vegetarianism

Jan 28, 2014

Take good care of yourself

Have a fish, why don’t you?

Our reflexology guy
Peter tries some meatPeter tries more meat!Peter loves eating meat!
The road to meat acceptance

Peter is “pre-sick,” according to our reflexologist. “If you went to a hospital, they’d say you were fine, but I can tell you’re very unhealthy,” he told us through a translator.

Now, reflexology is bunk, but massages are lovely, so we go back. The beauty of working essentially part time is that there’s plenty of time to pamper yourself. And our reflexology guy runs a nice place; massage is a social event in China, so neighborhood kids are always about, and pop-in friends and other customers are always up for a chat. It’s actually a great chance for me to practice my Chinese while our aches and pains are soothed.

Chinese medicine is all around in China. But most people take it as seriously as Americans do their folk beliefs such as “no swimming an hour after eating,” or “cold weather + wet hair = instant cold.” Our Chinese friends are quick to recommend drinking hot water as a curative for about everything, and cite the restorative benefits of certain foods, but they’ll also take ibuprofen for a headache and antibiotics for a bacterial infection. We’re not practicing witchcraft, over here.

“Do you eat fish?” our reflexologist asked Peter during one visit. “You should.” This actually seemed pretty reasonable to Peter, who had recently been connecting the dots between his feeling terrible all the time and his vegetarianism. So that night, he welcomed animal proteins back into his life with some nibbles of chicken. And he’s feeling a lot better. (Nutritional science! Now that’s a thing.)

Our reflexologist hasn’t said anything, but he’s stopped squeezing Peter’s big toe and saying “Your stomach is bad.” Healthy meat, healthy feet, I guess.

Feb 21, 2013

Winter break: Eat this nasi kandar

The best meal ever at Line Clear

Hello 8-bit Eating
Choose your meats
Line up hereThe foodLine ClearIt's just deliciousPeter, in his new shirt
Right before dinner, Peter bought this shirt at Sam’s Collection!
Fish headA bubbling pot

Anthony Bourdain told us to go to Penang, and Anthony Bourdain told us to go to Line Clear. And now I’m telling you: Go to Penang, and GO TO LINE CLEAR! It was by far the best meal of our trip, and possibly one of the best meals of our lives. But, I’m getting ahead of myself.

Line Clear is a Georgetown restaurant that specializes in nasi kandar. Nasi kandar is a famous Malay dish that consists of gravyed stuff over rice. Not too complicated. But, oh, what Line Clear does with that simple formula.

The restaurant is near Soho Free Pub on Jalan Penang. It’s tucked back down a deceptively quiet corridor that opens into a large open space. Metal picnic tables are lined up under a tin roof, and the food is stacked in large steam trays along one wall.

We weren’t really sure how to get the process started, but as we stood and stared hungrily at the piles and piles of food, two servers kindly rushed to our aid. One of the guys scooped a plate of biryani rice for me and pointed out the options: “Chicken, mutton, chicken, fish …” I went for a chicken and another chicken. He delivered two healthy portions, flooded the plate with extra sauce from other trays, and pointed me toward the check-out.

While this was going on, Peter was trying to explain to another server that he just wanted some vegetables and sauce on his rice, leave out the meat. There was a bit of a language barrier, but when Peter dropped the word “vegetarian,” all was understood. Our man whisked Peter over to another station full of vegetables and vegetable-based curry. No need to compromise on chicken stock, they have vegetarianism here!

Both of our meals were absolutely out of this world. My chicken was melt-off-the-bone succulent, and the two curries — one sweet and one spicy — melded together beautifully with the rest of the melanged sauces. Peter’s plate was just as flavorful and hearty, with large helpings of okra, potatoes, cabbage and dark leafies, covered in tomato- and eggplant-based sauces.

Line Clear doesn’t serve beer — it’s a Muslim shop — but we were pretty giddy on food alone. We raved to each other between bites, and wished there was more when we were done. We vowed then and there that this would not be our last trip to Penang. It was that good.

Tony truly steered us right.

Feb 6, 2013

Winter break: Eat this forkless

Banana leaf at Karai Kudi

The Banana Leaf setEat samosasEat with your hands

“Have you had banana leaf yet?” a cab driver asked us early on in our stay when we mentioned that we liked Indian food. We assured him that it was on our list, and on his word bumped it up several levels of importance. Always listen to the locals’ food suggestions.

According to our guidebook, Karaikudi in Little India had both banana leaf and air conditioning, so that was our destination. When we walked in, there was a group of tourists at a large table in the corner, but most of the clientele appeared to be Indian.

We puzzled over the extensive menu for a bit — “which one is banana leaf? None of them are called that!” — before a waiter came over to help. He directed us (without rolling his eyes) to what we were looking for, and explained that there were essentially two options: vegetarian or non-vegetarian. We ordered one and one. And some samosas for good measure.

Two large platters were brought to our table, each lined with — you got it! — a banana leaf and containing small tin cups of various sauces and curried things, with a heaping pile of rice in the center. You basically dump the cups on the rice, and scoop it up with your fingers. (There are forks, if you want to go that way.)

Guys, it was freaking amazing. Each sauce was delicious on its own, but they mingled in an alchemical way that took it to the moon! The chicken that came with the non-veger was juicy and tender and slathered in a fantastic brown curry. The non-veger also came with biryani rice as well as white — sorry Peter.

I don’t want to give short shrift to the samosas, either. Though they weren’t the main event, they were possibly the best samosas I’ve had in my life thus far. A thick and crispy fried outside surrounded beautifully soft potatoes inside, and they came with a squirty bottle of this tangy red sauce that was also quite lovely.

We came away from this meal pretty stuffed and happy. Later we learned that this style of food comes from South India, with Karaikudi specializing in Chettinadu cuisine. There, a free geography lesson for you, too.

Eaten at: Karaikudi restaurant, Little India, Georgetown

I'm eating with my handsOutside the restaurant

Jan 28, 2013

Winter break: Hawker centers

Let the eating commence!

Hawkers by the Clan Jetties
Late lunch at a hawker center by the Clan Jetties
Kuta BaliKuta BaliKuta BaliKuta BaliNasi LemakBamboo chicken at Kuta BaliBamboo chicken at Kuta BaliPeter eating Nasi LemakFilled pancakeSome dumplings
Above: Just a small photographic taste of the delicious excitement of Kuta Bali Cafe.
Hong Kong Cafe was also nearby, but our heart belonged to Kuta Bali
Hong Kong Cafe was just a stone’s throw from Kuta Bali, but we pledged our allegiance early on.

In Penang, eating at its most basic and cheapest is done at hawker centers, collections of food carts assembled around a large dinning area where people gather late into the night. The mood is festive and lively — we’re eating, hooray! — and sometimes there’s karaoke or dancing. Despite it’s simplicity, It’s a place where a meal is an event.

In general, the food from these humble carts is cheap, but no less than absolutely delicious. It’s a point of pride for some of the hawkers that their cart and their dish has been in their family for generations. Every kind of cuisine is represented: Indian, Chinese, Malay … even western — though, to be honest, none of the western food looked all that enticing to us.

There are a few famous centers around Penang that are listed in all the guidebooks, but take a walk and you’ll find one. We had three good ones on our block alone. We came to be quite attached to the Kuta Bali Cafe, a large and lively dining hall just a short walk from our hostel. We ended up there pretty much every night, for a meal, a drink, a late-night snack, or just to get one more taste of that wonderful dish we tried the night before. Going from cart to cart every night, we soon had compiled a long list of favorites.

Emboldened by his discovery of the 牛肉面, Peter’s vegetarian strategy for this trip was to not worry about meatlessness, but instead look for dishes where the meat could be pushed to the side, or moved over to my plate. (I felt a little Jack Sprat and his wife on more than a couple occasions.) He found a couple of tasty treats this way, but even more amazingly, we found that we could actually ask the cooks to dish up their dish meat-free. Because they speak English in Penang! And understand vegetarianism! Peter even got a chicken pita sandwich, hold the chicken.

On average, our food costs would be between 10-20RM [or US$3-7] — the beers would add another 40RM [or about US$13] — which made eating this way very attractive. But it was also a super fun atmosphere. Sitting out in the clear tropical nights with a bucket of iced beers and plates piled high with our new favorite foods — you really can’t beat that. It’s like the best summer BBQ you’ve ever been to, catered by 50 chefs who are all experts in their cuisine. We were in heaven … and so were the locals, to whom this is an everyday experience.

We didn’t know exactly, when we set out, what we were looking for our of our Penang experience, but if all we did was eat a meal at Kuta Bali, that would have been enough.

Dec 24, 2012

School lunch … and dinner

Digging into Chinese cafeteria food

A bird's eye view of the cafeteria

One of the easiest mealtime options when we’re at the new campus is the school cafeteria. Now, while school food in America is not the greatest, Chinese cafeteria food is actually pretty good. A meal here comprises steamed rice and two entrees — with plenty of vegetables — and a bowl of soup (which is the “drink” of the meal). We see the produce dropped off daily, and everything is fresh, fresh, fresh. Jamie Oliver, your advocacy is not needed here. We also see the food waste collected in giant vats after each meal and driven off somewhere — possibly for compost!

The cafeteria occupies an important position at the center of the campus and serves three meals a day. The student hall is three floors that center around a large spiral staircase. One wall of each floor is a bank of serving windows where an army of cafeteria workers dole out food from large steam trays. The kitchens are right behind these, and if you’re nosy, you can poke your head in and see mad chopping, stir frying and steaming going on. The teachers have a separate room in the back of the building — furnished with round tables and chairs rather than the fast food joint-style benches that the kids sit at.

The student food is quite basic; a chopped vegetable sometimes paired with a small amount chopped meat. Cauliflower and peppers, say, or pork and celery, or steamed winter melon, or carrots and mushy fish. Most of the students say that the food cooked for them at home is much better. But, at 4.70RMB [.75USD], it’s a tasty enough meal.

There’s also a meatless option which runs 2.70RMB, or, .43USD. For most of the kids, eating this way is just about saving money. There are a few students who actively follow a vegetarian diet, but vegetarianism as a concept is largely not understood in China. (Peter is often met with puzzlement and concern when he says that he doesn’t eat meat. “How will you stay strong and healthy?”) Choices can include zucchini, bok choi, pumpkin or shredded potatoes, but sometimes you’ll just end up with two servings of steamed cabbage.

This place serves a lot of kids

The teachers’ cafeteria steps it up quite a bit. First of, there’s more meat in each dish, and slightly better cuts. Also, the dishes are actual dishes, assembled with care and spices — Sichuan peppercorn features heavily — and there’s a piece of fruit for dessert. The meal is served on real plates and bowls, rather than cafeteria trays. Price tag: 6RMB [.96USD]

For all that, I only eat in the teachers’ caf if Peter takes a nap through lunch. Early on, we realized that the teachers aren’t really interested in making friends, but the students are. And lunch and dinner seemed like the perfect time to put ourselves out there for those kids who wanted to practice their English, learn about America, teach about China, etc. And, while the food is not as exciting, the atmosphere is much more friendly and boisterous. So, while many helpful adults have tried to point us in the “right” direction, most of the time we’re right there with the students, waiting on line for our plastic trays and parking it at a welded-to-the-table metal chair. It’s much more fun that way.

Meal oneMeal twoMeal three
Spicy pork with peppers, celery and cucumber, peppery cabbage, and egg and tomato soup
Pork with scallions and smoky tofu, zucchini, and a dishwater chicken soup
Savory pork and onions, with zucchini, spinach and pumpkin soup
Meal fourMeal fiveMeal six
Left: Zucchini, pasta, and cucumbers; Right: Winter melon and chicken, and cucumbers
Left: Onions, peppers, carrots and potato with pork slivers, and cabbage; Right: Carrots, and potatoes and chicken
Left: Cauliflower, and turnips (or some sort of root) and red peppers; Right: Pork and onions, and cauliflower

Nov 11, 2012

Happy Mid-Autumn Festival (Belated)

Have a sweet and savory snack to bulk up for winter

The mooncake

This year, Mid-Autumn Festival, or 中秋节, fell on September 30. It’s timing coincided with our National Day holiday — which is actually a week-long holiday kicking off on October 1 — so it felt extra festive.

Mid-Autumn Festival sounds very similar to our Thanksgiving. It’s a celebration of the harvest where you have a big meal full of fatty foods with your whole family. Instead of turkey, however, the star is the mooncake — a dense pastry that can be filled with a variety of ingredients, and often delivers the equivalent of a half-day’s worth of calories. (You are supposed to share, though.)

Earlier in the week, the school gave all the teachers a large box of mooncakes, which I chowed down on for days. They were delicious with a cup of tea. Peter did not partake, because — Surprise! — part of the filling was candied bacon. All the better … more for me!

On the afternoon of the actual holiday, we ran into some students who gave us some mini mooncakes, so that night we had a tasting party, with me on point to sniff out any meat. Flavors were as follows: bland Fig Newton; Meaty Fig Newton; sunflower and cranberry autumn delight. The last one was obviously our favorite.

Oct 19, 2012

Summer vacation: Street dinner

“他吃素。他不吃肉。”

Mystery dinner tastes great
Eat on the streetWhere are we?

I talk a lot about all of the western food that we eat while we’re on vacation because a lot of it is stuff that we don’t get back at home. But, when I can figure out how to order things, we really enjoy Chinese food, too.

After a night at Beer Mama’s, we needed a little something before bed. There was an outdoor restaurant around the corner, and we plopped down and scanned the menu for characters we recognized. We were feeling really ambitious.

I tried to explain to our guy that Peter is a vegetarian and doesn’t eat meat. We came to some sort of understanding, and he hurried away. On his return, he brought some meat skewers (which I had asked for by pointing out someone else who had them) and a very tasty meat and mushroom soup. But, this is life for a hungry veggie in China. Peter ate around the meat and pronounced it “delicious, and that’s coming from a vegetarian.”

Would you like to play a game?

Aug 31, 2012

Sichuan countryside

An accidental locavore is quite proud of herself

The beautiful countryside

On our second night in China – during a discussion of what vegetarianism is, and why Peter was one – our boss Sarah proudly told us that the chicken in the soup we were eating was grown locally and free range. (It’s hard to eat vegetarian in China.)

Farm

Months later, our neighbor Wendy told us, in passing, that she was going back to her hometown that weekend to get her pig. She brought me a sample when she got back, and it was delicious.

Before all that, back in New York, I was a big believer in the gospel of Pollan et al.: Our diet impacts the environment, food miles matter, CSAs are a good idea, etc. But I was a terrible disciple. The furthest I went toward living those ideals was stopping by the Union Square farmers market and picking up a bottle of Long Island wine and a wedge of Hudson Valley-made cheese every couple of weeks.

Here in Luzhou, however, it turns out that supporting your local family-owned farm is the default. Being city people, we did not give too much thought about what was beyond the city’s borders, but when we finally did venture out into the countryside, we found hundreds of kilometers of small farms nestled into the mountains. Which is, duh, where all that food at all those farmers markets comes from. And why even the menu at 串串 varies seasonally. We’re all locavores! And it tastes so good.

Now, we’ve read that there is factory farming in China, so it’s not like were living in some untouched Eden, unsullied by modern knowledge. But China, believe it or not, is actually aware of the same environmental dangers that the west knows about, and there is a growing green movement in response. (A lot of these farm houses were crowned by solar water heaters, for example.)

It’s hard to say what will happen in the future, because there are some hugely complex issues tied up in food production and feeding a population, and, again, all I do is eat here. But I do know that that was a damn good chicken soup. Even Peter agrees.

Enjoy another original production from Whoop Wu studios.