Saturday, July 28, 2012


Given its location, it's no surprise that seafood dominates the culinary scene in Qingdao. The seafood there is fresh and delicious, just as one would expect from a coastal city. One local highlight is a creature found all over the world's oceans, but not typically considered "food": the humble starfish (海星) (hai xing).

These little guys are dried out, leaving the top rigid and sharp, like armor. The bottom is all covered in unappetizing protrusions known as "tube feet."

So how does one eat a starfish? With sharp armor on one side and tube feet on the other, you don't want to eat the outsides. All the good stuff is safely tucked away inside this fella's legs. The easiest way to eat the starfish is first to break off one leg (with apologies to the starfish). Then, use your fingers to pry open the leg via the fissure in the middle of the tube feet. It should look roughly like this:

See that olive green mush inside the leg? There's your food. It's not particularly classy, but the thing to do now is hold that leg open and use your tongue to dig out that succulent starfish meat. If you've ever eaten river crabs in China, you'll find that the starfish tastes just like the brain area of the crab. It also tastes very similar to the sea urchins that you can find all over Qingdao.

Note that the sea urchin meat is hidden under a layer of egg custard for some reason.

If you've never had the pleasure of eating river crab or sea urchin, I guess the closest way I can approximate the taste is that starfish tastes the way a beach smells at low tide. The texture is soft, moist, and mushy. I'm probably not making it sound very appetizing. But that's how it is. It's no coincidence that sea urchin (which, again, tastes very similar) is considered an acquired taste. I'm going to guess that this is not going to be a favorite for everybody. For the seafood lovers out there, though, it's worth a try. It's a bit more expensive than a lot of street food (you will probably pay between 10 and 20 RMB for a single starfish, depending on how touristy of an area you're in). One other note: it's not clear how much the locals eat starfish on a day-to-day basis. Though it is traditionally eaten in the Qingdao area, these days it seems to be mostly for tourists. For travelers looking to have the "local experience," this might be off-putting. Which is too bad, because the starfish is a unique local treat. This might be one of those times where it's okay to jump on the touristy bandwagon and give it a go.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Couch Surfing

"Please come, my friend." So began the response to the first couch request I ever sent through Couch surfing, for the uninitiated, is a new term for a very old concept—hospitality. Through the Couch Surfing website, travelers to an unfamiliar city can find locals who are willing to meet up for coffee, show them around the city, or even offer a place to sleep. It is citizen diplomacy in its purest form.

When I was planning my trip through China, I decided to give couch surfing a try. I had heard about it before but had never been in the position to host, so I never got around to signing up.  On a whim I thought, "well, let's see if they have any couch surfers in China." It didn't take long to find out that China has an active and vibrant couch surfing community. Just to see what would happen, I sent out a request to a couch surfer in Shanghai, the first stop on my journey. Within five hours I had received a reply. The minute I received that reply, I was hooked. In the three months that I crisscrossed China, I spent 53 nights in the homes of 30 people I had never met before. I stayed with Chinese nationals, foreign expats, college students, families with children, retired people, gay, straight, men, and women. I slept on couches, floors, and beds in lavish homes and modest, spartan apartments. Every host was gloriously different and added something new to my Chinese experience.

A few highlights (leaving many out):
  • One host was the assistant artistic director at a Cirque du Soleil type show at a big casino in Macau. He was able to get me good seats for the amazing show for a much better price than I could have afforded otherwise, and then I got a backstage tour afterwards. 
  • One host's father was generous enough to gift me with an old sweater from his closet when it seemed like I was cold. I wore that sweater every day for about a month (I received it just before the coldest parts of my sojourn).
  • One host drove me to and from a different city two hours away just so we could sample some of that city's street food.
  • Several hosts (or their families) included me in big traditional Chinese dinners and made me feel very welcome.
There are many more highlights and lots of great stories; these are merely a sample.

Becoming a couch surfer is easy. Registration at the Couch Surfing website is free. Once you've signed up, you can search for other registered surfers anywhere in the world. Likewise, they will be able to find you if they search for your city. New couch surfers often express a concern for safety, which the Couch Surfing website addresses with several safety measures. First, all participants have the opportunity to become a "verified" member. Essentially, a couch surfer can use a credit card to make a small donation to the Couch Surfing organization. This allows the website to verify that a surfer is using his or her real identity on the website. The second key safety measure is a community vouching system. Only couch surfers who have been vouched for three times by other couch surfers have the ability to vouch for the people they have met and trust (the vouching began with the site's founders and the people they trusted, and spread from there). The best safety measure, of course, is that you are never under any obligation to host a person who wants to stay in your home. You can judge from the person's request and profile page (including reviews from other members) whether or not you feel comfortable hosting him or her. For more about couch surfing safely, visit

Speaking from personal experience, couch surfing is an exciting way to interact with people of different cultures. As a solo traveler, the free accommodation was nice, but the opportunity to learn about a new city from a local was priceless. My book (and this website) are 100 times richer because of the local knowledge shared with me by my hosts and their families. I joined the community on a whim. That was, perhaps, the best whim-based decision I ever made.

Note: This article previously appeared, slightly modified, in the July 2012 issue of the NCIV Network News.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Niu Nai Lao Zao

If you eat enough street food, it becomes clear that a lot of popular local foods in China are very similar to the foods in the next town over. Oh, sure, they say they are very different, but the differences are often small and occasionally indistinguishable to an outsider. Take, for example, Yang Za (羊杂) (miscellaneous sheep organs). Cities all over Northern China include this in the ranks of their traditional local street food, but really it's just variations on a theme. The Yang Za in Yinchuan tastes about the same as the Yang Za in Xi'an as the Yang Za in Lanzhou, the capital city of Western China's Gansu Province. While they all taste good, it's nice when you come across something that really is unique. Lanzhou's Niu Nai Lao Zao (牛奶醪糟) (Milk with Fermented Glutinous Rice) is just such a dish.

There it is. As I said, it really looks different than most of the foods you'll see in China. The ingredient list includes milk, eggs, fermented rice (basically like rice wine), black and brown sesame seeds, raisins, peanuts, and sugar. Individual vendors may alter the list here and there, but they should all include the milk, eggs, and rice. The ingredients are combined and cooked in an iron pot over an open flame.

Consider it like a milky soup. It's fairly thin, though the rice (very, very soft), raisins, and peanuts are there to add some texture. The taste is sweet and dominated by the milk and egg flavors, with a hint of wine present to add some kick. I have previously documented my adoration for sweet foods, so it should come as no surprise to you that this was a highlight for me in Lanzhou (a city with many contenders for the highlight reel). I am not entirely sure whether this is considered a dessert or a meal. Either way, it tastes great and offers some neat variety from the standard fare on Chinese streets. If you're in Lanzhou, don't pass this one by. It can be found in the night market for around 5 RMB.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Chinese Train Photography

As a follow-up to my post the other day about finding timetables for Chinese trains written in English, here's a bit of great Chinese train photography to drool over. 22-year-old Beijing native Wang Wei has traveled over 200,000 (!) kilometers on Chinese trains in the past seven years to capture the pictures highlighted in the article. Here's one sample to whet your whistle and get you motivated to click on that link:

Danxia Landform, Gobi Desert, South Xinjiang Province

One of the great joys of traveling by train in China is the scenery. Especially when you get away from the East Coast, which sometimes feels like one big city extending from Hong Kong all the way up to Beijing. During the train ride from Kunming to Guizhou--one of my favorite rides in all of China--I remember a great moment when we came out of a long tunnel into a gorgeous green valley with terraced mountains flanking us on all sides. As the scenery exploded into view, there was an audible gasp throughout our train car. It was literally breathtaking.

One of the great things about Mr. Wang's photography is that he treks out to the middle of nowhere and waits for the perfect shot. Many of these railways are overlooked by Western travelers (including me) because they are way off the beaten path. His photos remind me why these places are worth visiting (or just passing through).

I'd encourage you to not only look at the CNNGo story, but also Wang Wei's personal blog. Lots more great photos there. His will be a great book when it comes out.

Biang Biang Mian

In keeping with the noodle theme I've apparently been focusing on in my street food reviews lately, here's a dish notorious not so much for its taste but for its name. Specifically, the way the name is written. Biang Biang Mian is a traditional street food in Xi'an, and it uses one of the most ridiculously complex characters in the entire Chinese language. So complex that they haven't created a unicode version of it for computers--I have to use a picture.

Be glad you don't have to sign your checks with that.

Behold the character "biang!" It has 58 separate strokes, and requires most people to use mnemonic devices to remember how to write it (if they ever bother to write it at all). This is almost certainly the most complex character you will see in modern China. Several more complex characters exist, but they are archaic and virtually never seen. Biang, on the other hand, graces the signs on Xi'an store fronts selling Biang Biang Mian.

Nobody is really sure what the origin of this word is, but there are lots of fun folk etymologies floating around out there.

All right, enough about the name, the real question is how does it taste? For a food with such a ridiculously complicated name, it's actually very simple ingredient-wise.

The noodles are long and very wide (some people liken them to belts). They are served swimming in a chili-red oily soup with some mutton and chives. Like many spicy foods in China, the chili here is considered to keep you warm in the winter and cool in the summer (due to the sweat). On a scale of 1 - 10, I would say the spice is no greater than a 6 or so, so if you don't get along with spicy foods, this might work for you.

The verdict? Simple, tasty, and filling. Great for lunch or dinner on a cold winter's day in Xi'an.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Kaifeng Pulled Noodles

One well-known hometown dish that has escaped the confines of its native city is the Lanzhou Beef Noodles (兰州牛肉拉面) (Lanzhou Niu Rou La Mian). "La Mian" means "pulled wheat noodles"; the operative word there is "la." The method used to create these pulled noodles is both unique and lots of fun to watch. Starting with a block of dough, the noodleer (pardon me for the invented word) grabs the ends and swings it up and down to stretch out the dough to arms' length. He then brings the ends together, halving the length, and again grabs the ends and bounces. As the dough stretches out longer and longer, he keeps folding and bouncing until the original block of dough is one incredibly long thread of dough. The noodleer cuts off the folded ends, leaving himself with a handful of long, round noodles. Here's a neat New York Times video demonstrating the process.

The best noodleers make this whole process look remarkably easy, tempting one to try it at home, though I have been told it actually takes years of practice to get it just right. The noodles are boiled and then served in spicy, oily soup with chili and beef. Though Lanzhou is way out west in Gansu Province, you can find this special dish in small shops in virtually all Chinese cities. Almost any Chinese person you talk to will be familiar with these spicy noodles.They are truly one of the most famous dishes in China. Which is why it came as quite a surprise to me when I learned that Kaifeng, an ancient city in Henan Province, offered their own take on pulled noodles: Kaifeng La Mian. The noodles are pulled out in just the same way in Kaifeng as they are in Lanzhou. The difference lies in the way it is served.

Where the Lanzhou noodles are known for their spicy chili flavor, Kaifeng La Mian are delightfully sour. They come with a generous pile of cubed winter melon on top, and a bit of mutton for flavor. The noodles are served in soup, but they aren't swimming in it like their Lanzhou brethren. The sour chunks of melon--kind of a rarity in Chinese street food--are really a welcome experience for the taste buds. Kaifeng is renowned for incorporating a wider variety of flavors into their street food than many other Chinese city. I enjoyed my noodles immensely and came away wondering how it was that the Lanzhou La Mian had spread so thoroughly across China, but the Kaifeng La Mian--equally delicious and very different--had barely made it past the city borders. In a way it's kind of a shame (to be honest, I liked the Kaifeng noodles better), but on the other hand, it can serve as a nice reward to the people that make their way off the beaten path and into Kaifeng. It's a small but lovely city that is well worth a visit. Especially for street food lovers.

Kaifeng La Mian shouldn't cost more than 5 or 10 RMB and are easiest to find in the fantastic night market in Kaifeng. Just look for the guys swinging noodles around like jump ropes.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Street Food Diplomacy in Pittsburgh

I recently added a new item to my admittedly very short list of things to do or see the next time I'm in Pittsburgh (most of the rest of the list can be found here. That addition? Visit the Conflict Kitchen

Photo courtesy of

The idea behind the restaurant is simply amazing and amazingly simple: serve food from countries that the United States is in conflict with to help build bridges of understanding. Every six months, the owners select a new country that is on less-than-friendly terms with the United States and develops a menu from that country. Past national cuisines include Iranian, Venezuelan, Cuban (pictured above), and Afghan. North Korean cuisine is in the development stages. 

I think this is a brilliant idea, but my favorite part is that most of the menu is based on traditional street food. Regular readers of my blog know that I believe street food to be a great way of sharing one's culture and learning about another one. Learning what locals put into their stomachs can be a gateway to learning what they put in their hearts and minds. There is no food more local than street food. 

In addition to the menu options, Conflict Kitchen also arranges speakers, Skype conversations with locals in the countries they are focused on, and performances.

I'm a believer in citizen diplomacy--the idea that a normal citizen is the best ambassador that a country can offer--and its corollary, street food diplomacy. Dialogue is the key to lasting international peace, and I'm glad to have learned about the steps the Conflict Kitchen is taking to promote that sort of dialogue about difficult issues. 

For further reading, you might look at this recent article from the Los Angeles Times. If any readers of this blog have been to Conflict Kitchen, please feel free to comment below--I'd love to hear your impressions! In the meantime, I'll look forward to trying it myself soon.

Monday, July 16, 2012

How to Research Chinese Train Timetables in English

By my count, there are three main ways people get around China: airplane, bus, and train. You could of course rent a car, hitchhike, walk, or bike, but I suspect most people stick to those three primary options. Of these choices, my favorite by far is the train. Here are my arguments to support this opinion:

  • Trains usually offer five different types of tickets (standing room only, hard seat, soft seat, hard sleeper, and soft sleeper). This variety is nice. Planes might have first class and economy, but no beds. Buses come in two varieties--seats and beds--but you're basically stuck with whichever is available on the route you want to take.
  • Trains are far cheaper than airplanes (most of the time anyway--ask around because sometimes they have insane sales on inter-city plane trips). Trains also tend to be cheaper than buses, assuming you get the hard seat tickets.
  • Trains have bathrooms on board. Buses stop every couple hours, but in between those stops you are on your own.
  • You can get up and stretch your legs on a train. If your trip is more than a couple of hours, this is a nice luxury.
For these reasons (and more), train is my preferred method of travel in China. This is not to say there aren't times where it makes sense to take a bus or a plane, usually due to constraints of time or the absence of a train station in your desired destination. 

So now that I've convinced you that you should be travelling by train, you might be asking yourself how one knows which train to take. Back in January I did a lot of searching around for English timetables with limited success, until I discovered China Travel Guide's wiki-powered train searching function. Friend, this was a lifesaver. If you enter your desired travel route into the search boxes, it will come up with the trains servicing that route, including departure times, arrival times, and cost of tickets. Let's say, for example, that you want to go from Hangzhou to Shanghai. Your search results will give you 131 different potential trains to take.

Notice a couple of things here. First, it shows you the price of hard seats and soft seats, top, middle, and bottom bunks on hard sleepers (the top bunks are always cheapest because they are considered less desirable), and top and bottom soft sleepers. This is very useful for trip planning purposes. Second, note that the train numbers and station names are active links. A click on the train number will tell you where else that train stops along the way. Click on the station name to see all of the trains that stop at that station (661 apparently come through Shanghai South every single day!).

One other nice feature of the site is this handy railway map of China. It's not 100% complete, but it does show most of the big cities and how they are connected by the major rail lines.

Map courtesy of

You can see why this website very quickly became one of my most utilized resources in China. Recall that I was travelling basically every other day to more than 50 cities, so a website that let me research train travel with this amount of detail was invaluable. I would routinely decide my plan for three or four cities in advance, and it was a huge help to be able to decide which trains I wanted before I arrived at the station to buy them.

Some of you may be asking about how trustworthy this site is. In my experience, the accuracy is pretty close to dead-on. Here and there a train would be 5 or 10 RMB more than I expected, so be prepared for that. Only twice did I ever have noticeably faulty information from the site. First, the prices to and from Haikou were a good deal more expensive than this site said they would be. I think this is probably because the prices are calculated with an equation that uses the distance traveled and the type of train (fast, slow, old, etc.). The trip to Haikou includes a short ferry ride across the South China Sea, and my unverified suspicion is that they charge a bit extra because of the ferry portion of the trip and that wasn't accounted for by the normal equation. The other time this website failed me was when I was trying to go from Erlian to Datong. The search function shows a single train, K2. What it doesn't show (and what I didn't find out until I was already freezing cold in Inner Mongolia) is that the K2 train is an international train from Ulaanbaatar that only runs once a week or so, and I didn't happen to be there that day. Those were the only two times the site didn't give me accurate information, which is a fairly good track record.

In brief, I wholeheartedly, 100% encourage you to use the China Travel Guide to plan your train travel in China. It is an excellent resource.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Old Friend Noodles

You have to love a food with a good back-story. Regardless of the story's historical veracity, it adds a fun context for a dish. The signature street food in Nanning, Guangxi—Old Friend Noodles (老友粉) (lao you fen)—happens to be a food with a fun little back-story to it. The story, as told to me by my friend Tiantian, goes something like this:
A long time ago, a man named Zhou owned a tea shop. Every day for many years an old man came to drink tea and soon became friends with Zhou. One day, the old man didn't come to the tea shop. Zhou went to the man's house and found him deathly ill. Wanting to do something for his ailing friend, Zhou went back to his tea house and whipped up a dish of rice noodles, bamboo shoots, garlic, fermented beans, chili, beef, and peppers. He ran back to the old man's house and fed him the noodle dish. Miraculously, the noodles cured the man of his illness and he lived or many more years. Zhou's dish became legendary in Nanning for its healing properties and is now a staple throughout the city.
I don't know if that story has any basis in reality or not, but I don't think that matters. It's a nice origin tale for a yummy dish. These days, the dish looks like this:

The rice noodles are long and slippery, like fettuccine. The noodles are soft when the dish is served, and they slither right down your throat with ease. As you can see here, they do tend to clump together, so you'll have to do some good old fashioned Chinese noodle slurping.

The soup base is oily and moderately spicy. To my mind, the bamboo is the most distinctive feature of this dish. The bamboo slices are a bit sour and add a firmer texture to the dish.

It's worth noting that locals do believe that the old friend noodles have some salubrious properties, possibly attributable to the spicy chili opening up your pores (although there are much spicier dishes available nearby if you're trying that theory out).

This dish shouldn't cost you more than about 10 yuan. It's available all over the city, but the best is in the fantastic night market on Zhongshan Lu. The bottom line? If you are looking for a warm, hearty meal with a neat history, this will fill the bill (and you).