Soylent Orange

The other day, we saw a vending machine with some interesting snacks marketed as “meal substitutes.” Of course Japan is the first country to introduce Soylent foods… just you wait, someday Japan will have a meal in a pill.

Tokyo Eats

Eating has become quite an adventure since moving to a country in which I’m illiterate, but it’s been a delicious adventure nonetheless.

Our first real meal in Tokyo was from a cheap lunch place that had set meals, and it was pretty darn good. We were especially delighted by the FREE ice water and non-smoking section — both novelties after China.

Our second night in Tokyo, we went to Shinjuku, a hip nightlife spot. There, we encountered a vending machine restaurant for the first time, and after fumbling around for a bit, finally got our food. It’s actually a really efficient system. Just choose what you want from the picture menu, insert your money, press a button and take the small ticket receipt to a counter where they give you your food. We both had noodle bowls, which has been quite the staple in our diets.

Having mastered the vending restaurant, we ordered Japanese crepes from another vending eatery. We shared an ice cream, cheese cake and berries crepe. Yummo!

Today, I tried a very Japanese “burger” from Mo’s Burgers in Kyoto. The “burger” was made of carrot, mushrooms and some other tubers, while the sauce was a delicate terriyaki. The “lettuce” was nori seaweed. The “bun” was two pads of sushi rice. It was delicious!

Usually we eat tempura and noodle bowls for lunch and dinner, but lately we’ve been trying to branch out into the convenience store cuisine — which actually means sushi, rice bowls and other delicions in Japan! And, despite all the raw foods like salad, tap water and sashimi, we haven’t had food poisoning even once in Japan!

Tropical desserts

If there’s one thing I love, it’s dessert. In fact, when I was a kid, I swore I had two stomachs — a dinner stomach, and a much larger dessert stomach.

There are a bunch of foods I really miss from back home, but there are definitely some perks to living near Southeast Asia, namely, cheap tropical fruits.

The other day, I made my own mangoes and sticky rice. Actually, it was just white rice cooked in coconut milk, sugar and a little vanilla. Jeff bought the mangoes off the street, and I think they’re not quite in season yet, they were a little… bleachy? But still, this was a delicious and relatively guilt-free dessert.

Even more common than mango is pineapple. Street sellers carve pineapple and skewer it on a stick so you can eat delicious, pineapple “popsicles.” You can also get pre-skinned, swirly-carved pineapples on the street for cheap.

Since I had a bunch of coconut flakes that Jeff bought on impulse, I made a coconut pineapple cake. It was pretty decadent, and definitely not healthy. I actually found it a little too sweet, but it tasted better the longer it stayed in the fridge. The recipe is here.

I didn’t have cake flour or corn syrup and made interesting substitutions. You can add corn starch to all-purpose flour to make cake flour, but I also didn’t have that, so I added corn flour. Ok, I knew they were different, but I figured it was sort of similar. Since I didn’t have corn syrup for the icing, I used lemon, and the icing turned our fine. Jeff really made fun of me when he found out how I substituted for those things. I also had to make a square cake because I didn’t have cake pans. If you make this, consider cutting the sugar — it was way too sweet — and adding more pineapple layers. Actually, I wouldn’t even ice the cake if I made it again. The pineapple and the cake itself are both sweet enough already.

The bounty of Spring

Spring is just around the corner in Beijing, with high temperatures of around 50 degrees Fahrenheit in the past week. The sun has been out every day, and I’ve been really enjoying the foods that have come around.

Beijing has these really pathetic, anemic strawberries for sale on the street, that I have been avoiding for weeks because strawberries should be red, not white with red patches. But the other day, I finally tried one and found that they are delicious. I guess the adage that the uglier a strawberry is, the better it tastes holds true in Beijing as well as in California. In fact, Beijing strawberries taste far and away better than California Safeway strawberries. I was surprised, because I didn’t think that China could really beat California at much besides cancer rates and pollution/toxic waste poisoning, but it turns out that the Sichuan region turns out a mean strawberry, and cheap too! Street berries are 9 kuai per pound.

Here is what we had for dinner the other day: Feta cheese and broccoli sauce pasta, coleslaw, and strawberries with vanilla yogurt.

Jeff bought me some strawberries yesterday, which are much prettier and consequently less tasty than the street berries. He also ate a lot of strawberries at several friends’ homes, and came down with a mean case of food poisoning because of it. So, for now my new berries are on probation in the fridge. But they sure are pretty!

I might make jam or some kind of sauce out of them — at any rate it’s a good idea to cook them I think. I ate some without problems, but you don’t want to get 拉肚子 when you’re out and about every day.

The Unappealing truth

I have three vegetable peelers:

The first veggie peeler came with a knife set. The set included three knives, a peeler and a small cutting board for 35 kuai, so I wasn’t expecting much from it. It at least took off skins plus chunks of flesh, but more because of blunt force on my part than it’s own merit.

Needless to say, I thought I could trade up, so I went to the market and bought the most expensive peeler there (about 8 kuai). Since there aren’t any recognizable brand names — miss those Oxo Good Grips kitchen utensils! — when in doubt, pay more. If possible, this peeler was even worse than the first one. The pivoting head made it impossible to aim, and it wiggled all over my vegetables, hardly removing any skin at all.

But it’s number three that finally made me crack. I bought number three at HEC, the restaurant supply store. Figuring all their peelers would be decent since they supply the pros, I got the second-most expensive peeler. It was about 4 kuai, and the most expensive one was over 30 kuai. When I got home, I was barely able to contain my anticipation of using it to easily peel several pounds of potato for potato leek soup. I took up my first potato, and slide the peeler along the skin — and nothing came off. I mean, the peeler didn’t even make a little slice in the skin. It grazed off of it as as if I was attempting to peel the potato with a kitten. Frustrated, I pushed harder, angling the blade more — still nothing. Finally, close to rage, I dug the peeler in and liberated a chunk of skin plus a large hunk of potato.

Disgusted, I threw the disgraced peeler in the trash, and moved on to my tried and true method of peeling veggies:

About a minute later, I pulled it out of the trash, penitent, took a picture, and promised myself to blog about my wayward peelers.

That’s one thing about China — you really can’t take shortcuts we take for granted in the States, and the weirdest things give you a new perspective on life. It’s actually kind of liberating to realize you don’t really need all those fancy tools and premixed foods; all you need is patience and elbow greese. It surprises me how many recipes call for premade ingredients that I just can’t get — premade doughs, cake mixes, spice mixes, bread crumbs… the list goes on and on. But it’s been really fun experimenting with the abundance of fresh ingredients I can get. I’ve made homemade apple sauce, bread, pasta sauces, whipped stiff egg whites without a mixer (admittedly poor Jeff did the heavy lifting on that), made my own chilis and curries — and it’s all been a really fun adventure. I don’t even mind peeling my veggies with a knife, with the exception of apples, whose round shape is the devil’s work.

HEC, how I love thee

After reading an article in the 2008 Insider’s Guide to Beijing about Hotel Equipment Corporation, a restaurant supply warehouse, I decided I had to go have a look for myself.

In short, I completely lost my mind, and it was amazing.

HEC, located in the Feng Tai neighborhood of Beijing, is a bit hard to find, but it was well worth the long trek. The first floor was impressive, housing flatware, dishes and bar equipment at amazing prices — 22 kuai for a beautifully shaped serving platter anybody? They also had a water pitcher I saw at Salt, a premiere contemporary restaurant,  an array of sushi boats, and the futuristic-looking pudding cups from Mango Mango.

But the second floor is where I totally lost all sense of who I was and the fact that I have to pay rent tomorrow, and just started shoveling stuff into my cart. The “Western Cooking Supplies” floor was a wonderland of cheap and scarce kitchen necessities. They had tons of cake pans (47 kuai) and decorating supplies, silicone baking mats (250 kuai), cookie cutters, bread knives, heart-shaped pastry pans, gigantic 40-gallon soup pots, Western measuring cups, a huge tupperware section — to be honest, it’s all kind of a blur beyond that.

The third floor, “Chinese Cooking Supplies,” had full-sized woks (20 kuai), hot pot pots, iron plates for hot plate dishes, a row of bamboo steamers (15-30 kuai), more soup pots, rice cookers, meat cleavers, more tupperware, chafing dishes for buffets, barbecues, industrial-sized ovens … you get the picture.

The fourth and fifth floors have heavier equipment — as in walk-in fridges and grills.

Somehow I managed to leave having spent a bit of 200 kuai, which was fairly good I think. My favorite purchase was two silicone cupcake pans for 47 kuai each. I also got a potato ricer and bread knife, neither of which I’ve seen anywhere else in Beijing. I was pretty much giddy the entire trip, and I think I’ll be making return trips to pick up some things I didn’t buy this time — maybe a heart-shaped baking pan is in my future? I’d better not go too often though, and I think I need a better chaperon than Jeff. Maybe one who doesn’t encourage me to buy things.

Not pictured: my gigantic 16-kuai tupperware box for transporting cupcakes. MMMmmmmm!

Easy Curry, China-style

One of my favorite past times is rooting around for the correct ingredients to dishes I love, as you might have noticed from previous posts. I think I’ve become something of an expert on the various grocery stores in Beijing, and can confidently tell you which aisles in Wu Mart stock peanut butter, Western tea and essential spices.

However, since I often can’t find the called-for ingredients, I tend to make a lot of substitutions to recipes. So far this hasn’t really gone wrong, and since I’m forced to use easily available ingredients, I think these can be great recipes for the cook who just doesn’t have every imaginable spice on hand all the time.

Here is a curry I made Monday that I particularly liked, adapted from/inspired by what’s becoming one of my favorite cookbooks, This Can’t be Tofu.

Empty one can of coconut milk into a frying pan/wok over medium heat and whisk in 1.5 tablespoons brown sugar, 2 tablespoons soy sauce, 1.5-2 tablespoons curry powder and 1 to 2 teaspoons Thai red chili paste. I didn’t have an chili paste, so I didn’t add it, and it tasted fine. Add the chili paste a bit at a time, starting with 1 teaspoon, continuing to taste.

Bring sauce to a boil, then let it simmer for five minutes.

Add desired vegatables and tofu or meats. I used 2 shitake mushrooms cut into strips, half of a partly-cooked potato, cubed, 1 head of brocoli, 2 medium-sized tomatoes, cut into chunks, 1 bunch of green onions, and 1/2 to 1 box of firm tofu. Add a pinch of salt and let it cook for a few minutes, until vegetables are tender. Serve over rice. Done!

This is a really easy and quick recipe, and you can vary it however you like. The cookbook calls for orange bell peppers, a 1/4 cup of basil leaves (unavailable in my grocery stores), and 1 bunch of spinach leaves. I didn’t have those so I made my own substitutions, which turned out grand.

I also suggest the more tofu-inclined to trying frying cubed tofu in a small amount of oil first, until golden brown. You can also try the porous and meaty texture of frozen tofu in this curry by first freezing a box of tofu overnight and then cubing it and adding it to the curry. In both cases, it’s a good idea to press the water out of the tofu before cooking by wrapping it in a towel and leaving something heavy on top of it for about 20 minutes. If you’re in a hurry, cut it into cubes and hand press a few cubes at a time carefully, but make sure not to crush them.

Happy cooking everyone, now I’m going to get to baking some more bread!

Beijing Eats

Because I spent an exorbitant amount of money eating out when Kieran was here, I’ve spent the last week staying home and trying to save some moolah.

This means lots of cooking! I’ve been busy baking a lot of bread, an apple sauce coffee cake, and various tofu dinners.

While this recipe for no-knead bread has been making the rounds in foodie circles for about two years now, I feel compelled to share it. The bread was not only easy to make, it was also ridiculously delicious. So delicious that Jeff and I decided to bake it two days in a row, having consumed the first loaf in a matter of hours. It’s hard to get good bread here, and what you can find is usually expensive, so discovering that we can make our own wonderful bread while barely spending any money on it was quite exciting. I’d show you pictures, but we ate the bread to quickly.

I made it with regular Chinese flour, using my glorified toaster oven and a pot that cost 16 kuai, so I know you can make even better bread using real ingredients and big people ovens. Go ahead, try it! You’ll be delighted with the flavor and texture of this bread, I guarantee it.

Lack of…

Last night we ended up eating at a Belgian restaurant with some friends from Caitlin’s program. It was expensive by Beijing standards but normal for ours. I had rabbit in mustard sauce with stewed red cabbage and potato croquettes. Two things surprised me. The first was how full I felt after finishing. Eating a large amount of asian food makes me full, but it doesn’t sit heavily. This meal made me feel fuller. The second surprising thing was noticing that there was no sign of chopsticks; I noticed when we finished eating that we had all used silverware.

Rabbit in mustard sauce, red cabbage, potato croquettes

From Morels

Apart from silverware and western cooking, Beijing suffers from lack of large dogs, quality cheese, crusty french bread to go with it, coffee, good beer, and chocolate chip cookies, among many other kinds of cookie. If you are planning to visit Caitlin in Beijing bringing one of these food items is a sure way to gain favor with her. Households, apart from hers, also don’t have ovens, as discussed in a previous post. I hoped to have an entire day of baking before leaving the East Coast but ended up too busy finishing my semester to do any at all. Instead I settled for a bag of homemade chocolate chip cookies from the Potbelly Sandwich Works in Dulles Int’l Airport, which gave me the opportunity to discover just how much cookies in China mean to Caitlin. She placed them directly into her special stash of special treats, where they were left undisturbed for several days.

Or so I thought. Lounging around on Thursday evening I casually remarked that we ought to try those cookies I brought. This elicited the most pout-lipped, shoulders hunched, head down, eyes up, sheepish “I already have” reply that I have seen in my entire life. My younger sister looked so guilty. “I thought you already knew” she said. “I haven’t been keeping it a secret. They’re really good.” Clearly, because they were really good, she was hoarding them according to a don’t ask-don’t tell philosophy. And, because I am older than she, and because I can get cookies like that all the time, I don’t begrudge her the right to hoard them. After all, among other less important things of scarcity, Beijing has lack of chocolate chip cookies.

We cooked these as an epilogue. There is a small handful left.

We baked these a day later. There is a small handful left.

Caitlinpedia Brown and the case of….

In this thrilling second installment of Caitlinpedia Brown and the Case of the Apparating Bugs, Caitlinpedia Brown gets to the bottom of the mysterious flies and dead cockroach — but will the answer to her bug riddle come too late?

It had been over a month since Caitlinpedia Brown first opened the case over a dead cockroach on her floor, and clues had been few and far between. She had left the cockroach body on the bathroom floor, carefully avoiding sweeping it up so that nothing would appear disturbed. Every day she pondered its fate, and her own, during her morning routine. Where had it come from? How did it get there? What did it mean?

Midterms came, and the cockroach became little more than a passing afterthought. There were more important games afoot.

While she had been distracted by tests and papers, a far more sinister yet seemingly innocuous threat had gained the upper hand in Caitlinpedia Brown’s apartment. In a bout of business, dishes had piled in the sink. After days, Caitlinpedia Brown put down the books and set to washing the dishes. It was then, that she solved part of the mystery that had plagued her all month. Those little fly suckers were breeding in the sink drain.

Annoyed but not disgusted, Caitlinpedia Brown grabbed her bleach and kitchen spray cleaner, and set to drowning the small colony of flies. She thought back to her earlier act of kindness toward the flies on her bathroom sink, and decided that their backstabbing breeding deserved the cruelty of chemical warfare. Then, she dumped bleach, cleaner and boiling water down the drain. For the rest of the week, she kept the dishes clean, and kept a watchful eye on the sink drain.

By the next week, however, the flies were back. This time, she scrubbed out the drain as best she could, added more bleach, and vigorously dumped chemicals down the drain for 15 minutes. It smelled lovely, and she was satisfied they wouldn’t be back.

Another week passed, and hardly any food crumbs were put in the sink. But the flies had returned. Now she wondered if she had been too late in declaring war on the fly population. There were little dead flies in her clean cups, little dead flies in the sink, little flies in the drain, and they just wouldn’t leave.

Defeated, she went to the bathroom and sat down.

The cockroach — it was gone! She hadn’t swept, and she hadn’t moved it. It had been there earlier in the day, now it was gone. She got down on her knees and searched the bathroom floor, but the little roach body was gone without a trace.

Suddenly, she felt a keen sense of loss, confusion and paranoia. Had someone moved the little cockroach, who against all odds had become a comforting friend and source of stability during the duress of midterms? Had the flies colluded to distract her with their breeding? What was the meaning of this? Where had the body been taken, and for what purpose. She was plagued with doubt.

Days passed, without a sign from her cockroach. She checked the bathroom floor every day, eagerly hoping it had just been pushed by a gust of wind, and she hadn’t noticed it. But it wasn’t there.

Then, like the sun bursting forth over the rocky mountains at dawn, she found her dead cockroach’s body behind her shower slipper, at the foot of the bathroom step. She still didn’t know how it had gotten there, but she carefully preserved the roach’s new resting place and decided not to move it lest she miss some important clue.

Midterms finally ended, and in a sudden burst of clarity, Caitlinpedia Brown solved her mystery—

The cockroach had died, because that’s just what bugs do. The flies had bred, because that’s just what flies do. They had all colluded to annoy her, because that’s their purpose on Earth. And, as for why the cockroach body had moved, she decided she’d likely never know. But what was more important was why she had become so dependent on a dead insect not moving as a source of comfort and stability. Resolving to lessen her eccentricity and become less pathetic, Caitlinpedia Brown swept up the cockroach, threw it out, and with no small pang of sadness, vigorously cleaned the floor where it had laid for so long.

Having solved her biggest case yet, Caitlinpedia Brown wondered whether, despite the pain it had brought her, solving the case had allowed her to grow. Perhaps, just maybe, her next case would take outside her own apartment, and into the dizzying and overwhelming confusion of the bustling city below. Stay tuned…