Archives for category: Food

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Before I went to Seoul last week for a visa run, I knew absolutely nothing about the city or Korean culture in general. I really only had one goal for my trip: go to a cat cafe.

I had read a couple of articles about the animal cafe phenomenon in Tokyo, as well as this post about a cat cafe in Oakland, California. Apparently, the idea developed in Taipei and spread to other urban areas across Asia where most people lack the space to keep their own cats (or other pets). The concept seems like heaven on earth: imagine sitting in a cozy cafe, with a purring cat in your lap, a mug of coffee in your hand, and free wifi all around! Okay, it may not seem like heaven to everyone. You have to really, really, like cats.

I had never heard of a cat cafe in China,* so I figured that my trip to Seoul would be my chance to experience the magic. I just had to cross my fingers that I’d be able to find one.

*I’ve since found out that both Beijing and Shanghai have cat cafes! But I didn’t know about them at the time.

Luck was on my side when I passed a sign for a cat cafe almost the moment I arrived in Seoul. I was staying in an awesome guesthouse (non-sponsored shout out to UBT!) in Hongdae, a vibrant, lively neighborhood located near Hongik University. If you ever find yourself in Seoul, Hongdae is the place to go for bars, clubs, public art, cheap accessory shops, and themed cafes of all varieties.

I made a mental note of the cat cafe sign, and decided to come back on my last full afternoon in Seoul. I would be doing a half-day tour of the Demilitarized Zone that morning, and I thought the cat cafe would make a fittingly surreal contrast.

On the appointed day, I bee-lined it back to Hongdae and followed the cat cafe signs…only to find that the cafe was closed, in willful defiance of the business hours printed on the door. I peered through the window where I could see a gray cat perched on a scratching post, just out of reach behind the glass.

Dejected, I used the free wifi from a neighboring hair salon to search for another cat cafe in Hongdae. The first result suggested Tom’s Cat, a cafe near the university gate that was apparently popular with foreigners. Filled with renewed hope, I wandered around and got lost several times before I eventually found the sign for Tom’s Cat—located in a building that was clearly undergoing a massive renovation. Sadly, Tom’s Cat is no more.

About to give up, I decided to look up one more cafe I’d seen online. This one was called Cat’s Attic (although I think this was the Korean name; the English just said “Hello Cat”). For detailed directions and lots of cute kitty pictures, check out this post.

I followed the directions and there it was, the bright yellow sign beckoning me inside like the pearly gates.

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Once inside, I was instructed to take off my shoes and put on some plastic flip-flops, then wash my hands with hand sanitizer. They had a poster on the wall with profiles of all the different cats, but sadly I couldn’t read this because it was all in Korean. I was handed a card with rules for how to interact peacefully and safely with the cats.

From what I have heard, all of this is considered standard procedure at cat cafes around the world.

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As for the actual “cafe” part, this works differently at different establishments. Some cat cafes charge per beverage like an ordinary coffee shop, while others charge by the hour. This particular cat cafe charged a flat cover fee of 8000 KRW (about $8), which included one drink from the menu and unlimited time in the cafe. This might seem steep for an ordinary beverage, but I figured it was worth it both for the experience, and because it covered the cost of caring for the cats.

It was very warm inside—probably for the cats’ comfort—so I decided to order an iced green tea latte. They drew a cat on it with chocolate syrup.

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Despite the heat, the air in the cafe felt very fresh due to several fans and air conditioners positioned around the room. It was also sparkling clean, without a hint of cat smell.

I picked a table by the wall and sat down to take in the scene. The walls were covered with shelves, scratching posts, and cozy cubbyholes, several of which were occupied. The chairs had little cat hammocks hanging underneath. I even noticed some flat platforms affixed a few inches below the ceiling for the cats to explore. It was hard to know how many cats there were, since many were hiding, but I would guess 15-20.

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After sitting for a while and drinking my latte, the owner came over to me carrying a big piece of flowery fabric, which she draped over my lap. I had no idea what was going on. Then she selected a cat who was curled up on a shelf on the wall, picked him up, and placed him abruptly into my lap. The cat barely even registered the disruption; he just curled back up and continued sleeping.

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Eventually, the cat woke up and jumped off (or maybe I was getting restless and gently nudged him, who knows). In the center of the room was a big gym mat where several customers were sitting and playing with the cats, and I went over to join them. This was where the social cats gathered, and there were lots of them: big, long-haired white ones, an orange one with short stubby ears, and a playful calico who started attacking this one girl’s trench coat with remarkable vigor. I noticed that the vast majority of customers were girls—in fact, I only saw two boys, and both looked like their girlfriends had dragged them in against their will. I realized that the flowery fabric I had been given was actually a long skirt, and that several of the girls were wearing them over their clothes to protect against shedding. There were a few foreigners in the mix too, including the owner of the aforementioned trench coat, who was Australian.

One of the more noteworthy cats was this little guy:

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I grew up with some very ugly cats (RIP Hobie), but this guy honestly out-uglied anything I’d ever seen before. In addition to lacking whiskers and generally looking like a plucked chicken, he also felt very, strangely, warm to the touch. But he was clearly a sweetheart, and he sought me out twice to sit on my lap.

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Here are a few pictures of the other cats, in case that last picture gives you nightmares.

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Although Cat’s Attic had a lot of cats in a pretty small space, I was happy to see that they all seemed clean and healthy, and that they had plenty of hidden spaces to retreat to when they wanted to get away from people.

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While Cat’s Attic exists purely for entertainment, I have heard of some inspiring places—particularly in the US—that operate as animal shelters as well. Meow Parlour in New York, for example, takes in rescue cats and encourages customers to adopt.

This doesn’t mean that classic cat cafes like Cat’s Attic aren’t worth a visit, however; if they can bring some joy to cat-less city dwellers, then cat cafes are making the world a better place! That said, I might need to start planning a trip to New York…

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I haven’t written about food in a long time, mostly because our meals in the Laohegou nature reserve get pretty monotonous after a while. I know I shouldn’t complain, since our food is actually quite good (not to mention free, plus I don’t have to cook it myself)…but I still find myself craving some variety now and then.

Luckily, last week I went to Seoul for my visa run (aka mandatory vacation)! Here are a few of the more noteworthy things I gorged on in South Korea:

1. Churros

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I am ashamed to admit that I knew next to nothing about South Korea when I bought my tickets to Seoul and set off on a visa run. So what was my first impression of the country when I poked my head out of the metro for the first time? Man, these people like churros. This wasn’t quite what I expected, but seriously—they sell churros everywhere! Street Churros, Mr. Churro, Churro 101…the streets are dotted with little shops selling long sticks of Mexican-style fried dough, coated in cinnamon sugar and accompanied by your choice of dipping sauces and toppings. Most of the churros were made to order, pulled hot from the fryer and handed to you in a paper cone. It took a lot of restraint for me not to order sixteen churros a day and never eat anything else. But I’m glad I saved room for some of Seoul’s other offerings, such as…

2. The Thunder Bomb

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Just look at this beauty! Sweet milk ice cream underneath a fluffy beard of interesting-colored cotton candy, topped with a little white chocolate lightening bolt. How could I resist? Served up by the science lab-themed ice cream shop Remicone, the Thunder Bomb is apparently super trendy right now. Do a quick Google search and you’ll see what I mean. Although it didn’t taste quite as good as it looked—the cotton candy had a weird minty flavor that wasn’t my favorite—the contrast of textures between the warm, fuzzy “thunder” and the smooth, cold ice cream was very satisfying.

3. Bingsu

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Continuing in the “cold sweet” category, this traditional Korean dessert consists of a massive pile of fluffy shaved ice served with sweet toppings such as red bean paste (patbingsu), mango, or other delectable things. These desserts are tasty and extremely photogenic—but often quite expensive, as I found out only after ordering the mango bingsu pictured above. It cost 10,800 won, or about $10.80! Oh well. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from traveling, it’s that experiencing new places is much more fun and relaxing when you don’t worry too much about money. Although this goes against my frugal nature, sometimes it’s better to just shrug your shoulders and fork over a few extra dollars for an experience you’ll remember forever. Since I spend very little money in my day-to-day life in Laohegou, I figure this bingsu was worth it!

4. Coffee

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Okay, this isn’t really food, but since I consumed more coffee than anything else during my time in Seoul, I’m going to count it anyway. Besides churros, one of my first impressions of South Korean culture was that people really like their coffee. They sell coffee everywhere! You can find it in subway stations, themed cafes, dessert shops, and even at the more traditional Korean restaurants. They’ve got American chains like Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts, Korean chains like Caffé Bene and Tom N Tom’s Coffee, plus adorable little independent coffee shops on every corner. Over my 3+ days in Seoul, I had coffee in several of the aforementioned chains, as well as in a traditional dessert shop, a cat café, a nature-themed café with live sheep outside, and a subway vending machine (it only cost forty cents!) Similar to China, I found that many of Seoul’s coffee shops did not open until 11am or even later; in both countries, it seems that coffee is seen more as an afternoon luxury than an early morning necessity. But I also noticed that some of the subway coffee shops were open during morning rush hour, and they seemed to be doing very steady business, so maybe this is changing in Korea.

5. Kimchi

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You didn’t think I’d forget about kimchi, did you? This pickly side dish is emblematic of Korean culture, and a great source of local pride. Seoul even has an entire museum dedicated to the many varieties and preparations of kimchi. While I did not make it to the museum, I did eat a fair amount of kimchi in the form of kimchi fried rice (bokumbap). It was so delicious I ate it two days in a row (from two different restaurants). Both times, the bokumbap came with several little side dishes containing…more kimchi! Woohoo!

Unfortunately, my time in Seoul was far too short for me to really explore the full range of Korean cuisine. I also sabotaged my chances by eating too many desserts (see: almost every item on this list), thus leaving little room for anything else. Maybe I was feeling sugar-deprived from spending so long in rural China! In any case, it’s back to spicy stir-fries and rice for me—at least until my next visa run.

Qiaojia 巧家 is a small, county-level city in northeast Yunnan on the border of Sichuan. It’s got one main market, at least two bars, a smattering of KTV (karaoke) parlors, and lots of late-night barbecue. Unlike most of Yunnan province, a treasure trove of minority cultures and beautiful landscapes that fill chapter after chapter of guidebooks in every language, Qiaojia is a dusty Han city that nobody visits without a good reason. Qiaojia has had three foreign visitors that I know of: one English teacher a few years back, one middle-aged white dude I spotted walking down the street (perhaps visiting his Chinese wife’s family for the New Year)…and me.

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I came to Qiaojia to visit a good friend who I had met in Lijiang. For the first time in my experience in China, I wouldn’t be holing up in my room alone on Chinese New Year, eating KFC because it was the only food available. This year, I would be spending the holiday in my friend’s hometown with her family.

The Zhu/Deng family lives in a traditional old courtyard house in the middle of the city, set back from the main road in a tangled neighborhood of old houses connected by crumbling dirt streets. We usually took shortcuts in between the houses, stepping carefully over rocks and scrambling across narrow packed-dirt ruts, touching the walls on both sides for balance. My friend’s mother managed it in heels.

The house is home to my friend and her parents, as well as her older brother, his wife, and their one-year-old son. This was not a modern house. The bathroom was a spider-filled outhouse with two holes in the ground (why two?). Water came from several spigots placed around the courtyard so that the water would run through the concrete channels along the edges, outside the main doorway, and into the muddy road that was rutted and eroded from decades of being used both as a road, and as a water system. At least they had hot water, and relatively comfortable showers could be taken in a curtained-off nook under the stairs leading to the rooftop.

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New Years preparations began with a trip to the big vegetable market in the center of town with the women of the family. The market was crammed with holiday shoppers to the point of suffocation. Stares and comments followed me wherever I went. Many of the locals assumed I was from Xinjiang, as if they simply could not fathom why someone from outside the PRC would ever appear in Qiaojia. I wonder if they perceived me as a threat; I heard that Qiaojia had literally kicked out all of its Uighur residents following the attacks in Kunming. I decided instead to take it as a compliment, since every Uighur person I’ve ever met has been exceedingly attractive.

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Back at the house, I felt more relaxed away from the judging eyes of the public. I helped my friend wash dishes, shuck peas, and clean up the main living room (although the bedroom we shared remained a complete disaster throughout my visit). We also picked the stamen (no pistils) out of these big, red, flowers called panzhihua 攀枝花. These would later be stir-fried, a local specialty.

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New Years Eve was much more low-key than I anticipated. Only the immediate family was there. Still, it definitely felt like a special occasion. While most of the family’s meals were eaten outside on little plastic stools around a low table, this time we ate inside the living room, sitting on couches. Red candles and incense burned in the doorway and at the end of the room. Dinner featured a much larger number of dishes than usual, as well as a large assortment of fried foods, since frying is representative of happiness and celebration. We drank coconut milk and sweet red wine out of paper cups. My friend’s father toasted each of us in turn and handed each of us a 100 RMB bill. I felt very awkward accepting this, but I suppose he would have felt even more awkward leaving me out.

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After dinner, my friend and I went out to buy fireworks. Since neither of us like the traditional firecrackers, and are downright terrified of the deafening bomb kind that teenage boys like to set off in unexpected places, we only bought some sparklers. Back at the house, we watched the CCTV Spring Festival Gala on TV, the annual collection of musical and theatrical performances that is the most-watched television program in the world. At midnight, we went outside, lit our sparklers, and watched fireworks explode around us in all directions.

The next morning, Day One of the New Year, we visited my friend’s maternal grandmother and extended family. We first convened at an aunt’s house for a breakfast of tangyuan 汤圆, sesame-filled sticky rice balls that are a traditional New Year food. I was surprised to see that the aunt and her family live in a massive, brand new, luxuriously decorated 8th-floor apartment. It had glittering tile floors, multiple modern bathrooms, and more rooms than they could possibly use. As far as I could tell, three different rooms were used purely for the storage of food, and this was not counting the large, sparkling kitchen with its full-sized refrigerator.

I am still unsure whether my friend grew up in such a run-down house because her family could not afford anything else, or because they truly prefer the traditional way of life to the amenities of a modern apartment complex. I actually suspect the latter.

After a rather rushed breakfast, we headed into the dusty mountains on motorcycles to visit the graves of deceased family members. This was more relaxing than I might have thought. While the older members of the family lit incense and left offerings in front of the graves, the younger people gathered on a sunny hill to eat pine nuts and take pictures (mostly of me, but whatever). As we left each gravesite, the boys set off a massive hail of firecracker explosions.

The days that followed were a slow, lazy, mix of hanging out and visiting with relatives. I don’t think I got any of their names, but by the end I could almost distinguish between the many middle-aged aunts with their identical perms and jewel-toned sweaters. I also spent many long, lethargic afternoons doodling on my hands with henna, doing Buzzfeed quizzes, and reading poorly written horror stories on Thought Catalog.

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By the end of my time in Qiaojia, to be perfectly honest, I was more than ready to leave. I’d had enough of the heat, the angry-sounding dialect, the random explosions, and the monotonously salty food. I was itching to go for a long, long walk without people taking pictures or almost crashing their motorcycles from staring so hard over their shoulders. I was ready to go back to Laohegou, where the air was cool and the dogs weren’t mean, and where everybody had long ago gotten over the novelty of my existence.

But I do not for a second regret my time in Qiaojia. It felt like my first glimpse behind the curtain of an ordinary China, unaware of foreign influence and untouched by tourism. It was neither a booming metropolis nor an isolated farming village—it was a small, unremarkable city, not unlike the cities and towns I grew up with. Qiaojia’s residents weren’t wealthy by American standards, but most of them didn’t seem truly impoverished either. They sang lots of karaoke, ate lots of barbecue, and spent lots of time with their families. Most of my friend’s friends were either college students in other provinces, or were running or managing their own businesses in Qiaojia. One of her best friends, who I felt became my friend too, owned her own coffee shop, and spent her free time performing in a local dance group. Her mother owned a clothing store just a few doors down.

I hope that in my short time in Qiaojia, I was able to help a few people overcome their reticence about foreigners, and to see that Western cultures do not necessarily match the stereotypes—after all, I’m not blonde, I’m not Christian, and I’m not an English teacher. I speak Chinese, I like China, and I am curious about Chinese culture. Once they got over their initial astonishment, I could tell that the people of Qiaojia were curious about me too, and eager to learn more about the big, wide world out there.

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I said in my last post that I’d write about conservation in Laohegou, but then I went to Chengdu for the weekend…and now I can’t think about anything but food!

I visited Chengdu with two Nature Conservancy employees, both of whom would soon be flying out to their respective offices in other parts of China. Before leaving, they wanted to experience the capital of Sichuan Province in all its glory, and I was more than happy to accompany them. All three of us had the same goal for this trip: to eat as many local specialties as possible.

The Great Food Odyssey started earlier for me than it did for my travel companions. Having slept through breakfast, I decided to get something to eat from the food carts when our van stopped for a break outside Jiangyou. I pointed to some dumplings that looked good—chaoshou 抄手—not realizing that they would be served in a bowl of red-hot soup. The van honked and I clambered back on, trying to balance the soup on my lap. Turns out, nobody else in the van had gotten anything to eat at all, and there I was with my full meal of messy, soupy dumplings. Oh well, they were delicious!

When we arrived in Chengdu, we joined a big group from Laohegou for a fancy sit-down lunch of old fashioned Chengdu fare. Although many of the dishes were predictably spicy, some were much subtler than I would have expected, emphasizing the tangy flavor of Sichuan pepper without the usual mouth-numbing effect.

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After lunch, the three of us split off from the group and ventured downtown. First we stopped for a local snack called sandapao三大炮, which are balls of sticky rice coated in ground peanuts and served with sweet syrup. They are named, I’m assuming, after the loud “pow” sound of the rice balls being thrown into the peanut mixture.

Still full from lunch, we nevertheless made another quick stop at this place, famous for its local Chengdu snacks. Between the three of us, we polished off one order each of tianshui mian 甜水面 (thick noodles in a sweet and spicy sauce), zhong shuijiao 钟水饺 (dumplings), and liangfen 凉粉 (bean jelly).

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After a few hours of wandering around the department stores downtown, it was time for dinner. We joined two more Nature Conservancy employees to eat Sichuan’s most famous contribution to Chinese cuisine: spicy hotpot.

In addition to the usual hotpot favorites—beef slices, potatoes, mushrooms—we also tried some local specialties like frozen tofu. Apparently, freezing the tofu expands its pores, thus allowing it to absorb more hotpot flavor.

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We ordered our hotpot weila 微辣(mildly spicy), and it was pretty much at the upper limit of what I could enjoy. I wince to imagine the kind of stomach that could withstand tela 特辣 (extra spicy).

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The next morning, we stopped for some buns and fresh soy milk before exploring Chengdu’s famous Panda Breeding Center. Although the center felt more like an ordinary zoo than like the natural sanctuary I was hoping for, it was still incredible to see so many adorable pandas in one place, lounging and napping and eating bamboo.

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By the time we left the Panda Center, I was starving.

Perfect! An excuse to eat more food.

We found a little noodle shop that served feichang fen 肥肠粉, glass noodles with pork intestine, which is another Chengdu specialty. These were served with a fried pastry called guokui 锅盔, which was stuffed with deliciously tingly Sichuan peppercorns.

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Although this was one of my favorite meals from the whole weekend, we still wanted to eat more afterwards—so we hopped over to the Halal restaurant next door for some Lanzhou-style beef noodles.

Finally stuffed, we moseyed on over to one of the traditional teahouses in People’s Park to experience the “slow life” (慢生活) of Chengdu. I remember learning about Sichuan teahouses when I was studying abroad in Hangzhou in 2011, and it was gratifying to see that the abstract articles I’d read were actually true. Compared to the high-brow establishments in Hangzhou and other eastern cities, Sichuan teahouses are very informal and relaxed. We sat outdoors on simple bamboo chairs and sipped tea from gaiwan 盖碗 (cups with lids and saucers).

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All around us, people were hanging out, chatting, playing cards, and eating sunflower seeds. Some were having their ears cleaned by the professional ear-cleaner guys wandering around with scary instruments. We decided to pass on that aspect of the Chengdu Teahouse Experience, but we nevertheless managed to while away several hours drinking cup after cup of delicious tea.

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Eventually, even though nobody was hungry, we decided that it was time to eat again. We picked a random restaurant and ordered two Chengdu specialties that none of us had tried yet: fuqi feipian 夫妻肺片 (lung slices) and tihua 蹄花 (pig trotter soup). The pig trotters were a little bland and cartilage-y for my taste, but the lung slices had a surprisingly nice texture, and came smothered in a delicious chili sauce.

From there we moved on to another restaurant for some tangyuan 汤圆 (glutinous rice balls filled with sesame paste). Finally, we finished the night in Starbucks, since by then everybody was craving something sweet and hydrating.

The next day we split up and went our separate ways, but not before sampling some chuanchuanxiang 串串香 (skewers dipped in hotpot, basically the same as malatang). As a final taste of Chengdu before returning to the Laohegou nature reserve, I got a bowl of suanlafen 酸辣粉 (hot and sour glass noodles) at the bus station. A perfect weekend!

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Why is it so hard to start writing this entry? I know that once I’ve written a sentence or two, the rest will start flowing more naturally. That’s how it always feels when I’ve neglected my blog for a significant period of time. It’s happened before. But three months? That’s too long. It’s time to start updating Malatang again…so here goes.

I’m writing this on the airplane from New York to Beijing, after which I will fly to Chengdu, then check into a hotel called the Verdy Herton (which will hopefully still accept me as I stroll in well after midnight). Tomorrow, I will begin volunteering for The Nature Conservancy’s Sichuan office, working in the Laohegou Land Trust Reserve in Pingwu County. By tomorrow, of course, I mean Friday, January 9th. But it’s still only the 7th here on the airplane, where my computer hasn’t updated to China time yet. We are probably flying over the North Pole right now. Does the North Pole even have a time zone? Traveling is confusing.

The important thing, though, is that I am on my way to Sichuan, the land of spicy stews, tingly sauces, killer barbecue…basically the Food Capital of China. Sichuan cuisine is renowned throughout the Middle Kingdom, from Nanjing to Lijiang. The very concept of this blog, Malatang, was inspired by the numbing-spicy Sichuanese soup I first tried while studying abroad in Hangzhou. Even far beyond the Middle Kingdom, Sichuan food abounds. Kung Pao chicken? Spicy string beans? Mapo Tofu? All-American staples, all from Sichuan.

This brings me to the purpose of this blog post, which is to commemorate the three glorious months I just spent at home in Vermont, gorging on fresh pomegranates, aged cheddar, and Snacking Chocolate from Costco. When this plane lands, I’ll have to turn my back on dairy and fresh veggies for a while to embrace six months of tongue-scorching Sichuan goodness. But first, I’d like to crystallize into my memory my top five meals from these last few months at home.

  1. Chinese takeout in Maine

Fitting with the theme, my #5 represents the most far-flung corner of China’s culinary empire: China Hill in Ellsworth, Maine. My family spent Christmas in Bar Harbor, hiking in Acadia and wandering around the dark restaurants and shuttered knickknack stores, closed until spring. As per Jewish tradition, Christmas dinner demanded a trip to a Chinese restaurant. With our limited options, that meant China Hill. While the food was, well, what you’d expect, this meal was memorable in its utmost coziness. My entire family was together (dogs included), and we huddled in our little rented house while winter rains pummeled the empty town of Bar Harbor. We watched a movie and pulled apart gluey dumplings, and the outside world ceased to exist. Plus we discovered a free order of pork fried rice at the bottom of the takeout bag, so that was cool.

  1. Indian takeout in Cambridge

I swear I ate more than just takeout while I was home! It’s just that this particular food was so delicious. It was listed online as the best Indian food in Boston, and the place was so tiny and so packed that we had no choice but to get takeout. I was visiting one of my oldest friends in Cambridge, the kind of friend with whom I could lose touch for several months, but then slip right back in where we left off because we’ve known each other since preschool and our families are practically relatives. I didn’t even know that she liked Indian food. Last I could remember, she didn’t. But this just goes to show that people can change, and I’ve probably changed in ways I’m not even aware of, but in the end those little things don’t matter as long as you can curl up on the couch together and watch movies and remember what kinds of tea you each like to drink. By the way, that was the best saag paneer I’ve ever had.

  1. Breakfast at Healthy Living

Number three was chosen purely for its deliciousness. Who knew that a health food coop would serve such good breakfast? My mom and I first discovered this when we had to bring the car into the repair shop next door, and we wandered into Healthy Living while we waited. These breakfast sandwiches are perfect. Eggs perfectly cooked so that the yolk is soft but doesn’t make a mess, sharp melted cheese, creamy avocado, and a touch of arugula, all held together with a perfectly crisp bread that doesn’t make everything spill out when you take a bite. Luckily, my mom and I had to make several trips to the car shop throughout my time at home, which meant that I probably ate this breakfast sandwich more than any other single item of food. As much as I love eating in China, breakfasts can be tough, and I’m definitely going to miss ol’ Healthy Living.

  1. Leftovers in Colorado

Since my time at home included Thanksgiving, I’m obviously going to include some Thanksgiving food in this list. We spent the holiday in my birthplace of Denver, Colorado, where my food-loving uncle prepared us a splendid meal. Like all splendid meals, however, the leftovers are usually even better than the main event. This is especially the case when you take said leftovers with you to a cozy cabin up in the mountains, layer them into various casseroles, gorge on them after a beautiful hike, then follow the gorging with a soak in the hot tub, gazing up at the stars.

  1. My First Meal Home

Way back in October, I stumbled off the plane from Lijiang, via Kunming, Bangkok, Shanghai, and New York—it was a long road home to Vermont. Knowing I’d be exhausted, my parents decided to forgo a lavish welcome-home dinner and instead prepared a simple meal of arugula salad with feta cheese, corn on the cob, and fresh crusty bread with real butter. These were the things I sorely missed while I was in China: raw vegetables, rich dairy, and simple meals that were considered complete even without any meat, oil, or rice. I was so happy to be home in my old house, with my family and dogs and cats, drinking tea out of my own mug and sleeping in my own bed. As time went on, of course, I got used to it again. I started to take the fresh vegetables for granted. I suppose this means I’m ready to leave again on another adventure.

I’m excited to go to Sichuan, have new experiences, eat new dishes, and write about them here—hopefully with more regularity starting now. I now know that every time I leave home on a new adventure, I come back with even more appreciation for the little, familiar things I grew up with, like seeing my family every day, speaking English to everyone I meet, walking the dogs to East Shore Drive, and real butter on the table.

Thanks for reading!

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I love new food. I love trying things I’d never heard of before and experiencing flavors I’d never known existed. I named this blog Malatang after my first experience eating Sichuanese cuisine and tasting the tingly, mouth-numbing pepper called huajiao. It was completely new to me, and I loved it.

I’ve just had another Malatang Moment.

After a week traveling in the Diqing Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in northwest Yunnan, I was introduced to a brand new culinary tradition. Sometimes it even challenged my notions of what “food” and “drink” even mean.

The staples of a Tibetan diet are barley and yak milk. Tibetans live in some of the harshest climates in the world, which means that fresh produce is scarce, variety is limited, and a high caloric intake is necessary for survival.

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The most common beverage is yak butter tea, which I think I drank almost every day while traveling in this region. It’s a hot beverage made from black brick tea steeped in water and churned with yak butter and salt. The tea is usually served in a beautiful metal pot and drunk from bowls. Tibetan people drink dozens and dozens of bowls of this stuff every day, similar to the way many Americans drink coffee, or to the way my family inhales Earl Grey tea morning and night. I can see the appeal of yak butter tea in such a cold climate—it’s hot, rich, and filling—but first I had to get over the psychological barrier of drinking something salty. It also tastes rather stinky. You know how goat cheese tastes goaty? Well, yak butter definitely tastes yaky. I almost spit out my first sip.

And yet, I hated the fact that I didn’t like a flavor that was beloved by an entire ethnic group. Since I hadn’t grown up on it, I simply wasn’t used to it. I therefore decided to drink yak butter tea at every opportunity I could, in the hope that I could teach myself to like it. I have done this successfully in the past with mushrooms and blue cheese (I’m still working on dill), so why couldn’t I now? One week later, I am proud to say that I don’t hate yak butter tea. It helped that the first one I tried was by far the stinkiest. Every other cup I drank afterwards was much milder. I still don’t want to drink it at every meal, but I can appreciate a little bit on a cold morning. Success!

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Moving on, the most common staple food for Tibetans is called tsampa/zanba, which consists of roasted barley flour mixed (with your fingers) with a hunk of yak butter and some yak butter tea to make a kind of dough. This is then eaten with your hands. I’d say it’s most analogous to eating raw pie dough, or maybe biscuit dough, something that consists of flour and butter and not much else. I only tried it once. It didn’t taste bad, per se…but again, I think I’d need to eat it a few more dozen times before I could start to really enjoy it. Although it isn’t technically raw, since the barley is roasted, there’s something about eating dough as an entire meal that just seems wrong to a western girl who always had to sneak licks from the cookie bowl.

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Besides tsampa and yak butter tea, the other Tibetan dishes I tried were much easier for my western palate to accept. We ate a delicious yak cheese that tasted similar to feta, which we dipped in sugar before eating. We had several different kinds of barley flatbread, meat dumplings called momos, yak meat hotpot, and many rice and vegetable dishes that were probably Han-influenced.

All-in-all, we only encountered one tiny corner of the Tibetan world, and I hope someday to explore more of their unique culture and cuisine. It was interesting to experience a diet so severely restricted by the limits of the natural environment. But then, when you’re surrounded by such breathtaking scenery, who has time to think about food?

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The village of Yubeng, located in the Meli Snow Mountain range, is accessible only by foot or horseback.

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Last night I had the most metal, badass dinner of my life. It consisted of three things: yak, bugs, and beer.

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The caterpillars were surprisingly good. The flavor was fresh, sweet, and almost floral…more like a vegetable than an animal.

The previous evening, I had been introduced to Mr. Mu, a huge and formidable Han transplant from Heilongjiang. Mr. Mu owns several guesthouses in Lijiang, as well as a couple of bars and a café. When he invited me to a yak meat barbecue the following evening at one of his guesthouses, I knew I couldn’t say no. It wasn’t just that I was excited for a good meal (and if I’d known that there would be caterpillars, I would have been even more excited)—I also had a hunch that Mr. Mu would be a good guy to know.

Guanxi, or interpersonal connections, are a crucial aspect of Chinese society. More than talent, luck, and even money, a person’s success in China depends entirely on connections. This is how jobs are acquired, deals are made, and secrets are kept. Without guanxi, a person in China quite literally has nothing.

This is especially true in a small city like Lijiang.

At first, Lijiang (population 1.2 million) felt quite big to a small-town Vermonter like me. The entire town of Hinesburg could probably fit into Square Market in Old Town. But once you’ve penetrated the tourist-swarmed surface of Lijiang, the close network of guesthouse managers, bar musicians, tour guides and locals begins to feel very cozy indeed. Everybody knows each other. Everybody has connections.

All the people I’ve met so far in Lijiang have been introduced to me by somebody else. If I were to draw a diagram of my network of Lijiang acquaintances, there would be a few obvious central nodes. Lynn, my henna artist friend. Yixiu, the owner of the bar where I work part-time. I have a feeling that Mr. Mu could become an important node as well.

The network of guanxi in Lijiang means that I’m never without a free drink or a free meal, and most importantly, never without a friend. About a month ago my henna artist friend Lynn introduced me to her friend Zafinna (yes, she picked her own English name). In exchange for painting murals all over Zafinna’s guesthouse, Zafinna gives me free coffee in her café. She also knows the owner of a nearby bar and can get us free drinks there. Whenever that bar owner goes to her café, she’ll give him free coffee as well. And whenever Zafinna comes to the bar where I work part-time, I make sure she never pays a cent.

Sometimes, however, this close network means I have to be careful. I was once sitting in a café near my apartment using the internet, when a very strange and awkward guy came over and tried to talk to me in barely-intelligible English. I gleaned that he was asking for my contact information, and I was about to politely refuse when he mentioned that he was friends with the manager of the café. I remembered that a friend-of-a-friend, a local, had once told me that he liked this café. This meant that the friend-of-a-friend probably knew the manager as well. I also knew that the friend-of-a-friend is very close with Yixiu, the owner of the bar where I work part-time.

If I offended this awkward guy and his poor English, word could spread fast. I smiled and gave him my wechat.

I’m finding it easier and easier to understand why so many people here believe in karma.