The best travel is always when you can combine your passion with a new country and its culture. No matter what you care for, there will be others caring for the same things where you are headed. Find them!
In September I took a group of 17 wonderful ladies to Beijing. The tour was a cooperation between KinaReiser and Trine Sandberg, Norway’s most popular food blogger, so you can probably guess the theme for the trip. Cooking in Beijing! I certainly didn’t have a problem with that. Mostly because I love to eat, but also because it meant a slightly different itinerary. Less regular sightseeing, more of the real stuff.
Here are some of the things we did:
A bowl of noodles is the best Chinese comfort food, and to get them served fresh, outdoors on a beautiful autumn day with the Great Wall of China as a backdrop, that is pretty amazing. We stayed a night at The Schoolhouse at Mutianyu, and in the morning the cooking ladies showed us how this typical, Chinese dish is made. Incredible that just wheat flour, an egg, water and a pinch of salt can turn into meters of goodness. For fun you can add vegetable juice, like spinach or carrot, the colors turn out great. In a country that have survived on this staple for generations, the variety is huge of course. We watched them roll the dough flat, fold it and the cut it up in strips, making perfectly flat noodles. And then a little noodle magic; pulled noodles. The same dough with a little oil, and it can be stretched as long as your arms are! Then we ate the noodles straight from the boiling pot, mixed with an eggplant sauce, sesame oil, sesame seeds, soy sauce, pickled ginger, shredded cucumber, spring onions, tomatoes and cilantro. Oh joy!
Of course we had to do some hands on cooking, so we all piled into the spacious location of Hutong Cuisine inside the old residential area of Beijing. After an enlightened introduction to Chinese soya sauce, vinegar and cooking wine we each got our cleavers and chopping boards ready. Chinese cabbage, 5 cup duck and Gongbao jiding / Chicken with peanuts were on the menu. Cooking classes are so much fun. It gives you a welcomed break from all the passive sightseeing, where you take in one huge structure after the other. Here you are not only observing, but actively taking part in the culture. And in China, food is not only nutrition. It is history and medicine and food for your soul. Your hands get dirty, you learn a few tricks, you rub chili in your eyes by accident, you have a great time with your friends and in the end you get to eat your masterpiece.
It was fun that we got to learn how to make Gongbao jiding, as it has somehow turned into a national dish of China, served to every visitor at least twice on their trip through the country. We also got the chance to compare the homemade version the various restaurant’s and you can guess which one was the best!
If you ask me, the vegetable markets should be on every itinerary. For so many of us, grocery shopping means walking around a generic store where each pepper and cucumber are individually packed in plastic. Not so here! Visiting a Chinese vegetable market is almost senses overload. The fruit and greens are stacked high, the colors and shapes so beautiful and inspiring, I feel like going home to cook immediately. No more prefabricated food in my basket! The sellers eagerly hand out samples to taste and it is hard to resist all the wonderful fresh food. If it wasn’t for all the other stuff I always shop in Beijing, I could have filled my suitcase with pomelos alone. And it’s not only vegetables and fruit, but spices, noodles, sauces, tea and everything else you need to stock your kitchen. The meat and fish market might be a little bit too much for some, but it is part of the deal. Think about it, how often do you actually get to see all the parts of the animal? At least it is fresh!
A common question is what do Chinese eat for breakfast? So we set out to do some research, with the help from the talented people at HIAS Gourmet. At one of Beijing most famous breakfast restaurants we tasted among other things vegetable spring rolls, sesame buns filled with pulled meat, very sweet ear shaped fried dough, fluffy deep-fried dough with sugar and different soups. I think the conclusion was that we are all happy with our regular breakfast, but at least we got an answer to our question. Outside the restaurant we tried two different bings, pancakes made fresh with a fried egg, spices and fresh spring onions sold by street vendors all over Beijing. Egg McMuffin should die of shame.
While walking the narrow lanes of old Beijing with a hot bing in our hand we also passed a traditional liquor store selling baijiu. That is lethal stuff, I’m telling you. Or warning you. It does not taste good, not at 9 am or 9 pm, or even 2 am, when sometimes any alcoholic beverage can taste good. Not sure if my group finished their sample out of politeness or to kill any germs that could have sneaked in with the pancakes. I love the packaging it comes in, though, so beautiful.
What else did we do? We ate, of course. An evening we went to the night marked, and while we passed on the scorpions and spiders and star fish, we did sample some of the more regular street food. We celebrated our last meal with crispy Beijing duck. And we can’t take people to Beijing for the first time without visiting the Forbidden City and spend a morning in Temple of Heaven to watch the locals exercise. And shopping. Can’t take 17 women to Beijing without spending time at the markets and malls, either. As usual I am amazed by how much you can do in four days.
I will post more pictures from my trip on Facebook, please head over and have a look!
If you were going to Beijing, what would you love to include in your itinerary? Any hobbies or interests you would love to try in a different setting?