My Super Fancy Dinner Party

Sorry for the super late post! I’ve been busy doing so many fun and exciting things, like going to a taping of The Daily Show, seeing Batman, and going to the beach!

Anyway last weekend I had a Super Fancy Dinner Party. With paper plates because I had five people over and only four plates. I went to this super fancy grocery store, Eataly, right around the corner from my apartment, and got all sorts of great, overpriced ingredients.

Fresh pasta…

Ripe eggplants…

And I made…

Eggplant Parmesan
Serves 6. Original recipe here.

Ingredients
2 medium eggplants, sliced about a half inch thick
2 eggs, beaten
breadcrumbs seasoned with basil and oregano
2 bottles tomato sauce
~1/2 C grated parmigiano reggiano
~8 oz shredded mozzarella

Instructions
1.
Preheat oven to 350F.
2. Dip each side of the eggplant slices in the eggs, then coat thoroughly in breadcrumbs. Bake for 5 minutes on each side. (You may have to do this in several batches – don’t stack slices on top of each other!)
3. Spread tomato sauce on the bottom of a 9×13 pan. Place down a layer of eggplant slices, and sprinkle with both cheeses. Add another layer of sauce, eggplant, and cheese, continuing until you’ve used all the eggplant. Top the final layer with sauce and cheese.
4. Bake for 35 minutes. Serve on top of pasta.

Now, if you know me at all, you know I couldn’t stop there. Obviously I made dessert.

How delicious do those look? I recently got a super cool mini cheesecake pan from Norpro, which I’ve been dying to use. It’s funny – I think a lot of people think cheesecake is really difficult to make, but these were so easy. The only thing is you really can’t do it without a mixer – you’ll never smooth out all the chunks.

Mini Lemon Cheesecakes
Makes 12. Adapted from here.

Ingredients
for the crust
7 honey graham crackers
3 Tbsp butter, melted
1 Tbsp sugar
for the filling
16 oz low fat cream cheese
2 eggs
1/2 C sugar
3/4 tsp vanilla
1 Tbsp lemon juice

Instructions
1. 
Preheat oven to 350F. Grease cheesecake pan.
2. Crush graham crackers, either by hand or in a food processor. Mix with butter and sugar.
3. Divide crust between wells of pan (about 1.5 Tbsp each). Press down evenly in each well – I used a shot glass to help since it’s a little hard with your fingers.
4. Bake crusts for 10 min. While they cool, begin the filling.
5. Thoroughly mix cream cheese, eggs, sugar, vanilla, and lemon juice, using either an electric mixer or a food processor.
6. Fill each well about to the top and bake for 15 minutes.
7. Remove from oven and let cool. Then remove cakes from pan and chill in the fridge for at least an hour.
8. Garnish with berries and dark chocolate to serve.

Danshui? Tamsui?

I am in America! It’s kind of weird being back, especially with how much happened since my exams ended, but I’m adjusting. Since my last post, I went to Taiwan, Thailand, back to mainland China, and finally came home. I’ll put it all into separate posts so I don’t completely overwhelm you (or me).

So. Taiwan. I went alone, very much against my mother’s wishes. Just stayed within Taipei. Six days of nonstop temples, shopping, and eating. For the most part, it was absolutely awesome. Traveling alone is amazing – you get to do whatever you want! No waiting for anyone else or worrying about what they want to do. You just go. If you want to get up early, you do it. If your alarm goes off and you don’t want to get up, you don’t. If you want to spend an extra half hour somewhere, go for it. You never feel bad about taking a long time messing with your camera because you want to get the perfect shot.

There were a couple of things I didn’t like about Taipei though. For one, I was super stoked to speak Chinese. I thought it would be six days without English for me. Not the case. See, in Beijing, when people would speak to me, if I didn’t understand they would slow down and repeat themselves. In Taipei, they just switched to English. Another thing was spelling inconsistencies. Going from Chinese characters to English letters can be complicated sometimes because there are two systems for doing it, but as long as you pick one and stick with it, you’re fine. Taipei needs to make up its mind. Is it Taipei or Taibei? Danshui or Tamsui? Beitou or Peitou? The names of the subway stations aren’t even consistent on the maps! Maps suck too. At subway stations and tourist areas there are maps of the neighborhood, which can be helpful, except up is never north. Up isn’t even usually the direction you’re facing. Up is wherever the mapmaker felt like putting it.

I stayed in Ximending 西門町, a cute commercial area on the western side of town. I pretty much tore this place apart shopping. It’s never ending, block after block of cheap clothes, shoes, and accessories.

I visited so many temples. Longshan, Baoan, Xingtian, Guandu, and plenty of others I can’t remember the names of. A few I didn’t even plan to go to, I just happened to walk by. Considering I am so completely not religious at all, I really love temples. It’s the smell of incense, the beautiful architecture, and just the sense of quiet you get when you walk in.

Gardens, too. It was a little rainy when I was there, but I still went to my fair share of parks. That photo is from the gardens at the Shilin Official Residence, where Chiang Kai-shek used to live. It’s got this huge rose garden, too. I also went to the botanical gardens, 2-28 Peace Park, and attempted hiking in Yangmingshan National Park until the rain made me quit. So many historical buildings in the city, too, like the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall, the Grand Hotel, and, of course, Taipei 101, the second tallest building in the world.

I also went to the Danshui/Tamsui district, which is a fishing village north of Taipei. I got to walk along the water and visit their morning market, which was very cool. For the most part, markets in Taipei aren’t super touristy – sure, their are tourists, but not a lot of souvenir crap for sale. This market, though, was by far the most real I’ve ever been to. Stalls selling fresh produce, bread, meat, tea, plants, you name it. Almost everyone selling food gives out samples, so all you have to do is walk through it a couple of times and you’ve had your fill of dried fruit and cookies. One stall was even giving out tangyuan 湯圓, one of my favorite Chinese desserts.

One of the coolest things I did was bathe in the hot springs up in Beitou, north of the city. There are a bunch of resort spas where you pay a ton of money for your own private tub, but I chose instead to go to the public outdoor baths. It’s less than US$1 to get in, and it’s where all the locals go. You’re not supposed to take pictures, but I was able to sneak one. Each pool is a different temperature, most of them being hot but one is ice cold. You’re supposed to go to the coolest hot one, then into the cold, then to the next hottest, back into the cold, and so on, to “balance” your body. I couldn’t handle the hottest one though – it was about 120 degrees!!

You have to wear a swimsuit, thank goodness, because I was one of only a few people there younger than 60. All the old men wear Speedos, and all the old women wear the kind of one piece swimsuits with an attached skirt that goes down to their knees. I was feeling a little uncomfortable in my bikini, especially with all of my tattoos and whatnot, but then an obvious tourist walked in and took off his shirt. His chest, arms, and shoulders had Chinese characters scattered on them, so all attention was immediately diverted to him. His tattoos did not make sense. I didn’t know all of the characters, but a lot of it was just random words.

Besides that, basically all I did was eat. Begin the food porn. In six days, I ate in restaurants only twice – street food all day, everyday. The restaurants I did go to, though, were vegetarian buffets. It’s not really a buffet because you pay by the weight of your tray, but whatever. They’re a big deal in Taipei, which made me extremely happy. So many veggies! So much tofu! Happy Alyssa!

Other than that, night markets. In five nights, I went to seven night markets. For the most part, especially in the big ones like Shilin and Shida, the shopping is just regular stores. What makes the change between regular shopping area to night market is all the food carts that come out, selling the most amazing food you’ve ever laid eyes on. Actually, right near the Shilin market is the Shilin food court. Stall after stall of noodles, seafood, these yummy egg pancake things, fresh fruit juice, milk tea, and fried chicken. Taipei loves fried chicken. Actually, out of all the stalls, only one had a line – over 50 people waiting in line for fried chicken. I decided to see what it was all about, which was a very good decision. It was just regular fried chicken until they sprinkled some sort of spice on it. Just the right amount of heat and extra flavor. Amazing.

At Shida, I saw another big crowd around a food stall. Pro tip: if you see a huge line of locals waiting in line for food, get in that line. When you get to the front of the line, they hand you a basket which you fill with noodles, fresh veggies, tofu, meatballs, whatever. You pay for whatever is in the basket, then they cook it all and you choose your sauce. I’m not sure what I chose since I didn’t understand the Chinese and ended up just pointing at one, but it was delicious. Super cheap, too.

Besides that is the night market snacks. So many carts selling fresh cut fruit; when you walk by the hand you little pieces of strawberry or mango on toothpicks hoping you’ll buy some. I ended up getting a guava one of the nights. At the Raohe market, I saw a cart selling fried crab for NT$180, or about US$6. I thought that was a little expensive for a little crab since most of my meals were around $150 max, but it looked good, so I decided to go for it. Next thing I know, the lady hands me a paper bag filled with no less than four crabs inside. I stood on the sidewalk for at least a half hour, crab all over my face and hands. That’s how you know you’re living your life right.

The desserts are great too. I had waffles with strawberry ice cream and raspberry compote one night (top left), and almost every market had these little pancake things (bottom right). Only NT$10 a piece, and they’re filled with red bean or custard. At the Jingmei market I had some fantastic shave ice. They had a huge spread of all sorts of different things: red beans, tangyuan, mochi, sweet potato, jellies, and some things I’ve never even seen before. You fill a bowl with whatever you want, and then the shave ice goes on top with some kind of syrup. I definitely recognized the flavor of the syrup, but I couldn’t think of the name at the time. I want to say it might have been tamarind, but it was awhile ago that I ate it so I’m really not sure.

That was pretty much my time in Taipei. Eating, shopping, and taking pictures. It was a great time. I would definitely recommend traveling alone, and I would love to do it again sometime.

Scorpions Taste Like Bacon

Today was the last day of my Chinese class. For whatever reason, it ends three weeks before all the rest of my classes, so now I have five day weekends. For the oral portion of my final, I had to choose a topic and talk for two minutes – I decided to talk about my trip to Beijing! Here’s my script, in case you’re curious:

上个星期我去了北京旅行。我的朋友都不会说汉语,所以我跟北京人说了很多普通话。我们在北京玩儿得非常好!我们参观了前门,天安门,故宫,天坛,还有 颐和园 。颐和园的风景最漂亮。那儿有一个很大的湖,可以坐船。我们在金山岭长城走了四个多小时。走完以后,我们太累了!我们也去了王府井小吃街。那个地方有很多好吃的菜。我吃了冰糖葫芦,羊肉串儿,煎饼果子,还有麻团儿。这些东西都很好吃!还有,我吃蝎子了,吃得坏!我很害怕!

Of course, now I have to tell you that same story but in English, but I really don’t know where to begin. I had an amazing five days in Beijing. I was with a couple Americans and a ton of Danes, and I was the only one who knows (well, sort of knows) Chinese, so naturally I got quite a bit of practice in! Sure, I was speaking in broken sentences the whole time, but it was great to talk to real people outside of a classroom.

Our hostel was right by 前门 Qianmen, so the first day we mostly walked around there. Qianmen means “front gate,” meaning that was the southernmost gate on the wall that used to surround Beijing. A ton of places in the city end in 门 “men” because they used to be gates!

In addition to the actual gate, Qianmen has shopping (regular and market-style) and tons of food.

My first meal in Beijing! The best thing about being in restaurants was speaking Chinese to the waiter/waitress. I can’t tell you how many times I asked 您有没有英文菜单?Do you have an English menu? First thing I noticed right of the bat was that restaurants serve a lot more vegetables than the ones in Hong Kong. The one on the right was my food – chicken with peanuts, cucumbers, bell peppers, carrots, and onions. I miss veggies! The little cakes in the center are fried pumpkin with a bit of red bean inside.

Beijing street food is generally amazing, but especially in Qianmen. Everywhere you turn there’s a little counter selling all sorts of cakes, buns, fried tofu, hot dogs, and corn on the cob. One of my favorite things was 冰糖葫芦 bingtanghulu, skewers of candied haw berries. They have just haws, haws covered in sesame seeds, or haws cut in half with orange slices in the middle, and even skewers of candied strawberries, grapes, pineapple, or kiwi. I like the plain haws the best, but you have to look for ones with cuts down the middle – that means they’ve taken out the seeds, which can be pretty painful if you bite down on one accidentally. It’s a bit more expensive when you get it that way, but even then it’s only about 8元 max. The ones with seeds are a cheap as 1元.

On the second day, we got up bright and early, left the hostel around 6am for 金山岭长城, the Great Wall at Jinshanling. It’s a couple hours northeast of the city, but I’d say it’s definitely worthwhile to make the trek all the way out there rather than going to the 八达岭 Badaling section which is much closer. There’s nothing I hate more than pictures with people in them, and once you’re all the way out there it’s pretty easy to get some gorgeous shots of the wall without any tourists, whereas Badaling is super crowded. That also means it isn’t as well restored in some places, but that can be good, too. We walked for around four hours; I didn’t realize it would be so steep in some places!

It was the perfect day for the Wall. Pretty cold in the morning, but once we got walking we warmed up quite a bit, and it was the least hazy of all the days we were there. You really could see on forever, mountains behind mountains behind mountains.

After a long day, we finally made it back to the city and went to 鬼街 Guijie, Ghost Street, for dinner, near 东直门 Dongzhimen. It’s a couple blocks of all restaurants, and at night people will set up little tables where they try to sell you overpriced souvenir crap.

We were in need of some delicious 烤鸭 roast duck, so we got some of that as well as something called 杂粮包 zaliangbao. I’m not sure if it has a real English name, but Google Translate tells me that means “cereal package.” So I’ll just stick with zaliangbao.

It’s little bowls of steamed bread, with veggies and meat that you put inside! I’ve never seen or heard of anything like this before. Such an interesting change from the usual noodles and rice.

Friday we headed first to 天安门 Tian’anmen Square and 故宫 The Forbidden City, both of which were walking distance from the hostel. I couldn’t believe how crowded these places were. There were tons of tour groups – 20 or so little old Chinese ladies all wearing the same bright orange baseball cap, following some guy with a big flag and a megaphone. In the Forbidden City, you can look inside the buildings but you can’t go into most of them, and wherever there was an open spot to look people were pushing and shoving! After awhile, I just decided it wasn’t even worth it to fight my way through. The buildings themselves are already gorgeous, not to mention the gardens, so who really cares whether or not you get to see the Emperor’s favorite concubine’s dressing room?

After that, we made our way over to 西单 Xidan for some 火锅 hotpot! I had a recommendation for a place called 海底捞 Haidilao, and it was soooo delicious, and very inexpensive. They have a few locations, and apparently they’re pretty popular – you should have seen the size of the waiting area.

Then we went to 天坛 Temple of Heaven. We got there after the actual temple was closed, but it’s a huge park, so it was still nice to walk around. There were so many trees! That’s one thing Hong Kong could definitely use more of. We also did a bit of market shopping.

Finally, the thing I had been waiting for: 王府井小吃街 Wangfujing Snack Street, a little alley off of 王府井大街 Wangfujing Street that sells tons of crazy street food. There was some normal food, of course, but I was most interested in the crazy When-In-China type food. They really do eat anything and everything in China, and in Wangfujing you can get it all, usually on a stick.

From top to bottom, left to right, that’s pidgeon; sea urchin; squid tentacles; scorpions, starfish, and seahorses; lizards and more seahorses; quail eggs; 羊肉串儿 yangrou chaur (lamb kebabs); mini lobsters (who knew they came that small?). I kept pretty tame with my choices: a corn on the cob, lamb, squid, and some chicken dumplings. I did, however, do something a little crazy. I ate 蝎子 xiezi. Scorpion. A big, huge, deep-fried black one.

Gonna be honest, I screamed a little, but who wouldn’t? It really did taste like bacon though. Disgusting bacon, but bacon nonetheless. No amount of peer pressure could get me anywhere near the grasshoppers or centipedes though. Nuh uh, no way. The scorpion was immediately washed down with some delicious haw berries.

On Saturday we headed northwest of the city toward 圆明园 Yuanmingyuan (the Old Summer Palace) and 颐和园 the Summer Palace. Yuanmingyuan was the Summer Palace for the Qing dynasty emperors until it was burned down during the Second Opium War in 1860. That’s where the newer Summer Palace comes in.

Three-quarters of the park is a huge manmade lake. Really, you see this thing and you’re just blown away. Definitely the best scenery of the trip (which I said in my Chinese final! 颐和园的风景最漂亮!)

Then we made our way back to the city, stopped by the 雍和宫 Yonghegong Lama Temple, and then 798 艺术区 Art District, basically the hipster-central of Beijing. Tons of interesting art galleries, cute little boutiques, and small coffee shops. We also went to the Olympic Park, where the games were in 2008; the stadiums were beautifully lit at night. Finally, we ended the night with cocktails at 什刹海酒吧 Shichahai Bar Street in 后海 Houhai. We found a place called the Lotus Blue that had a live reggae band! In the middle of Beijing, of all places.

Finally, it was our last day in Beijing. I really wanted to make it to the Ming Tombs, but that’s a bit outside the city and I was afraid we wouldn’t make it back in time for our flight. Instead we stopped by 孔庙 Temple of Confucius and did a bit of last minute shopping at the clothing market in 三里屯 Sanlitun. And got some more street food, of course.

The one on the top left is called 麻团儿 matuar in Beijing and other parts of northern China, but I usually call it 煎堆 jiandui. It’s fried glutinous rice flour covered in sesame seeds, usually with lotus paste inside. My favorite is when it has red bean, so I was a little disappointed to bite into the lotus paste, but I kept eating and found that there was red bean INSIDE the lotus paste! The top right is a crunchy, eggy pastry. Bottom left is a chewy cake-type thing with red beans, and the bottom right is a flakey, buttery bun. Outside of Qianmen, most street food comes from the back of someone’s bicycle. They attach a box of food to the back and just hang around somewhere. People sell fruit, roasted chestnuts, and my personal favorite, baked sweet potatoes.

Outside the Confucian temple, we got stopped by these adorable guys from Beijing University. They were all holding cameras, so at first I thought they wanted pictures of us (that happens when you walk around with blonde people in China), but instead they asked if they could each have a conversation with us and film it. It was homework for an English class. It was seriously the cutest thing that’s ever happened to me! They were all obviously very nervous, and kept checking their scripts whenever they forgot what they were supposed to say.

My last meal in Beijing. It was good, nothing special, but what I really liked was the English translation on the menu: eggplant face. The word for noodle, 面 mian, has several meanings, one of which is face. I laughed so hard when I saw that!

My five days in Beijing were definitely some of the most memorable yet. Honestly, I wish I could have stayed longer! Being able to practice my Chinese with real people was so great, too. I’m really sad I won’t have time to make it to Shanghai during my stay here in Asia, but I guess that just gives me a great excuse to come back.

Hong Kong Halloween

Two weekends since my last post! I’m terrible. Sorry Mom. I’ve been way too busy being a good girl, doing homework and studying.

Last Friday I went to Shek O, on Hong Kong Island, which is pretty much the best beach in all of Hong Kong. Man, I love not having class on Fridays. Getting there isn’t even that bad, just a couple of buses.

It was such a perfect day. The sun was shining but it wasn’t too hot, there were hardly any people, the water was warm, the sand was unbelievably soft. Honestly, I could have laid right down on the sand instead of my towel and it would have been just as comfortable. Out in the water, they’ve got these huge raft things, so we swam out there and just sat for awhile. It was so relaxing! I really need to take advantage of this weather while I can and go back.

There are a few little restaurants right by where the bus lets you off, and we decided on a little Thai place called Happy Garden. I was pretty stoked, since it had been awhile since I had Thai and that’s pretty much my favorite. I got red curry, my favorite food ever, and it was aaaaamazing. Full of eggplant, green beans, bell peppers – everything I love. I was in heaven. Seriously, perfect day.

A couple weeks ago, I came across something called a hotchocspoon. My Dutch friend was all excited, because it’s made by a Dutch company; basically it’s a huge chunk of chocolate stuck on a spoon that you melt into hot milk to make the most amazing hot chocolate ever created. I made it the other night while I was studying for a (super dumb/easy) midterm…. so delicious. Apparently they make like 75 different flavors – the store where I saw it had maybe 20, but it was still a huge decision. They have regular things like milk, dark, hazelnut, but also crazy flavors like green tea, blackberry, tiramisu, and cardamom. Then they have ones with alcohol in them! It’s got a little plastic bulb of alcohol that gets released as the chocolate melts – what a cool idea! I finally settled on orange and Cointreau.

It was dark chocolate with pieces of candied orange peel, with just enough Cointreau to give it a really nice orange flavor without overpowering the richness of the chocolate. Seriously the best hot chocolate I have ever had.

On Friday, I decided to do some more solo exploring of the city. I went to Soho, which, in Hong Kong, means south of Hollywood Road. It’s a pretty trendy hipster-type area, with plenty of overpriced boutiques, but also a handful of super cool vintage stores. I didn’t end up buying anything, but there was some pretty cool stuff to look at – old suitcases, 1970’s Dior sunglasses, battered leather boots and rotary phones. I thought vintage stores in Hong Kong might be a bit different, but honestly they had pretty much the same stuff we’ve got at home.

Enter stage left: Halloween. I’ve been hearing nonstop about how Halloween is such a big deal in Hong Kong, which I wasn’t expecting. Everyone says, “They go crazy here!” “Professional costumes and makeup!” “It’s insane!!” That was only party true. Saturday night, we head over to Lan Kwai Fong, the area full of bars and clubs that’s usually all foreigners. There were plenty of locals that night, sure, but not to celebrate. They come to gawk at the crazy white people wearing costumes.

I went as Buzz Lightyear, and I felt like a celebrity. Literally, I couldn’t walk anywhere without being completely bombarded by cameras. Everyone wants a picture of you or with you. At first, it was kind of funny and cool, but after awhile it was really just annoying. They walk up to you and shove cameras in your face! The worst is the people with kids. It’s a few streets of just bars and drunk people, and parents bring their little kids and ask you to take pictures with them. Sure, they look adorable, but they should not be in Lan Kwai Fong on a Saturday night.

They trick-or-treat, but completely backwards. Little boys would come up to me, say “trick-or-treat!” and then hand me a piece of candy from their bag. I have no idea how or why that tradition got changed, but it was very strange to experience.

Sunday was a day to relax. For dinner, I tried out a place close to the dorm called King of Noodles. I will definitely be going back – it was so cheap, and they had fish cake. Not the super artificial pink kind, either, but the good stuff.

The only thing I really like about eating meat again is being able to have everything I loved as a kid. That means fish cake, cha siu bao, duck, dried squid, and siu mai. Especially siu mai. I really have a problem with that stuff, especially the fish kind you can get on the street. They are seriously the best snack. I found a place really close by that sells siu mai and all sorts of other street food until 3am… very dangerous. I will really have to limit my midnight snack intake. That stuff is too delicious.

I really can’t believe it’s almost November. I go home in exactly two months… how depressing. I want these next two months to go by so slowly, but I know they’ll fly by just like September and October did. Le sigh. I don’t want to leave.