Monday, 31 August 2009

Bun Cha

It's our second day in Hanoi, and Sarah and I just stumbled on what I've since found out to be one of Northern Vietnam's most famous street dishes: Bun Cha.

Bun Cha is a lunchtime favourite that marries rice noodles, grilled pork meatballs and a fish sauce infused broth in a fantastic dish that screams our arrival in South East Asia.

In classic street food style we didn't even have to order this one - our lunch was brought to us while we were still fiddling about in the Lonely Planet food section and looking around us awkwardly.

We each recieved a plate of lukewarm, slightly sticky rice noodles and a bowl of broth. We also got a large plate of leaves to share and some chopped chili and garlic by way of condiments.

It was all pretty intuitive - take a small bunch of noodles, drop it in the broth along with some leaves, chili and garlic and then gather up as much as you can with your chopsticks, making sure to grab some of that pork along the way.

What happened next was outstanding; the pork meatballs were charred on the outside and medium rare in the middle, containing subtle hints of a spice mix I was having too much fun to even think about. The broth, meanwhile, was in turns sweet, savory and spicy, the unmistakable tang of fish sauce acting as a prelude to the slow chili burn that followed. Apart from the lettuce, I have no idea what the other leaves were. Suffice to say that they were good, with a nippy little purple number making a particular impression.

So good was lunch in fact, that I barely registered the three mice that scurried past our table during the course of our meal.

Now thats what I call food.

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Banned in the PRC!

So for some reason, Street Foodie was caught up in the 10% of all websites blocked in China. As such, I've relied on my Dad to post for me for the last five weeks. Thanks Dad!

Whether it was my reckless use of bad puns or my virtual ignornarance of spelling and punctuation we'll never know. What I do know is that now I'm back online I'll be posting MUCH more frequently and being a much better webmaster all round.

Looking forward to writing about Vietnam. Street food is everywhere and the ice coffee has been keeping me awake at night.

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Yunnan Noodles

While it's neighbouring Sichuan that enjoys the reputation for China's spiciest cuisine, Yunnan province, in the south west of the country, has perfected the art of the noodle.

This diverse region of rugged mountains and tropical rainforests is home to almost half of China's 56 ethnic minority groups - and a good deal of it's best noodle dishes.

Noodles in Yunnan come in all different shapes and sizes. They can be flat, round, thick or thin. Sometimes they are simply shaved off a quivering getanious block with a cheese grater while you wait.

Most of these noodles are made of wheat, coming very close in appearence and texture to spagetti, but both rice noodles and sweet potato noodles are extremely popular.

Yunnan's most famous noodles are probably "across the bridge" noodles. This dish, named after the daily food delivery of a dutiful wife to her scholar husband, is a "do-it-yourself" affair, as you add various bits and pieces to a steaming broth.

Elsewhere, street stalls and hole-in-the-wall noodle shops do countless variations of cold noodles. These dishes are assembled rather than cooked, and usually involve raw onions, crushed peanuts and up to a dozen sauces, oils and pastes. The result is a tongue pleasing melange of flavours, and leaves just enough savory/spicy leftover broth to embarass yourself slurping.

There is an old Chinese saying: "If you want a good life, don't marry a beautiful women, but if you want good noodles, go to Yunnan." There isn't really, I just made that up. But there probably should be!

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Thursday, 27 August 2009

Lijiang Baba

Lijiang old town, in north western Yunnan, is the type of place that almost seems too nice. With its narrow streets, gushing canals and Naxi architecture there is no doubt that it is beautiful, but nevertheless many people seem to come away disappointed in the town.

What's missing, it seems, is the presence of any sense of the real China. Lijiang is too clean, ordered and touristy to come even close to authenticity. The Old Town looks and feels, for the most part, like a Las Vegas casino could have built it.

It's not surprising that this superficiality is reflected by bad food. With a few notable exceptions, allot of the dining options in the old town appear to be a case of style over substance. Most of the restaurants and cafes are way overpriced, and seem to be staffed exclusively by a breed of young arrogant types who consider any sort of service an infringement on their human rights.

Rise early in the morning however (before the town has had a chance to rouge up) and another Lijiang presents itself. At these hours, the tour buses have yet to arrive and people seem to be doing normal, everyday things. It's at this time that you're also likely to come across Lijiang Baba, the town's street breakfast of choice.

Lijiang Baba consists of a pancake-sized piece of dough, freshly rolled then dropped into a frying pan with about an inch of hot oil. Into the middle is cracked a whole egg and some chopped green onions are also added. The whole thing is then flipped and allowed to cook on the reverse. The result is a piece of eggy bread about the same thickness and texture of naan bread.

As breakfasts go, this one is close to unbeatable. All too often in China fried flatbread is stodgy and saturated with oil. Not so in Lijiang. Here the bread somehow manages to remain crispy on the outside, yet light and fluffy in the middle. The egg, for its part, is well distributed and along with the green onions adds a little flavour. The Baba also comes with two tart and spicy chilli sauces - a real wake up call.

By midday the Lijiang Baba stalls have by and large cleared away and the tourist onslaught is in full swing. In this respect Lijiang Baba serves a second purpose; that of giving you the energy to get the hell out of there!

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Thursday, 20 August 2009

Groove Magazine - Best of Busan

Back in my heady Busan days (i.e about two months ago) I wrote an article about my favourite places to eat in the city. The article was included in Groove Magazine's ( August edition, which has just come online as a pdf. (

Thanks to Dan from Seoul Eats ( for putting it in there, cheers mate!

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Yakity Yak

The last week or so has been pretty interesting. Instead of cruising down the Yangtze with about 1 million other people, we decided to travel through the mountains of Western Shechuan and Northern Yunnan.

The area is part of cultural Tibet, and is about as close as you can get to Lhasa without a permit. Even so I was quite unprepared for just how different it would be. Once we got above the 3000 metre level China disappeared and Tibetan villages, prayer flags and nomads became the norm.

There's not much in the way of street food up there however. All I saw were either barbecued potato slices brushed with oil and sprinkled with chilli powder (fantastic) or processed sausage brushed with oil and sprinkled with chilli powder (gross.)

I did have the chance however (rather tackily I know) to chow down with the family of our thirteen year old nomad horse trekking guide.

On the menu were Tibetan bread, Yak milk, Yak cheese, Yak yoghurt and Yak butter. Almost everything was fantastic; the milk was warm and rich, the cheese sweet and earthy, and the yoghurt somewhere between the two. It was only with the butter that I began to fade - our hostess mixed it into dough with some barley flour to make something called tampa. The result was way to heavy for my feeble belly, but probably the perfect thing to get through the Tibetan winter.

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Sunday, 16 August 2009

Chengdu chompin

We've just been to Chengdu, the supposed "culinary capital of China." With such credentials one expects a vibrant, healthy street-food scene, but a recent a post from warned me that this would not necessarily be the case.

Apparently the Chengdu authorities’ approach to street food is conducted with all the subtleness of a bulldozer in a hutong. Recent years have seen many vendors either shut down or forced to move inside. What's left is sparsely scattered through the city, with most of what's on offer limited to a few artificially constructed "food streets" close to the main tourist hotspots.

That's not to say the food there is bad. Skewered quail had been cooked, glazed and deep-fried (the latter perhaps to make the bones softer) and tasted of five spices.

I also managed to locate some dan dan noodles, one of the local specialities. These consisted of freshly cooked noodles placed on a bed of thick chilli oil, then topped with spicy ground pork. The result was probably the best noodle dish I've had since I arrived in China. The noodles tempered the heat of the chilli.

The same couldn't be said for this little stunner. Jellied minced beef was wrapped in a bamboo leaf then topped with sliced chilli and green onions. Much to the amusement of some passing Chinese, I broke into a serious case of the sweats while eating this. Definitely the spiciest thing I've had in a long time.

On the non-street food front Chengdu has much to recommend itself. Nearly everything you order comes loaded with fantastically mouth-numbing Sichuan peppers and hot chill’s. Top of the pile is of course the legendary hot pot, an outstanding act of masochism that will leave you wincing but going back for more.

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Monday, 10 August 2009

Xian Part 2

Check this out: Quails eggs cooked on skewers in a takoyaki style grill rolled in chilli sauce then dusted with chilli powder and cumin.

Spicy, luxurious, and completely unlike anything I've ever eaten before.

Or how about this? Tender, cured beef and steamed bulgur. The result is one big-ass mound of meaty, savoury, fluffy stuff.

Xian is my kind of town.

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Xian Part 1

We've just spent a few days in Xian, a historic city that most tourists use as a launching pad to see the terracotta warriors. As one of the only cities in China to retain its city walls, Xian maintains an ancient feel to it, and I got the distinct impression I was entering the heart of China.
It was in the city's Muslim quarter however that my senses really got to work. These busy, tightly packed streets sizzled and steamed with street food energy, making a meandering graze the only option really available.
My first stop was a dish whose provenance initially eluded me. Despite having the appearance of a large potato curry, closer inspection revealed the "potato" to be opaque and of a wobbly, jelly like consistency. It wasn't until I got up close and personal that I realised these chunks seemed to be closely related to glass noodles. Being slightly less dense than the noodles, the sweet potato starch (anyone?) pretty much disintegrated as soon as I put it in my mouth, having an odd cooling effect on the chilli, cumin and bean sprouts it had been cooked in.

Next was a stall specialising in meat-filled pancakes. The three fifteen year olds who ran it had an incredible efficient production line on the go (see picture.) The result was a neat, tasty, quesadilla sort of affair, the enjoyment of which was slightly hampered by its retention of a good deal of the oil it had been fried in.
My graze also took me by way of a dense, sweet, peanut cake, and a spicy, salty chicken kebab, and more street food than I could contemplate.
To be continued...

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Friday, 7 August 2009

Shanghai None?

It's hard to spend time in Shanghai without getting the feeling of motion. Everything about the city seems to be in a constant state of change and evolution. Just walking down the street you get a sense of the people and money that have swept through the place. This is apparent in the neo-classical and art deco edifices that pepper the city, and the plethora of supertalls that are moulding the city's skyline in the Pudong area. It is also the driving force behind the frenzied construction ahead of the 2010 World Expo, which for all intents and purposes, looks set to be Shanghai's Olympic Games.
Yet for all the shape shifting and tourist baiting one key aspect of the city appears to be lacking. The street food. Bizarrely, for a city founded on foreign trade, Shanghai doesn't seem to have any central markets (with the exception of the Friday Muslim Market - which we missed) Neither did any local street specialities readily present themselves. Instead, the street food I witnessed in Shanghai tended to lean towards the lower end of the scale - temporary set-ups outside construction sites, or grubby grills set amongst piles of rubbish at the side of the road. As such most of what I came across didn't really appeal.

That's not to say there weren't notable exceptions however. I found these hard-boiled eggs close to our hostel. The eggs had been lightly cracked and simmered in what looked (and tasted) like soy sauce and water. The result was that they were tangy and marbled on the outside, soft and crumbly in the centre.
I also happened across some truly excellent lamb skewers. These things seem to be getting better and cheaper the more I travel through China. The ones I had in Shanghai boasted substantial chunks of meat cooked to order then coated with generous amounts of cumin and chilli powder. What I love most about these skewers is how hot, dry and immediate the spices are in your mouth, closely followed by the fatty goodness of the lamb.
Whether Shanghai's great leap forward will help or hinder its street food culture remains to be seen. Street food or no, however, it's an infinitely interesting city and one to which I've vowed to return.

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Saturday, 1 August 2009

Going yeast

The summer after I finished school I worked for a time at Belfast's Asian Supermarket. Whilst there I stacked freezers, lugged sacks of rice and put together orders for the city’s numerous Chinese restaurant owners. During this time I also became acquainted with Tsingtao, the German founded beer hailing from a city of (almost) the same name in Eastern China.
My acquaintance with this particular brew developed over the years and when I started researching our China trip I found that a visit to Qingdao would not only yield a trip to the brewery itself, but would also give us the opportunity to view some fine German colonial architecture to boot.
When I got there however, I soon found out the yeast had been busy in other ways too. Apart from the buildings and the beer, Qingdao is also possessed of some of the finest bread and pastry I’ve tasted during my time in Asia, much of it sold from open-air street bakeries and food stalls.
My first encounter with what is perhaps Qingdao's second most valuable asset, was at a hole in the wall pie shop. This unassuming set-up located some way away from the city centre sold pork and beef pies, charged with spices and encased in a flaky buttery pastry, the like of which would give any sausage roll or Steak and Guinness pie a run for its money.
Later, when perusing the market close to our youth hostel I discovered some other fine specimens. Ever had a pie lid that tasted so good it outshone the filling and left you lusting after more of the same? These long rectangular pastry fingers would probably have done the trick. Constructed from layer after layer of thin filo-style pastry and served warm and bready, these ubiquitous beauties were a staple of our time in Qingdao.
Also prevalent were a variety of flat breads. These ranged from thick doughy foccacia style offerings seasoned with salt and pepper and brushed with oil, to thinner more pliable versions similar in texture and appearance to potato bread and strongly flavoured with garlic and green onions.
Everywhere I looked there were people selling small cakes, biscuits, or buns so freshly cooked to eat them straight away would be to risk severe burning. The buns, paired with some sliced German sausage from a street side salad stall made the perfect sandwich, one that was repeated several times on the nightmare 20 hour hard seat overnight to Shanghai!
With all that bread going around, I didn't even have time to think about beer.

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