Jiumen Xiaochi - Hutong Snacks Galore

The story of Jiumen Xiaochi (九门小吃)begins like many other stories of snack sellers in modern Beijing. Menkuang Hutong was a street where families sold traditional snacks using recipes and and skills that got passed down for generations. The hutong demolished some years back, to make room for new developments.

This story, though, has a happy ending. Eleven vendors got relocated to the new Jiumen Xiaochi, a collection of stalls now housed in a traditional courtyard. Some of these snacks, like bingtang hulu, can be found all over Beijing. Others, like flour tea, are a bit more unusual.

The restaurant is at the end of an meandering hutong off a larger road, not any place you would stumble upon. Jake and I made a lunch date and followed a map, walking 10 minutes or so from Jishuitan subway station. We bought a card from the reception desk (located in the dining area, not the entrance way), and ordered away.

Suanlamian, or sour and spicy noodles, was on display in its naked form. Instead of being doused with chilli sauce, the yellow and brown wheat noodles came with some peppers and cilantro on top, and a dish of chilli sauce on the side so you can adjust according to your spiciness threshold.

There was a stand that specialized in chao gede. The translation, "stir-fried flour lumps," may sound strange, until you realize that the "flour lumps" are just tiny fingertip-sized pasta, not unlike knife-cut noodles. They're first boiled, then stir-fried with edamame, cucumbers, scallions, and your choice of meat.

We also ordered a lot of deep-fried dishes, which make up a disproportionate amount of Beijing's snacks. Spring rolls with red bean paste. Squash rolls encompassed by a layer of fried flour. Fried milk.

The last one made Jacob was perplexed. "Have you ever heard of fried milk?" he asked. I told him about the fried milk I once ate at a banquet at Guangzhou's White Swan Hotel. They were perfectly round with a paper-thin shell that unleashed warm sweentened milk upon biting. (Trust me. Trying to describe this dish without inadvertent innuendos is very difficult.) It is the only dish from that elaborate, delicious banquet that I remember 9 years later in perfect clarity, because it was unusual and so darn good. Jiumen Xiaochi's fried milk was doughier, with a thicker filling; not very 5-star in taste or asthetics, but still satisfying.

The flour teas, if you remember from the 2nd paragraph, were interesting. The stack stand displayed mounds of different kinds of flour in mounds: plain, camellia, almond, deluxe, etc., and then mixed it with warm water and sugar in a bowl before serving. I ordered the almond and it tasted exactly like...flour mixed with warm water and sugar. Served in a bowl, it was more of a gloppy sweetened paste than a tea.

Of course, as a foodie, I can't shake this "try everything once" mentality. Sometimes I get flour tea. Other times I get stuff that knocks my socks off. That's all part of the fun of exploring new food in Beijing.

Jiumen Xiaochi 九门小吃 1 Xiaoyou Hutong, off Gulou Xidajie Houhai, Xicheng District, Beijing 010-6402-5858

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.

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Related posts on Peking duck:

Thanksgiving in Beijing with Peking Duck Crispy Duck Spring Rolls

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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

 

Petits Fours for a Chinese Dinner

I should have known that a packed Beijing city bus does not provide the ideal conditions for bringing home a box of petits fours. But still I was determined, because I couldn't pass by Comptoirs de France, whose macarons I had already raved about, and not bring home anything from their tempting display cases. Our friend Jack was cooking dinner tonight for Jacob and me, so I wanted to at least provide the dessert even if French pastries usually don't go with Dongbei cuisine. I picked out a mini opera cake, tarte tatin, chocolate dome, and strawberry tarlett. Surely my little cakes will be packed correctly, I thought. And it's just a 10 minute bus ride.

Of course, riding a Beijing bus on a weekend is akin to riding the New York 1 train during weekday rush hour. Everyone taller than you is breathing down your neck, you're breathing down shorter people's necks. You think no way can we fit any more people, yet more riders pile on and what little air pocket around you encloses a little more. Add that to the jerky driving and incessant stop and go traffic of Beijing's clogged roads that might as well be parking lots, and I was picturing an amorphous heap of cake parts and chocolate smears by the time I got home.

Well, the petits fours survived somewhat intact. I fixed them up a little, snapped a few photos, and hid them for until after dinner. We whipped up some mojitos to use the last of our oh-so-fragrant but quickly wilting mint, and sat down for stewed pork belly, cumin broccoli, and fried eggs with tomato stew on top. (Sino-Latino-Gallic dinners and other such confounding fusions seem to be what naturally develops for lazy Sunday nights.) When I finally brought out dessert, no one was surprised because it turned out I had accidentally left the receipt in plain sight.

But I can think of no better way to end a day than with mini bites from a bakery that knows how to use sugar correctly, unlike many other bakeries here. The strawberry tarlett's cake was rich and dense, the mini opera had a nice combo of dark chocolate and espresso, and the tarte tatin had a surprising but welcomed rum flavor. I especially loved the mousse that gushed from the chocolate dome from one small bite.

I snapped back to reality when we finally had to tackle the dishes. The next time I bring desserts back I'll probably shell out the 15 kuai for a taxi, despite guilt about taking taxis during the day.

Comptoirs de France East Lake Villas, 35 Dongzhimen Waidajie 东直门外大街35号东湖别墅大堂 6461-1525

Rm. 102, 1/F, Bldg 15, China Central Place, 89 Jianguo Lu 建国路89号华贸中心15号楼1层102室 6530-5480

 

Traktirr Pushkin - Russian Food & Drink in Beijing

Caviar over hard-boiled eggs, made during culinary school during our hors d'oeuvres module, was probably the only Russian food I had eaten until last night. Shameful, I know. I guess it's a good thing that I live in Beijing. Other than going to Russia or the northern Chinese city of Harbin, it is probably one of the best places to try Russian food for the first time. The high concentration of Russians in the city, the geographical proximity, the some very close, um, historical alliances between the two countries, most likely means authenticity won't be compromised.

If there's any doubt that China and Russia are still close buds, check out the Russian Embassy. The high golden gates, fortress walls, and palatial mansion that (at night) looks like something out of Monte Carlo are eons above the embassies that other countries get. For dinner last night J and I went to Trakktir Pushkin, just down the street from that opulent complex. Apparently this is where embassy folks go to dine, so I felt like we were in good hands. And I have a soft spot for restaurants named after writers.

First, the drinks. The alcohol menu listed a wide variety of vodkas and Russian beers, including, of course, Baltika. They also had three draft beers: one light wheat, one dark, and one green. We passed on the green (the menu said something about radiation, maybe tongue-in-cheek, maybe not) and ordered the dark. It was a lot like Guinness, black in color, slightly bitter, not very strong.

We also had to try the infused vodkas, and picked one flavored with mint and another with red currant. The red currant vodka came out in a mini martini glass, as if it was meant to be sipped as an apéritif. Of course, it was too strong to be an apéritif, but delicious just as well.

Then came the appetizers. While eating the red and black caviar over eggs, J reminisced about his trip to Harbin, where in every convenience store there was someone hawking 60 rmb tins of Russian caviar.

"If I knew how to bargain better I would have picked up a tin," he said. "But who knows what kind of quality I would have gotten." I told him about my cousin's wife who studied medicine in Moscow, who would get tins for 5 USD and eat it every morning for breakfast.

After the caviar, and a small dish of mushrooms baked with (Gruyère?) cheese, came the borscht. Served in a porcelein tureen, it had shaved beets and onions in a thin magenta broth (beef stock, it seems) with a sliver of sour cream on top. It tasted vaguely like French onion soup, and I instantly became addicted. Note this was the first time I had ever had borscht. Now I could finally understand all these odes to borscht I've read lately, by writers like M.F.K. Fisher and my fellow food bloggers.

J's baked salmon arrived, then my roasted duck with baked apples and bilberry sauce. Bilberry sauce, something else that was new to me, tasted like the delicious lingonberry sauce I once had on a reindeer kebab in Sweden. (Something similar and easier to find may be lingonberry jam, sold at IKEA'S food shop and European import stores.) The duck was overdone and thus a bit dry, but the baked apples, with a hint of cinnamon, were delicious.

J claimed to be stuffed after his baked salmon, but he always has a separate stomache for dessert. "The baked apple cake," he told the waiter, then pointed to the vanilla ice cream, making some motion with his hands and fumbling for the words in Chinese.

"Put the ice cream on top of the cake," the waiter guessed. "Of course, right away."

"I wonder how many requests he gets for à la mode," I wondered.

"Probably from every American who comes in here," J responded.

The ice cream, imported from Russia, had a dense custard-y taste so unlike Chinese ice creams or American big brands we get here. A refreshing change, and a nice way to end my first full-on Russian meal.

Traktirr Pushkin 彼得堡餐厅 5-15 Dongzhimennei Dajie, Dongcheng District 东城区东直门内大街5-15号 (010) 8407 8158, (010) 6403 1896

 

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