Sunday, December 27, 2009

Christmas 2009

Christmas is only celebrated for one day here. I can't imagine how people can go back to work on Boxing Day, but luckily this year, B. Day fell on a Saturday. Well, maybe two days of celebration if you include the eve because most of us have Christmas dinner on the eve. Which means you can suddenly find yourself with nothing to do and no where to go on Christmas night. But lucky for us, we've been busy eating at home and at friends'. Wonderful isn't it, to just eat and talk and laugh with friends and family.

We had about 18 people over on Christmas Eve, a perfect number I think because it is more cosy and manageable than my previous Christmas dinners of 30 to 40 guests. I am beginning to change how I entertain at home. A smaller number is much more intimate and meaningful. This year, instead of a casual buffet, I did a sit down dinner and we all agreed later that it was much nicer than buffet-style. Just a little bit more effort was needed to put the tables together and arrange the sitting. It worked because my kids and Yi's friend G from Melbourne served the guests, and everything went very well because of the extra help. I found out later that Ming had thought that the leaf salad was dressed (it wasn't) and everybody was eating plain rabbit food. Otherwise, we had a great time but we forgot to make New Year's resolutions so we'll have to have another party for that. We did celebrate the best Christmas present for our family: Wey did unexpectedly well in his PMR exams. The results were released Christmas Eve morning. Now I just have to find a way to get out of the promise I made him--a trip to Japan.


We ate out in the back patio, so eat your hearts out, those having a white Christmas.


The kids made a sangria with a whole bottle of champagne...



Appetizer served by the kids became a full plate of baked crab & lobster gratin, grilled prawns & mushrooms, serrano ham and rock melon roll and the un-dressed salad.


Turkey with chestnut stuffing, a yummy Italian pumpkin dish made by G, a beet and apple salad that received high marks and scalloped potatoes with anchovies.


This was my favorite item: panettone. Panettone is the best substitute for the traditional fruit cake because it is much more healthier. This panettone turned out unbelievably good, especially with coffee. I have decided to make it my traditional Christmas food.


Of course, for our climate, I always make traditional English trifle. Everybody loved this, and I made it the next day to bring to a friend's party, and again the next day for another party. The only problem was, the whole town ran out of fresh cream on Christmas Eve! Luckily I bought 2 bottles of Australian Bulla heavy cream two days before so the first trifle was the best because the next too were made with Nestle reduced cream, which is not as good and much more expensive too. Btw, get your Bulla cream and other western foodstuff at the wholesaler, Lim Lee Seng, near Supertanker. SO much cheaper and fresher.



Thank God for G who made these choc chips and pecan shortbread cookies in lighting time. I've always disliked making cookies because I haven't got the patience but G proved to me that it's no hassle. And the cookies were delicious!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Guilin: Yangshuo at Night

The first night in Yangshuo, we watched the musical performance of Liu sanjie (3rd sister of the Liu family; in China, you are numbered by your birth order). I missed the performance 3 years ago because my day tour did not permit a stopover in Yangshuo. Liu sanjie was a legendary heroine of the Zhuang people, the tribe who lived in the hills of Guilin. Uneducated but witty and courageous, she became the spokeswoman for the poor hill tribe people against the rich landowners. My hub thinks that the whole story is communist propaganda: poor against rich, uneducated against educated, serfs against masters. You must understand that the movie, which promoted this legend, was made in the 60s, at the time of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. The whole movie was performed in songs, just like The Sound of Music and movies of that era.



I'd say the most awesome thing about the Liusanjie performance was the setting. There must've been at least two thousand of us seated on the stadium seats facing the pitch blackness of the stage. Then, at 7:30 sharp, the lights lit up and you realize that you are seated in front of the Li River, which acted as the stage! That was pretty awesome. I was overcome by the spectacular sight of the lighted mountains, ethereally beautiful and grand. The crowd broke into a spontaneous applause. Suddenly long strips of red rose horizontally along the 'stage', like waves in the river. It was totally characteristic of China's most famous movie director, Zhang Yimoe. You may remember him as the director of Red Lantern and many other award-winning movies.

Overcome by the spectacular, majestic sight of the lighted mountains, the actors in their lighted tribal costumes, the echos of the music bounding off the hills and the cold night air (about 10 C, no wind, nice night), I called my mom from my seat and told her about the show, wishing that she could be there to see it too. I was a little sad to realize that mom with her weakened legs and back may never experience the show. I also realized that one day my own kid may call me from somewhere about a wonderful place or show, but I'd be too old to experience it. Each generation experiences something different that's unavailable to the previous generation.

The show, which premiered in 2004, costs 135 Yuan/RM83/US$23 per person, including transportation and I think it is not to be missed, if you are in Yangshuo. It plays every night but tickets are always sold out even though the seating capacity is about 2500, so do get the tickets from your hotel.

The show ended an hour later and we were sent back to the town. We headed straight for the famous West Street, a street of hip cool shops and bars popular with western tourists, especially in the summer. There was so much to see--magicians, artists who can write your name on a grain of sand, pubs with Russian pole dancers dressed moderately, Chinese and western restaurants, people selling things from chi pao (cheong sams) to candied apples. We finally sat down for dinner at the entrance of the street. We wanted to try Yangshuo's famous dish, beer fish, and settled on a 60 Yuan/RM30/US$8 order. However, I was told to follow the waitress to see the fish and when I they showed me my fish, I was told that the dish would cost me 300 Yuan/RM150/US$42! This was because the 60 Yuan was for 1/2 jing, about 500 gm. I rejected the fish, to the waitress' surprise. I recalled reading about this trick: when ordering fish, remember that the price listed on the menu is for a certain weight, usually 1/2 jing although it is not printed on the menu. After the home-cooked lunch by the Li River and the pricey fish we paid for, we decided we'd try beer fish some other time.


Brinjals (long eggplant) with salted fish was great.


The best greens are found in China because, trust me, they are into organic farming. Let me tell you some other time why I wasn't eating much veg in China even though I love Chinese veg.


Yam and belly pork is another famous Guilin dish but I was disappointed that it wasn't even half as good as Hakka yam and pork.


As I have 20 guests for Christmas Eve dinner tomorrow night, I have to end here and tell you about West Street in another post. What's your Christmas dinner menu? In most parts of Asia, Christmas dinner is usually on the eve. This year I'm serving:

Apppetiser: gratin crabs & lobster in their shells with a leaf salad

Main: roasted turkey with chestnut stuffing

Sides: 1) beets, pumpkin and apples with a creamy chive dressing 2) potatoes dauphinois

Dessert: trifle, panettone (a healthy replacement for fruit cake) and 2 types of cookies (double choc chips and pecan shortbread)

I should do a soup but I'm stressed. I will have dinner parties at home on 26, 27, possibly 28th and 30th, 31st too! I hope my maid doesn't quit!

Have a very happy Christmas everyone!

Monday, December 21, 2009

Guilin: Day 3 Yangshuo

We packed all our luggage for our trip to Yangshuo because the Education Hotel wouldn't let us keep our luggage there for 2 days.

The bus fare from Guilin to Yangshuo was 18 Yuan/RM9/US$2.50 per person and the journey was about 2 hours, maybe less. On arrival at the Yangshuo bus station, we were mobbed by a bunch of women who jostled to get us to their hotels. They wouldn't leave us alone and walked down the street with us, sometimes even grabbing my arm to make me look at the photos of the hotel rooms. Finally, two blocks down, I turned to the most persistent woman and told her she was annoying. She countered by telling me not to come to Yangshuo with my attitude. But they still followed us, and we went into a hotel for refuge. The women hung around outside the hotel, waiting for us. Then Hub had a good idea: we leave the kids with the luggage in the hotel lobby, get a taxi and come back for them.

And that was how we met Xiao Jiang ("Little Say") who lived up to his name. He seldom talked unless you talked to him and even then he may not answer you.

Xiao Jiang took us to Lan Ren Tang (Lazy Men Inn), a cosy little place where we took a 3-beds room for 120 Yuan/RM60/US$17 and a 2-beds room for 80 Yuan/RM40/US$11. I had read some where that when in Yangshuo, you must stay in home-run inns and not big hotels. The hotel that we had taken refuge in had typical hotel rooms of stained carpets and furniture.

Our first stop was to experience a 'rural home-cooked lunch' in a home-run restaurant by the Li River in the countryside. Xiao Jiang had grown up around that area and knew the lady who ran the place. She was the owner, waitress and cook. Her mother (or MIL?) was her assistant, and together they also cultivated a plot of land with veggies and reared hundreds of chickens and ducks. Fish was caught from the river. We were amazed by the country setting, with the jagged hills of the river as back drop, the river running by, chickens and ducks scuttling around, home-made sausages and bacon drying in the sheds and the little dining huts by the river. However, as in most rural places in China, rubbish was everywhere and I couldn't help feeling frustrated when I compare China with Japan. Most people think Japan is more beautiful than China when in fact China is just as (or more) beautiful than Japan but the place is just not well-managed. People spit everywhere and rubbish is strewn away like confetti. China is like a beautiful girl doesn't wash her hair or brush her teeth. Beautiful from far.

A common scene this time of the year in China: home-made sausages and bacon drying in the winter wind.

Setting for our lunch was a hut over the Li River, with the sharp Guilin hills in the back.


We watched the lady pull in her nets containing 4 small gui fish from the Li River. She cleaned them live and marinaded them with salted soya beans, ginger strips, spring onions and soy sauce and placed them to steam, their tails and fins flipping.



We heard chickens clucking like mad and saw the older lady came forward with a village chicken and she proceeded to cut its throat. My kids ran away while I hung around to watch them cook.

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Steamed gui fish, very tasty.

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Village chicken eggs.

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Chinese celery stir fried with Chinese bacon (la rou), very delicious!

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Village chicken stir-fried in soy sauce, another yummy dish.

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We didn't like this dish of purplish greens, which had a flavor and taste we weren't used to.

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Village chicken mushroom soup, a little too oily for us.

Hub declared this meal the best so far and it was superb even though it was common home-cooked dishes. But I would've enjoyed it more if the place was cleaner and the huts less rickety. But still, it was quite something to eat fish from the Li River in a hut built over it. And then the bill came: 282 Yuan/RM140/US$39, which was twice as much as our dinner the first night in a good restaurant in Guilin called Northern Nation Village (no photos to show as Yi lost the memory card). That was also the most expensive meal we had for the whole trip. The little gui fishes cost 104 Yuan/RM52/US$14. We had committed one big mistake: always ask the price first. Looked like Xiao Jiang pulled a fast one on us.

About 10 to 15 minutes away from Yangshuo is The Giggling Tree, possibly the best inn to stay if you go to Yangshuo. Unfortunately we were already checked into The Lazy Men Inn but here are some shots taken at The Giggling Tree, a village house renovated and run by two Dutchmen. At 210 Yuan/RM105/US$29, The Giggling Tree is considered pricey for Yangshuo standards but it definitely looked like a good bargain to me. The inn reportedly serves the best western food in Yangshuo.


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Another great place to stay is Outside Inn (get it?) which you may see is advertised on my Goggle Banner. Only 120 Yuan/RM60/US$17 per room for this authentic farm house turned inn. It looked like Tuscany in China to me! I wanted to spend our last night here, away from the town, but was voted 4 : 1 because the others couldn't appreciate living out in the countryside. I could just imagine it: walking around the village and checking out the people cooking their dinners, waking up to sounds of farm animals and cycling around the village. But no, my kids and Hub preferred not to live in the country. Yet if they go to Tuscany, they'll willingly pay more to live in a Tuscan farm house.



The Dutch seem to like Yangshuo because, like The Giggling Tree, a handful of Dutch were lazing around the patio of Outside Inn. Under the hands of the yang ren (westerners) or gwei lo (devil people), these two inns are rustic, charming, cosy and clean. Now maybe that's just what China needs--yang ren to spruce up the places since they are doing a bad job themselves.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Guilin: Day 2 Haiyang Xiang

We took a 30-minute 4.50 Yuan/RM2.25/US$0.60 per pax bus ride from Daxu to Haiyang Xiang ("ocean village" although there's no ocean around). Haiyang is a one-street town that lines the road, with mud-brick houses behind the road. This town is famous for its gingko nuts and trees, many of which are hundreds of years old. Movies are filmed here and artists, photographers and local and foreign tourists come here in the fall to appreciate the beauty of the golden yellow leaves.


Unfortunately for us, the weekend before we arrived the fall leaves were in their utmost glory but the wind and rain came 3 days before we arrived and brought most of the leaves down. It was a bummer for me because this is the second time I missed the gingko leaves in their yellow splendor. The right time to be there is in the last week of November, I'm told.


Hub literally flagged down a local called Xiao Duan ("Little Broken"?) and he agreed to drive us around for 100 Yuan/RM50/US$14 in his borrowed 'bread car', a van. He also sent us back to Guilin, an hour's drive, for 110 Yuan/RM55/US$15.


In the gingko park a short distance away from the town.


The villagers who live in the park sold produce such as ginger, sweet potatoes, taro, peanuts, kumquats, oranges, mandarins and gingko nuts which we bought, at 5 Yuan/RM2.50/US$0.70 for 1 jing, about 500 gm. The nuts were white, unblemished, big and round while the pearly yellow flesh inside was fresh and plump, unlike the moldy shriveled ones we get in Malaysia. Instead of 5 kgs, I should've bought twice as much but the thought of carrying 10 kgs of nuts around for the duration of the holiday stopped us from doing so.


Sugarcane is a snack available everywhere in China. For 5 Yuan a long stalk, we each got a 1 foot piece to chew on. It was very sweet, full of juice and refreshing.


China's sweet potatoes are very different from the ones we get in Malaysia. They are sweet, fine-fleshed, moist and fragrant. The amethyst-purple and the orange ones are the best. When baked over a wood fire, the potatoes caramelise outside while the inside is soft. We all love them.


I read somewhere that oranges originated from China but they are wrongly regarded as a western fruit. These navel oranges were sweet, juicy and very big but maybe because they were for the Chinese market, they were hard to peel. Oranges are served in wedges in China and South East Asia, which I think is the best way to eat them. Less work and no sticky fingers.


Remember the sign in this photo because if you go to Haiyang, you must eat at this restaurant. It is on the right side of the road as you enter the town (btw, the Chinese drive on the right side of the road, like the Americans). I ate their village chicken gingko nuts soup 3 years ago, and this time I wanted to try the same soup but with duck instead of chicken because that's one of Guilin's famous dishes. The soup would take at least 20 minutes so I took off to the back lane and took some photos.




The soup was set over a gas stove to keep it (and the diners) warm. In the soup was chopped village duck, white tofu cubes, ginger, chinese nappa cabbage, something white called wei san (which had no particular flavor and had the texture of potatoes) and lots of gingko nuts. Surprisingly, the soup and the duck didn't have any ducky smell at all. The soup was light & refreshing/ching, very savory sweet and I could tell the sweetness was from the duck and not msg.

The pot of soup and bowls of rice, with leftover (Wey's portion because he just wouldn't try it), cost only 60 Yuan/RM30/US$8. Even though simple, it was one of the best meals I had on the trip.



Look who's watching us eat.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Guilin: Day 2

The correct way to see Guilin and its attractions is to visit Longji first after arriving in Guilin because Longji is north of Guilin and all the other attractions are in the south. You don't want to do the south and lug all your luggage (which will build up as you go) up to the north like we did. Longji is famous for its terraced rice fields, golden in the fall and green in summer. Two hours north of Guilin by car or bus, Longji is the one place I want to visit again some day.

Instead of going to Longji, I decided that we should go to Haiyang Xiang, a small town 1 hour's drive south of Guilin, because I wanted to catch the gingko trees in their golden splendor. Haiyang Xiang is famous for its aged gingko trees; the oldest tree we saw was 1,600 years old. Gingko trees are considered living fossils.

We hired a taxi from Guilin to Daxu, a town halfway to Haiyang Xiang, for 60 Yuan/RM30/US$8. The great thing about taxis in China is that our family of five can all sit in one car. It is only slightly more expensive to move around in a taxi than a bus but you can make stops wherever you like and there's no schedule to stick to. We made a stop for breakfast at the driver's fav Guilin mifen shop and my kids now remember the mifen as the best Guilin mifen. Unfortunately my daughter lost the memory card of the photos she took on the first 2 days and I don't have the photo of the shop to show. Nearly all shops and other buildings in Guilin don't have signs in English so it is rather hard for people who can't read Chinese.


After getting your bowl of mifen, you go to the condiments station and choose your choice of toppings. The large stainless steel pot holds the soup.


The toppings are pickled long beans, dried radish, Guilin chili sauce, fresh chopped chilies, spring onions and crispy fried soya beans which I prefer to the fried peanuts that some shops serve. Guilin mifen is very simple, humble food but it is SO delicious! The noodles are super smooth and silky even though they are made from dried noodles. I don't know why we can't find them in Malaysia because they are exactly the same thickness of assam laksa noodles, except our noodles are coarser, drier and lack the fragrance of rice.


The driver wouldn't sit down with us and ate his noodles standing up, which I found was common practice in small towns.


You can imagine how hot the stuff was. We realized after this that we had to go easy on the chili. Imagine chopped birds eyes chilies (yes, they have them in China) and Guilin chili sauce in your noodles. The driver also taught us to eat our mifen without the soup first and add soup halfway so we get to taste both dry and soupy noodles. Clever but I still prefer my noodles in soup especially on a cold day.

We stopped by the town of Daxu to visit the ancient street but for me, it was mainly to eat the best bowl of Guilin mifen which I had 3 years ago. Unfortunately, the restaurant had been renovated and I wasn't sure if the cook was the same one so we went to another shop a couple of doors away which was filled with locals. It looked dirty ("dodgy" in my kids' words; they used that word so many times in reference to so many things in China that my husband banned it). The Guilin mifen was great, a bit too oily, and I felt uneasy eating it.

For 2 Yuan/RM1/US$0.28, you can visit one of the old houses. It was so cheap Hub paid the couple double.


You enter into the hall/sitting room where pictures of Mao and Chou remind you that you are in communist China.


The husband was cooking lunch (fried greens; it looked delicious) on a firewood stove, much like the rest of rural China.



Upstairs, the wooden bed is typically set by the side of a wall, and mosquito nets drape the canopy. The bed area used to be a small silo for unmilled rice.


The house has many skylights to illuminate it, reminding me of Baba Nyonya houses. This skylight shines into the courtyard below and the 'well' allows you to see into the courtyard.


At the corner of the room, a dusty Chinese coffin made my heart jumped. The wife said this was 'investment for the future' and I politely nodded. Many older Chinese make preparations for their death, buying shoes, clothes and coffins. This coffin is made from a large tree, and it still scares me to see one because when I was little, there were a couple of casket shops in Menggatal that freaked me out when we drove by because I had never been to a funeral. Chinese coffins look extra spooky to me and I am surprised by the sombreness in this photo. However, my kids didn't find it any spookier than a log so I think it's conditioning of the mind.
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