Archive | Food RSS feed for this section

Visits: Hong Kong

13 Jan

A little over two months ago, we went to Hong Kong for the first time. One of our best friends, R., was there for work and, given that she had already visited Shanghai last year (and inaugurated our first flat with us), we thought we’d make the trip this time.

I had heard a lot of great things about Hong Kong from friends in London but the most enthusiastic ones, by far, certainly are our fellow Shanghainese residents. They praised Honk Kong’s shopping offer like it was paradise and spoke a lot about some small streets with independent shops and art galleries. Following their advice, we went to these places but not being a big fan of malls or a shopaholic (mind you I do have occasional shopping sprees), I actually was quite disappointed by all of this.

As my father said to me, I may be a bit blasée. Having spent 10 years in Europe, it might be true. By contrast, our friends in Shanghai, who have spent many years in mainland China, do crave that European feel which is after all closer to our cultural background, whether we come from Europe or the Middle East. I thought about it again and actually realised that I liked Hong Kong, just not for the reasons everybody in Shanghai seem to worship it. Here is why.

First, I absolutely loved the view of both the sea and high mountains in the backdrop of the city and its skyscrapers. I cannot stress this enough. I think coming from Beirut, the visual connection with the mountains from probably anywhere on the coast and the sense of altitude and topography is very important to us. So Hong Kong reminded me of that. I was always annoyed at the flatness of Paris and London and now of Shanghai. You can’t see beyond the buildings, this eternal flatness can feel claustrophobic…

Going from Kowloon to Hong Kong island

View of Hong Kong island with the mountains in the back

Quick and very retro ferry ride

Quick and very retro ferry ride

Second and still in connection with those mountains, their dense and lush vegetation holds the promise of nature beyond and it just makes you want to cross them and see what’s out there. We met with a Lebanese friend who has been living in Hong Kong for 7 or 8 years and who doesn’t intend to go anywhere else. She confirmed to me that 70% of Hong Kong’s territory is nature and there are great treks to be made through the mountains and jungle to reach beautiful small creeks with lovely beaches and a shack serving fresh seafood and fish. It sounds lovely to have this so easily accessible, instead of having to plan a trip out of it. That’s when I felt quite jealous…

Third, I thought the urban experience of Hong Kong was such a weird trip. The city is extremely dense, particularly on the island of Hong Kong, and it feels like every square centimetre has been exploited. It’s a mix of New York, Asia and London, with the double-deckers and the driving on the left side of the road.

A bit of New York

A bit of New York

A bit of London

A bit of London

Asia

Asia

The local Leicester Square

The local equivalent of Leicester Square

A bit of British debauchery

A bit of British debauchery

Also, because of its density, roads are very narrow and in a considerable part of the centre, pedestrian mobility is ensured by seemingly endless elevated walkways, totally segregated from the street. Even if we were fairly efficient in terms of our route (J. and I are very good at reading maps and directing ourselves), we still had to go through malls to carry on and get where we wanted. We were eventually able to reach ground and street level to get to another segregated outdoor path to reach the tram station, which takes you to the Peak, where you can enjoy a plunging view of the city.

Starting on the elevated walkway

Starting on the elevated walkway

Looking at the street level

Looking at the street level

Carrying on

Carrying on

IMG_2445

Walking to the Peak tram station

Walking to the Peak tram station

On the tram

On the tram after about 30 minutes queuing

IMG_2507

Fourth, J. and I thought the Kowloon part on the other side of Honk Kong island was actually quite nice. Yes, it is more local but it has its charm and, in spite of the crowds, it feels more spacious and human, less utopian. Less walk-ways everywhere around. If you have dinner on top of any sky-scrapers there, you’ll have an amazing view of the other side. But there are also little gems to be discovered, such as the world’s most affordable 1 star Michelin restaurant, which, much to my disappointed, we couldn’t enjoy as we got there too late and the queue was too long for me not to miss my plane back.

Dinner at Hutong on Kownloon

Dinner at Hutong in Kowloon

Strolling in Kownloon

Strolling in Kowloon

Tim Ho Wan - cheapest 1 star Michelin in the world

Tim Ho Wan – cheapest 1 star Michelin in the world

So here we are. Hong Kong: been there, done that. Off the check-list. I’m not saying that there isn’t a whole lot more to discover or that it’s not interesting. But given how much of Asia and the Far East we still have to discover, I’d rather use my money to go to a new destination.

Nopes, no way, can’t do it!

12 Dec

I recently got overly excited about an online “premier” “safe, high quality” grocer called Fields. Their website is very well done and they’ve got quite a large variety of fruits, vegetables, meat and pantry products, which they deliver to your home. This is primarily why I was so interested. As a foreigner, you probably find 90 to 95% of what you need here to cook the dishes you are used to. The trouble is you have to go to a few places to get them. I get my meat from Yasmine’s, an Australian butchery or from some specific supermarkets renowned for their good products (mainly Metro). For pantry and dairy products (and anything else really), you could go of course to City Shop but it costs an arm every single time. So I usually go to the Avocado Lady (on whom I still need to dedicate a full post), on Wulumuqi Lu/Wuyuan Lu, who just has everything you can think of at very reasonable prices. But, it sometimes feels like a mission to get all you need, hop on a cab, get to the other place and hop on a cab again to go home.

This is why Fields sounded brilliant. And it is! I had my first delivery last Saturday. The vegetables, most of them organic, look fabulous. I had ordered, amongst other things, their value pack which is filled with all sorts of vegetables (including green and purple kohlrabis, which I need to experiment with), as well as 10 organic eggs and a free-range chicken. When I received the package, the chicken was frozen in its bag. It looked small and I tried to figure out if it was a whole chicken or two legs or… I couldn’t so I simply put it in the freezer and only got it out yesterday to be defrosted for today’s dinner.

IMG_2949_small

IMG_2948_small

So here I was just a few minutes ago, enthusiastically getting some spices out and opening the bag to start marinating the beast before putting it in the oven. I get it out and find out that a) it is a whole but really small chicken and b) it still has its full head and two feet!* I got a squeamish “eeewww” out and put it in a dish. I froze for a while, took a deep breath and thought: come on, this is your dinner, man up and just chop the neck and feet. With two fingers I grabbed a leg and, as the neck and head unfolded from under the body, the full head appeared and a black eye, mostly pushed into the head but still able to peak out through translucent skin, gave me a horrible deadly look. That’s when I thought, ok no way, can’t do it… I froze again, wondering if I should throw the animal or what, then decided better let the āyi (cleaning lady) do it for me tomorrow. I’ll give her the feet to munch on** and have pasta tonight.

IMG_2972_small

IMG_2975_small

* That’s how chicken are sold here – see the post Chop the head yourself!

** Chicken feet are a big delicacy in China.

Shanghai Randoms #2

14 Jun

Our balcony

View from a friend’s house – very typical of Shanghai

Mailbox – in the former French Concession

Chinese don’t like number 4 because it sounds like the word “death”

Cats in hammocks

Chinese are mad about crickets and the sound they make!

Surviving Sichuan food

On motorbikes: like father, like son

Cutie

Overloaded!

Chair seller

Must buy two of these eventually

Paraphernalia

Shanghai Randoms #1

6 Jun

As some of you may know, I am taking a break from Shanghai these days and enjoying more familiar places in Europe. I do have a few pending posts to write but until I do, I thought I’d keep whomever is reading this blog or just stumbling on it entertained with a series of totally random shots that I’ve been collecting since moving to China.

Hope you’ll enjoy them as much as I was amazed, amused or puzzled when I witnessed them live. For more regular updates, you can follow me on Instagram. Just look for jolicanard.

Boats on a boat

The map of China in our kitchen

Way too warm at Beijing’s airport

Siesta in the printing shop

Workshop in the old city

Getting dinner ready I suppose

Sacrificial paper

Just down my street, selling a turtle

Checking the quality of the goods

Oddly enough, one of our favourite snacks over here

Conversations with my Chinese teacher

14 Mar

I get along very well with H., my Chinese teacher. Apart from teaching me Mandarin, we actually talk about lots of other things and ask each other questions about our respective countries and cultures. She’s been teaching foreigners for a long time and therefore is very exposed to Europeans and Americans. Less so to people from the Middle East, so she sometimes asks me what’s going on Syria these days. Apparently and unsurprisingly, the Chinese media convey very matter-of-factly information, such as: “there are some skirmishes between a faction of the population and the government.” We then had a whole conversation about the Arab spring and she didn’t know what the word “dictatorship” meant.

Other times, she gets really perplexed about some specific issues pertaining to western culture and asks me about them. I think she perceives me as somehow mid-way between a Westerner and non-Westerner, having lived in Europe for a long time and being familiar with it, whilst not being a European myself.

The other day, she told me in a very serious way: “Lì Yà, I need to ask you something. Can you tell me what’s the difference between cheese, butter and mayonnaise?” So I explained to her that mayonnaise, even though it is white, is not a dairy product, how you could derive different products out of milk through either fermentation or concentrating fat. Likewise, the sequence of a “western” meal was very alien to her. She didn’t fancy butter and bread (Chinese eat neither). Aside from the fact that she thinks there are too many dishes, what she finds the least logical is the alternation of hot and cold dishes. “But how can I eat ice cream after eating a warm dish?” From what I’ve understood so far about the Chinese conception of the body and philosophy of eating is that you have to maintain the balance of your guts (and by extension of your whole body). So you shouldn’t brutalise it by eating really warm food and then iced food or the other way around.

She also doesn’t mind me asking questions about China. I also enquired about the sequence of Chinese meals (tea, cold (room temperature) appetizers, hot appetizers, main course, rice to make sure you’re full if you haven’t eaten enough of the rest, and I think desert is more of a western influence), about Chinese manners and other things derived from our lessons. I refrain from asking anything directly relating to politics, periods of Chinese history or other sensitive issues. I let her do the talking and every now and then she expresses quite strong opinions about some policy and other governance issues, but without ever elaborating too much. However I do get to tease her sometimes and she’s always taken it well, even on Mao, who apparently comes from her hometown in the province of Hunan. She was once explaining to me how the hometowns of various presidents became really wealthier or experienced economic booms due to the guānxi (i.e. almighty personal relationships or networks – good luck doing business in China without the guānxi) with the government of the time. So I told her, with unambiguous extra sarcastic enthusiasm: “Yeah well this guy may come from this town and this other one from that town, but surely no one beats Mao Zedong!” And it made her laugh!

Butchery course

15 Feb

I had lunch with my friend C. the other day. The weather was exceptionally beautiful and for once not freezing for a sunny winter day. We then had a bit of time to wander around the French Concession. This area of Shanghai is probably one of the most sought after amongst foreigners to live in. It has retained a lot of its charm and it is very difficult I am told to build tall structures over there. Somehow, many of its original residents still live there and it can have quite a popular feel on many of its streets.

Walking out of the restaurant, we were greeted by the usual profusion of drying of laundry typical of sunny days in Shanghai. Except that in this very street – Jinxian Road, also hanging from the laundry racks, was an abundance of meat and all sorts of it: poultry, pork and fish at least. So much so that it felt like we could’ve had a butchery course on the spot. There were lots of homemade sausages but also gutted duck, goose and chicken, gutted gigantic fish, split pigs’ heads and other things I can’t put a name on. Have a look at the pictures below for colourful details.

Jinxian Lu

Poultry, fish tails and other stuff

Pigs' heads

I was surprised there weren’t many flies around or on the meat itself, even for the ones hanging just above the rubbish bins. I understand that drying meat is part of the local culture and a local necessity to preserve meat for as long as possible. And you don’t find meat drying only in popular streets or areas, you can also find it on the windows of the 15th floor of expensive apartment buildings. I have to say that I find it somehow admirable that in spite of living in one of the largest cities on the planet (16 millions inhabitants), Shanghainese are managing to carry-on and nurture the tradition of homemade foods instead of buying it industrially processed and overly packaged from an impersonal supermarket. Still, I can’t shake the high levels of urban pollution from my hygiene food standards. Instead of having, say, oak-smoked bacon, you’re actually having it kerosene-smoked… Not the best marketing angle or feeling really. But who knows? Maybe it does enhance its taste? Given that I have very limited control over what I eat here, I guess that’s what I have to keep saying to myself for as long as I live in China.

Local eateries

12 Jan

There are loads of restaurants in Shanghai. The choice is great in terms of variety of cuisines. There is no such thing as Chinese cuisine or a Chinese restaurant. You’ve got Shanghainese, Cantonese, Sichuanese, Hunanese (both of which are super hot, though in a different way), Dongbei (literally eastnorthern, i.e. from Beijing and the northeastern provinces), Xinjian (from western China, where Muslim Chinese communities are) and Taiwanese. In terms of international cuisines, there’s French, Italian, Japanese, Russian, Indian, Thai, Vietnamese, Moroccan, etc., French-Chinese Fusion (like Yin by Le Garçon Chinois) or other cuisine “fusioned” with Chinese, whatever that is. On top of this, you’ve got trendy and less trendy restaurants. People 7 is trendy, so is Yin, but in a totally different way. Da Marco isn’t but it offers good hearty Italian dishes. Prices also cover a really wide spectrum. The gastronomic(al) end is not underrepresented with Maison Pourcel, Jean Georges, Franck or Mr. and Mrs. Bund.

Food is in fact almost everywhere and at the other end of the price spectrum are local eateries. These are tiny restaurants, seating between 4 and 10 people and are often partly sunken below the street level. They’re characteristically devoid of any type of decorum, looking almost improvised. Many just have plain white walls, just painted or covered with white ceramics. The tables are also very basic, often in white formica or plain wood, and the kitchen tends to be visible, either at the front of the place (sometimes outside) or on the side. Some of the front kitchens are extremely filthy and obviously you’d never ever eat there. But many of these local eateries look very tempting. The smell of the food and the heartiness of the meals served is just so appealing… Maybe it’s also the fact that they cater for an exclusively Chinese clientele that makes me want to experience eating there. However, you feel you can’t just go into one of these, but have to be introduced.

I discovered that my friend A. shares my curiosity for these eateries. I therefore asked him if he’d be interested to try the one most recommended by my Shanghai Time Out guide. The date was immediately set and we met at Chun’s on Jinxian Lu (Road). We got there and pushed the door only to be greeted by a lady shouting at us “Mei you, mei you!” (I don’t have or there is no) and unambiguously kicking us out with her free hand. Given we don’t speak Chinese well enough yet, it wasn’t clear to us whether she didn’t have any food anymore for the lunch slot, which is common in these places as the menu is limited or non-existent, or because it was simply personal (there was an empty table). Thankfully, we barely had time to ponder on our disappointment as another door, two shops away, opened and another lady with a smile invited us with her forthcoming hand gesture to come into her place.

Although the place had the size of the local eateries, it was a bit of an upgrade in terms decoration and menu. The experience was no disappointment. For less than 4 pounds each (very upmarket eatery!), we shared generous portions of warm tofu served with a bit of egg yokes and chives, steamed bean sprouts in a sweet sauce and minced pork cooked with ginger and a sweet sauce too. An egg was half buried in the meat and the bottom half of the yoke was amazingly yellow and translucent. I curse myself for not taking any pictures of the food! There was some confusion over the braised pork I thought I ordered and which was never served. What we had was actually enough and the sight of the mid-aged over-dressed Chinese ladies lunching behind A. made this meal perfect.

The very bottom of the food chain is in reality street food, but I’ll leave this for another post when I’ve had more of it.

P.S. A word of caution: I have recently been told that many of these local eateries use oil collected and derived from rubbish and usually delivered in blue gallons. So if you do happen to go eat there, it’s preferable to go to a recommended place or go with a Chinese person. And at the slightest sight of blue gallon, run away! There was a huge scandal last year over the death of a young woman caused by re-used oil, following her meal in one of those popular places…

%d bloggers like this: