Lamb dumplings, Old Beijing-style

While exploring Beijing by bicycle today, we came across a restaurant we may not otherwise have found. Lǎo Běijīng Jiācháng Jiǎozi (老北京家常饺子)is located right near the popular Hongqiao Market, but set apart from other stores by an overpass. The name, which translates to Old Beijing Family Dumplings, jumped out at me as we rode by as a good place for a hearty dinner after we explored the Temple of Heaven.

We stopped by around nightfall. From a quick glance at the menu, it was obvious that the specialty was hand-made shuǐ jiǎo 水饺, or boiled dumplings. We asked for an order of lamb shuǐ jiǎo, thinking that if one weren't enough we could just get another order. Turned out we were right to hold off, since one order consisted of about 12 or 14 golf-ball sized dumplings, enough for two people to share and still be full.

The dumplings' skin was the soft and thick type that can only be rolled by hand. The lamb and onion filling was flavorful, especially with a few drops of chilli sauce. The dumplings also came with a broth that seemed like congee, without any bits of rice or seasonings. We figured out what it was for after Jacob accidentally swallowed one too many bits of chilli: the broth is a great neutralizer for your tongue.

Another mental note: go back and try their hand-made noodles, shrimp-egg-chive dumplings, and zucchini-fennel-cabbage dumplings.

Lǎo Běijing Jiācháng Jiǎozi 老北京家常饺子
Chongwenmenwai Dajie, just north of Hongqiao Market
Chongwen District, Beijing


Portuguese / Macanese at Restaurante Escada

As a frequent traveler, I have crossed political borders in many ways: by plane, train, bus, car, and boat. On our day trip to Macau yesterday, I walked across a border for the first time after taking a bus from Zhongshan to the Chinese/Macau customs. On the other side lay a place that is very much Cantonese in lifestyle and language, but where you will find a huge amount of culinary diversity.

Macau was a Portuguese colony until 1999, when it was returned to China. It remains a Special Administrative Region like Hong Kong, which means it gets its own Special boundaries, laws, and Special access to bulk imports of Portuguese sausages. The thought of delicious cured meat compelled me to wander the narrow hilly streets in search of Portuguese and Macanese fare, which is a combination of Portuguese, African, and Southeast Asian cooking.

During the day we ate wherever we walked, as street food in Macau is abundant and delicious. At night I wanted a long, relaxing sit-down dinner. Unfortunately it started to rain just as we were about to walk towards a couple of restaurants in the southern part of the peninsula. Looking for shelter, we turned onto a narrow cobblestone street off Avenida de Almeida Ribeiro, and saw a charming little building strung up with lights. Restaurante Escada, said the swinging sign. The daily specials chalkboard listed bacalhau, seafood stew, and a range of grilled meats. We asked to see the regular menu too, and immediately 3, 4, 5, 10 dishes popped out as something I wanted to try. Sold.

For an appetizer we ordered a Portuguese sausage that came out on a flaming dish. The waitress turned it over so we could see how it blistered oh-so-deliciously on the open flame. Tasting the sausage three years after my last trip to Spain and Portugal reminded me just how adept Iberians are when it comes to curing meat.

I ordered Galinha à Africana for my entree, a roasted chicken covered in piri piri, or African bird's eye chili, sauce. The half chicken portion size was more than I could comfortably eat, but definitely sated my appetite for tender and subtley spiced meat. Jacob loved his beef in cream sauce entree; while I am not a huge fan of rare meat, I did steal more than a few french fries, crisp and lightly dusted with pepper, off his plate.

It was a wonderful meal to end a day of exploring Macau, a place so physically close to Guangdong Province, but culturally and culinarily different.

Restaurante Escada
Rua de Sé No. 8 (off Avenida de Almeida Ribeiro)

Recipe: Asian Pear and Banana Smoothie

One of my favorite things about fall is that pears are in season. Here in China, we get Bartlets and Bosc pears like in the US, but Asian pears are by far the most popular and most abundant.

I did a little research on the origin of Asian pears and found out that all pears may have originated in China. From The Washington Post:

All pears, it's believed, have a common parentage from rootstock native to western China. But centuries ago, trees that were taken westward to European countries changed over the years and produced fruit with a texture and flavor like the common Bartlett pear.

Asian pears tend to be sweeter, more crisp, and juicier than their European cousins, which means they're excellent for making smoothies. The natural sweetness cancels out the need for additional sugar, though sometimes I use a spoonful of honey if I'm in the mood for a sweeter drink.

Asian Pear and Banana Smoothie

8-10 cubes of ice
240 mL (1 cup) unsweetened soy milk
2 Asian pears, peeled and chopped
3 medium-sized bananas, peeled and chopped
15 mL (1 tablespoon) honey, optional

Make sure your blender is made for crushing ice; there may be a special attachment you have to use. Crush the ice with about half of the soy milk; ice crushes much faster when there is liquid.

Add the pears, bananas, and the rest of the soy milk. Taste to see if the smoothie is sweet enough, and if not, add a bit of honey. Serve as is, or (Jacob's suggestion) strain the smoothie with cheesecloth or pantyhose to get out any fibrous bits that are natural to all pears.



Eating Fried Balloons

The first thing we saw in front of Shiqi Lao were two cooks frying what appeared to be big balloons of dough. They repeatedly turned the giant puffs in their woks so that they would be evenly fried and crispy. In front of the cooks were finished fried puffs, waiting to be brought to expectant diners.

The fried puffs are one of the many local dishes served at Shiqi Lao, which specializes in food from Zhongshan's surrounding villages. The restaurant's rather gaudy exterior, with a 10-foot cartoon pigeon, disguises the fact that it is a foodie haven. Hong Kongers flood the dining room on weekends, taking a 3-hour bus ride just for great inexpensive eating. My family and friends in Zhongshan know to go on weekdays, when they can eat with slightly smaller crowds.

As eyesore-ish the outside was, I was impressed by what the restaurant did with the interior. From the tin panels on the ceiling, I guessed the space used to be a factory or warehouse. Overhead lights were woven like elaborate wicker baskets. You could choose between regular tables or booths in boat-like structures.

We walked through the live seafood tanks and filmed a bit, including when a fish flopped out of a pail, in an ill-fated attempt to escape its fate. (See video.)

The fried balloon that came to our table was still warm, fresh from the wok. Some sticky rice, puffed up like popcorn, weighs down the bottom from the inside so the ball doesn't roll off the plate. We poked through with chopsticks, then ripped it down the middle. Then we pulled it apart like naan and savored every sweetened, fried bite.

Zhongshan's most famous dish is roast squab (pigeon.) Most restaurants here have it on the menu, but Shiqi Lao's was the juiciest I've tasted, with the skin being perfectly crisp, not too dry. Other dishes included seafood fried rice, tofu with minced pork, and stir-fried noodles with veggies. The pineapple buns, which got their names from the top's resemblance to the fruit but usually doesn't contain any, were actually filled with fresh pineapple. (Jacob: "They remind me of the mushrooms in Super Mario Brothers.") For dessert, we had white bun-shaped puffs called Snowballs, which had the texture of Peeps and were filled with sweetened red bean paste. They were pretty sugary compared with most Chinese pastries, and I could manage only one after a delicious but mostly fried meal.

As we were leaving I noticed there were almost double the number of people as when we first arrived. Gotta love a place that is still packed at 2:30 in the afternoon.

Shiqi Lao
66 Shiqi Kanghuo Road
Phone: 0760-8707708

Curry Emu; Blog Action Day

*On how this lunch relates to the environment and Blog Action Day, scroll to the last 2 paragraphs.

I had never tried emu before and would never have expected to eat it in China, until my great-aunt invited us to a "Cantonese-style western" restaurant. Located in the old part of Zhongshan, it was curiously named Grace Conqueror Restaurant. There was a pretty courtyard with tables, a fountain, carambola trees, and aloe vera plants. From the courtyard you can hear the occasion bell of the biking recycling collector, who rides through once a week.

If the restaurant had served straight-up Cantonese food, or well-made food of any type, I would have been happy. Instead we ate a bad "fusion" meal. To be fair, my great-aunt and other family members had dined there many times before, and later said the poor food quality this time was very uncharacteristic.

Most people go to Grace for the steak, but there was also a separate menu just for Australian emu. There was spaghetti with emu bolognese, emu kebabs, curry emu, and grilled emu with duck liver, among other choices. According to Jacob, who has a friend with an emu farm in Oregon, the birds are raised primarily for oil to be used in place of chemicals in skin care and therapeutic products. The meat, which can be cooked in a number of ways, is tauted as a low fat and low cholesterol alternative to other red meats.

I had not had emu before and can only judge it from what I ate today. The meat looked and tasted like beef, except a bit blander and chewier. It also didn't go with the curry sauce, at least that particular curry, which was also bland and watery. I sensed that it would taste better just grilled and not dressed up with a rice sauce that would drown out the mellowness of the meat. As for the bolognese version, I am still trying to shut it out of my mind.

What I did like about the restaurant relates to the "Blog Action Day" part of this entry's title. Blog Action Day, which I just found out about, is a collaborative project among thousands of bloggers to incorporate one topic into your blog entry on a specific day. October 15th's topic is the environment. Even though Grace did not taut itself as organic or local (the emu was from Down Under, after all) I did notice its energy efficient cooling system. Whereas many restaurants here blast AC, Grace was cooled by recycled water continuously streaming over its glass ceiling. (I had a hard time photographing it with my Nikon Coolpix. But if you look closely you can see the faint lines of streaming water.)

I had first seen this type of cooling 3 years ago in Lisbon. It was effective enough to cool a 3-story shopping mall in a sun-baked city in the middle of summer. In the US one would probably see this "natural AC" in an upscale "green" building that was highly publicized in the media. In China, it is used at a restaurant in old Zhongshan that serves bad emu. No fanfare, just a good example of the countless ways in which China is environmentally conscious, defying its portrayal in Western mainstream media as the Big Bad Polluter.

Grace Conqueror Restaurant
Qianjin alleyway