Sichuan Food!!

Posted in Food and Drink, Travel Log (N. America & Europe) at 4:23 am by Benjamin Ross

The legendary streetfood of Chengdu may be a thing of the past, but that doesn’t mean there still isn’t a lot of good stuff to eat in the Sichuan Basin.  Here are some of the highlights from restaurants and 大排档s in Chengdu and Chongqing.

I’m never really sure how to translate 大排档 into English.  It’s sort of like an outdoor restaurant, which isn’t actually a real restaurant.  There’s a nearly full kitchen, but one that can easily be taken down and set back up again in the time it takes the 城管 (or police) to meander through the street.  This one was in Chongqing.
水煮鱼, or as I translate it “chopped up fish boiled in a ridiculously spicy brothy soup along with bits of cabbage.”
回锅肉, spicy pork belly.  It’s basically Sichuan style stir-fried bacon.
Here are some street snacks from Chengdu.  Of course they can now only be found inside of bona fide restaurants.
宫保豆腐  Kung Pao Tofu
水煮牛肉, same as the spicy fish above, except this time with beef
This is a Sichuan-ish version of 松子鱼, or as I call it “the inside-out fish.“  It isn’t really Sichuan food per se, but it looked too delicious in the picture on the menu, so we had to order it.
Here’s a Sichuan classic which is hard to find outside of the region:  stir-fried sticky rice.  I forget what this is called in Chinese.  Anybody know?
And finally, this is a bowl of 牛肉面 (beef noodles).  It’s a dish found virtually anywhere in China, but in Sichuan it has a regionalized spicy kick to it.  I had previously assumed that Sichuan, like most of the South, was solidly rice country.  However, I was pleasantly surprised by the variety and quality of the noodles available.  The diversity of food in this country never ceases to amaze me, and this was only the tip of the iceberg.



A Chinese City with no Streetfood?…Civilizing the masses.

Posted in Food and Drink at 3:29 am by Benjamin Ross

Several weeks ago, I was wandering around the streets of Chengdu. It was about 2 o’clock in the afternoon, and I noticed a strange feeling from my stomach, one which I had never felt before in my various backpacking excursions around the Middle Kingdom….hunger. It then occurred to me why. I had been exploring Chengdu on foot for the past 5 hours, and not once during that entire time had I come across a single street food vendor. This may not seem strange upfront, but anyone who has spent time in China will likely find this preposterous. Grazing around China, casually consuming stuff like this, this, and this, this, and this is a national pastime in the Middle Kingdom, one enjoyed by Chinese and foreign residents alike. Big city or small town, urban or rural, north or south, street food is ubiquitous in the Middle Kingdom and being anywhere in China without it is, in this author’s opinion, just, well….weird.

I recalled a conversation I had the previous evening with my host in Chengdu, eminent baijiu expert Derek Sandhaus who had stressed to me that “They killed street food in Chengdu.” At the time I didn’t think much of it. Not that I didn’t trust Derek’s expertise, but the very thought of a Chinese city without street food violated all my premonitions of China logic. And especially Chengdu, which is renowned throughout the country for its famous street snacks.

After two full days in town, it was painfully apparent that street food is indeed dead in Chengdu. There are probably a few scattered corners where you can find a 烧烤 (kabob) stand or an occasional 煎饼 (Chinese fried pancake). But for all practical purposes, food in Chengdu is only served inside of restaurants.

Chengdu’s crackdown on streetfood is most likely part of a series of campaigns across China promoting 文明, the idea of being “civilized.” This has been a trope of Chinese local leadership in recent years, and has various manifestations, with mixed results from the public. Earlier this month, Beijing announced it was going to crack down on 烧烤 (outdoor kabobbing) due to its alleged contributions to air pollution. Many Beijingers were appalled, and assumed this was simply a guise, another mis-guided attempt at “civilizing” the population. On the other hand, campaigns to encourage queuing, especially at subway and bus stops, also under the heading of “civilizing” have generally been met with a more positive response.

The promotion and enforcement of these “civilizing” campaigns vary across the country, and fortunately Chengdu appears to be somewhat of an anomaly in its moratorium on street vendors. Still, the thought of a Chinese city without streetfood doesn’t sit well in this author’s my stomach.



Central Europe: What I ate.

Posted in Food and Drink, Travel Log (N. America & Europe) at 2:13 pm by Benjamin Ross

Food!  Can’t ever seem to get enough of it.  Here are the gastronomic highlights from my 2012 trip through Scandinavia and Central Europe.

This was one of my favorite Scandinavian fast food discoveries:  smörgåsbord.  I couldn’t tell you how to pronounce all those accent marks, but this stuff is delicious, and uber-portable taboot.
Smörgåsbord is sold in specialty shops all over Copenhagen, and consist of a slice of bread covered with a wide variety of toppings including various permutations of potatoes, cheese, fresh fish, deli meat and vegetables.  Great to eat on the go.
Denmark also has a respectable hot dog stand scene, as exemplified by this neighborhood stand in Dragor, a small town just outside of Copenhagen.
Here’s a Danish take on the hot dog, covered with pickles and fried onions.
Moving on now, you would have to have your head in the sand not to notice the plentiful, cheap, delicious, Turkish food options all throughout the EU.  Here’s a shawarma plate from Malmo, Sweden.
If I had to pick the country where I ate the best on this trip, it would probably be the Czech Republic.  One of my personal favorites was Svíčková, marinated beef sirloin served with onions and “dumplings.”  I use quotes because Czech dumplings aren’t the same rolled up meat and/or veggies normally thought of in an Eastern culinary context, but rather pieces of foamy bread, which can be used to soak up the savory sauces.
Another Czech dish–I have no idea what this is except that it consisted of pork, potatoes, and beans, and was delicious.
In terms of wining and dining, the Czech Republic is dirt cheap. I don’t think I spent more than $5 on a single meal in the Czech Republic, and most of these were consumed in somewhat fancy sit-down restaurants. But even more than the cheap food, the ridiculously low price of alcohol came as somewhat of a pleasant shock, and helps explain the amount of expat alcoholism which abounds in Prague.  Beers in Prague, good beers (Pilsner Urquel typically), in a bar, typically cost the equivalent of 1 US dollar. And to evoke the words of Samuel L. Jackson from Pulp Fiction “I ain’t talkin’ about a no paper cup.  I’m talkin’ about a glass o’ beer.” (see picture above).  It is not uncommon for Czech restaurants to sell a glass of beer for literally half the price of a bottle of water.
And now here’s a Czech version of the portable bread slice covered with meat and veggies.
Back in the days of Czechoslovakia, the Reds weren’t too hot about allowing Coca-Cola to open shop within their empire.  So instead, they made their own cola, Kofola.  But Kofola is not simply a Coke/Pepsi knockoff.  It has its own unique Kofoly taste, and has survived the fall of communism, remaining a major player in the Czech soft drink market, now competing directly with Coke and Pepsi
Is Homer Simpson Czech?
mmm…Czech food
Last meal in the Czech Republic, this one in Plzen (namesake of my neighborhood in Chicago as well as Pilsner Urquel):  braised rabbit meat, greens, and a potato cake.
moving on now…to Slovakian ice cream in Bratislava
and just across the Austrian border to the Naschmarkt in Vienna
I couldn’t tell you what much of this stuff is, but it was fun to sample and oogle at.
It’s hard to tell by looking at it, but this was a complete meal from the Naschmarkt.  Austrian finger food is some of the richest stuff I’ve ever eaten.
Vienna is also quite the melting pot for various culinary traditions, as illustrated by this Asian-Turkish-Schnitzel joint.
Moving into Hungary now.  Let’s start with the Budapest markets.
Out of dumb luck, I wandered into this fantastic triple-tiered wet market, lined with streetfood-esque stalls on the Buda side of the city.  (Budapest was originally two separate cities:  Buda and Pest)


The more touristy market is located in Pest.  Still well worth a visit, despite the proliferation of gift shops and inflated prices.
Here’s what I ate at the market in Pest.  Don’t recall exactly what it was, but very “meat and potatoes.”
While in Budapest, I went on a walking tour of the city, and afterwords the tourguide offered to take those interested to a “regular, cafeteria-style, working class people’s meal.”  This is beef and mushrooms on the right, with a white, bread-like substance (not sure what you call this stuff) to go along.  On the left is the requisite Hungarian pickle plate.
Another simple, delicious, Hungarian meal, this one from the town of Sopron.  Notice the yellow pickled pepper on the right.  It’s stuffed to the brim with sauerkraut!  Four days in Hungary reaffirmed that when it comes to sausage making and pickling technique, the US is still way behind the curve.
Just like anywhere else in the world, McDonald’s is all over Hungary with it’s own localized line of specialty items such as the “Chicago Classic” and the “Miami Deluxe.”
One final meal shot from Budapest.  Again, I have no idea what this was, but it was delish, like most of what I ate in Hungary.
Next stop was Poland.  Here’s a market in Krakow.
…just like back home in Chicago
Here’s zapekanka, Poland’s answer to late night drunken pizza.
I have no idea what “zapekanka” translates to in English, but I’d imagine it means something along the lines of “toasted bread with melted cheese, sauce, and your choice of pork, beef, mushrooms, peppers, or any other topping imaginable.”
Here’s another zapekanka, with sausage and fried onions.
Another Polish delicacy, tartar:  raw beef mixed with raw egg, fresh onion, paprika, pepper, and a mustardy sauce.  Any fears of disease-bearing pathogens is easily washed away with a few shots of vodka.
Here’s something I didn’t expect to see:  Mike Tyson’s mug on the label of Polish energy drinks.
And what stay in Poland would be complete with out pierogi, the polish take on dumplings?
I mentioned before that Turkish food was a major theme in my European travels.  Here’s a “doner” from Berlin, which very well may have more Turkish restaurants per capita than any other city in the world not named Istanbul.
Berlin is a city with diverse food options, but I was particularly impressed by the various portable meat-based snacks.  I have completely forgotten what this was called, but it was some kind of fatty pork cutlet served in a BBQish sauce.
And then there was the famous Berlin currywurst.  I made sure to eat a good 3 or 4 of these before heading back home to my own glutinous part of the planet.

That’s it for food.  More to come in the way of sightseeing.



Suzhou Octoballs

Posted in Food and Drink, Travel Log (Asia) at 10:39 am by Benjamin Ross

I generally like to think of myself as pretty adventurous when it comes to food, as well as pretty well traveled when it comes to China.  Therefore it really isn’t too often that I come across a new Chinese snack which I have yet to encounter.  But today, while walking through Suzhou’s Guan Qian Jie (did I mention I finally busted out of Shanghai on Wednesday?), I came across a sign advertising 章鱼丸 (octopus balls)….

Before anybody gets the wrong idea, let me just clarify that the term “balls” refers to the round shape into which the octopus meat is molded.
Having previously lived in Fuzhou for several years, I had been exposed to my fair share of fish balls (their local specialty), as well as a decent amount of octopus meat, which occasionally makes its way into Fuzhou cuisine as well.  But this was to be my first time ever consuming an eight-armed mollusk in spherical format.  The final product came in this specially designed box which actually refers to the balls as “Japanese style.”
The balls were then topped with a sauce which had both the look and consistency of mucous.  With its sweet and somewhat tangy flavor, it was the perfect condiment for my fried octoballs, and tasted nothing like the snot it so very much resembled  The vendor referred to it as 萨拉将, the common Chinese word for “mayonnaise.”  Sprinkled on top of the “mayo” were dried fish shavings for extra flavor.
The final product was served with wooden skewers as utensils, and at 7 RMB for a box of 6, was rather pricey for Chinese street fare.  However, they were quite filling, and I would certainly recommend them to anyone who has a chance to try.


By the way, my consulting project is all wrapped up, and I will be backpacking around the Yangtze River Delta region for the next couple weeks, until I head back to Chicago on 3/19.

Also, special thanks to Ryan McLaughlin and his wife Maggie for putting me up in Suzhou (not to mention letting me use his MacBook to blog).  Be sure to check out Ryan’s various China-related sites sites Lost Laowai, haohaoreport, Dao by Design, and The Humanaught.



What’s Ben eating in Shanghai?

Posted in Food and Drink at 9:20 pm by Benjamin Ross

Over the past couple weeks I’ve written about Chinese graffiti, signs floating in the Huangpu River, escalators, and the late great Mitch Hedberg. But when it comes to a trip to the Middle Kingdom, I think we all know which topic causes all others to pale in its shadow…the food.  Whenever I am in China, I try to remain cognizant of my culinary surroundings, and take up as much of the local flavor as possible.  However, I must admit, I have now been to Shanghai 4 times, and still have only a vague idea of what Shanghai food is exactly, other than that it’s similar to the cuisines of Zhejiang and Jiangsu (bland, somewhat sugary, lots of fish and aquatic creatures) and that the baozi explode with soup when you bite into them.

One of the reasons for this is probably that the population of Shanghai, like most major population centers in the world, is composed very much of people who are not from Shanghai.  Thus you encounter a lot of food from various other regions of the country, not to mention the world, whereas the cuisine of smaller cities tends to be considerably more regionalized.  With that in mind, I wanted to give a little sampling of what has been traveling through my digestive tract over the last week and a half.  And if you’re wondering about the apparent dearth of bona fide Shanghaiese cuisine, consider the above.  I plan on heading out to Anhui next week, and should be able to get a much better sampling of the local fare.

tie ban niu rou
铁板牛肉 (tie3 ban3 niu2 rou4), a mainstay in just about any part of the Middle Kingdom.  This is definitely not a representative example.  I ate it in a restaurant which claimed to be Anhui style.  I only thing Anhui about the restaurant I could detect was the waitresses.
gan bian niu rou
Here’s another poor example of one of my favorite spicy dishes 干煸牛肉 (gan4 bian1 niu2 rou4).  Spicy beef fried up in a bunch of oil and hot peppers, a typically Sichuan dish.
hang jiao niu rou
While we’re on the topic of beef, here’s one dish I’d never previously tried called 航椒牛肉 (hang2 jiao1 niu2 rou).  The beef is cooked in what I am presuming to be oyster sauce and a lot of sugar similar to 蚝油牛肉.  As for the peppers, they’re not the typical green ones you see in most markets in China, and I’m not sure what you’d call them in English.  As a beef enthusiast, it wasn’t my favorite Sino-bovine dishes, but still a nice way to change things up from time to time.
guilin rice noodles
Ahhh…this was possibly the best (not to mention cheapest) meal I’ve had yet this trip.  I’ve never actually been to Guilin, but I’ve eaten their famous rice noodles,桂林米粉 (gui4 lin2 mi3 fen3) all over the Middle Kingdom.  This spicy snack usually consists of rice noodles (duh!), small shards of beef, leafy greens, peanuts, and a ludicrously spicy broth.  Out of curiosity I asked the waitress what was in the broth and she replied by saying “It’s a complicated mix of Chinese herbs and spies, I don’t even know what exactly is in it.”  I wasn’t sure if she really didn’t know or was afraid I was going to open up my own Guilin rice noodle shop across the street.  FYI:  There was already another one two doors down.
hot and sour soup
Here’s a picturesque (but unfortunately not as tasty) example of another one of my all-time favorite Chinese dishes, hot and sour soup (酸辣汤 suan1 la4 tang1). The secret to hot and sour soup is white pepper (the hot) and vinegar (the sour).  Apparently these guys were out of white pepper, and just dumped a heaping teaspoon of hot sauce on top.  The result was a little disappointing…yet rather photogenic, eh?
cha shao rou
One of my co-researchers is from Hong Kong, and whenever she gets sick (as we all have been all week) she craves a meal at a 茶餐厅 (cha2 can1 ting1), a typical Hong Kong style restaurant, which serves most of its meals in individual portions, rather than family style, as is most common in China.  Cha Shao Pork (叉烧肉), pictured above (coupled with another kind of pork for which the name escapes me), is one of the most typical dishes in the 茶餐厅, and usually a pretty consistent order.
gu lao rou
Reminescent of American Chinese food, gu lao rou (characters are escaping me right now), is the candy of Chinese pork dishes.  I like to think of it as lots of oil and sugar, with little bits of pork inside.  As you can expect, the crispy result is mouth-wateringly delicious.
sichuan pao cai
Due in part to the inclinations of several clients and colleagues, I had a stretch earlier this week where I ate Sichuan food on four consecutive meals.  This would be enough to repulse your average Chinese diner, and maybe even some laowai (Sichuan cuisine is generally the most Westerner embraced cuisine in China), but being somewhat of a hyper-spicy food masochist myself, I was much obliged to consume massive amounts of hot chilis and peppercorns for 2 days straight.  It all started with some pickled Sichuan vegetables (四川泡菜 si4 chuan1 pao4 cai4), one of the best ways to clear a pallet, before the onslaught of fireyness begins.
gong bao ji ding
This is Chinese kung pao chicken (宫保鸡丁gong1 bao3 ji1 ding1), served slightly different from that of Sichuan, and completely different from the kung pao chicken we grew up with in the Midwestern United States.  Kung pao chicken, when made properly, derives its taste from a variety of sweet, salty, and spicy ingredients, including vinegar, soy sauce, ginger, garlic, chiles, peppercorns, salt, sugar, and MSG.  The complex, thick, flavor probably explains why it is arguably the most popular authentic Chinese dish among Westerners.
mapo tofu
Here’s another Sichuan classic, mapo tofu (ma2 po3 dou4 fu2).  One of our clients who had come out from the Bay Area, was eager to eat Chinese mapo tufu, because according to him, Californian Chinese restaurants never mix pork with any tofu dish, under the assumption that the only reason Americans would want to eat tofu was because they were vegetarians. (Maybe they just all keep kosher?)  Personally, I must say I like a little bit of pork with my tofu from time to time.  I eat this dish at least once a week.
bacon and smoked bamboo
Here’s another one of my all-time favorite dishes. 腊肉炒烟笋, or as I call it in English, “Bacon n’ Bamboo.” (I may be butchering the Chinese name of this one too)
sichuan toothpick beef
牙签牛肉 (ya2 qian1 niu2 rou4) is a spicy Sichuan dish which is almost as fun to eat as it is tasty.  Watch out for the toothpicks.
chinese dry wok Agrocybe mushrooms
Currently, my new favorite Chinese dish is 干果茶树菇 (gan1 guo3 cha2 shu4 gu3).  I’m not sure exactly how to translate it into English, other than dry wok Agrocybe mushrooms.  The stringy mushrooms are cooked along with hot peppers and peanuts, over a bed of onions, and allowed to slow cook in the dry wok.  It’s probably more of a Hunan dish than a Sichuan if you want to be technical, but most Sichuan restaurants in Shanghai serve it nonetheless.



What do the Chinese eat for breakfast?

Posted in Food and Drink at 8:17 am by Benjamin Ross

As people travel the world, one aspect of their lives which is usually the last to become assimilated to their new culture is their breakfast.  There is no place this is better exhibited than in the globalization of food over the past century, which focuses disproportionately on lunch and dinner cuisine.

China is no exception to this rule.  For most foreigners living in the Middle Kingdom, acclimation to Chinese lunch and dinner cuisine takes but a matter of weeks or months.  Breakfast, however, is a completely different matter, as foreigners often either stockpile a cache of foreign breakfast products at the nearest Wal-Mart or Metro, or simply skip breakfast all together, and take their first food of the day at lunch.

The same generalization can be applied for Chinese living in Western countries as well.  I can honestly say I have had several Chinese people tell me that they have never tasted anything more disgusting in their lives than a donut (except maybe cheese).  Most of my Chinese friends in the US either stick to Chinese fare as best they can in the morning, or reluctantly subsist on toast until lunch.

So what exactly do the Chinese eat for breakfast?  The continental breakfast at my hotel in Shanghai provides a typical sampling.  Here it is.

chinese tea eggs
In the first steamer, we have tea eggs, a common breakfast snack in most parts of the Middle Kingdom.
Next we have 2 kinds of baozi (steamed buns).  The first ones on the left have pork balls inside, while the ones on the right are stuffed with vegetables.
stir fried breakfast cabbage
This unappetizing-looking dish is stir fried cabbage.  It actually tastes a lot better than it looks.
breakfast sweet potatoes and chinese fried bread
boiled sweet potato (left) and fried Chinese bread (right)
chinese porridge
Probably the most common mainstay of the Chinese breakfast is white rice porridge, which consists of nothing more than rice, and a lot of water.
porridge toppings pickled radishes peanuts tofu
To give the porridge flavor, porridge is usually topped with a variety of toppings, such as (clockwise starting from bottom) peanuts, fermented tofu, spicy pickled radishes, and pickled mustard.
black porridge
In addition to the standard porridge, there is also dark porridge: It has a little more flavor than the white stuff so it usually doesn’t require any toppings.
soy milk fruit juice
Although the Chinese stay close to their roots for their morning meal, elements of Western cuisine are beginning to seep in, as we can see from the morning beverages which include soy milk (traditional Chinese drink) along with fruit juice and milk (both relatively recent imports from the West)
toast peanut butter and jelly
In addition to beverages, other common Western breakfast foods have becoming more and more common in Chinese breakfast as well, especially in large cities like Shanghai.  Here we have toasted white bread with peanut butter, jelly, butter, and a sugary dairy spread (not sure what to call it in English) which I find quite tasty.
chinese breakfast
For my own breakfast, I have generally been combining the Western and Chinese elements together like so.  Bon Apetit!



Merry Jewish Christmas!

Posted in Festivals and Celebrations, Food and Drink, Local Customs at 9:15 pm by Benjamin Ross

Once again Christmas is here, and for all you fellow Jews out there, that means Chinese food and a movie.  See, while America’s majority Christian population celebrates the Christmas season, Jews (as well as other non-Christian groups) are left with the most boring day of the year.  No work, no school, no shopping, no access to public facilities.  Even restaurants are closed!  That is, except for the Chinese ones!  This makes for another example of the historical cooperation between two of the most culinarily oriented cultures the world has ever seen…the Jewish-Chinese Christmas.

Chinese cumin beef
Chinese red cooked eggplant
All I want for Christmas is 孜然牛肉 and 红烧茄子

Going back to when I was just a little boychick, I have fond memories of celebrating Christmas with crab rangoon, sesame chicken, and good ol’ General Tso.  Yup, nothing tops American Chinese food on the day when most other Americans are home with their relatives, exchanging gifts, and enjoying the spirit of the season.  After Chinese food, the Jewish tradition is to visit a local movie theater, one of the few establishments other than Chinese restaurants which remain open on the 25th.  At the theater (and at the restaurant) it’s not uncommon to bump into other Jews from the community.  We ask each other where we ate Chinese food, complain about the weather, and wish each other a Merry Christmas.  It’s all in the spirit of the season.

So to those who do celebrate Christmas, may you have a joyous holiday season and a 圣诞节快乐, and to all those who don’t, enjoy your Chinese food and your movie.  You are part of a tradition which is sure to last for years to come.

And in the meantime, why not check out my own personal favorite Christmas-related website.  It’s called How To Order Chinese Food Dot Com.  Enjoy your holiday season…whatever that may be.  I’ll be in Chinatown, celebrating the season with some 孜然牛肉 and 红烧茄子 .



Tokyo, in 18 Pictures

Posted in Food and Drink, Japan, Travel Log (Asia) at 6:24 am by Benjamin Ross

It’s been almost two weeks since my most recent repatriation, and I wanted to give a final pictorial recap of my brief stopover in Tokyo.  Enjoy.

cylinder of Japanese beer
On my first night in Tokyo, my American friend asked if I wanted to go out for a “cylinder” of beer.  Originally, I thought this was some new English slang phrase I which had yet to make its way into my lexicon.  But no…in Tokyo they do in fact serve beer…in cylinders.
Japanese Internet Bar
Here’s a shot of a cubicle from a Japanese Internet cafe, basically the same setup as a Chinese net bar.  You can see the computer, webcam, headphones, a food menu to order from, and so on.  The only things missing were the clouds of cigarette smoke, the grime on the keys, the cacophony of pop music, and the empty peanut soup cans filled to the brim with cigarette ash.  Other than that, it was just like any old Internet Cafe in the Middle Kingdom.  The cost was roughly $3 USD per hour.
Tokyo House and Skyline
You can’t really see it so well from this picture, but Tokyo is easily the cleanest major city I have ever been to.  Even down the restrooms in public parks, Tokyo looks as if they have an army of Japanese Danny Tanners running around the city 24/7.
conveyor belt sushi
One of the highlights of any trip to Japan is the food.  Sometimes I find myself seriously wondering why more food isn’t served via conveyor belt.
sashimi in Tokyo
Sometimes I also wonder why the human race ever came up with the crazy idea to cook its fish.
chinese baozi steamed buns
In addition to all of the endemic Japanese snacks, baozi have now fully been thrust into the Japanese culinary radar.  In Chinatown, those lovable steamed buns are now the hot item sold in every nook and cranny, as shown by this Chinese woman preparing her baozi for Japanese patrons.
Tokyo Street Festival
Outside my friends apartment in Ikebukuro, I had the chance to experience this Japanese street festival.
Groups of men and women, each dressed in matching outfits, carried several of these sedan chairs through the street, as the surrounding people banged drums and other musical instruments.
My knowledge of Japanese folk customs is quite lacking, so if anybody has more insight into what is going on, please feel free to comment.
Yokohama Railroad tracks
Tokyo has the best rail-transit network I have ever seen in Asia, and arguably the best one in the world as well.  Train tracks, such as these, run all throughout, above, and below the city, making it so that virtually any destination is conveniently reachable via public transit.
Signs in most stations are written in both Japanese and English transliteration, making the subway system easy to figure out, even for those who don’t read Japanese.
Tokyo Subway car
The one downfall of the Tokyo transit system, and this is a major downfall, is that the entire thing shuts down from midnight until 5 am.  Since a cab ride in Tokyo can cost as much as a routine surgical operation in China, a typical night out in Tokyo forces the decision to either stay in one’s own neighborhood, be home before midnight, or party until 5.
Japanese Wendy's
It’s really a shame that the main frame of reference for a “hamburger” in the Middle Kingdom is KFC and McDonald’s.  After three months in China, I couldn’t help myself, and had to splurge on Wendy’s in Tokyo.  If by chance anybody within the Wendy’s organization is reading this, will you please, please, please, consider expanding your operation into mainland China???
smoking on the street is prohibited japanese
Like my own country, Japan (or at least Tokyo) is vigilant on the anti-public smoking trail.  In order to light up in public places (city streets included) smokers must do so in designated smoking areas.
Japanese traffic deaths sign
Every day, Tokyo police stations publish a count of how many traffic fatalities and injuries occurred during the previous day. The figure in red is for deaths, and the one in black for those injured.
Japanese pachinko
The big gambling rage in Tokyo these days is Pachinko, which according to Wikipedia is a “cross between pinball and a video slot machine.”  Day and night, Tokyoers can be seen staring at the screen, following the balls, and playing for hours on end.
Nincompoop Capacity
This is the name of a clothing store.  I am at a loss for more words.
Shibuya night shot
And finally, one of the busiest street corners in all of Japan.  This view is just a few feet from the exit of Shibuya Station. Possibly my all-time favorite venue to people watch, Shibuya is one of the hotter, trendier areas in Tokyo for night life and shopping…definitely a must see on any Japanese excursion.



Baozi (and Japanese Efficiency)

Posted in Food and Drink, Japan at 5:56 am by Benjamin Ross

Japan has a worldwide reputation for its efficiency.  For years, they built their economy on taking foreign products and making them better than the original inventors had.  Whether it is cameras, computers, or automobiles, Japan simply makes quality stuff.  Let’s take another product and add it to the list:  baozi (包子).  Yup, those puffy steamed buns which are a hit with both Chinese and foreigners alike in the Middle Kingdom are wildly popular in Japan as well.  And just as a Honda is a superior machine to a Volkswagen, I must admit the Japanese have a better take on the baozi than the do its original inventors.

Japanese baozi
Baozi, slow cooking in a Tokyo 7-11

Baozi can be found in virtually every region of China.  They are typically cooked in large bamboo steamers, and sold in the morning as a breakfast snack.  Their flavors tend to vary from region to region (i.e. the “soup” baozi common in Hangzhou and Shanghai, or the “cha shao” baozi found in Guangdong), but for the most part this variation is regional, with each region having a rather unvaried baozi selection.  (While I know several shops in Beijing putting everything from mapo tofu to stir-fried pork and cabbage in their baozi, this is the exception, not the rule.)

In Japan, baozi can be found in 7-11’s and various other convenience stores.  Rather than using metal steamers, the baozi are slow cooked on metal cooking racks which in the US would probably contain hot dogs or taquitos.  But what sets Japanese baozi apart from the rest is the barrage of flavors in which they are available.  Each level of the cooker contains a different flavor:  pork, beef, high grade pork, red bean, curry, and my own personal favorite:  pizza.  In addition to the insides being varied, the steamed bread itself is modified with the different flavors too.  For example, in the pizza baozi, the bread is cooked with cheese flavoring, and in the curry one the yellow buns, in addition to their flavory insides, carry the scent of Indian curry.

As they are in China, baozi are now a common staple in the Tokyoite diet for all walks of life.  With their portability, and ease of production and variation, baozi are perfectly suited for the busy Tokyo lifestyle.  Accordingly, they are also probably the most visible Chinese culinary product in Tokyo today.  Now if only some American company would take wind of this trend, and pick up the baozi slack in the US…or did we already learn our lesson with the automobile?



Confucius says…Eat My Jian Bings

Posted in Food and Drink at 11:43 am by Benjamin Ross

Yao Ming and Zhou Jie Lun may be the top advertising personalities in the Middle Kingdom in 2008, but will their images still grace the face of Chinese products 2500 years from now?


Yao and Zhou are hot items now, but only time will tell if they have the long-lasting star power of the great Kongfuzi.  Arguably the most influential figure in all of Chinese history, his image is now used to sell his specialty Confucius Family Jian Bings in his hometown of Qufu.

Confucius jian bing

However, I can’t imagine the royalty payments are too lucrative. 20% of the residents of Qufu alone are surnamed Kong, and claim to be a descendant of the Great Master. In addition to the flagship jian bings, Qufu locals have also created an entire cuisine known as 孔府菜, allegedly the food of Confucius and his aristrocratic progeny.  The stuff wasn’t bad, but I have a little trouble grasping the fact that the 孔府豆腐 (Confucius tofu) I ate was in any way similar to what the Kong family dined on during the last few centuries B.C. I’m not really sure whether they had jian bings back then either.

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