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Friday, July 21, 2017

Justin in China - Dalian & Jinzhou

This trip has been a trip. We've seen a lot of places I've already seen and done a lot of stuff I've already done, but it never gets old. Seeing it with a new set of eyes has been both enlightening and entertaining, amazing and amusing.

Justin had to do some acclimating in Dalian. He loved my favorite zoo, and the fresh seafood has no equal, but he did have some difficulty with people watching him shower. 

He had no problem soaking in the Dalian's newly-built medicinal hot springs, though. The tiny swim trunks worn by all Chinese men were cute, and he swims the way he a fish. 

The best thing about Dalian was seeing him bond with my uncle. No common language, but men will be men. I’ve never seen my uncle so excited about any family member, and whether they were silently eating or wordless playing the same guitar, they seemed to understand each other just fine. 

Hanging with my aunt and uncle was like the double date you never wanted, only to realize it's what you've always wanted. it was like they saw us as adults for the first time, and suddenly we were just two couples, hanging out. I love them because they don't patronize, and they don't try to spout any wisdom despite having plenty to share. They just want us to have a good time while they're along for the ride, but they still do the parent thing and buy us keychains to commemorate this park with gorgeous cliffs that look a lot like Palos Verdes.

Jinzhou is a lot more suffocating, but my mother is determined to show us a good time. We go see all the attractions, even Bie Jia Mountain, which sits far on the Jinzhou outskirts. Literally named for the penholder it resembles, the mountain is hardly a trek for avid hikers. But the sea walk to get there is probably worth the entire trip; The ocean parts at low tide to reveal a rocky path straight to the mountain. Any other time, you pay a motor boat to ferry you back and forth.

They say this is where Pangu created the world, and the Taoist temples are worth the well-paved climb.

Off the mountain and into the cave, the Thousand-Buddha Cave to be exact, a new attraction for me. Situated within the cliffs of Huludao, they are a mere 20 minutes outside my original hometown for Yixian, but somehow we never ventured quite that far. The caves are beautiful, the preservation incredible. Some of the caves are modern-made, but the originals are worth the hot, dusty trip.

At every temple, there's a bell you can ring for luck. Justin can ring my bell any day.

My favorite is still Fengguo Temple in Yixian, probably because I used to live in the front yard. That one-room hut with the straw roof and dirt floor are long gone, but the seven Buddhas still persist. They're breathtaking in their preservation, majestic in their proportions. Legend has it that a bomb was dropped on the main hall. It crashed through the roof and lodged in the rafters, refusing to detonate, leaving the Buddhas untouched. There is an undeniable, spiritual tranquility here, and it's so far off the beaten path, the roads aren't even paved.

Justin never hesitates to remind me, "Most people don't grow up in a straw hut in rural China to become a doctor in Redondo Beach". I am better because of where I came from, and my ambition, my constant willingness to claw my way up stems from wanting something more than a straw roof that leaked in the rain. I'll never forget where I came from, but I'm grateful to have advanced so far.  I hope Justin had a good time this trip, and I hope that he now understands me a little bit more, but next time, we'll be soul searching under the Hong Kong city lights.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Lamb – Dalian, China

There is a ramshackle lamb shack off the side of the highway on my aunt’s way to work. I’ve only been there once, but I’ve waited two years to go back.

The Lamb Soup is still a must, and you can customize your pot with any combination of ingredients. The “lamb scraps” have the most flavor, but even my adventurous man can’t be asked to stomach bits of stomach, intestine, liver, and brain. We opt for the one with cubes of floating muscle-meat instead, chunks so stewed and tender that they melt in your mouth.

We pass on the lamb guts, but we do enjoy a plate of sautéed Lamb Cheek. I expected it to be fatty and full of soft meat like pork, but the meat is rubbery and firm instead, savory with the gamey lamb-flavor amplified.

Again, the balance between hot and cold. Cucumber and Lily Flower provides a cool-down in a place that doesn’t have AC. Coated lightly with a thin layer of vinegar-laced liquid, it’s so easy but you can’t stop eating. Something about the tart tones of vinegar adds spunk to a neutral cucumber, and the flowers cast an earthy aura, like a mushroom in the woods.

The server instructs us to order the Cabbage with a veracity that forces us to comply. It’s just cabbage, right? Maybe their cabbage is about to go bad and they want to get rid of it? No. No, he’s just trying to help. Their cabbage is the best cabbage I have ever tasted in my entire life, and it may be the best-tasting dish on the table. The cabbage itself is flawlessly-cooked, on the cusp of crispy and soft. It still holds a satisfying smack, under a thick layer of soy-based sauce that’s clearly been laced with luscious fat of lamb. Say what you want, and judge as you will, but cooking with animal fat is genius.

Toothpick Lamb
, ending with a dish we recognize. Stupid-simple but stupid-good. Each piece of lamb is crispy on the outside and soft inside, each bite releasing a runny, fatty juice.

I call it the lamb shack because that’s what it is on the outside, but the inside is so much more. The lot is unpaved. There’s nothing next to it, nothing around it, and definitely nothing behind it. But never judge a book by its cover because it’s lunchtime on a weekday and the place is packed. They may look like a shack to skip, but this “shack” makes the best lamb I’ve ever had. 

Dough Drop Soup - Dalian, China

Chinese people don’t just eat; they EAT. You haven’t seen a person EAT until you see a Chinese person digging in. Chopsticks become a shovel, and the bowl becomes a dignified trough, and they devour without spilling a single drop. And Chinese people don’t discriminate. They can cook anything into something exceptional, and it doesn’t matter what meal they’re eating. They’ll eat any meal and they’ll eat every meal with the same heartwarming enthusiasm, and I’ve never seen anyone bask in the pure joy of living nearly as much as a Chinese person eating.

Dough Drop Soup
is one of those foods you can EAT. I may not remember the name of this restaurant, but I can assure you everyone else in Dalian does. It is known for its seaweed preparations, and one claim to fame is their tender little knobs of flour-and-water, flavored with marbled threads of interwoven green kelp and egg. The broth is thin, but the kelp and egg cling to the knotty balls of dough, which some have described as “Chinese gnocchi”.

On the side, we have a local favorite. A whole buttery, flaky fish deep-fried to golden perfection. Justin doesn’t even like Fried Fish, and here he is, learning to sever small strips of meat from prickly, abundant bones. Fried Turnip Balls are birds’ nests of julienned carrots and turnip, a crisp, earthy breath of roots. They tie with the fried fish for best dish, these crunchy, munchy chunks.

The Pork Juicy Dumplings are totally random, but I’ll never turn these down. The wrappers are thin enough, and the inside is full of pork-y broth.

There are also Kelp Dumplings, a famous filling, another star on the map. These dumplings are a bit bigger, and the chewy, rubbery-but-softer brown seaweed makes a lasting impressing between your teeth. I’ve never been a fan of seaweed, and I didn’t even care for nori until I finished college, but there is something special about these dumplings. The kelp is a vegetable of the briny deep with a texture that releases an irresistible salty-savory burst that makes you want to keep on chewing.

The soup is hot, and the dumplings are hotter. The Jelly Noodles are another Dalian delicacy, and they are a welcome cool-down between the sweaty bites. Gelatinous-yet-firm, French fry-sized strips are coated in a thick layer of bitter sesame sauce with pungent garlic. They refresh, they refine, and they wake up a sleepy palate slathered in seaweed and meat.

It’s not a Chinese meal if you’re not sweating from the heat of a steaming hot bowl, and the table is unbalanced without a vegetable (even if it’s deep-fried). There must be at least one dish that's hot and at least one dish that’s cold. You expect each dish at every meal, but it’s a rare gift to get every dish so perfectly crafted, so that each bite just blows your mind. It’s so much, and it’s too much, but it’s so hard to stop. The world is my oyster and I can’t slurp it fast enough. 

Shrimp – Dalian, China

I thought I’d seen it all in the way of seafood, but my aunt proves me wrong every time. These Shrimp are one of the more work-intensive items from the market, but when you simply steam them and peel away an easily-shed skin, you unleash a succulent symphony. It’s sweeter than the sweetest crab and more tender than the supplest shrimp. Even the world-famous Santa Barbara Prawn doesn’t come close. New favorite seafood? Check.

Ri Feng Garden – Dalian, China

Back to Dalian, back to the big city. As usual, my dad’s friends are far too generous. They gift us a private driver, and man, she knows her stuff.

She is a composed lady who knows Dalian in and out. She drives bravely through the crazy crowds, and she makes the highways, where lane markers are merely a suggestion, seem like less of a life-threatening mess. Think the 405 is bad? Try anywhere in China at rush hour.

The only Dalian I know is the Dalian my father shows me. Everything I see is through his eyes, but there is a lot he doesn’t know. Our driver knows all that. She takes us to the bigger attractions, but she’s also well-versed in hidden gems.

We skip the fancy places because I’ve seen them all. Instead, we go to a small shop with a line out the door, famous for its Sea Worm (or Sea Urechis) Dumplings. Sea worms. They’re as phallic-looking as they sound, and they are possibly the most difficult food to prepare. The guts can be pulled out, but there is a mucous layer of slime, like the kind that clings to snails, that you feel like you’ll never scrape off. Undercook and you have a chewy, cartilaginous mess. Overcook and you have a rock. Cook them just right like these people can and you have tender, savory little strips of flesh. They have a texture much like small intestine, and they pack an unexpected amount of flavor from an unlikely place.

We also get some Conch Dumplings just in case the sea worms are too much to stomach. Both are good, and the textures are quite similar, but the conch tastes more ocean-y, and the worms more like a pork that occasionally swims. Both get a flavor-boost from the garlicky chives.

What makes this restaurant special is their skill but also their freshness. Their seafood is caught in their own small fishing boats, and what they have available every day varies, depending on the haul. Today, they caught Abalone, and fortunately, so did we. Theirs are smaller, but a lot more tender than their larger, more expensive counterparts. Meaty, like a chicken of the sea, abalone has none of the expected brine and these are succulently smothered in a viscous brown sauce. But the giant Shrimp are still my fave. Covered in a salt n’ pepper crust, the shrimp are well worth the work of peeling.

sautéed with potato and celery. I prefer it simple with just a bit of green onion, but it’s still one of Dalian’s best. Conch goes tender instead of crunchy when it’s sliced paper-thin, and each bite tastes like a sandy beach without the sand.

Decadence descends in a small ramekin-cup. The Uni Egg Custard is silky and sweet with firm, grainy uni. The sea-sweet permeates an airy egg, and the satiny finish gives me goosebumps.

Ri Feng Garden has not gone unnoticed. Even Michelin has an article describing the sea worm dumplings, and they earned a CCTV feature just last year. That said, they’re still a well-kept secret that will likely stay quite hidden from anyone who is not a well-versed local. You have to read and speak fluent Chinese to navigate the streets of Dalian, but it’s worth learning both to find food like this.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Family Lunch – Yi Xian, China

There’s nothing like a meal made by family, and there is nothing better than eating with family.

I may be biased, but my cousins’ skills are legit. There are all sorts of Yixian specialties here: a lip-smacking smoked chicken; a pungent stalk of garden-fresh green onion rolled in a chewy tofu skin with a dash of salty black bean paste. Wood ears with egg, cucumber julienne, porous frozen tofu in a savory cabbage soup. This food will never get old, and neither will this time with my family.

Hot Pot - Jinzhou, China

You haven't seen the real China until you see a table set for hot pot. 

Baskets brim bountiful with all the best veggies; the bitter tong ho, the crispy Napa cabbage. Mushroom buttons sprout in all directions, juicy slices of oyster intersperse with thin golden sheets of tofu skin. The oysters add brine to every broth, harmonizing with fatty notes of marbled ribeye and lean cuts of lamb. Frozen tofu stores the savory soup in every pore.

The hot pot pickings are as varied and colorful as the country itself. The broth boils hot, and the cooked items warm their sauce.But nothing is as warm as the whole family eating together, everyone giving and taking, filling a hungry void one morsel at a time.