Some time ago I was at a dinner with business colleagues of AMM. There were about 12 of us seated at a large round table with a huge glass ‘lazy susan’ in the centre, on which all the food was placed.

I was doing my best to make small talk with the Chinese woman seated to one side of me, a task that was not the easiest as my Mandarin was, and is still, very much that of a beginner and her English was not much better. After we’d exhausted the topics of whether I had children, their ages etc, and how I liked living in Beijing, there was a lull in the conversation so I started asking her about some of the dishes we were being served. After a telling me a few details about the local delicacies that were on the table, she asked me a question.

“How do you cook your bamboo in England?”  – certainly something I’d never been asked before, and I told her that on the whole we don’t cook bamboo in Britain as we don’t really eat bamboo (obviously a meal at the local Chinese restaurant down the Holloway Road doesn’t really count). She was amazed, “why don’t you eat bamboo?” I did my best to explain that we don’t really grow much bamboo in the UK – well, apart from some varieties grown as decorative garden plants.

Her question got me thinking about bamboo. In the far East it is everywhere, in fact I think that the people of China (not to mention Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Japan, etc etc) could not imagine life without it.

It is a truly remarkable plant.  I’m sure all you clever clogs know that bamboo is not a tree, it is a lignifying grass (ie a grass that turns into wood) and it is one of the fastest growing plants in the world. Some varieties, in the right conditions, can grow 60cms or more in a single day!

It is amazingly useful. You can eat it – fresh, frozen, dried or canned. It can be used to build a dwelling, and as scaffolding on high-rise constructions.

Furniture can be made from it. From earliest times bamboo slats strung together were used as something to write on, and then the Chinese discovered how to turn it into paper. Nowadays it is also turned into fabric. It can be used to pipe water from one place to another. Many musical instruments are made from it such as the Chinese flute called a Dizi. That’s just for starters – there are hats, baskets, bowls, chopsticks, toothpicks, flooring, bicycles all made from bamboo…the list seems endless.

I tell you what, if Kirsty Young ever casts me away on the famous Desert Island, never mind choosing a luxury, what I hope is that there will be loads of bamboo growing wild!

Scientists can beaver away inventing useful materials such as  polyester, carbon fibre and Kevlar but honestly Mother Nature has already trumped  mans best efforts producing bamboo, the most amazingly versatile material.

Oh, and by the way,the Giant Panda swears by it – would hardly eat anything else.

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My favourite restaurant – Guoyao Xiaoju

Oh what a dilemma, I want to tell you about my favourite restaurant in Beijing, but on the other hand, I don’t want everybody to know about it.

Selfish of me I know, but it is a very small restaurant and so far we’ve always been able to get a table when we’ve wanted one and if the world and his wife started going there that would change.

Guoyao Xiaoju (which means ‘Guo’s little place’) is, as I said, a very small place – only five tables and a single private room. It is tucked away in a hutong in the Jiaodaokou area of central Beijing, and you could walk past the simple door with it’s two red lanterns and never guess it was a restaurant, nor what delicious food it serves.   We were introduced to it a couple of years ago by friends who happen to live in the next hutong, and we’ve been going back ever since.

The chef is the eponymous ‘Guo’ and he is the brother-in-law of the owner. He used to be Chef at the old Beijing Hotel and there he cooked for many Heads of State, Deng Xiaoping, Clinton, Thatcher. Chef Guo is the forth generation in his family to become a notable chef who cooks  classic ‘Imperial Cuisine’ which is to say the style of cooking that was used in the Gugong (Forbidden City) during the days of the Emperors.  Nowadays this style of food is usually referred to as ‘Tanjia cai’.

Unlike much Chinese food in which chillis are used liberally, Tan cuisine relies on exceptionally high quality ingredients, and very careful and subtle techniques which make each dish taste of itself and yet the whole dish being greater than the sum of its parts. It is certainly not bland but the flavours are delicate and perfectly balanced, and the food looks as attractive as it tastes.

When we dined there a week ago we started with a wonderful salad composed of shredded mu’er (wood ear mushrooms – a passion of mine) tossed with thin slivers of celery and red capsicum in a very light dressing and we also had Sanse sun jian which is a cold dish roughly translated as ‘Three coloured bamboo’. Tender bamboo shoots, one lot in a light red chilli dressing, one lot mixed with minced green spring onions and one lot just the natural yellow colour of bamboo shoots – utterly delicious.  This was followed by a dish of  stir-fried squid tossed with blanched snow peas  green beens, and strips of red pepper with just a drizzle of XO sauce.


After that we had a whole slew of dishes – Baizhojielan was stalks of mustard leaves (not mustard and cress these stalks were the size of a pencil) blanched and stir-fried with garlic, they were tender but crisp and looked like pieces of jade.

We also had one of the dishes I have to order every time we go there as it is so moreish: Yasi danjuan, shredded tea-smoked duck and chives rolled in a thin crepe which is then dipped in egg and fried, then cut into slices. Light and crispy on the outside with the most succulent filling, the duck and chives are a marriage made in heaven, and the dish looks so pretty.

I could go on and on – the Lion-head meatballs in a delicate broth, the home-made wine sausage – but you would become bored with superlatives, suffice to say I think that this cooking at a restaurant in Europe would get a Michelin star.

They have a short but very acceptable wine list, and of course a whole range of beer, and teas.

Dinner for three with one beer, a pot of chrysanthemum tea and a bottle of white wine came to 568 kuai  – £56.80 – you wouldn’t get away with that in a Michelin restaurant!

Writing this has made me quite hungry  – I wonder if we should go there later this week before we take our autumn break… what do you think?

Guoyao Xiaoju:

58 Jiaodaokou Bei 3 Tiao, Dongcheng District, 1000007 Beijing

Tel: +86 10-64031940

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Mooncakes by the million

Next week is the Mid-Autumn Festival, which is to say the second most important Chinese festival (Spring Festival aka Chinese New Year being the first). It always falls on the 15th night of the 8th lunar month in the Chinese calendar, and that means that this year it is on 22nd September. Everyone goes home to eat and relax with their families (they are meant to watch the moon rising), and most importantly everyone eats Mooncakes (Yuebing).

Now I knew all this, but the reality of it hadn’t really sunk in until I went to a large supermarket the other day and found the aisles lined with towering piles of boxes of Mooncakes – every possible variety and price. God forbid there were to be an earthquake – one would have been crushed to death under the huge heap of Mooncake boxes. And then, when I got to the check-out, just in case it had slipped my mind and I’d forgotten to buy any, there were even higher towers of the things.

Every local baker produces a range of Mooncakes, the big swanky hotels  (Ritz Carlton, Peninsular, Shangri-La, St Regis, Hilton etc.) produce their own ranges of Mooncakes, big commercial companies produce them, small backstreet shops produce them, – hells bells even Haagen Däz produces them, not to mention Starbucks.

There are 1.3 billion people in China (not counting us outsiders) and they all eat and give away Mooncakes – some may eat more than one.

That is a phenomenal number of the bloody things.

What is a Mooncake you may ask.  It is a small – usually round – cake, approximately 10cm in diameter and 4/5cms high. It is composed of a pastry ‘skin’ containing a filling, the traditional filling is lotus bean paste or  a sweet red bean paste with a salty duck egg yolk (representing the full moon) in the centre. The cakes are very rich and dense and are usually cut into four pieces and eaten with tea. Modern mooncakes, and those from other regions of China or the Chinese diaspora may have other fillings which can range from roast pork, sharks fin, taro paste or durian (see my blog about this fruit) to coconut, mixed nuts, chocolate, tiramisu…. the list of possible fillings these days seems endless.

Mooncakes seem to have two types of pastry ‘skin’, Suzhou style which is a light flaky pastry, or as they do in Beijing,  a shortcrust  pastry.  They are made by cutting a circle of pastry, putting  a couple of teaspoons of the filling in the centre, folding the pastry over and sealing it to enclose the filling and then pressing the whole package into a Mooncake mould which will shape it and give it the characteristic elaborate patterned top which is then glazed with egg yolk and baked.

Once baked they are packed, usually into boxes of four or eight, and the packaging is fancy to say the least. Fabulous individual boxes nestling in a satin-lined outer box or tin on which no expense has been spared.  A box of four mooncakes  can range in price from80 kuai to 729 kuai which is to say £8.00 to £72.90.  I kid you not.

Businessmen buy the expensive boxes to give away as gifts to other businessmen or to government officials,  parents present them to their children’s teachers, bosses give them to their employees, employees give them to their bosses…the   whole country goes mooncake mad.

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798 Art Zone – Bauhaus in Beijing

Yesterday the weather was fabulous so AMM and I decided to spend the day at 798 which is the art district in north east Beijing.   It would be impossible to cover the whole area in a single visit, and so yesterday we concentrated on seeing the outdoor sculpture, and just soaking up the atmosphere.

It is a huge area, and has a fascinating background history.  In the early 1950s the Danshanzi area – then farmland – was chosen to be the site of a large military-industrial complex, at the centre of which was a factory for producing electronic components for China’s military. East Germany and the fledgling PRC co-operated to build the complex, with East Germany providing the designs, expert advice and equipment.  The whole complex was built to a high specification, the design following the Bauhaus style where ‘form follows function’.

The main factory was called ‘Joint Factory 718’ (All Chinese military factories had names beginning with the number 7). Eventually the factory was divided into smaller factory units, the largest of which was number 798.

Eventually following the Deng Xiaoping reforms of the 1980s, the factories were deprived of government support, and their use withered away. The area lay semi-derelict, with the factory workers having to find other employment.

At that time, avant guarde art, which was disapproved of by the establishment, had to exist at the margins of the growing city, In the late 1990’s Central Academy of Fine Arts needed larger workshops and took over part of one of the factory buildings. They were followed by an arts bookshop and a few artists who rented studio space. Gradually more and more artists and modern art galleries were attracted to the area and a thriving community sprang up. The largest gallery to open -in 2002 – was called Space 798 and that gave the name to the whole area.

Today there are no less than 400 galleries, craft shops, workshops, and studios and a café culture has developed, with nightclubs, trendy bars, a boutique hotel and several excellent restaurants.

The old factory buildings, with pipes everywhere and rusting steel gantries going nowhere, make such a contrast with the bright art works and huge sculptures,

amongst which,

like so many ghosts of the past ,are old pieces of abandoned industrial machinery.

Visitors to Beijing usually make a bee-line for the Forbidden City and the Great Wall, but they should include 798 on their ‘must-see’ list, it shows so much of what China was, is now, and where it is going in the future.

The pictures  in this posting are just a taste of the many outdoor sculptures – and we only covered about quarter of the whole Art Zone – we will be going there again and you will have further treats in store!

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Filthy habits

One of the things I noticed when I first visited China many years ago, was people spitting in public. Over the years China has changed a great deal but although it doesn’t seem quite as prevalent as it was, people are STILL spitting in public.  So forgive me for having a bit of a rant about it.

I loathe it, it is disgusting, not to mention unhealthy.

Today I was in a taxi when the driver hawked up a bolus of mucus and spat it out of his window where it hit the passenger door of another car – charming! – and then a few minutes later he did it again.

I am always nervous when walking along a pavement here that some passing cyclist will hit me when he spits, and believe me this is not an idle fear, I’ve seen it happen – yuck, yuck and double yuck.

In Europe during the Victorian era, most men smoked either pipes or cigars, or took snuff, and in those days they also spat a great deal.  Pubs, railway stations and many other establishments had spittoons (or cuspidors as they are sometimes called) in place to keep the sputum localised instead of all over the floor. Fortunately times changed and as the practice of spitting won public opprobrium so it died out – actually I wonder whether the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918-19 didn’t have a lot to do with it , as folk became fearful of catching the disease. Fearful with good reason, public expectoration is one of the best ways of spreading respiratory diseases and other viruses.

The Chinese government has tried valiantly to put an end to this filthy habit over the years with various anti-spitting campaigns, but even President Deng Xiaoping was a great one for spitting whenever he felt like it, so although  many other ‘reforms’  have succeeded this is one reform that has not made much headway.  In the run up to the Beijing Olympics in 2008 there was another concentrated effort by the government to stop public spitting.

Mind you I get just as ticked-off when I see over-paid Premier league footballers spitting on the pitch during a match in Europe or the UK

Sies! –  as we would say in South Africa.

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Man cannot live by bread alone

But on the other hand, this woman cannot live entirely without bread.

Now the thing is, on the whole the Chinese don’t eat bread. Or at least they don’t eat what I call bread.  ‘Western style’ chinese bakers shops have sprung up all over Beijing and although the bread looks similar to the breads we are familiar with, they are not the same. They are all slightly sweet and a little too soft, light and fluffy.

So what do I do when a bread craving hits me?

I head for Comptoirs de France which has 6 shops in the Beijing  area.

Comptoirs de France bake and sell authentic continental bread made with imported flours, so that they have proper crust and crumb. However they are more than just bakers, they are also a superb  Patissierie  with a range of the most delicious cakes, tarts, pastries and quiches you could ever wish for.

Then there are their macarons… you would have to have been living on Mars to have avoided the macaron craze which has swept the world, and this is the best place to find them in Beijing. Of course, as this is China, in addition to the usual flavours such as raspberry, pistachio or limoncello, CdF’s pastry chef has created some with a local twist, my favourite is the Chocolate  Sichan Pepper , but AMM rates the Green Tea flavoured ones very highly. When we entertain I use the occasion as an excuse to buy a whole selection of their macarons to offer round after dinner with coffee and whiskey – and then I hope that our guests will be so full from the preceding meal that they will leave them for me to eat!

All the CdF shops also double as  cafés where you can enjoy a late breakfast or light lunch, with a stunning range of fruit and vegetable juice ‘cocktails’ in addition to the usual latte, cappuccino etc.

Most of the time we eat Chinese food, but every so often it is great to relax in a little corner of Beijing that is forever Paris.

Comptoirs de France

4 Ritan Beilu, Chaoyang District 100020, Beijing        Tel: +86 10 8562 3355

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Chinese Valentine’s Day and the Magpie Bridge

Last week was what the Chinese consider their equivalent of Valentine’s Day, and it is much less commercial than the Valentine’s Day we are used to in the West.

It is called Qixi – the Night of Sevens , an ancient festival where young women traditionally displayed their skills such as sewing or melon carving in the hope of attracting a husband.

It is called the Night of Sevens because it always falls on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month in the Chinese calendar – which was 16th August this year. Behind the festival is a charming legend which I thought you would enjoy, so I shall tell it to you.

Are you sitting comfortably? then I’ll begin:

Once upon a time there was a poor young cowherd called Niu Lang. His parents were dead and he had been thrown out by his brother and sister-in-law.  He eked out a living looking after cattle, and among the cattle was an old ox which had once belonged to the King of Heaven and who had immortal powers.

One day the ox told Niu Lang that seven fairy maidens were coming down from the heavens to bathe in the nearby lake. He said that Niu Lang should go to the lake and whilst the maidens were bathing he should remove the clothing of one of them to prevent her returning to the heavens. Niu Lang did as the ox advised, and removed the clothes of the youngest maiden, Zhi Nü the Weaver girl. The others flew back up to Heaven but she was forced to remain. However, when she saw Niu Lang she saw he was handsome and a good, kind man and she agreed to marry him.

The couple lived together very happily and they prospered. They had twins, a son called Gold, and daughter called Jade.

But human years are as nothing in Heaven and when the Heavenly King heard from Zhi Nü’s sisters that she had married a mere mortal he fell into a rage and sent his soldiers to drag her back to the heavens. Niu Lang heard his children crying for their mother, so he put each child into a basket, and carrying the baskets on a bamboo pole across his shoulders he set off after the soldiers and his wife. Luckily, when the the old ox was dying it had told Niu Lang to keep the oxhide, and thanks to the hide’s magical powers , he was able to fly up towards heaven and seemed to be catching up with the group.

But at that moment, the Heavenly Queen, seeing what was happening, pulled out her golden hairpin and used it to scratch a line between Niu Lang and Zhi Nü, the line immediately became a wide, uncrossable river which we on earth call The Milky Way.

Fixed in the heavens (as the stars Altair and Vega) the loving couple were to be apart forever. After a while, growing tired of hearing the children calling for their mother, the Heavenly Queen relented and said they could be together for one night each year on the anniversary of their being parted.  With that, all the magpies in the world flew up to Heaven and formed a bridge across the Milky Way so that husband and wife, mother and children could all be reunited.

Which is why you seldom see any magpies on the seventh night of the seventh month, they are all in the heavens forming the Magpie Bridge.

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