Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Makye Ame 玛吉阿米: Tibetan Food in Beijing

I don't know when I'll be able to travel to Tibet, so I decided that I'll just have to make do with lunching at one the oldest Tibetan restaurants in Beijing, even if it is a chain (2 in Beijing, 1 in Kunming, and 1 in Lhasa). 

Unclear store front and sketchy, dark staircase

If you're ever interested in trying Makye Ame in Beijing, you'll need to know a few things.

First of all, bring lots of money because it's relatively expensive compared to other dining establishments around the city.  I think it's because some of the ingredients are native to the Tibetan Plateau. 

Secondly, don't freak out about the creepy staircase leading up the door; it's absolutely gorgeous inside!

Interior of Makye Ame

Fresh Pear and Apple Juice; Some kind of Tibetan Tea

I heard about the tasty but rare songrong mushrooms from Yunnan province while researching Beijing restaurants on the internet, and I didn't really think that I would encounter them at any of the restaurants I picked since Yunnan cuisine was not on my list.  I think songrong mushrooms are the same as matsutake.  This dish alone is 128 RMB (around $21).  That's an astounding price for mushrooms. However, I felt that I wouldn't get a chance to try these any time soon, so why not eat a couple more homecooked meals in China to compensate for this splurge?

Songrong Mushrooms and Onions Cooked on Hot Rock

Songrong Mushrooms and Onions Cooked on Hot Rock

The songrong mushrooms were musty, rich, and buttery.  But if you're not a mushroom fan, you may feel that they're not $21 bucks - good. 

We were all really hungry, at least that was our excuse for ordering 2 meat dishes: Yak and Lamb Ribs.
Both had a tasty exterior, which was very appealing, but a bit too dry on the inside.  The lamb ribs were very fatty.  The yak meat was actually our favorite of the two because it was meatier, and tasted a lot like beef.  No wonder the Chinese name for "yak" is just "hairy cow."   

Tibetan Crisp Yak "Steak"...but looked like Ribs

Roasted Lamb Ribs

We ordered the Highland Barley dish because we wanted to be able to say that we've eaten something that's cooked in yak butter.  Well, yak butter tastes like butter.  No surprises there!  But the slightly sweetened barley was especially delicious with the goji berries and weird red-brown root-like stubbs.  S. and I didn't say anything at first because we both thought that it was dongchongxiacao (winter worm - summer herb), also known as cordyceps, a parisitic fungus.  We didn't want to scare B., who was also enjoying the oddly shaped maroon things in the barley.  S. and I were arguing about whether these things were actually cordyceps until the waitress finally put our question to rest.  They were a kind of Tibetan ginseng root.

Highland Barley Grains Fried with Yak Butter

I can neither recommend nor advise against eating at Makye Ame.  It was the first time I had Tibetan food, and it satisified some of culinary curiousity, but I couldn't help but think that this isn't completely representative of Tibetan cuisine.  The restaurant was too clean, too comfortable, and too aware of being "Tibetan." I couldn't help but think that the food I ate was a sterilized version of the cuisine.  I need to go to Tibet before I can pass any judgment on the food at Makye Ame.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Shanxi Food in Beijing

Yan Bei Ren Jia (Shanxi Knife-cut Noodle House) in Chaoyang District

S, B, and I originally wanted to go to Datong in Shanxi province to celebrate New Year's at the awesome Xuan Kong Si (Hanging Temple).  But the bitter cold and my respiratory infection led us to believe that that was a stupid excursion to go on in the middle of winter.  S suggested that we walk to a Shanxi restaurant instead.
S with the Kitchen in the Background

S let me get away with ordering a cold dish even though she still frowned at me everytime I greedily reached for the "double crunch" salad. 
"Double Crunch" Salad - Cucumbers, Radish, Green Onion, and Coriander Leaves in a light soy sauce and sesame oil vinaigrette

S recommended that we order a bowl of stewed potato "chips with Nippon Lily" soup to warm ourselves up.  Either this is a ridiculous typo on the menu, or you really can eat Omoto Nippon Lily leaves or rohdea leaves.  Regardless, it was a delicious comfort food type of soup.  Good call, S!  I guess this is to balance out the cold double crunch salad. 

Stewed Potatoes and Omoto Nippon Lily Soup

I've learned that when there's eggplant on the menu in a Chinese restaurant, you just gotta order it because chances are, it will be the most addictive dish of the meal.  The eggplant dish at this Shanxi restaurant is no exception.  It is tangy, savory, spicy, garlicky, and smokey.  What's especially cool is that they cut several vertical slits on two whole eggplants and fried them so that the eggplants remained intact.  Very cool!
Fried Eggplant with Garlic

They were really slow in bringing out the noodle soups so by the time they brought out our freshly made knife-cut noodles, I was already full from pecking at the eggplant non-stop.  I managed to eat only half of my bowl of delicious eggs and tomatoes noodles. 

Scrambled Egg and Tomatoes Knife-cut Noodle Soup

B's Beef Knife-cut Noodle Soup

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Din Tai Fung in Beijing...Hell Yes!

My partner-in-crime from my Shenyang days decided to move to Beijing around October 2010, and we happened to arrive in Beijing on the same day and just 30 minutes apart!  We celebrated New Year's Day at one of my all-time favorite restaurants in the world, Din Tai Fung, and apparently tons of other Chinese had the same idea.

Long Wait

I really didn't mind the 30 minute wait because that's nothing compared to the 3 year wait I had to endure since my last taste of DTF's juicy pockets of savory heaven.  Sure, I went on a soup dumpling binge in NYC July 2010 (exhibit Aexhibit B) , but there's just something special about DTF's.  I guess 2011 is my lucky year!

Stir-fried Snow Pea Leaves and a Steamer of DTF's Original Pork Soup Dumplings

Original Pork Soup Dumplings
Steamed Crab Meat and Pork Soup Dumpling

Steamed Crab Meat and Pork Soup Dumpling 

Steamed Shrimp and Pork Dumplings

Steamed Chicken Soup

The dishes above are the ones my family always order at DTF, but the chilled raw pumpkin slices in orange juice caught me off guard when I was skimming the menu.  I couldn't resist ordering it, and this was mind-bogglingly good.  I didn't even know you can eat pumpkin raw!  This was crisp and refreshing, and the orange juice tingled my tongue and awakened my senses. I definitely want to try making this at home.

Chilled Pumpkin Slices Soaked in Orange Juice

We concluded the meal with ba bao fan, "8 treasures glutinous rice."  It usually has red bean paste in the middle and is topped with red dates, lotus seeds, and various beans and dried fruits.

8 Treasures Glutinous Rice

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Cantonese Food in Beijing

I came back from conducting field research in China earlier this month.  Because of the sub-zero temperatures and being sick with respiratory infection, I spent my leisure time eating instead of sightseeing.  My wonderful hostess in Beijing is originally from Guangzhou.  She often reminisces about the amazing Cantonese food in her hometown, and the recent Cantonese food craze in Beijing has made it convenient for her to get a taste of home.  But frankly, Cantonese restaurants (First Chinese BBQ) in Austin serves dishes that are made with higher quality ingredients and with less grease and heavy-handed seasoning!  You can really taste the difference in the BBQ dishes like cha siu, roasted pork belly, and soy chicken. 

Cha Siu, Roasted Pork Belly, and Soy Chicken with mustard, sweet & sour sauce, and minced garlic and green onion in oil

Check out the grease in the stir-fried beef and flat broad noodles (which aren't wide enough) and the corn starch in the stir-fried asparagus!

Stir-fried Beef with Flat Broad Noodles

Stir-fried Asparagus

However, there are some positives about Cantonese restaurants in Beijing.  You can order dishes with ingredients, such as bamboo fungus, that are hard to come by at Cantonese restaurants in the U.S.

Spinach with garlic, Goji berries, and bamboo fungus

I was very happy to have tried this preparation of si gua (luffa).  This was so addictive and seems easy enough to make at home.

Steamed Si Gua with minced garlic and dried shrimp

We also tried out a dim sum restaurant in a residential neighborhood one lazy weekend, which turned out pretty good.  The turnip cakes were particularly exceptional because they used more daikon than rice powder, making the cakes more translucent than the ones in the U.S.  I was super happy to see that they also served a spicy XO sauce version!

Turnip Cakes

Spicy XO Sauce Turnip Cakes

Beef Chang Fen

Custard Tarts

Coconut Buns with a custardy coconut milk filling

Unfortunately, this restaurant managed to screw up 3 dim sum standards: shu mai, steamed pork ribs with black beans, and har gau.  You really shouldn't open a dim sum restaurant if your chefs can't make decent versions of these standards.  C'mon Beijing!

Blech! Sickly-looking Shu Mai

Instead of Pork Ribs, we got chunks of pale fat

Unimpressive Har Gau