Tang Hu Lu

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It's definitely winter in Beijing now. With the cold weather comes a typical Beijing treat -- tang hu lu (糖葫芦). These are Chinese hawthorn fruits on a stick that are candied in a sugar glaze. The fruit is cut in half and pitted, then put back together on the stick. It's really a great combination with the sugary goodness balancing the tart hawthorn. I think they're quite lovely too. You can now get other fruit like kiwis and strawberries done this way sometimes, but hawthorns are the real deal.

In addition to shops and stalls, you'll see people selling tang hu lu off the back of a bike. Regardless, they're always poked into a round stand like below.

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Here's Michael (10) enjoying his tang hu lu this evening (artsy photo courtesy of More Lomo, an iPhone app.)

Michael eating tang hulu

Indian and Indian-Chinese food in India

In addition to my tours of Golkonda Fort and both the old and new parts of Hyderabad, obviously, I ate a lot while I was in India. I don't have any photos of the meals (bad foodie), but I thought I'd share a few thoughts and observations.

I've always loved Indian food; I will reliably eat Indian food like a starving dog and continue to eat until I am beyond painfully full. I simply have no self-control around the stuff. Even though I really only ate in the hotel and in the Microsoft cafeteria (due to some risk of civil unrest around the Ayodha ruling), it should be no surprise that the Indian food in India was better than any I've had outside of India (including amazing Indian meals I've had in London and Singapore.) The flavors were just deeper and more complex than those I've had before.

Hyderabad is known for it's biryanis -- a rice dish typically made with goat meat in Hyderabad. Even the chicken version in the Microsoft cafeteria was spicy and ridiculously tasty -- a far cry from the biryanis I've had before. I also gorged on masala dosas and spicy lentil stew for breakfast; not my typical breakfast fare to be sure, but I think it would be if I had a source of dosas near home. The other curries, dals, breads, and tandoori roasted meats I had were stunningly good as well. (My mouth is watering as I write this...)

The only meal I had in a restaurant outside my hotel and the Microsoft cafeteria was actually a Chinese meal! As it turns out, the Indians are crazy about Chinese food (or their take on it); it's apparently the most popular cuisine in India outside of Indian food (there is even have an Indian Chinese restaurant in Redmond, WA but apparently it's not very good.) I saw Chinese restaurant signs all over Hyderabad, even in the less affluent parts of town.

The Indians have adapted Chinese cooking to their tastes and ingredients. My friend Saurabh took me to a very upscale place in the Taj Hotel; it looked pretty authentically Chinese and the menu looked relatively familiar as well. That's where the similarity stopped though.

The appetizer was sort of like french fries in a chili sauce. It tasted very good, but the flavors were a mix of Chinese and Indian tastes (and french fried potatoes don't factor into Chinese cuisine much). For our mains, we had two of the more popular dishes: "Manchurian gravy" and chow mein. The Manchurian gravy was a brown sauce with deep fried cauliflower balls; it was sweet and soy saucy with chilis and garlic. Pretty tasty. The chow mein was like other Chinese fried noodles, although there was something a little different about it as well.

For dessert, we had a classic Indian-Chinese dish. It was deep-fried wonton skins cut into wide noodles soaked with honey and served with vanilla ice cream. Of course, it was delicious, although I'm quite sure no Chinese emperor ever had this delight.

Wikipedia has a whole article on Indian-Chinese food. Fascinating! Who knew?

I really wish I had more time in India to try even more dishes. Next time...

Crab Heaven on Whidbey Island!

Last week we rented a house in Holmes Harbor on Whidbey Island with our friends Barbi and Kellie for a few days of crabbing, sunshine, and general laziness. Our friends Nori, Stacy, and Jarrett (and Stacy's dad) from Beijing came out too for a bit since the were in Seattle as well.

The house was part of an eighteen acre holly farm (yes, Christmas holly needs farms too), appropriately named Holly Hills Farm. It was really a lovely place on a quiet harbor. They have three houses for rent there - a larger, modern place (which we had), a mid-sized farm house, and a smaller farm house. Our place was well outfitted with everything you could want -- great kitchen with every manner of tool/pot/pan, grill, propane boiler (for all those crabs!), washer/dryer, fluffy towels, etc.

Here's the house from the water side:
A two story brown house in front of a row of trees and a rocky beach.

Here's the view down from the house toward their dock:
A downhill view of a dock with a red shed on it.

Barbi brought her 19' speedboat and crab traps along. We soon found a good spot and were hauling in tons of crabs. We probably pulled up 200 over the course of four days, keeping about fifty (there are size/gender restrictions plus daily limits -- fortunately, we had several licenses so we could get a lot of crabs. The beach was also full of lovely, easily-dug clams as well as mussels, although we bought mussels since the store-bought ones are cleaner and not stuck together.

Michael (10) driving out to check out traps:
Michael (smiling) driving the speedboat, seen from his front.

A pot full of yummy crabs -- turkey legs are awesome bait! They are cheap, last all day, and crabs can't resist.
A box trap full of about twenty crabs.

A blazing pot full of crabby goodness:
A huge pot on a massive, lit propane burner -- outdoors, of course!

The day's bounty (actually, just part of it...) We wound up eating crab a million ways -- boiled crab, crab fried rice, black bean crab, crab roll, crab omelets, crab cocktail, cold cracked crab, and more. We also had oysters (with whisky and one of this year's Oyster Wine Content winners), hyper fresh and ripe berries of all descriptions, black cod kasuzuke, fresh corn, and mussels and clams. It was absolutely incredible. By the second or third day, though, Michael declared a crab moratorium for himself.

A plate heaped with boiled crab halves and a bowl full of clams and mussels.

In addition to crabbing and being lazy, the kids fished a bit. Stacy's dad is an avid fisherman and taught the kids how to bottom fish for dogfish -- little sharks:
A 2.5 foot dogfish shark on the dock.

Andrew (13) hooked into two of the dogfish, but since we weren't using steel leaders, both cut the line as they approached the dock. I can't say that I'm disappointed that we didn't land it. I wasn't sure I wanted to mess with unhooking the things.
Andrew fishing from the dock with his pole signficantly bent as he reels in a dogfish.

We also just played in the water a bunch (OK, the kids did -- it was pretty cold...)
Andrew in a round intertube in the water, holding an oar over his head in triumph.

It was really a perfect way to spend a few days. We highly recommend Holly Hills Farm and hope to go there again next summer.

Our experience with an MRE

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Like many boys, Andrew (13) and Michael (10) are fascinated by all things military and have expressed interest in becoming snipers or some such. So, as part of helping them explore this interest, on our recent camping trip, I brought an MRE (Meal Ready to Eat -- a military ration) along for them to try.

Here are the contents of the MRE laid out. Our menu for the evening was a "pork rib, boneless, imitation" (really a chopped pork burger formed into the shape of ribs and covered in a barbecue sauce of sorts), refried beans, crackers, cheese spread, peanut butter (which we couldn't eat since the kids are allergic), and an oatmeal cookie.
The contents of the MRE laid out on our picnic table.

In the interest of giving us the best chance of enjoying the meal, I heated up the meat and beans in some boiling water (the pack didn't contain chemical heaters unfortunately).
Two packets covered in water in a frying pan on a camp stove.

Here's what the meat and beans looked like. The beans tasted fine, just like you'd expect canned refried beans to taste like. The "pork rib, boneless, imitation" wasn't as bad as I had feared. Overall the meal tasted like a mid-quality school cafeteria lunch.
A paper plate with refried beans and a slab of meat with some sauce/juices pooling.

That said, once they had a taste of the various parts of the MRE, the boys went back to their hotdogs pretty quickly.
Andrew (13) enjoying a hotdog by the campfire.

Even after this experience, the boys have not renounced their interest in going military, although I think they'll have to broaden their dietary tolerance before they can really make it.

(For the record, the MRE was made by Sopackco and was a civilian version of the MREs they make for the military.)

2010 Oyster Wine Award Winners

Once again, Taylor Shellfish (and my friend Jon Rowley)sponsored the Pacific Coast Oyster Wine Competition to find the best wines to accompany oysters. The best wines are crisp and God-like with fresh oysters. Here are this year's winners:

Listed alphabetically:

Acrobat 08 Pinot Gris (OR)

Anne Amie Vineyards 09 Pinot Gris (OR)

Anne Amie Vineyards Cuvee A 09 Müller-Thurgau (OR)

**Chateau Ste. Michelle Winery 08 Sauvignon Blanc (WA)

CMS White 08 (WA)

*Columbia Winery 08 Pinot Gris (WA)

Franciscan Estates 08 Sauvignon Blanc (CA)

Heitz Wine Cellars 09 Sauvignon Blanc (CA)

*King Estate Winery 08 Pinot Gris (OR)

**Kunde Family Estate 09 Sauvignon Blanc (CA)

* Prior Oyster Award Winner       ** Multiple prior Oyster Awards

I'm sure these are all great, or you can always drink whisky with oysters for my personal favorite food/drink pairing...

Insanely Great Food: Singaporean Hawker Stalls

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A few weeks ago my family and another family went down to Singapore and Indonesia for Spring Break. Michelle and I went to Singapore for our honeymoon many, many years ago. Singapore is one of the best places I've ever eaten in the world thanks to their diverse culture and high standards. Everyone I've ever met from Singapore was a foodie. That said, among the embarrassment of riches in Singapore, since our honeymoon we've both dreamed about the quintessential Singaporean local dining experience: hawker stalls.

These are food centers, like a food court but standalone instead of in a shopping mall (althought there are awesome food courts in Singapore too like Food Republic.) There are dozens of stalls cooking a range of food that mirrors Singapore's diversity: chili crab, pepper crab, satays, grilled seafood, curries, roti, shaved ice, ramen, Chinese vegetables, and more. Other stalls have beers, awesome limeade drinks, and other drinks. Each table has a number on it. You choose a table and then go from shop to shop ordering and leaving your table number. They'll deliver the food, which is when you pay.

Newton Circus is probably the best known and most popular among tourists; it's convenient and very good (and nice on pleasant evenings since they have outdoor seating). However, we really preferred the more local Chomp Chomp. Aside from the obviously awesome name, the food was better and the scene less touristy/pushy. Many, many thanks to our friend Meng who recommended Chomp Chomp and other fantastic places to eat.

The entrance to Chomp Chomp.
Sign of Chomp Chomp Food Centre in Singapore

The scene at Chomp Chomp:
The scene at Chomp Chomp Food Centre in Singapore 

A master at work grilling chicken wings over a wood coal fire; he's using the fan to help control the heat.
Master grilling chicken wings, holding a fan.

Grilled (huge) prawns
Huge grilled prawns split open, with small whole limes.

The most awesome pork and beef satays as they're meant to be: hot, bite-sized, and in quantity.
Plate of skewered pork and beef satays.

This was perhaps the consensus favorite: grilled skate wing covered in sambal sauce (kind of a chili sauce). The bowl of heavenly goodness to the left is peanut sauce for dredging satays though. My mouth is watering as I write this.
Grilled skate wing covered in deep red sambal sauce.

The other thing we really all loved was chili crab, with a side of fried rolls for sopping up every drop of the mind-blowing sauce. Unfortunately, I couldn't hold myself back long enough to take a photo before diving into the messy, spicy treat. Chinese vegetables stir-fried with sambal sauce were also ridiculously good.

Hawker stalls are local food at its best -- inexpensive, a reflection of the society and land, and just plain awesome.

Fatburger opening in China!

We've been eagerly awaiting the opening of Fatburger in Beijing for sometime. Last night, we saw the restaurant -- it opens tomorrow! It's been hard to find a good burger in Beijing, so we're looking forward to their opening.

Happy days...

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Location: Grand Summit in the Liangmaqiao Diplomatic Residence Compound, across from the Kempinski Hotel (and right next to the Liangmaqiao subway stop!)

Press release from Fatburger

World's Best Ramen: Ramen Jirou

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While I was in Tokyo this week, my colleague, friend, and ramen fiend K1 (his name is actually Keiichiro, but since ichiro means one in Japanese, he goes by "K1") took a few of us to his absolute favorite ramen place -- Ramen Jirou.

As it turns out, this shop has a cult-like following among the Japanese. Ramen Jirou is completely different from other ramen places I've been like Ippudo or Kyushu Jangara (some purists don't even consider it to be ramen.) People have compared the place to the restaurant of "Soup Nazi" fame. To begin with, the branch we went to kind of dirty, more like something I'd expect in Beijing, not Tokyo.

There's nothing to order besides ramen -- no gyoza and if you want something to drink besides water, you can buy it from the machine outside. There are only a few seats, and often a half-hour line. You sit when a seat opens up -- no waiting for enough room for your party.

There's only one basic menu choice -- a super-rich pork-based soup with thick and dense noodles (vs. the thin ramen noodles or lighter udon noodels), a few slices of pork, and a pile of cabbage and bean spouts mounded on top. It has none of the classic ramen toppings, no egg, no menma (pickled bamboo shoots), no cod roe. It's not a really visually attractive bowl frankly -- kind of monochromatic and slopped in vs. the carefully composed look of most Japanese food. The only choices are whether you want a big or small bowl with extra meat or not. You buy a chit from a machine that specifies your preference. I ordered a small bowl with a normal amount of noodles and meat. It was 600 yen, a little over USD$6.00.

When the chef hands you the bowl, you specify whether you want garlic, vegetables, more pork fat, and additional soy sauce (K1 says it's too salty with additional soy sauce). You have to order in a specific way, like ordering a latte at Starbucks, or you will be met with derision. (I had to memorize the order in Japanese before I sat down; naturally I had it with everything except the additional soy sauce. You say "yasai, niniku, abura" for "vegetable, garlic, fat") Once the bowl arrives, you eat silently, seemingly as fast as you can. Once complete, you put the bowl on the upper counter, wipe off the counter, and leave quickly.

OMG -- it was fantastic and unlike anything I had ever had. The soup was amazingly rich and tasty with blobs of pork fat suspended in the soup. The noodles were dense and chewy, the meat tender, and the veggies added enough crunch and variety to balance the thing out. A few shakes of white pepper kicked it up even a little more. I slurped up my bowl in a few minutes with a huge grin on my face. There's nothing subtle about it. Just pure porky goodness.

K1 has described the various stages of Ramen Jirou addiction. Early on, other ramens taste wimpy. Apparently at the last stage (the one he's in), you can't think of anything else. He dreams of Jirou incessantly and goes there first whenever he lands in Japan. It's not just K1. There are a lot of write-ups on Ramen Jirou including an NPR story, a CNN article, a Guardian UK article declaring it one of the 50 best things to eat in the world, and more.

I'm fast on my way toward Ramen Jirou addition too.

Some pix:

The line outside Ramen Jirou. All of the official branches have this yellow awning sign.
The line outside Ramen Jirou (the yellow sign).

The scene inside as I look longingly from outside. There are a few few seats at the L-shaped counter and two people working inside.
 Patrons seated at the counter.

This is the machine you order from. The row on top are the small bowls, the lower row is the large bowl. The choice on the right is extra meat.
Vending machine where you order Ramen Jirou.

The master at work. He kind of just slops everything into the bowls. You can see the sliced pork at the bottom.
Ramen Jirou master preparing bowls of love.

The bowl of happiness. It doesn't look like much, but damn, it's good.
Ramen Jirou bowl.

RIP: Motoyama Milk Bar

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As I mentioned in a post a long time ago, my family and I love the Motoyama Milk Bar in the Roppongi Hills mall in Tokyo. Since I'm in Tokyo right now, I thought I'd stop by for a lovely coffee milk and to bring some of their luscious caramels back to my loving family (who would love me a lot more if I brought back Motoyama caramels, I assure you.)

Imagine my surprise when I saw it was closed. Out of business. Kaput. The sign  on the left basically said, "Thanks. Really thanks. We closed on January 17. If you have questions, call this number xxx."

The shuttered entrance to the Motoyama Milk Bar in Tokyo.

Goodbye, MMB! I will always remember your flan, those cute little milk jars, and your cute waitresses...