When I came to China back in April to decide if Libo was for me, I had a chance to go to Shanghai and visit my friend Sarah. She promised that if I were in China over Thanksgiving, we could have a dinner party at her apartment (but only if I did the cooking!). And as I packed my suitcases to come over in August, I remembered that promise and included cans of pumpkin, cranberry sauce, a box of cornbread mix, and a few other odds and ends, all of which came in handy last weekend.
I had never been to Sarah's apartment before, and I was truly awe-struck when I entered it for the first time last Friday. It is on the thirty-fifth floor of one of the "Skyline Mansions," and is situated directly across from the Shanghai World Financial Center (the tallest free-standing building in China and 9th tallest in the world). It's all hardwood floors and modern, tasteful furniture. There's a lily pond and fountain in the living room, and priceless pieces of art adorn the walls. The kitchen was more than suitable to my needs, as it had an oven and three gas burners. Sarah does not cook, though, and the contents of the kitchen cabinets reflected that. When I took a pre-shopping inventory, I discovered quirky assortment of gadgets, like a tool for peeling and sectioning a grapefruit in one motion, a set of colorful silicon potholders, an immersion blender still in the original packaging, and a display drawer full of German spices that were long expired and "just for show." Mysteriously absent, however, were any oven-proof dishware, mixing bowls, measuring spoons, or typical kitchen stand-bys like butter or flour.
I spent all day on Friday making preparations for Saturday's dinner while Sarah was at work. The IFC supermarket had nearly everything a foreigner could dream of: imported dairy products, muffin tins, Betty Crocker cake mixes, frozen pizzas, and Le Creuset cookware. The only things I couldn't find were pre-made pie crusts and corn syrup, both of which I could live without, despite that one of my arch-nemeses of cooking is any recipe that requires cutting butter into flour. (A few others include recipes that involve browning butter or candy thermometers.)
I bought two huge bags' worth of groceries and walked the several long city blocks back to Sarah's apartment to finally get into some real cooking. The first thing I did was make the box of cornbread to have it ready for the stuffing the next day. Then I made the pie crusts and the mashed potatoes. By seven o'clock, I was finished and had time to get ready before hitting the clubs with a few friends in town.
The nightlife in Shanghai is so good that it was impossible to return to Sarah's apartment any earlier than 3:30 am, which meant that an early morning of cooking was tougher than I would have liked. But thanks to a latte the Starbucks around the corner, I was able to soothe my aching head and launch into a frenzied few hours of cooking so that I could have the oven free for Chris's turkey, which was scheduled to arrive mid-afternoon.
Somehow, I managed to get it all done, and the meal was as authentic as could be. Sarah invited eight friends over, and the night really couldn't have gone any better. Everyone loved the food, although the three-year-old Chinese boy insisted on having dumplings with his turkey. Spending Thanksgiving away from home was tough, but I definitely made the best of it!
And, I know you were wondering... Here are the pictures of the food! Click on a photo to for a link to the recipe. (Except for the pumpkin pie. That recipe's super secret and belongs to my friend Dan's aunt. I was only given it in the strictest confidence.)
No recipe for this one yet... This was all my friend Chris Lu's work! He used Sichuan peppers in the rub and agave nectar on the skin and it was one of the BEST turkeys I have ever had. When I have the recipe, I will definitely share it!
Relaxing with my new little friend after a great meal:
Big Mountain's daughter turned six last week, so I of course made her a birthday cake! You can read more about the story of her birthday here
. I'm sharing the recipe with you just in case you have similar ingredient constraints (maybe you're baking in rural Panama, I don't know!) or maybe you're opposed to butter (I'm sorry) for health reasons. The cake is really good, for what it is. But it doesn't compare to, say, my Classic Yellow Cake with Chocolate Malt Frosting
.Putting the second layer on:
The cake recipe I used is from Seasoned to Taste
. It's really simple and it doesn't call for any exotic ingredients. The only thing I did differently was to chop up a bar of white chocolate and add it to the batter instead of adding orange zest.To form the smaller second tier, I simply halved the recipe and used a smaller pan. The frosting is Betty Crocker chocolate. It was actually pretty good, although as you probably are aware I'd much rather have made my own.The finished product:
Probably because when they do, it looks like this:
Pictured above is a traditional Chinese dessert. It is a thick soup, served hot, made from lightly sweetened black sesame seeds.
It tasted good, but I just can't be convinced that soup is a good idea for breakfast, much less dessert (the most important meal of the day).
Here's an image of a special treat at the Beijing Starbucks: a Red Bean Scone. I had to try it.
This next picture isn't a dessert, but it is one of the weirdest things I have ever been served anywhere in the world.
Ladies and Gentlemen, I present to you: Sea Cucumber Porridge.
The "porridge" part was actually quite tasty. The sea cucumber, on the other hand . . . Well, it tasted like an ocean-flavored piece of rubber.
I spent most of my last trip to China traveling around the Southern regions, which are known for spicy dishes and good seafood. And because I am working with resorts interested in buying Tracker boats, I was obviously around a lot of water. Nearly every meal I had included a very large fish (head, tail, and bones included) on a platter served in a sauce of varying degrees of deliciousness.
I don't have a problem with fish being served like this, although I'm not a huge fan of fish skin and I politely decline the offer of head or tail when asked.
What I do have a problem with is when the fish in question hasn't been cooked:
This was for hot pot one night in Libo, so we were supposed to cook the fish ourselves in a pot of boiling broth. All that blood, and the googly eyes staring at me every time the lazy susan spun it in my direction, were a little bit too much to handle. So I stuck with the tofu and leafy greens, and left the raw fish to my more adventurous (and native) counterparts.
Not all seafood experiences were that traumatic though. In Shanghai, Sarah and I ate at a nice restaurant whose specialty was "salt and pepper squid." Paired with a nice cold glass of Sauvignon Blanc, it was a great meal!
Many of the culinary highlights of this past trip to China revolved around Big Mountain, one of the heads of the project in Libo and my future boss. He is truly a Renaissance man: successful investor, famous photographer, writer for National Geographic China, art teacher, resort developer, world traveler, mountain man (not only in name but in deed), and chef.
Here he is pictured cooking us lunch at a local rice stand. He asked the proprietress to kindly step aside, and quickly whipped up some spicy fried rice himself for us hungry foreigners.
One one of our last evenings in Libo, Big Mountain invited us to his home for dinner. There were at least fifteen dishes, most of which I had never had before. There was a beef and mint stir-fry, a plate of homemade sausages, pork belly that takes two days to make, and several types of wild greens that I had never seen (much less eaten).
Because he knows me well, Big Mountain also made pork and vegetable dumplings (my favorite Chinese dish). They were literally the best dumplings I have ever had in my life. Big Mountain, if you're reading this, 谢谢！What a great evening!
At the Shanghai Boat Show, I really worked up an appetite. Wandering around all of the booths (an area easily the size of two football fields), attempting to convince people (in Chinese) that the Sun Tracker pontoon boat is the best boat ever made, trying on life vests for TV advertisements, kayaking in a blow-up pool, and wearing out the smile muscles in my face being a boat model all made for some pretty full days.
Each day when we broke for lunch, we headed to a traditional cafeteria-style dim sum restaurant around the corner for some authentic Cantonese food. Prepare to have your mouth water . . .
Oh, no! The dreaded chicken feet!
Here's the thing about chicken feet. They don't taste "footy" or anything like that--they taste like chicken. Just with more joint-y, bony parts than meat. So I guess I don't really get the appeal; why not just eat a nice juicy drumstick instead?
Would I eat them again? Sure, why not. But I won't go out of my way to order them. I'll have the cold-dressed jellyfish instead.
(Just kidding! I won't have anything on this menu! I have to draw the line somewhere, people!)
If you've never been to China, then you've probably never had truly authentic Chinese food. For better or for worse, the next few posts will cover some of the dishes I've been served on my most recent trip to China.
This is the noodle stand in Libo that Big Mountain took us for breakfast each morning. This lady keeps the place clean, the broth hot, and the meat non-refrigerated. Mmm. Soup for breakfast isn't necessarily my thing, but I have to admit that it tasted pretty good!
The broth is kept at a constant boil in a huge pot (you can see it in the far righthand corner of the picture). For each serving, she ladles broth into one of the smaller pots and adds wide, flat rice noodles. Your choice of meat is then scooped (raw) into the mix--we always chose the ground pork. A few pieces of lettuce and a partially fried duck egg later, she's finished with her part in making your breakfast. The flavor is then up to you--a wide variety of "toppings" are available to choose from (see lower lefthand corner of picture). There are hot peppers in oil, chopped raw garlic, snipped chives, pickled herbs, and fresh mint. The final result is something like this:
Breakfast of champions!