Last night in Peking – forever?

My last entry for Peking has to be about food, of course.

I just come back from dinner. Despite my cold I ventured out to burn a few of the Renminbis I have left (still from two months ago).

This was the upmarket Sichuan restaurant that I had chosen in the area:

I am sorry, but I cannot tell you its name.

They did not have any English menu, of course, and no one spoke English – but they had something very modern: the menu was on a tablet computer with pictures of every item and you could order just by hitting the add button when you saw something you like.

I ordered some tofu. The Sichuan way. I had had that recently in Ha Noi and I liked it. When it arrived it turned out to be a challenge. Because the tofu was cooked in a chilli sauce – and a hot one in addition.

I also ordered a “dzholan”, pork knuckle. What I could not ee from the photo, however, was that this baby also had been cooked in chilli oil with the addition of some spices that I have never encountered before – which made this part an even bigger challenge than the tofu, which came first and by now tasted nearly sweet in comparison!

By the time I had finished my meal my nose was running not only because of the cold!

Now I will take a hot bath and then watch some Chinese National Television. Hopefully to see Xi Jinping. I like this guy. He is cool, confident and relaxed. Much cooler than Obama when I see the two of them together and he definitely talks on eye level with him. Give another 5 years and he will be the most powerful man on earth…

Peking – reloaded

Last time a substantial part of my daytime was devoted to culture.

Today I decided to have a look at everyday Beijing life, so to say.

The Beijing subway is with 460km (and more under construction) the second longest subway in the world (after Shanghai). The public transport infrastructure (including buses) is second to none. I would say on one level with Tokyo. Clean and efficient. And both far ahead of the rest of the world – even Munich :( Beijing has one drawback: not all stations and platforms are accessible by escalator or elevator. In Tokyo it’s also not always easy but there eventually and sometimes with a great detour you will find access. This rules out that I will go to the airport by public transport. In principle it would be easy but I have no desire to shifting my heavy luggage up and down long stairs.

The subway is a dream to discover the city. Even for foreigners. All stations are also written in Latin letters – on the train and the stations. On the train you have announcements of every station in Chinese and English. Very easy to navigate. You can also chose English on the ticket vending machines. But it is so simple that you don’t even need it. Every one way ticket is 2 Yuan (0.50 Leva). Regardless of the distance and how many times you switch lines. Only once you leave the subway system your ticket is collected by the exit gate. Brilliant. But I heard that soon they want to introduce fairs depending on the travel distance :(

Here a typical subway station:

Generally you see more “individuals” in Beijing. People seem to be more relaxed and with a healthy self-esteem. Women wear not always the trendiest stuff like in Tokio. Some do, but others go for comfortable wear. I like that. A bigger variety here.

Evereybody, however, on the subway uses his mobile phone. I mean: EVERYBODY! Any age group. This here was a lucky shot. Only 5 out of 6 use their phones (one guy to the left cannot be seen). But only because the sixth person is fast asleep…

I went to a part of town, near the university called Zhongguangcun. It is the high tech area of Peking. There are shopping malls for electronics. You would not believe it if you do not see it! Hundreds, no thousands of shops for computers, mobile phones and cameras. In various huge buildings I don’t know how many floors high.

This shows just a mini-fraction of one floor of a multi-story electronics building.

With all the latest gadgets and accessories that we have not even heard of yet in Europe. I am sure there were loads of bargains. Sadly, for the poor hustlers who attacked me every ten meters, I could not speak Chinese – and they were stopped in their tracks as they did not know how to handle me. As all the writing was in Chinese I could not get a grasp of the situation either. In the end it became an information overflow for me. Especially as I do not need to buy anything.

But there were also “regular” shopping malls and department stores. Spread out over acres and acres f selling space. I sure have not seen such vast shopping areas anywhere in the US! I believe the Chinese have now also outrun Bangkok. Tokyo is a dwarf in comparison. I do not use this word often but in this case it is legitimate: awesome! And about 90% of the goods for sale (my perception) are fashion items for women…Unfortunately, the last mall I was in, was so huge that it took me ages to find my way out :(

To relax I had a look at the food department of Carrefour (they are quite big in China – at least in Beijing). Interestingly they had only a very small section of imported foods. Nearly all was Chinese.

Like the dumpling kitchen:

You know, the Chinese adore their jiaozi (dumplings) since thousands of years – and somehow I believe that they were the grandparents of the Russian pelmeni :)

Or how about some dried duck?

Prices in general (clothes and food) would more reflect the price levels in the Japan, the UK and France. For someone living in Bulgaria – outright expensive!

Fortunatey, even poor Bansko farmers like me, can survive here. Everywhere were there are people living, just a few meters from the main streets in some small side alleys are cheap eateries, most of them specialising on only a few dishes.This is where I feel at home :) And where I get attention and excellent service because I usually am the first foreigner ever having set foot in their establishment…

Of course, no one there ever speaks any language you would understand…:(

As a conclusion: Peking is a very impressive place. Even “awesome” and “amazing”. Unlike everything else you have ever encountered. The Chinese from Beijing are different from all the other Asians. They are self-confident, relaxed and business-oriented and more individual. The only Asian people that do not pay court to me when they learn that I am German. :)   The city itself has such a wealth of culture that it would keep you busy for a long time to discover all the treasures.

And outside the Wangfujing area (near the emperor’s palace and the major sights) Peking is a touristic virgin! The centre is full with group travellers. But there are only few individual tourists to be found and they mainly come from other Asian countries like Singapore etc.) And they come for a few days to see the major sights. And the ladies see only the Wangfujing shopping area. Not the loads of others, bigger, better and cheaper.

Nothing outside the absolute centre is geared towards foreigners. Neither in shops, nor in restaurants, or even hotels. Nobody speaks English. Everything is written in Chinese only. That makes it, of course, difficult to discover the city without having local friends. But it’s manageable. Even by a moron like me!

Next time I am flying to Asia I must see Shanghai…

 

Cold as Ice…

This morning I was very keen on having breakfast at my “China People’s Palace Hotel”.

My reckoning: a true Chinese hotel, host of the most important conferences in China, in the Beijing financial district, many guests, 4-stars. This should provide enough food turnover every day to have a really impressive breakfast buffet.

And I was not wrong. Sadly, my camera’s battery was empty so I could not take any snapshots. A vast variety of Chinese salads, steamed, fried, boiled dishes of all kinds, dim sum, four kinds of soup, fruits, cereals, etc. etc…even for the Western taste: fried and boiled eggs, bacon, sausage, hash browns, cold cuts, two kinds of bread…

Very Chinese. Big TV screens on every wall so the Chinese could watch the news. Loads of charming young waitresses – but only one who spoke 5 words of English. She understood coffee and bread. She did not understand  “soup” or anything else I asked her but surprised me with her knowledge of the words “eggs” and “milk”.

As I was the only foreigner present this multi-language lady was commandeered to be my personal side-kick. I had no intention of eating any bread but as she offered it so nicely I let her bring some. She turned up with white toast bread and a slice of so called Graham bread. As they had a huge toaster I was curious whether to eat the bread toasted or “fresh”. The fresh toast bread was as hard as a brick! I could just crack off a little corner of it  with my teeth. I had to put it aside out of concern for my choppers. My assumption: no one ever eats bread there so it had spent many lonely mornings there and got air-dried like a good old parma ham.

Apart from that little glitch (my own fault, trying Western fare in a strictly Eastern environment) everything was wonderful (well, the coffee was that kind of brew that you get in most good hotels and sometimes even on a good flight). To finish off my 1-1/2 hour breakfast I took something that I considered yoghurt – but as the label was only in Chinese I did not realise that it was some kind of soy product.  I have to admit that I started to appreciate the taste only towards the bottom of the plastic cup.

For the last few hours I have been dilly-dallying around. My camera is half-charged and I will venture out now. It is cold but sunny as the view from my corner room shows :P

 

 

 

The bill, please!

Today is a tough day. Tomorrow morning I am leaving Vietnam.

Not only do I have to do my packing, return the rented motorbike, take care of electricity and water bills – but also to get rid of anything in the fridge and cupboards.

I have been an awfully good boy! I brought one big bar of dark chocolate with chilli from Germany – and there is still some left! Also some wine gums left over! See how good one can be under pressure! My does not like me to eat sweets, so I don’t. I will eat that stuff in Peking tomorrow then :)

There are still a couple of beers in the fridge, some coke and a bottle of Havana Club. My just left and will come back only in a few hours. So, I better start with the Cuba Libre now. Would be a shame to throw those things away. I don’t care so much about the beer. There is also some red wine left – which My will take home to her place to keep for my next visit or so.

I will also have to finish off some leftovers in the fridge from yesterday: squid and a vegetable soup. That will be perfect for lunch.

Tonight we will go out for dinner. That’s also a toughie. Because I will want to eat something I cannot get in Europe. So, maybe something Vietnamese would be suitable? :P But then I would want something I have not eaten recently.

I tell you, there is not much out there. In Saigon I had snails, eel, dried frogs, buffalo, duck tongues, blood soup and pig guts. Here I recently had crab, squid, goat, boar and so on. I can only think of dog and snakes at the moment. Both of which My does not like – so they are out of question. The rest she does not really like to eat in the restaurant because she can cook it better than they! She is so happy with her vegetables boiled with pork ribs or fried with ginger and garlic. What can I do?

The truth is, in the last few months in Vietnam I have eaten such a variety of foods that I have no particular desire for one of them. I have adapted! In the first year I found Vietnamese food very boring (being used to Thai food and Laos cuisine). The “timid” use of spices, no “passionate” dishes and so on. Now I have come to appreciate this “family food”. Maybe because of my My. Who as a professional cook buys only the best ingredients at the markets. We all know what a difference in cooking a quality product makes!

In short words: I have come a long way to appreciate the moderate Vietnamese cuisine! It is influenced by China (like many other historical things in Vietnam as well) but has its independent and unique ways. The French also left a mark, with Vietnam having been a French colony for a century or so. So: Vietnamese cuisine is unique in South East Asia.

20-30 years ago in Germany there was a huge boom of Thai restaurants. Which made most of the existing “Chinese” restaurants either collapse or re-orientate into “Thai” restaurants. Now, when I look at the scene in the big German cities, everywhere there is a least one Vietnamese restaurant in the top ten! Amazing! Because (like before with the pseudo Chinese and the Thai restaurants) their food is but a mediocre reflection of simple Vietnamese fare (in the best case)!

Vietnam has a future! Not only as a tourist destination. With a population of an average age of 25 years an their national pride there is also a potentially great economical future ahead. Vietnamese are hard working and disciplined (they call them the Prussians of Asia).

In the few years that I am spending about 3 month a year here I see change. A lot of it. Mostly in the South, Saigon. Not so much in Hanoi. That’s why I am here. As I am not here because of business but because of quality of life I prefer my old fashioned, relaxed ways here. Which does not mean that I am not trying to make a few modest bob here with some tiny strategic investments. And I am sure the Vietnamese will not disappoint me!

I strongly recommend Vietnam as a holiday destination to all of you. Some of you have been here and know what I am talking about. To my other friends I say: Vietnam can be a once in a lifetime experience – if you are open to other cultures and stay away from the tourists (where possible). For this you need locals. Either you go for a (low budget) “home stay” or you spend good money (luxury version) for hiring a guide and a driver (foreigners are not allowed to drive cars here). Or, if you are single (best solution of them all) you find a local lover with whom you spend your time here and who “lends” you his eyes to see things in a Vietnamese way.

Maybe you would call me crazy. For the last 14 years I was the “Bavarian-Macedonian” who apportioned his life between Bansko and Germany. Bansko is still the centre of my universe! But since I moved my German residence from Frankfurt to Munich my escapes to Germany have become more frequent and pleasurable. Now, since three years, Vietnam also used its elbows to claim a place in my heart. And, yes, I have adopted it – like one of our stray dogs in the past.

I know, you could not care less about my feelings and egoistical monologues. I should rather entertain you. But today I am a little sentimental.

 

Ho Chi Minh City

Saigon is less than 1-1/2 hours by plane from Hanoi. But quite a different crowd – and climate.

We arrived early, so our room was not ready yet and we went for a little lunch and to look at the Ben Thanh market.

I made a good choice with the hotel. Perfect central location – a stone throw from the world famous Ben Thanh market, and 5 minutes to the park and the palace of the former president of South Vietnam, the spot where the Vietnam war ended when a North Vietnam tank crashed through the gates, back then in 1975. It’s also only a few minutes to one of my favourite Saigon restaurants where they sell baby crocodile meat. The hotel is new and in excellent shape and I managed to get their “signature room” with a big terrace overlooking the city. Life is good to me!

Lunch was a glass noodle soup with crab meat. Enough to keep us going through the day.

The Ben Thanh market does not only sell food (today it would have been too late for that anyway) but also clothes, souvenirs and all kinds of things. It is full with tourists and I don’t think one can find a reel bargain there.

I gave it a shot, nonetheless. The wristband of my watch disintegrated shortly after my arrival and I have not found any decent replacement. The absolutely cheapest wristband I was able to find was 200,000 Dong, 15 Leva). That kind of quality I buy at the Bansko Sunday market for 5 Leva. Therefore I have been “timeless” for the last two months. Since there were a lot of stalls in the market selling fake watches I set out to buy a cheap watch instead of a wristband.

At the 4th or so watch stall I found the right guys. I explained them what I was looking for and they did not try to sell me a 50$ watch. In the end we agreed on a fake Rolex Oyster Perpetual, black with a metal wristband at a fair price of 300,000 Dong (21.50 Leva). They made money and I didn’t feel ripped off. Of course, the wristband was too short and they had to insert several metal parts. They winced only shortly and asked for 400,000 Dong but the shrugging of my shoulders made them go back to real. :)

Should you come to Saigon, this is the place to buy your fake watch: Stall 729 inside the Ben Thanh market. They have a huge choice of brand names and their prices are reasonable.

We are back in our air-conditioned room as it is not only 32 C outside but also very humid. At 5pm we will venture out again…

 

This morning My went to her own apartment to do some laundry and iron my shirts. I prefer her to do that out of my sight because I can’t stand watching people work while I am lazy. :)

I asked her to pass by her market and see if she can get me some pigeons – after all the crabs and squid recently. As she went there at 7 am she was lucky. Not only did they have pigeons – but pigeonneaus (damn, do I use the French “x” here or the English “s” for the plural?) -  anyway young pigeons, of the tender kind  :)

She bought me three for the incredible price of 50,000 Dong (3.75 Leva) for all of them! In France, nearly the only country where I can buy them in the shop they would be about 10€ a piece!

As we do not have an oven in my apartment I was planning to do them in a pot or in a frying pan. Alas, My is a professional chef, so, to please me, she roasted them already at her home and brought them back ready to eat.

That was awfully sweet of her, so I could not possibly complain that I want pigeons not more done than medium rare :( In the end they were, of course, still tasty this way, just roasted with a little salt and pepper. But they would have been even better rosé :(

I made some sautéed potatoes to go with them – and that was it.

As nobody was watching (My went out for some errands) I felt the atavistic urge to eat the pigeons with my fingers (and the potatoes also). I even chewed up and ate most of the crunchy bones, like the wings, the necks and so. A feast! Simple, primitive – “finger-licking” delicious!

Of course, I don’t refuse the delights of dishes like “Pigeonneau farci au foie gras et truffe noire” but nowadays I prefer someone else to do all the work – and when I cook to do it hardcore…

Do you like pickles?

Like in my Pirin area also in Vietnam there are quite a few local dishes that foreigners/tourists never get to taste. Either because they do not show up on restaurant menus or – when invited to a Vietnamese home – they are too “common” or too “specific” to be presented to a foreign guest.

I am in the lucky(?) position to get such food nearly every day. It is always “nearly” vegetarian, as only a little meat is added to the cooking process – mainly for taste.

Last night we had “Canh dưa” – a kind of soup with pickled vegetable. The Vietnamese like pickling very much (a little different from the Japanese pickling).

For the Canh dưa they clean and cut mustard greens

and keep them covered in salt water three to four days (turning the stuff upside down every day). When the thicker lower parts start to become yellow, it is ready – like here:

You then wash the mustard greens to get the salt out and dry them. Then heat some oil in a pot and add cubed beef (tenderloin if possible) and tomatoes and the mustard greens. No other spices. Simmer it covered for 5 minutes. Afterwards you transfer everything into a pressure cooker, add water and cook it for about 50 minutes in a pressure cooker.

The result looks something like this:

I can assure you that the taste is unlike anything that you have eaten so far. But it is very satisfying and complex. I nearly finished the pot on my own :)

Some days ago I have bought some durian ice cream at “Fanny’s”. Horribly expensive – but the “maitre” learned in Paris at Lenotre’s. It was a perfect desert with a little sliced-up banana.

Oh, these small bananas. Like perfume in your mouth :)

Today no rain – but COLD (15 C only!) and windy. Another relaxed day in the making…

Cultural Differences 1

Every country is different from the others. There are always cultural differences. In some cases they are only minor, in others they are big.

I do not want to go into detail now, because then I would have to specify to whom I compare Vietnam, to Germany, Bulgaria, UK, USA as all these countries are also different from each other.

But let me talk about small, pleasant differences that are visible in everyday life.

For example how the Vietnamese eat oranges. Here oranges have a green skin and a lot more juice than ours. To eat one, you cut it in wedges and separate most of the meat from the skin – from both ends:

Some people (like my My) like to put a little salt on the orange. It tastes actually quite good.

Or bananas. In Vietnam you do not simply peel a banana. That would be Western barbarism. Tradition has it that you break the banana in half – and only afterwards peel it – but peel it always in such a way that you can eat the banana without touching its “meat” with your fingers…

Another curious observation is, that Vietnamese cooks always peel (vegetables, fruit, whatever) by cutting away from their bodies – while Western chefs/people usually peel by moving the knife or peeler towards their body:

There are many little loveable differences like these. Occasionally I will tell you more…

Lazy in lousy weather

The last two days were the first in Ha Noi without me sweating. The recent storm brought cold weather of 16 degrees C today (and down to icy 13 C during last night). A nice break. My has already dug out her winter clothes…

As it was also raining we did not venture out much. Yesterday only for a breakfast noodle soup downstairs at 7.30 am (25,000 Dong for a big bowl = 1.87 Leva):

…and today I got myself a Vietnamese baguette sandwich (banh mi) with liver pate and other things in the morning (15,000 Dong = 1.12 Leva).

…not much else to do ;)

So, to escape the cold I booked a flight to Saigon where it will be 32 C today.  We will go there for 4 nights next Saturday. As My has never been there I will have to be the tour guide for a change :) That will be fun. I bet she won’t like the food there as the Southerners are known for using a lot of sugar in their cooking. But we will survive, I am sure :)

One slight problem is that according to Vietnamese law a Vietnamese person cannot share a hotel room with a foreigner if they are not married! But I was able to arrange that discretely…after all I am an experienced Bulgarian :)

Today I need to plug into an ATM. The limit at most machines is 2,000,000 Dong (about 100$) – even here not an awful lot. I have decided to wait till noon – because from there I can continue to my beer garden where I am planning to have some of my favourite foods for lunch…pork offals…