Thursday, December 18, 2014

Our Very Special Holiday Carol

This is a Sing-A-Long to the tune of The 12 Days of Christmas.  Enjoy!



Before there was STARA my good friend said to me
Let’s go to lunch
And try new delicacies

Before there was STARA my good friend said to me
Let’s go to lunch
Yum this is good
What wonderful delicacies

Before there was STARA my good friend said to me
Let’s go to lunch
Yum this is good
Maybe even better
If we try to cook it differently

Before there was STARA my good friend said to me
Let’s go to lunch
Yum this is good
Maybe even better
Let’s invite friends
And cook it differently

In our first year of STARA my partner said to me
Let’s go to lunch
Yum this is good
Maybe even better
Let’s invite friends
And cook it differently
And write about it too

In our first year of STARA my partner said to me
Let’s go to lunch
Yum this is good
Maybe even better
Let’s invite friends
And spouses too
Show people how to
Cook things differently

In our second year of STARA my partner and I agreed
Let’s plan the year
Let’s make it good
Maybe even better
More friends are coming
We’ll keep on writing
Adding more classes
Learning new things
Meeting awesome people
Having lots of fun
Still talking to each other
Hold private classes
Some held at Clicias
Feeling very blessed
Loving what we do
And extend our STARA family

We wish you all a very merry Christmas and look forward to seeing you in the kitchen again next year!

Happy Holidays!!


Saturday, December 13, 2014

Brave the Bear!

For a western person, walking in to a restaurant where giant teddy bears are seated at the tables and used as decoration in general, it just won’t happen – unless you are under 6 years old or have been rallied in to help at a children’s birthday party. A restaurant called “Bear” will not appeal to most of us either. What IS being served in this institution? Is the name a code for something?





So when Bear opened in the seemingly tiny space between Eatalicious and Tapas Plus in Pinnacle Plaza, we were skeptical. And because we also couldn’t read the menu on display outside the place, we didn’t bother for a long time. But then it didn’t go away as so many other places do, quickly, and a steady stream of patrons seemed to be swallowed by it so we decided to give it a try one cold, grey day.


And what a surprise we got. Walk past the narrow room just after the entrance and a whole new world opens up! It is nicely decorated (albeit with more stuffed bears than a toy store), clean, has a spotless bathroom AND menus in English. We learned that it is a chain restaurant of the Taiwanese/Hong Kong variety and specializes in noodle and rice dishes. But as all places here it offers so much more. The menu has a bit of everything; cold dishes, salads, noodles, rice….but there is also a specials menu that we, sadly, couldn’t read.


On our third visit we brought a few of our most loyal students. We wanted to order almost everything on the menu to really sample the fare and, while we can certainly eat, this would put a strain even on our appetites. Even better, this time we were able to have the specials translated for us and we choose a variety of dishes from both the standard menu and the specials of the day.

As always the cold dishes arrived first and we sampled the healthy wheatgrass salad as well as the fungus with lily bulbs in mustard sauce. The salad was similar to a Japanese seaweed salad with a nice bite and taste; the fungus had just the right springiness and the lily bulbs were surprisingly crisp. The mustard dressing was light and flavorful but not overwhelming.

Healthy Wheatgrass Salad
Fabulous fungi with crispy lily bulbs
Next came the soy barbecued chicken and the char siu pork. As westerners we prefer chicken with less bony bits but the flavor was excellent, reminiscent of Hong Kong street food of the best variety. The pork was melt in your mouth good, the meaty and fatty bits mixed together in a sweet mélange.

A Bear Speciality - Pork Char Siu

Yummy soy bbq chicken
We were eager to try the blackened cod but it turned out to be a disappointed. Though the fish was perfectly cooked and beautifully plated it was not at all as inspirational as we had suspected. Saying this - the dish could have been served with honors in any western restaurant. I think we were just expected something a bit more authentic.

Blackened Cod Fish - Good but won't order it again
The greens we ordered were, as always in China, perfect -  crispy and green with a few slices of garlic on top. How they manage to remain so dark in color is a wonder. In the west you would dunk the greens into icy water immediately after cooking but here they come to the table steaming hot straight from the wok.

How do they get them so steaming hot and bright green?!?!?

We continued eating – we did order a ton of food.

Our guests, who had also been to the Bear before, said that the fish head soup is a specialty, we had to try it. It comes in two sizes and since we already had ordered so many dishes we opted for the small one. The flavor was good and despite being seasoned eaters of local food; sucking on fish scales to get the meat out is a bit over the top, even for us. However, we completely understand the concept. It is in the head where you find the juiciest and meatiest parts and it definitely makes the best stock.  Good choice but we would prefer the stock bone and scale free instead, with pieces of fish added.

Loads of garlic in the Fish Head Soup
Claypot rice came next, of two varieties. The one we were most eager to try with Szechuan pickles and beef was sadly not available. The waitress explained that: “it’s not good so we don’t have it”. I’m guessing taking it off the menu is the next step.  Instead we ordered one pot with slivers of two kinds of house-made sausage, one with liver and one without, and another pot with salty ribs and whole sweet and smoky sausages.   The slivered sausage variety turned out to be our favorite while the rib option didn’t have much flavor and none of the promised saltiness.  The sausage and other delicacies are also for sale to take home.  Look for the refrigerated cases in the lobby, just by the entrance. Worth checking out!




By now, as you can imagine, we were pretty stuffed. Though the servings are not big by any standards it was still a lot of food for five ladies – at lunch.  Still, dessert is always a requirement.

The selection is small but we only had our eyes on the fermented rice soup with sesame balls so the rest of the menu didn’t matter. It was beautifully presented with a few goji berries floating around in the milky white soup. The taste is sweet and sour and a bit tangy. Sara tasted green apples but it was probably only the fermentation giving it the fruityness. The sesame filled rice balls were perfect in size, taste and texture - a little gooey but with a bite and that satisfyingly nutty taste of sesame.

What a beautiful finish to a lovely meal!
Very happy and stomach’s content, we left after paying the bill. The Bear is not a cheap place if you compare to other Chinese restaurant’s in Shunyi but still affordable considering the quality of product and cleanliness (and did we mention the pristine bathroom?!?!).

We had a wonderful lunch with wonderful friends. Thank you Kathy, Ashley and Connie for joining us!


Happy Eating and Happy Holidays!


  

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Thankful!



It’s November already; can you believe it?!?!  Even though we just came back from summer break and had a brief intermission for Golden Week, it just doesn’t seem right that the holiday season is upon us! Halloween just came and went and now it is just a big fat countdown until Christmas and the New Year.

We are so very pleased and feel so fortunate for your continued support and encouragement.  Our STARAfood project has introduced us to so many wonderful friends and experiences. Living as an expat often means living with uncertainty and insecurity. Even though a contract may state a certain number of years, we can never really know for sure. And when embarking on a project that involves commitment to others and if you have, as we do, a determination not to disappoint, it becomes tricky.  




Our classes have becomes so popular that we are full, with waitlists, until the end of the year!  Obviously we are ecstatic (and thankful) about this but also a bit sad that we cannot stretch ourselves more and accommodate everyone. We have just penned down next years’ classes and will publish dates and themes as soon as possible.  We have some different and exciting themes for the coming year and look forward to sharing them with everyone.  That said, if there is anything in particular you want to learn and/or explore, please don’t hesitate to contact us. 


Stacey’s favorite holiday is next week – Thanksgiving.  The day is all about family, friends and, of course, food (with a little American football thrown in for fun)!  We will order the largest turkey in Beijing to accommodate our 25 or so guests so it’s a good thing Sara has the largest oven in Shunyi.  We will hunt down cranberries, Brussels sprouts, sweet potatoes and green beans, delegate wisely and enjoy a big cooking fest with our friends from all around the world - including a family of Thanksgiving virgins.


Thanksgiving is truly a wonderful holiday free of commitments (other than stuffing yourself) that kicks off the holiday season. It is delightful to be able to share something that was definitely not in Sara’s cultural DNA but that she has adopted over the years. Isn’t that what living the expat life is all about - picking and choosing the best berries that your adopted country has to offer?  Every year is a year full of celebrations; whether they make complete sense to everyone or not, and many, many reasons to get together and enjoy good food together with good friends from around the world.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone! Let’s kick off the Holiday Season with a BANG!



Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Not the Greatest of Days - But Great Dumplings!

Some days - people just annoy you.

Having a waitress hanging over your table, with a firm hand on the menu intent to suggest special delicacies (suitable for foreigners) and desperate to practice her almost incomprehensible English doesn’t help.

“No thank you, we do not want gong bao ji ding or ma po tofu.  Yes, we like our food spicy.  We eat Chinese food all the time and we are not tourists who managed to stumble in to this place randomly (in Tianzhu town – really!). We live here and that is why we speak to you in your own language so can we please look through the menu in peace and order whatever the f#€%&ck we want!” … or something along those lines.  We were not having the greatest of days.

We were at a dumpling place on Tianbei Lu, on the way to the airport, almost opposite the Giant Store. Stacey had been there before and raved about the dumplings – the inventive fillings and thin skins. We brought our friend Marianne and though I was the one having the very bad day; I am embarrassed to say that it quickly wore off on my friends and the over attentive (obnoxious) hostess didn’t help.

It is like that living here in China; your mood goes up and down and can be triggered by what seems like the smallest, stupidest things. Living here isn’t hard but it is exhausting and if you are not open to accept all the quirks and annoyances each and every day there will be bad days. That is why, after a while, when we see someone throw a fit over the lack of cheerios at the store or how they pack the groceries at check-out or why the waitress cannot just bring ice water instead of steaming hot, we smile in recognition – we have all been there. Still, we were there to sample the food and that was what we did.

Ever since we had lotus root-filled dumplings at a Hoshayu eatery, we always ask for it. The combination of the crunchy filling in the soft skin is delicious but, sadly, very few places offer it and this one was no exception. Instead we chose one plate of jiaozi filled with mushrooms and one with fennel, another novelty – both also including minced pork. As side dishes we choose Szechuan green beans (a requirement when you eat with Marianne), tofu skins with celery, and spicy eggplant – all very good. The dumplings, when they arrived, were perfect - soft and thin skinned with a juicy filling, the beans spicy as we like them and the eggplant flavorful. We were especially impressed with how (temperature) hot everything was. Clearly everything went straight from wok to serving dish to table.

A few Nanjing beers later (to cool of the burnt insides of our mouths), we had exhausted all the reasons for the bad mood. Living here might cause mood swings but we are used to helping each other out, right? We are in this together, experiencing Beijing and China and sharing our struggles. Trust and respect is crucial since your friends become your family. And thank God for good food!

We have no complains about the food at this place and would go back any day we crave dumplings – hiding in a corner trying to avoid the attack of the overzealous waitress….

______

So, you may be asking why there are no pictures of the food.  This is, after all, a food blog.  Well, we somehow managed to delete the pictures from this visit and just had to go back again (what a shame!).

We hoped that we could avoid youknowwho on our second visit .... but alas, no such luck!  Though we were greeted by a friendly hostess and directed to a table right by the window - BANG!  There she was again - telling us what to do, holding her firm hand on the menu.  We are very patient and generally polite but this one is just pushing it!  We managed to order finally (whatever WE wanted!) and did not have to wait long for our food to arrive.  We tried a shrimp and egg dish this time which was perfect for those who like their flavors subtle - for us, it definitely needed a kick.




We ordered the fabulous fennel dumplings and eggplant once again, and they did not disappoint.  Deciding to break out of our routine, we also tried a yummy dish of preserved vegetables with garlic.  Strangely addictive, it would have been even better folded inside little pancakes or stuffing into little breads.  Finally, we tried Sara's favorite noodles made with sweet potato starch.  They were lovely little gelatinous bites covered with a chili sauce.



Sweet Potato Noodles
Fabulous Fennel Dumplings

Perfect Eggplant
Preserved Vegetables with Chili and Garlic





















We finished our meal and asked for the bill - in Chinese. She starts rambling about that we have to pay in RMB and we say yes, yes, no problem assuming they don't take cards (which would be a bit weird since the restaurant is located in a hotel) but it turns out that they cannot take foreign currency! As if that is what we are used to here?! Remember too that we have been speaking to her in Chinese throughout these two visits and told her over and over again that we live here!

Should you be in the neighbourhood; say on your way to or from the airport or have had to visit the GIANT store for sure, eating here is worth your money. It is clean, the food is good, the price is very affordable, the service is fast and efficient.  Just stay clear of the fanatical hostess.




Monday, October 13, 2014

Were we really on holiday?!?

Our National Holiday plans changed at the very last minute – again.  Instead of a fun girls’ trip in Bangkok, followed by a holiday in Sri Lanka, the Bangkok trip had to be cancelled and the Sri Lankan holiday became a half work half play adventure. Considering the alternative, staying in Beijing with kids while husband went on all work trip for two weeks, there was simply no other alternative.


We had a wonderful week in Sri Lanka. While husband worked, we relaxed on the beach and in the pool at the beautiful Mount Lavinia Hotel.  When husband got two days off, we headed down the coast to Bentota and the amazingly serene Club Villa. Sri Lanka is a wonderful holiday destination with beautiful beaches, wildlife, culture and culinary highlights. Though the roads are in great need of TLC and the traffic is manic, it is less hectic than in Beijing. Is it the warm and humid weather? I don’t know but the pace is slower and less…aggressive. And, isn’t the phrase: “Would you like some tea m’am?” just the most beautiful phrase ever? So civilized.

Local wildlife
The food is varied; we have to talk more about the food! The fruit tastes like it is supposed to, the curries and stir fries are inventive and fragrant and with an amazing breakfast dish called a ‘hopper’ – what can go wrong?! Being an island obviously the seafood is to die for; sweet succulent crabs in spicy chili sauce, giant tiger prawns doused in garlic – inventive salads and breads of various kinds to scoop up the sauces. Though in many ways similar to Indian cuisine it is slightly different, not better or worse just different and because the majority of the population is Buddhist, and therefore vegetarian, vegetables and fruits are prepared in a myriad of ways, all delicious.

Succulent chili crab


After a three and a half hour car ride through bumpy Sri Lankan villages, a smooth ride on the highway only interrupted by a huge iguana slithering across the road, another jerky canter through Colombo alleyways - made longer because the driver went to the wrong hotel to drop off husband – and the joys of kids and car sickness, we finally arrive at Colombo airport for our return flight with time to spare.




Garlicky Tiger Prawns
I don’t mind travelling alone with my children. They have been on planes since in utero and are great travellers. They do not eat (who can blame them!) and they keep themselves busy with the in-flight entertainment, iPads, books, games and sleep, and can at most times even use the bathroom without me having to come with.

I had planned it perfectly; they in two seats next to each other – window and aisle – no one to bother them, and me across the aisle in the aisle seat in a row of four.  The three seats next to me remained unoccupied until suddenly, a woman throws herself down next to me and immediately picks up the throw-up bag. Her companions, I’m assuming husband and son, settle in next to her quietly, calmly but she jitters around, looks this way and that, tears are starting to roll down her cheeks as she picks up the bag and starts to hyperventilate, violently. My kids are thankfully unaware.  I didn’t know what to do but gave her glances like: “Are you ok?” “Can I do anything for you?”.  She speaks no English, but smiled at me and declined the tissues I was offering to dry her tears. She calmed down eventually and I was tending to the kids, breaking up a stupid fight about who would get to sit closer to me and finally the flight takes off.

After a while, the lady next to me has calmed down and we make a quick stop in Mattala in the South East to exchange passengers before heading to Beijing.  As we continue, the husband and child move to two unoccupied seats on the other side of the plane leaving crazy lady and me in a row of four. She is incognito for a while but then suddenly, she throws herself down in her seat again, flipping through the inflight magazine frantically. Her companions are at this point fast asleep in their seats leaving Mrs. Whatiswrongwithyou? and me on our row of four. At this point I don’t know if she is drunk, on drugs or has a mental illness. She is very friendly to me though, offering me three seats in our row of four so that I can lie down and read my book and get some rest, but she remains jittery, erratic and unstable.

With the exception of myself and my two children and a handful or two of Sri Lankans, the plane is full of Chinese. It never ceases to amaze me how when many Chinese people travel it is like they are on a middle school class trip. They are socializing across the isles, snacking and sipping from the thermoses they have brought with them throughout the whole trip, taking part of conversations and seem to know everyone - though I know most of them are not travelling together.

When there is an alert over the sound system asking if there is a doctor or nurse on board the energy rises and everyone is looking around. Who is sick? Where is the person in need of medial assistance and privacy? They keep snacking and the sunflower seeds are flying like empty shells in a gunfight in an action movie. When the flight is not aborted nor averted they loose interest and start concentrating on the tax-free cart that is cruising up and down the aisles. Most people don’t pay attention when it rolls by; but here it’s like a party at Yashow market. Cigarettes and perfume boxes are inspected and the chatter continues? How much is this? Is it a good value? Is it cheaper elsewhere? The stewardesses and stewards have patience like I’ve never seen before and when they realize I can help with translations, a sigh of relief is visible and their whole persona relaxes.

Our holiday was exciting with visits to an elephant orphanage, releasing three-day old turtles into the ocean and surfing lessons but still – the real action happened on the plane.



Wednesday, September 10, 2014

BJU Bonus!

After living here for a while we can all name a few pet peeves (very large pets, Great Dane sized…): there’s the bank, IKEA, public bathrooms, the house of hell aka Zhongguancun (if you do not know what this is – do not ask, just pretend it doesn’t exist), any touristy area during a big holiday (the feeling of being special quickly wears off – and what do they do with the photographs they take of us anyway?), the markets (the haggling soon becomes a drag) and of course, the hospital. The reason to seek medical care is rarely by choice or a happy event (babies one of the few exceptions).

Still, while waiting for an appointment or caring for a sick family member or friend at BJU, we all have to eat at some point and we are very happy to share our newest find.

It is easy to relent to Comptoir De France’s overpriced coffee, sandwiches and quiches and let’s admit it; Annie’s is across the street and their cheap, quick Italian fare is not bad but….if you are in the mood for something quick, good, inexpensive and authenticly Chinese, in a clean, simple environment look no further than one block past the BJU entrance to this little dumpling place.


Stacey’s very competent driver Mr. Zhang took us to this place one day (no idea what it is called) when we were out and about.  We asked for something quick and good – no pressure!!   He knows we love local food, like it spicy and have high standards when it comes to quality but we had no idea what to expect when we optimistically entered the simple restaurant.  It was clean, popular, with a picture menu, and as we later discovered, an English dumpling menu as well.

As soon as we sat down, I spotted an old favorite at another table, cold, thick wheat noodles and thinly sliced cucumbers in a rich sesame sauce – zhi ma jiang mian. Back in the old days, the late 90s if you can believe it, we used to frequent what we called “Little Hilton”, a hole-in-the-wall in the hutong that used to be next to the Hilton on third north ring road and we would always order this dish. Once, during a summer rain, the place flooded and we were sitting with our feet in three inches of water but still, they continued to serve and we continued to slurp.


With its rich sesame sauce, slightly slimy noodles, cold crisp cucumbers and a touch of chili, it is the perfect warm day dish. And as it was a warm day we continued to order another favorite: cold sliced, silken tofu with century eggs or liang ban dou fu song hua dan, as it is called in Chinese. Mention this to anyone not familiar with the dish and you get a wrinkled nose and a eeuuwww but please, try it. The silky eggs (close your eyes if you don’t like the look of the green transparent whites and dark green hue of the yolk) in combination with the smooth tofu and with a dash of vinegar, soy and chili sauce is divine.


Another winner is tofu skins with celery, fu pi qin cai, also a cold dish. The chewy tofu with the crisp celery in the light sauce with a hint of sesame cools any tongue that was accidentally doused by too much chili sauce.


Of course we had to try the dumplings; it is a dumpling restaurant after all and they had gone through the trouble of translating the menu into Chinglish. We love dumplings with a different and unexpected texture and ordered the pork and lotus root filled dumplings, steamed, for a whooping 12 rmb for a plate. Unfortunately we have to say that we have had better. The skins were a bit too thick and chewy. There was nothing wrong with the filling but why have mediocre dumplings when there are so many places where you can enjoy great ones?


Everything tastes better with cold beer!  And we love the little glasses.

We have been fortunate lately and have not had to visit Beijing United Family Hospital in quite some time but still, if we were in the area, we would definitely go back here for lunch again.