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!