Some Like it Hot

And some like it really hot. For those of you who are in that category, there’s a new noodle restaurant in Beijing that claims to have the spiciest bowl of noodles in the world.


From The Wall Street Journal:

Within China, there’s an age-old argument over which province has the spiciest food. There’s an old saying that “Guizhou people like spiciness, Sichuan people don’t fear spiciness, and Hunan people fear there is no spiciness.”

Fu Niu Tang, a recently opened beef noodle restaurant in Beijing, is trying to take the spicy crown for Hunan. It claims to have the world’s spiciest rice noodles and is challenging patrons to finish a bowl of the signature dish in 10 minutes. Those who can finish the task are awarded with a T-shirt and a card that entitles them to a permanent 10% discount.

The restaurant says the hot sauce for its rice noodles is 125 times hotter than Tabasco sauce.

The Wall Street Journal visited the noodle shop and filmed one of only 15 who have eaten an entire bowl of the flaming noodles in under ten minutes. Enjoy:

(if you receive this post by email and cannot see the video, click here.)

One thing is certain; the next time I’m in Beijing, I’m going to check this place out.



Image source: The Wall Street Journal 

The Salad Towers of Asia

Raise your hand if you’ve been to a Pizza Hut in Asia. If so, then you have no doubt been witness to the amazing skill of many Asian diners (particularly in China) in getting their money’s worth out of that one trip to the salad bar. Half the fun of going to a Pizza Hut used to be watching salad builders work their magic to produce things like this:



These photos are from the website Kataku, which recently published an article about these so-called “salad towers,” noting how they have led to the demise of salad bars in Pizza Huts in China. When you order a salad now, they just bring a small salad to your table.

Can you blame them?

And now for some extra fun, here’s a video clip of one being built (email readers, go here to view):

Image source:


Lusting After Ice Cream?

In honor of the fact that today is National Ice Cream Day (who knew?), here are some photos of an ice cream vending machine I spotted in Germany last week.

I particularly like the question on the machine, which a German guy standing next to me said could be roughly translated as “Do you really want some ice cream?” He said the German word “lust” has a much broader scope of usage than it does in English.


Here’s how the thing works: After you put your money in and make your selection, the lid of the freezer inside the machine opens up. The contraption dangling above the freezer positions itself above your selection, then slowly lowers itself to the item. The suction thing-a-ma-bob on the end of it grabs the ice cream bar and slowly lifts it out of the freezer and drops it into the door area, whereupon you take and eat.

ice cream2

Those clever Germans!


Yesterday some friends invited me for lunch at noodle restaurant. Since my friends were related to the owners of the restaurant, she let me into the tiny room where the master noodle maker was working his magic.

He took a lump of dough and rolled it into a super thin slab about 3 feet in diameter. This video clip picks up at the point where he is folding the dough into a dozen or so layers to cut it.

Were I to do this, I would have no fingers left. (note to readers receiving this post by email: if the video player does not display, click here to watch the clip on YouTube)

And this is what the finished product looked like:


They were as delicious as they look! And I was once again reminded that Beijing has some of the best food in the world!


Duck Number 100560

Earlier this week I gave a lecture at a training program for middle school English teachers from Guangzhou. They held the closing ceremonies for the program this noon at the Quan Ju De Beijing Roast Duck Restaurant, and I was invited.

For most of the participants, this was their first trip to Beijing, so their first chance to eat authentic Beijing roast duck. And not just any roast duck at any old restaurant, but roast duck from Quan Ju De, “the most famous restaurant under heaven.”

At the end of the meal, the waiters gave each of us a certificate — proof we could take back to our families and friends that we had, indeed, eaten at Quan Ju De.

Not only that, the certificate identified by number exactly which duck we had eaten. Number 100560.

I’m normally not a fan of this restaurant because I think they are way overpriced (you pay for the name), but I have to admit that Duck 100560 was one of the tastiest ducks I’ve ever eaten.

And now I’ve even got the certificate to prove it!!!

The Best Chinese Restaurants?

chinese restaurants

If you have ever done a road trip across the US, or even in one particular region of the country, you will no doubt have noticed that, no matter how small or remote a town may be, it will always have a Chinese restaurant. This seems to be true, whether you are in a village in the wilderness of Maine or a one-horse town in Nebraska.

Many years ago I took a road trip from Minnesota to Yellowstone National Park with some Singaporean friends. After a couple of days on the road, eating burgers and sandwiches, by the time we reached Cody, Wyoming, they were in serious need of rice. I thought the chances of finding a Chinese restaurant in Cody were small, but lo-and-behold, there was one.  My friends were thrilled, even if the food wasn’t that great.

The Asia Society blog recently published a post titled The Best Chinese Restaurants in America: Are they all in California?, by David Chan. He writes…

Ranking the 10 best Chinese restaurants in the United States is fairly easy for me. It’s something I’ve often thought about, though I have never put pen to paper. However, I feel as though I must provide an explanation first, since I suspect the result is not what you might expect.

As you see, all 10 of the restaurants I listed are in California, most of them are in the Los Angeles area, and most of them serve Hong Kong style food. That might lead one to believe that I am biased towards restaurants in the city that I live that serve a particular cuisine.

Obviously no Panda Express or Leann Chin.

But it did get me wondering which Chinese restaurants in the Twin Cities would be on a “best” list?

My personal favorite is Hong Kong Noodles, in the Stadium Village area near the University of Minnesota. To be honest with you, it’s pretty much the only Chinese restaurant I will go to when I am in town. It’s small and crowded and noisy (which makes it very authentic), and they’ve got great Hong Kong style dishes that are actually difficult for me to find in Beijing.

So, what’s your favorite Chinese restaurant?

(image source:

Sipping Tea from a Magazine

This is for all my tea-drinking friends out there. The March edition of the China Heritage Quarterly, one of my favorite online sources for all things Chinese is completely devoted to a subject that is near and dear to pretty much every Chinese heart — TEA!

I realize this may seem strange, but even after almost thirty years here I’m still not a huge tea-drinker. It’s not that I don’t like tea — I do. It’s just not a drink I tend to go out of my way to have.  If it’s served I’m happy enough to drink it, but I’m not likely to make myself a “cuppa” (as the Brits say) at home or carry it around with me in a thermos. Iced tea is fine, so long as it does NOT have either lemon or sugar in it.

I grew up in Pakistan where we drank a lot of “chai”—a brew of tea, milk, and sugar, all boiled together.  I chuckle whenever I walk into a coffee shop or cafe that takes itself a bit too seriously and see that they are selling ‘chai’ as a trendy drink. Chai? Trendy?  Give me a break. Chai is best drunk by pouring some onto a saucer and drinking from the saucer.  Try doing that in Starbucks someday and see what happens!

The only times I consume large quantities of tea here are when I hang out at my friend’s tea house and drink Pu’er tea all afternoon.  We have to drink seven rounds as part of the ceremony….and THEN the serious drinking begins.  If I have a group of visitors in tow (which is usually the case) I have to translate her 30 minute tea ceremony, which includes a half dozen poems.  Since there’s no way I can translate a poem, I just toss in the phrase “she just recited a poem about how wonderful tea is.” Works every time!

Which brings us back to the China Heritage Quarterly. If I can steep myself in this issue, I’m sure I’ll be a better translator of the tea ceremony the next time I take a group to the tea house.

Here is an excerpt from the introduction to this month’s issue:

Tea and politics, teahouses and activism, gathering and gossiping, all of these things mark the life of tea in China’s largest inland empire, that of Sichuan 四川. Given the dramatic events of the first months of the Dragon Year of 2012, an ancient saying about the restive nature of what was once the Kingdom of Shu 蜀 would appear to be an appropriate place to launch our issue-length meditation on tea.

In Sichuan they call it ‘laying out the dragon formation’ 擺龍門陣. An ancient military tactic famous in China’s southwest, the ‘dragon formation’ has, over the years, became a popular expression used to describe the setting of verbal stoushes and gossip. In teahouses throughout the province, men and women have gathered over the years, often sitting on bamboo stools or reclining chairs, with small tables scattered about, tea cups and teapots mixed among clutches of locals, visitors and passers-by. Amidst the clatter and the long, slow sipping of tea, people discuss matters pertaining to ‘All-Under-Heaven’ 天下事兒. Although the Internet has become the virtual space of choice for the movement of idle chatter in recent years, it is the heritage of tea and the teahouse that bound people in conversation and conviviality in the past.

In the teahouse people would engage in idle gossip 閒談, chat 聊天, rant 侃山 and brag shamelessly 吹牛. It was, and in many places throughout China, an environment in which tall tales 大話 and arrant nonsense 廢話 can hold the day; it’s also where the chatter on the streets 道聽途說 is elaborated and circulates with the speed of a prairie fire. It is over tea too that people gather to play mah-jongg with clamorous concentration, although tea is just as much a boon companion that is suited to quieter moments of relaxed repose 閒適 and thoughtfulness 静思, as it is for conviviality and calm conversation.

Here is a taste of some of the articles that you will find in the magazine this month:

A Short History of Tea in China

The Gentle Art of Tea-Drinking

On Tea and Friendships

The Strange Tale of the Cultural Revolution Tea Industry

Sip away……



All the Tea in China

The Harmonica Club

Cultural Revolution Tea

Tea and Games






Cultural Revolution Tea

I have long been a student of Chinese history, with a particular interest in the now 62 years of The People’s Republic of China. Compared with China’s dynasties, which often lasted 300-400 years, this one is just getting going. Yet, during the relatively short time of its existence, the PRC has had more than it’s fair share of ‘turbulence.’


A particularly turbulent time was The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, which lasted from 1966 to 1976. Often referred to as ‘the ten-year chaos,’ The Cultural Revolution was a mass political movement ostensibly designed to give a new generation the experience of revolution. In fact, it was an outcome of a power struggle between Chairman Mao and the leadership of the Communist Party. For ten years, the country’s economic, social, and intellectual life came to a halt as people engaged in mass political campaigns, the schools and colleges were closed, and intellectuals were persecuted. This, of course, is a very brief, and general, description of the era, but it will suffice for this blog post.


Today, when one thinks of The Cultural Revolution, images that come to mind are Red Guards, socialist operas, and propaganda posters.  We don’t generally think of tea.


That changed for me a month ago when I was at a teahouse in Beijing run by a close friend of mine. It’s a great place to hang out on Sunday afternoons, chatting with Ms. M and her two nieces who help her in the shop. Since she is from Yunnan Province, her specialty is Pu’er Tea, so whenever I am there, that’s pretty much what we drink.


Pu’er tea is one of the only teas which, like wine, improves in taste and value with age. Whenever she makes a pot of tea she is careful to tell me what year it was harvested in. The older the better. And when she gives me a “cake” or “ball” of tea (dried, in patties or small balls), she tells me to throw it in a closet and forget about it for 5 years, something I rarely do.


Anyway, last month a colleague from the US was in town, so I decided to take him to the teahouse. He’s been in Beijing dozens of times and wanted to do something different. She was particularly excited to see me that day because she had a new tea (well, it was actually really old) she wanted me to try. “What’s it called?” I asked her. “Its’ Cultural Revolution Tea.”


Come again??


What she was making for us was a pot of tea from a “Cultural Revolution Brick” (the shape/form of the dried tea). She told us that it was a brick of tea dating back to the late 1970’s, and was a collector’s item — very expensive. She was serving it this day to teach her teahouse assistants about it.


Graciously she shared it with us, and I will say that it was one of the best cups of tea I’ve ever had.



Oh, and yes, it is available in the US….from Amazon….where else?