Bananas for Kings

Nobody in Vietnam (or other Asian countries) would touch those huge Cavendish bananas that we are used to and which are produced solely for export to Europe and the USA. Because they have next to no taste. They are harvested green and ripened artificially in their destination country. And protected by the “Geneva Banana Treaty”.

Apart from that there are over 400 different banana species, most of them completely unknown in Western countries.

The “standard” bananas on the Hanoi market are much smaller, and currently these here are in season:

They have a fragrant flavour of apple and the finest ones also a little of honey. Meaning to say that “real” bananas actually have their own different flavours :)

One interesting thing to know is: when you buy them freshly harvested their skin is thick. They do keep quite well, in fact. And when you finally eat them their skin has become considerably thinner as it has been nourishing the banana inside.

Once you are hooked on fresh Asian bananas it takes you a long “cold turkey” period until you are ready again to eat a “Cavendish”!

 

 

Lazy Hanoi Dessert

The lazy Hanoian’s dessert:

sugar cane, peeled and cut in pieces. Bought on the street or at the market.

Now is the season. The sugar cane is ripe, soft and easy to chew while in summer it is so hard that you have to be careful about your teeth.

It’s sweet but the sweetness is very refreshing – and the cane fibre cleans your teeth very well during chewing. So, you chew up the sugar cane until all the juice is extracted and you only have the dry fibre left in your mouth. This you discard…and on you go again…sometimes it is quite difficult to stop…

Back Home in Ha Noi!

You may think I am crazy but when the taxi was entering the city of Ha Noi I felt like coming home after a long absence. So familiar have I grown with the streets, the buildings, the people on the street, the special Hanoi atmosphere!

My new home is in a more lively area of the city, but not in the centre, on a busy little street (well, all the little streets in Hanoi are kind of busy) where one street restaurant is adjacent to the next. No danger to die of hunger here J And it’s a young crowd that is out there. My My has made a good choice! And she has already lovingly stocked the apartment – with beautiful lilies and, of course, the whole kitchen works incl. my favourite coffee and milk – and –not to be topped: several bottles of Havana Club!!!  Life is more than beautiful!

After dumping my luggage last evening we went for a quick beer and a snack just 50 yards away from the apartment. Lovely “Pho Cuon” rolls that you dip in your vinegar-garlic bowl – and some other stuff. Just my thing J

Later today we will explore the area, I need to check the local market, the shops, buy a new SIM-card – and find the landlord as the WiFi is working only intermittently!

In other words: I need to get my bearings. My has gone to her place to wash the clothes I used in Peking. I have a brand new washing machine here – but nothing to hang up the laundry for drying. Alas, this is Vietnam. As perfect as Bulgaria J

Beijing sure was in interesting place and I could write a lot about it – but it also was not “real” China. With its 30 million people Beijing is a country on is own with a different life and different standards from the rest of the country (Shanghai and Hongkong are also such extraordinary places, of course). As I said: interesting but for the young and hungry. Like NY at one time.

That’s what I like so much about “my” Ha Noi: one of the few capitals on the planet that has not been completely Westernised. Absolutely different from Saigon where Western lifestyle  and money rule.

I am happy in the “poor north” of Viet Nam. At the end it’s not so difficult to lead a wonderful life: value yourself and value others, be conscious and modest. No need for big money.

Enough philosophy for a busy Saturday :P I wish you a nice weekend, even if you can’t be in Ha Noi with me…

Peking Final

Last Night in Peking

It has been an interesting 8 days in this lively over-sized city. The degree of westernisation is amazingly high and the standard of living is higher than anywhere else in China.

You see very few bikes on the streets – certainly much less than in Munich, Germany. And no motorbikes, of course, because they have been banned because of the pollution. There are some electrical scooters – but far less than what one would expect. Cars everywhere! Loads of cars. The have now introduced a system that Mon-Fri during rush hours (from 6am to 9am – and from 4pm to 7pm) only one fifth of the cars can go on the streets. It works like this: the car registrations end with figures. So, as an example, on Monday only cars which license ends with a 0 or 1 can drive during rush hours. On Tuesdays only cars with 2 and 3…and so on. Interesting method.

In the main shopping street Wangfujing you can find all major Western fashion brands and chains, of course also beauty and jewellery. Prices are higher than in the West. But nobody seems to care…

I finally have been to a restaurant with “Imperial” Chinese cuisine – and it was not so bad. What I liked most was double braised pork belly with red date. Enough about eating :)

Next stop is Vietnam…

 

 

Confusion in Peking

My whole restaurant plan has fallen apart. All the places I wanted to visit! There was just not enough time!

Also because I went to the same restaurant twice in the last two days. A simple place with old fashioned local Beijing food and only local client – and very acceptable prices. Yesterday I was more in a spending mood and I ordered some more expensive things.

Like fried clams with onion, peppers and “some” chillies, a seaweed salad and pork legs plus a shrimp skewer – for starters.

The clams were a symphony of taste. Some of the best I have ever eaten. The seaweed salad was the perfect thing to counterbalance any chilli “burns”. The pork was soft and gooey, marvellous. The shrimps were crisp and I ate the whole of them, including the shell.

I felt as local as the other people :) Maybe due to the “rakia” I had seen on the neighbouring table and that I had ordered also :)

While I was eating away the table next to me had two sessions. I tried to strike up a “conversation” with the first group – as they cheered me when they saw I drank the same alcohol as them – and to my huge surprise one of the young men had studied 5 years in Munich (machine construction)! and another one 3 years in Canada!

I have met several young people here who have lived abroad – and they came back to China! That’s the big difference between them and Bulgaria. The Bulgarians do not see a future in their home country :(

The second group of people were “simpler” and no one of them ever had been abroad – but hands and feet wee managed to communicate a little and had a lot of laughs :)

I also ordered some St. Jacques (can’t think of the English name right now). Each one was prepared like a little meal on its own. Topped with noodles and diced veggies. Very unusual but very tasty :)

And finally a few pork and duck skewers. “For my hollow tooth” as the Germans say.

Prices were quite on my line. The beer (0.6 l bottle) was 5 RMB (1.25 Leva), the brandy (0.25 l bottle, 42% alcohol) 15 RMB (3.75 Leva), the clams weighed in at 8 Leva and the seaweed salad at 4 Leva.

I felt great on my way home – but did have a headache from the rakia in the morning!

Tomorrow afternoon I will be leaving for Ha Noi. I had a good time in Peking – and once I get bored with regular Vietnamese life I will tell you about what I noticed about the people here.

Now I will be off to the arts district and also to sample some “Imperial” Chinese cuisine. See you!

 

 

 

 

 

Update

I am falling behind in my little travel diary. It is because I am absorbing so many cultural inputs that I constantly need to analyse and digest that I have no time to sit down and write it all up.

I have visited the Confucius Temple, the Royal Academy of the emperors, the big Tibetan Lama Temple and yesterday the Emperors’ Palace and “The Square of Heavenly Peace” Tian’anmen and various other locations.

The problem in sightseeing is that there are so many people – you can hardly imagine. Yesterday it took me more than 1 hour to get from the subway station to the entrance of the forbidden city (about 500 meters) because of security checks. Then I had to queue for more than another hour for a ticket! That’s where the fun stops for me.

Now I have seen the greatest cultural values that Beijing has to offer, so I can spend the rest of the time looking for gems off the beaten track. Somehow it did not work out with my “local guides”. Beijing is extremely commercial :) And they try to rip you off nearly everywhere. Fortunately, I have an excellent travel guide book. It’s from a publishing company “Reise Know How” and they call their guides “Manual for individual Discovering” – and that is absolutely true.

Two years ago when I travelled Vietnam for two months from North to South their Vietnam guide kept me clear of the tourist hordes and I found the best local hotels, restaurants and all kinds of other venues. In stark contrast to Lonely Planet and Rough Guide etc – where they all list all the same places and you spend your time with foreigners :)

This afternoon I want to have a look at some markets. The only thing I am planning to buy is top quality Sichuan pepper. The one I can find in Europe has already lost most of its aroma.

 

 

 

The “real” Peking Duck.

I’ve had Peking duck in various countries and on different continents, but this was my first time tasting it in its homeland. I did a painstaking amount of research before heading to Beijing in deciding which restaurant to go to. I only had one shot at it, and I wanted to make sure that my money was well spent.

Based on some magazines like Timeout Beijing, some tips from readers of “The Beijinger”, and ratings on Tripadvisor I was unsure whether to go to ultra-modern Da Dong, or the more classic Siji Minfu.

In the end I went to Da Dong, because it was basically just across the street from my hotel and I went there to check it out – and I liked what I saw.

How you make THE Peking Duck…

Peking Duck appeared at early emperors’ feasts but it wasn’t introduced to the public until 1864, when Yang Quanren opened Quanjude restaurant where the technique of hanging the ducks upright in an oven heated with fruitwood fire was introduced. Prior to that, ducks were roasted lying down in a closed oven. The hanging technique leaves more space for rendering fat to drain, resulting in crisper, drier skin.
That oven is not the only elaborate part of the process, which starts with a 100-day-old Pekinese duck that has been force-fed for the last several days of its life to plump up—at least, that’s how the most highly regarded do it. Air is then forced into the neck cavity of the slaughtered, plucked duck, inflating its skin  to completely separate the skin from the meat underneath, which allows for the skin to render out fat from both sides, basting the meat as it cooks.
But we’re not anywhere near the cooking phase yet. Next, the guts of the duck are removed. With European butchery practices, the guts are removed through the business-end of the digestive system. With a Peking duck the guts are removed through a tiny incision under one of the wings, because presentation of the ready bird is of great importance.
Next, a couple branches of wheat or sorghum are inserted into the chest cavity to keep the skin stretched taut and away from the meat as it roasts. The prepared duck is then doused with boiling water (this helps tighten the skin up, as well as causing it to, paradoxically, dry faster), given a coating of maltose syrup—this is what gives it its rich, lacquered color—and left to hang and dry for at least 24 hours.
Finally, the duck is hung with its neck wrapped around a metal hook, boiling water is poured into its cavity, and it is placed inside a tall oven heated by fruitwoods (Da Dong claims to use a combination of apple, pear, and jujube wood). The water inside slowly boils away, steaming the meat, while the smoky fire renders the skin.
What emerges from the oven is one of the pinnacles of culinary greatness.
When ordering the duck itself, you’ll have the option to order a whole duck or a half duck, with the whole duck available at two different levels of quality, which relates to the duck’s feeding—the pricier duck will have been raised and force-fed a bit longer, rendering it more succulent and fatty. I (and you should too) paid the higher cost for the better duck, and one should definitely order a whole duck, which will guarantee that it’s being pulled fresh and hot out of the oven for you.
Da Dong


This restaurant is not your modest side-alley family joint. It has three outlets in Beijing and several times has been named “Best Restaurant in China”. They do a lot of other dishes also. On the menu I saw a tasting menu at 9,800 RMB (2,450 Leva) for 10 people. Luckily we were only 3. They also have an impressive wine list (lots of Bordeaux and even some of my favourites like Chateau Talbot). Don’t ask for the price. But they also have 6 kinds of beer where the most expensive one (a Chinese micro-brew) was 40 RMB (10 Leva).
They also have a bar for people who prefer a more relaxed seating – like Japanese Izakaya – which I prefer when I am on my own.
The restaurant was on the 5th floor of probably the most expensive shopping mall in Beijing (separate elevator, no shops) – without any signs outside that could attract clients. A very upmarket place – in a dimension that you will hardly find in the US.
My “superior” duck cost 290 RMB (Renminbi) – about 72 Leva – the whole animal. Not a lot of money if you consider how many times you eat such a bird.

I am still thinking of visiting Siji Minfu also before I leave .

The Great Wall

Whenever I saw pictures of the Great Wall they were special to me. Just the thought how it winds thousands of kilometres through wilderness. This non-plus-ultra display of power. The biggest construction project ever. The only humanly built thing visible from orbit, so they say.

When you stand on that massive wall and are not distracted by the noise of tourists you can let the atmosphere sink in and can imagine what it may have been like 700/800 years ago.The first parts of the Great Wall were built 200 before Christ, or so. It got it’s biggest boost during the Ming dynasty – when it was expanded to stretch more than 8,000 km!

They say it took 60 million people to build it – of which about 30 million died. 60 million! OK, not at one time, but still! Can you imagine the logistic problems? Where to get the food, where to house the people…where to source the materials needed…? That IS “awesome”. So, don’t let me read about all your “awesome” burgers, books and restaurants. One of the most inflated words nowadays.

I spent only half a day on the Great Wall – and about 1-1/2 hours on a tower at a more remote spot with less tourists just taking in the surroundings and “reconstructing” history in my mind. So far the absolute highlight of my trip – and I cannot imagine how this could be topped!

This (the next) morning I can see the sky and the sun is shining!  Wonderful! The weather forecast was right. Yesterday at the Great Wall there was no sun but the wind had dispersed the smog – and one could even see Beijing in the distance (80km away). The local people there said this happens only a few times a year. Lucky me!

Here is “mist”erious Beijing:

“Amazing” (another such inflated word) what super-zoom my little Lumix camera has.

Here a few “autumn” pictures of the wall:

Now I am off to explore Beijing in sunshine!…

Chokingly Yours…

As it turned out it was not morning fog that reduced the visibility this morning it was the choking pollution. Peking is currently suffering the worst smog since July. Wonderful!

The Meterological Agency has raised their alert from yellow to orange on Thursday. Just short of “red”! Uzhas! No more outdoor activities for schools and children’s hospitals are on standby for a peak in respiratory problems! People with asthma or bronchitis are advised to stay at home.

That’s absolutely perfect for my stay! But I would not have needed that information as my reliable chronic bronchial asthma has induced me to return to the hotel earlier today after three hours on the streets.

The good news is that there is hope that a strong wind during the coming night will blow the dirt away. We will see.

I also had a coffee earlier with a young lady who suggested to show me the Great Wall tomorrow with her car. I was not entirely convinced that she was going to do that out of the goodness of her heart. Just a gut feeling. Beijing is full of people trying to rip off foreigners with the most ingenious schemes I have been reading in my German “Culture Shock” guide.

I have instead decided to book an excursion to the Great Wall with a professional tour operator. It will be a day trip tomorrow (the wall is only about 80km away) because we will also visit some Ming tombs, the Olympic stadium and one or two factory outlets where they will offer us great shopping bargains ;) Hehe.

When I just saw this window cleaner on the neighbour building I was strongly reminded of our “alpinisti” in Sofia that repair and clean facades in much the same way. Unthinkable in Germany these days!

 

 

 

Kickstarting my Weekend in Peking

After sleeping 4 hours and spending the rest of the night hacking the “Great Chinese Internet Wall” that blocks you from all things Google, Facebook, Skype and what have you, I decided to have breakfast at 7am.

After all, included breakfast buffet was one of the reasons why I had booked a “Plaza Club Room” instead of a normal one. It looks like I relied too much on the commentaries on Tripadvisor. They rate the Park Plaza Wangfujing one of the 10 best hotels in Beijing  but I am not so impressed by the breakfast.

Too many Western clients in the hotel and therefore the breakfast is more Western orientated. It lacks the depths and widths of a real Asian first-class hotel.

 

I started off with a Chinese chicken soup:

Take two: a selection of Dim Sum…

Followed by Shanghai-fried noodles:

…and the disgusting Western staple people eat anywhere (I took it only for comparison purposes :)

That was FAT! To mollify my stomach I finished my breakfast with a modest Japanese winter Oden:

This Oden, in it’s lovely soy-flavoured dashi, was the highlight of the breakfast.

Considering that the back allies here are full with tiny restaurants, serving breakfast to the Chinese employees of the area I made a mistake booking the expensive breakfast option. Well, too late. I will survive :)

Outside it’s a grey Saturday now, with not more than 200m vision. If this is the regular Beijing smog or only morning fog I cannot tell yet. We will see later. I will dilly dally around a bit before venturing out for sight seeing…

Oh, this is my potential city guide. We had a drink together last evening and it is still too early to call her :) I had found her through an ad in “The Beijinger”, that I had placed two weeks ago. I was looking for a local person that would be interested in showing me the “local side” of Beijing, away from the tourist hotspots. Somehow only ladies applied (and I was NOT offering any money). I will meet another one this afternoon.

It is such a huge difference to see a foreign place with the input from a local. You immediately see and understand things that the regular tourist remains unaware of. Even if it is such a simple thing as a night food market. Nobody speaks English there. And there are a lot of very unfamiliar foods they sell. How could you possibly know what it is if you do not have a local person to ask and translate? Makes sense, doesn’t it?!

OK, I’ll read the papers now to check the situation in Hongkong. I guess the China Times also reports about the after-election situation in Bulgaria :)

Have a great weekend. Talk to you later!