Behind the Scenes in a Chinese Restaurant

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As much as I love to eat Chinese food, I had never really been into the kitchen of a big restaurant. Small restaurants, sure, you can hardly not see the kitchen. I joke with my students (with a serious undertone), to not look back into the kitchen at a Chinese restaurant. Just enjoy the food and don’t worry about where it came from. Chinese kitchens may not be the model of sanitary practices.

Last year I was visiting with an old friend in Nanjing, and as usual he and his wife invited me out to eat. He is a 23rd generation Chinese Muslim and is very well connected with the Muslim community in Nanjing. He knows all the best Muslim restaurants and has a personal relationship with all the owners. On this occasion we ate at the excellent 奇芳阁 qífānggé restaurant at Fuzi Miao fūzi miào in the southern part of the city. This restaurant has a long history and offers excellent Muslim Chinese food. (More on Muslim food in China in another post).

Knowing my interest in Chinese food and culinary culture, my friend introduced me to the head manager of the restaurant as well as the head chef. They then gave me a tour of the kitchen and graciously allowed me to take photos. The lighting was not good, and I struggled to get good exposures, so the photos are not great. But I think they are interesting. I suppose the kitchen was not too different from any restaurant kitchen—busy, loud, and a bit chaotic at times with waiters and waitresses coming and going.

A line of woks

A line of woks

From wok to platter

From wok to platter

The prep and assembly area

The prep and assembly area

Fish

Fish

 

Soup

Soup

Ingredients

Ingredients

The steaming station

The steaming station

Dishes ready to go

Dishes ready to go

More fish

More fish

Quail

Quail

With the head chef

With the head chef

Our delicious dinner

Our delicious dinner

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

China Street Photography

You have probably noticed by now that I enjoy photography. Whenever I am in China (or just about anywhere) I have a camera with me. The following are a few shots I took on my last trip in October/November 2013, on the streets of Nanjing, Beijing, and Tianjin. To see more of my photography, visit my Flickr site using the link on the right side of the page.

Not that into you.

Not that into you.

Street snacks

Street snacks

Nanjing specialty

Nanjing specialty

Taiwan food on the Mainland

Taiwan food on the Mainland

Bunnies anyone?

Bunnies anyone?

Delivery bike

Delivery bike

Yellow hoods

Orange hoods

Hard boiled eggs, Chinese style

Hard boiled eggs, Chinese style

Beijing breakfast

Beijing breakfast

Hutong

Hutong

Hutong grandma

Hutong grandma

Hutong life

Hutong life

Big celery

Big celery

Leeks

Leeks

For Rent

For Rent

Catholic church in Tianjin

Catholic church in Tianjin

Chiu Gompa Monastery in Western Tibet

Yak skulls

In May of this year (2012) I traveled to the small Chiu Gompa Monastery built into the cliffs on a hill on the shores of Lake Manasarovar in Western Tibet, (on the way to Mt. Kailash).  It is located a short distance from the small town of Darchen at the base of Mt. Kailash. It is about a 900 km drive from Lhasa and usually takes about four days.

Western Tibet is remote, rugged, windy, and cold. It is much more rural than Central and Eastern Tibet. The people of this rugged area dress in long thick robes to protect themselves from the constant wind and cold. The woman all wear the distinctive fuchsia scarves around their heads.

Chiu Gompa Monastery on the shores of Lake Manasarovar

The monastery is built right into the cliffs. There is an ancient shrine in a cave here dating back to the 8th Century. It is a very interesting monastery and an important stop for many pilgrims. Most Tibetan Pilgrims will come to this area for two very important pilgrimages; 1) to circumnavigate Lake Manarsarovar and visit the several monasteries around the lake, and 2) to circumnavigate holy Mt. Kailash.

The several monastery buildings are built right into the rocky hill

The monastery library; Buddhist scriptures are stored on these shelves

Modest monks quarters

We spent about 2 hours wandering around the monastery complex. While most of the others in my group descended down to the Land Cruisers, I followed some pilgrims and did a circumnavigation of the entire monastery complex.

Pilgrims circumnavigating the Chiu Gompa Monastery

Lake Manasarovar from the hilltop Chiu Gompa Monastery

There were quite a few pilgrims at this monastery on the day we were visiting. The motorcycle has practically replaced the horse in most areas of Tibet. There was a big group of motorcycles there that pilgrims had ridden. They were packed with tents, clothing, food, and all sorts of things. Tibetans like to decorate their motorcycles and trucks with colorful decorations.

The next set of photos are of the many pilgrims and shrines at the monastery.

Typical dress of women in Western Tibet

She was taking photos with her cell phone

As I wandered around this monastery I was again struck by the religious devotion of the Tibetan people. They make great sacrifices to make these pilgrimages. It made me rethink my own devotion and commitment to my beliefs. I have always felt a sense of calm, peace, and a distance from the troubles of the world whenever I am at a Buddhist monastery. Even though I am not Buddhist, I feel the sacredness of these special places. It is a blessing for the Tibetans to have these holy places of worship.

The Pilgrims of Tibet

Typical pilgrims with prayer wheels

One of the striking things about Tibet is the religious devotion of many of the people. At every temple and monastery there are throngs of Tibetan pilgrims paying their respects, praying, prostrating, replenishing the butter lamps, and making cash donations. It seems that there are more women pilgrims than men, but you see all ages, but mostly adults.

This first series of photos were taken at the various Buddhist temples and monasteries in Lhasa, Gyantze, and Sakya. Most of the women in this part of Tibet wear a colorful apron. It is common practice for pilgrims to circumnavigate the temple complexes, spinning their prayer wheels, and spinning the many large prayer wheels that are placed around the perimeter of these complexes. Pilgrims often travel long distances to various monasteries to pay their respects and gain merit for their devotion. I saw many groups of pilgrims eating picnic lunches on the grounds of these monasteries.

This woman was actually begging outside the Sera Monastery in Lhasa

The Road to Kailash: A drive across the Tibetan Plateau

Somewhere in Western-central Tibet

We drove 1,436 km (892 miles) from Lhasa to the small town of Darchen at the base of Mt. Kailash. This was not the shortest route, but it was the route we took. We drove for four days. The first day we drove south out of Lhasa to Shigatze. Just outside of Lhasa we crossed the Brahmaputra or Tsangpo-Brahmaputra River. It originates in Southwestern Tibet, cuts south through the Himalayas, runs through India and Bangladesh before flowing into the Bay of Bengal. This high up it was quite a small river, not too impressive. But this was also early in the season. By August it swells to several times this size due to the monsoon rains.

The Brahmaputra River a few miles outside Lhasa

We drove high into the mountains crossing three high passes, the highest of which was 16,500′. Tall heavily glaciated peaks, probably around 20,000′ high soared above the highway in places. On the way to Shigatse we stopped in the town of Gyantse and visited the Pachu Monastery, built in 1418. In Shigatse we visited the Tashi Lhunpo Monastery. The next day we drove from Shigatze to Lhatse. The third day we drove to Sakya, then camped outside Saga. and the fourth day we drove to Lake Manasarovar and camped along its shores. On the fifth day we drove a short distance (about an hour) to the town of Darchen where we began our kora, or circumambulation around Mt. Kailash.

The first night we stayed in a hotel; the second night in a Tibetan guesthouse, and the rest of the time we camped out in tents. We would find a meadow on the outskirts of a small town and set up camp. Our party of seven had two Toyota Landcruisers, with two Tibetan drivers and our Tibetan guide.

The Landcruisers and our drivers outside Lhasa

Our Tibetan guide

Though Tibet is a bleak and barren land, it was stunning. We passed countless mountains, long straight highway, winding switchbacked highway, high mountain passes, lakes, dozens of small towns, truck stops, nomad camps, lush green meadows, herds of yaks, fields of barley and some wildlife. Below are my memories of this wild and lonely land. Click on the photos to enlarge them.

Lhasa is below but out of sight in the plain below

Long straight highway

There are lots of yaks all over the Tibetan Plateau; they cannot live below about 8,000′

More yaks

Our camp outside the small town of Saga

Unnamed mountains above our camp

Nomad tents

Nomads herding yaks

Ploughing and planting barley

Tibetan woman walking along the highway; in rural Tibet, people do a lot of walking

Barley growing at 14,500′

Tibetan Mastiff; they are truly huge and imposing

Tibetans seldom eat fish, so the lakes are full of them

Mountain and lake

Truck stop in Western Tibet simply called Area 22

There are Sichuan restaurants literally in every city and town in Tibet

Billiards is popular all across the Plateau

Public transport in rural areas is piling onto the back of a tractor

The Tibetan Plateau is about 15,000′ high; the sun is very intense and it is very dry

A wild Tibetan donkey, called a kiang

Tibetan black-necked crane

Lunch break

On one of the higher passes, 17,096′

The Himalayan Range in Southwestern Tibet

Mountain above Lake Manasarovar

Lake Manasarovar outside my tent door at sunset

Sunset over Lake Manasarovar

Camp at sunset near the town of Zhongba

The Doors and Windows of Tibet’s Monasteries

When I was in Tibet in May, we visited quite a few Tibetan Buddhist monasteries. I am fascinated by doors, and to a lesser extent windows. I’m not sure what draws me to these colorful doors; it probably has something to do with what lies behind them. I found myself so many times wandering around a monastery and wondering what was behind some lonely door. I wished I could wander at will, especially at the magnificent Potala Palace in Lhasa. It is almost like a small city with countless halls and rooms. Of course, the tourists are only allowed to see a very small portion of them.

The doors and windows in this post are only a portion of what I shot. They are mostly brightly colored, though some of the out of the way doors look neglected, and used. They are in no particular order, and are from the following monasteries:

Lhasa:   Jokham Monastery, Drepung Monastery, Sera Monastery, Potala Palace

Gyantze:   Pochu Monastery

Shigatze:   Tashi Lhunpo Monastery

Sakya:   Sakya Monastery

I thought about labeling where each photo was shot, but I decided it probably doesn’t matter. If you would really like to know where a door or window was shot, send me a message and I’l let you know.

Yangzhou Dimsum

蒸饺 zhēngjiǎo (Steamed dumplings)

In late February and early March of this year I was in Nanjing doing some work for our language program there. I extended my stay a few days to do some food and eating research. This area of China, the lower Yangtze River valley, is where you find Huaiyang Cuisine (淮扬菜 huáiyáng cài). The name comes from the Yangtze and Huai Rivers. This is one of the eight major cuisines of China (八大菜系 bādà càixì). I have spent quite a bit of time in Nanjing, and have traveled to Shanghai on occasion. I have also been to Suzhou, Hangzhou, and Yangzhou, but I had never really explored in much depth real Huaiyang Cuisine. On this trip, in addition to visiting the city of Huai’an, I spent a couple days in Yangzhou, eating. I had a Chinese colleague and good friend with me. Not only is he a real Chinese foodie, but he is also very familiar with the city of Yangzhou.

Yechun Teahouse, Yangzhou

In this post I want to focus only on Yangzhou style dimsum (点心 diǎnxīn), or breakfast food. I am quite familiar with Cantonese style dimsum from my time in Hong Kong and Guangzhou. To be honest I didn’t know that dimsum (even using this term) existed outside Cantonese food (粤菜 yuècài). On our first morning in Yangzhou, my friend took me to probably the second most famous restaurant (at least for dimsum) in Yangzhou, 冶春茶社 yěchūn cháshè. I was completely blown away, and have to rank this as one of the most spectacular meals I have eaten in China, and I have eaten countless meals in China.

Yechun Teahouse in Yangzhou

Though the restaurant has a very long history, it had been remodeled in traditional style. It sits on one the many canals in Yangzhou and was a favorite stop for emperors touring the Southern part of the kingdom. Unlike some Chinese restaurants, it was clean and very nice, bordering on swanky.

Yechun Teahouse

Decor at Yechun Teahouse

We started with a couple appetizers. My mother always told me that you can tell a good restaurant by the little things like appetizers and side dishes. A good quality restaurant will spend time to make excellent little dishes, not just the main dishes. We had boiled peanuts and red peppers with garlic. The peppers had a fantastic flavor seasoned with fresh garlic and a hint of vinegar. The peanuts were crunchy, just a little salty, and had a faint hint of vinegar. It’s hard to describe this very simple dish. Who would think eating plain old peanuts would be very good, but I assure you the Chinese have elevated the peanut to haute cuisine. The were so good we had our little appetizer dishes refilled twice.

Peanuts and red pepper appetizers

One of the first things that struck me about the dumplings were how big they were. Most Cantonese dimsum dishes are quite small. The steamed jiaozi were enormous in comparison. The were freshly made right next to the dining room and were succulent and full of flavor. They had just the right amount of oil, being tender and juicy without feeling the least bit greasy.

Making 蒸饺 zhēngjiǎo (steamed dumplings)

蒸饺 zhēngjiǎo

Fabulous!

I also had a kind up dumpling that I had not eaten before, though I had heard about them. Think of a very large dumpling filled with a delicious broth and tiny bits of minced meat and you have Yangzhou style 汤包 tāngbāo. It is served with a small straw. Simply poke the straw into the dumpling and slurp out the rich, flavorful broth. Then eat the dumpling. Not only is it a creative way to serve a rich broth, it was absolutely delicious. The menu name of those that we ate were called, 蟹黄汤包 xìehuáng tāngbāo. In this case it was a rich crab-based broth. They reminded me a bit of Shanghai style 小笼包 xiǎolóngbāo.

汤包 tāngbāo (Soup dumpling)

Slurping up the rich broth

Yangzhou is famous for their pastries, though they are not much like what we call pastries in the West. They are called 酥饼 sūbǐng and have a flaky and crispy, yet tender texture. They can be sweet or savory. We ordered  萝卜丝酥饼 luóbosī sūbǐng or shredded carrot sūbǐng. Yangzhou Subing are made with white sesame seeds on the outside, both the sweet and savory kinds.

萝卜丝酥饼 luóbosī sūbǐng (Shredded carrot cakes)

The pastry was wonderfully crispy and flaky. In addition to shredded carrots, there was also some turnips and green onion. They were addictively good. In fact each dish was so good, I would have been happy just eating more of the same.

We next had a beautiful and delicious 烧麦 shāomài. This is a common Cantonese dimsum dish, usually written as siumai. They are a stuffed steamed dumpling. We ordered 翡翠烧麦 fěicuì shāomài, which basically means jade or emerald shaomai. They were exquisite to look at and to eat. It was obviousl that this restaurant took great pride in using very fresh ingredients. One of the ways you can tell nicer Chinese restaurants from others is the amount of grease in the food. Crummier restaurants tend to have pretty greasy, oily dishes, but since nicer restaurants use higher quality ingredients they don’t need to hide things in a lot of oil.

翡翠烧麦 fěicuì shāomài (Green steamed dumplings)

Finally, we ordered 千层油糕 qīancéng yóugāo, which was a layered cake. The Chinese are not too fond of sweets so their desserts tend to be much less sweet than what we are used to in the West. This was a slightly sweet layered cake, that was pretty good, as long as you were not expecting Western-cake-sweet. It was light and airy.

千层油糕 qīancéng yóugāo (Layered cake)

This was truly a spectacular meal for me. And it was a revelation to eat such wonderful dimsum outside of Hong Kong and Guangdong Province. I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Yangzhou. In fact, I loved this dimsum so much, I went to another pretty well-known restaurant by myself the next morning to try some more dishes. I was not disappointed.

Chinese food is so varied and delicious that eating is what I most look forward to when I travel to China.