Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Progress Update (Two Years Later)

It was in January of 2013 that I last gave the world a progress report on my book. Much has happened in my life and in the world at large in the year that has elapsed between then and now, and that includes a certain amount of writing. Today seems like a good day to give a new update on how things are coming along.

Due to certain obstacles and non-writing commitments (some of which were highlighted in the writing update from last January), there were about 8 months in 2013 in which I didn't write a single word of the book. In an effort to subdue the forces conspiring against the completion my book, I made a point of planning my end-of-the-year schedule so that those obstacles and commitments largely vanished after the beginning of October, leaving me several months to focus on writing. That planning paid off: as of yesterday, I can officially say that I have finished writing the bulk of the book!

So what does that mean? It means that I've written up short reviews for each of the hundreds of street foods I ate in China. For every single food, this entailed deciphering handwritten Chinese characters in my notebook, researching the dish to learn its history and ingredients and to be sure it actually originated where I am telling people it originated (often needing to pore through inscrutable Google translations of Chinese websites to get my information), and trying to come up with an engaging way of describing it that doesn't sound exactly the same as all the other write-ups in the book (how many ways can you say delicious, spicy, or oily?). When I was in a good writing routine, my general goal was to do this for five foods a day, a goal that fit comfortably in the middle ground between not getting enough done and not getting burnt out. This whole process was (I hope) the most time-consuming part of writing this book by far. All that remains to do now is editing, layout, a little bit of fact-checking, writing a few introductory sections, wrapping up a few other odds and ends, and publishing. I'd guess that I have less than 15% of the work remaining. I don't know how long this might take, but I am confident it won't take nearly as long as the writing I have already done. My basic estimate is about two or three solid, unhindered months of work. Unfortunately, I have some commitments coming down the pike so I don't have that kind of time available right away. Nonetheless, I hope to have this book finished and out on the market later this year.

So there you have it. That's where things stand right now. I'm pleased to have the day-to-day tedium of slogging through these write-ups behind me, and I'm looking forward to the next stage in the process. Naturally, I'll try to keep you updated as things continue to progress. Onward!

Friday, January 10, 2014

Cow Organs and Radishes

If you make a Venn diagram with two circles, one for people who like radishes and the other for people who like cow organs, you might as well label the overlapping section in the middle “people who like luó bó niú zá.”

Like so.

One of Guangzhou's signature dishes, luó bó niú zá (萝卜牛杂) is nothing more than a stew made with beef hearts, livers, spleens, stomachs, intestines, and lungs, along with some large chunks of soft, white radish. They are all boiled together in a large drum of water with a shelf near the top for organs that are finished cooking.

Like so.

As the various ingredients cook, the organ juices leech into the soup, which in turn soaks into the porous radish flesh. When you order a bowl of luó bó niú zá, the vendor will reach a ladle deep inside to scoop up some radish pieces from the bottom of the barrel, chop up some of the offal off of the offal shelf, and dump both components into a bowl with a small amount of the broth.

Like so.

The dish you end up with is a real highlight of South Chinese cuisine. The organ meat can be chewy, soft, tough, sweet, salty, rich, or savory depending on which part it is. And the tender radishes have soaked up so much of the juices that they themselves are hot and juicy, retaining just enough of the piquant flavor that you look for in a fresh radish. Even the broth is tasty, having been flavored with a vendor’s particular blend of spices. Put everything together and you get a wonderful combination that I absolutely recommend trying in Guangzhou—particularly if you find yourself in that middle point on the Venn diagram.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Dòu Zhī

Walk around Beijing for a few short hours and you are guaranteed to see the characters “老北京” (lăo Bĕijīng) emblazoned on a number of shop fronts. The phrase means “old Beijing,” and it is ubiquitous in the city. In most cases it is meant as a signal to tourists that you can buy traditional Beijing foods or crafts or whatever at that establishment—an enticement of authenticity. Unfortunately, however, four times out of five it’s little more than a cheap marketing ploy. It’s the Beijing equivalent of U.S. manufacturers plastering the word “artisanal” onto a wholesome looking package to attract the eyes of well-meaning consumers susceptible to sneaking advertising tactics. In a sea of pseudo-lăo Bĕijīng products, it is always a pleasant surprise to come across something that truly deserves the title. One such example is dòu zhī (豆汁), a food with a long history in the city, a large and devoted following among elderly Beijingers, and a notoriously hard-to-acquire taste.

So what is it? A sour, fermented milk made of mung beans. More specifically, it is a by-product resulting from the preparation of cellophane noodles. Frankly speaking, dòu zhī does not come across as particularly appetizing. It looks like dirty, gray dishwater and smells like eggs and fetid gym socks. The taste is a combination of the two. It is thin and starchy, sour with a subtle beany aftertaste. Many locals say it must be eaten on at least three separate occasions before you can start to enjoy the flavor—after that, it is supposedly quite addictive. It is almost always served with two side dishes that help cut the taste a little bit: pickled vegetables and crispy rings of fried dough called jiāo quān. Dòu zhī absolutely lives up to its reputation as an acquired taste—it’s not going to be for everyone. Nonetheless, dòu zhī is a must-try for street food aficionados passing through the city. It’s an indelible part of the city’s cultural heritage, providing cheap sustenance to locals for hundreds of years. Perhaps the best endorsement comes from an old Chinese saying, which goes: “没有喝过豆汁儿,不算到过北京.” That roughly translates to “you haven’t been to Beijing unless you have tasted dòu zhī.” What more needs to be said?