The Noodle Loft In Beijing


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On our final night in Beijing, we went to the Noodle Loft, a wonderful, stylish and definitely pricy restaurant focused entirely on many types of noodle, especially Shaanxi-Province-style noodles. Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations show visited the restaurant, which is how we’d found out about it.

The interior is very sleek and modern, with a nice color palette supported by chrome and elegantly clad waiters:

The menu was huge, and we decided to start with a napa cabbage soup before the noodle courses:

The broth was light and vinegary, perfect as a starter.

Now to tackle the many noodle options! Noodle Loft offers knife-cut noodles that are thick and chewy in texture, sort of like udon, “cat’s ears” noodles which are small, shaped like cat ears and reminiscent of gnocchi in texture, hand-pulled noodles, and “noodles made with one single chopstick,” which are extremely long.

My friend went with a buckwheat version of the cat’s ears noodles (a Shaanxi specialty) stir fried with vegetables and sauce. These had  lovely bite to them and were quite different from any other Chinese noodle dish I’ve seen.

My wife opted for the hand-pulled noodles with a spicy beef dipping sauce. These noodles tasted essentially like udon, but weren’t eaten in a soup:

Personally, I ordered vegetable noodles made with a single chopstick, which were green from the vegetables and so long, I felt like I gave half my plate away when I let the others at the table taste one noodle! I chose a typical Shaanxi-style dipping sauce consisting of a lot of vinegar with some dried spices. These noodles were wonderful, filling and just luxurious to bite into!

Now for dessert, Noodle Loft offers a variety of Western-style cakes (cheesecake, chocolate torte, etc), which my friend and wife went for. I on the other hand was determined to have a Chinese dessert on our last night in China, which left many obscure herbal jelly options (one had the character for turtle in the name…), as well as cooked birdsnests (outrageously expensive delicacy). I had initially settled for double-boiled hashima served in a papaya cup, because I love papaya:

The menu depicted it like this:

I figured hashima might be some fruit mash, or glutinous rice meal, but became slightly nervous. My friend’s smart phone and Google rescued me, as we quickly found out that hashima are frog fallopian tubes. Yes. Frog fallopian tubes. They are supposed to cure anything from a headache to tuberculosis in Chinese medicine, and they are a popular dessert.

Let’s just say I quickly regrouped and went with steamed Chinese yam, or hui shan yao, the air root of a climbing vine, with a sea-buckthorn, or sha ji, berry sauce.

I can’t even begin to describe how delicious this warm dessert was! The yam was buttery soft and sweet, melting in your mouth, and its starchiness was wonderfully contrasted bu the almost gelee-like consistency of the sweet but refreshing buckthorn sauce. I was already very full, but couldn’t stand the thought of leaving a single bite behind. I would do anything to get my hands on the ingredients and a recipe!

Bottom line? While somewhat difficult to find, Noodle Loft is definitely worth the trip. The noodles are amazing, and a special treat you won’t find many places outside Shaanxi province, and all other dishes we tasted were simply wonderful as well. On the downside it is certainly pricey, and we had some misunderstandings with the wait staff despite my Chinese-speaking friend doing the ordering. Meat in the sauces/noodle dishes is very sparsely used, so don’t expect Italian meatball sized amounts! I would say it’s a great treat for a special night – 4/5 from me.

Mushroom And Cabbage Stir Fry


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One day late because yesterday was dedicated to cookie devouring!

I’d mentioned that lovely baby bok choy and mushrooms stir fry I had in Beijing last week, and here is the promised recipe attempting to re-create it.

Now, baby bok choy isn’t available easily everywhere, and my CSA share contained green cabbage as well as some cooking greens, so I used those instead. The result wasn’t quite as buttery in texture, but still plenty tasty.

– 1 small head cabbage
– 1 bunch cooking greens
– 10 oz sliced mushrooms
– 4 cloves garlic
– 2 tbsp ginger root
– 1/2 onion
– 1 hot pepper
– 1/3 cup low-sodium soy sauce
– 1/3 cup dark rice vinegar or balsamic vinegar

Bring a large pot of water to a boil.
2. Chop cabbage and cooking greens into bite size strips and boil for 10 minutes

3. Finely dice garlic, pepper, ginger root and onion

4. Brown in a large pan

5. Add mushrooms, soy sauce and vinegar and simmer for 10 minutes.

6. When mushrooms are tender, add drained cabbage/greens and toss in the sauce mixture to re-heat.
7. Enjoy as a side, or pack lunches for the week that you can easily microwave! Makes about five 2 cup servings.

Are you a cabbage lover, or is it not for you? I’ll take bok choy over green cabbage any day, but I suppose my German nature will take any cabbage more than gladly. What’s your favorite way to highlight/disguise cabbage in a dish?

Food Blogger Cookie Heaven!


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That’s right, I participated in the Great Food Blogger Cookie Swap 2011, and just look at my awesome haul!

From XXX I got YYY

From XXX I got YYY

From XXX I got YYY

I sent out these cinnamon-spiced butterscotch-chip pecan chocolate cookies that I lightened up to get an amazing 40 kcal per cookie treat! In case you try to keep the cookie damage low over the holidays, like me, here are the nutritional stats to my best estimate: 40kcal, 1.75g fat, 5g carbs, 0.5g protein per cookie. Sound too good to be true? It kind of is, if I may pet myself on the back.

– 3/4 cup sugar
– 1/4 cup margarine
– 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
– 1/4 cup fat-free egg product like Eggbeaters
– 1 1/8 cup all-purpose flour
– 1/2 tsp cream of tartar
– 1/4 tsp baking soda
– pinch salt
– 1/2 cup butterscotch chips
– 1/2 cup chopped pecans
– 2 tbsp baking cocoa
– 3 packets sugar substitute like Splenda or Sweet’N Low
– 1 tsp ground cinnamon

Heat over to 350F
2. Combine egg substitute, sugar, margarine and vanilla in a large bowl and beat on medium speed until you have a creamy consistency.
3. Add flour, baking soda and cream of tartar and stir well.
4. Stir in the pecans and butterscotch chips and divide into 1-inch balls (I used a tablespoon for portioning). You should get about 3 dozen cookies.
5. In a small bowl, combine sugar substitute and cinnamon, then roll the dough balls through the mixture.
6. Place the dough balls about one inch apart from each other on ungreased (!) cookie sheets.
7. Bake for 8 to 10 minutes. The cookies should be lightly browned and set into a cookie shape. Immediately move them to a cooling rack.
8. Congratulate yourself on being “good” this Holiday season and dig in.

Longan – Tasty, Tasty Dragon Eyes


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Even before going to China, I’d heard of longan, which are called long yan (dragon eye) in Chinese. The name arises from the yellow shell of the fruit, through which the longan’s black seed can be seen, resembling the effect of a pupil on a yellow eye ball.

Longan are the fruit of Dimocarpus longan, a tree requiring warm, tropical climates and very popular both fresh and dried inside their shell (then called gui yuan) in China. Like lychees, the hard shell is peeled off to reveal a succulent, juicy, white-fleshed fruit, which turns almost black when dried. Gui yuan are used in traditional herbal medicine for calming purposes. While we were there, fresh longan weren’t in season, but gui yuan were everywhere:

By the way, the picture also shows jackfruit (top left corner, post soon to come), papaya (top middle, post soon to come), plums (top right corner), grapes (left), mangosteen (right), and lychees (bottom left corner, post soon to come)!

Now, these fruit are lychee-sized (see the bottom left corner?), but clock in at an amazing 2kcal. That’s right, 2 calories per fruit, or 17 per ounce. They are very rich in Vitamin C and also provide good amounts of Riboflavin, Potassium and Copper. They are very sweet, and in their dried form have a similar texture to dried figs. However, don’t chew too enthusiastically, the pit is still in there!

What are your favorite dried fruits? Do you prefer them sweetened or without added sugar and flavoring? Baked? Dehydrated? Fried?

A Traditional Beijing-Style Dumpling Restaurant


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While we were in Beijing, my friend showed us a traditional Beijing dumpling restaurant right around the corner from her work. Of course we went along happily!
The restaurant consisted of several completely separate rooms along a corridor, each of which was slightly different, but all felt kind of cozy with tons of plants, traditional clay figurines and muted lighting (sorry for the low quality pictures!). Many of the waitresses had traditional, complex braided hairdos that added to the flair of things.

We ordered a variety of dishes to share, starting with asparagus and chicken in a brown sauce that opened my eyes to the world of green asparagus. You see, in Germany we usually eat the white kind, and I had been suspicious of the green version. Now I’m a dedicated fan!

We also had a dish of baby bok choy and mushrooms that I loved so much, I tried to recreate it at home for a lunch staple, and I’ll post the recipe soon! Mildly savory and buttery soft bok choy with earthy mushrooms and ginger. Delicious!

And of course the dumplings. We each chose a filling, of which there was an entire separate menu with about 15 pages. Any meat, seafood, vegetable, sauce and combination thereof were available!
Beijing-style dumplings are boiled, not steamed or fried, and come with died wrappers (white, orange, green and purple). Unfortunately the colors don’t correspond to the fillings, and all three orders came in a colorful mixture, so that it was a take-a-bite-and-see experience. I think we each got at least one of each, and I liked them all very much. My wife had beef ones that were great, mine were a mixture of vegetables and mushrooms, and my friend had another meat-vegetable mix.

Going to a dumpling restaurant is a great, interactive meal if you have a small group of people, and all the dishes were absolutely delicious. Two thumbs up! On top, in pretty much any Chinese restaurant you’ll get a huge selection of vegetables that easily make your dinner much healthier than what you’d ever get overseas as Chinese cooking!

Do you like dumplings? What variety is your favorite kind? Have you been successful at keeping them from falling apart when making them yourself, unlike me?

Kohlrabi Curry


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Kohlrabi, a cabbage relative, is something I know well from growing up in Germany. The name translates as cabbage-turnip, and is one of those traditional vegetables many children try to avoid. You can actually eat them raw (after peeling), like an apple, or chop them into salads, but that never appealed to me.

When my CSA share contained kohlrabi, I swallowed and re-visited what I know about this vegetable foe of my childhood. It turns out that kohlrabi is one of the most popular vegetables in certain regions of India, and the local cuisine has cooked up many a tasty way to prepare it. So I ventured ahead and made a vegetarian kohlrabi curry inspired by this recipe with what I had at hand – I don’t claim this to be a traditional Indian recipe!

– 3 kohlrabi with greens
– two roma tomatoes
– yellow curry powder
– 1/2 small onion
– 1 tsp minced ginger root
– 1/2 hot pepper
– 2 garlic cloves

Cut the greens off the kohlrabi and reserve for later. Peel the bulb with a knife to reveal a white center.

2. Chop the kohlrabi bulb into 1/2 inch cubes and steam covered with a wet paper towel for 5 minutes in the microwave
3. Spray a pan, dice pepper, garlic, onion and ginger and brown in the pan.
4. Toast some yellow curry powder in the same pan

5. Add cubed kohlrabi to the pan
6. Finely dice the tomatoes and chop the kohlrabi greens, add to the pan
7. Simmer for about 10 to 20 minutes until chunks are tender, covered, over medium-high heat, stirring frequently.

Enjoy! Made from all fresh ingredients, very healthy, low calorie, and warming, flavorful and filling. Great dish!

Have you rediscovered staple ingredients in other cuisines and loved them? Or is there something you think nobody has managed to improve on, despite numerous attempts?

Eat Like A Panda – Bamboo Shoots


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Chengdu in Sichuan Province is filled with panda memorabilia. Why? Because the Giant Panda Breeding Center, an effort to prevent the dying out of this species, is located there and draws millions of Chinese and foreign tourists. Of course we had to go and squeal over panda babies, lazy pandas, pandas in heat (which sound remarkably like goats…) and more.

What we didn’t quite expect was the Center’s restaurants offerings to “eat like a giant panda”. But of course I had to try!

So, while bamboo shoots, though boiled, not raw. I had no idea they turned black! We had to peel the outermost, harder layers (just like pandas do) to get to the soft, really tasty inner tube of flesh.

Buttery soft!
Now, pandas literally spend 95% of their waking hours eating. That’s because they can only digest 20% of the bamboo, and have to pass the rest. Panda droppings are *very* fibrous and green. As a gentle warning, humans don’t appear to be too much better at digesting bamboo shoots…

And to finish up, I ordered something by pointing at the picture on the menu (no English was spoken by the staff). I’d expected mushrooms, but got algae. This didn’t bother me one bit, I love pretty much anything that grows/lives in the sea, however, this was one true-to-Sichuan-hot-as-all-hell dish.

Lots, and lots, and more Sichuan peppers reduced me to a glazed-eyed, flaming red, perspiring, somewhat insanely grinning mess uttering high pitched giggles and “whoa”s, but I couldn’t stop eating, it was so tasty. I simply can’t explain the appeal of it; it’s this strange, tingly sensation that makes you want to cry and never stop eating at the same time. Sichuan isn’t for softies!

What vegetables have you encountered you didn’t think were edible or tasty and that blew you away? Anything you’re dying to try?

Chinese Street Food & Snacks – A (Small) Sampling


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When in China, most likely you’ll be on foot or on a bicycle (at your own risk!) when not in a taxi. There’ll be lots and lots of walking, and you’ll see snacks everywhere. Who could resist? Here’s a list that merely scratches the surface of the matter, but with options that are healthy and delicious and a little more exciting than simply stocking up on fresh fruit and sugar-free chewing gum (though the gum variety is worth checking out!).

One of my favorite snacks I had while walking in the streets of Chengdu, where small fry kitchens and food carts abound:

This was a sweet cake made by preparing a paste from glutinous rice meal and water and steaming it wrapped in a corn husk, similar to a tamale. The cake was moist and while it was sweet, it didn’t just coat your mouth in sugar stickiness. Wonderful! 🙂

When we were in Leshan, a city in Sichuan that hosts a 70 meter high buddha carved into a mountain covered in temples, we made the mistake of thinking of the trip as a road stop along the way and lugged our luggage up and down the mountain for 2 hours in the boiling sun. To cool down, we went for ice cream. Ice cream comes in odd varieties in China (for example corn ice cream in the shape of corn on the cob), but a traditional, locally made variety looks kind of like a white popsicle:

Unfortunately, nowhere on the wrapper does it list the flavor, and I have been racking my brain ever since what that flavor was. Mildly sweet, not at all overpowering, it was great and refreshing. The best I can come up with is a subtle resemblance to coconut, but I don’t think that was it. If anyone knows, *please* let me know! This is a wonderful snack on one of the many hot Chinese summer days for relatively few calories compared to milk- or cream-based ice cream.

Staying in Sichuan, we decided to hike up Mount Emei, one of the four sacred Buddhist mountains in China. Let me tell you, an 11 hour hike covering 14 miles, steeply uphill on stairs, not paths, to reach the summit at 10,100 feet, left me in dire need of protein to refuel. I opted for beef jerky.

Little did I suspect that even beef jerky comes in the Sichuan variety. They must have just rubbed this stuff in Sichuan pepper paste! Well, I was very alert after, and it was actually very tasty, even though my water consumption went way up afterwards. Jerky is a staple in convenience stores and snack shacks or carts in rural areas, so be on the look out for it if you need a protein kick and are tired of eggs. Not low in fat or salt, but not too bad.

And the final snack I found at a little street kitchen in the hutongs of Beijing. I *adored* this:

What you see here a paper thin meringue-like containers shaped as a triangle. The filling is your choice:

I went with red bean paste, because I love all things red bean. Not too sweet, perfectly balanced and light, this is a fairly low calorie snack with protein and sweetness! Of course, if you opt for a cream-base filling, that doesn’t hold true. And as an added bonus, they come in the most adorable little paper bag:

What are some of your favorite snacks? Do you eat snacks on a regular basis, or try to avoid them? Anything you found while traveling that you wish you could get back home?

Sweet And Sour Eggplant


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Here’s a confession: I used to hate eggplant when it wasn’t in moussaka-form in Greece. I really, really hated it. I even tried grilling it healthily a few times, and I must have done something fundamentally wrong, because eww!

Then came China, with wonderful muslim eggplant dishes, and my curiosity was re-awakened. Enter my CSA, which presented me with the most gorgeous Chinese eggplant ever:

Now, Chinese eggplants are good for beginners because they are so much sweeter, more tender, and less bitter than the average thick, almost black Italian variety we tend to find in grocery stores around these parts.

And lo and behold, eggplant sweet and sour was prepared in my kitchen, and I tasted it, and I saw that it was good.

– Chinese eggplant
– clove garlic
– 1 tsp minced ginger root
– 1 tbsp dark rice vinegar or balsamic vinegar
– 1 package sweetener
– 1 Sichuan pepper or half a small, hot pepper
– 1 tbsp soy sauce

Preheat broiler while chopping garlic, pepper and ginger root.
2. Slice eggplant into 1/4 inch thick slices. For Chinese eggplant, peeling isn’t necessary; for Italian eggplants, you’ll want to peel. Sprinkle slices with salt and let sit for 10 minutes to draw out moisture.
3. Wash off salt, pat dry and broil eggplant slices for 5 minutes until tender on a foil-lined sheet.
4. Over medium heat, brown chopped ingredients in a sprayed pan.
5. Add vinegar, soy sauce and sweetener and stir well.
6. Add eggplant slices, simmer for about 5 to 10 more minutes, and enjoy!

Ironically, by now I am addicted to eggplant, even the regular kind, to a degree where my wife pokes fun at me and my CSA members know to find me if they want to trade in their eggplants for something else.

Have you become a staunch believer when it comes to certain ingredients? What’s your take on eggplant? Yay or nay?

My Very First Thanksgiving, My Very First Surgery, And A Mini-Survey Of Thanksgiving Traditions


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As I’ve mentioned before, I’m German. Want proof? Check out my dazzling Dirndl-action!

Obviously, we don’t celebrate Thanksgiving per se in Germany, although there are harvest festivals (which are not a big deal and which don’t involve turkey). So when I moved to the United States in 2005, my then-girlfriend-now-wife’s family graciously welcomed me into their home and shared their traditional Thanksgiving with me. What can I say? It was wonderful. Turkey, gravy, mashed potatoes, fresh cranberry sauce made in an ancient meat grinder, fresh baked bread, and most of all, my mother-in-law’s unbeatable, incomparably delicious stuffing (bread, celery, sausage) and her famous chocolate-pecan pie. And pumpkin pie. And ice cream. I met other members of the family, had a wonderful time feeling at home away from home, and I ate, and I ate, and I ate.

Curiously, that night I woke up in horrible pain, which didn’t subside. When the tight, convulsive cramping in my right lower abdomen wouldn’t subside, my father-in-law first suggested appendix issues, then scratched that since the appendix is located on the left side. He gave me Tums. They didn’t help. When I didn’t get better the next day and following night, my mother-in-law and wife took me to the emergency room, where I was X-rayed, poked, prodded, and finally diagnosed with a collapsed gall bladder filled to the brim with gall stones. Turns out high fat meals can trigger attacks. Go figure. They wanted to operate then and there, at which I burst into a teary-eyed, stumbling explanation that, look, this was Kansas, and I had mid-terms in Ohio coming up, my first semester in America, and we have plane tickets already, and my wife has to go back, what will I do? Well, the doctors gave in, let me fly back to Ohio with instructions to immediately go to the ER there.

2 days later I had outpatient surgery. Before the surgery, a smiling Russian second-in-command surgeon asked “Ahhh, gall bladder, is from baby?” “No,” I replied, “is from turkey.” (Well, in all likelihood it was from the stuffing or the pies, but hey, I was under duress). When I woke up, I found out after 2 more shots of morphine that I lack morphine receptors. Since I didn’t stop convulsing in pain, the nurses fed me a cookie, gave me a painkiller to swallow, and I was much, much better. Two days worth of chicken broth and a very coddling girlfriend later, I was back to normal, passed all my midterms with an A and craved chocolate-pecan pie.

Each year, I get asked which organ I intend to lose this year. Ah, Thanksgiving. I loved it.

Now for a bit more interesting fare, brought to you courtesy of the suggestion by wonderfully helpful Oh Cake!. I went and queried friends, colleagues and acquaintances about their Thanksgiving food traditions, and where their families originated from. I sampled English, Irish, German, Danish, American Indian, Swedish, Hungarian, Mexican, Puerto Rican, Scottish, Italian, Spanish, Slovenian and Vietnamese, from 5th generation to directly immigrated like myself.

What I found was that the vast majority closely adhered to the gold standard – turkey, gravy, pumpkin and/or apple pie and/or pecan pie. Popular items all across the board were stuffing (bread or cornbread based), green beans, potatoes or sweet potatoes, mashed or scalloped, or with marshamallows, squash dishes and cranberry sauce. But there were a few standouts and particular stories I enjoyed and thought I’d share:

“My grandma also makes homemade egg noodles (roll out the dough and cut the noodles by hand with a knife). She makes them that day and they dry for hours on the dining room table. All the women sit around and cut them as they dry enough while chatting. And the kids always run by and steal the uncooked noodles.” – German descendent tradition

“With my sibling food allergies we didn’t have an extravegant thanksgiving, most of my childhold we had lamb cooked in a crock pot with banana squash, yams, and rice.” – British/German descendent

“We always do different things. I’ve made traditional japanese, indian, american, mexican and chinese food for thanksgiving (not all at once)” – Swedish descendent

“Wine-soaked cranberry sauce and tarhonya (a Hungarian noodle dish). Before my great-aunt died we had her amazing bread, now we buy baguettes to eat with our butter (did I mention the butter? we really, really love butter in my family). My grandmother makes sós stangli (Hungarian cheese straws), which get passed off to friends the next day because we’re all tired of them (she does nothing, ever, besides bake these). For dessert: Hungarian pastries, and a new version of rice pudding every year.” – Hungarian descendent, many recent immigrants

“My family goes with each family part making turkeys in different ways, but usually roasted and stewed. Also rice with different kinds of beans. In Puerto Rico pies aren’t very popular, but instead we make pumpkin flan. My aunt will make some escabeche of green bananas. – Puerto Rican studying abroad

“I try to make something native american, specially mayan or aztec, to show respect and appreciation.” – Mexican-American immigrant

“Butternut squash, corn, homemade bread, parnips – cut legthwise and fried in butter, rutabegas – boiled and mashed, sweet potatoes (no marshmallows!). My family is really adamant that we stick with very traditional food – Lots of root vegetables and what I would think of as late harvest food.  – Irish descendent

“An old Scottish recipe that has been in our family for years and its pretty simple – oatmeal, butter, and onions” – Scottish descendent (I am particularly excited about this stuffing because I was promised a sample!)

“Growing up, my family incorporated a lot of Italian-American food into Thanksgiving. We always had a lasagna and antipasto earlier in the day before the actual “traditional” dinner of roasted turkey, stuffing, sweet potatoes etc.” – Italian descendent

“Empanadas as appetizers to honor our latin roots and I also insist that she make a tomato/onion/lemon juice “dressing” which you can drizzle on the turkey in addition to regular gravy.” – Spanish descendent

“Duck (or turkey, but only if the kids insist)” – Vietnamese immigrants

“We use mashed green plantains to make the stuffing, add some seasoning, usually a lil bit of bacon, garlic and some people like to add raisins.” – Puerto Rican studying abroad

I hope you enjoyed this mini-study of Thanksgiving traditions! I, for one, would like to try almost all of the listed menus! Who knows, if I stay here permanently, maybe I’ll add a German twist on my Thanksgiving dinners, too. Are there any specialty items inspired by your family’s roots that simply must be there come Thanksgiving?