Pu'er Tea (Pu-erh), and Vegetarian Dining at Pure Lotus

Pu'er (sometimes spelled Pu-erh) is a complex tea with a huge following. It is the caipirinha of teas...drunken for centuries in its native land, and just now become ultra-popular to the outside world. The NYTimes recently had a good story on how farmers in Yunnan province are benefitting from the the rest of China and other countries discovering their native tea.

Pu'er originated in Yunnan but is also grown in neighboring Burma, Vietnam, and Laos. You may know it as the tea that's compressed into disks, bricks, or little dumpling-shaped cakes. Sheng Pu'er, also called green or raw Pu'er, is the kind most sought after by tea connosieurs. Like a good Bordeaux, it is aged for years, sometimes decades, and has a rich earthy taste that is particular to the land it grew on. Shou Pu'er is darker, oxidized after harvest to resemble the aging process Sheng Pu'er naturally undergoes. It can be drunken immediately, is much less expensive, but has a less complex flavor.

Yesterday Mark from The Hutong, a local cooking school/community space, invited me over for some tea. (He regularly holds tea appreciation classes at the school, and goes to tea regions in Yunnan and Anhui to source leaves for his own label.) Although I'm not the best at picking out the sublest flavors in tea, or even wine for that matter, I love the Sheng Pu'er he had me try. It was somewhat mellow but with a clean herbal taste that lingers in your mouth after swallowing. I could sip it all day.

Earlier this week Jacob and I went to Pure Lotus with two new friends, a vegetarian and a vegan, visiting from London. Pure Lotus, is consistently voted as one of the best vegetarian spots in Beijing, so we were excited to try it. The restaurant is spectacular in its design, with fountains, Buddhist art, and private rooms like fancy grottos. The four of us somehow got a private room with a long banquet table for ten.

The food, while good, was less impressive than the surroundings. Pure Lotus, like most vegetarian restaurants in China, prides itself on mock meat. Some dishes were delicious, like the juicy claypot "chicken" that tasted close to the real thing. Others we could have passed over, like stinky tofu with stir-fried greens and the bland pan-fried dumplings. The braised "ribs" (mock beef on wooden skewers) were pretty good. And I couldn't stop eating the litchis stuffed with tang yuan (glutinous rice balls), although the jumbo serving bowl filled with ice was a bit much for the 10 little litchies that came in it.

The most impressive part of the meal came at the end, when we got melon served in an enormous rustic dish filled with misting dry ice. I guess the whole dish was supposed to be very Zen-like, but we just had fun blowing on the mist, scooping and releasing the mist with our teacups, and snapping photos of our enlightened fruit.

Throughout dinner we drank a 90 rmb pot of Pu'er. It was nice, earthier than your average black tea, but probably not worth the hefty price. I much prefered the Shou Pu'er I had at The Hutong later. But one thing I did really liked about tea at Pure Lotus were the tiny tea cups. The double layers of glass did a decent job of insulating the tea, and they just look so good against the Zen-like tableware. And since I'm a sucker for aesthetics and fruit served on dry ice, I wouldn't hestitate to revisit Pure Lotus.

Pure Lotus

12 Nongzhan Nanlu, near west gate of Chaoyang Park Chaoyang District, Beijing 6592-3627


Peking Duck at Da Dong

Two nights ago one of J's friends visited from Shanghai, and he was craving the nice succulent duck that virtually everyone craves after a long hiatus from Beijing. He had eaten Peking duck "hundreds of times" before, in Beijing and elsewhere, but laments that Shanghai has nothing close to what the capital offers. We laid out the options: one of the Quanjude restaurants around his hotel in Wangfujing, or go all out at the swanky Da Dong a short cab ride away. Hoping to get away from the tourist crowd, we jumped in the cab.

Turns out, Da Dong also had loads of tourists that night, including at least 4 or 5 tour groups led by a flag-waving guide. Fortunately, the restaurant's massive size, taking up 2 floors of a block-size tower, means that tour groups get their own rooms, and everyone else eats without being offended by bullhorns or matching baseball caps.

The one thing that Da Dong immediate has going for it is atmosphere. After eating at other duck restaurants around the city that go all out with faux (insert random Chinese dynasty) gaudiness, it was a relief to be in a kaoyadian with good lighting, comfortable modern furniture, and absolutely no mammoth cartoon duck statues by the door.

The wait was 20 minutes or so (on a Monday night), so we amused ourselves by watching the duck kitchen at work. The kitchen is right by the entrance, on full display like a museum exhibit. There are 4 or 5 brick ovens, each fitting 5 ducks at a time. Every 2 minutes or so one of the 20 chefs lined up would pull a duck from the oven, hang it on a rack, drain and wipe it, and prep it for table-side carving. The skin always glistened so beautifully, so temptingly. On the other side of the plexiglass, hungry visitors like us would sit, waiting and drooling.

At least there was free box wine and soda. Or as I like to call them, "shut up and quit nagging the hostess" drinks.

When we finally got seated, we were presented with a 160-page menu, a hard-bound coffee table volume of food porn that puts The French Laundry Cookbook to shame. Each page was devoted to a single menu item, with larger-than-life drool-worthy photos. It's a good thing to flip through when you're not starving and want to order as quickly as possible. The drink menu was separate, in another hard-bound book.

Alas, we persevered. The guys did the ordering, calling out anything that sounded good. For once, I wasn't the one ordering too much. We had spicy cucumbers, spinach with wasabi and mustard, venison with pineapple and garlic sauce, pan-seared prawns, and curried scallops. All were artistically plated, all were delicious.

We watched the chef slice the duck into thin, almost translucent slices. We got our own dishes of scallions, plum sauce, cucumbers. The waitress, either following restaurant protocol or thinking we were newbies, folded the standard wraps for each of us. Then she took tiny sesame buns and put more duck, scallions, and sauce in those. The duck was juicy and smoky with crisp skin, and definitely leaner and less greasy than others I've had.

How the three of us managed to finished all of the above, plus duck bone soup and Singapore Slings, is beyond me. I do know we were the second-to-last table to leave. Now that J and I live in Beijing, Peking duck is one of those things we eat only when out-of-town guests visit. ("The novelty wears out after a while. Now we go out for Mexican food," J told his friend.) It had been almost 4 months since I last had Peking duck, but based on this experience, maybe visitors should come more often.


Related posts on Peking duck:

Thanksgiving in Beijing with Peking Duck Crispy Duck Spring Rolls


Da Dong Roast Duck Restaurant 北京大董烤鸭店 1-2/F Nanxincang International Plaza, 22A Dongsi Shitiao, (southwest of Dongsi Shitiao Bridge) Dongcheng District, Beijing 东城区东四十条甲22号南新仓国际大厦1~2楼(立交桥西南角) 5169-0328


Yunnan Goat Cheese at South Silk Road

You normally don't think of "Chinese food" and "good cheese" in the same sentence. A fresh goat cheese called 乳饼 rǔbǐng, however, is one of the well-loved specialties of Yunnan cuisine. It comes from the Bai and Sani minorities of Yunnan province, and is made by heating fresh goat's milk with a souring agent until firm, then either pan-fried or steamed before serving.

You also don't normally think of eating cheese and sugar together, outside of cheese cake or manchego with quince paste. At South Silk Road in Qianhai, I recently had a dish of pan-fried goat cheese served with a side of sugar and another side of salt mixed with cracked black pepper. By itself, the cheese is already good, like a firmer, crispier paneer or even mozzerella. With the sugar and salt mixture on top, it was sublime. For a moment I wanted to plop it on sliced baguette and drizzle olive oil over it (sacriledge?). Then I realized how good it already was by itself, or with Yunnan ham and stir-fried greens.

South Silk Road is by no means the only restaurant that serves rūbīng, since it is as much a Yunnan restaurant staple as cross-the-bridge noodles. But if you're ever in the Houhai/Qianhai area, stop by S'Silk Road for the gorgeous lakeside views while dining. And to sample the best (okay, the only, but still delicious) cheese China has to offer.

South Silk Road 19 Lotus Lane, Shichahai, Houhai, Beijing 什刹海莲花巷甲19号

Yunnan Cuisine in Beijing's Xicheng

The Yunnan folk music playing in the restaurant was so soothing that the cricket noises blended right in. Then Jacob snapped me out of my daze and pointed to the middle of the room. A middle-aged couple was lovingly playing with their pet cricket, which was sitting on the table in a tiny glass jar.

The cricket continued to chirp sporadically throughout our meal. While it's more common to hear car honks in the middle of Beijing than crickets, it was easy to pretend for a while that we were in rural Yunnan. The restaurant was decorated in bright yellows and reds, with Dai minority folk art on the walls. And we were about to eat hearty Yunnan fare.

We started off with a Dai mint salad, a salad composed entirely of mint leaves, with a little minced garlic, chilli, and vinegar thrown in.

"Wow," said Jacob, after his first bite. "It's good, but you'd have to really like mint."

Fortunately, I do like mint enough to fill up my whole mouth with them. But soon I found out that dipping the mint in the Cross-the-Bridge noodles made it even better.

Cross-the-Bridge noodles, or 过桥米线 (Guoqiao Miqian), is a Yunnan staple. The name comes from a story about a scholar who was studying for his exams by isolating himself on an island. His wife had a cross a long bridge every day to bring him meals, and was disappointed that all the food was cold by the time she reached him. Finally she discovered that she could keep her soup boiling hot by just covering it with a thin layer of vegetable oil. The scholar passed his exams (maybe these noodles are brain food?) and Cross-the-Bridge noodles became popular throughout the province.

Our waiter (who might also be the owner) brought out the boiling hot noodle soup on a tray along with little dishes of raw egg, chicken, fish skin, sprouts, and greens. After asking if we wanted everything in the soup (we did), he and his colleague emptied 7 or 8 dishes into the soup in lightning speed. The soup was still so hot that everything cooked right in the bowl. The noodles were tasty and the serving size so large neither of us could finish ours.

We also ordered some fried mantou. These mantou were more doughnut-like than other fried mantou served around Beijing, crispier and slightly sweeter. Instead of sweetened condensed milk for dipping, these fried mantou came with stir-fried beef with peppers and a lot of extra savory, meaty sauce.

By the end of the meal, the cricket in the center of the room was still chirping. Its owners, however, were now concentrating on slurping their own giant bowl of Cross-the-Bridge noodles.

Chahua Meizi Guoqiao Mixian 101 Di'anmenwai Dajie Xicheng District, Beijing

茶花妹子过桥米线 北京市西城区地安门外大街101号

Phone: 84017888

Chuan Bar on Guijie

In Beijing and many cities in the north, you frequently see street vendors grilling up deliciously fragrant kebabs, called 串 (chuan) in Chinese. Lamb is the most popular, but you'll also find chicken, mushrooms, tofu, even squid. Take that concept indoors, and what you get is a chuan bar, or 串吧 (chuan ba), a restaurant that adds beer, comfortable seats, and warmth to your meal of grilled skewers. (I should also add that 串 is my absolute favorite character in the Chinese language, because it actually looks like a skewer with two pieces of meat on it. Cute, no?)

Chuan Bar is located on the famous Guijie, a late-night destination for serious food-lovers. It's a smoky, fun little place, with patrons ordering platefuls of kebabs and chugging down beer in square bowls. The waitstaff hop around and groove to whatever Euro club song is playing over the sound system.

We got plates of lamb, mushroom, shrimp, and tofu skewers, all liberally doused with cumin and red pepper flakes. Those bowls of beer sure came in handy to cool our tongues, but everything was tasty nonetheless. Green beans and leafy greens were also grilled. We did shy away from a few colorful animal parts that are staples of many late night eateries; parts that nobody ever eats except on a dare.

Rounding out the meal were enormous oysters (no, not that kind of oysters.). I normally never eat oysters outside of restaurants specializing in seafood for fear of food poisoning. But these were cooked on the grill whole, then opened and seasoned. The resulting oyster meat was aromatic and juicy, and even better with the roasted garlic on top. The texture of raw oysters, with less safety concern and 10 times the umph.

Chuan Bar
194 Dongzhimennei Dajie (Guijie)
Dongcheng District, Beijing