China: Dinner Tables

No tidy two-tops or bar seats. Tables for 10, 15, and even 20 on certain occasions. Such was nearly every meal in China. And though I prefer eating in small groups, some of the best moments during this family vacation took place around these large tables.

Bai jiu, the local white liquor is poured at both lunch and dinner. Cheers and gan bei! “Gan bei” translates to “dry the cup,” and that is taken seriously. But unlike the American custom of saying “cheers” at the start of the meal, and drinking at your own pace, in China you have to say “cheers” every single time you want to take a sip. And usually you say cheers to the whole table. So everyone has to take a sip. And thus everyone ends up drinking at least 20X more than planned.

Needless to say we all ended tispy/drunk/wasted by the end of each evening. A family vacation indeed ;)

Luckily there is plenty of food to buffer all the alcohol…

…and meals end with a plain bowl of hot jook (aka congee) to “calm the stomach.”

China: Watermelons at the Table

In China we had watermelon with every meal. Sometimes it came at the start, in the form of a fresh puree. I could drink gallons of this. Just fresh watermelon, blended and nothing else. It was always served at room temperature.

Anytime I asked for the puree cold or iced, I was told that it was just not done that way. And that watermelon is best enjoyed at it’s “natural” temperature.

Most times we had it at the end of the meal, a whole watermelon cut into slices.

No dessert, this was dessert. These watermelons were sweeter than anything I’ve enjoyed in the US. And it wasn’t limited to restaurants, – upon check-in at any hotel we visited, there was fresh watermelon waiting in the hotel rooms.

Depending on where we were, the presentation of the watermelon varied from the very fancy to the totally ghetto served in a plastic bag. Dig in :)

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?!