For the Birds

Since the Scrub Jay population was apparently devastated by avian flu a few years ago, I went a couple of years without seeing any in my yard. But I had a little family that finally came back. This year, there was no sign of them – until today. I was filling the bird feeders when I heard one’s hoarse croak. I looked up, and there was one on the phone line. I put out some peanuts, grabbed my camera, and it wasn’t long before they were coming in for brunch. There are two for sure, and I think three.

This one has some sort of string-like plant material stuck on its chest:

Scrub Jay

And this one has feathers that sort of stick out on its back, which you can’t see in this photo:

Scrub Jay

The hummingbirds have been very active this year, too. Here’s one coming in for a landing:

Hummingbird

Touchdown!

Hummingbird

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Cheryl’s Almost No-Knead Rye Bread

By special request, here is the latest and greatest version of my homemade rye bread – a light Jewish-style rye. I’ve been tweaking the recipe and trying out different baking methods, and I think I’m finally happy with it. (Every version I’ve tried has been really good, but this is the best so far.) If I’d planned on doing a blog post, I’d have taken a picture of the loaf when it came out of the oven, instead of when it was mostly gone.

Rye Bread

Lovely Rye Bread

But first, an explanation of the recipe and process, because the methods are as important as the ingredients.

I started out with Jeff Hertzberg’s Deli-Style Rye as the base recipe, which was really good, but I had a few issues with it: It doesn’t develop it’s best flavor until it’s been refrigerated for a couple of days, it makes dough for multiple loaves (good in theory, but didn’t work so well for me in practice), the loaves come out a bit flat because of the wet dough and no-knead method, and pouring boiling water into a hot pan in a hot oven scares me to death every time I try it.

To improve the flavor and use a less scary baking method, I borrowed from Jim Lahey’s No-Knead bread method, using a tiny amount of yeast with a long rise, and baking the bread in a dutch oven or similar pot (inside the oven) to provide moisture for the crust, rather than water and steam. To get a slightly taller loaf, I used America’s Test Kitchen’s suggestions to use a little less water, and to knead the dough about 15 times.

I also scaled the recipe down to make one large loaf instead of four smaller ones. I haven’t tried doing it, but I’m sure you could cut the dough in half to make two smaller loaves. The second half of the dough would probably be fine in the refrigerator for a few days. The baking time would need to be decreased, but be sure to leave the loaf covered for a minimum of 15 minutes to get a good crust.

The methods: I’ve listed three different baking methods – inside a dutch oven, on a baking stone with a stainless steel bowl over it (the largest bowl from my mixing bowl set), and in a loaf pan.

Bread Baking Methods

Baking stone with bowl used as lid, and Dutch Oven

(Since someone will probably ask… I’ve used a 1950’s era heavy aluminum dutch oven [shown above], and a couple of different stainless steel dutch ovens/stockpots. They all worked fine, but be sure that whatever you use is oven-safe to 450F, especially if it has any sort of non-metal handles or knobs. A cast-iron or enameled pot would be great, but I don’t have one.)

The results with the dutch oven and baking stone were pretty similar. The only problem I had with the dutch oven was that this loaf is large enough that it barely fits in my pot with the parchment paper around it. It bakes fine, but tends to get a slightly scalloped edge from the folds of the parchment paper as it rises a little more in the oven. The dough could be dumped directly in the pot without the parchment paper, but that gets tricky if you’re using the cornstarch wash and seed topping. But you could omit the topping, or of course, just bake half the dough at a time for smaller loaves.

Because of the larger loaf not fitting well into the pot, I tried baking the bread directly on a baking stone and covering it with a metal bowl. That worked out really well – but you do have to make sure that the dough won’t stick to whatever surface you let it rise on, so that you can transfer it to the stone. I used parchment paper liberally sprinkled with cornmeal.

The loaf pan method was an attempt to get a taller loaf for sandwich bread while I was still experimenting with the recipe. Although it gives a more rectangular shape to the slices, the crust is not quite as good. I think the other methods give a much better result, and I don’t really recommend it – but it’s an option if you don’t have an appropriate dutch oven or baking stone.

OK, enough with the yadda yadda. On with the recipe.

** Start the bread about 22-24 hours before you plan to eat it. **

Cheryl’s Almost No-Knead Rye      

Makes 1 large loaf (about 1.5 lbs)

1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup bread flour (or all-purpose flour)*
1/2 cup rye flour
1/4 tsp instant yeast
2 1/4 tsp kosher salt
2-3 tsp caraway seeds for dough, plus an additional 2-3 tsp for topping if desired
1 1/2 cups lukewarm water minus 2 Tbsp
olive oil or other vegetable oil or spray
cornstarch wash (see below)

Cornstarch Wash: Using a fork, blend 1/4 teaspoon cornstarch with a small amount of water to form a paste. Add 1/4 cup water and whisk with the fork. Microwave or boil until mixture appears glassy, about 15-30 seconds.

Mix dough the day before: Mix the flours, yeast, salt, and 2-3 tsp caraway seeds in a medium bowl. Add water (add the last few ounces a little at a time – use as little as  needed to get everything mixed – the dough will get wetter as it rests) and mix by hand or with a spoon for 30 seconds to 1 minute. Add a little more water only if necessary to get the flour incorporated into the dough. Lightly coat the inside of a large bowl with olive oil and place the dough in the bowl. Turn it over so that the top of the dough is lightly greased. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap (prevents the dough from drying and forming a skin), and let the dough rest at least 12 hours (preferably 18-20) at room temperature. Dough is ready when the surface is dotted with bubbles.

Shape and preheat: Lightly flour a work surface and place dough on it; sprinkle it with a little more flour and fold it over on itself once or twice. Knead about 15 times to improve rising. Cover loosely and let rest for 10-15 minutes. Using just enough flour to keep dough from sticking, gently and quickly shape dough into a ball or oval, using floured or wet hands.

Proceed with rising according to your desired baking method below.

Top and Slash: Regardless of the baking method, after the dough has doubled but before putting it in the oven:  Using a pastry brush, paint the top crust of the loaf with the wash (you may not use all of it) and sprinkle on the additional caraway seeds.  Slash a couple of 1/2″ deep parallel cuts across the loaf with a sharp knife or razor blade.

Baking Note: Bread is done when the crust is dark brown and the middle of the loaf is about 205-210F. (Yeast breads must be baked to a minimum of 190F.)

Dutch Oven Method: Place dough on parchment paper; cover and let rise about 1.5 hours or until doubled (I cover mine with the large clear plastic bowl that’s part of my salad spinner). About half an hour before it’s done rising, preheat oven with the pot and lid to 450F.  When dough has doubled, top and slash as above. Remove pot from oven, pick up the parchment paper and dough and lower it into the pot. Cover with lid. Bake 30 minutes. Uncover and bake another 15-30 minutes until done. Cool on wire rack.

Stone Method: Place dough on parchment paper or a bread peel sprinkled liberally with cornmeal so it won’t stick. Cover and let rise about 1.5 hours or until doubled. About half an hour before it’s done rising, place stone on lowest rack of oven and preheat to 450F. When doubled, top and slash as above. Transfer loaf to hot baking stone with bread peel. Cover with a large stainless steel bowl. (I didn’t preheat the bowl, because I forgot, but it worked fine.) Bake 30 minutes. Carefully remove bowl (watch out for steam!) and bake an additional 15-30 minutes until done. Cool on wire rack.

Loaf Pan: Grease the loaf pan well with oil, butter, or shortening – even if it is a non-stick pan. Shape dough into cylinder, place it in the pan, cover with greased plastic wrap and let rise until it’s just starting to crest over the rim of the pan. Preheat oven to 450 about 20 minutes before baking. Top and slash. Bake for 35-40 minutes until done, turning pan once halfway through so it bakes evenly. Shake the loaf out of the pan and cool on wire rack.

Please let the bread cool (difficult, I know). Bread should not be cut while it is still hot, or the texture will be a little gummy. It needs time to rest.

* I decided to use 1 cup of bread flour in place of one of the cups of all-purpose flour, but if you don’t have it, just use an additional cup of all-purpose flour instead.

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China: The Great Wall

Probably the thing I was most interested in seeing in China was the Great Wall. We not only had beautiful weather, but since we were there right after the big Labor Day holiday, it wasn’t very crowded.

We went to the most popular section at Badaling.

Map of Badaling Great Wall

Map of Badaling

From the main entrance square, you can either go to the right, which is less steep but more crowded:

Right path at Badaling

Right path at Badaling

Or to the left up the steeper but less crowded direction:

Left path at Badaling

Left path at Badaling

Which did we choose? The road less traveled, of course.

Great Wall of China - Badaling

The Road Less Traveled

And they weren’t kidding about it being steep. Parts of the wall have stairs, parts are just smooth walkway, but there’s definitely a lot of steep up and down.

Climbing down steps - Great Wall of China

Steep steps!

Larry at the Great Wall of China

Don’t fall!

But it was beautiful, especially against the lush greenery.

Great Wall of China - Badaling

Great Wall of China – Badaling

And went on for miles and miles – as far as you could see. (You may want to click on the panorama below for a better look.)

Great Wall of China

Great Wall of China

By the way, it is apparently not true that you can see the Great Wall of China from space, at least not with the naked eye. But on the other hand, it was great trivia to learn that the mortar used to build the wall was made from Sticky Rice.

And just for fun, a quick video of my nephew climbing those steep steps.

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China: Beijing

May Day (May 1st) is International Labor Day in China. Because it’s one of the main long weekend holidays (a “golden weekend”), millions of Chinese travel domestically and internationally. Major tourist areas are packed, with the biggest draw being The Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square.

Tourists are generally told to avoid traveling in China during the week around May 1st because of the enormous crowds, and difficulty booking travel.

So when did we book our trip? Centered around May Day, of course. And to make it worse, we arrived in Beijing on Saturday, May 2nd – the height of the weekend. Our tour’s itinerary for the afternoon? Why of course, Tiananmen Square and The Forbidden City. And yes, it was incredibly packed.

Our driver dropped us off across the street from Tiananmen Square, and we had to join the crowd of people along the sidewalk waiting to cross the street at the crosswalk. There’s no cheating – there are fences along the sidewalk, with an open gate at the crosswalk, and police directing the pedestrians across the street when the light was green. Everyone had to go through the gate like a cattle chute.

It wasn’t too bad waiting to get up to the crosswalk. Yes, it was crowded, and people were packed pretty closely together, but that was nothing compared to once you got near the gate. As soon as the light changed, dozens and dozens of people surged forward through the gate, packing down into the narrow space, and then popping through on the other side, where they could spread out a little bit in the crosswalk. It was like childbirth! I think I could almost have lifted my feet and had the crowd carry me through. Oddly enough, even though I tend to be a little claustrophobic, it didn’t bother me, and was kind of amusing. It didn’t last long – only a 5 or 10 seconds before you were through the gate.

Here we are, just starting the surge to cross the street. The gate is located between the red flag sort of in the center of the photo, and a spot about 5 people to the right of that. My sister-in-law (lower left, in green) has a tight grasp on Larry’s backpack to keep close to him.

Holiday crowd waiting to cross street, Tiananmen Square

Crossing the street to Tiananmen Square

Once you were through the gate, though, the crowds weren’t bad, since there was a lot of area to spread out in. I managed to get this photo at Tiananmen Square without a crowd in view, since Larry was standing up against the rope cordoning off the area behind him.

Tiananmen Square

Tiananmen Square

After wandering about the square, we headed next door to The Forbidden City. Because of the holiday crowds and heightened security, many of the windows you would normally be able to look through to see inside the buildings had been shuttered, so there were only a few that we were able to look into to see the furnishings.

Forbidden City, Beijing

The Forbidden City

Some of the other things we did while in Beijing were to visit the Ming Tombs and Sacred Way. I didn’t find the tombs themselves to be all that interesting, but I could have spent all day wandering up and down the Sacred Way, admiring the statues. It was gorgeous.

Sacred Way, Beijing

The Sacred Way at Ming Tombs

We also visited the Temple of Heaven,

Temple of Heaven, Beijing

Temple of Heaven

And the Summer Palace. The lake, which you can only see a small part of in the next photo, was entirely man-made and dug by hand. It’s huge, covering 540 acres. Our tour guide told us that it is only about 4 feet deep. (He said that according to legend, the emperor wanted to be able to wade out into it without worrying about drowning.) The earth that was removed from the lake bed was used to build the hill:

Summer Palace, Beijing

Summer Palace, Beijing

This was another place where I could happily have just wandered around enjoying the beautiful, serene gardens:

Summer Palace, Beijing

Bridge at the Summer Palace

Of course, the highlight of Beijing was the Great Wall, but I’ll leave that for its own post.

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Stop and smell the roses

I took a walk through Red Butte Garden this morning, and was overwhelmed by the roses.

I especially loved the pink and yellow of these roses:
Roses copyright Cheryl Schumer

Rose picture copyright Cheryl Schumer

And the next ones were really unusual – sort of lavender on the outer petals, and pale orange/yellow on the inner petals:

Roses

There were some spectacular red ones that almost looked more like Bougainvillea until you got up close, but my photo didn’t come out well at all. Maybe on my next trip I’ll get a better one.

 

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China: The trains

From Changjou, we took the high-speed (“bullet”) train to Beijing – about a 5 hour ride, traveling at a top speed of about 300 km/h (186 mph).

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Bullet Train

We had “First Class” tickets, which gave us reserved seats in this car:

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First Class car

They weren’t quite as nice as the “Business Class” car, with the pod-type fully-reclining seats, and complimentary slippers:

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Business Class car

But we were more than happy with the seats we had. They were very large and comfortable, and it was wonderful to be able to get up and walk around as much as you wanted. There were even electronic tablets at every seat that you could pay to use on the ride (of course, it was all in Chinese, so I have no idea what type of entertainment was available). We really enjoyed the ride – I wish we had a better rail system in the U.S., because it was much more comfortable and relaxing than traveling by air.

When we traveled from Beijing to Xi’an, and from Xi’an to Shanghai, we had the tour company book overnight trains with “Deluxe Soft Sleeper” cabins. Normally on the tour you would stay overnight at a hotel, and then take a bullet train in the morning – but my sister-in-law wanted to ride the overnight train instead. These trains don’t travel quite as fast or as smoothly, and have more stops – but since you spend most of the time sleeping (or in our case, trying to sleep), it doesn’t really matter. We had small private rooms with a single bunk bed, a small table with a thermal carafe, an upholstered chair with a small closet and safe behind it, and a private bathroom with toilet and sink:

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Deluxe Soft Sleeper cabin

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Deluxe Soft Sleeper cabin

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Deluxe Soft Sleeper Cabin

Small, but efficient, and enough room for a bit of socializing before bedtime:

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Socializing in the cabin

Outside of the rooms was just a narrow corridor for entering and exiting the car, or going down the hall to the hot water dispenser or the dining car.

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Sleeper car hallway

The biggest problem for us on the overnight trains was that the beds are really, really hard (not exactly “soft sleepers”!). The beds were basically hard benches with a very thin, firm pad on top. Not much different from trying to sleep on the floor. The pillows were also very hard, as well as being small and thin. I ended up grabbing my travel pillow to use instead, and put the bed pillow under my knees to ease the discomfort on my back. I was so uncomfortable that I got almost no sleep at all on the first trip, and only a couple of hours on the second one.

The other issue that we hadn’t been aware of is that there are no towels of any sort in the bathroom. There were paper towel dispensers, but they were empty. That’s not unusual for bathrooms in China, but on an overnight trip where we would be washing up before going to bed and again in the morning, it was a little unexpected. Fortunately I had taken a microfiber towel with me on the trip, so we didn’t have to dry off with t-shirts.

It was an interesting experience to take the sleeper trains, and the second trip was more enjoyable than the first since we knew what to expect and were prepared – but I’m not sure I’d want to do it again unless I had some sort of camping mattress with me. On the other hand, the first class seats on the bullet train were much more comfortable, and reclined enough that you could probably sleep in them.

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FO: Sandbank

A finished knitting project! Yay!

This one was a long time in the making, but I’m very happy with how it turned out. It’s nice and big, but very lightweight.

Pattern: Sandbank
Yarn: JaggerSpun Zephyr Wool-Silk 2/18, in Charcoal
Needles: 3mm / US 2.5
Project details on Ravelry here.

I used about 1600 yards of yarn for the project.

The shawl is knit from the center out. Most people used Judy’s Magic Cast-on, but since there were so many stitches, I did a winding cast-on instead (I think this is also called a Turkish cast-on). It was fussy to get the cast on done and the first few rows knit, and to get the pattern established. But once that was out of the way, the main body of the shawl was really easy.

When you get to the border, you need to really pay attention again to get the edging pattern set up properly. But again, once you get a couple of rounds done, it’s simple to follow.

The pattern has an optional method of doing the increases at the points to help the shawl block into shape. I thought the instructions were a little difficult to follow with the two methods listed in the pattern, but I do think it’s a good idea to do the optional method – or at least a variation of it.

The pattern calls for doing M1R and M1L increases (as described on Knitty’s site here) on either side of the “points”. This is an easy method, but since it uses yarn from the previous row to make the increase, the increases can be a little tight. The optional method has you start that way but then switch to doing a YO on the left side of the points, and knitting it through the back loop on the next round. Since you’re creating the increase with the working yarn, the increase is a little looser – and the points block out better. The end result is the same as M1L, just not as tight – and it’s better for blocking.

After a couple of rounds, I switched from doing the YO and knitting it through the back loop on the next round to doing Elizabeth Zimmermann’s backward loop increase instead. It ends up exactly the same – you are just twisting the loop as you put it on the needle, rather than doing a YO and twisting it on the next round when you knit through the back loop.

When I got to the edging, I decided to just use Elizabeth Zimmermann’s backward loop increases (right-leaning and left-leaning) for both the M1R and M1L, instead of just the M1L. I think if I knit this pattern again, I’ll follow the original instructions (not the “optional method”), but substitute the backward loop increases for the M1R and M1L for the increases at the points. I think that will be easier to follow than remembering that you have an extra stitch on one side of the points, and having to skip the final increase for that section.

To follow the increases a little easier, I made a chart with 16 rounds, with 2 lines per round (one for each needle), indicating what increases to do on each round. Then I could just go down the chart and check off each round as I did them. The chart is on my Ravelry project page linked above, (but without the actual increase instructions, of course).

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China – Changzhou

Our first few days were spent with family in Changzhou, which is a third-tier city with a population of around 5 million. It is definitely not a tourist destination, and there are very few foreigners there.

One of their few tourist sites is the Tianning Temple, which is the tallest wooden pagoda in the world.

Tianning Temple in Changzhou - tallest wooden pagoda in the world

Tianning Temple

There are many Buddha statues of all sizes inside the temple – over a thousand, I believe. Plus lots of other carvings and statues. It was quite interesting to go through.

Larry at Tianning Temple in Changzhou

Larry at Tianning Temple in Changzhou

 

Golden statue, Tianning Temple in Changzhou

Golden statue, Tianning Temple

Of course, we did climb to the top for a nice view of the surrounding area.

Larry at top of Tianning Temple in Changzhou

View from Tianning Temple

The temple area and gardens were lovely to walk through.

Tianning Temple grounds, Changzhou

Tianning Temple grounds, Changzhou

Gardens at Tianning Temple in Changzhou

Gardens at Tianning Temple in Changzhou

The next day we went to Wuxi to visit the Mt. Lingshan Grand Buddhist Area. This is basically more of a Buddha theme park than a religious site. The Lingshan Grand Buddha is the tallest bronze Buddha in the world (88 meters), and one of the largest Buddhas of any type. If you look very closely at the photo below, you might be able to see people standing at Buddha’s feet at the hem of his robes, just above the lotus petals.

Mt. Lingshan Grand Buddha - tallest bronze buddha

Mt. Lingshan Grand Buddha

Lingshan Grand Buddha tourist area

Baby Buddhas

We didn’t have time to visit the entire park, but we did go to the Brahma Palace which was quite impressive both on the outside,

Brahma Palace at Lingshan Grand Buddha area

Brahma Palace at Lingshan Grand Buddha area

and on the inside. (Portions available for booking your meeting or special event, of course.)

Lingshan Brahma Palace

Interior of Lingshan Brahma Palace

 

Dome in Lingshan Brahma Palace

Dome in Lingshan Brahma Palace

The gardens were lovely as well.

Lingshan Grand Buddha tourist area, Wuxi

Lingshan Grand Buddha tourist area, Wuxi

Our last tour stop of this segment was the Nanshan Bamboo Forest. This is not where “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” was filmed, but it isn’t far.

Nanshan Bamboo Forest

Nanshan Bamboo Forest

We of course, saw lots of bamboo.

Nanshan Bamboo Forest

Nanshan Bamboo Forest

But the main reason we went there was for the Giant Pandas. They have two there.

Giant Panda, Yixing Zhuhai Bamboo Forest

Giant Panda at Nanshing Bamboo Forest

 

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China: Grocery Shopping

Not all of the food-related enjoyment in China was eating. Some of it was shopping.

Traditionally, meat and produce has been sold at wet markets. We went to a couple of them, and they were very interesting. The produce and meats are very fresh, and very cheap. I wish we had produce markets like this near me. Although we have farmer’s markets in the summer and fall, they’re only open for a few hours a couple of days a week. It’s not like I can just go to a market any time and get such fresh local produce. Not to mention the live fish and seafood! (I actually do have an Asian market a couple of blocks from my house that sells live fish and has an interesting assortment of produce – but it’s not all that fresh obviously neither the fish nor the produce is local.)

The markets were huge!

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And just look at this gorgeous produce. Notice the gigantic zucchini by the woman in the following photo – they would cut off rounds of it, maybe an inch or so thick, so you could just buy a big zucchini wheel.
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Have you ever seen such plump, fresh gingerroot?

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I don’t know what the fruit is that’s in the bottom right corner of the photo below, but we saw some that appeared to have been grown in some sort of mold so that it had a face embossed into it. It looked like you were buying little shrunken heads:

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And one more produce photo just for fun:

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But it wouldn’t be a wet market without the fish. There were live fish:

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And live snakes:

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Live frogs:

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and live octopus, shellfish, and other assorted seafood:

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Of course, there are also grocery stores. We went to a Merry Mart to look around and pick up a few things. It was huge! The top floor was produce, beverages, canned and dry foodstuffs, imported products, candy, snacks, etc. The main floor was meats (fresh and frozen), dairy, and bakery. The basement was “dry goods” – small appliances, electronics, cosmetics, cleaning supplies, hats, socks, and all sorts of miscellaneous household goods. It sort of reminded me of a Walgreens without all the drugs.

I didn’t take many photos, but here’s an assortment of eggs (I don’t think the brown eggs are naturally brown. I don’t think they were tea eggs, either, but I’m not sure what they were):

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The frozen meat section was interesting. The frozen poultry, meat, and seafood was stocked in open bins, so you could just pick out what you wanted:

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They also had black chicken. I’d heard of it before, but that was the first time I’d seen it in person. Yes, the skin, meat, and bones are black. I didn’t take a photo because it really didn’t look very appetizing at the store, but if you want to see it, here’s an article at The Kitchn with a photo.

That wraps up the food. Now I can move on to the tourist spots!

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Real Chinese Food

(Sorry… long and full of photos!)

We had our concerns about the food situation in China, since Larry is pesco-vegetarian (and a wimp – doesn’t like anything even remotely spicy). Pork is used heavily in China, and is often found in vegetable dishes to add flavor.We weren’t sure if he’d end up eating mostly steamed rice.

In addition, we knew we’d be spending a lot of time on trains and planes, and we’d heard that the food provided on tours was often not very good.

Fortunately, we had nothing to worry about! We prepared a paper with some phrases in Chinese characters on it before we went (like “I eat vegetarian”, “I do not eat meat”, “I eat fish”, “Not Spicy”). We used those a few times, but usually we were with someone who was able to talk to the waitress and work things out.

The tour company we used for the tour portion of the trip was great. One of the reasons we selected them was that they offer “a la carte” meals. Instead of serving a set menu, you are given a (generous) budget and can order whatever you want. The restaurants we were taken to were excellent, and our guides helped us select food items.

The food was delicious! I wish we had Chinese food even remotely like it here. (Most of our Chinese restaurants have Vietnamese owners – and I also think the food has been Americanized a lot.)

The fruits and vegetables were outstanding – so much better than our produce. We stopped at one of the many fruit stands when we were out in the country one day and got some strawberries. They were the best I’ve ever eaten. There were often fruit stands/carts at the tourist places we went to, and one of the popular items were cucumbers – they’d peel them whole and put them on a stick. Actually a great idea – refreshing, low calorie, and hydrating.

Most of our lunches and dinners looked something like this:

Mei Zhou Dong Po restaurant

Many different dishes, brought out to the table as they were prepared, and put on a large lazy Susan. One of the things I thought was interesting was that although steamed or fried rice were commonly eaten, they are apparently normally brought out at the end of the meal, rather than at the beginning or with the other food. Larry told one of our guides that in the U.S., we usually get them at the same time and put the meat dish over the rice – our guide thought that was strange.

Our guide also told us that it was a good rule of thumb to order one more food item than the number of people in the group. When I asked if they have such a variety of different food items when they cook meals at home, he said yes – but often they make enough so that they can have the leftovers for lunch the next day.

One of the notable dishes we had twice, once at the meal shown above, was Sichuan chicken with chilies, shown below. You don’t eat the chilies – just pick through them for the chicken bits. It’s hot from the chilies, but the Sichuan peppercorns numb your mouth so you don’t really mind. I liked it a lot.

Sichuan Chicken

We did, of course, have Peking Duck while we were in Beijing:

Peking Duck in Beijing

And it was wonderful. First they bring out the dish of pancakes and vegetables, and the chef carves off the crispy skin and the head, which are brought out first for you to enjoy while he carves the rest. (That’s the lower left of the rectangular plates above.) The pieces of skin are dipped in either sugar or a strawberry sauce. Then they bring out plates of duck meat – some with fat, and some without. Then if you want (and we did), they will make soup from the bones to be served later in the meal. The duck was marvelous. Even my SIL, who doesn’t like duck, tried it and really liked it. It was not at all greasy or gamey.

Many of the restaurants we went to had picture menus. This was the first one we encountered, at Grandma’s Home. We wondered why there were fashion magazines on the table, until Larry’s niece told us those were the menus:

The picture menu at Grandma's Home restaurant

This is where we first had Sweet and Sour Mandarin Fish, another dish we had more than once:

Mandarin fish at Grandma's Home restaurant

The flesh of the fish is cut into strips that are still attached, then it’s battered and deep-fried. The fish is intended to look like a squirrel, with the meat being the fur. I’m sure real squirrel never tasted this good.

One of the really fun things we did on the tour was to visit a private home, where a traditional home-cooked meal was prepared for us. That’s the hostess in the purple shirt below, showing us how to roll and fill dumplings.

Making dumplings - Xi'an

She made a wonderful assortment of dishes for us, most of which we’d eaten before anyone thought to take a photo:

Home-cooked meal, Xi'an

We also had lunch one day at a Chinese fast food restaurant. Meals for 6 people including beer, for a total of about $12. Huge portions – most of us couldn’t finish our meals:

Fast food lunch, Beijing

It wasn’t all Chinese food all the time, though. We did go to a Bagel place, an Italian restaurant, a Japanese restaurant, and even a deli where I had a Reuben. One of the places we went that wasn’t very traditional was Element Fresh, where I had this delightful warm spinach and salmon salad that was quite delicious:

Lunch at Element Fresh

Whew. Did you make it to the end? It’s probably a good thing that I didn’t take too many photos of the food. It would have been too hard to select a few for posting.

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