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Shanghai’s Jazz Age Returns to The Peace Hotel

Step out of your taxi on East Nanjing Road, just before it meets the Bund. You glance across the river at the bright lights of Pudong’s skyscrapers and the futuristic Pearl Tower, blinking pink against the dark sky, and gather your coat about you as the cool evening air swirls around your legs. You turn back and step through the oak and glass revolving doors of The Peace Hotel, and back in time some eighty years. It’s Shanghai, 1933. Look up at the golden glass art deco atrium as you walk towards the Orchid Lounge. To your left, a pair of heavy, dark wooden doors are where you’re headed, although they have no sign or title, no window to give some clue of what lies beyond them. No sound even, escapes from the room within, but as the hostess swings one open, you hear the sound of jazz, pure and simple. 
You walk in, your eyes adjusting to the dim light of the dark wood panelled bar. The famous Peace Hotel Jazz Band is seated and playing ‘The Very Thought Of You’, as couples, elegantly dressed, dance on the parquet floor. Some of the band played together at The Peace Hotel in the good old days, before the Cultural Revolution put a pause in their playlist. What stories they would have to tell! Or perhaps they see it as having come full-circle – Shanghai is again in its heyday, and they, once again, are playing old standards like Night and Day, and That Old Devil Called Love, as the audience sip gin and tonics and smoke cigars.

The Fairmont Peace Hotel Jazz Bar
20 Nanjing East Rd, near the Bund
Ph +86 21 6321 6888
The Jazz Band play nightly from 7.30 – 10.15pm, followed at 10.30pm by Theo Croker.
Reservations suggested. 100 rmb minimum order applies.

Xi’an Street Food – A Glutton’s Journey

OK I admit it, I ate every single item featured on this page, and it’s a very long page. If you hate street food, give up now and go make yourself a piece of pritikin toast. If you love it, read on and be prepared to feel very, very hungry by the end. All of this incredible food comes from Xi’an‘s fabled Muslim Quarter, home to a sizeable population of Hui Chinese muslims. To find it, just head north from the Drum Tower in the old city, and follow your nose down the small streets and alleys. The diversity of street food here is unparallelled to anything I’ve seen before in China, although I’ve since been told that Chengdu, in Sichuan province, is just as exciting in the street food department. Add that to the list of places to visit.

We ate dinner in the Muslim Quarter one night, and headed straight back for lunch the next day, and honestly, I could happily eat here every night for a year. Subsequently, as we sprinted through the crowded train station the following day to catch our train back to Shanghai (and almost missed it by a whisker), I was greatly consoled by the thought of two more meals in Xi’an if we had to stay another night……..

In addition to all the tiny hole-in-the-wall restaurants, there are also dozens of shops heaving with autumn’s splendid bounty – baskets of huge round Shaanxi walnuts, trays of dried persimmons, boxes of tamarind, baskets of red and black dates, and mountains of fresh local pomegranates. Like a squirrel I darted here and there, stocking up on things to take back to Shanghai and try later.

I have tried and mostly failed to give you the names of everything, in English and Chinese. Any Xi’an natives out there who can help out? I apologise for any errors and will try to rectify them as more information comes to hand.

Chao Liang Fen 炒凉粉 Stir Fried Bean Jelly. We started with a meal of this gelatinous mixture, scooped into our bowls from a gigantic steaming griddle. Fried flatbreads stuffed with a mildly spiced lamb mixture were offered alongside. The crispness of the flatbreads was a great contrast to the soft cubes of bean starch, gently fried with a fragrant and heavy mutton stock, bean sprouts and chili. 

Spiced peanuts, and toasted and spiced crisp broadbeans. The peanuts pack some kind of punch, roasted with chopped dried chillies. The fiery heat means you can eat only a few at a time, probably a good thing when there is so much else on offer…..

Feng Mi Liang Gao 蜂蜜凉糕 Honey Cold Glutinous Rice. The photos here don’t do this justice, and nor does the description, because it really is truly delicious – a slab of glutinous rice is spread with a dark sweet sauce made from dates and black sesame seeds, folded in half, and then ground nuts and white sesame seeds are pressed into the surface. It’s cut into small diamond shapes which you eat daintily with a toothpick. Cool and sweet. We wolfed down two boxes in no time at all.

Yang Rou Chuan 羊肉串 Spiced Lamb Kebabs. Available at every corner, these little lamb beauties are marinated with a dry spice mixture of cumin, chili, pepper and garlic and grilled over charcoal. The easiest way to eat them is with a flatbread, seen warming here next to the grill.

Grilled quail eggs, served five in a row on a stick, and brushed with sesame paste. Impossibly delicious.

Shi Zi Bing 柿子饼 Persimmon Cakes. Persimmons are everywhere in Xi’an – fresh, dried, crystallized, and cooked. Lin tong ‘fire crystal’ persimmons are the most famous local kind, small and spherical, they are ‘red like fire’ and ‘clear as crystal’, and indeed they do have a translucent skin when they are totally ripe. The skin is very astringent, so the easiest way to eat them is to pull off the stalk and squeeze the sweet pulp directly into your mouth. Or, if you’re more lady-like, use a spoon to scoop out the pulp….

These persimmon cakes were a tip-off from a reader – thanks Hilary! One of the most delicious things I ate whilst in Xi’an, and possible one of the most delicious things I’ve eaten, ever. The cakes are made from a persimmon dough, wrapped around a filling (choose from one flavoured with ground walnuts, osmanthus, or rose) and then flattened and gently fried. As you bite through the crisp exterior, the sweet syrupy filling oozes out. Totally addictive, but they don’t travel well at all so I’mid-way through a (so far fruitless ) search for the recipe, before persimmon season is over. 

Xi’an Guang Tang Baozi 灌汤包子 Dumplings Stuffed With Meat and Sauce. Not a little unlike Shanghai xiaolongbao, these dumplings are filled with a meat mixed with a savoury gravy, and eaten with a vinegar dipping sauce spiked with chili and Sichuan pepper. A new favourite!

Time for something sweet – Sesame Brittle, and Peanut Brittle, sold by weight.

Steamed coconut yeast cakes. Light, airy, and not too sweet. I’ve had no luck in tracking down a Chinese name for these.

Baked flatbreads, each with its own beautiful pattern, sprinkled with sesame seeds and baked on the inside of a charcoal-fired clay-pit oven.

Jing Gao 镜糕 Steamed Glutinous Rice Lollipops. Now these are intriguing. The unsweetened glutinous rice is steamed in individual wooden molds, with three pieces of dried fruit in the centre. The vendor places three skewers into one, levers it gently out of the mold, and spreads each side with a sweet gel, for example hami melon or strawberry, then dips one side in crushed nuts, and the other in a black sesame seed and sugar mixture. The result? Sweet, crunchy outside giving way to a gooey glutinous centre. Despite evrything else I’d consumed, I finished a whole one by myself, and half of someone else’s. What a pig.

Hua Sheng Gao –Peanut Cake. Last but not least. Flaky and sweet, a little like halva, but with a delightful peanut butter richness. You’ll be pleased to know I didn’t unwrap this in the middle of the street and devour it like some greedy glutton. I waited til I got back to Shanghai for that. 

And you know what?? Despite tasting all of these dishes, I barely scratched the surface of what was on offer, and I missed some of the most famous Xi’an dishes altogether. Next time I’m going to try the famous Yang Rou Pao Mo 羊肉泡馍 – Mutton Soup With Flatbreads, and Rou Jia Mo 肉夹馍 – Spiced Shredded Mutton in Wheat Bread. Next time. If only I’d missed that train…….

Xi’an and That Whole Terracotta Warrior Business

Those terracotta warriors are unbelievably big business here in Xi’an. Some tourists do a Terracotta Warrior FiFo – you know, Fly In, see the warriors, Fly Out, usually a 24 hour warrior fling wedged between trips to Beijing and Shanghai. Well, we’ve got the whole day, and dammit, we’re gonna take a whole, full day to really see, enjoy, and soak up the history of these incredible 2200 year-old soldiers. We’ve hired a friendly driver, Andy (not his real name) to take us there and back, because it’s about an hour and a half out of town, near Lishan village. We have an explicit arrangement that he will collect us at 9.30am, take us to see the warriors and show us somewhere we can eat lunch, then bring us directly back to Xi’an by mid-afternoon.

So exactly why, no more than 30 minutes after starting out, we find ourselves at the Official Chinese Government Terracotta Warrior Factory and Shop, I’m not quite sure. Andy has perhaps been less than open with us about the nature of our journey. And his kickback. So we see the special clay, the special kiln, the talented craftsmen, and the incredible array of warriors for sale, all including shipping. Our factory guide, Linda, tells me that the warriors  make great garden ornaments, and are also snow-proof. Handy for the sub-tropics, I tell her, but she’s already moved on to the section of the factory making Tang Dynasty replica horses. 

‘Don’t buy anything!’ I hiss to our group, as I see the massively inflated prices on all the terracotta, porcelain, laquerware and stoneware (this factory makes everything).

We amuse ouselves taking photos wih the headless warriors outside, while inside, one of our party, who shall remain nameless, has just purchased a massively overpriced terracotta statue, in naive Tang style, of a famous concubine. Excellent. Andy looks very happy with us. 

By the time we get to far-off Lishan Village we have also somehow fitted in a visit to a Neolithic Village Archeologic Site and purchased several paintings in naive farmer style. I don’t quite know how our explicit arrangement came so badly unstuck, but Andy is beaming widely. 

It’s now time for lunch, and we’re still no closer to those warriors, but Andy just happens to have a friend who conveniently owns a country-style restaurant in Lishan village. Actually the food is pretty good – country style-chicken cooked with pomegranate (growing on every hillside nearby) and shredded sour stir-fried potato, and a dish of local mushrooms. Andy is a picture of conviviality, and informs me, grinning, that he will play poker with the waitresses while we see the warriors. I nearly ask if we can have a cut of the winnings but think better of it…

And so to the warriors, at last. To say they are impressive would be to massively understate their importance and grandeur. China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang of the Qin Dynasty, was a powerful controversial figure who unified China for the first time in its history, and amongst other achievements built the first Great Wall. Work started on his mausoleum when he was only thirteen years old, a depressing thought for any teenager. 

It was believed the Emperor would need everything in the afterlife that he required in real life, in terracotta replica – an 6000-strong army of foot soldiers, generals and chariots, archers and infantrymen; a battalion of administrators and officials; and entertainments including a troupe of acrobats and a garden full of rare birds and animals. Discovered by accident in 1974, there still remains a massive amount of excavation to be carried out. 
The warriors are incredible in the detail of their dress and armour, their expressions (no two alike), and in the sheer magnitude of their numbers. I loved the acrobats, bare-limbed, big-bellied and bare-chested, with rippling muscles; and also the quiet seated figure with simple clothing, holding some long-gone thing. 

We eventually find Andy, flushed with the excitement of his poker winnings, and maybe also from the effects of some bai-jiu (rice whisky), grinning like a madman near the car. He’s had a very good day, and as we roll back into Xi’an with the setting sun, he suggests we go again tomorrow, to a different tomb. 

‘Let me… you’ I say. 

Shaanxi Hand Cut Noodles- Dao Xiao Miàn 刀削麵

I have officially died and woken up in Street Food Heaven. Directly ouside our hotel near the Drum Tower is a local food street filled from one end to the other with steaming, delicious street food. 

My first meal in Xi’an is a huge, hot bowl of hand cut noodles. Now I don’t know if hand-cut noodles (dao xiao miàn – literally knife cut noodles -刀削麵) originated in Shaanxi province, where I am, or next door Shanxi province, which is totally different, but spelled almost identically. Very confusing. I do know that they are incredibly delicious and fascinating to watch as they are made.

The noodles are made and cooked to order from a slab of wheat dough, rolled into a large loaf shape then pressed firmly onto a rectangular wooden board, held just below shoulder height in the left hand. The noodle -maker stands over the steaming cauldron of boiling water and then deftly and rapidly slices thin strips of dough off the slab, with a swiftly flashing sharp knife. The noodle strips fly through the air and land with a splash-splash-splash! in the pot. Not a single one falls on the ground, the sign of a practised cook.

After cooking, the noodles are added to a rich broth, with the addition of greens, coriander, and spicy meat; or dressed simply in a rich spicy sauce. Both are delicious, and the noodles have a great chewy texture in the middle, and are ribbon-thin at the edges. About 6 yuan a bowl ($1). 

To Ancient Xi’an By Train

Last night I went to sleep in Shanghai, and woke up this morning in far-off Shaanxi province, the ancient cradle of the Chinese dynasties and the capital Xi’an. I took the Z train, rocked to sleep all the way by the lull and roll of the wheels on the tracks. This is a trip I’ve been trying to do for a year, but at last I will see Xian, the capital of Shaanxi, and the home of the famed terracotta warriors. And just as famed, the street food. I’m not sure which I’m more excited about.

I seem to be doing a lot of train travel lately, and to be honest, for this trip the pressure was on to go by air – a mere two and a half hours. But planes in China are unreliable, persistently delayed, and they pick you up and put you down without any concept of the shift in the landsape between A and B. I’m all for speed when time is short, but if I have the time, I enjoy the hours on the train, watching the slow transitions in the houses, fields and crops. I feel like this kind of rail travel may just be dying out, as the old trains are gradually repleced with faster and faster machines, and I should enjoy it as often as I can.

We left Shanghai in darkness, with the neon brightness of the city gradually thinning out then fading altogether. I had a little paper cup of red wine, sitting on the lower berth of our four bunk compartment, then climbed into my narrow upper bunk, pulled the white cotton-covered silk quilt up to my chin, and fell instantly asleep. Hours later, as the dark night lifted into early dawn, we passed through a landscape completely new to my eyes, and such a stark contrast to the lush, green rice and lotus paddies of south-east China where I have travelled before. Dry, brown, and ancient-looking, the villages here lie under cliffs of red earth, the houses either carved into the cliff-face, or hidden behind tall, red-brick walls with imposing stone gateways, opening onto sunny courtyards and humble low-set buildings. Golden yellow corn is laid out to dry on each flat roof, and the last of the dark orange persimmons are hanging on the trees.

This feels like an altogether different China, and it is, part of the mid-west Loess Plateau formed by the dust of far-off Siberia and neighbouring Mongolia, blown through millennia of duststorms and deposited here in Shaanxi. The Silk Road began here too, from this ancient and important capital, heading westward through central asia to Europe.

As I step out of Xi’an’s crowded train station, battling through the crowds and the taxi touts, I see the old city walls rising impressively in front of me. I can feel the history.

The Singing Chefs do Calisthenics

Every morning at nine o’clock sharp, the chefs and head waiters of this local seafood restaurant line up on the footpath outside the front doors for their morning ritual. Aprons are smoothed and re-tied, hair is neatly combed, and toques are straightened. First, a serious talking-to by the head chef, urging the staff to recognise their shortcomings, do their best, and correct their mistakes. Criticism is a form of camaraderie in China. 
This is followed by some calisthenics to music (mostly standing still and waving arms in different directions), and then finally a heartfelt rendition of the restaurant song. The head chef takes his chances amongst the traffic to ignite everyone’s enthusiasm for a frantic day ahead of fish-gutting and deep-frying. The whole thing takes about fifteen minutes, everyone applauds themselves, then off to work.

Melbourne Cup: It’s All About The Hats, Really

I did try writing this post last night, but let’s just say that when I woke up with the keyboard pressed into my forehead, I realised that Melbourne Cup had gotten the better of me, and I took off my feathered hat and went to bed. It was 6.30pm

Melbourne Cup, ‘the race that stops a nation’, is Australia’s most famous horse race, held every year on the first Tuesday in November at Flemington Race Track in Melbourne, and celebrated in small pubs, big hotels, schools, factories and workplaces all around Australia, and at expat events all over the world. There are three things every Australian associates with the Cup – hats, booze, and betting. Oh….and an unofficial day off work, for the party. The fact there are horses involved is purely co-incidental.

A typical Melbourne Cup Day at home starts with with an early trip to the TAB to place bets on your favourites – whatever your views on gambling, it’s considered practically un-Australian not to have a flutter on Cup day, and even schoolkids run their own playground sweepstakes. Then race home to put on a fabulous outfit, topped always with a hat. You have to wear a hat to Melbourne Cup, and the bigger, featherier and crazier the better.

Lunch, champagne compulsory, comes next. By the time you’re feeling a bit sozzled, there is a small break in the drinking while the race starts. All three minutes of thundering horseflesh, pounding hoofs, and rainbow silks. It’s quite emotional. Then the drinking resumes. By four in the afternoon the whole thing is beginning to unravel, and it’s time to go home.

In Shanghai, thanks to the Australian Chamber of Commerce and the Australian Women’s Group, the festival atmosphere is in full swing, with champagne (LOTS of champagne, or should I say, Australian sparkling wine), Fashions on the Field (for best-dressed) and a hat parade. Really, it’s all about the hats and everyone goes round the room admiring each other’s fabulous creationsBecause of the time difference, however, it is necessary to start the drinking at 10am in order to be primed for the race at midday. Now you can see why the keyboard was stuck to my forehead at 6.30pm. Thank god it’s only once a year.

First, Wrap Your Horse in Tissue…..

Just when I thought I may have been getting complacent about living in Shanghai, along comes a horse on the back of a bicycle to snap me out of it.
Can you imagine the conversation at the horse shop?
‘I’ll take that large fake Tang dynasty terracotta horse thanks. But I don’t think I can manage it on the subway. Do you deliver?’
“Of course! I’ll have the guys wrap it in tissue and bring it across Shanghai on the back of a tricycle. That OK?”
“Yeah, great! Thanks!”
Note to self: In Shanghai, nothing is impossible.