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


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


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