Sunday, September 21, 2008

The Real China

I remember having a conversation with my friend Dave awhile back. Dave lived outside of Tianjin for a few years and in this one conversation he was expressing how he didn't like Beijing or Shanghai because they weren't the "real" China. I took mild offense at his words because I had lived in Shanghai so it felt like he was saying that I hadn't really experienced China. The point I made at the time (and hold to even now) is that China is a multi-faceted place. China is both the new and the old; big modern cities and little provincial country towns, luxury import cars and bikes that are 20 years old, wealth and poverty, capitalism and communism. So in my opinion, cities like Beijing and Shanghai are the "real" China... but only one side of it.

Carri, Pippa, and I outside Hua Shan. (Notice the nasty air.)

Xi'an is a great example of the other side of China. It's dirty, polluted, messy, poor. It's not the modern, clean developed face that China likes to present to the world. Scratch the surface of any Chinese city and you are bound to find the poor underbelly of modern China - migrant workers, disadvantaged minorities, crippling poverty. In Xi'an however, I feel like there is no effort made to disguise or hide this reality.

I really like Xi'an. I think the reason for this stems from the fact that I like places that have an obvious historical heritage. Places where the long road from antiquity to the modern day is still on display. Xi'an was the ancient capitol of China and the terminus for the Silk Road. Unlike most modernized (or modernizing Chinese cities), Xi'an's ancient city wall is still completely intact. Unusual for a Chinese city so far to the east, it also has a large Muslim population, and therefore, an interesting and vibrant Muslim Quarter. I was thrilled to have an opportunity to return to Xi'an on this trip (I first visited there in 2001) and while I think Christy was thrilled to leave, my desire to return again has not abated in the least.

The Terracotta Warriors

The two highlights of our 3 days in Xi'an, at least for me, were visiting Hua Shan (more on that in a moment) and the food. On the food front, I loved being able to buy fresh, obviously locally-grown, produce. Top of my list were pomegranates (so sweet and so fresh), sweet potatoes, and macadamia nuts.

About to chow down on a pomegranate.

Our first day in Xi'an we checked into the hotel, freshened up a bit, and then headed out to the Terracotta Warriors. Along the way we passed groves of pomegranate trees and when we arrived at the warriors I was delighted to find numerous merchants selling fresh pomegranates outside the gates. Before heading back into town at the end of the day, we each bought a few pomegranates that we munched on over the next few days. 

Wood carving at a historical home in Xi'an.

Other food favorites from Xi'an included roasted sweet potatoes (one of my all-time favorite street foods), and the local Muslim food like yang rou pao mo (a lamb soup), sesame noodles, and a ground beef flat bread sandwich. At the very top of my list however, were the stir-fried noodles I picked up at a mini-night market heading back to our hotel after 2 hour massages one night. The girl making the noodles looked to be about 16 but she had her system down to a science. It was so much fun to watch her throw various ingredients into her wok, and then moments later be presented with a steaming hot bowl of incredibly tasty noodles. I think I could eat those every day.

Our favorite server at the Muslim restaurant.

Food aside, a definite highlight of the trip was visiting Hua Shan. Almost everything we did during our two weeks in China were things I have done before. I was perfectly happy to revisit cities/places because I wanted to share my favorite parts of China with my closest friends. However, it was a lot of fun to do one thing that was a new experience for all of us.

The somewhat terrifying ride up on the cable car.

Hua Shan is one of Taoism's five sacred mountains and is a major tourist attraction within China. It is also considered one of the most dangerous mountains in China. Per an information card at our hotel, it is known as the "mountain of extreme peril". At the ticket booth they give you the option of purchasing life insurance for 5 yuan (approximately 80 cents) along with your entrance ticket. Of course, I couldn't help but think that if I fell off the mountain my proof of insurance would fall right along with me.

Carri on Hua Shan.

As we were short on time we opted to ride the cable car to the top. At the top there are five peaks you can hike to. We spent almost 3 hours on Hua Shan and we only managed to make it to one, Central Peak. It was more than a little bit embarrassing to constantly find myself being passed by women in heels, 8 year old children, entire families (including grandparents)... when it comes to physical fitness as a societal ethos, China pretty much has America's butt kicked.

Chains of locks on Hua Shan.

One of the elements of our visit to Hua Shan that I loved the most was being able to participate in a tradition that is practiced on the mountain. Visitors to the mountain can buy padlocks from any number of vendors on the mountain. They will engrave the lock with a loved one's name. Then you find a section of chain on a part of the mountain that appeals to you (the chains are everywhere so this is not hard to do), lock your padlock there, say a prayer for your loved one while holding the key, and then toss the key off the mountain. This act signifies that the blessing/prayer you have requested for your loved one will never be removed. I thought it was lovely and had a lock engraved with my mother's name.

More locks.  More view.

My trip recap aside you may be wondering if I have a recipe for you today. Good news! I do. The recipe for today is my attempt to recreate a dish we had the day we visited Hua Shan. We ended up eating lunch at a little restaurant in the town next to the mountain and this dish aside, the rest of the meal was pretty disastrous. It's the only meal from our trip that I look back on with a shudder. However, when we sat down I noticed that they had some roasted sweet potatoes sitting out where I could see them. Once the waitress saw my interest/adoration she promised to make us a house specialty with the sweet potatoes. I didn't know what would come out, but was delightfully surprised when a plate of sweet potato fries covered in caramelized sugar hit the table. Delicious! (Although admittedly, not too healthy.)

Christy enjoying sweet potatoes during our lunch outside Hua Shan.

Caramelized Sweet Potatoes

Potatoes (adapted from Cook's Country, June/July 2008):
1 c. cornstarch
3/4 c. club soda
2 lbs. sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/2" x 1/4" lengths
Peanut or vegetable oil for frying - my fryer uses 1 gallon of oil... if you are using a Dutch oven you will probably only need 2 quarts

Adjust oven rack to the middle position and heat oven to 200 degrees F.

Heat oil to 375 degrees F. While oil is heating, whisk cornstarch and club soda in a medium bowl. Place a cooling rack in the sink. Working in small batches, dip sweet potatoes in cornstarch mixture, allowing excess to drip back into the bowl and then place dipped potatoes on the rack in the sink.

When oil is ready, fry half of the potatoes, stirring occasionally, until golden brown and crisp, approximately 6-8 minutes. Drain fries on paper towel-lined baking sheet and transfer to oven. Return oil to 375 and repeat with remaining fries.

Caramel (adapted from Classic Chinese Cooking by Nina Simonds):
1 1/2 c. sugar
1/2 c. water

Combine the sugar and water in a heavy saucepan. Heat slowly until the sugar has dissolved, stirring occasionally. Once the sugar has dissolved however, do not stir. Continue cooking the mixture over medium heat, occasionally brushing down the sides of the pan with a brush dipped in water (this will prevent crystals from forming). When the mixture has turned a light golden color (310 degrees F on a candy thermometer) and a chopstick dipped in the caramel spins a thin thread when lifted from the caramel, turn the heat to the lowest setting.

Prepare a large bowl with cold water and ice. Remove the fries from the oven. Working in small batches, dip the fries in the caramel and then immediately dip them in the water (this will harden the caramel coating). Place on a serving platter and continue until all the potatoes have been caramelized. Serve immediately.

The finished product.

Note: I don't work with caramel very often (read: never), so didn't really know what I was doing and thus learned a few important lessons the hard way. The biggest lesson was the need to keep the caramel on a low heat source so that it stays liquid. As soon as you are done dipping the fries, toss the caramel (tricky... not sure what to say as it will still be mighty hot... maybe dump it in a disposable aluminum pan) and rinse your pot immediately. I did not do this and as a result was treated to the joy of spending a good 20 minutes scrubbing hardened caramel out of my saucepan. Not fun. Second lesson, I made this alone mostly because I wanted to figure out the recipe so I could get it up on the blog. However, this would be a great desert to make with friends. You can invite everyone to dip their own sweet potatoes... almost like fondue.


Adam said...

Any idea where to find the recipe for the lamb soup?

Shannon said...

Adam, I'm trying to find it because man, it was good.