Fresh Lychee – Forget The Canned Version


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I’ve previously posted about longan, or dragon eyes, and it’s time I introduced their better known relative: lizhi, or lychee. Some of you probably have had them canned in syrup – please erase everything you think you know if this is the only way you’ve tasted them. They are so much better than that when fresh!

Lychee are the fruit of Litchi chinensis, a subtropical tree that originated in and is cultivated all across Southeast Asia. Lychees are very popular fresh or in desserts like jellies in China, Vietnam, India, and other Southeast Asian countries, and like longan come in a hard rind that you peel to reveal succulent white flesh.

The fruit is juicy, soft, very sweet and just to die for. It will also get you sticky in that happy way you may associate with lapping up syrup with pancakes. Mmm.

They are also extremely healthy at a whopping 9mg of Vitamin C per tiny fruit – that means you need just 9 fruit, or about 115 grams, to cover your daily need! Lychee also contain a wide variety of minerals, most notably copper, phosphorus and potassium as well as a good deal of fiber. And all that at 8.5 kcal per fruit! (Think about it: 9 fruit amount to 75 kcal, 100% of your daily Vitamin C, and a ton of sweet, sticky goodness. Who could resist?)

I loved fresh lychee, although it was the very, very tail end of their season, so they weren’t as ubiquitous as I would have liked. What are some of your seasonal treats that you can’t resist? Are any of them good for you? Also, have you had fresh lychee, and did you like it?

A Buddhist Monk’s Meal – Jieyin Hall On Mount Emei


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Perhaps because of the Holiday season and all its indulgences and elaborate meals, I really find myself wanting to post about a wonderful meal I enjoyed on Mount Emei, one of the sacred Buddhist mountains in China.

While in Sichuan, we decided to hike up Mt. Emei, sleep at the top, and witness the sunrise on the Golden Summit, a spectacle that the Chinese flock to and that is really amazing to behold. Within about 2 minutes, you see the sun appear and fully rise above the horizon, bathing a Golden Pagoda on the summit in sparkling light. Lots of ooohs and aaahs and pictures!

But first things first – we hiked up Mt. Emei. This entailed waking up before the sun had risen, taking a bus to the base of the mountain, and climbing 23.5 kilometers (14.6 miles) of stairs, crossing a 3 kilometer (1.9 mile) height difference and a 23 degree Celsius (35 degree Fahrenheit) temperature difference. It took us 11 hours, sweat, bamboo poles as walking sticks (best 1 yuan we ever, ever spent!), desperate jokes and jello legs, but we made it. While some areas are accessible by cable car and teem with visitors, the vast majority of those 11 hours we spent alone, with the exception of 3 or so hours in the company of a total of maybe 15 Chinese people of all ages that were just as desperate as us. We arrived just as the sun was setting at Jieyin Hall, the last temple before the summit.

At the temple, we were shown to a room with beds with piles and piles of blankets and heating pads, as well as a wash bowl to take in the morning to wash. Then, we had a temple food – simple, vegetarian, wholesome, and beyond delicious.

There was rice, steamed winter melon (the cucumber-esque looking dish), a simple leafy green soup, stir-fried string beans (I ate 3 plates. What? They were the best string beans I have ever tasted, and I had just climbed 11 hours worth of stairs!) and boiled bamboo sprouts with mushrooms. It was a feast, we could have as much as we wanted, and I can’t begin to explain how wonderful this simple, Bhuddist meal was. No bells and whistles, no fancy ingredients – just beautiful produce prepared in the simplest ways to make it shine. Sometimes I wish more meals were like this.

Will you miss Holiday foods, or are you ready for a break from fancy meals? Have you had similar experiences with spiritually shaped dishes?

Balsamic Vinegar Roasted Red Beets (& Carrots)


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One of the foods I definitely avoided when growing up in Germany were red beets. Messy and just not desirable to me. In Germany, we eat these mostly raw as they are, raw in salads, or as a cooked compote-type dish. Neither held much appeal to me, and I pretty much managed to forget about their existence once I moved out, with the sole exception of the traditional Weihnachtssalat.

My CSA has been giving me bucket loads of beets, however, so I had to figure out something to do with them:

– red beets
– carrots
– balsamic vinegar
– sweetener

Peel and cube beets & carrots into 1/2 inch cubes. If available, wear gloves (I bring them home from the lab), unlike me during my brilliant first effort (although it’s a nice match with my nail polish, no?):

2. Keep the two vegetables separate, and toss each with 1/4 cup balsamic vinegar mixed with 1/2 packet of sweetener.

3. Still separate, roast in a glass baking dish at 375F for 1 hour.

4. Mix the two and serve as a wonderfully sweet, earthy and vibrant side dish!

On a side note: I discovered Chioggia beets, a wonderful Italian variety that is a tad milder and sweeter than your average red beet, and looks psychedelic pretty to boot!

These also taste great prepared this way, and don’t even need the addition of carrots:

What are some childhood foods you abhorred and have now rediscovered in different ways?

What other good beet recipes should I try?

Chinese Loquat – A Sichuan Delicacy


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One of the fruit we saw everywhere in Sichuan and almost nowhere else in China was pipagao, or loquat.

Pipagao, also known as Chinese plum, is not technically a plum but rather the fruit of a shrub, Eriobotrya japonica, that grows all over Sichuan province. The fruit are yellow to orange, grow in clusters and are slightly smaller than plums. They are sweet, srcumptuos and juicy, and contain one to five dark brown seeds the size of small marbles.

In Sichuan, you can buy them from the roadside, from fruit vendors and street carts, for almost nothing at all. They are considered a great delicacy and are available in 10 pound boxes that were everywhere at airports on inner-Chinese luggage carts – everyone was bringing them where ever they went as presents or for family members. Once packaged in these decorative boxes, the prices skyrocket to substantial even for Westerners, by the way.

Since we were in Sichuan, where they were budget-friendly, I indugled.
Oh, I did.
Boy, did I ever.
I even bought some on the way up the sacred Buddhist mountain Emei, and ate them on temple steps while petting a temple kitty. Absolutely perfect. I’d describe the flavor as something like a peach-plum mixture with a bit of acidity that manages not to take away from their incredible sweetness.

Nutritionally speaking, loquats are excellent sources of Vitamin A, fiber, potassium and manganese, while also being extremely low in sodium. A win-win situation when something so healthy tastes so good! And even better? 8 calories per fruit. Yep. I promise, you won’t regret trying them if you can ever get your hands on them!

Chinese Soups – A Tiny Sampling Of A Vast Menu


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Soups, or tang, play a huge role in the Chinese menu – they are served at breakfast and every other meal. Typically, there is a whole soup section on even a small street eatery’s menu, and contrary to the concept of a soup as a starter, it is treated as a main dish and comes in a huge bowl that will serve 2 to 3 people, if not more.

Ingredients and the level of spiciness vary widely between each soup, although there appear to be some favorites. I’ll present a brief sampling that contains most of the soups I had while in China:

1) A dish you will find almost anywhere (including Chinese textbooks!) and that is a traditional, homey meal all across China, is xi hong shi ji dan, or tomato & egg soup. Some are essentially egg drop soup with cubes of tomatoes, others have whole omelets in broth, and yet others are almost more of a tomato bisque with some egg swirled in.

Here’s a version I had in Beijing, which started my love affair with this dish:

In Chengdu, I got the slightly bizarre omelett-in-soup variety:

In Leshan in Sichuan province, I got a much more tomato-soup like version:

2) In Chengdu, I had a lovely soup consisting of broth with baby bok choy leaves – sounds plain, but really wasn’t! Plus, I did the Chinese thing and added some dark rice vinegar 🙂

3) Also in Chengdu, we had a lovely pork and mushroom soup that was earthy and flavorful:

4) In Beijing, in a tiny restaurant near Beihai Park, we got what I think is pretty much hot and sour soup with pork, as one knows it from Chinese restaurants around here:

5) In Emeishan, we had another batch of kelp soup, or hai dai tang, similar to a breakfast dish we had in Wenchuan. This was slippery to eat with chopsticks, and only for those that like chewy seaweed, but I loved it:

6) And finally, from Tangshan, a dish called yun nan guo qiao mi xian, or “noodles that cross the bridge”. This is a specialty containing extremely long rice flour noodles with meat of seafood balls (my version had shrimp balls) as well as some vegetables in a mild, clear broth that can be spiced up with pepper-oil. This is super filling, super cheap, and delicious dish!

So, as a bottom line, tang, or soup, is always a great, warming, filling option you’ll find anywhere, it’s low in calories, healthy, and flavorful, and you can hardly go wrong (Well, except maybe that omelet-soup…). Since you most likely will face many a menu that has no English whatsoever (or random English, with dishes translated as “not food”!), finding the character for tang can be an easy way to point and always get something good, with a surprise element.

What are some of your favorite soups? Are soups strictly a winter food for you? I didn’t expect I’d love hot soups in the heat of China, but it was actually really refreshing and helped me adjust.

Apple Cider Vinegar Braised Leeks And Green Onions


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When my CSA share contained leeks and green onions, I knew I wanted to braise them. And what better for a cold weather side dish than apple cider vinegar? Intensely flavorful, warming, and almost too low in calories to count at all, this one of my new Winter favorites!

Recipe adapted from Greene on Greens by Bert Greene

– 1 large leek
– 3 large green onions
– 2 cloves garlic
– 1/2 cup apple cider vinegar
– 1 packet sweetener
– 1 pinch salt
– ground black pepper to taste

Spray a pan, then finely dice or crush garlic and brown slightly in pan.

2. Slice leek and green onions and add to pan. Cook over medium heat for about 3 minutes.

3. Add apple cider vinegar, sweetener and salt, stir well, cover and cook for about 15 minutes, until leeks and onions become tender.

4. Add pepper to taste and adjust sweetness if desired. Cook a few more minutes until liquid is reduced. (This version yields a very flavorful dish, but if you prefer it less vinegar-y, reduce apple cider vinegar and add water or apple cider to obtain 1/2 cup liquid total).

5. Enjoy!

Do you ever braise? I feel like braising gets forgotten way too often!

Freeze-dried Fruit – Chinese-Style


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In a candy store in Beijing I found dried, unsweetened fruit, including some that I had never had before! The first one I tried was dried jackfruit, which was incredibly popular fresh as well, but with such an overpowering scent that it was reeeally a problem (there is a reason it is nick-named the “stinkfruit”).

This reminded me somewhat of banana chips, though with more tartness, but I don’t think it’ll ever become my favorite food in the world. At least I didn’t feel compelled to try the fresh fruit afterwards!

The other variety I tried was rambutan, a gorgeous looking fruit in a wild, red peel that is related to lychees. I had really wanted to try it fresh, but it was unfortunately not in season when we were in China.

Holy cow, this was delicious! Incredibly sweet, melting in your mouth. I’d definitely recommend rambutan to anyone interested!

I have to say, I’m getting tired of the apple/pear/peach/banana freeze-dried fruit snacks I find here (though I highly recommend my favorites, strawberry-banana
and apple cinnamon
!), so these were a really welcome change. The rambutan I’d get here any day if I could!

How do you like your fruit chips? Fried? Baked? Freeze-dried? Sugared? Or can’t you warm to them at all?

Airport Food in China


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Since we just spent a whole day traveling from Ohio to Germany to see my family over the holidays, airport food and airplane meals are on my mind. We took some inner-Chinese flights between Beijing and Chengdu when we were in China, and so we spent some time at airports there. Naturally, we ate.

Now, don’t get me wrong, airplane fare is just as mushy, bland and lukewarm as on American flights, but airport selections were stellar in terms of healthy options. There were KFC and the like, but there were both Chinese fast food and regular restaurants that offered non-fried vegetable dishes and the like.

Observe, for example, my lunch at Beijing airport in the inner-Chinese terminal at a fast food chain called Flavor Tang, which was adjacent to KFC:

That’s right, bok choy in a light broth and a melon cup.

I mean, can you *imagine* fast food like this at an American (or German, for that matter) airport? I was in awe. It was really tasty, too.

Then on our last day, we grabbed lunch at Beijing airport in the international terminal before flying home, and I went to a restaurant called “Acting Halal”, which, as you can guess, offers halal choices (again, how impressive is that?). Here’s what I got:

A mix of mushrooms, cucumbers and peppers stir-fried in a mildly spicy, light brown sauce. Again, very tasty, and wonderfully low calorie and balanced.

Bottom line? European and American airports sure could learn something from the options offered at Chinese airports. Hands down win for China there.

Curried Vegetarian Cauliflower Stir Fry


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The last few weeks that my CSA was going always included a head of cauliflower, so I tried my hand at some variations of what I normally would do with this vegetable.

Curried cauliflower is wonderfully spicy, warming and substantial and can be a main or a side dish, depending on your mood.

– 1 head cauliflower
– 4 to 6 oz soy crumbles
– 1 tbsp ginger
– 2 garlic cloves
– 1 tbsp Madras Curry powder
– hot pepper to taste

Remove central stem of cauliflower head, careful not to break up the florets

2. Steam covered with a wet paper towel for 5 minutes in the microwave
3. Meanwhile dice garlic, pepper and ginger and toast them in a pan over medium high heat with a pinch of curry powder
4. Add soy crumbles

5. Add cauliflower florets and a shot of water, stir fry for 10 to 15 more minutes, stirring frequently until cauliflower is tender

6. Enjoy!

Curried anything is a comfort food for me in the colder seasons of the year, and this works great with cauliflower. Feels hearty, is very healthy and low calorie. And vegetarian to boot! If you’d prefer, simply swap in lean ground meat of your choice.

What do you like to do with cauliflower? Is it a necessary evil or the star of your meal? Do you like to experiment with different cuisines?

Chinese Grapefruit – Surprisingly Sweet!


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On one of my many fruit-stall trips in Beijing, I pointed at a large, pale yellow, melon-sized fruit and asked what it was. Grapefruit, I was told. Grapefruit? That large? That color? Yes, grapefruit. Fine, I thought, I am a wuss when it comes to even the slightest amount of tartness, I don’t need strange Chinese giant grapefruit. Oh, no, I was reassured, these are much sweeter than what you are thinking of. Fine! I thought, and bought one, just to say I’d tried it.

Of course I’d never really eaten a whole grapefruit (I’d be crawling on the floor, spitting and yowling, from the sour taste!), and didn’t even get the concept of grapefruit spoons. Nevertheless, I bravely cut my Chinese grapefruit, which turned out to be a pomelo, a milder citrus fruit, open and attacked it with some sweetener (xylitol) and a regular spoon.

True to what I had been told, it was much sweeter than a Western grapefruit, though still tart enough for me to need sweetener and a break between halves. I am not made for tart foods… If I had to choose between eating a pomelo and, say, walking the plank, I’d definitely go for the pomelo, but for once one of my fruit experiments in China did not leave me with a craving once I got home.

What fruit can’t you abide? For me it’s grapefruit and pineapple. Do you like tartness? My wife sucks on lemons for fun, while I whimper at sour candy!