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 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  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 ) 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.

Coconut Sashimi

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I never realized how similar coconut flesh and raw fish were texturally until I tried coconut sashimi for the first time. A friend first introduced me to this when we lived in Grenada (and she first learned about it from watching Korean dramas!), where coconuts are available and abundant year-round. We’d bring empty bottles to the market downtown with us and get them filled up with fresh coconut water. After the coconuts were emptied, we’d ask the coconut man to chop up the coconuts for us and take them home to scoop out the sweet, succulent flesh (or we’d eat them right there with makeshift spoons chopped off from the sides of the coconuts).

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The texture of the meat can vary depending on the age of the coconut. Younger coconuts will often have more juice and less meat. The meat it does have is more of a “jelly” that just barely clings to the shell. Slightly older coconuts will have a bit less juice, but firmer, thicker meat. These meatier coconuts are perfect for making coconut sashimi.

In the US, you can usually find fresh coconuts at any Asian market. They don’t normally have the outer skin anymore and usually resemble little cones that have been put through a giant pencil sharpener. It’s a little harder to tell how old exactly the coconuts are, but they will do just fine for making sashimi. I eat coconut sashimi exactly as I would eat regular sashimi — with a good quality soy sauce and wasabi. This might be a great vegan substitute for sashimi for any of your health-conscious friends or for satisfying a sushi craving for those who might be pregnant. I haven’t tried it other ways yet, but I’m excited to see how it might taste as nigiri or ceviche (maybe with some avocado!).

Preserved Salted Kumquats (咸金橘, quat muoi)

When I was growing up, my mom always had a jar of preserved kumquats on her windowsill, just waiting for someone with a sore throat to soothe. I don’t remember eating them that often back then, but when I left for college and then grad school, my mom would pour some out into a jar for me to bring along.

It was only when I got sick that I’d remember I had these stashed away somewhere in a forgotten corner of my fridge. Then I’d take out a couple, smash them in a glass, and add some hot water and honey. I swear this easy little home remedy soothes the sorest of throats better than any lozenges or tea or medicine.

Now, with the air quality what it is in Beijing, sore throats, coughs, and colds are very common for us. So I decided I’d attempt to make my own salted kumquats to have on hand. Thank goodness, because we are just emerging from a nearly 2-week stretch of dreadful air quality in what has been dubbed a “nuclear winter.” Thankfully, we have done better health-wise this winter than last, and a little sore throat has been manageable compared to the previous year, especially with some preserved kumquats around (not to mention plenty of Emergen-C, Sudafed, and salt rinses)!

There’s no real recipe for this. Just look for an air-tight jar, wash it well, and give the kumquats a good scrubbing too. Then, alternately layer kumquats with a decent-quality coarse salt (I used kosher salt) until you’ve used up all of the fruit or reached the top of your jar. Let the salted kumquats sit for at least a few months, but ideally a year or more. The longer the better. During the first few days and weeks, turn the jar upside down or give it a gentle shake to redistribute the salt now and then.

Note: Growing up, my family never paid any particular attention to proper canning or storage methods. I actually didn’t bother doing more than a regular cleaning here because we’ve always used our preserved kumquats on an ongoing basis over a duration of years, so we don’t actually vacuum seal the jar. My parents always just kept their jar of salted kumquats on the windowsill, even after opening, for year after year, though I’ve tended to keep mine in the fridge just in case. We’ve never had any problems with spoilage. I think that Mediterranean salt-packed capers are stored similarly. But if you feel more comfortable, feel free to follow proper canning methods and sterilize the jar if you like. Preserving recipes usually tell you to store jars in a dark, cool spot, and after opening, in the fridge. They also say to use canned goods within a year, or within 6 months after opening, but that piece of advice pretty much defeats the point of these preserved kumquats, which are supposed to be more effective as they age. (I found mention of some kumquats here that have stored for 8 years!) Usually, we would tend to use ours up before they’ve had time to get too, too old. But as always — use your own good judgment. :)

Below is what my salted kumquats look like after 5 weeks. I didn’t put any water into the jar, so all the liquid you see here has been released by the fruit itself. At this point the kumquats have started shriveling up and getting darker in color, but they are still hard to break apart with a spoon. You can start using them, but they are not as effective as having preserved for longer.

To use, put 2-3 kumquats and some of the released juices from the jar into a drinking glass. (You can give the kumquats a rinse if you don’t want your drink to be too salty, but the salt is actually supposed to help soothe your throat.) Muddle the kumquats with the end of a spoon or mash with a fork. Then add hot water and honey to taste. Stir it all up and drink!

For a cold version, try adding honey, carbonated water or club soda, and some ice cubes.

As a home remedy, this follows the same idea as hot tea with lemon and honey, or Coke with salt and lemon. Start preserving a jar of kumquats now so you can give it a try the next time your throat begins to feel scratchy! Or maybe you know an Asian family that may have some long-preserved shriveled ones on hand to share with you. :) When I told my mom I was giving mine a try after 5 weeks, she said I should just bring some of hers back when I see her later this month. :)

Oil Down: Grenada’s National Dish

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There’s nothing glamorous or refined about oil down; it’s a humble dish from a humble country. On this small Caribbean island, where hard-working locals have to deal with limited freshwater, seasonal rainfall, and natural disasters, and where the majority of its food is imported from the US and neighboring islands, Grenadians are proud to claim oil down as their own.

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The majority of the locals here are of African origin, the descendants of slaves brought over to work on European-owned plantations. Although Grenada became an independent country in 1974, it has retained an identity deeply rooted in European culture. Many street names, neighborhoods, and bays (Mont Tout, Carenage, Morne Rouge) have French influence, while the currency (Eastern Caribbean dollar) pays tribute to the queen of England, and British English is taught in schools. As a result, the local customs, language, food, religion, and architecture are a rich blend of each of these different influences, each lending a unique flavor to the culture of Grenada.

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Although many things in Grenada have been influenced by the Europeans over the years, oil down remains something purely Grenadian. No imported spices or seasonings, no choice cuts of meat here. This one-pot meal is made up of local veggies, “provisions” (the local term for starchy roots, tubers, and bananas that fill you up), salted meat, and aromatic seasoning —  all easily accessible, affordable ingredients in Grenada. All these components are combined in a large pot and cooked down in coconut milk over an open fire. In fact, the name of the dish comes from the coconut oils released from the coconut milk as it simmers and is absorbed by the other ingredients.

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Oil down is comfort food at its Caribbean best. And of course, like any comfort food, mom or grandma always makes the best version! I was fortunate to have gotten to know someone local to the island whom I could ask to teach me how to make this dish. During my time in Grenada, I frequented the public market in St. George’s often enough that I became friends with a lot of my favorite vendors there. In particular, I ordered so much handmade jewelry from Billy that we were soon on a first-name basis. I’d stand there and watch him make jewelry some days, we’d haggle good-naturedly over different pieces, and when my friends and I had heavy bags filled with mangoes and bananas from the market, we’d leave them with Billy as we finished our shopping in town. We even spent an afternoon with Billy and his friends trekking through the rainforest, as he showed us where he collects his seeds for jewelry-making. So, it didn’t take too much convincing when I asked Billy to show me how to make oil down.

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Our day began at the market where Billy and his friends showed us the ingredients we’d need for making this dish. After picking up all these items, we lugged everything (including a huge pot) to the beach to begin our cookout. When your meal needs time to simmer, the beach is the best place to wait!

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While this dish is relatively easy to make (throw everything in a pot and let it simmer!), it usually turns into an all-day event. Because it tastes best cooked over an open flame, families will often make oil down at the beach, at sporting events, at hashes (organized, weekly hikes around the island), or any place where you need to feed a large group of people. And if you know Grenadians, they love to lime (a Grenadian term for something like “chilling”). In fact, “oil down” actually refers to both the dish as well as the act or event of making it. An oil down typically involves families spending the whole day at the beach. Everybody pitches in to help, and as the food cooks, children will jump in the water, young boys will play soccer, moms will watch the babies, and the men will lounge around, liming. You can’t truly experience this dish without taking part in the making and sharing of it!

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I hope that by recording this recipe, I can pay tribute in some small way to Billy, to the friends I met on the island, and to the two years that my husband and I shared together so far away from home. Yes, Grenada is not in the media much (aside from the invasion by the US in the 80s), nor is it at the top of anybody’s must-see travel destinations (heck, I couldn’t even convince my sister to visit me while I was there!), but it has a simplicity and sincerity that I’ve grown to love and miss after I left just two months ago. The island’s only recently become more tourist-friendly, but many locals still don’t really know how to interact or deal with foreigners (they’ll often resort to either catcalling or brusqueness). But if you have a thick skin, an open mind, and are sure to mind your “morning,” “afternoon,” or “good nights,” you’ll find some of the friendliest, kindest people you’ll ever meet.

Oil down, in all its simple and unassuming nature, has really come to represent Grenada for me — something I can bring back home and remember the island by. At first glance, the dish doesn’t look like it has much to offer, and you may not quite know what to make of it. It’s not exactly a stew, nor a curry. And it’s lost a lot of its vibrant colors after simmering for so many hours. But if you’ll take the time to dig a little deeper, open up yourself, and give it a chance, you’ll find hidden beneath modest ingredients, the very heart and soul of a country and its people.

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