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Beijing Breakfasts

One of my favorite things to do when friends visit us in Beijing is to take them on a morning walk to look for breakfast. It’s a great way to start the day in Beijing — there’s a buzz in the air as everyone is hurrying off to work and the city comes alive.

Breakfasts carts abound everywhere, but they are particularly plentiful near subway stops. And if you happen to stumble upon a busy food street, with stalls and hole-in-the-wall restaurants in addition to the carts, then you’ll have your pick of some of the finest Beijing street food.

Like youtiao 油條! Ah, nothing like a mouthful of crispy fried dough in the morning. :) This is a type of Chinese cruller — neither sweet nor savory; just plain satisfying on its own or dunked in something liquidy, be that soy milk, congee (rice porridge), or whatever sauce, soup, or beverage of your liking.

Tea eggs (cha ye dan 茶葉蛋) are also excellent. These hard-boiled eggs have been cracked and marinated in a brew of soy sauce, spices, and tea.

Northern Chinese cuisine features a lot of filling, doughy foods, and breakfast is no exception. There’s mantou 馒头, which is a type of fluffy steamed bread. They can be simply folded or sometimes intricately rolled into many coils or threads, like the so-called yinsijuan 銀絲卷, or silver-thread rolls, which I like to eat strand by strand. :)

Then there are baozi 包子 or buns filled with any number of things, both sweet (like red bean paste) or savory (like pork, cabbage, chives, mushrooms, etc.).

And of course there are jiaozi 餃子 or dumplings of all sorts, whether steamed, boiled, or fried.

Indeed, the variations on dough are endless! Like these long, pork-stuffed — buns? dumplings? pancakes? — that are then fried.

If you recognize the dumpling roller above, it is in fact the very same dumpling roller Becca purchased from this vendor as a souvenir right before she left Beijing. :)

Also existing in various permutations is the breakfast sandwich or wrap, like jidan guanbing 鸡蛋灌饼, which is a sort of egg sandwich. It starts with dough with a smidgen of lard wrapped in the center. Then the dough is rolled flat into a pancake and fried.

The lard creates a pocket in the center of the pancake that you break open with chopsticks and fill with egg.

Once cooked, the pancake is spread with a savory brown sauce and chili sauce, then folded in half like a taco, and stuffed with a piece of lettuce and your choice of filling — shredded potato, hot dog, or chicken or pork.

For lighter fare, if you’re in the mood for tofu in the morning, I highly recommend tofu brains, doufu nao 豆腐脑. Or perhaps you might know it as doufu hua 豆腐花, tofu flower or tofu pudding. This dish involves no brains at all but is made up of soft silken tofu that in southern Chinese cultures is served sweet but in many northern Chinese cities is served savory, with soy sauce and various other sauces and garnishes. I have to admit, the taste and quality can really vary from vendor to vendor, and I have yet to find doufu nao that I like here. But I do love silken tofu, so sometimes I just request that all sauces and garnishes be left off so I that can bring it home and add my own.

In a breakfast food category of its own is the perennial fan favorite, the jianbing 煎饼 – affectionately called the “Beijing crepe.” It’s made virtually in the same way as a French crepe, except the batter and filling can vary. The batter below is made of buckwheat flour.

The standard jianbing fillings are egg, a brown hoisin-like sauce, garnishes such as scallions and chili, and a sheet of fried crispy thing that adds a light crunch. For a little extra, you can request another egg or various meat options like hot dog, chicken, or pork.

We used to always get our jianbing from our very own Jolly Crepe Man, who sadly has disappeared from our street for reasons unbeknownst to us. :( As you can see in the photos, he was always smiling. We still believe him to be the jolliest man in all of Beijing.

What might be my favorite thing of all to get on our breakfast street is liangpi 凉皮, a type of Shaanxi noodle made of rice flour and served cold (the name literally means “cold skin”). These noodles are also available at other times of day, not just at breakfast. Sauces and garnishes vary from vendor to vendor, but typically what’s involved is sesame paste, soy sauce, vinegar, and lots of julienned cucumber. The vendor near us also adds garlic, sesame seeds, spongey fried tofu, and cilantro. I absolutely love this dish, especially when the rice noodles are paper thin. It tastes like a Chinese version of Vietnamese banh uot to me!

There are several other popular breakfast items not pictured here. Among them is porridge made from various grains. Rice porridge (zhou ç²¥) is very common in many parts of Asia, but in northern China, millet porridge (小米粥 xiaomi zhou) is also common. And soy milk (douzhi 豆汁) and yogurt (酸奶 suan nai) are drunk at breakfast and throughout the day (yogurt is much more liquid here than we’re used to in the US, as you can imagine if you’re familiar with the sour yogurt drink Yakult).

Even though modern buildings and fancy restaurants are constantly popping up all around Beijing, I love how you can get still a feel (and taste :) of old-world Beijing just by going out for a walk in the morning. I hope that never changes.

Eating in Bangkok

Thailand has always seemed fascinating and yet a bit intimidating to me, because it feels at once familiar (with many similarities in climate and culinary offerings as Vietnam) and yet still so foreign. It’s one of those countries I’ve long been intrigued by, and it was one of the first places we visited after we moved to Asia. (We flew there after spending a few days with family in Hong Kong last year.)

Thailand is so much more diverse than I realized. Most of the Thai food common in the US is mainly characteristic of central Thailand, particularly Bangkok. But the regional foods in other parts of the country bear the flavors of Burma, Yunnan (the southern Chinese province), Malaysia, Indonesia, Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia. In addition, the Muslim community in Thailand also brings its own dishes. And I was surprised to find that there are a lot of Chinese people, and therefore a lot of recognizable Chinese food here. Thailand stood at a crossroad between Indian, Arab, and European traders from the west, and the rest of Asia to the east. And, impressively, it is the only country in SE Asia to have never been under European colonization.

During our five days in Bangkok, it was fun to experience both things completely new to me as well as things that, for one reason or another, seemed kind of familiar. Rather than breaking this up into various smaller posts and risk never getting around to finishing, I’m just going to do it all in one fell swoop. So please bear with me! (I will get to Chiang Mai in my next post.) Here we go…

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Eating in Portland, Part 2: The Asian Food Edition

Find Part 1 of the Eating in Portland series here, and eating at the Portland Farmer’s Market here.

I had so much Asian food on this past trip to Portland that I have to give it a separate post (and even then, I must forewarn you this is a lengthy post). In fact, I had so much pho on this trip that my mother-in-law was astonished that every time she suggested we meet at another pho place, I already knew how to get there. :)

So here are some of the Asian foods we ate…

… Vietnamese fish sauce wings and Chiang Mai sausage at Pok Pok, 3226 SE Division St. [map]

This is the legendary Thai restaurant by Andy Ricker that I have been wanting to try for at least the past 5 years! For whatever reason, I just hadn’t been able to make it until this past fall, when I snuck out with my dad one morning for an early lunch here. This place is known for what on their menu is listed as “Ike’s fish sauce wings” but is widely known by food lovers as simply “Pok Pok wings.”

I’ve actually made Pok Pok wings from various recipes online a few times before I ever even had the real thing here (that’s how much I wanted to try it!). I have to confess that when I do make them for myself, I tend to leave the sauce off, which I realize is the whole point of this dish, but my lack of a sweet tooth just finds it a bit much, and I felt the same way here, though this is completely a personal preference. With or without sauce, I must point out how brilliantly simple and flavorful the recipe is, with only a few basic ingredients. If you’re not able to get to Pok Pok anytime soon, I highly recommend making these wings at home!

The second item we ordered was this green chile relish (naam phrik num) dish. While visiting Thailand for the first time last year, I developed an immediate obsession with Thai chile relishes, which are quite pungent, salty, and spicy, so when I saw it on the menu at Pok Pok, I just had to order it. Here the relish is served with the customary steamed vegetables and fried pork skin for dipping, and an herbacious Chiang Mai sausage on the side. Everything in this dish tasted just like it had in Thailand. When I first had the sausage from road stalls in Chiang Mai, I remember thinking it tasted like Thai curry in meat form, but I think I actually liked Pok Pok’s version even better — more meaty and a bit more toned down in herby-ness, which I preferred.

We didn’t have a big appetite that morning, so those were the only two dishes we ordered. Several people have since told me that they usually serve pandan-flavored water, which I’m sad to have missed! My sister said it was one of her favorite things. I also noticed they had drinking vinegars on menu, which I’d like to try sometime when it’s not quite as early in the day. :)

… breakfast at Sen Yai, 3384 SE Division St. [map]

After Pok Pok, I was eager to also check out Ricker’s new place that opened last year, Sen Yai. Both these restaurants are just really fun to be in. Pok Pok is converted from a house, and the exterior of Sen Yai looks something like a drive-through from another era. I love how these restaurants celebrate street food culture by highlighting the humble, everyday objects that elsewhere might just be considered tacky Asian decor. At Sen Yai, I was especially taken with the vintage Thai cooking posters hanging on the bright teal walls!

Even though we really wanted to try the laksa here, it wasn’t being served for breakfast. So we ended up getting the khai luak, or coddled eggs with bread soldiers; jok, or rice porridge, with a softly poached egg added; and the kuaytiaw naam kai, which was a bowl of very wide rice noodles in a simple broth. I loved the consistency of the porrdige and actually wondered whether it had been made with broken rice, because it tasted coarser and resembled grits.

I loved both these restaurants, but I must admit that somewhere deep down, my cheap Asian self had a little trouble getting over the price of some of the costlier dishes ($12-16) that I know are probably just a few dollars on the street in SE Asia (or even in a Chinatown somewhere). But ultimately I think it’s worth it for the way that an entire cultural experience is being presented here. The menus at both places offer a wide range of samplings, including many obscure dishes. Not only that, but the menus are just so well written, with informative descriptions coming across in a fun, lively voice. It really feels like you have a cultural guide here translating a cultural experience for you — he keeps it authentic, but presents it in an accessible, non-intimidating way, at a pace that you can handle. I actually got a copy of Ricker’s new book, Pok Pok, that released while I was in Portland, and I’m looking forward to reading it closely and trying some of the recipes.

… noodle soups at Ha & VL, 2738 SE 82nd Ave #102 [map]

At the complete other end of the spectrum is HA & VL, serving Vietnamese noodle soups the way your grandma makes them at home. This is a tiny, no-frills kind of place with a rotating menu, and it’s very popular among Asians — my parents actually have a friend who come here almost every day! Sandwiches are available daily, but there are two featured noodle soups rotating each day of the week. So of course we had to come back several times to try a few of the options, including bun cha oc (snail noodle soup — the snail is actually chopped up and incorporated into meatballs) and pho bac (northern-style pho).

… pho and bun cha Hanoi at Pho Kim, 2204 Southeast 82nd Ave. [map]

This is my family’s go-to place for pho in Portland. Apparently, a number of owners have tried to run pho restaurants at this very location, but the current Pho Kim is the only one that has actually taken off. The place is spacious, clean, and well run, and most importantly, the pho is solid. (You can request the rare slices of beef on the side, but they often forget.) The bun cha Hanoi here is quite good too, though both me and my parents find it to be on the sweet side for our tastes. My mom also likes their hu tieu thap cam, or Chinese-style rice noodle soup with shrimp, quail eggs, and pork (not pictured here).

… bun bo hue at… Bun Bo Hue :) 7002 SE 82nd Ave [map]

Our go-to place for bun bo hue is the accurately, if uninspiringly, named Bun Bo Hue. It’s not the most amazing bowl of bbh ever, but it’s pretty good. One of the things we like about it is how they cut up the pigs’ feet into small, manageable pieces for you to nibble on. :)

… rice noodle sheets at Hanoi Kitchen, 7925 Northeast Glisan St. [map]

My parents like to come here for the banh uot, or thin rice noodle sheets. Again, it’s not the most amazing (nothing will ever live up to Banh Cuon Tay Ho, which my sister introduced me to in Orange County), but it’s pretty good. We also got a decent bowl of bun rieu here too (that’s crab and tomato rice noodle soup).

… more pho and duck noodle soup at Pho Oregon, 2518 Northeast 82nd Ave. [map]

This is another pho place my parents go to, but my mom’s favorite thing to order here is actually the bun mang vit, or rice noodle soup with bamboo and duck. They serve the duck on the side here, like a salad, similar to ga xe phay except with duck instead of chicken. I’ve never had it this way before, and I really liked it!

The last Vietnamese place I really wanted to try but had no luck with was Luc Lac. It was closed both times we tried to go (which is how we ended up getting excellent Greek food next door instead, as I mentioned in my earlier post).

Grocery Stores

Before I close, I wanted to include a list of grocers, both because I spent a lot of time getting groceries with my parents and because I was quite impressed with the range and variety of options available in Portland, from warehouse-dirt-cheap Winco to the higher-end, local, Whole-Foods-like chain New Seasons that I mentioned in my last post.

Banh hoi family, 12105 SE Raymond, 503-761-8809 [map]- Starting with the most obscure, this is where my parents get freshly made banh hoi (rice noodle bundles for eating with lettuce wraps). It’s made by a family out of their home, so you have to place your order by phone first (in Vietnamese, though their children might be able to help you in English) and then pick up Friday–Sunday.

Bui Natural Tofu [map] – This little shop near Hanoi Kitchen sells tofu of all sorts, as well as a variety of Vietnamese desserts. My mom loves their xoi khuc, which is sweet sticky rice with mung bean and pork.

ABC Seafood Market [map] – Asian market that my parents go to for fresh seafood at good prices.

Fubonn [map] and Hong Phat [map] – These are the large general Asian supermarkets that my parents frequently shop at. They have more Vietnamese / SE Asian ingredients than some of the other chains like Korean HMart and Japanese Uwajimaya, which also have locations farther out in the Portland suburbs.

Cash n Carry [map] – A (non-Asian) regional chain with several locations in Portland. This is sort of like a restaurant supply store, selling food items in massive quantities at cheap prices. They also do carry some Asian foods here too, like rice noodles and chili sauces. My parents like to come here for wholesale meat.

Winco [map] – A regional chain and warehouse-like store that sells groceries so cheap they are being called “Walmart’s worst nightmare” (but they supposedly have more ethical practices). They have a really impressive bulk foods section. My mom likes to get fresh peanut butter here, which she grinds with a machine herself in the back of the store.

Flying Fish Company – We were introduced to this (also non-Asian) seafood shack by a Portland local sitting next to us at a restaurant one time. Since then, our family tradition has been to get sashimi-grade fish here, along with fresh wasabi root. I say “shack,” which it is, but it is actually much nicer, cleaner, and better run than “shack” would convey. They list each week’s fresh fish (all sustainable) on their website, and it looks like they also carry things like grassfed beef.

Fred Meyer – This is a Safeway-like, local, privately owned grocery chain that is more mid-range (as in, not as fancy as New Seasons). It is totally a Portland staple, and my parents and in-laws do practically everything here, from buying clothing items to filling prescriptions. I actually got my flu shot here too.

All in all, I was quite impressed with the amount of Asian food options in Portland, though you may have noticed the lack of Chinese restaurants mentioned. We actually did eat a lot of Chinese food, and while being Cantonese-food-deprived in Beijing meant I loved it all despite my parents’ lack of endorsement, in the end I have to agree that they probably aren’t worth mentioning by name here.

It’s a bit ironic that only after moving to China have I had a chance to take longer trips to Portland, but I am quite happy to adopt it as my second home these years. We will be back soon enough next month!

Eating in Portland, part 1

Normally when we go to Portland we don’t eat out very often, since we have a lot of family there, and I try to get as much of my parents’ home cooking as possible. This past fall, though, I was there for almost 6 weeks with little E, and in between jet lag (me) and jet lag (E), a million doctor appointments, playdates in every corner of town, pilgrimage(s) to Powell’s bookstore, getting fresh air outdoors, and hanging out with family, we did manage to squeeze in a number of places I have been meaning to try (including one that’s been on my list for years!).

On previous trips, we’ve loved Broder (for Scandinavian brunch that is as delicious as it is adorable), Toro Bravo (tapas), Saburo’s (cheap sushi in generous portions), and food carts everywhere (including the famous chicken rice at Nong’s Khao Man Gai). We also have a family tradition of buying fresh fish and sashimi from a little shack on Hawthorne called the Flying Fish Company and then ordering fresh Dungeness crabs through a vendor who is a family friend.

I already mentioned all the beautiful fresh produce and amazing food we had at the Portland Farmer’s Market on our trip this past fall. On top of that, we also ate…

…waffles at the Waffle Window, 3610 SE Hawthorne Blvd. [map]

This photo was actually taken on my second visit there this trip. It was so good I had to bring my husband back, and we ordered the blueberry cheesecake and the 3 Bs (bacon, Brie, and basil). Both were excellent, but we agreed that we couldn’t eat a whole plate of the cheesecake one alone (but neither of us have a real sweet tooth). The 3 Bs, though, I would definitely go back again for. It is served with a side of peach jam, which just adds a touch of sweetness to top off the salty smoky bacon, rich creamy Brie, and fragrant basil. I don’t think I’ve had a more perfect waffle.

… dinner at Tasty n Sons, 3808 N Williams, Suite C [map]

We got together for a kids-free night out with my old college roomie Chau and her husband Quoc. A number of years ago they had taken us to one of their favorite restaurants, Toro Bravo, and this time they brought us to Tasty n Sons, by the same owner. We ordered up a wide sampling of dishes, all of them excellent. Apparently, Tasty n Sons is very popular for brunch (which it looks like is served daily), when the lines are reported to snake around the block. When we arrived for a weeknight dinner, though, there was only a short wait. The restaurant is in an interesting neighborhood I’d never been to called the Mississippi district, and I’d love to walk around there during the day sometime to peruse all the shops and try some of the other restaurants.

…. dessert at Salt & Straw, 2035 NE Alberta St [map]

The ice cream flavors here each sound like a unique mix you’ve never heard of and have to try. We ended up getting one called the Thanksgiving turkey, which is made from turkey and chicken fat and contained bits of turkey skin brittle! It was actually quite sweet and the caramelized bits made it taste like a salted caramel flavor. The other one we got was lavender.

… the best falafels at Greek Express, 827 SW 2nd Ave [map]

Sorry, no picture for this one. We actually just happened to stumble upon this place. After trying (twice!) to go to Luc Lac and finding it closed, we decided to eat at a cafeteria-like place just next door, where one of the vendors was serving Greek food. And it turned out to be some of the best Greek food we’ve had. The falafels, in particular, were astounding — I think they were even better than L’As du Falafel in Paris!

… slice of pizza at Sizzle Pie, 926 W Burnside St [map]

I stopped here after an afternoon at Powell’s, which is right across the street. Whenever I’m in China, one of the things I miss most is pizza (they just don’t do it right here), so a slice of pepperoni was just the right thing after an afternoon browsing books.

food carts on Belmont, SE 43rd and Belmont [map]

On the recommendation of my sister, we stopped at the food carts on Belmont for some crispy truffle tater tots, a delicious gyro sandwich from Aybla Grill, and some very rich mac n cheese from Herb’s. It was all much better tasting than my unfortunate iPhone photo makes it look.

As for drinks, we made time for…

… lattes at Stumptown, 4525 SE Division Street [map]

Even though I have been supplied with Stumptown coffee beans for years (first by Chau, who I believe got me hooked on coffee with these Stumptown beans so many years ago, and then by my parents), I had never actually sat down for a cup of coffee at one of their shops. When my parents told me that the bus from the corner of their street would take me straight to Stumptown (and on downtown to Powell’s!), I ended up coming here a number of times this past trip.

… a late-night decaf at Coava, 1300 SE Grand Ave. [map]

We managed to squeeze in a stop at Coava one night, where the brewing of coffee is treated as an elaborate ritual using the finest equipment. The coffee shop shares a beautiful loft space with Bamboo Revolution, which makes the furniture, flooring, doors, etc. If you go, you must also visit the gorgeous bathrooms. :)

I have yet to mention any of the Asian food I ate on this trip… It definitely deserves its own post, so stay tuned!