Haw Berries & Kumquats

Beijing Favorites: Dining at the Salt Merchants 锦府盐帮

Most foreigners in Beijing might think of another salt-themed restaurant, but the Salt Merchants restaurant, by the Purple Bamboo Park, is the only one for me. I could happily go to Jinfu Yanbang (锦府盐帮) anytime for its unique and utterly delicious Zigong cuisine, which you might think of as a regional variation within the varied and diverse cuisines of Sichuan.

Don’t underestimate the power of trade on food: The salt mines of Zigong, in southeastern Sichuan, became a hub of economic and cultural wealth more than 500 years ago. As it prospered, the city attracted merchants, investors and laborers from Yunnan Guizhou, Shanxi, Shaanxi, Guangdong, Jiangxi and more. The result was a distinctive fusion cuisine, refined, spicy and subtle. Perhaps that’s why I like Zigong cuisine so much – it combines some of my favorite foods and flavors from around China.

As might not be surprising for a place devoted to salt mining, Zigong food is big on flavors and seasonings. On a most recent visit, we limited ourselves to ordering mostly cold dishes, due to the smothering hot weather. Here’s what we tried, though it by no means does all of Jinfu Yanbang justice.

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A quest for sausages

I have been preoccupied by a great many things recently, including another trip to Chiang Mai, where I went on a visa run. (The Chinese consulate there is very efficient, friendly and conveniently close to the old city.)

But the real reason (or at least one of them) why I’ve gone to Chiang Mai twice in four months is for the delicious, delicious northern Thai-style sausages.

Following a random hint (from 2004!) I scrounged up on the internet, we went on a quest for what were said to be the best sausages in Chiang Mai. The vague directions led us far to the south of the city, to the eastern bank of the Ping River. But the Sheraton named in the directions had turned into a Holiday Inn, and for a long time we could not see anything that resembled a simple sausage stand.

Finally, just as we were giving up and retiring to a cafe, a small wooden house finally caught our eye. Located just next to the Holiday Inn, it was indeed Amporn Mengrai sausage.

A sausage paradise lies within

And are the Amporn Mengrai sausages worth the hype? YES. They certainly were the best that I had tried in Chiang Mai (and believe me, we had not stinted on our sai ua consumption), though I can’t speak for the entire city. They were also rather expensive, around 50 baht per 100 grams – comparable to restaurant prices. The price is worth it, though, as is the distance, if you’re serious about sausage.

We tried the spicy sausage, which was indeed spicier than the norm, well balanced with the equally enticing flavors of lemongrass and kaffir lime. The texture was firm and moist, and even crunchier than usual – this can be either good or bad, depending on how one feels about texture in food. I liked it, and had we not been leaving Chiang Mai the next day, I would have been back to try to the sausage with “extra cartilage” (partly from pig’s ears, in case you’re wondering).

Amporn is also a great place to buy food souvenirs. There are packaged sausages to go (not sure how well they keep), curry pastes, fried pork rinds,  coffee from Chiang Rai, and more. There are even casings and spice pastes to make your own sausage, though instructions only come in Thai or Japanese.

Amporn Sai Ua Mengrai
Mengrai Memorial Bridge, next to the Holiday Inn and opposite the  Royal Hospital
Tel. 053-141620, 081-9521756
9am-6pm, closed Wednesdays

Here are some of the other delicious things that made us wish we could stay in Chiang Mai forever.

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The Nicest Ice: Beijing’s Best Baobing

There’s little else I’d rather eat on a hot summer’s day than a mountain of shaved ice (刨冰 baobing) – sometimes in lieu of the meal itself. What better way to cool down during a blisteringly hot day in Beijing – or after a spicy chili-laden meal – than a mountain of snowy ice, heaped with all manner of sweets and treats?

Baobing has friends and cousins all over the map, from Hawaiian shave ice to Vietnamese che to Filipino halo halo. In China, shaved takes its lead from Taiwan, where it’s called chua bing (銼冰). Without the heaviness of ice cream, these are even more effective as an instant cool-down – after all, the primary ingredient is ice, and lots of it. They’re also inexpensive, endlessly customizable, and as easily made in a street cart as in a mall.

Fine, fluffy ice with almond tofu at Din Tai Fung

The most important part of a superior baobing is, unsurprisingly, the ice, which should be as fine and powdery as fresh snow. The crystals should not be jagged or shard-like, as in Italian granita, but have an almost fluffy texture, melting in the mouth with the lightest crunch. Taiwanese xuehua bing (雪花冰), or snowflake ice, goes a step further by shaving a block of frozen milk-ice (which may be flavored with fruit). This creates a powder of exceptional fineness, and saves the need for condensed milk later.

Then there’s the toppings: red azuki beans, green mung beans, taro balls, fresh mango, toasted peanuts, coconut milk, grass jelly, the list goes on and on. Almost anything sweet or syrupy can go on a baobing: one is limited only by imagination and availability. With a little planning, it’s even possible to make a whole meal out of it: grass jelly for vegetables, red and green beans for protein, tapioca balls for starch, and condensed milk for dairy and sugar. Even the heat is bearable when it gives you an excuse to have dessert for dinner.

Here’s a run down of some of Beijing’s best places for shaved ice:

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Zao Lajiao (Fermented Chili Pepper Paste)

Nothing says Guizhou to me like zao lajiao (糟辣椒), or fermented chili pepper paste. It exemplifies the best of Guizhou country cooking: homey, simple and bold in flavor. With a few slices of scallions and cloves of garlic, it can transform ordinary ingredients (cabbage! potatoes!) to a beautiful thing of complex spiciness.

Zao lajiao has a distinctive flavor – not only spicy and garlicky, but also with a sweet boozy bite from the bai jiu (high-alcohol Chinese grain liquor) that helps its fermentation. The character 糟 zao means to ferment in rice wine; it can also refer to the dregs of the rice wine, or alternatively, something gone wrong, as in 糟糕 (zaogao) – literally, cake gone bad.

You won’t find zao lajiao in upscale Guizhou restaurants. In Beijing, I go to Junqin Hua (君琴花), near the Art Museum, to satisfy my zao lajiao cravings. You can get almost any vegetable here made with their pepper paste: their zaola bamboo (竹笋 zhusun) is one of my favorite things to eat, ever, while zaola sticky rice cakes (饵块粑) and eggs (鸡蛋 jidan) are also astoundingly good. The zaola potato (土豆 tuduo) is sliced thinly and fried to a golden crisp – arguably better than most potato chips (crisps) sold in China. It really is the touch of magic.

In honor of the Beijinger‘s upcoming Hot Chili Pepper Eating Competition, here’s a recipe for zao lajiao. It’s surprisingly easyas long as you don’t mind pulling the stems off hundreds of peppers (you could also do it in smaller batches, but it’s more efficient to do one large batch).

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Eating Weeds – and the flower of the underworld

It’s a rare chance that we get to appreciate the weird and wondrous ways of nature in the midst of Beijing, but our weekly vegetable deliveries from Therese’s organic farm usually do the trick.

Though Therese’s vegetables are usually quite conventional, every spring she offers ‘wild vegetables’ (野菜 yecai) from her farm, God’s Grace Garden. Last year we ate our way through large bags of thistles and other tough, prickly plants – in all honesty, they should really be called weeds. This year, there was a fresh new round of wild vegetables. Forgetting my thistle lesson from yesteryear, I ordered them all.

plants and 香椿
Therese brought bags of prickly, oddly shaped plants, the dirt still clinging to their roots and their leaves blemished. There were surprisingly familiar ones too: one of them was none other than the humble dandelion.

Left in a bowl of water to soak overnight, the dandelions recovered enough to poke their heads up: an unruly, tangled bouquet. In what seemed like no time, its yellow flowers dissolved into dandelion fluff. Such a wonder had surely never happened in our kitchen?

Later there were many meals of dandelion salad and dandelion hummus, as well as pies (xianbing), eggs and other salads all made with our strange new weedy friends.

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South Asia by way of Sanyuan Qiao: Tamarind

What happens when we watch nothing but Bollywood movies week after week? Strong intermittent cravings for all things India, including, of course, Indian food. That’s when a trip to Tamarind is called for (it’s a little more convenient than Delhi).

Tamarind is a bit unusual for me – it’s located in the Beijing Marriott Northeast Hotel, outside of Sanyuan Qiao – not my regular haunt! But it’s worth braving the staid hotel decor (plastic palm trees in the lobby!) and sterile hotel atmosphere for Tamarind, which I made my expert pick for Best Indian in theBeijinger’s restaurant awards this year.

The head chef, Mangilal Kurly, is from India and previously worked at the Marriott in Mumbai.  The flavors here are vibrant, complex and rich, and the dishes are well-executed, not greasy. Though the menu is (somewhat mercifully) short, there are dishes here that you won’t find elsewhere. And the lunch thali platters (RMB 68-98), available every day of the week, are a great way to try a variety of things, with four dishes, rice and naan.

pappadums and crackers

Curled poppadums, crunchy crackers (very nice) and mango chutney at the start of the meal

One of the first things you notice at Tamarind is the open-air kitchen, with four tandoori ovens and platters of spices, and indeed, the tandoori items are amazing. The murgh malai, chicken marinated in cream cheese and green peppers, is tender, moist and creamy. Though generally I never eat chicken, I couldn’t resist the two succulent pieces that came with the non-vegetarian thali platter (RMB 88).

The thali also contained kade masale ka gosht, chunks of tender lamb cooked in spices, and butter chicken in tomato sauce, which stood out the least. Compared to all the complex Indian dishes one could eat, butter chicken just seems to be a rather bland crowdpleaser. My favorite thali item, after the murgh malai, was the obligatory dal: this time, dal makhai, black lentils in a spicy tomato sauce.

From 12 o'clock clockwise: dal makhani, whole wheat roti, subz handi, kade masale ka gosht, butter chicken, rajma masala, murgh malai

We also ordered two dishes off the menu, which ended up giving us enough food for another meal – portions are surprisingly generous for a hotel restaurant. The subz handi (RMB 48), carrots, peas, and cauliflower in a cashew nut sauce, was creamy, with a surprising little peppery kick lingering after each bite. But the undoubted favorite was the rajma masala (RMB 38), kidney beans in a complex, spicy tomato puree. It went well with rice, and was even better the next day.

My one complaint about Tamarind is that we asked for the dishes that contained chilli peppers to be made extra spicy, but this seemed to have been ignored. Or maybe my senses have dulled after a trip to Thailand? But just look at all these peppers waiting to be used!

Considering that Tamarind is in a hotel, it’s prices are rather reasonable and in the range of other Indian restaurants in Beijing, which are uniformly on the pricey side. (There is a 15% service charge, however.) As long as you don’t go for the lobster or shrimp, most things fall between RMB 38 to 88.

Incidentally, the Chinese name of Tamarind is 梵天 (fantian), which means Brahma, one of the three major gods of Hindu. But I suspect this is not as widely known; as the character 梵 also means relating to Buddhism, most people would interpret it as Buddhist skies or Buddhist heaven. I suppose the Chinese for tamarind, 酸角 (suanjiao), just didn’t sound fancy enough? Meet you at “sour corner” next time the craving strikes.

Tamarind [map]
2/F, Beijing Marriott Hotel Northeast
26A Xiaoyun Lu (outside of Sanyuan Qiao)
Chaoyang District

Snack Snapshot: Sunflower Seed Cakes

sunflower seed cakes
These are one of my favorite snacks when wandering around the hutongs of Beijing. They are almost granola bar-like, and seem to contain nothing more than what you can see and taste: sunflower seeds, honey and a dash of salt. It’s crunchy and nutty, not too sweet, rather perfect for both you and your pet hamster.

I bought this guazi bing (瓜子饼) on Yingtao Xiejie (樱桃斜街), one of the slanted streets that run northeast from the art stores on the eastern side of Liulichang. The vendor told me he made it by coating sunflower seeds in warmed honey, and then letting it set.

For RMB 3, you get a rather lot of sunflower seeds, densely packed (but it’s not so heavy that you can’t eat two at one go). They’re a delicious, inexpensive respite from the ubiquitous starch- or meat-based snacks like lamb kebabs and shaobing. They also seem to be rather healthful, as sunflower seeds are a good source of vitamin E, selenium and magnesium (though I can’t promise that no strange food additives were used!).

I first encountered guazi bing down in Guizhou province, where they were pre-packaged and sold by the side of the road. Since then, I’ve noticed them all around Beijing, where they are usually made fresh, no packaging.

Sunflower Seed cakes

Sunflower seed cakes are never enough to warrant dedication. Instead, these crunchy treats usually share real estate with shaobing, flatbreads (饼 bing), pastries, etc., in small food stalls or those glass-covered boxes that are wheeled around in tricycles. They can also be found in the sheds by the side of the road that sell jianbing, Beijing yogurt in a jug, popsicles, and beverages. But I’ve also, oddly enough, found guazi bing at a few newspaper and magazine vendors (书报亭 shubao ting).

In the photo above, the sunflower seed cakes are surrounded by mahua (麻花, top), tanghuoshao (糖火烧, directly in front), tang’erduo (糖耳朵, in front and to the left), and shaobing (烧饼, left). He also sells whole heads of candied garlic.

Huen Phen Magic

We went to Huen Phen twice during our Chiang Mai trip, and each time, the experience was transformative.

Imagine this: it is 38°C in Chiang Mai. The sun is beating down. The wats are shiny. We’ve been wandering around, looking at things, and getting hotter and sweatier, melting a little more with every step (I may be only speaking for myself here). We have managed to forget that the 7-11s are like mini-Arctics of over-blasted air-conditioning. I become more and more convinced that I am not evolutionarily fit for a post-climate change world.

But, lo, Huen Phen appears on the corner. We slink into its cool dark interior, and (hours later) we emerge energized, well-fed, sanity restored. It’s essentially like plunging into a pool – if pools were full of amazing northern Thai food.

There’s something magical going on here, the strange alchemy of the lunchtime atmosphere. There are counters filled with food and a small army of efficient servers, the chatter of happy eaters, and the myriad dishes of colorful strange delicacies that bedeck every table. There are also fans slowly turning, and the feeling that you could linger for hours, looking at the photos, mementos and knickknacks that line the walls.

The first meal at Huen Phen, we were so mesmerized by the food that all I didn’t even think of photographing anything until the end. We had pork laab, a salad of baby eggplants and this jackfruit with spicy paste.

jackruits with spicy paste

what remains of the amazing jackfruit with spicy paste

Jackfruits are pale yellow, subtle fruits, with the faint sweetness of banana. Here they were shredded and cooked to pungent perfection with little shrimps and even, I believe, tiny, crisp-fried crabs. Was it anything like jackfruit? No. Was it crunchy at odd times? Yes. But was it spicy and incredibly delicious. Yes! We like approve of spicy paste, and want to put it on everything.

The second meal I remembered my camera. There were the much-loved sausages, as well as a fermented bamboo salad, which was good but pales in spiciness and flavor explosion to the salad man behind the Warorot Market. We had also been intrigued by the grilled eggplant with boiled egg, neatly packaged in perky plastic bags, sold at several street stalls. But having not quite mastered how to eat something so wet and formless out of a bag, we gratefully went for this plated option, smoky and rich, like a spicy, herbal baba ganoush.

Grilled eggplant salad
We also had nam prik ong, a classic northern Thai dip of red chilis, pork and tomatoes, served with steamed vegetables and fried pork skins. The dip is sweet from the tomatoes, not at all spicy, and the pork makes it thick and unctuous. I do wonder what that starchy, purple, finger-like tuber is, though?

Finally, to further delay the moment of truth that is going outside, there was a tub tim krob, sometimes called “Thai truffles” or “red rubies” in English. They do look like rubies, though they’re actually made of water chestnuts, rolled in tapioca flour and dyed with food coloring. Eating these are fun: the tapioca outside prepares you for something glutinous, like mochi, but then comes the refreshing crunch of the water chestnut inside the heart of each ruby. And who could resist iced sweet coconut milk?

tub tim krob, or sweet coconut soup with water chestnuts
Part of our Huen Phen ritual seems to involve sitting for as long as possible, drinking iced tea while watching parties of diners come and go. Ogling their food and wondering if we should have ordered those fried spare ribs too (yes). Another, better ritual we evolved was to go to Wat Chedi Luang after lunch. It’s about as wonderful as an afternoon could be.

Wat Chedi Luang

Huen Phen
112 Thanon Rachamankha
Chiang Mai, Thailand

Sup Nawmai (and chicken too)

Sup nawmai was one of my favorite dishes in Chiang Mai, and no surprise: it’s got a winning combination of bamboo shoots and chili pepper.

This spicy salad of fermented bamboo can be found at places that serve Isaan, or northeastern, styles of food. It’s usually pounded with a mortar and pestle, which is a delight to watch.

(On a side note, I wonder if there is any distant relationship between sup nawmai and the sour fermented bamboo dishes favored by Yunnan Dai people.)

We tried several versions of sup nawmai, one at a night market food stall that we requested to make more spicy (phet mak mak), and another at Huen Phen, which almost seemed mild by comparison. But our favorite was definitely the one recommended by Eating Asia, their “somtam man” down in the alley behind the Warorot Market.

One bite, and we realized that we, too, were in love. The bamboo is crunchy and lightly sweet, with an added complexity from the fermentation. The spice burned in a pleasant, intoxicating way (I asked for more chilis again) – and actually, I have no idea what else was in it, but I could have happily continued eating this all day.

We might have drank up the dressing after finishing the bamboo. I was sad when the plate was empty. I wanted to come back day after day, and try every single thing.

We also ordered the grilled chicken (gai yang) from a few stalls down, which was about the most amazing grilled chicken I have ever eaten (full disclosure: I haven’t eaten chicken regularly for about 8 years). But in defense of my recommendation, this chicken was crisp in all the right places and moist and tender in all the other places. There was not a dry bit anywhere. Visually, it also looked far better than grilled or roasted chicken specimens I have seen in Beijing.

There were several pieces in a plastic bag, and it was so transcendent that I forgot to take a picture (and my hands were greasy). There was also a very good dipping sauce in a small plastic bag, and we had a hard time figuring out how to use this excellent sauce without it spilling everywhere. We managed, somehow. It was, as I said, transcendent.

Details of the somtam man’s location and other offerings, as well as more excellent Chiang Mai recommendations, can be found on Eating Asia.

Pork- and spice-high in Chiang Mai

Thailand had never been very high on my list of places to visit: it’s taken me nearly five years of  living in China to make the relatively short trip. And now I see that I have been terribly wrong – as soon as my plane landed in Beijing and the last Kop khun ka of the Thai Airways flight attendants faded in my ears, I was already missing Thailand, and thinking of all the things I would do on my next visit.

We divided our time between Ko Lanta, in Krabi province, where I rediscovered what rain was like again, and Chiang Mai. Friends who return year after year to this northern city had already told us much about the delicious food here. But I wasn’t expecting was that I would fall so hard for the Thai chilli peppers, and such simple things as … sausage.

Sausage vendor at the Somphet Market

At the Somphet Market

Usually the voice of  moderation to Beijing’s Chili Pepper King, I found myself going after one sharp, burning pepper after another: green or red, pickled, roasted, or fresh. I find Thai peppers to burn hotter yet more pleasantly than their Chinese cousins. It’s a very enjoyable kind of pain that clears your mind even as your mouth is all a-tingle. A lucid fire.

Chiang Mai’s porky ways also turned my head, even though I rarely eat meat in my everyday meals in Beijing. Perhaps that’s because it really makes a difference to have quality meat, prepared with attention to detail and good spices?

From tender, fall-apart pork belly in a sweet, sour, spicy curry of tamarind, peanuts, and turmeric (kaeng hang lae), to grilled pork from the Sunday walking market, with an outstanding green chilli dip, every meal was a revelation for me one way or another?

Most astounding of all was my first bite in Chiang Mai: That first morning, we had staggered out of our hotel without breakfast, and walked across the old city. Eventually, we found ourselves standing outside of Wat Chiang Man, wanting to go in but aware of our growling bellies. Fortunately, just across the street was a young woman who had just gotten her grill started: she had bananas, rice wrapped in banana leaves, what looked to be chicken, and dark lengths of sausage. In a few seconds, half a sausage was ours for 5 baht.

And this was the most amazing sausage I had ever eaten. Fresh off the grill, the sausage brought together an intense melange of flavors – lemongrass, kaffir lime, chili peppers and more that I can’t name. I had never known that sausages could taste like this, better than any Nürnberg Rostbratwurst or limp and pasty Weißwurst.

We devotedly sampled other examples of sai ua, or northern Thai sausage, during our time in Chiang Mai: some were just okay, too lightly spiced, and some were really quite good. But none matched that glory of the first sausage (or could our desperate hunger have colored our enjoyment?).

Sausage from the Somphet Market

Sai ua from the Somphet Market

This sausage was purchased from the woman (first picture) just around the corner from the Somphet Market, on the corner of Moon Mueang Rd and its Soi 6. It was good and spicy, with a crisp skin, but it was slightly too firm, and I missed the in-your-face bits of lemongrass that had made the first sausage so distinctive.

Northern-style sausage at Huen Phen

Northern-style sausage, with shredded ginger, at Huen Phen

The sai ua at Huen Phen, one of my favorite restaurants in Chiang Mai (more on that later), was even more delicious, so generously stuffed with herbs that the sausage slices were starting to fall apart. With the slivers of ginger, red chili dip, and a knob of sticky rice, this was a perfect meal.

Since then, I’ve read about more excellent examples of sausages at Warorot Market and on Chang Klan, and even other types and varieties of sausage. I know what’s in store: more trips to Chiang Mai so that I can undertake a full study of sai ua and all its pork-related wonders.

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