Here are my two latest pieces on China, in where I eat sea worm jelly, shark balls, and feature a bunch of insects.
Snapshots from China: The Best Things I Ate in Xiamen [Serious Eats]
Located in the Fujian province of China, Xiamen is a southern port city with an inventory of dishes that are heavy on seafood and strikingly similar to the cuisine of neighboring Taiwan. From sea worm jellies to shark ball soup, there was never a meal that wasn’t worth photographing during my two week visit. I stayed on the idyllic island of Gulangyu, located off the coast of the main city. And with a host family adamant on making sure I tried everything, my trip was filled with locally-sourced seafood, huge family-style dinners, and wonderfully cheap snacks from nearby street vendors. The cooking style at Xiamen puts an emphasis on fresh and sweet flavors. A lot of the selections are unique to the city and can’t be found anywhere else.
Bugging out: 5 extreme foods at Beijing’s night market [CNNGo] When I saw the words “night market” on the Beijing city map, my stomach rumbled at the thought of vendors with assorted dumplings and classic Chinese sweets. But when I arrived at Donghuamen Night Market (北京东华门夜市), a street food landmark in Beijing, the plates were heaped with bugs and unconventional animal parts. The 200-meter-long food street has been around since 1984 and is a hot spot for daring foodies. Sure, there’s the tame candied fruit, lamb kebabs and stuffed buns, but the other end of the spectrum is rather more challenging.With a selection ranging from scorpions to sea horses, the market carries one of the world’s most bizarre food selections.
So it’s terribly humid here in Gulangyu. Coupled with a passing typhoon and a weather forecast of “80% chance of rain” for the next week, I’ve been trapped in a pink coffee shop called Babycat’s Cafe for a solid five days. Coffee shops are the only place with wireless Internet access here, and since it’s too wet and humid to explore the city for more than two hours without regret, J and I have decided to just park here for the week and take advantage of the air conditioning and relatively quick internet access (J’s applying to dental school and I’m still writing).
Now what is Gulangyu like? Think narrow alleyways of cutesy coffee shops. Add a touch of pink, maybe a cat logo here and there. Some easy listening music, and ridiculously sugary and frothy drinks. Boys – this place is babe central. Summer just got out for Chinese schools and tons of kids are flocking here for break. Few are under 40, and if they’re male, they’re more often than not with their girlfriends or a group of classmates. I met a college student from Xi’an on the bullet train back from Shanghai and these were her exact words:
“I can’t wait to go to Gulangyu, stroll along the beach, listen to a concert, and sip Zhang Sanfeng’s milk tea.”
Gulangyu has always been a romanticized tourist destination for Chinese people, but in the last two years, a influx of businesses have opened dozens of adorable souvenir and cafes to cater to a growing youth tourist presence. As I mentioned in my previous post, Xiamen and Gulangyu is the closest a lot of mainlanders can get to Taiwan. And I swear, this island is the youth culture of Taiwan (minus the clubs) rolled into one massively concentrated ball.
There’s this ridiculous souvenir book that everyone buys here. It’s a empty stamp book that features all the city’s cafes and in front of each cafe, there’s a stamp that you can use to stamp your book. It’s perhaps the most ludicrous tourist trap ever but people are obsessed. I tried it for curiosity’s sake and found myself pushing and shoving dozens of high school Chinese girls while we all clamored to get a faded stamp that didn’t even work.
The plan is to finally get off the island tomorrow and actively find the last three Xiamen small eats I’ve yet to sample. But for now, it’s been wake up, eat breakfast with the family, watch Chinese game shows, coffee shop for hours, browse neighboring shops, and walk back in the rain just in time for dinner. Idyllic.
If you’ve ever been to a Fujianese restaurant in New York, you’ll notice some menu similarities to Taiwanese restaurants. A lot of people immigrated to Taiwan from Fujian. The dialect and local foods of south Fujian and Taiwan are practically identical.
Yet during my stay here in Xiamen, I began to notice a lot of direct references to Taiwan: a influx of cutesy coffee shops with Taiwanese music and food vendors who marketed their food as authentically Taiwanese. Sooner or later, I even encountered an entire street of food vendors titled “Little Taiwan.”
After talking to some locals and a few college students, they told me the obsession with Taiwan is because Xiamen is as close as many mainlanders can get to Taiwan. It’s difficult for people from mainland China to obtain a visa to Taiwan and only recently have people from the mainland been allowed to visit the island.
The cultural and culinary similarities make it easy for locals to sell their items as Taiwanese. And because Taiwan is such a cultural hotspot in East Asia, businesses in Xiamen have used its appeal as a marketing strategy.
Truth be told, the foods we encountered in “Little Taiwan” were just as Fujianese as they were Taiwanese. Fish balls and meat skewers are not exclusively Taiwanese. But for the tourists in the area (mostly Chinese youths), it’s the Taiwanese appeal that draws them in.
I swear I’m still alive. Plenty of mosquito bites but no food poisoning yet (knock on wood). Recently got back from a weekend trip from Shanghai and am now back in Gulangyu.
Unfortunately the house I’m staying at on Gulangyu has absolutely no internet access. On the bright side, the island has a bunch of cutesy coffee shops with internet access — but there’s only so much coffee I can buy.
Food reporting is still coming in though — however slowly. I’ve started writing a series of Chinese food posts from China on Fork in the Road called “Postcards from China.”
Dishes covered so far: Chinese bayberry, Xiamen oyster pancakes and Shanghainese xiaolong bao (for tomorrow).