A foodie in Beijing

For the past three years almost, I have been living and working in Beijing. I couldn’t access my blog, even with several vpns, and I thought I’d lost the whole thing altogether. And today miraculously, I’m writing, not from scratch, but continuing my written journey on food, love of food and more on said food.

It’s safe to say I ate a lot of food. Enough to summarise some of the absolute highlights of Beijing here on the little dumpling.


From the more well-known Peking duck (Dadong for the haute cuisine, Liqun for the traditional version served in hideaway hutong surroundings) and delightful bubble tea (I am forever in love with the CoCo and their passionfruit tea with coconut jelly), I also ventured forth into the unknown, the slowly disappearing, late-night world of barbecued chuanr and street food.


When I think of chuanr I think of drinking a light Yanjing beer with friends after work, sitting on a stool the height of an encyclopedia and shelling edamame and boiled peanuts under a smoky night sky, waiting for each kind of chuanr to cook: first the fish tofu, then varieties of gristle, lamb on a stick, bread, aubergine, peppers and lastly, the chicken wings. Recent regulatory crackdowns have shut down most of these outdoor spots, forcing small businesses and families to relocate and making real outdoor chuanr hard to find. If you look hard enough in some hutongs or ask a local, you might be able to find one. Otherwise, look out for the neon chuanr sign.

Along Dongzhimen outer street, to a backdrop of buskers and burps of hastily slurped drinks, numbingly spicy vats of frogs legs and langoustines await the bravehearted. Steaming hotpots of yin and yang flavours, sichuan style (like at the reknowned chain HaidiLao)


Or the more traditional Beijing-style, coal-chimney-esque pots at the table with clear rich soups and addictively nutty sesame sauce, handfuls of coriander and a dash of fermented tofu (for the best taste of traditional Beijing hotpot head down to Jubaoyuan and don’t forget to order sesame rolls like a local).



And of course we made and conquered countless dumplings of different fillings, including my favourite although unexpected: courgette and egg (the cheapest and most cheerful of all, available in most mall canteens or head down to the pricier but still affordable English-speaking joint Mr Shi’s).

Like any other city, there were also many other cuisines to sample. Even after a trip to Japan my favourite yakitori bar is still in Beijing, Sanlitun: Beyond yakitori serves perfectly seasoned and barbecued morsels on a stick, washed down with a pineapple cocktail or two in a copper cup. We luxuriated in Korean barbecue- long lunches of chargrilled meats dipped in salty, earthy seasonings and hastily wrapped and wolfed down in lettuce leaves with tea or fresh watermelon juice.


I had my first foray into seriously good American barbecue, smoked in house, smothered in healthy pools of sauces and served with cornbread, beans or potato salad at Homeplate BBQ. Right next to it you’ll find Taco bar, the best fish tacos in town and pitchers of Gato, a cucumber variation on gin and tonic.


I was spoilt for choice. In addition, apps like meituanwaimai and Sherpa’s meant many of the above could be delivered home for little or no charge, within half an hour. My particular weaknesses on home movie nights was Annie’s Italian food (meituanwaimai) and Korean fried chicken covered in sticky sweet chilli sauces from The Flying Chicken (Ordered via wechat account fly168668 by request in Chinese). With Wechat pay everything was dangerously available and cheap, just a click away.

Fastforward to the present and I’m sitting at my desk, back in the UK. I like having tea with fresh milk, I like the familiar brands of yoghurt and cereal, the water from the tap, bread that isn’t sweet, cheese on crackers and crumpets. I went cherry-picking with my mother in the rain and drank last year’s elderflower cordial and sloe gin. I’ve been to the pub once or twice, got food poisoning and spent over £100 on said bad meal for 3. I’m cooking more at home again. And I’m getting used to the fact KFC doesn’t deliver.



Chips Mayai

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After 2 months of enjoying my fridge and all the accoutrements of modern day living I found myself still wanting. Tanzania seemed like a vague memory somewhere, somewhere hot, somewhere I ate carbs on top of carbs and still felt like a good human being. A very different world in which I revered a seventh of a chicken egg like summer rain. In town things were different. I remember walking into a cafe in Singida during our midway break after a month of village camp life and ordering what seemed like the most wonderful and desirable meal on earth. Chips Mayai.

Pronounced “chips my eye” this sunny plate offered everything I wanted. Starchy, moreish, greasy chips held together by a delicious eggy omelette batter. When it arrived I forced myself to take my time, drizzling a radioactive pink chilli sauce and crisscrossing over it in ketchup. I savoured the weight of first the fork then the knife in my hand (i’d been using a plastic baby spoon and bowl for the last month) and cut myself an elegant, wedge-shaped morsel.

So when I woke up this morning with a greyish cold light streaming through my badly chosen John Lewis curtains I found myself thinking back to that sunny plate with new determination.

Here’s what I did:

Stick a handful of McCain fries in the air fryer for 10 mins.

Beat 2 eggs

When the chips are done pour some sunflower oil in a smallish non-stick pan.

Turn the pan onto high heat

Put the chips in the pan and spread roughly

Pour over the beaten egg

After about 1-2 mins flip once, confidently

Flip onto plate. Sunny side up.

I only had a bottle of sweet chilli sauce at home and the chilli sauce I remembered was more acidic so I diced a few chillies and added a dash of cider vinegar to the pan. Ketchup is just as good.

The difference between my meal in Tanzania and my meal in England was that I could follow that stonker with dessert. And do no exercise for the rest of the day.

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The last of the season’s strawberries, sugared with rum-soaked, spiced pineapple, greek yogurt, honey and a sprinkle of muesli.

For all my travelling, all the food I had for breakfast made more of an effort to get there than I did.

Sustainable cooking

Ever since I was little, I remember my parents’ apprehension at me using the fuel-guzzling monster, called the oven. To this day I still feel wary about using it too often. I enjoy baking cakes, from madeleines to macarons. I also like Beijing roast duck. On the other hand, on the occasion we do use it, I feel so guilty at its inefficiency, I’ll generally scatter some raw nuts on a tray and shove them in to cook in the residual heat.

In rural Tanzanian villages where there aren’t electric or gas cookers at all, people generally use the three-stone method. A fire between three stones under a perched pot or BBQ grid. One of our secondary projects was building the more efficient “rocket stove” and entrusting the knowledge and brick-making resources to different groups in the village. The difference between the three-stone method and the rocket stove in terms of efficiency is probably something like between an old Beetle and a new eco car.


Air is drawn in through the bottom, feeding the flames at the back and the heat rises to cook the food. All you have to do is put your hand above a three-stone and a rocket stove to see the huge difference in the rocket stove’s efficiency. To the women in the village, a more efficient stove meant less time collecting firewood, less smoke inhalation and a more efficient method of boiling and treating water. To us, using a microwave instead of an oven means more time to do other things as well- but for these women, life is exceptionally hard already. And I doubt any of them would’ve liked a ready meal.

The reason I have my doubts will be made clear in a second. We managed to build 5 rocket stoves, one of them strategically placed at the market next to the meat stall. One day we entered the market and our team leader chuckled. I couldn’t figure out why until we walked to the meat market. They were barbecuing meats on the traditional 3 stones… next to the new rocket stove. Old habits die hard. We had given the community all the reasons they should take it up with our demonstrations but we needed to give them time to see for themselves the real benefits of using the rocket stove. We made tea and chatted to them, we invited various groups of people for chapati making competitions on rocket stoves and tea and mandazi at our camp. Slowly, we could tell they were catching on and more and more people were asking about them and how to build them in their own houses. We tried cooking foods from home for them too, which they didn’t like, so we stuck to the foods they were used to. Anywhere you go, the foods that are the most loved are the foods that you grew up with. Including the methods.

I remember when I was younger and still at primary school, a lady came in to tell us all to stop using our ovens and start using the microwave instead. A boy put up his hand and said he much preferred a jacket potato out of the oven, than from a microwave, even if it took less time. And despite everything she’d said about being efficient and saving energy, the lady had to agree. Some people will choose the old beetle over a new eco car- for whatever reason, nostalgia, a piece of the past, or just because they like it.

We have a vast range of choice when it comes to what we eat and how we eat. It’s not anyone’s job to dictate what we should or should not eat. Being sustainable is a choice, and one that is balanced alongside the foods and memories that we have. If we installed a microwave and ready-meals in the village tomorrow noone would take it up, even if it is efficient and time-saving.

So if someone said to me stop using your oven, start cooking things in the shortest time possible, I’d have a bit of a problem. But if someone said to me try and think of the most efficient and tasty way to cook the food you love- I’m still listening. Food is culture and culture needs time to change and grow.

New ways of doing old dishes

Mashed potato, rich and creamy. Spaghetti cooked in boiling salt water, till it’s just soft. Plain rice fluffy and steaming… That’s is how I like it and that is how I’ve always cooked it. When something is as comforting and as good as these three dishes, it doesn’t seem worth the effort of doing it differently. What if it goes wrong? What if I don’t like it?

Well, in the interests of peace and harmony at Mingela camp, Tanzania, it was certainly worth trying. There were 7 Tanzanian volunteers in our group and time and time again they surprised me by cooking food in a way I would never have even considered. Because I had gotten in my mind there was only one way of doing these classic dishes, I had forgotten that every dish, even the classic ones had to start from somewhere. They were created in a certain milieu, with certain ingredients more available or at hand than others, to certain desires and tastes. For the Tanzanians there was an apparently set way of doing things too. Like having to peel tomatoes. In the end, we learnt quite a bit from each other, and as they say, the proof is in the eating.

Kelvin’s mash

Kelvin was the Tanzanian team leader. He kept quiet about being a great cook until a few weeks in and this was the dish that blew us away.

There are no fridges in Mingela, let alone fresh cream or milk or any dairy to put in it. This mash is based on the simple principle of frying onions with the whole peeled potatoes first before adding boiled water. This adds flavour to the finished product and if cooked for long enough the starchy potatoes break down and the water boils off until you’re left with a very moreish and potatoey mash. Season to taste


Our pots weren’t great, needless to say they weren’t non-stick. We also had to cram a lot of spaghetti for 14 people into one pot, while the other hob was used to make the sauce or side dish. Our UK team leader, Alex was an expert at cooking it just the way we have it at home. Dispersed in a circular X, the spaghetti went into a pot of  slightly salted, boiling water until soft and slippery. This required some careful quantity and temperature monitoring on Alex’s part and also meant waiting an age for the water that never quite reached a rapid boil on our petty little gas hob. Over crowding the pan with spaghetti would lower that temperature further and produce clumps. None of these would have been a problem on our powerful stove at home.

The other way of doing it was to add only just enough water to the pot, salt and some sunflower oil. The oil worked on several different levels. A) It raised the temperature of the cooking spaghetti mixture. B) It prevented the spaghetti from sticking to each other as much. C) And it also meant you could pretty much just leave it to dry out and form a crispy base on the bottom. Less careful monitoring, better for an unpredictable heat source.

Tanzanian Pilau rice

Pilau with Beef - Mto wa Mbu, Tanzania

Historically, Arabic trade routes brought this dish, along with coveted spices to Tanzania as far back as 800AD. Pilau spices can be bought readily mixed and includes a delicious mix of cinnamon, cardamon, black pepper, cloves, cumin and coriander seeds. I recommend finishing off the dish also with a lime garnish.

First burn thin slices of red onion in hot oil. Yep that’s right. Chuck them into hot oil, watch them turn translucent, golden, golden brown and just keep going until a chocolate shade of brown. The next part is very dangerous and I would never do this at home without a lid or at least a splatter guard to hand. Add boiling water to the oil (at least let the oil cool down a bit- we were cooking al fresco and didn’t have a kitchen or house to burn down) until the pot is just over half full. Stir and boil out the burnt onions in this watery mixture for 5 minutes before adding the rice and spices to cook. I know. crazy, unsafe and totally the opposite of what I would normally do.

For a risotto bianco I would have been extremely careful to not even let the onions go beyond a translucent white colour, I would have added the rice grains to the oil to coat before adding a splash of wine, then stock or water. It seems the reason the water is added first in the case of pilau is to make a sort of onion stock first and let the onion flavour permeate the water before adding the rice. Burnt onions also have a very different taste to lightly sautéed ones. Along with the spices, it gave the dish a rich brown colour and an exciting flavour that more than compensated for the lack of wine.

In general we used more oil and salt whilst cooking in our camp. I almost had a heart attack when I saw someone adding salt to cooking plain rice. I got over it soon enough; from a health perspective we needed the additional sodium and the calories, because we were sweating so much during the day, doing a lot of exercise carrying water and sometimes hard manual labour too. What we might have described as unhealthy in the UK was vital in Mingela. With this new experience I came to realise that hardly any element of cooking is indisputable. But I’m no Ferran Adria, throwing away the rulebook altogether in the endeavour to create entirely new dishes and even a whole new art form. Cooking for me is still inextricably linked to a person’s experience, environment, culture, history and even politics. There are still rules, they just keep changing.

Cooking in Tanzania

The first time we walked to market in Mingela I was quietly scared. We weren’t in the city of Morogoro anymore where we’d spent the first week training in field base, we were in a remote village, amidst arid, agricultural territory in the Singida region.

A few tomatoes sat dotted on a stall made of sticks. I remember thinking we’d have to buy up the whole stall before my team leader suggested we buy half so the villagers wouldn’t be left entirely bereft of tomatoes that day. I nodded in silent agreement as we took around 6 tomatoes and an onion while I quietly wondered how we were possibly going to feed our team of 14 on this fare.

Next he guided me to another stall, this time creaking under the weight of 2 buckets of rice and dried beans. The idea was not only to spread the wealth, we were trying to make a good first impression. We weren’t going to tactlessly show ourselves off as rich “mzungus” buying the whole place up.

These were the 4 things we could rely on the market to have, tomatoes, onions, rice and beans. And small fish, but the UK volunteers weren’t a huge fan of them, maybe it was the fisheye to body ratio of the small, salty “daga” fish that was so offputting. Over time we managed to source more ingredients. Potatoes appeared. Maize flour and wheat flour came from the mill, the former which the Tanzanians enthusiastically turned into snowy lumps of “ugali”. Prized for it’s ability to taste of absolutely nothing and form a sort of mouldable playdough spoon, it was pressed tightly in the palm of the eater, possibly to make it easier to swallow and dipped in more flavoursome sauces, often made with the little fish.

I missed vegetables. If we went early enough on the right day sometimes there were green bananas like plantain and “umchicha”, a spinach like green, which the Tanzanians enjoyed picking and eating the leaves only, leaving me to wail over the tossed stems on a regular basis. Near the end of our stay we even had peppers, aubergines and okra a couple of times. Once in a blue moon, I managed to get hold of two small eggs after a church auction, I then had to think about how to divide it between 14 people.

However scarce our supplies were in the village, we definitely had it easy. Over time we got to know where to find food if we wanted it. The best discovery was fried catfish from nearby Lake Kitangiri. In addition to what we could buy there, we had the provisions Raleigh had given us, pasta, packets of soup and tomato paste, tins of beans, chickpeas, corned beef, fruit cocktail and some spices.

Our team leader fashioned a few rocket stoves and even built a brick oven in a sort of deep arch, where the fire could be lit at the back of the closed off tunnel and the food placed at the front. We adapted to cooking on our 2 hob gas stove and when the gas ran out, the rocket stove and oven.

What struck me was the length of time needed to cook. Boiling a full kettle took half an hour. The rice came with tiny little stones and bits of chaff in it that had to be painstakingly removed and washed hours before cooking. The beans had to be soaked overnight before being boiled for at least 4 hours.

Cooking on an open flame was an art in itself. I went through half a packet of matches one morning trying to start an “upside down” fire for porridge. Fetching water, even though we were one of the closest to the pump, less than 200 yards away, was perhaps the most energy-consuming task of the day. The women and children of Mingela would be taking out these tasks everyday.

Mariam rolling chapatis in the market with baby Aaminah strapped to her back

Mariam rolling chapatis in the market with baby Aaminah strapped to her back

It was a common sight to see children as young as 5 carrying buckets of grain and water on their heads. The time it took for them to fetch water home was anything between 10 mins to 2 hours. We at least took these tasks in turn.

It is difficult to relay the mindset I developed whilst cooking in Tanzania. Nothing would keep, everything was shared, food needed to be planned, divided up, we had to cook huge quantities of food after long days in the sun and everyone became a grouch if there wasn’t enough. Food became the focus of so many arguments, which mainly resulted from the overwhelming suspicion that everyone felt they were getting less than everyone else. Halfway through someone melted the plastic of my bowl so I had to replace it with an even smaller one, so I accepted and controlled my portions. But it was wearying. I felt my group was very selfish. They were happy to eat more even if it meant someone else didn’t get to eat. Sometimes they withheld it on purpose for some junked up reason or another.

I got a glimpse of what it was like to be hungry, but I also got to be at the heart of an all too human struggle for limited resources.

The problem wasn’t always a question of how much food we had. We had a budget of 3000 shillings per day per person for food, roughly £1.20 and more than enough to supplement the provisions we had. But after a bowl of spaghetti and potatoes I can appreciate any additional items as a luxury. At home I hardly eat any carbs so I can indulge in a whole array of vegetables and protein. Yes. Vegetables are a luxury.

The good thing that came out of all this, I soon realised after a couple of weeks of coming back home. I am a noticeably better cook. It’s true I had to be resourceful, but I also had to cook with different ingredients with rudimentary cooking utensils. A combination of starting up my own fires, trial and error without recipes or scales and not being able to reach for the soy sauce whenever I wanted to make something tastier has made me a better and more confident cook. And I enjoyed cooking on a rocket stove, I remember marvelling at its heat and efficiency, perfect for a stew, cooking beans, or boiling a tin of condensed milk into toffee. I loved our brick oven and the excitement of bringing out our first batch of bread. So I’d like to share some of the best culinary moments we had in our camp in Mingela. In the interests of sustainable cooking, but also for the sheer enjoyment of creating something from so little.


I have always been fascinated by macarons. Not the squidgy English coconut-mudpie-splats on rice paper with a zig zag drizzle of chocolate, which are also delightful. No, I speak of the French macaron, a delicate affair of almond meringue, sandwiched together with chocolate ganache, jellies and the like. However, in contrast to the dumpling which this website is dedicated to, the macaron is much more well… unforgiving. I have never had to weigh or measure anything for a Chinese recipe, ever. I can have  a slightly wetter dough on some days, a slightly thicker pastry to compensate, a single celery stick or the whole bunch, as long as I squeeze the water out first, there are always ways to make up something new depending on what’s in the fridge.

Based on this humble training I was not prepared to make the macaron. No, compared to the dumpling, the macaron is a diva. The first time I tried to make them I wanted to flavour it with mango, so added mango pulp. Naturally all the little piped rounds ran into one huge baked pancake… Never ever add anything wet to a macaron recipe. Even food colouring I’ve learnt to play it safe with gel food colouring. Otherwise the shells crack, even if the mixture’s perfect it still cracks. The oven could be a few degrees too hot. I even learnt to make them with free range eggs only. A few pence makes all the difference to the protein quantity in the egg white. Cheap eggs are more watery, even after leaving them out for a day to evaporate. So that was 3 failed batches. Then there’s a question of overfolding. My first perfect batch were plain white, from the same mixture I wanted to add some colouring- in order to mix it in I overmixed- and they cracked in the oven.

I’ve always called myself a cook, not a baker. Shows like the Great British Bakeoff astound me with their dependence on precision for measurements and time, yet the episodes always refer very little, if at all, to the recipe itself. In fact the whole comedic value derives from the headless chicken state the show subjects its bakers to. Until the macaron, I really had very little incentive to follow the same route into what appeared to be a semi-mad state of agitation, peering through glass oven doors and comparing if my buns have risen as much as the person’s on the bench beside me.

The first macaron I had was by complete accident. My father is a lecturer and one of his French students gave him a box as a present straight from Paris. He gave them to me, I didn’t know what they were, but it did come in a very pretty box. I took a bite, and then another, by the third it was confirmed- this, whatever it was, was truly special. It turned out to be a very fine sample of Pierre Herme’s rose and quince French macaron. Although I have tried Laduree macarons, for me Pierre Herme will always be the best. For such a delicate offering his flavours are so varied and complex. And on a very simple level- his macarons are bigger than Laduree. In London, there’s a stall in Selfridges and a shop in Mayfair, which has a little more choice.

Since the first and best macaron I tried was Pierre Herme, that was the state of perfection I wanted to achieve. My efforts were based chiefly around this recipe:http://www.telegraph.co.uk/foodanddrink/recipes/10302607/Pierre-Hermes-classic-Ispahan-macaron-recipe.html

In addition to this recipe, from reading other blog posts I sieved the almond flour 3 times, and the egg white once. This is necessary. In my scepticism I sieved the almond flour once and it didn’t work, however having said this the macaron is so temperamental it could have been many things, so it’s good to be on the safe side. I didn’t leave my egg whites out for a week. Just under 24 hours outside the fridge was enough, as long as the egg whites are good quality. Weigh everything to the gram.

Based on some experience and internet research I experimented with dry flavours such as osmanthus flowers (very Chinese, very subtle and fragrant) and earl grey tea. In all honesty you can concentrate your efforts more on the flavour of the filling. A plain-flavoured but coloured orange shell, with a square of apricot jelly (made from apricot jam and gelatine) hidden within a halo of buttercream was the best combination I’ve come up with so far. Raspberry jam and white chocolate ganache is also very tasty and perfect for someone with a sweet tooth.

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This is a batch I made for the Hawkhurst Vault. A fantastic tea room on the less touristy, north end of Brick Lane. And half of the money is going to the charity I’m working with this Summer in Tanzania. Raleigh International. You can read about my trip here: http://www.justgiving.com/Louise-Wang1

Perhaps there is something the macaron has in common with the Chinese dumpling after all. Aside from having to be cautious of over-watery mixtures, the macaron is a very interesting playing ground for different combinations and flavours. To put it simply, it’s the reason I cook, or bake. To try to add something new and make something delicious for everyone to enjoy.


Dragon Castle, Elephant and Castle

When I tell people where I live, I usually say ten minutes from London Bridge. What I don’t say is I’m also ten minutes in the other direction from Elephant and Castle. Alright so I’m a snob. On a few points, I am willing to concede some approval. The comedic origins of the name for example, which apparently derives from an aural mishap with the name of a visiting Spanish princess, Infanta de Castilla. That one makes me chuckle. And it’s also where the legends Michael Caine and even Charlie Chaplin grew up. So on an entertainment level, historically, it’s already pretty high. And since I’ve just found one of the best dim sum restaurants in London there, I’m inclined to shift my whole address a few blocks closer.

Dragon Castle is one of the better names I’ve heard for a Chinese restaurant. The decor is pleasantly charming, a fish pond on the way in, high-ceilings, chandeliers and plenty of light. Details have been thought of. The two times I’ve been the carnation on the table has been fresh and pretty as a picture.


And I am personally a fan of these cute chopstick holders


More importantly their liushabao were actually made from salted egg yolks and the closest thing to the ones I had in ShenZhen. On this particular occasion we were rather ravenous and I didn’t always manage to get a picture before we started eating. For the shot of cheung fen I only remembered when we got to the final piece and then the camera went out of battery.

Steamed pork buns


Vietnamese spring rolls (originally 3 pieces)


Shanghai xiaolongbao.


The chef’s speciality and something a little different: a chunk of seasoned seabass wrapped in a coil of crunchy batter.


Prawn cheung fen, the last piece of three.


Thai-style chicken feet (deboned) or “phoenix claws”. This dish was for my exclusive demolition, I love it and I get it every time out of habit. If you’re not into chewy, gelatinous things like my eating companion then don’t have it!


A shot of the table with glutinous rice parcels with chicken, shitake mushroom and even chinese sausage, nom nom!


Overall the dim sum was good and very reasonably priced. For me, the dishes that were above the norm were the liushabao and the parcels. The seabass was a spot of ingenuity but when we went back for the dinner menu, getting an entire steamed seabass with ginger and spring onion was much more satisfactory (albeit a bit pricier £18). We polished the lot off with a bottle of unwooded chardonnay. Very good indeed.

I’m going to play the expectations game a little bit and say that it’s not a huge step up from Chinatown. But the service was definitely a cut above. Faultless- my wine glass/teacup was constantly being topped up and the dishes were cheap and tasty. The dim sum menu was in both Chinese and English with pictures, which made ordering easier, and when the bill came, it was itemised. What’s not to like?


Dim Sum is only served between 12-4:30pm each day, including Sunday, as it should be. This is a good indication that the dim sum is made fresh to order and a lot of skilled craftsmanship goes into making it.

Dinner is served with some light nibble starters of home made Chinese pickle and some roasted salted peanuts.