Chinese Drinks Chat: Beijing Boyce

(Jim Boyce with Professor Ma Huiqin at a small local eatery near Yunnan Red Wine Company.)

If Beijing had an official drink and nightlife critic, Jim Boyce would be it. For the past 3 years he has been tracking Beijing's ever-evolving bar and club scene through his popular Beijing Boyce blog. His other project, Grape Wall of China, is a one-stop resource for wine in China, including winery visits, profiles of wine writers and sommeliers, even accounts of marathon wine tastings. For this week's Appetite for China interview Jim shares his insights on wine tourism, alcohol and Chinese food, and spots to drink and relax in Beijing.

How did you start blogging about the wine industry and nightlife scene in China?

I started a subscribe-only newsletter in 2005 about Beijing bars. It grew quickly, so a year later I launched the nightlife blog and then the wine blog All are nonprofit, with the last being a collective effort with local wine people – wine makers, academics, consumers, and so on - whose voices are rarely heard outside China, a situation I hope to rectify.

What is the most exciting facet about the Chinese food and beverage industry right now?

Choice! Take whiskey in Beijing. When I arrived four years ago, bars with even five single malts were a rarity. Now there are plenty with dozens of selections, including Ichikura, Glen, Promise, Er, Q Bar, Nashville, and Lugar. Or take sparkling wine: gourmet shop Jenny Lou’s now stocks about a hundred different kinds. Whether it is spirits or wines, craft beers or draft beers, our choices are steadily growing in Beijing.

From your blog you seem to always be on the drink prowl. What are your top three bars in Beijing spots in Beijing for atmosphere and drink quality?

I am a fan of earthy spots with a friendly staff and an unpretentious crowd. These days I like Tun, due to its big space, high ceilings, and décor complete with Great Wall of China DJ booth. I also like Salud for its homemade rum, fun crowd, cozy confines, and friendly staff. My third pick would be Ichikura, a cocoon from the bustle of everyday Beijing life, where I can grab one of the twelve seats at the bar and lazily decide which of the hundred single malts to try. I also have a soft spot for the eclectic Cheers – oil paintings, a pool table, cheap Wild Turkey, a diverse crowd, and some of the best Xinjiang music you can get.

Let's talk wine. China is one of the fastest growing consumers of wine. Does that mean the quality of Chinese-made wines is also improving?

The quality of local wine is improving, but at a slow pace. Too many producers try to make dry red Bordeaux-style wines and do it poorly. And they tend to prioritize buying good equipment over growing good grapes. On top of this, some local companies blend in foreign wines, so we don’t always know if the wine is “Chinese.” A lot needs to be done to improve the local wines, though I am optimistic about the potential of Xinjiang, Ningxia, and Gansu in the northwest and about the hybrid grapes being grown in Yunnan. Having said that, the only producer making a good portfolio when I arrived was Grace Vineyard, in Shanxi province, and that is still the case.

For adventurist wine lovers, would you recommend a visit to China's developing wineries? Which are most receptive to travelers hoping to learn more about Chinese wine?

Overnight visits are possible at places such as Grace Vineyard in Shanxi or Bodega Langes in Hebei, as are day trips to spots such as Chateau Bolongbao, just outside of Beijing. Shandong is another option, while Xinjiang might appeal to more adventurous sorts. My favorite visit was to Yunnan Red Wine Company, two hours outside Kunming, which has overnight facilities. Some of the grapes they are using were brought by missionaries in the 19th century, the local food is good, and the surroundings are gorgeous. True, it's a bit off the beaten path, but if you like to travel and you like wine, it’s a good option.

Most people seem to fall into one of two categories - those who will try to pair wine with their Chinese food, and those who think Chinese food should only be eaten with beer, rice alcohol, or Coke. Which school of thought do you adhere to, and why?

I adhere to the “drink what you like” school. Wine and Chinese food pairings are the rage, but at the end of the day it is more important to pick a wine you like and a food you like, even if it might clash in the eyes of some professionals. You can spend your life reading books, articles, and blog posts about food and wine pairing, and as a result let the advice override your own unique preferences, but the best solution is the “school of hard knocks” where you try, try, and try some more. And if you don’t want to try, go for sparkling wine.

Chinese Food Chat: KianLam Kho of Red Cook

Most Singaporeans I know are about crazy about food, and KianLam Kho is no exception. His blog Red Cook may be just 1 year old, but it has already drawn a number of devotees who hunger for great insight into Chinese home cooking. It's hard not to be seduced by his posts, like this meticulously documented Moon Festival banquet. From stock techniques to a recipe for mouth-watering red-cooked pork, Kian is a pro at "sharing the joy and frustration of cooking Chinese food at home."

What is your earliest memory of Chinese food?

I grew up in Singapore and was exposed early on to many different types of food, including Indonesian, Malay, Indian, Nonya (a local cuisine influenced by Chinese and Malay cooking) and many types of regional Chinese cooking. However, the food served at home was mostly Chinese and heavily influenced by my family's roots in Fujian province. Fujian cooking is generally non-spicy and dominated by seafood. I remember growing up with Fujian-style mustard green rice with dried oyster, red cooked pork (also known as kong bak in Fujian dialect), steamed fish and egg-drop seaweed soup. I also remember our servant making pork floss by slow cooking lean pork in soy sauce and spices over the entire afternoon until the meat disintegrates and dehydrates. We didn't eat Cantonese food at home but would go out to a Cantonese restaurant.

What do you think are the major differences between the Chinese food in Singapore and the Chinese food in New York?

When I was growing up in Singapore the Chinese food available there was mostly confined to the immigrants' regional cuisines. Namely Canton, Fujian, Hainan, Hakka and ChiuChow cooking. When I first arrived in the U.S. in the mid 1970's Chinese food in America was predominantly Cantonese cooking. So I thought then the choice of cuisine was rather limited. The variety was further restricted by the scarcity of authentic ingredients, which made it very difficult to create authentic food. I would go to Cantonese restaurants in Chinatown for simple noodles and dim sum dishes because those were the ones that could be reproduced quite faithfully. Today there is still a wide gap between ingredients available in New York City and those in Singapore. Althoug sometime I can find very rare ingredients in New York they are often only available in specialty shops and sporadically. On the other hand Singapore has expanded the import of ingredients and culinary talent from China over that last decades, making it one of the most vibrant cities to sample Chinese food.

What do you consider "comfort food", and where would you go if you craved it?

I consider a steaming bowl of noodle soup or porridge as my comfort food; especially porridge. Porridge is to me what chicken soup is to most Americans. I still make a hot steaming bowl of porridge whenever I'm sick. I like the Fujian-style porridge rather than the Cantonese-style. Fujian style retains whole grains of rice whereas Cantonese style is cooked until the rice becomes mush. We would eat the porridge with pickles, pork floss, and salted eggs. That is what I'd call comfort food, and best made at home.

Where do you get the ideas for recipes and other blog posts for Red Cook?

My most creative recipes usually result from experimentation in my kitchen inspired by my dining experiences when traveling. I also get ideas from reading cookbooks and doing online research. In addition I often consult my culinary professional friends. Online research has also become an increasingly important part of my recipe development. There is much excellent cooking information available out there in English and Chinese on blogs and cooking Web sites. For blog posts I draw inspirations from my childhood memories, travels, and current events.

Three favorite cookbooks?

You will probably think me very old fashioned when you see my favorite list of cookbooks. In addition to the Joy of Cooking these are books I use over and over again for recipes and techniques:
Mastering The Art of French Cooking - "Mastering" is my favorite cookbook that is technical without being a text book. Julia is excellent with describing techniques so a home cook can understand. I learned most of my basic cooking techniques from this book, before I ventured into more technical ones such as the CIA's "The Professional Chef."

The James Beard Cookbook - This book introduced me to American cooking and taught me how to make apple pie and Yankee Pot Roast. I love his incidental explanations of ingredients and cooking variations in addition to the simple instructions. His recipes always remind me that delicious food can be produced without a complex cooking process.

The Complete Chinese Cookbook, edited by Ye RongHua  (中國名菜大全, 葉榮華) - This is a Chinese language cookbook published in Hong Kong in the early 1970's. There is a second volume devoted entirely to dim sum cookery. It is from this book that I learned proper Chinese cooking techniques. I was also exposed to many regional Chinese dishes even before I had the opportunity to sample them.

Three pantry items you can't live without?

Garlic, garlic and garlic. Ok, maybe rosemary and soy sauce as well. I adore garlic and since I mostly make Chinese, Italian and Mediterranean cooking, garlic is always a required ingredient.

Imagine you had $10,000 and 1 month at your disposal for a self-planned culinary tour. Where would you go and what would you eat?

You know $10,000 can't really buy a grand culinary tour anymore. If I didn't have to worry about expenses I think I'd go to Guangzhou and Chengdu to seek out undiscovered provincial as well as formal cooking of Guangdong and Sichuan. I'd travel through small villages to sample local dishes and enjoy the unique indigenous flavors. These two cuisines are diametrically opposed in flavors and taste yet similar in cooking techniques, which fascinates me. I'd end my travel in Hong Kong where Guangdong cuisine reaches its height of sophistication.