Kunming, Yunnan Province. Catering staff receive a motivational pep talk from their boss.
Authentic Zhejiang style 浙菜 restaurant in Madrid
One of the most popular restaurants in Madrid’s Chinatown in the neighbourhood of Usera, Lao Tou, is an homage to the cuisine of Zhejiang 浙菜, known as Zhècài. Zhejiang is the birth place of the majority of the Chinese community living in Madrid (and Spain).
Not only is Lao Tou popular with the Chinese residents in Madrid, it is also increasingly frequented by curious Madrileños and Chinese tourists visiting the capital.
What makes the restaurant special?
Firstly, the ambience: Lao Tou is boisterous, noisy and chaotic. The combination of Chinese and Spanish having a good time means that noise decibels go through the roof. Added to the animated conversations of the clientele is the clanging and banging made by the to-ing and fro-ing of the waiters as they bring a constant stream of dishes and drinks from the kitchen and bar. And to cap it all, there is the hiss of the wok and the sound of metal hitting metal as the chefs stir the food in the woks with their spatulas.
Then there is the food. Anyone following our blog will know that we love spicy food and our favourite Chinese cuisine comes from Sichuan and Hunan, called Chuāncài 川菜 and Xiāngcài 湘菜 respectively. Zhejiang Cuisine is very different. Rather than using a lot of spice, the aim of Zhejiang cooking is to concentrate on the natural flavours of the ingredients, using only a few spices to enhance the taste. Not much oil is used and the flavours are fresh.
Most of the Chinese community in Madrid come from Qingtian, a town close to the huge, commercial city of Wenzhou in the south of Zhejiang Province. As this area is near the border with Fujian Province, there is a lot of influence from Fujian Cuisine 闽菜, known as Mǐncài. 闽菜. Mǐncài uses a lot of seafood and fish and that is what makes Lao Tou such a great restaurant.
Fresh Spanish seafood, cooked in 浙菜; Zhècài /闽菜; Mǐncài style makes for a real treat. Great fish: seabass and turbot. Wonderful shellfish: clams, razor fish and cockles, to name just a few. For carnivores there is also a huge selection of offal, cold and hot, as well as chicken, duck and pork specialities.
Here are some of the cold dishes we started with.
Wa wa cai 娃娃菜 (Verdura adobada, Spanish translation): a cold dish of pickled cabbage hearts, slightly salty with a tinge of sweetness and a crunchy texture. I’d never had it before and neither had I heard of it, but it’s delicious!
As it’s not on the menu, you have to point to it in the glass cabinet between the bar and the kitchen.
Cold Fish Cake 鱼饼 in slices (Pastel de Pescado): tasty slices of cold fish with garlic and ginger, accompanied by a light soy sauce. It has a great texture too!
Cold dried and roasted fish 黄鱼 (secado de pescado): a really tasty fish that comes off the bone easily.
Pickled Turnip 萝卜条 (nabo encurtido) : similar to the pickled cabbage hearts; crunchy and delicious.
Jellyfish salad 海蛰头 (ensalada de medusa): a generous portion and excellent taste . However, the jellyfish could have been more tender and less chewy. This is usually one of our favourite Chinese cold starters, but this one was a little disappointing.
The other classic cold dishes on the menu include cucumber salad, tofu with black eggs (one hundred, or one thousand year old eggs) and fried shrimps with fresh coriander, among others. For adventurous meat eaters there are duck’s feet 鸭爪, tongues 鸭舌 or a whole head 鸭头 and veal tripe 牛百叶.
The star dish of Lao Tou seems to be steamed fish head (I think it is hake). We haven’t tried it yet. Nearly everybody else in the restaurant was ordering it, but Margie isn’t so keen on fish head, so we went for other options.
The razor fish 蛏子 (navajas) and clams 蛤蜊 (almejas) were fresh and tender and delicately cooked in soy sauce with spring onions and ginger. Most importantly, there was no sand in the razor fish.
However, the cockles 蚶 (berberechos) cooked in Shaoxing wine (Huangjiu 黄酒) were the icing on the cake: fresh, succulent and imbibed with the flavor of the wine.
We also had a huge, mildly spicy pot of fresh seabass鲈鱼 (lubina), which was beautifully presented. The slices of fish were very tender and almost boneless; it could have been a bit spicier for our liking, but – as I said – that’s not really what Zhejiang style’s about. The restaurant does a similar dish with congealed blood.
Don’t miss out on the salt and pepper deep fried prawns 椒盐虾: great texture and great taste!
Finally, there is a good selection of vegetables as well. I’d recommend the sautéed Mange Tout 荷兰豆 and if you are feeling adventurous, give the Chinese Yucca 山药 a chance, or the Jiao Bai (Sun) 茭白(笋), a type of crispy water bamboo.
They also do Okra Qiū kuí 秋葵 Chinese style, in a thick, sticky sauce。
All in all, Lao Tou comes highly recommended. At the weekend you may well have to wait at the bar before you get one of the coveted tables.
Step back in time and visit this fascinating ancient village in Guizhou Province.
We didn’t really know what to expect when we arrived at Tunbao village 屯堡 (sometimes known as Tunpu), next to the larger town of Tianlong 天龙. We had heard that it was home to a special group of Han Chinese who still dressed in Ming clothes. They are descendants of part of the army sent to quell unrest in the region during the reign of the Hongwu emperor; the founder of the Ming Dynasty 1368–1398.
Although we had wondered whether it was going to be some themed, Disney-style village to amuse Chinese tourists, we were actually pleasantly surprised.
The first thing we discovered came as a total shock: the women in Ming dress were the same ones we had seen haggling at Anshun market, or working the fields in nearby villages. We had previously mistaken them for Buyi (Bouyi) 布依族; ( an ethnic minority who live in this area), but from our previous visit to Shitou Zhai we had learnt that they wear darker clothes, embroidered in the different way.
The ladies in Ming dynasty clothes were definitely authentic; there were not only old ladies, but many young girls too, who continued to sport these traditional garments. There seems to be an area of villages and towns around Anshun where this practice continues.
The Ming costume basically consists of long, calf- length blue tunics, black trousers, dark aprons and the embroidered cloth shoes that are common in this area of Guizhou. The tunics are usually bright blue, but can be turquoise, purple or pink as well.
The ladies wear their hair in a bun at the back of their head, with a small white cap around it, held in place by a long pin, and they usually wear long dangling earrings as well. As is often the case, the men don’t wear anything special.
Tunbao village isn’t undiscovered. There is a 25- Yuan ticket that includes a guide, which we declined. However, it is far from over-run and a very picturesque place, which offers a much better example of the local stone village architecture than the touristy and over-priced Shitou Zhai.
While souvenir shops line the main street, the sales pressure is low and the haggling good-natured. Local woodcarvings and Dixi opera masks seem to be the main products.
The stone houses are well preserved and still lived in, many have a multitude of traditional farming implements spread all over the courtyard, as an indication that farming is still one of the main occupations of the villagers.
Tunbao 屯堡 boasts a few real architectural gems: one of these is the ancient Three Religions Temple 三教寺 (Sanjiaosi) which combines elements of Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism. In the Temple courtyard there’s a delightful wooden pyramid, adorned with carved figurines and ceramic bowls with tea-oil lamps.
Old ladies in their traditional blue dresses sit around sewing shoes, some are real ones, while others are miniature versions, something that seems to be another speciality of the village.
The second gem of Tunbao is the 19th century church school, built by a French priest, an unusual oval stone building with adjacent wooden halls that house a Dixi museum.
Dixi is the local style of opera, in which actors wear colourful wooden masks and extravagant costumes. The museum has a whole collection of these masks, some of them huge and frightening creations.
On the stage in the courtyard, regular mini-performances are held, whenever there are enough people around. The performances are lively and the mock fights are excellent.
You may have to wait around a bit in the plant-filled courtyard (look out for the dragon-shaped mini-tree) for a few other tourists to turn up. The actors a quite happy for you to enter their dressing room, nose around and ask questions.
Click here to Visit Tiantai Shan and Wulong Si from Tunbao Village
Practicalities: Tunbao 屯堡
Getting there and away:
Buses leave regularly from Anshun’s 安顺 main bus station to Tianlong. It takes around 45 minutes, up to an hour, depending on the route they take.
Food and Accommodation:
There were a number of restaurants serving local dishes and a few small inns (kèzhàn).
Practicalities Anshun 安顺
Accommodation can be tight in Anshun, especially at weekends, holidays and in summer. You may have to search around a bit before finding a bed, most of the hotels that feature in the popular guidebooks seem to be eternally full.
In 2003, we stayed at the pleasant Huayou Binguan on Tashan Xilu (tel. 322 6020), where comfortable airy rooms went for around 150 Yuan and staff were very friendly. Unfortunately, it was completely full on our last visit.
In 2007 we really had a hard time finding a room. Eventually we were pointed to the huge Fu Yun Hotel, right next to the bus station on Guihuang Gonglu lu. Light, airy rooms, arranged around an atrium, were 210 Yuan, a modest breakfast included. Staff were extremely friendly.
Other cheap options that may have vacancies are the Ruo Fei Binguan on Nanhua Lu, and the Anju Binguan next to the train station.
The best food in Anshun is definitely to be had at the night market. At seven o’clock on the dot, stall holders start appearing from nowhere, pushing their carts, and within minutes the entire length of Gufu Jie and its surrounding streets become crammed with stalls and tents, selling all kinds of snacks and more elaborate dishes. Cauldrons bubble and grilles crackle and practically the whole of Anshun seems to turn up for the feast.
Huo guo is extremely popular and the Anshun variety is one of the hottest we’ve ever tasted!
Another popular dish is grilled fish: you take your pick from an aquarium and watch while your choice is plucked out, bashed several times on the floor, gutted and placed in a metal griddle on top of a barbecue. You pay according to the weight and type of fish (around 60–70 Yuan for two). The whole, grilled fish is served on a hot plate, covered by spicy vegetables and aromatic herbs. Washed down with a mini, portable barrel of draught beer it makes for a very tasty meal.
One more dish that seems all the rage is barbecued mixed meats, mostly innards and offal, which you cook yourself on a round hot-plate, teriyaki style.
For vegetarians there is a real treat, something that seems unique to Anshun: at the top end of Gufu Jie there are two tents that specialise in vegetable pancakes. For 4 Yuan you get ten small pancakes that you can stuff with any of the vegetable fillings, meticulously prepared and attractively laid out on plates. Sauces and chilli are provided for dipping.
Noodles, Xinjiang lamb kebabs and a host of other snacks make up the rest of the market. Fruit shakes and shaved ice with various toppings, called baobing, provide the desserts.
Quanzhou: A fascinating Chinese City with a long history.
Quanzhou 泉州/Zaitun: the City of Light! Or not!
The City of Quanzhou is a must for any History buff, such as myself. It was made famous by Marco Polo, who described ‘Zaitun’, the name by which Quanzhou was known then, as ‘… one of the two ports in the world with the biggest flow of merchandise…’.
Quanzhou’s historical grandeur and importance have received further recognition in the book ‘The City of Light’, written by the historian David Selbourne; a work which has raised considerable controversy. Based on the diaries kept by a Jewish merchant, Jacob D’ Ancona, the book describes a city of enormous wealth and riches, built on commerce and trade with the outside world, as well as a vibrant political culture, with merchants, bureaucrats and intellectuals involved in heated arguments and violent discussions over the best way to confront and contain the impending Mongol invasion that would soon engulf all of China and bring down the Southern Song dynasty.
Whether fiction or reality, Jacob’s diary makes for an interesting companion on a visit to Quanzhou. One of the most fascinating parts of the book is Jacob’s account of the many different foreigners living and trading in the city, in the years preceding Marco Polo.
He refers to Franks (Western Christians), Saracens (Muslims) and Jews, among others, all living in the city in their own communities, according to their religion. Who were they? How did they get there? What were their impressions of China, and finally, what traces did they leave?
A visit to the maritime museum and new Islamic centre provides ample evidence of the early presence of foreigners in Quanzhou, such as tombstones and carvings from the different religious groups.
Besides the many Arab gravestones, there are Christian, and even Hindu, memorials as well. The Museum also houses a fascinating collection of miniature models of all types of Chinese sailing vessels, eloquent witnesses to the advanced stage of Chinese shipbuilding, in comparison with Europe.
Finally, the Qingjing Mosque, established as early as 1009, is further standing proof of the long historical ties that linked Arab traders to the legendary port of Quanzhou.
For the modern- day visitor, Quanzhou is at first sight just another bustling modern Chinese City. However, unlike most of its Southern counterparts, Quanzhou still retains many of its traditional streets and examples of Fukianese architecture.
The square in front of the Confucian temple Fuwen Miao, in particular, has some beautiful low, red-brick houses, with the characteristically sweeping roofs that end in a kind of projecting forks.
The vicinity of the beautiful Temple of Kaiyuan Si is another, recommended area for walking and exploring. Here, the traditional Fukianese courtyard houses rub shoulders with colonial-style buildings, housing all kinds of traditional shops, selling anything from candles and incense, to embroidered shoes and dried food.
Moreover, the temple itself is well worth a visit. It was built in the Tang dynasty and reached its peak of importance during the Song dynasty.
The temple grounds are huge and shaded by venerable, ancient trees under which the locals gather to play cards, or practise tai chi.
They are home to numerous halls, some of which double as museums, and two outstanding, five-storey pagodas. Many of the halls, as well as the pagodas, have wonderful carvings. Besides its architectural and religious charms, the Kaiyuan Si also harbours the hull of a Song dynasty sea-sailing junk, which was excavated near Quanzhou in 1974.
On a practical note, Quanzhou is not an expensive city to visit. Good hotels can be found in the centre, along or just off Wenling Lu, for around 150 yuan, for a standard double with breakfast.
We stayed at the City Holiday Hotel, a typical three-star business hotel for 164 yuan for a standard double (Tel. 0595 – 22989999). It was pretty good value with spotless rooms, friendly service and a reasonable breakfast.
Apart from the prices, what makes Meishijie such a great place to eat is that there are restaurants specialising in all the regional styles of Chinese food, but with the added benefit of using some of the freshest fish and seafood you will find in China.
We discovered an amazing restaurant in the middle of the city in a traditional building serving wonderful seafood but we can remember the name or address. Sorry!
For old world comfort there is the Gucuo Chayuan/ 古厝茶坊 Gucuo teahouse in the old city. China, Fujian Sheng, Quanzhou Shi, Licheng Qu, Houcheng St, 后城122
Finally, Quanzhou makes a good base for further exploration of the area, such as excursions to Chongwu 崇武镇 , or Anping Bridge 安平桥 . You can also visit nearby Xunpu Village (Oyster Village). Oyster shells are used in the construction of some of the houses.
Jiaozi or Chinese Dumplings (empanadillas in Spanish) have been popular in Madrid for a number of years, but finding the real McCoy, as you would in the old days in Beijing’s Hutongs, has been more of a struggle.
The opening of the Three Little Pigs Dumpling Restaurant 三只小猪饺子店 (Tres Cerditos in Spanish) has remedied the situation sensationally and especially for vegetarians.
The tiny restaurant does three types of dumplings: meat, prawn and vegetable. The dumpling dough, using wheat flour, is color coded; bluish for seafood, green for vegetarian and orangey for meat. You can have them grilled ( a la plancha) or steamed / boiled (hervido).
The prawn dumplings are simply delicious, while meat eaters rave about the veal or pork dumplings. My only gripe is that the homemade chili sauce is not spicy enough for my spoilt taste buds. However, there is Thai Seracha sauce on hand.
The vegetarian dumplings have an original filling of carrots, onions, leeks and herbs (fresh coriander). Not only is the combination wonderfully eye pleasing, but it is also unbelievably tasty.
Next on the menu are Jian Bing 煎饼 or Chinese Pancakes. These Tianjin style filled pancakes with vegetables only, or with chicken / beef and vegetables are enormous, delicious, cheap and filling. They are also one of my favourite beakfasts when I am in Beijing.
The pancakes are made on a hot metal grill and you can watch the staff preparing them right in front of you. First the dough is spread onto the hot plate and then an egg is added.
The process of making the pancakes looks simple but the number of different ingredients and various stages is quite mind-boggling. I imagine it is a case of practice makes perfect if you want to learn how to do it. However, I’d recommend leaving the task to the experts at the restaurant.
Other dishes: Also on the menu are hand-made noodles. The noodles are cold and come with a scrumptious hoisin style Cantonese sauce and are accompanied with an assortment of vegetables.
Rice flour is used to make the delicate and mouth-watering wantons (meat only). All the wanton wrappers are hand-made in the restaurant.
The kitchen is open for all to see and kept incredible clean. The owner is from Zhejiang 浙江省, but the dumpling makers are from the home of dumplings, Shandong 山东省 province and further north in Dandong 丹东 Liaoning province 辽宁省.
The menu below is in Spanish only. If you are visiting the Museo de Ferrocarril ( the Railway Museum in Madrid), then a visit to the Three Little Pigs Dumpling Restaurant is a must! Just walk long the attractive street Tomás Bretón to get there. There is another Tres Cerditos restaurant in the neighbourhood of Manuel Becerra.
The Barrio (Neighbourhood)
Just off the Atocha station and the magnificent Reina Sofia musem, home to Dali’s Guernica, is the attractive, but little visited neighborhood of Delicias.
Delicias was the first neighborhood where we lived when we came to Madrid. Back then, 1993, it was a traditional working class neighborhood (or barrio castizo) and slightly seedy due to its closeness to Atocha station. Over the years, it has become a melting pot for immigrants from all over the world, but particularly from Latin America.
This change you can see everywhere on the streets, on the faces of the passers-by as well as in the restaurants. Delicas now caters to all tastes. If you want to eat Ethiopian, there is an Ethiopian restaurant: Habesha . Want to try Korean? There is a great Korean place: Go Hyang Mat. Fancy Cuban food? Head for the fantastic Havana Blues.
Chinese food had gone somewhat under the radar in this neighbourhood, but this has now changed with the opening of the Three Little Pigs restaurant.
Photo of the week
This photo was taken in 2004 just before the mass demolition of Beijing’s Hutongs to prettify the city before the 2008 Olympic Games. The whole area where the photo was taken (Di’ anmen Inner Street and Di’ anmen East Street) has mostly been demolished and rebuilt and much of the vibrant street life has been lost forever.
Zhangbi Cun 张壁村 / Shanxi Province 山西省
Zhangbi cun 张壁村 is a tiny, beautiful, bucolic village in rural Shanxi Province. The village is famous for its underground castle, Zhangbi Gubao张壁古堡, a labyrinth of tunnels dating back to the Tang Dynasty (more than 1400 years).
Here are a few of the photos we took. There will be more on Zhangbi Village and its underground castle in the coming weeks.
Zhangbi Village can be easily visited on a day trip from the ancient walled city of Pingyao 平遥.
The best way to get to Zhangbi Village is to hire a car and driver. You can also take in the Wang family courtyard 王家大院 on the same excursion. It all makes for a great day out from Pingyao. We paid 400 yuan and which also included stopping at Shuanglin Temple 双林寺 8 kilometers outside Pingyao。
Kongtong Shan and Bus Insurance Hassle: 崆峒山甘肃省
Pingliang has become a large prosperous town in the last decade and has expanded enormously. Along with that expansion there are more hotel and eating options than what we have listed here. Kongtong Shan has become a huge domestic tourist spot and has undergone a lot of renovations. Many of the old temples have been rebuilt and some of the authenic atmosphere of a taoist hideaway has disppeared forever. That said it is still a beautiful place. Transport to and from Pingliang has also improved. Especially the bus connections to other major cities such as Lanzhou, Tianshui and Xian. You also don’t need to purchase the Gansu Travel Insurance anymore (Click here.)
Part one: Lanzhou – Pingliang
The first part of the adventure involves no more than going to the Western bus station and convincing the ticket sellers to sell you a ticket to Pingliang. In the summer of 2002 we had a tremendous battle with them, because they simply refused to sell us a ticket, even though we had previously purchased the (in)famous travel insurance that was obligatory in Gansu at the time. Finally we had to resort to the PSB to sort the problem out (click here for a full account of our bus hassle).
Pingliang and Kongtong Shan: 崆峒山
Once you get there, Pingliang is a small town which makes an excellent base for a visit to the Taoist Mountain of Kongtong Shan, one of the most sacred in China, which is a mere 15 kms away.
The best approach is to take a taxi to the reservoir (around 20 Yuan); a steep flight of steps will take you up to a road, skirting the reservoir, and on to the first temple. This is a beautiful ancient Taoist structure, guarded by venerable old priests, some of them with the pointy goatee and bun, characteristic of many followers of Tao.
After this, you come to the ticket window, from where different paths will take you up the mountain in around 3 hours, passing many small temples, nunneries, colourful gardens and Continue reading “Kongtong Shan From our Diary”