Monday, March 12, 2012

Old fashioned Meatballs

These past weeks, I have been dusting off my father's recipes in my mind and cooking up what I learned from hovering around him in the kitchen, when I was still very young.
As a child, one of my favorites among my father's dishes was bola bola or meatballs.
I remember how I would pester him to make them at least once a week, until I grew old enough to learn to cook them myself.

You start with at least a kilo of good ground pork, not too lean since fat gives meatballs that nice juicy texture.

Just one egg, mixed thoroughly with the ground meat to help bind it together.

Daddy just used minced onions but I add some finely chopped kinchay and chives for that added flavor.
This part of the prep is actually what I enjoyed best, when I was young and making a pest of myself in the kitchen. Every time that my father cooked bola bola, I would insist that I get my hands in the ground meat to mash and squeeze the meatballs myself.
Get your own hands in the mix and form the meatballs by squeezing them out in small balls through your fist. Don't bother about using a meatball shaper or any other cooking utensil -- meatballs are handmade!

Next fry your meatballs in hot oil, being careful to leave space between them so they don't stick together. Turn them once done. Set aside in a colander to let the oil drip off.

Now for the sauce! Daddy would saute pork cuts , usually taken from the pig tail -- in garlic and onions with some soy sauce. Once browned, pour in some water until the meat is slightly covered. Let simmer till meat is tender.

Once the meat is tender enough, pour the cooked bola bola back into the pan. If you have green peas, that would be a good addition, for a bit of color. Heat through then you're all done!

And here it is ... old fashioned bola bola from my childhood! My family loves this dish.
And if my memory serves me well -- these taste remarkably close to how daddy used to make them!

Vegetarian in Beijing

It's been over a year since I've eaten any meat at all -- I think you'd call me a pescetarian since I continue to eat fish and seafood in addition to the usual vegetables and fruits.
But this being the Lenten season, it's that time of the year when I morph into a lacto-ovo vegetarian, eschewing all except dairy products (cheeses and butter), eggs and plant derivatives.
This seasonal diet coincided with the company outing to Beijing.
But no worries, vegetarianism is an ancient tradition in China.
Proof of this was the wide variety of vegetable dishes that came with every meal.

I loved this very spicy string bean and chopped chili dish. Quick-fried, the string beans were still crunchy and every mouthful was hot, hot, hot!

Tofu is part and parcel of chinese cuisine. Again, quite spicy (it was winter and spicy food helps keep the body warm) and a bit more fermented and pungent than the usual -- but still very good!

The familiar mushrooms and broccoli with oyster sauce was a fixture on the lunch and dinner menus.

This soup was very flavorful, with large slices of fresh abalone and oyster mushrooms,
it was a filling and satisfying starter.

I also enjoyed this egg drop soup, with fresh tomatoes and slivers of green onion.
Comfort food for a cold day!

Each meal featured one or two egg dishes -- this scrambled egg dish was more like scrambled tomatoes but the simplicity belied its delicious taste.

Here's my favorite vegetable dish among all that I had that week-end in Beijing -- a simple stir fry of chives and bean sprouts. Served with triangles of thin pancakes, I made myself little pockets of healthy goodness.
Hen hao chi!

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

After-dinner Snacking at Beijing's Donghuamen Night Food Street

It's just an hour after dinner but I've convinced my baser foodie self that we're both hungry enough to head out to Beijing's famous Donghuamen Street - site of its colorful and popular night food market.
The last time I was in Beijing, I went to Donghuamen and had the ubiquitous candied strawberries on a stick.
This time, I wanted to find a snack that would be savory, more substantial and yes, vegetarian.

Donghuamen street is on the north end of Wangfujing, the famous pedestrian only shopping street right in the heart of Beijing. The night food market starts where the pedestrian only street ends so I cross a busy wide avenue and hope that I don't get run over by the speeding cars -- some of whom continue to cross through the red light.

It's a cold chilly night but lots of locals and foreign tourists alike are strolling through the food street -- the row of food booths stretches all the way to the end of the block.

This food street is famous for such exotic and bizarre foods such as silkworms, larva, snakes, scorpions, different kinds of insects. I guess these unusual foods are also what drive the tourists in. Although I notice that they look and they gawk but they don't really buy.

Bizarre foods may seem more sensational but a lot of the stalls have things everyone eats -- like skewers and skewers of tofu, chicken parts, beef, mutton, pork, prawns -- the un-exotic, everyday stuff.

The cooks and stall servers yell out, barker style (in chinese of course) to each and everyone, trying to catch our attention, trying to make a sale. Since most of the stalls sell the exact same things, everyone has to work a little harder to attract the customers.

I wonder what starfish taste like? Wouldn't they be spiny and hard and unpalatable? I guess I'll never know!

Yum! These steamed crabs look fat, fresh and delicious! However, my vegetarian conscience pulls me away from this scene.

I'm still looking for vegetarian options that go beyond the usual fruit skewers and boiled corn and shaved ice sweets. This stall sells mounds of sliced tripe but right beside it is a wok of plain fried noodles!

I order a small plate and through sign language, agree to make it spicy. The noodles are sauteed very quickly along with sliced cabbage and chili. Before the cook ladles it onto the styropor plate, he liberally douses it with black vinegar. By this time, I am salivating as the aroma of oil, noodles, chili and vinegar wafts through the night.

Here I am with my overflowing plate of plain fried noodles with chili and black vinegar.
I stand off to one side to eat. The first spoonful just slides down -- the noodles are oily but very tasty. By the second spoonful, my mouth is feeling warm -- it's spicy and sour and wonderful -- all at the same time. I can't believe I was able to eat the entire thing.
The cold night air registered 0 deg C but inside my mouth ... it was a blistering 40 deg C!

The High Place and Flatwhite Cafe at 798 Art Zone, Beijing

Walking through the exciting and visually stunning 798 Art Zone in Beijing is thirsty work.
It was late afternoon, the sun was going down and the air had turned from cold to
brrrr cold!
Time for a hot cuppa!

Tree houses have been my fascination since I was young and had one in our back yard. What luck to find this glass "tree house" right smack in the middle of 798! Called the High Place, it's a gallery cum coffee shop.

The small gallery downstairs greets you with a sign -- coffee on the roof!

Serendipity! My friend and I find cozy armchairs right by the glass windows overlooking the street. With ceiling to floor views, it's almost like floating on air!

We look out across the street to more galleries, artists' workshops, art installations ...

Some street selling action is happening below us as a vendor pulls up with his trolley laden with coffee table art books.

I look up on the glass ceiling and the leafless branches form a striking silhouette against the gray Beijing sky. On a less cold day, you can actually go up on the roof and climb the platform and have coffee al fresco. And why not, this is a modern tree house after all!

Our hot drinks arrive! I order hot longan honey tea and it is fragrant, sweet and delicious. The warmth soon spreads through my fingers and all the way down to my toes!

My friend orders a mochaccino -- the star art on the foam reminds me of our very own parol.

The High Place Coffee House is not very big -- it's got nooks and corners and it's very cozy (ooh, I hate that word but this is just what it is!) and the ambience is just perfect for a wintry afternoon.

After coffee and walking around for another hour, we find that it's almost dinner time. 798 Art Zone is 20 kilometers from Beijing center but with the horrendous traffic, it can take more than an hour to travel back to our hotel. So we decide to check out the Flatwhite Cafe for something to eat before we leave.

Just like the High Place, the interiors are contemporary and modern. You could transfer Flatwhite Cafe to any global mega- city and it would blend right in.
More paintings line the cool beige walls.

The menu is western and built around pastas and sandwiches. For starters, we order the bean nachos. Crisp tortilla chips come with a huge dollop of salsa, cream and melted cheese. Gooey and good!

My friend has this vegetarian pesto with lots of green vegs and slivers of emmenthal cheese on top.

The menu lists a vegetarian carbonara (!) which is actually penne with lots of chilies, tomatoes, zucchini, peppers and more vegs! Who knew carbonara came in a vegetarian version?

Afternoon shadows had given way to dusk -- we lingered at Cafe Flatwhite -- relishing the good
food, the warm and comfortable atmosphere -- it was a heart (and tummy) warming way to end our visit to the 798 Art Zone!

798 Art District - The Modern Side of Beijing

I enjoyed a quick trip to Beijing with my office mates last week-end and after going to all the must-see-historical-cultural sites -- you know, Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, The Great Wall, The Summer Palace ... I was just about up to my eyeballs in tradition and culture.
I wanted a taste of the new and modern Beijing!
So my friend and I broke off from the rest of the pack, hired a car and took off for 798 Art District -- the center for modern art in this part of the world!

798 Art District is located in the Dashanzi area, north of the center of Beijing. It's actually on the way to the airport so it's convenient if you have a few hours to spare before flying out.
The place is quite big -- it's made up of factory buildings originally used for manufacturing but in the early 2000's, the factories were abandoned and the artists started to move in.
Given the industrial look and architectural style of the buildings, it's a perfect setting for the avant garde, the contemporary and the cool!

Today, the factories "manufacture" art.
Artists -- painters, sculptors, installation artists, photographers, graphic designers, fashion designers, artisans, printers, -- call 798 Art Space as home.
There are galleries galore, small shops selling both art and kitsch, cool coffee shops and bars -- a very now place to be!
I call it the Sino Soho!

Paintings like these line factory walls. There is art everywhere you look!

Some of the art depict painful situations. It is meant to enlighten, provoke and inspire.

This interesting piece is actually a trash bin. How cool and smart is that!

Gorgeous graffiti make walls come alive. How to dismantle this and take it home?

Playful sculptures line the streets! But wait, there's something not-so-playful at the base of this mirthful mandarin!

How about a gigantic Venus de Milo done in red lego-like bricks?

I almost missed this row of mute white figures, mouths agape, looking heavenward ... a cry or a call for what?

A sign at the base of this piece reads "No climb" -- it must be so tempting to be the fifth grinning figure and climb to the top!

The streets are lined with young locals and foreigners, like me -- all amazed at the art that surrounds all of us!

A silent figure in an old and rickety wooden canoe -- where is he sailing off to?

A leap of faith! A leap of freedom! It's exhilarating, just looking at this figure in a shop window.

Further down at the end of 798 Art District is a section called D-Park, where there is a steam locomotive and imposing iron towers. The feel is industrial chic -- there is a fashion shoot that seems to be going on.

Our original plan was to spend just an hour at 798 Art Zone. An hour stretched to two then to more than three hours and yet we saw just a fraction of the place.
So many more galleries to go into, exhibits to visit, art to gaze and marvel at ... but never mind, I promised myself that the next time I find myself in Beijing I would definitely come back to this place.
For me, this is the real, dynamic China today!

Thanks to my friend Lyli for the first three photos and the last photo on this post!