Thursday, December 12, 2013

Busy Days and Happy Holidays

It is the same thing every year; we are running, running, running - trying to get everything organized before either going away or staying at home.  We don’t know which is better or worse.  Whatever you do, you still have the fun of hunting down the perfect presents to buy and then the task of finding a way to send them on either via non-reliable mail (and say a little prayer that they make their way home), find a kind soul with room in his or her luggage or distribute your own luggage so you can carry them across the continent(s).

Even if you are not spending the holidays with family, you still want to decorate your home and make it festive – at least just a little bit.  Add to that the class parties at school, going away parties for people leaving and/or just holiday get-togethers with your China friends – it’s chaotic on a good day!

It is exhausting and therefore the STARA team will take a well-deserved break over the holidays.  We will both be in different parts of Thailand charging our batteries with sand between our toes, warm ocean swims and spicy Thai food - gathering inspiration and energy to brace the harsh winter months ahead.

We will return renewed (and a few shades darker) at the beginning of January, ready to take on the Beijing food scene and our loyal students.

Thank you for all your support and encouragement. You make STARAfood what it is!

Happy Travels, Happy Holidays and Happy Eating!

Stacey and Sara

Friday, December 6, 2013

No Brown Door in Sight

There are moments in life when you almost don’t want to share your findings. You have fallen upon a hidden gem, so close to the fake diamond that is so popular, yet so far away. And the chances are, if you share your find with the masses – will it remain the same or change into obscurity?

The Hong Qiao market area (aka Santa’s workshop at this time of year) is a constant hive of activity. Shoppers from all around the world pull their hair out at the “old” pearl market trying to negotiate a good deal from the seasoned (and very rude) vendors – hoping that the t-shirts, blue tooth speakers and iPhone covers do not brake until they get on the plane to go back to their home countries, at least. Seasoned shoppers such as Beijing expats and airline crews, knows exactly where to go and won’t even spare a minute walking through the same building. Well, maybe to whizz over to Starbucks for a boost of caffeine before continuing through the long list of must haves.

Since this is not a venue for shopping tips, I won’t even begin to cover where the real deals are to be made. Where the best quality leather is to be found, who makes the best watches and which store allows you to return if your new Louboutins break off the heal after one night of dancing.

No, this blog is about food and food only and for us, the most important moments of the day. Shopping is exhausting - you have to refuel and the most popular dive in the Hong Qiao area is The Brown Door. The Brown Door serves cheap Chinese food catered to foreigners and foreigners only. They don’t even bother with locals and do the very best to make them not even get in the door. And it is working. It is always full and it is satisfying. Everyone we have taken there visiting from elsewhere loves it. Super cheap, no funky dishes (such as bull frog, turtle, snake, intestines, creepies…) and a little bit more authentic probably than almost any Chinese restaurant overseas but still, not quite right.

One beautiful spring day after a very satisfying shopping experience two blocks north of the market, two floors down in an apartment building, through a bomb shelter and into a storage room (not telling a tale!) we stumbled upon a Sichuan restaurant only a few hundred yards away from the market and decided to try it. It was a sunny and pretty clear day; there were tables out on a patio-like area, shaded with trees and staff very curious to serve strange laowais.

We have no idea what it's called - just that it's good!

The menu was in English and, where the translations lacked common sense, there were pictures to help. As always we were starving (funny how that happens after shopping) and ordered randomly from the menu. When the items on the menu go for around 10 rmb (about USD1.5) you can afford to over order. The dishes began to arrive and they were all way over expectations. The vegetables were fresh and crisp (you have to try the mint salad), the seasoning just so, the fried chicken (without bones!) with chills and cumin seeds so good I am salivating right now because I know I will get to have it again soon, the tofu chilled and smooth and the cold Yanjing refreshing as as it slipped down our throats effortlessly.

Slurpy, spicy cold noodles

The best beans

Who doesn't like there veggies with vinegar and garlic?!?!?

Lovely spirals of eggplant
Silky soft tofu with preserved egg
Meltingly soft bbq beef

Fabulous cumin and chili chicken ever - and no bones!

A refreshing mint salad - perfect to cleanse your palette

We have been back time and time again and shared our find with a few selected friends who have all loved it as well and now, we believe it is time to share it with the world. A gem like this is not to be hidden but to be enjoyed and shared among friends.

Not that we really want to share, but, if you want to try something different from The Brown Door, simply walk down that same street, past the new Hong Qiao building.  The restaurant will be a little ways down on the left side of the street.  

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Thanksgiving Living

The biggest, grandest, most traditional American holiday just passed us by - Thanksgiving.  For all non-Americans, it is mind baffling how this can be so important! Not only as a family get-together but the traditions and food of it all. There has to be this special stuffing on the table or that kind of sweet potato pie and there definitely needs to be a football game going on in the background to veg out in front of while digesting the turkey.

I have come to love Thanksgiving – after having left the United States. Not so much for the food, which can be comforty for sure, but for the nice atmosphere of hanging out with friends, cooking together, eating, drinking and eating some more… and I’m not the only non-American who has grown to appreciate this holiday. This is exactly the wonderful thing that expats around the world share – an appreciation for different holidays. And it’s not only because it is a reason to party…

Now for my American partner in cooking crime; Thanksgiving is the favorite holiday of the year. It is an opportunity to spend time with good friends and enjoy traditional, familiar comfort food without the pressure of gifts or the chaos of most other holidays.  First, long hours are spent together in the kitchen and then, watching sports, going on walks to make room for dessert, playing games and just enjoying the company of loved ones.  And of course, giving thanks for the bounty before us and what is to come in the months and years ahead. 

This year the STARA team hosted Thanksgiving for friends from all around the world – China, Australia, Denmark, Spain, Austria, England and, of course, Sweden and the US. There were complete newbies alongside with seasoned Thanksgivingers who need it to just so, like it always is. With such a large number of guests a potluck was the way to go so that everyone feels like they are involved and creating their own traditions. There was one really big bird of course, potatoes of different kinds, stuffing (this was the year I actually liked it), cranberry sauce, side vegetables, gravy, at least three different desserts and definitely good times.

With so many from so many places, you can’t get too specific on what to bring – and that is part of the fun.  When Stacey lived in Switzerland, every year they went to a large Thanksgiving dinner – about 400 people.  Everyone was asked to bring a side dish.  The fun though was guessing where everyone came from by the dish they brought.  Those from the Southwest had cornbread and chorizo stuffing,  but if you are from New England, its wild rice and oysters all the way!  There are always stories about the history of the dish – an old family recipe from a great grandparent or mom’s famous sweet potato pie – something to remind us of those far away. 

But sharing these dishes and their stories always brings us closer together.  They remind us of all that we have to be thankful for.  While we may not be with our “real” families on this holiday, we are with those who love us wherever we are - making new memories, traditions and stories to share next year.

Happy Thanksgiving and Happy Holidays!

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Dickson Noodle - The Hong Kong Noodle Place Reborn

Is there anything better than when small businesses (that you like and support) grow and thrive?

The other day we were on our way for a quick lunch of Hong Kong noodles at our local dive (see Bike Throughs and Dive Ins post) and discovered, to our horror, that it was closed.  Among the myriad of workers outside we found the owner and learned that they were not closing, just moving to a new location.  Better place, he assured us, and the whole menu would be in English.

Last week was the grand opening and the perfect opportunity to check out the new digs. Conveniently located in Pinnacle Plaza, by Momo’s, our favored butcher and green grocer, in the space previously occupied by our not so favorite Central American restaurant.

The space had been completely renovated with grey concrete walls, light wood paneling and charming bird cages hanging from the roof as decoration. The kitchen is open and airy, the tables have clever little drawers holding the utensils and very important: a clean, western bathroom for patrons to use!

The atmosphere was slightly chaotic on this opening day; the waiting staff seemed a little bit confused but that is to expect on the first day of business.

The room was full of busy eaters eager to chow down on steaming bowls of noodles, bbq pork and as we discovered now that we could read the whole menu – curries.

We happened to sit down next to a friend who had ordered a vegetable curry, and liked it, so we decided to go absolutely crazy and order something different for a change.  We went for the chicken curry that came with a bowl of rice, galangal chicken, marinated cucumbers and a few soy chicken wings for good measure.

It was all good, not a new favorite, but that is mainly because of the way the chicken was cut. Even after all these years in Asia, neither of us are used to the way they butcher the meat, as if they take the whole bird and chop it up, not considering the bones and amount of meat on each and every piece. Maybe we are lazy, but it’s just too much work. The curry sauce was creamy and had good flavor but the wings could have been roasted harder and carried a bit of spice, but that is just our opinion. The cucumbers were as always perfect. Crisp, cold and with a generous dose of garlic – yum.

Dickson Noodle (yup, the place has a name!) will remain a favorite but I think we will stick to our noodles in the future, and the cucumbers…and the century eggs….and the celery and tofu salad…and the fungus in chili sauce….and oh, we have to go back and try the bbq pork….

Sunday, November 17, 2013

STARAcooking welcomes its inaugural class

STARAcooking welcomed five fabulous students to our inaugural cooking class last week.  Our hungry test subjects were hands on for a Creative Cocktail Party experience.

Over the next few hours, they learned how to concoct martinis that will knock you flat and those that will just make you happy - perfect for a party!  We made a variety of appetizers and hors d’oeuvres – from spicy, cheddar-wrapped olives (watch out for the jalapenos!) and flakey feta and fresh herb stuffed parcels to Mediterranean hummus and a spin on tapenade.

All of the recipes provide a starting point for interpretation and creativity.  Tapenade on fish or in eggs – sure!  Add some spinach or chicken to the parcels – why not!  You never know until you try!

Classes are held regularly and we would love to inspire you to try new things in your kitchen!  Visit the the STARAcooking page for more details.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

STARAcooking launches in Shunyi

 STARAcooking launches in Shunyi - Funding our hobby and educating the masses -- or how to share our love of food and cooking with new and old friends.

At STARAfood Beijing, we have been having so much fun writing about our cooking and eating exploits that we wanted to share our adventures with everyone.

While we continue to eat our way through Beijing and thoroughly enjoying it, we have discovered a gap in the cooking class market here in the capital. There are more cooking schools than you can count on your fingers and toes that teach mainly Chinese cooking, from all regions. You slice and dice the ginger and garlic and proceed to make a decent gong bao ji ding (kung pao chicken) or spicy green beans. It is fun, now and then, with the right group of friends to make your own dumplings all the while enjoying being in a quaint traditional si he yuan (courtyard house) down a hutong (alley) but for us; that is just what it is, a nice way to spend a day hanging out with friends.

But, we have discovered that out in the bushland of Shunyi there is nothing – nada – and there is also a want and need for what is for us traditional cooking - both techniques and recipes.  So who are we:

Sara (on the right) was born and raised in Sweden with soon to be 17 years abroad under her belt. She finds inspiration everywhere and loves to visit food stores while travelling. She started cooking early and is completely unable to follow recipes and always put her spin on things.  A blessing and a curse!

Stacey (the tall one) is a California girl with vast international experience through travelling and living abroad (over 10 years already).  A whizz in the kitchen without fear of trying new things and with an immaculate palate (so says Sara!).  

Introducing STARAcooking:  Our mission is to help our students not take cooking too seriously.  Show them that they can trust their instincts and that food is fun! Between the two of us, we have years of experience eating and cooking around the globe.  Having been expats and avid travellers for years, we have developed different approaches to food and recipes but share a love of enjoying it with our families and friends. And though we do not always agree on techniques and technicalities, we respect and value each other’s opinion, learn from them and find a middle way.

With a motto of “High Impact, Low Effort,” we specialize in making our students feel confident in the kitchen, creating fabulous meals in little time.  Focusing on fresh, quality ingredients with a broad range of flavors, even the most novice chef can feel like an expert. With key ingredients always on hand, a culinary highlight can be created in a snap!

We hope to welcome you to our kitchen soon and help you find your own inspiration!

Check the STARAcooking page on our blog for regular class updates or email us at for more information! 

Happy cooking!

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Bike Throughs and Dive Ins

As much as we thoroughly love going to fancy restaurants all dressed up and fabulous, there are so many good things to say about the simplest places and in some cases, real dives. The kind of places where you wouldn’t even consider peeking into the kitchen (or using the rest room for that matter) can, at times, serve the most glorious food!

One problem while living in a country where you cannot partake of all information due to the inability to READ is: 1. Learning about new places and 2. Reading the menu. We are forever grateful to our drivers, Mr. Jeff and Mr. Zhang, who patiently take us around the city when we are hungry for something new. Without worries about loosing face should we not like the place (like that would happen), they indulge us patiently in helping us discover hidden gems.

Many times we don’t have to travel far to find old and new favorites.  One restaurant we go back to over and over again is the, as we call it, “Hong Kong Noodle Place”.  For sure, it has a real name, we just haven’t figured it out yet and since we know the owner is from Hong Kong and they serve Hong Kong staples such as wonton and fish ball noodle soup, we will just continue with our name for it.

For those of us in the vast restaurant wasteland of Shunyi, the HKNP is conveniently located a short bicycle ride away near Pinnacle Plaza – close to Jenny Wang’s and next to Miso Japanese Restaurant (another STARA favorite).  Plan to arrive before noon so you won’t have to wait for a table.  The restaurant seats maybe 30 patrons with an open (relatively clean!) kitchen where you can see the magic happen. The menu is simple; noodles, rice dishes, vegetables and snacks – all very reasonably priced and delicious. There are specials advertised on the walls but sadly only in Chinese and, while the owner speaks perfect English, the serving staff doesn’t and we have yet to see it translated.

We usually go for our own personal favorites; prawn wonton noodle soup for Stacey and fish ball noodle soup for Sara, cucumbers with peanuts and garlic and bok choy with oyster sauce on the side.  The barbeque pork is also a must-try – not fatty or full of gristle, as is often the case – but with a lovely red sheen from all of the spices.  Steamy bowls of noodle soup arrive and with a generous scoop of the chili paste we are ready to slurp it all up.  

Yummy Fish Ball Soup

Simple, cheap and delicious!

Comfort food – China style.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Are We Really in Beijing?

One of the things we love most about Beijing is that this city is not always what you see.  Look one direction it is all shiny modern and look another, down a hutong alley, and you are transported back hundreds of years.  It is a city full of surprises; you just have to look!

Living in the suburbs of Shunyi, our restaurant offerings are slim.  Not only for expensive or formal; just someplace that serves good food.  It doesn’t take long to try all of the options and work our way through the menus so it was such a nice surprise to discover, after three years here, Roma Lake (Luoma Hu). 

Roma Lake
We took advantage of a rare, blue-sky day to bike to Roma Lake.  What a great surprise to find a lovely tree-lined road by a (relatively) clean lake with enticing restaurants on the bank and with plenty of outdoor seating and enticing terraces.  And so many options! Something for every taste: Malaysian, hot pot, Japanese, pizza and almost every flavor of Chinese cuisine.

Restaurants of every flavor along the tree-lined street.
Our new favorite hot pot (and crayfish) restaurant!

Having heard about Laker’s Pizza, we decided to give it a try only to be uninspired by the menu and absence of patrons. The hot pot restaurant next door, however,  looked enticing so we ambled over and found a table on the terrace.  Swedish Sara was sold when the waitress walked by holding a pan of steaming, meaty crayfish.  There must be something in her DNA as she was instantly salivating!  Needless to say, we ordered a dozen immediately but the rest of the menu wasn’t so easy!

Now, customer service leaves a lot to be desired in China.  Today, however, was the exception.  The menu here is a one-page checkbox all in Chinese.  While we can talk our way though a restaurant, we can’t read a thing!  We asked for an English menu and what arrived but the manager carrying a laptop displaying an Excel spreadsheet with English translations!  We actually didn’t want hotpot with our crayfish so she suggested house specialties – pork noodles, wood ear fungus and spinach with garlic. 

What a pleasant surprise!  The fungus and spinach, common on every Chinese menu, were the best we have had in China.  Crispy cucumber balanced the spice and sourness of the fungus.  Crunchy garlic and vinegar perfectly matched the sweetness of the spinach.  And the noodles – what looked like a bland bowl of brown hid meaty, milky broth with some of the tastiest pork around – no fat or gristle anywhere. 

But the star of the show was the crayfish.  We asked for spicy and spicy they were!  These hot little numbers were meaty, perfectly cooked and bathed in chili peppers.  The waitress kindly provided plastic gloves and aprons to keep us spotless as we quickly devoured our feast. 

Chilis anyone?

What a find!  We can’t wait to go back and see what other surprises await us.  Now we just need another blue-sky day!

To find Roma Lake - Keep going west on TianBeiLu past the Anhua Road intersection and straight through the big roundabout.  Take the first left onto the little road by the lake.  The restaurants and shops are a little ways down the road on your left.