with pearl and silk shops, music holes (there was a reggae shop :O), and thirty minute  portraits.

Walk around with a crown of flowers like a Foodie Princess
I found food close to home like the tropical flavours of pineapple rice

and even closer...roti with its personalized chef direct from India. But something was different, There was no curry. Every filling was sweet, like bananas, strawberries and chocolate. And the skin was fried :O.

After speaking to the chef, he explained that changing the recipe was necessary to fit the locals palettes but if I came to his house, his curry won't disappoint. Well that was a relief.

But the real reason that everyone comes to Ciqikou isn't the cute trinkets, novelty shops and all the modern food.

It's the ma hua 麻花. 

There are long lines like the ones you find people waiting in for hot bread. There are about four stalls, each with a first prize plaque, I guess testifying to how great they ALL are. They even offer different flavours such as

purple sweet potato
pork floss
sesame seed

coconut and original. But really who wants original when there is so much awesomeness to choose from. Oh I forgot to tell you what ma hua is. Well, HINT every one calls my braid hairstyles that name. So basically, it's a braided flour snack that's crunchy, sweet and additive

But to really enjoy this place, you need to come early and with an empty stomach. Maybe even space it over a couple days. Allow yourself a chance to enjoy each food experience. Most of the chefs are really lively and would show you their preparation technique. But if you just want to eat, they'll be just as happy to feed you.