Friday, February 27, 2015

The Travelling Nutmeg: By Day, By Night

My second week in Chengdu has been a bit reminiscent of a war zone. There are still the random sounds of explosives during the day and fireworks during the night. My heart has somewhat settled as I take comfort in the fact that these sounds are in no way related to ammunition.

With that in mind, I took to the streets to lose myself at bit. And that I did. One of these actually saved me.

Tricycle taxi
They are much slower than motorbikes but they get you to your destination without completely drying out your already crackling lips and that's good enough for me. They have their own lane and everything and yet they seem to totally ignore traffic regulations, (which regular drivers do anyway) when they randomly drive through a red light, cross on the zebra crossing and use the side walks.

The next time around, I found some meandering assistance. First, I was taken to a local park. History buffs are greeted with precise wall carvings of ancient warriors. At the center of the park, dreamers will find the 12 Chinese Zodiac animals as huge 20ft. statues. Then around the bend, are activities for the young and young at heart:  table tennis, children's park, scary amusement park rides, fishing and the like. But for some reason I was drawn to the dove hut where you pay to fatten hundreds of these guys. The only place I have ever seen so many doves at one time is the Home Alone movie. And it didn't end well for Marv.

Then again, there wasn't going to be an old lady drowning me in bird feed. Actually, minus the pain from the pecking, it was cool experience. I swear the first guy to peck was a brown one, as if to say, 'It's all good! She's with me.' and soon the grain competition had begun.

Finally on the edges of the park were Tea Bars where everyone just sat drinking these really tall mugs of tea. As I chatted and sipped, I kept wondering why they would refill my mug after reaching about 3/4 full (we are not about that glass 1/2 full life). The answer came soon after, when I was told that I needed to slow down. According the unofficially published 'Art of Tea Consumption' book (or maybe there is an official version), one must sip slowly, with many breaks in between to enjoy the full flavour tones of leaves. The constant refill keeps the drink at a low concentration and prevents diarrhoea and gas. (Sorry:/)

Dou hua er from this week's Bite me and a too tall glass of Jasmine tea

The one time I did go out at night was to attend the community's annual light festival. My words could never be adequate to describe the beauty of  each design. Neither is my 'not too smart' smart phone. I intended to share with you some snaps from (China's google) but they were all from previously held events.

So what could I say? They spared nothing in the arrangements. The lake was lit with lillies, dragons, fishes and fairies and each bridge and archway carried the same mystical theme. Most definitely worth risking my life at night to see.

Check me next week for the last instalment to this Chengdu series where I get busy in the kitchen with Granny!

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Independence taught me: Oil Down (Grenada Edition)

If I were to title this correctly, it would be Independence schooled me and schooled me well. There is nothing sadder than wanting to cook the most important meal of your life and being unable to find the staple ingredients.

The national dish of Grenada is Oil Down, the basis of which is breadfruit (Atrocarpus altilis), salted meat, dumplings and callaloo (leaves of Colocasia esculenta), flavoured with fresh coconut milk and tumeric (Curcuma longa). I repeat 'fresh'.  Usually other ingredients such green bananas, tuber crops, chicken, crab  are acceptable but with 90% of them unavailable, it was Mission Impossible starring Hopeless Grenadian.

My mom warned that if there was no breadfruit, it was sacrilege. However, being my last Independence in China I forged on. I spent a whole day searching every market in Chongqing with no success so my country-mate and I settled on what we thought were good substitutes and newcomers.  We started with well seasoned chicken drumettes, Irish potatoes and dumplings and covered that with eggplants (Solanum melongena) and zuchinni (Cucurbita pepo) for nutrition and spinach. This was drenched in tinned coconut milk and tumeric powder (from home, thankfully). The thing about Oil Down is that you really can add whatever you want so long as you control your liquid portion and this is where problems arose for me. Zuchinni, being a member of the cucumber family, produced much more water than I expected. Oil Down was not meant to be a soup, so it was only after scooping out and re-seasoning that we survived to night.

Today, I not only want to share the challenges of making Oil Down in a foreign country, but tips to successfully adapt your dish in an Asian environment. After polling various Grenadians who lived or are currently living in China, I assembled the following list of appropriate substitutes. I hope this can be a helpful guide to making your February 7th more memorable.

Original Ingredient Available Suggested Substitute
Meat: Salted Meat  Yes but due to
different processing
methods flavour is deeply altered.
Good ole Chicken and Beef
Meat: Salted Fish Same issue as above Fresh-water fish (salt-water
varieties are a rare find),
prawns, crab
Vegetables: Breadfruit,
Green bananans
No *sobs* Try

Vegetables: Tubers
(yams, dasheen,
Yes but yam varieties
produce too much secretion
Stick to potatoes
Vegetable: Callaloo/Dasheen leaves No. But there are so many
leafy greens in the supermarket.
Spinach but watch out for the bitterness.
Gourd leaves have extra secretion.
Bok Choi is also bitter.

Liquid: Coconut milk Yes. Fresh coconuts are imported
but have low fat content and little meat thus producing thin milk
Tinned Thailand coconut milk is rich and creamy and
close enough to the real product.
Spices: Tumeric Not to my knowledge Try or
International supermarket or an Indian friend

Feel free to leave other suggestions and make this a knowledgeable forum for the love of a 'GUD OIL DOWN'

Friday, February 20, 2015

The Travelling Nutmeg: Changsha to Chengdu

My time in Changsha concluded with a visit to the walking street (步行街)at Huang Xing Road (黄兴路). Even though there were many high end boutiques around, the traditional charm remains. It kind of reminded me of Beijing.

As in any square or shopping center, there was also awesome street food to choose from: seafood, noodles, bbq, cotton candy and the list goes on.

Skills of Cotton Candy fluffing

Steamed buns in the shape of cute rubber duckies

Ready to eat prawns. That 'Make a Line' sign must mean that they really taste good

The Secret to Changsha's beauty

Do I seem rushed? It's because I am. I love Changsha but I've been setting things on fire in Chengdu....LITERALLY.  Walking through the streets of my new home was paradise. I recalled when I was eight years old and the importation of fireworks were banned. Christmas season lost some of its sparkle. All, when you're at that age. So imagine me, when I am shopping with an eight year old girl and the streets look like this:

We just walked around, casually filling up our bags, one 'explosive' at a time. Did I say we? I meant her. I watched safely from a distance. After tons of purchases, I spent the night under the covers like a scared puppy. Just kidding. But I only lit the sparkly ones. Yes, I'm quite the wuss.

The entire square was filled of people just blowing up things for fun. Look at this dude!  I just can't comprehend his courage. And neither can the kid behind him.

Now all this happened around 9 pm after we ate the last dinner of the year and the adult members of the family were busy watching the National Chinese New Year Programme. Click here for deets! Soon I returned home and was off to sleep, pretty silly of me, in hindsight. About 11:58pm, the sky suddenly erupted with colours. I don't know if they were trigger happy or my clock was slow but either way, the noise jolted me out of my sleep. It was then I realized, it had been about 3 years since I've been close to Chinese fireworks. During my first CNY, I was surrounded by dudes who would throw firecrackers in your room. The horror had returned. I couldn't sleep until 3 pm.

But the next morning, things seem to returned to normal...or did they?

Catch me next week to find out!

Friday, February 13, 2015

The Travelling Nutmeg: How to find food in a new city - Changsha

I spent the past couple days in Changsha, Hunan province. As I prepared for trip, everyone said ignore the weather forecast, it's always wrong they said. Scenario: I packed for 0 degree Celsius weather and ended up in 25 degree Celsius. But complain about sun has no island girl done ever so I spent it out and about.

First things first, I had to stock up on some food. My rule of thumb is find as many nourishing fruits as possible. Longyan龙眼, oranges橙子 and bananas香蕉 are easy to carry and peel/consume and are quick refreshers after a long journey.

Fruit options in a section of Changsha

Really huge Jackfruit..but then, they are always huge

To my surprise, fruit stalls were very easy to locate, just like juice bars in Chongqing. All my favorites were out and this stranger too. 

Ingenious sugarcane slicer

 Lunch was a bit harder. Recently fast food has started resembling wet paper pulp, so I have been relying a lot on local cuisine.  I eventually settled on 干套面, noodles covered with sesame paste, sunflower seeds, roasted peanuts, cilantro, thinly sliced carrots and cucumbers and since we are in Changsha, pepper flakes.

Always mix ingredients and seasonings into noodles for the best taste

I repeated this pattern until I got a chance to go shopping and cook myself dinner. Finding a Carrefoure or a Walmart outlet is always a God send. Focusing on an simple menu ensures that you have more cash to spend on fun things. If you are a Naturalista, try not to get side tracked by how easy it is to find these. 

If you think that I am referring to the potatoes, you are by no means a naturalista

And as the rest of the world celebrates Valentine's day tomorrow, I leave you with these pictures so that you can glimpse how it goes this side of the world. See you next week for the rest of my Changsha trip and my first visit to Chengdu.