A Web of Dumplings

I made it to Zhongshan without any problems on the road, despite the furious winter weather that still rages north of Guangdong province. I had barely settled in when my parents announced we were all going to dim sum.

My parents would never let a visit pass without going to dim sum at least once or twice, especially at their apartment complex's restaurant. It's affordable, reliably good, and like Cheers, it's where everybody knows their names. "Hi 关先生 and 关太太...oh, your daughter's back again, huh? Must be an occasion to celebrate." "Would you like the usual table and your usual pot of tea?" After 20 years in the service industry in the US, it's no wonder my parents love being on the receiving end of good service in their retirement years.

Dish after dish came to our table. There were the usual har gow (shrimp dumplings in translucent wrappers) and Chiew Chow dumplings filled with pork and greens. Then came a web of something crisp with dumplings underneath. Turns out, these were pan-fried dumplings, except the pan-frying method was a tad more elaborate than swishing around a hot wok for a few minutes.

After adding oil, the chef would sprinkle a web of flour in the pan before adding a layer of dumplings on top. This method requires the chef to have more control over the temperature of the pan, because here you can't use a spatula to shift contents around the pan if the dumplings start to cook unevenly.

This way of pan-frying requires a bit more work, but I think the finished plate's wow factor is worth it. The filling was a juicy combo of pork and chives. And texture-wise, adding a bit of flour to the bottom seems to make the dumplings crispier and less oily than many other pan-fried versions.


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

Boba Drinks and Swings

Last night Jacob and I escaped our work desks and had a quintessential night out for being young in a small Chinese city: dinner at a sushi-go-round, an hour of games at a local arcades, and drinks at a boba tea café.

Boba tea , also known as pearl milk tea or bubble tea, is a Taiwanese creation that gained popularity in East Asia in the 1990s, and later spread to US, Canadian, and European cities with large Asian communities. In China's coastal cities, it seems that every other block boasts a café serving boba tea. Not a bad thing considering other places to sit down and have drinks can be either too raucus (tea parlors) or overpriced (Starbucks and imitation Starbucks chains.)

In Beijing we had gone to an rbt for not only boba tea but because some tables had dangling bench-like swings as seats. Zhongshan's rbt also had swings, which was why we chose it over the 20 or so other cafés in the vicinity. Now, the swings may be novelty, even a bit childish, but tell me the idea of sitting on a swing sipping a drink with bubble-like pearls doesn't put a smile on your face.

The most common version of boba tea is black or green tea mixed with condensed milk and black tapioca pearl. (Tapioca pearls, made from tapioca starch, are boiled until they have a firm chewiness, not unlike gummy candy.) Nowadays boba tea café menus list a slew of flavors: mango, apple, lychee, taro, red bean, etc. Flavored jellies can also take the place of tapioca pearls.

Last night Jacob ordered a mango sorbet shake with aloe jelly that was good enough to give him repeated brain freezes, because of his inability to slow down. Being more of a purist, I got a jasmine milk tea with tapioca pearls, and slowly savored it.

Swinging like a kid on a warm fall night with an ice-cold drink in hand...not a bad reward after an intense week of language study.

Numerous locations around China

Northern Snacks in Zhongshan

Zhongshan is over 2,000 kilometers from Beijing, farther than Miami is from New York City. Twenty years ago, it was hard to find northern-style foods in this Cantonese-speaking and Cantonese-food-eating city. How times have changed. At our local hypermarket Da Run Fa 大润发, the prepared foods section is dominated by northern style foods, including every type of noodle and dumpling and pancake you can hope to find in Beijing.

Today for lunch I picked up a few items from the snack section: (from left to right) pumpkin pancakes 南瓜饼, flat bread pockets with Chinese chives 东北大馅饼, and taro cakes 芋头饼. All were good, after a little salt added to the latter two, and were a nice change from the Cantonese fried rice I've been having for lunch almost every day. (Not that fried rice isn't tasty, but change does your tastebuds good.)

I could go to the hypermarket every day and not get bored; it would take me at least a month or two to cover all the meat, baked goods, and prepared foods they have. Maybe I'll post a video next.