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The Great Wall of China
The Great Wall of China. You gotta see this!
My partner and I are foodies. We spent most of this past November in south-east Asia, visiting and touring with several members of his family, who live over there. Our "base camp" for the trip was a sister's apartment in Hong Kong, and we made side trips to Beijing, Macau, and Ho Chi Minh City. Trips within a trip, with plenty of time on planes, trains, and automobiles. And boats.

And of course, we ate lots.

It turns out that the Chinese food is pretty good in China. Who knew?

To the right, is a photo I took at the Great Wall of China, about a 90-minute ride out of Beijing. I include it here, well, just because. It is truly a magnificent sight to behold. Now that we have that out of the way, the rest of this diary isn't about sight-seeing (oh, I could go on), it's about food.

Follow below for some adventures, lots of food, and pictures along the way.

WARNING: This diary is photo-heavy.

What's For Dinner is a community diary scheduled every Saturday night around 7:30 EST or 4:30 PST. We talk about food, share recipes and anecdotes. So, leave your politics at the door, pour yourself a drink and relax.
Please forgive me for being around only sporadically. This diary has been prepared ahead, for publication at the regular WFD time. As this diary goes "live", we will be entertaining dinner guests at home. I will try to drop in occasionally, but for the most part I won't be able to participate until later in the evening.

Background

Planning for the trip started many months ago (we plan way ahead). We scheduled 3 weeks, with our initial destination being Hong Kong. My partner was born there, and I had already been over there with him, twice before. Together with his 3 sisters and 2 of their husbands who live there, we planned tours into mainland China, and Macau. Just my partner and myself scheduled an additional trip to Ho Chi Minh City (a.k.a. Saigon). That came about as we had found an article online declaring that city to be a favorite foodie destination. So we decided to give it a try, and see something we'd never seen before.

Breakfast

Several of our breakfasts were at a sister's apartment in Hong Kong. We ate a variety of things: eggs, bagels, fruit, along with coffee.

On the side trips, we stayed in hotels and had buffet-style breakfasts. All of these included a combination of western-style, as well as Asian-style, dishes. We ate a bit of this, a bit of that. The dim sum offerings at the buffet were about what you'd expect from a buffet. Edible, but otherwise unremarkable.

Hot Pot - Beijing

We had a tour guide, driver, and van for our 4 days in Beijing. We left many of our restaurant choices to the guide, and for lunch one day we were taken to a restaurant that features Hot Pot. A large round container at the center of the table holds hot water or broth, and a heat source keeps it piping hot. We had plates of very thinly sliced beef, and lamb, tofu, bean thread noodles, mushrooms, lettuce, and much more. Beverages included a local beer, and Coke Zero.

Near the beginning of the Hot Pot meal.
Start of the Hot Pot meal. The center chimney is much taller than shown here, and was later removed.
Hot Pot is designed for family-style sharing. The food items are all pre-cut for quick cooking and bite-size eating. Each person puts their choice of food into the hot broth, scoops it out, and dips it into their own small bowl of dipping sauce. The hot broth is replenished by the staff along the way as it evaporates, and gets absorbed into the food you eat.
Hot Pot in progress
The meal in full swing. Lots of cooking, dipping, and eating going on
In North America, I've often seen gas burners under the pot; at this location, they used what appeared to be some form of pressed charcoal, with a large chimney venting upward. The chimney was removed part way through the meal. It didn't really occur to me until later that the room didn't appear to be filled with fumes, though we were in a smallish private room with no outside ventilation.
Top-down view of the Hot Pot, showing the burning in the center
Top-down view of the Hot Pot
Roadside Shopping - Somewhere in Beijing

You can shop for vegetables, or pretty much anything for that matter, all over the place. Here's one example of a small gathering of trucks along the roadside, selling leeks, nappa cabbage, mushrooms, fruit, and so on.

Vegetable shopping, roadside
Roadside...what's for dinner tonight?
The sanitary conditions are less than ideal, for those of us in the west not accustomed to this anything-goes form of marketing.
Nappa cabbage, roadside shopping
This truck offers nappa cabbage. Fresh picked.
Peking Duck - Beijing

Peking is an older English spelling of the city of Beijing, but the common English spelling now is actually Beijing. Anyway, if you go all the way to Peking/Beijing, you might as well have Peking Duck, right?

We went to an upscale restaurant that specializes in Peking Duck (don't worry, we ate lots of other things at that meal too). The gimmick at this particular place is that you get to go and pick out your own duck from the wood-burning oven where they are finished for presentation. You know, they kind of all looked the same, so we picked the first one they pulled out.

Peking Duck, fresh from the oven
Peking Duck, lifted out of the oven
They hang the duck over a receptacle briefly, and drain off some of the excess (liquified) fat from under the skin.
Peking Duck, draining the excess fat
Draining excess fat from the duck
Then the duck is brought to you tableside, on a cart, where a chef carves off the skin and a thin layer of meat, into squares and strips. The carcass is taken back to the kitchen where the remainder of the meat is chopped up and served a different way, often as a stir-fry.
Peking Duck being carved tableside
The duck skin being carved, tableside
You pick up what they call a pancake, which is similar in appearance to a very small crepe, though it is flour-based rather than egg-based. Into your pancake you put a piece of the crispy duck skin, and your personal choice of add-ons: hoisin sauce, slivered green onions, slivered cucumber. Fold as best you can, and eat.
Peking Duck, as served
The duck skin, carved and ready to eat
You can have Peking Duck at many Chinese restaurants in North America. This one was pretty damn good.

Scenes From a Market - Beijing

We spent an hour or so at one of many busy markets in Beijing. Here at a vendor stall, a sort of crepe snack is being prepared for us. There is a large turntable, heated, as the cooking surface. The man ladles a batter onto the turntable, and using what looks like a windshield scraper, spreads the batter to the entire circumference as it spins. Then a fresh egg is cracked on top, and also spread out as another layer. When he uses a spatula to lift it off, it is already starting to harden into a crispy crepe.

A sort of crispy crepe freshly cooked
The cooked crepe being lifted from the turntable. It is already starting to turn crispy.
The woman next to him sprinkles a filling over top, which as best I could make out was a mixture of chopped onion, other vegetables, and some kind of cooked meat. Then she folds it, and cuts with a cleaver into individual portions. It was quite delicious.
The crepe being cut into serving size
The finished crepe being cut into servings
This market has pretty much every kind of food that you could imagine in this part of the world. Meats, fish, tons and tons of vegetables, and on a different side dry goods (clothing, household items, and so on). Here, we see a display of eggs. They have every kind of eggs: fresh chicken eggs, duck eggs, preserved eggs. Sometimes these are called "thousand year old eggs", but they aren't really. They are essentially cured, over a period of weeks or months, not years. This was shot in black-and-white; I just liked the patterns.
Eggs for sale. Fresh and preserved.
A selection of fresh and preserved eggs
Pomelos are somewhat similar to grapefruit, though the flesh is sweet rather than bitter. And they are big; the largest of the citrus fruit category. Different varieties of pomelo have different colored flesh. These ones are beautiful, and have relatively little of the bitter white pith inside that others have.
Pomelos for sale at the market
Pomelos for sale at the market
Meats of all kinds are also available, hanging out in the open air. This happened to be a cold day in Beijing, a little above freezing. One can imagine the effect on the meat hanging there during summer temperatures.
Meat for sale, hanging out in the open
Meat for sale, hanging out in the open
Picture This - Beijing

Here we are at one of our dinners in Beijing. I include this as an illustration of the way this group travels: every moment is well documented digitally. Between the full-blown SLR cameras, and various cellphones, not a moment goes uncaptured.

Dinner in Beijing - well photographed
OK now, who's got the camera?
Night Food Market - Beijing

Only a couple of blocks from our hotel, this market is empty during the day but comes alive after dark. Snack foods of all kinds are available, cooked to order.

Beijing night market
A night food market in Beijing
Some of the snacks are in the creepy-crawly category. They have caterpillars, millipedes, scorpions, snakes, and other assorted things. We ended up sharing some simple fried tofu with hot sauce.
Beijing night market - critters for sale
Various crawly things at the night market
Funky Things - Beijing

At our final lunch before leaving Beijing, our guide took us to this restaurant which has a funky kind of decor: lots of bright colors, cushiony banquettes with throw pillows, draperies, and so on. Our beer was served in these glasses, which are shaped sort of like an inverted beer bottle within a glass. Very cool.

Wish restaurant Beijing - beer glasses
Funky beer glasses at a Beijing restaurant
A Mostly Home-Cooked Meal - Hong Kong

One of our dinners in Hong Kong was at the home of one of my partner's sisters, and her husband. Much of this meal was home-cooked, though they also had pre-ordered and picked up a couple of specialty items. In the foreground below is a whole roast piglet, cut and presented. Crispy delicious skin that is out of this world.

Roast piglet
Roast piglet
After the meal, our host insisted that we enjoy a tasting of single-malt scotches, and a cognac thrown in for good measure. Twist my arm, huh. Amazingly, I didn't feel the worse for it next morning.
Tasting session
A tasting selection
Hong Kong Disneyland

We spent a few hours at Hong Kong Disneyland. It's a small place relative to other Disney theme parks, but they cram quite a bit of stuff into a small area of reclaimed land. We didn't have a meal there, but here's a typical menu board outside one of the food venues. Prices are in Hong Kong Dollars. Divide by approximately 8 to get the USD equivalent.

Hong Kong Disneyland menu
A menu board at Hong Kong Disneyland
Fish Market at Night - Hong Kong

Many open air markets selling fresh seafood can be found all over and around Hong Kong. Tank after tank after tank of live shellfish, and fish of all kinds.

Hong Kong fish market at night
Hong Kong fish market at night
Here's one small selection of seafood. Dog not included.
Fresh fish for sale
Pho - Ho Chi Minh City

The gang of 7 did not go to Vietnam; it was just the two of us, my partner and myself. We spent 3 nights in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon. Many of the locals still refer to the city by its previous name, and in fact you see Saigon on the names of many buildings and so on. In conversation I tend to flip back and forth between the names; Saigon actually seems more familiar to those of us of a certain age.

Again, we had a guide, driver, and van to take us around to various sites, and we also let this guide take us to restaurants and order for us. Good thing, as we would have had no clue what or how to order, and would have missed out on many delights.

Our first lunch was at a restaurant for Pho, a well-known dish associated with Vietnam. As with several of the restaurants we went to, this one was open-air; covered, but open to the outside air. And therefore hot and sticky. It was, in fact, quite hot and sticky, around 90F most of the daytime. Not the heat of the summer, but hot enough to sweat buckets continually.

Pho lunch in Saigon
One of the things we were told is not to drink tap water anywhere in south-east Asia. Always drink bottled water, or some other beverage. Our guide ordered local beer for us during our meals in Saigon. The way it is commonly served, is with a big chunk of ice in your mug, into which you pour the bottled beer. Hmmmm, was that ice made from tap water? Best not to think about that. We survived.
Saigon beer
Saigon beer
Most every meal concludes with fresh fruit, which is often served with a small dipping dish of some kind of chilis, in granulated form so that it sticks to the fruit when you lightly dip. Oddly enough the heat from the chilis, combined with the sweetness of the fruit, in a hot sticky environment, is quite refreshing. Here we have watermelon, pineapple, dragon fruit, and jack fruit.
Fresh fruit with chilis
Fresh fruit with chilis
Rats - outside Saigon

Our guide took us on an excursion out of Saigon, to see the tunnels of Cu Chi, infamously dating back to the Vietnam war era. Along the way, we encountered this setup along the side of the road, and stopped for a look. The woman has cages full of live rats for sale.

Rats!
Rats
And bowls of various things: pigeon, eels, snakes, ... no we didn't buy any.
Rats and other things
Rats and other crawlers and swimmers
Roadside vendors set up shop pretty much anywhere they want. Straddling the railing along a highway? No problem!
Roadside vendors
Roadside vendors, on a highway
Mekong Delta

One of the highlights of Vietnam/Saigon was a trip to the Mekong Delta. After our guide and driver took us to the area, we then boarded a rickety boat across to one of the islands. Over there, we had another boat ride, a small gondola-like craft. The boat "driver" oared us along a natural tropical stream, much like a gondola. Heading back the opposite direction, we could see other similar boats being driven back by motor. Oar the tourists out, motor back. Tourism at its finest. At one point on this gondola, our trusty tour guide started singing: "Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream. If you see a crocodile, don't forget to scream." Cute.

He took us to a platform with a thatched roof that you have to cross several walkways over swamp land to get to. There, we had a lunch he ordered for us, which included something called an Elephant Ear fish. It's a flat fish, which they deep-fry, then serve standing upright in wooden holders. The serving staff flakes the flesh off the fish with a fork, and puts it into a wrap that you then eat along with condiments, kind of like having Peking Duck.

Elephant Ear fish
Elephant Ear fish
But I though we'd never be heard from again

Our first night in Saigon began with a bit of an adventure.

Our guide dropped us at our hotel late afternoon so we could freshen up and relax a bit before dinner. When he picked us up later, it was already dark, and our driver took us to a place that started to look more and more forbidding. We stopped at the end of a dusty road, still in Saigon, but at the river's edge. It was dark. And hot. And steamy. And our guide started to walk out onto this rickety dock leading out into the water. The only lights around us were a string of those little tiny lights you might put up at Christmas, strung up along the length of the dock. I have rickety knees, to match the dock, and I don't swim. I wondered what I was getting into. As we approached the end of the dock out into what seemed like a mile away from shore (but of course wasn't, really), another rickety boat approached, bearing similar little lights. We clambored abord, me having to be held and guided by my partner and our guide.

We sat down, and the boat headed off into the darkness of the river.

I seriously began to question whether we might end up beaten, robbed, fed to the crocodiles, and never heard from again.

But it was all good. We docked at an island, climbed over another rickety but much shorter dock, and ended up in what turned out to be a pretty good restaurant. It was the kind of place that locals know about, and tourists would never find on their own. We ate shrimp, beef, dumplings, other things I don't remember, and fruit with chilis. And I think about 3 beers each, with those big chunks of ice being replenished, and melting, rapidly.

The meal ended with the sweetest, best, pomelo I've ever tasted. Now, we have had pomelo at home...in western Canada. A local Asian supermarket has them brought in from who knows where, and for how long it takes to get here. But the real thing, fresh picked, juicy and delicious, puts the imported ones to shame. Seriously good eats!

And finally

That's a small portion of my story. Over the span of 3 weeks we saw so much, walked so much, and ate so much, I could bore you all to tears if I haven't already.

Tonight, my partner is out of town on a business trip. I'm home alone, and I think dinner is going to be a sandwich and a beer.

Now it's your turn. What's for dinner at your place?

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