Temples of Mount Jiuhua and a Vegetarian Buddhist Meal

I originally planned to write posts in the order of each city we visited, but somewhere between Mongolia and Shen Zhen that idea went out the window. Sometimes you just feel like writing one thing and not another. Today we are on Mount Jiuhua. This mountain is one of the four scared mountains of Buddhism, and it’s a three-hour drive from Hefei, a city where we spent a few nights. Many people haven’t heard of Hefei before – Hefei is in eastern China, the Anhui province.

We left Hefei at 7am in the morning and arrived at Mount Jiuhua just before noon. Day trip! Mount Jiuhua is best known for beautiful landscape and sacred temples and it’s visited by both locals and tourists alike. They say that if you make a wish to the gods at the temples here it is a guaranteed to come true. But once the wish comes true, you must return to the same spot and give thanks. Oddly enough, the bulk of the people we encountered on this mountain were not Chinese but Koreans. I later learned that first monk to set foot on these mountains was Kim Gyo-gak, a prince-turned monk from South Korea.

There are ten temples located throughout Mount Jiuhua, and we were lucky to visit three of them (before the misty rain turned into thunder, dark skies and pouring rain!) The monks who live here are known for living long lives. They say it is because of the climate and spirits in the air. And when they pass away, their bodies are naturally preserved. In one temple we even saw the body of one monk who had died over 500 years ago. He was still sitting upright (!) in meditation position and though his body was shrunken it was still very much there. No photos allowed of course.

At each temple, candles to burn incense. Here’s what these stations look like if you take a few steps back. After visiting the first temple, the assistant whom dad’s friend set us up with took us to lunch at a nearby restaurant. It was an all-vegetarian Buddhist meal, but a dozen times more elaborate than any vegetarian meal I’ve had in the past! There was mock “fish” and chicken” and “pork belly” (fat included) and even “shrimp,” all made from tofu and various forms of wheat gluten. Pretty spectacular.

We started with individual plates of crisp corn pancakes and fried sweet potato rounds while they set the table with…

…pickled vegetables…

…and chilled radish with salty-sweet dipping sauce.

There was lotus roots, two ways. Served battered and deep-fried and then sauteed with sliced carrots and mushrooms. Don’t worry, there is a lot of mock-meat coming up ;)

To transition into the “meat” dishes, we each had our own braised “sea cucumber.” Will you look at that! This was a combination of a natural gelatin and tofu, with the crisp, clean bite of real sea cucumber.

Then came the onslaught of mock meat dishes, my favorite of which was the “pork belly,” featuring nearly equal proportions of meat and fat. My sister wouldn’t eat this because she said there was too much “fat.” But the “fat” was actually wheat gluten made to look (and taste) like fat! It was served with baby bok choy and just flat out awesome with it’s savory, so intensely pork-flavor.

There was “shrimp,”…

…and then “abalone!” My grandma lives in Hawai’i, but I really wish she was here at this meal. She’s vegetarian Buddhist and would have loved all these dishes.

This is a “beef” and pepper fry made from wheat gluten.

To accompany the “meat” (haha) dishes, chef said we needed vegetables for balance. Here, baby bamboo picked from the base of the mountain and steamed tender.

Next was the “chicken” and mushroom soup course. The wood ear mushrooms were real, but as for the “chicken?”

It was made out of tofu! From the moist and chewy, meaty texture – especially the texture, to flavor and consistency, you could have sworn it was chicken. The clear broth was just as meaty…mark me impressed.

The pork belly and this whole braised fish with pickled vegetables were tied to be the two most real looking and tasting dishes to be fake. The fish was so intricate down to the scales (and even bones, not kidding). It bore the flaky-firm texture of perfectly cooked fish and the skin was spot on.

Another soup dish came to the table mid-meal. This was slippery tofu with a chewy black fungus. The fungus is thought to prevent all forms of cancer. Drink up, we did.

Fresh sauteed vegetables to signal the start of the end of lunch.

For the very last course we could pick between fresh pulled noodles or fried rice. My sister and I each picked a different one and shared both.

She wound up liking the fried rice more, and I the noodles so it worked out well. The chewy noodles were served with a simple vegetable broth and lots of little side dishes like these…

…salted preserved tofu cubes. In Hawai’i we eat something similar to this (only the tofu is a much darker color), and we eat it only with jook. It’s incredibly salty and quite pungent so a little goes a long way.

We were advised to eat light during lunch because of all the walking and stairs required to see the temple. I didn’t listen, and “suffered” accordingly ;) Well worth it though!

At the Sichuan Provincial Office in Beijing: Chuanban Canting

Dan Dan Mein

I was excited to see an article on Provincial Eating in Beijing in the New York Times today. Especially because it covers a restaurant I visited just last week! Each region in China has a provincial office in Beijing – the highlight of these offices are of course, the attached government-run restaurant. From the article:

“Beijing provides a quirky, time-lapsed way to explore authentic provincial cuisines. Each region has an office in the capital, a system that grew out of an administrative need to govern a vast country with absolute central power. The offices’ administrative usefulness has withered in the telecommunications age, but the restaurants are among the few state-owned holdouts in a now fervently capitalist economy.”

Thanks to a suggestion from a local friend, my family and I stopped in for lunch at Chuanban Canting (川办餐厅) which is run by the Sichuan government. After a good two weeks of eating in Hong Kong and Southern China, we were craving heat, spice. This was a perfect fit. We started with our own bowls (a few bowls in my dad’s case!) of dan dan mein and proceeded to share the following dishes with sides of rice.

Pickled cabbage and peppers

Fuqi Feipian. The name translates to “sliced lung by the married couple,” and features sliced beef, tongue and tripe all in a bath of hot oil.

Crispy sauteed string beans with pork

Per my little sister’s request: Szechuan chicken with peanuts

Eggplant with garlic in hot oil

Mapo Tofu

The whole lunch for four people came out to about $25USD. Good and cheap. The dishes were not numbingly spicy as I had anticipated…but I’m guessing that’s because we were outed as foreigners and spice level was thus tuned down. Here’s what the NYT article has to say about Chuanban Canting:

“Chuanban Canting, run by the Sichuan government (5 Gongyuan Xijie Toutiao, Jiangguomennei Dajie; 86-10-6512-2277, extension 6101; scheduled to reopen in July after renovations) is the most famous of these restaurants and has earned an almost cultish devotion among the city’s culinary cognoscenti. “Chuanban can be the best Sichuan restaurant in the city, depending on the mood of the chef,” Ms. Mooney said.

Almost everything served here (the menu is in English and Chinese) is strewn with Sichuan peppercorns. On a recent visit, I tried the mapo tofu, which has a custardy texture, explosive opening kick and a lingering tingle dancing on your tongue.

Fame, of course, begets large crowds, so expect to wait unless you can sweet-talk the management in Sichuan dialect.”

Sugar Rush’ed…

…for the week at Serious Eats New York.

A Sandwich a Day: Snail Smorrebrod at Vandaag

Sugar Rush: Salty Oats by Kayak Cookies

Cool Drinks, NY: Tocqueville’s Iced Tea

Sweet Finds: Valerie Confections

Sugar Rush: Sablés at Bosie Tea Parlor

Lunch To-Go: Fredi Sandwich Bar

5 Strawberry Desserts We Love

Sugar Rush: Lemon Tart and Tiramisu at Bottega Falai

Butter at Saxelby Cheese

Sweet Finds: Woodhouse Chocolate

Sugar Rush: Vera Tong’s Peanut Butter Bar

Beijing: Dinner at Da Dong

Hope everyone is having a great week. I got back to NYC yesterday…it was supposed to take 17 hours to arrive home, but wound up taking 48 hours due to weather delays. Crazy. Am very happy to be back on solid ground, so many posts to catch up on! On our first night in Beijing, friends brought us to dinner at the Dongcheng District location of Da Dong, their favorite place for roast duck. Snapshots from our meal below:

Da Dong is known for roasting a super lean duck, leaving a significantly smaller percentage of fat compared to other restaurants. The result? Wickedly crisp skin, and moist interior. The whole duck was divided into two plates, here’s one of them.

Steamed wrappers and…

…crisp sesame-speckled shells. Sort of like mini pita breads, only much more thin.

Check out this condiment dish. Sugar, garlic paste, hoisin, radish, pickles and cucumbers! Everyone gets their own dish, so pretty!

The roast duck is to be eaten in three different ways:

1. Dip just the skin in the sugar and eat. Seriously just melts in your mouth. Who would have thought to pair sugar with the skin? Am going to start doing this in NYC!
2. Dab a bit of hoisin on the steamed wrapper, add a few slices of radish and duck skin and meat. Wrap and devour.
3. Open up the sesame shell (they cut a little opening to make it easier). Fill with some garlic paste, cucumbers and the pink radish, then duck skin and meat. In Hawai’i we serve roast duck with steamed buns. In NYC I’ve encountered both the steamed wrappers and the steamed buns. But these sesame shells were definitely a first for me.


We were served duck soup after the roast duck was finished.

While roast duck was the highlight of the meal, it was not the only dish of the night. We shared a variety of other dishes including:

Avocado and salmon with crispy noodle skins.

A fried trio of red peppers (the heat goes away after being deep fried), peanuts and thin-cut potato sticks. Addictive and a perfect snack for all the beer.

Grilled duck hearts.

Taro and yam with candied orange peels.

Scallops, peppers, and broccoli in a crispy tube.

Curried soup with lamb.

Fried flounder with greens and salted pineapple.

Cold chicken soaked in peanut and spicy pepper sauce.

Creamy mung bean sorbet to finish, and plenty of fresh lychees for the table.

Going to sleep off this jet lag…more posts to come soon! :)

One Day in Mongolia

Singing Sand Dunes

Hello from Mongolia! It’s about midnight here but I’m too excited to sleep just yet. Mongolia was not on our original itinerary for this trip. But my parents have a knack for springing last minute surprises. So here we are with a family friend who said our trip would not be complete without a day in Mongolia.

Dining Room for Lunch

Who were we to refuse? The flight from Beijing to Mongolia is just an hour. We landed at noon at Ordos* (鄂尔多斯) airport in inner Mongolia** yesterday and were whisked away to lunch. Or rather a feast (which would characterize most of our meals in China, but more on this later!) Save for Hong Kong, each city we visited was either for seeing friends or business purposes, and friends of my parents were incredibly generous in making this a once in a lifetime holiday we never expected to come across. We were lucky to have drivers and local friends/guides who made the trip absolutely seamless and took care of every little detail down to making sure my sister’s favorite snacks were in the car. Talk about hospitality.

Lunch was a parade of 30 dishes for a 12 people (us 5 visiting and 7 local friends) at a restaurant in the city center. The bulk of the dishes were served either cold or at room temperature, followed by about ten hot dishes. Steamed buns stuffed with lamb, dumplings similar to xiao long bao, and hand pulled noodles in soup were served at the end of the meal.

Roast Baby Pig

This was my favourite of the meat dishes…a baby pig no longer than 18-inches. Roasted till the skin was crackly crisp, seriously effortless eating. The meat was milky tender and sweet. We were instructed to dip some of the skin into a bowl of sugar – they say this enhances the flavor of the skin.

Bellies full, another hour of driving took us to the desert, home of the Singing Sand Dunes. It’s so named because when you slide down the sand it makes this soft whistling noise. NYT has an article on “Secrets of the Singing Sand Dunes.” But more than sliding down dunes, what I loved was just standing in the middle of the desert – the sheer size of the surrounding sand dunes is simultaneously overwhelming and beautiful. NYC is very much not the center of the universe after all ;)

We took part in camel riding throughout the desert for a good part of the afternoon. It was my first time seeing camels or sand dunes, and the feeling was very much surreal. At one point I found myself eating cold watermelon on a rock between dunes and my first thought was how about I just stay here forever? Well, forever was until sunset and I wish you could have seen the sky with shades of deep blue and the pinkish hue from the sun. We rented a vehicle to drive up and down the dunes till the sun went down…with plenty of sunscreen and wide-brimmed hats of course.

Lamb-Stuffed Dumplings

From there, dinner was a 3-hour drive to a remote farm that’s part of a government initiative to educate both visitors and locals on the farming and agriculture of Mongolia. It’s a huge piece of land, almost a town in itself, coupling farmland with restaurants and rental villas. Though we missed the lamb slaughtering which takes place each morning, we received a tour of all the animals and vegetables and fruits. In the future they’ll also be producing local liquors here. The customs and rituals involved in the types of meals we partook in deserves a post all its own, so I’ll stick to just food in this post.

Warm Lamb Face

A whole lamb was prepared 9-ways (9 is a lucky number, and 99 is the luckiest). Lamb face was served as an appetizer with the cold dishes. Then wind-dried lamb jerky, lamb soup, lamb-stuffed dumplings, lamb stew with soft buns, pulled lamb with cold noodles, roasted lamb ribs, hunks of lamb in a millet soup, and lamb and blood sausages. Again it was another 30-course meal that left us absolutely stuffed and happily drunk on the local bai jiu. Bai jiu translates to white white but that’s fairly deceiving as the alcohol content is much higher! Vodka is a more appropriate comparison.

Dinner started at 8pm and finished at 1am – I was worried about the long ride back to the city. But then it turned out we were staying a villa on the farm! As part of the government initiative, many villas were built with the idea that people could visit as a weekend getaway and have a complete trip without leaving the farm. A farm-resort? ;) It’s not yet open to the public and we were honored to be the first overnight guests in one of the villas.

Sleep at 2am and up again at 7am! Early breakfast at the same restaurant on the farm and because our planned One Day in Mongolia was so much fun…we decided to stay another day

Happy Sunday.

*Go Katayama has a must-read article – completely with excellent photos, on
Ordos and the (supposed) over-development of this new city.

**Another fun fact: Ordos in inner Mongolia is the wealthiest city per capita in all of China…who would have guessed?!