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Posts from the ‘Food’ Category

How to Visit the Tokyo Fish Market

I don’t much like fish and definitely hate the smell of fish.  But I couldn’t pass up the chance to visit the Tokyo (Tsukiji) fish market during a recent business trip to Japan.  The fish is so fresh that the market doesn’t smell and the shops serve up fresh fish dishes that are to die for – even for a non-fish lover.  The only catch is that the market gets going at 5am and there aren’t any great instructions on how to get the most out of your visit.

The 5am part is no problem because your jet lag will wake you up at 3am at the latest.  And I’ve outlined a brief review of how to navigate the market below:

To get to the market, take a taxi – it will make sure you are dropped off at the entrance of the market.  Unfortunately, there are no signs on the entrance of the market – it just kind of looks like an airplane hangar met a toll collection plaza.  Walk into the airplane hangar and just keep walking.  You’ll quickly notice the fish traders driving around in motorized carts.  Keep walking until you get to the end of the covered hangar.  As soon as you see daylight, look to the left – if you walk in this direction for 10 to 50 meters, you’ll see the restaurants on your left.  We’ll get to the restaurants later, but its important to take note of this junction before you get too deep into the market.  Now, to visit the rest of the market, keep walking in the direction that you were walking in initially – straight.  Keep going straight, through all the shops, styrofoam packaging, straight, straight, straight.  Until you hit a T-junction and you are facing a wall of off-yellow garage doors.  If you peer through the windows of the doors, you’ll see the tuna auctions going on inside.  Chances are the security guard won’t let you look because it is his job and he’ll politely escort you out of the fish market area and back to the restaurants.  Since the Tohoku Earthquake, the tuna auctions have been CLOSED to visitors.

Back in the restaurant area, you can just stand at the edge of the fish market area and see the enormous tuna being carved up or the odd sea creatures oozing out of their boxes.  When you are done with the market, I recommend you go to the back left corner for restaurants.  By back left, I mean the leftward direction you looked when you walked in.  All the way in the back corner there is a beef restaurant, which is where the auction participants and employees eat.  It is also the cheapest eats in the complex.  About 350 Yen for beef on rice.  You probably also want to try the raw fish.  There are lots of restaurants in this area; they all seemed the same to me and all have roughly the same prices – expensive prices.  I’d go for a bowl of tsukedon because you get far more raw fish than in a sashimi or sushi order for the same price.  Expect to pay 2,300 Yen for any fish dish; there is no way around it, the restaurants have minimum orders.

If you found this helpful and see that the tuna auctions have opened, please do leave me a comment.

Shopping For Tea in China

After crossing Asia, I discovered that the word for “tea” was the only universally common word across all the major language groups and local dialects on the continent – cha(i).  All tea is actually made from the leaves of one plant – Camellia sinensis, but each ethnic group has its own preparation methods and China is no different.  So within China, which is a few square miles short of the United States in land area, there are many variations.  As a result, buying tea in China can be somewhat of a bewildering experience – but a cultural experience that a visitor must have!  Some shops have sales people thrusting Dixie cups filled with tea at you, while other shops are tucked away in anonymous alleys with miscellaneous drums of tea stacked silently along a wall.  If you are wary of getting a bad deal, you can head to a Wuyutai (www.wuyutai.com.cn) – a tea shop chain of sorts that is a well-respected brand in China.  It is not just for foreigners; Chinese people definitely shop there too.  You won’t find the best prices at Wuyutai, but you will get good service and top-quality product.

If I could give a foreigner three pieces of advice before going tea shopping in China, they would be:

Know the Different Kinds of Teas – People in tea shops don’t speak English (not even at Wuyutai) and I would be wary of those that do have staff who speak English.  So it is important to at least know the variety of tea that you are interested in as a starting point.  In China, there are seven different varieties of tea – they are:

Lù chá (lue-chah – lue is pronounced like ‘lieu’tenant):  Green tea.  If you can’t think of what kind of tea you want or want to buy tea as a gift, a safe bet is to ask for xī hú lóng jĭng (shee-hoo-lohng-jean).  This was the Dowager Empress’s favorite tea and is a favorite throughout China.  The best way to prepare it is to pour water at just-sub-boiling temperatures over the leaves in an uncovered cup.  The leaves will unfurl and when they sink to the bottom, the tea is ready to drink.  Most Chinese teas and all green teas come in two different forms:  míngqían chá (ming-chien-chah) and yŭqían chá (yu-chien-chah).  Míngqían chá is the most expensive and is the first picking of the season.  Yŭqían chá is less expensive and is from “after the rains” or later in the season.  A reasonable price for good quality green tea of the former is about 150 yuan for 50 grams and a reasonable price of the latter is about 40 yuan for 50 grams.  Although truth be told, yŭqían chá can have such low prices that it is basically free.  If you are going to go for it and buy some míngqían chá, make sure that it is refrigerated or otherwise temperature controlled.

Gōngfu chá (Gong-foo-chah):  Ceremonial tea.  This type of tea is used for ceremonial purposes (and also casual drinking) in China and Japan.  Oolong tea, which is known in China by that name, is the most common kind of tea of this variety.

Heī chá (hey-chah):  Black tea.  The most common kind is pu-er and in China, it is also known by that name.  Objectively speaking, pu-er kind of tastes like subtley-flavored dirty water.  So it is an acquired taste and this is coming from someone who likes it.

Hóng chá (hong-chah):  Red tea.  This tea is found throughout the Middle East.  In most places outside of China and Japan, if you are served tea – it is either black or red.  Within China and Japan, it is available, but not commonly served.

Baí chá (buy-chah):  White tea.  Recently popular in the United States, this tea is not very popular in China.  You can find it in some stores, but not all.  White tea is very subtle.  If you aren’t a tea drinker, this tea will always taste like you didn’t put enough leaves in the strainer.

Huáng chá (hwang-chah):  Yellow tea.  Like white tea, you can find it in China, but it isn’t very popular.  The yellow tea that I have tried has been pretty plain, but I do not want to give it a bad reputation.  If you have had a yellow tea that you particularly like, please leave me the name in the comments below.

Huā chá (Hwaah-chah):  Flower tea.  This is the only tea variety that does not come from a tea plant.  This variety consists of flowers that are added to water to give flavor.  The most common types of flowers are rosebuds (they make for a somewhat bitter tea) and chrysanthemums.  While attractive, flower tea is some of the cheapest tea that you can buy, so if you are being quoted a price that seems expensive or along the lines of the average tea – you are being taken.

Don’t Be Afraid to Ask to Try The Teas – Trying the teas is often central to the shopping experience.  Shop-keepers will not begrudge you the opportunity to try different teas and indeed, will welcome the opportunity to push you into more expensive categories once they reveal to you the merits of trading up.  If you are in a store that seems to have the infrastructure to allow you to sample teas (i.e. not at a counter in a shopping mall) – such as oddly shaped wooden tables that allow water to runoff into one place – ask to try certain teas.  The way to ask to try a tea is to say – cháng yī cháng (chahng-ee-chahng) or more properly wŏ kĕyĭ cháng yī cháng (woe kuh-yee chahng-ee-chahng).  This question may lead you to be escorted to a seat to try the teas or the response may be – nĭ kĕyĭ kàn yī kàn – which means you can’t try the teas, but you can look at them.  If you aren’t permitted to try a tea, don’t be afraid to get up close to the tea and smell it.  If you do get a chance to taste the teas, the process will allow you to note the differences between the varieties and to determine whether you can tell the difference between a good tea and a bad tea before you spend $1 per gram on a first-class xī hú lóng jĭng tea.  I am always amazed by how much tea is spilled while sampling; it is a sight to see.

Prices Are Not Quoted In The Metric System – The prices quoted on the tea drums will be per 500 grams in the metric system not per kilo.  The standard Chinese weight (jīn) is half a kilo.  So if you are buying a good tea that costs a 1,000 yuan per the quoted price on the drum – this price corresponds to one jīn.  So if you ask for 100 grams (kè), you are actually asking for 20% of a jīn, rather than 10% of a kilo.  In other words, you will be buying 200 yuan worth of tea rather than 100 yuan worth.  To make things more confusing, the scales used throughout China are on the metric system, so it will show that you are buying 100 grams, but you will be quoted a price that is double what you thought it would be.  This is the case from Xinjiang to Shanghai whether you are buying fruit, fish or anything by weight.  Understand that this is the case – you aren’t being screwed because you are a foreigner.

While I am usually a voracious bargainer, tea is one area where I usually restrain myself from bargaining.  This is particularly the case if I have tried many teas in the shopping process.  At places such as Wuyutai, negotiating is not an option and the prices are clearly posted.  At a more humble store, where there may be no prices clearly posted, a subtle way of negotiating would be to ask for prices of teas you don’t really want and be silent or look somewhat displeased.  And then ask for prices on the teas that you do want.  If the prices seem outrageous in comparison to some of those discussed above, you should feel free to walk away.

Good luck!

My Yogurt Is Triangular

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There are many differences between China and the rest of the world.  One of them is the packaging used for yogurt.  You wouldn’t expect a nation of lactose intolerant people to be at the cutting edge of yogurt packaging design, but China may have achieved a breakthrough.

In China, yogurt comes in a container that is triangular with rounded edges.  The rounded edges are just the right width so that you can scrape them out with a spoon.  I marinated on this for a while.  Why would yogurt come in a triangular package?  They certainly are not as easy to hold as a round container.  I can’t really think of anything else that comes in a triangular package in the US or China.  Ice cream – round or rectangular packaging.  Butter – round or rectangular packaging.  Cheese – rectangular packaging.  After a few days, I think I finally figured it out.  A triangular package (with rounded edges) is the best way to expose the maximum surface area of the product to someone eating while minimizing the amount of space required by the package for shipping.  If you think about it, rectangular packaging is great because you can load a crate of rectangular packages onto a truck or ship without any gaps.  Unfortunately, it is hard to dig into the corners of a square package with a spoon.  On the other hand, a circular package has no corners, so it is easy to scrape around in, but if you want to ship a bunch of circular containers, there will be gaps between the packages.  Since a triangle can have rounded edges without reducing the internal volume of the package and two triangles put together make a square, a triangle with rounded corners takes advantage of both of the benefits of a rectangle and a square!

Perhaps an even more genius development in consumer products is that in China, yogurt comes in 12 ounce containers.  So you can actually satisfy your hunger for yogurt rather than poke around with a spoon in those little 4-5 ounce containers we have in the US.

My New Caffeine

Ginger Tea isn’t just tea.  It’s the caffeine-free coffee replacement.  The flavor will clear your sinuses and wake you up guaranteed.  I discovered ginger tea tucked away in a Beijing coffee shop pointing randomly at a menu in Chinese characters.  Now I drink about two pots a day.  I am not talking about Celestial Seasonings tea here – this is tea made directly from the ginger root.  After asking around, I have found that ginger tea is surprisingly easy to make.  Give it a try tomorrow morning, the recipe below is easy to follow.  Preparation time is roughly equivalent to making coffee.  There is no need to peel the ginger root, just wash into before using it.  The recipe below is what I use to make one cup.

Take 10 thin slices of ginger root (the thinner the better since it gives it more surface area) boil in two coffee cups of water for 10 minutes (for lighter flavor) or 20 minutes for (intense flavor).  You can add lemon or honey to taste and play around with the amount of ginger you use and the length of boil.  The final concoction should be a very dark brown when poured into a cup – almost the color of coffee.

 Enjoy!

Eggs. The New Meat.

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Out of snacks and out of food in the refrigerator, I ventured out into the Beijing cold today.  The city usually warms up a bit in the afternoon, so I held out until 2pm before hunger drove me out.  Nothing much was amiss in the local supermarket until I came upon eggs in the vegetable aisle.  Curious no doubt, but not nearly as mysterious as the packaging.  The eggs were wrapped as if they were meat – in a Styrofoam tray and in plastic wrap.  I cannot imagine how they are transported without breaking – that would be a sight to see!  As you can see from the picture below, the eggs are sold by the pound, the same way meat is sold in the US – so each dozen eggs has a slightly different price.  That actually makes a lot of sense, but shipping eggs in seranwrap sounds a bit more challenging.  What a business opportunity – there are 1.2 billion Chinese people out there who have yet to see the light of egg cartons!

How To Become A BBQ Judge

Barbeque competitions are serious business.  While chicken, ribs, pork and brisket may not be Olympic events yet, from the looks of the competitors – they may as well be.  The process of becoming a judge is not quite as hard as competing, which was good news for me.  I have never cooked in a barbeque competition, but the thought of world-class free ‘cue for the rest of my life and the prestige of a Kansas City Barbeque Society Certified Barbeque Judge’s badge were just too hard to resist.  So I signed up for a class and got my certification last night.

What does it take to become a KCBS judge?  First, you have to sign up for a judging class – this is a link to a page with a calendar of classes.  Once you are signed up, the class costs about $80 including instruction, food and a one year membership to the KCBS.  At the class, expect to get two hours of theoretical instruction, followed by two hours of hands-on practice judging a variety of meats.  The theoretical instruction is there to familiarize you with KCBS standards and teach you how to think about the three judging criteria:  appearance, taste and tenderness.  The hands-on portion of the class is a test where meat is brought out with certain flaws and you have to figure out what they might be and what the proper deductions are based on KCBS standards.  The hands-on portion may seem intimidating, but it is where you learn the most and have the most fun.  I had the good fortune of having Ed Roith (award-winning barbeque cook with a Food Network show) leading the program, so his critiques of our judging were hilarious and informative.  Once you have satisfactorily completed the hands-on portion of the program, all you need to do is take an oath of conduct before receiving your certification.  The certification permits you to judge barbeque contests in every state in the Union except Texas and Tennessee.  Good times.

The most interesting points that I learned about barbeque and KCBS judging rules were the following:

1)      Judges must always eat barbeque with their fingers.

2)      Judges may not lick their fingers.

3)      Chicken may turn pink from the smoking process, so pink chicken meat is not necessarily undercooked.  The best way to test to see if chicken meat is properly cooked is to check the juices – if the juices are clear, the chicken is well-cooked.

4)      Ribs should be cooked so that the meat comes off the bone only where the rib has been bitten.  The bone should dry right after the bite.  So a rib where the meat just falls off the bone is overcooked (according to KCBS).

5)      The easiest way to disguise overcooked pork is to chop it up.

6)      Brisket can take 18 hours to cook.  18 hours!  That sounds like a lot of effort for a meat that few people like.

7)      Too much smoke on a meat will give it a bitter taste.

8)      Smoke rings are not a factor in judging meat – they can be artificially created.

9)      Garnish can include lettuce, parsley and cilantro only; including members of the cabbage family or other garnish is cause for an automatic disqualification.

10)  The KCBS oath was something new for me.  It is below.  See for yourself:

I do solemnly swear

To objectively and subjectively evaluate

Each Barbeque meat

That is presented

To my eyes, my nose, my hands and my palate

I accept my duty

To be an Official KCBS Certified Judge,

So that truth,

Justice,

Excellence in Barbeque

And the American Way of Life

May be strengthened and preserved

Forever.