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A Christmas Feast at Our House

In a week it will be Christmas!
I thought you might like to see how we celebrate here in subtropical Brisbane, where Christmas Day is almost always very, very hot – it has been known to hit 40C – and also what I cook when I’m not cooking Chinese food. 
Food is such an integral part of Christmas, with an early afternoon feast with close family a strongly held custom. The food itself can be entirely non-traditional, but should always be special – Australians often dispense with traditional cooked ham and turkey because of the unwelcome heat generated by the oven, and choose seafood, fish and salads instead.  
Here’s what we ate last night, for the second of three feasts with my extended family. Next week on Christmas Day I get the chance to cook an entirely different menu for my husband’s family! A cooking extravaganza I’m really looking forward to!
–★–
Cocktails
Baby pea and mint soup, served cold with crunchy prosciutto and dill
Hot-smoked rainbow trout with dill and horseradish cream, served with roast fennel, parsnips and potatoes, and a herbed bean salad
Raspberry, passionfruit and lime cheesecake ‘trifle’
Champagne and chocolates
–★–
I’m so lucky to have the abundance of a full table and so many people I love to share it with. Cheers!

Preparing a Feast

5.30am: Brine rainbow trout for 4 hours – it will make them more sweetly tender.

8am: Make passionfruit and lemon curd for the trifle

10am: Make chicken stock, then pea and mint soup. Make a hell of a mess.

12 midday: Assemble the raspberry, passionfruit and lime cheesecake trifley thing.

2pm: Set the table. Actually, get the girls to set the table. Race to the shops and buy everything I’ve forgotten.


4pm: Check status of trifle. Cold, and fully set but not looking as pretty as it did at midday. Oh well. Ensure adequate champagne supplies to compensate for this.
6pm: Frantic last-minute chopping, mixing, tidying house. Everyone arrives! Serve white rum mint and lime mojitos, very refreshing on a hot night.

6pm: Light Christmas lanterns

6.30pm: Smoke the trout using alder sawdust. Given this is my first attempt at hot-smoking I feel very excited. And also very anxious.


7pm: Get everyone seated. Pull Christmas crackers. Wear paper hats. Tell each other bad jokes from inside crackers.

7.10pm: Serve the pea and mint soup


7.30pm: Roast the potatoes, parsnips and fennel. Check trout – needs longer in the smoker.

8.30pm: Serve the trout! Success! They taste incredible.

 9.30pm: Serve Raspberry Passionfruit Lime Cheesecake Trifle Masterpiece. Enough champagne has now been consumed that no one really minds how it looks, only that it is cold, sweet and delicious.

11pm Make sparkler portraits out in the garden. No Christmas feast would be considered complete without some kind of feast-end shenanigans. Collapse into bed after midnight.

 

Merry Christmas everyone! Happy New Year for 2014 and may the year ahead bring you much happiness, joy and many adventures!

Unlocking Dianping: An English Guide to China’s Biggest Restaurant Review Site

Shanghai has around 80,000 restaurants. Eighty thousand.

How on earth do you find out what’s good? Do you rely on the tiny sliver of those 80,000 reviewed in English, reviews that tend to be very light on quality Chinese restaurants? Or is there a better way? 
And what if you’re visiting a Chinese city where you can’t find any restaurant recommendations in English? What do you do then?
You do what every Chinese person does – use Dianping, China’s largest user-driven dining review website. Those 80,000 Shanghai restaurants are just as confusing for a Chinese gourmand as for anyone else, so they turn to a site where they can read other diners’ candid opinions, eventually building an aggregate score for each restaurant based on hundreds or even thousands of reviews.
Dianping is no secret, but because it doesn’t have an English language interface many first-time users find it too daunting. 
Since I started using Dianping regularly I’ve unearthed some of the best food I’ve ever eaten in my life, in places I would never, ever have found on my own. 
I think Dianping is a great resource, so I’ve written a step-by-step screenshot guide to using it on your computer or your mobile device. 
If you have Google Chrome, use it, and if you don’t, install it. It has an auto translate feature that will help.
To make things easy, I’ll show screenshots with and without Google Chrome.
A Step-by-Step English Guide to Using Dianping

Part 1: For Desktop/laptop Users

Dianping Homepage
Searching on Dianping
  1. Choose your Location City
  2. Select Cuisine Type
  3. Narrow your Search by Locality
  4. Review on Map
  5. Review Restaurant Details

Part 2: For Mobile Device Users
  1. Install the Dianping app
  2. Choose Food/Restaurant Type
  3. Narrow the Search by Distance
  4. Narrow the Search by Cuisine Type
  5. Choose a Restaurant
  6. Review Restaurant Details
  7. Review on Map

Part 1: Desktop/Laptop Users

Dianping Homepage
Here’s Dianping‘s Home Page. 
It looks utterly confusing. It is. That’s because Dianping offers much more than food reviews – you can book hotels, plan your wedding, and buy products. 
We’re not interested in any of these, because after all, Dianping started as a restaurant review site and it’s still what they do best. It’s full name, dazhong dianping 大众点评 means ‘The People Comment’.
Here’s the page again, with two important things circled –  location and food. Ignore everything else. 

And here’s the GOOGLE CHROME ENGLISH VERSION:
Searching on Dianping
Let’s do a search – I’m going to Hangzhou, and I want to find restaurants near West Lake serving local Hangzhou cuisine.
1. Choose your Location
Click on the location box, top left, and a drop down menu appears with major cities, divided by area. 
Click on Hangzhou. 
Your page should now have ‘Hangzhou Station’ in the location box, top left. This does not mean an actual railway station, it just means ‘Hangzhou Area’.
GOOGLE CHROME ENGLISH VERSION:
In the English version, whatever city you choose will come up as a ‘Station’ and sometimes as ‘Railway Station’. Ignore the station part.
Tip: If you are in a city that’s not on the list, click on the bottom right of the cities box where it says ‘More Cities’ in blue type. You can then search alphabetically for the city or type the city/town or village name into the search box at the top of the page. You can type it in English, no problem.
2. Choose Cuisine Type
Now click ‘Food’, also top left, and you will have a drop down menu of cuisine styles. 
As a general rule, local cuisines of an area are usually first on the list of foods, followed by other Chinese regional cuisines (Sichuan, Cantonese), snacks and street foods, and foreign cuisines (Japanese, Korean, Western)
Click ‘hangbang jiangzhe cai‘ 杭帮江浙菜 which is Hangzhou’s local cuisine. 
Here’s a breakdown of the styles with translations:
The cuisine styles presented will vary somewhat with the location, so in Beijing for example, you will also have dongbei or northeastern cuisine on the list.

GOOGLE CHROME ENGLISH VERSION

Please note in the English version there are several nonsense translations. ‘Chafing dish’ is hotpot.
Click on Food
Click on Hang help/Jiangzhe – again a nonsense translation of the local cuisine
3. Narrow Your Search by Locality

My search for ‘Hangzhou Cuisine’ restaurants in Hangzhou has netted 4226 restaurants. I need to narrow it down more, and limiting the search by locality (region) will help do this.
Click on the Region/Locality tab, top left, and you will see a list of areas within Hangzhou, usually most popular first – here the first on the list is ‘West Lake’.
GOOGLE CHROME ENGLISH VERSION












4. Review on Map

Rather than scroll through 4226 restaurants, I can narrow my search further by using the map view tab, particularly if I’m not familiar with names of the localities.
Click Map view tab.
Zoom in to desired area on map.
Click on individual restaurants according to location.
I’m going to click number 13, because it’s a 4 star restaurant right on the lake’s edge.
GOOGLE CHROME ENGLISH VERSION

5. Review Restaurant Details

What comes up now is an overview of this particular restaurant, Lou Wai Lou, one of Hangzhou’s oldest and most famous.
Each restaurant overview has the following:
  • a score out of five stars
  • the number of people who have reviewed the restaurant
  • the average price per person, in CNY
  • ratings for taste, environment, and service, out of 10
  • the address and phone number
  • the most popular dishes, with photos taken by real diners. This section is vastly helpful if you don’t want to miss out on a restaurant’s specialties, but don’t know how to ask. 
I usually save this page on my iPhone or print it out so I have the address, and dishes I want to order, written in Chinese. Very, very useful.

GOOGLE CHROME ENGLISH VERSION
Sometimes the English translations of the dishes can get wildly unappetising. Fried rings?

Tips:
If you don’t mind what type of food you want, and would rather know what’s close by, start your search with the map view tab and narrow it down by zooming in on the map to your location.

The number of reviewers helps you to know how popular a restaurant is, but be open to new restaurants too.

Like any review site, there are crazies who love to complain about everything. Take what you read with a grain of salt.

Dianping can get it wrong. Restaurant ownership changes, menus change, chefs change. Chinese diners are not Western diners. They often value price above service and cleanliness in their reviews, so a restaurant can get a high rating based on taste and price. 

Use the Snacks/Street Foods 小吃快餐 choice on the cuisines menu to find good, cheap, local street food. It has to have a bricks and mortar address, so it won’t be a mobile cart, but at least you know where to find it.


Part 2: Mobile Users


1. Install the App

The great news is that Dianping has a very easy-to-use app available for iOS and Android, although again, there is no English language interface. By using your phone’s location services you can easily search for restaurants in your locality – superb for travelling.
The iPhone and iPad apps are free, through the app store.
The Android app is free.
2. Choose Food/Restaurant Type
Open the app on your phone and this home page page appears.
Click on Food/Restaurants, Snacks/Streetfood or Cafes according to your preference. Or KTV Karaoke bars. Whatever.
You will now get a list like this of all restaurants/establishments in your vicinity.

 3. Narrow the Search by Distance

If you want to narrow your search to only restaurants close to you:
Click on the 1000m tab (top left) and choose the radius from your current location: all restaurants within 500m, 1000m or more.

4. Narrow the Search by Cuisine Type 
If you still have too many choices or you want to eat a particular kind of food:
Click the Food tab on the left of the screen, and choose a cuisine type.
Tip: Cuisine choices will vary by location.
5. Choose a Restaurant
You will now have a new list using your particular search criteria.
Click on any individual restaurant to get details.
6. Review Restaurant Details
You should have now have all the details you need on this overview screen (my translations in red).
Click on the image if you want to see more photos.
Click on the ‘link to map’ icon to show the location.
7. Review on Map
The map view tab on the right of the restaurant review screen takes you to an interactive map view.
Your location is in blue.
The restaurant is in red.
Other nearby restaurants are also shown.

Tip: If you want to search only by location, return to the home screen and click the map view icon on the bottom of the screen.
You will then get a view of all restaurants in your local vicinity. Click on any green pin for details.
And that’s it. It looks complicated, but once you have located the food tab, the location tab, and the map view tab, it couldn’t be easier.

Congratulations! You’re now ready to go forth and find gourmet treasures!

 

Five Great Chinese Food Apps for Gourmet Travellers to China

“I’m travelling to China for the first time next March, and I want to know where I should eat. I love  Chinese food and street food and I want to be adventurous, but I don’t speak Chinese and I don’t know where to start. Can you offer any suggestions?”
Every week, readers send me questions like this.

So I’ve put together a list of the five apps I find most helpful when travelling in China. I use all five regularly. Without being able to speak or read a word of Chinese, with the help of these apps you’ll be able to find the best street foods and restaurants, translate menus, and order food.

Disclaimer: I have not been paid to write about any of these apps. Damn.

1. Finding a Place to Eat: Dianping

How it works: Dianping is China’s largest restaurant review site, for eaters, by eaters. It has a staggering 75 million users per month, and works much the same way as Yelp. For travellers hunting for culinary lost treasure, Dianping is like being handed the map with a great big X marks the spot. It’s just that the map is totally in Chinese.
Pros: 
  • Dianping works in every single huge metropolis and tiny backwater in China. No matter where you are, someone has already been there and written a review about the local eateries. That’s China for you.
  • You can narrow your searches to just local cuisine, or just street food/snacks, or just a particular area.
  • There is a handy map feature showing all options within a set radius from your current position, handy if you know nothing about the area where you’re staying.
  • You can use it to search for hotels.

Cons:

  • There’s no getting around this – it’s in Chinese. My next post will give you a step-by-step guide to navigating Dianping for non-Chinese speakers. Believe me, it’s absolutely worth the effort.
iPhone: Yes
Android: Yes
Cost: Free

2. Translating the Menu: Waygo
How it works: Once you’ve used Dianping to find that amazing hole-in-the-wall that only locals know about, you discover the menu is entirely, completely in Chinese. Rather than adopt the ‘point and hope’ method, use Waygo. You hover the box over the Chinese text, and hey presto, a translation appears instantly.

Pros:

  • Fast optical recognition
  • Pinyin pronunciation provided
  • Light to illuminate menus in dark restaurants – genius
  • You can freeze the screen to show the waitress
  • It’s works even with my shaky hands
  • You can actually use it for any Chinese text, although the translations are not as finessed

Cons:

  • It has trouble with coloured text – but black and white text works a dream
iPhone: Yes
Android: Yes – launches in two weeks
Cost: Free for up to ten translations/day. Unlimited translations $6.99

3. Ordering Shanghainese Food: SH Cuisine

The inimitable Gary from Full Noodle Frontity put me on to this app. I absolutely love it and I can’t wait ’til the developers bring out a Beijing version.
How it works: This is a comprehensive guide to Shanghainese restaurant food, with hundreds of dishes divided into groups like soups, noodles, and hot dishes. It is my go-to guide for all things related to Shanghai cuisine.

Pros:

  • search by type of dish, or ingredient
  • as you find dishes, add them to your virtual order
  • display your order summary and show it to your waitress
  • listen to audio in Shanghai dialect
  • handy comprehensive food allergy section
  • list of other helpful phrases

Cons:

  • It has no restaurant listings – but it will be useful for Shanghainese restaurants anywhere in the world.

iPhone: Yes

Android: No
Cost: $2.99
4. Learn Food Words: Chinese Foodie Flashcards

How it works: This is a very simple app for learning Chinese food vocabulary, but it doubles as a handy tool for buying fresh food in shops and wet markets. Can’t find the potatoes? Show the vendor the picture with accompanying text.

Pros:

  • super easy to use

Cons:

  • not comprehensive, so for hard to find foods you will still need a dictionary

iPhone: Yes

Android: No
Cost: Free

5. Make Food Beautiful: GourmetCam 食日谈

How it works: This is a photo editing app that allows you to apply filters, then text in either Chinese or English to your shots. The results look great, and although it is Chinese only, it will be completely intuitive to users who are accustomed to Instagram. Once edited with text, the photos are saved automatically to your phone.

Pros:

  • Intuitive to use
  • Simple
  • For frequent food snappers like myself, I have found the filters are superior to either Instagram or Hipstamatic

Cons:

  • It’s in Chinese, with no English interface

iPhone: Yes

Android: No
Cost: Free

And one more: Chinese Food Quiz
Now you have those five apps under your belt you’re a bona fide Chinese food expert! Test yourself with this fun Chinese food character quiz.
iPhone: Yes
Android: No
Cost: Free

Woohoo! I’m an EXPERT!!

Got any other great food apps to share? Let me know!

Chance Encounters, Shanghai

This is a warmhearted story of architecture, history, love and a chance encounter in a Shanghai stairwell.

I really hadn’t expected to be invited into Yang Mei Ying and her husband Ong Zen’s apartment at first meeting, but here I was already sitting stiffly on their sofa alongside my friend E, being fed sweet winter cumquats.

“Eat! Eat!” Yang Mei Ying urged.

There were small piles of pill packets all over the apartment, along with sheets of discount vouchers clipped from newspapers and bowls of fruit resting on the dresser and next to the television. The universal signature of the elderly – pills and fruit. 

“I’m not feeling so well today” Yang Mei Ying told us. “Some stiffness in my neck. I’m getting old!”

She was 79 years old and wore a hand-knitted vest in brightest orange over a red turtleneck and trousers. Her body was slight under her heavy woollens and she moved slowly. Her husband Ong Zen, 83, was still in his pyjamas, although it was hard to tell if they were sleeping pyjamas or Shanghai-style lounging pyjamas. They looked like sleeping pyjamas – faded striped flannel, worn with a fishing vest over the top, the kind with many pockets. 

My dear friend E had first met the couple two weeks before. E’s longstanding interest in Shanghai’s old buildings, combined with a refreshing boldness common to Americans, means she often wandered down one of Shanghai’s thousand lane ways, found an interesting old building and walked into the foyer. And sometimes, it must be said, up the stairs. And occasionally (it must also be said) into people’s homes, but only if asked. Yang Mei Ying and Ong Zen had invited her into their home after finding her exploring the stairwell of their building with her camera.

These old houses are masterpieces of architecture from the 1920s and 1930s, mansions of Shanghai’s wealthy elite. In the 1950s many were relinquished unwillingly by their owners, requisitioned by the Chinese government for mass housing. Their architectural magnificence was carved up into tiny one room apartments – single bedrooms became homes of entire families, with bedroom, living room and kitchen all in one space. Grand dining rooms suffered the addition of a privy and had their fireplaces used for cooking.

In most of these houses the original features and details have largely been lost – perhaps one or two doorways, an occasional old banister, a carved lintel, faint whispers of a grand past. Now the multiple apartments are concreted into the inside of the building, like barnacles inside a bottle, and renovated over and again, each renovation losing more and more of the original sense of the house. You have to look hard to re-imagine how they might once have looked.

When E found the house Yang Mei Ying and Ong Zen were living in she realised immediately it was that rare gem – a 1923 mansion house completely untouched since its original 1950s carve-up. Everything inside – from the ornate front doors to the inlaid mosaic tile floor, the moulded plaster ceilings, the carved wooden banisters, and the decorative wood paneling rising from the floor to head height – was completely original. It took her breath away.

The upstairs hallway floors are all original parquetry. Downstairs the carved wall panels have suffered the addition of nailed-on letterboxes.
The magnificent interior stairwell.

Not that E had apparently been the first to discover the house:

“People come here all the time. They pretend to be friendly but they just want to buy the whole building!” Yang Mei Ying said. “I don’t let them inside!”
E is incapable of pretence and thanks to her openness and big smile the couple had, in fact, led her right through their doorway. The photo portrait she took of them that day, and brought back later framed, had pride of place on top of the television. E thought I might like to meet them, so here I was, hearing their history for the first time.
They moved into the apartment after their marriage in the early 1950s. Yang Mei Ying waved to a photo of the two of them, high on a wall near the ceiling. Ong Zen was in military uniform.

“He was a soldier, yes.” Yang Mei Ying  looked over at her husband, smiling. Ong Zen was almost completely deaf so he smiled beatifically during the conversation no matter what was said, his hands resting in his lap.

Ah. The Beijing Lu Military Base was nearby, and perhaps explained why the young couple were assigned an apartment in such a grand old house, and on the top floor at that. I wondered if it made their lives easier during the troubled years, and I had to assume it had. But no one really escaped trouble in those times.

“I remember that photo,” Yang Mei Ying went on. “I didn’t have a chance to dress up for it! I was just wearing my outdoor clothes! The photographer needed someone to write for him and Ong Zen had beautiful handwriting, so he said we could have a portrait in exchange. No time to prepare!” She shook her head. “But he did have such beautiful handwriting” she said, and looked fondly over at Ong Zen.

Now they had been married more than sixty years, with two daughters and two grandchildren. They seemed so caring towards one another, and the daughters still took turn about every night after work to cook for their parents and spend the night sleeping in the apartment to keep watch over them, despite having their own families to worry about.
Yang Mei Ying’s and Ong Zen’s own bedroom had been renovated by adding a floor that divided the room into two levels. The high ceilings in these old houses meant it was possible to create a low-ceilinged upstairs and downstairs inside one room, the upstairs level usually accessed by a ladder. Their daughters – thankfully not tall – had spent their lives in twin beds directly above their parents’ double bed, and still slept there every alternating night. 

The kitchen, shared with three other apartments, was reclaimed from one of the original bathrooms, complete with original bath.

Yang Mei Ying told us their daughters had bought them a modern apartment, with an inside bathroom, a proper kitchen, and air-conditioning. Everything needed to make their lives easier, and safer. Most of the apartments in the house were now abandoned and in terrible disrepair, and the few that were inhabited seemed to have dubious occupants.
“So what makes you stay here?” I asked her, suspecting the answer would be proximity to her children and friends.

Yang Mei Ying didn’t pause for a second. “I stay for the floors” she said, sliding her slippered foot across the time-polished parquetry. “For the beautiful, beautiful floors.”

(A big, gigantic thanks to E, firstly for taking me along to meet Ong Zen and Yang Mei Ying, and also for lending me the use of her camera when I discovered I had left my battery in the battery charger at home….)

Ten Must-Try Foods in Xiamen 十大不容错过的厦门美食

Mangoes, mangosteens, melons, star fruit, star fish, abalone, mussels, oysters, whelks, cockles and lobster – Xiamen is a subtropical island in the South China Sea and its foods reflect all the bounty and diversity of the sea and the warm, languid climate.

In order to retain the natural flavour of foods the cuisine of Fujian Province places emphasis on cooking methods like braising and steaming. Soups, soupy stews and soupy noodles feature heavily and are considered an ideal way to highlight the inherent flavour of ingredients. In Xiamen, the local saying  不汤不行 bù tāng bù xíng means “It is unacceptable for a meal not to have soup” but translates literally as “No soup, no go.”

I ate very well in Xiamen, a place that once again highlights the vast regional differences in Chinese cuisine. Here are ten foods from Xiamen, far from an exhaustive list, and places where you can try them.

1. Seafood Satay Noodle Soup 沙茶面 Shacha Mian  
Arguably Xiamen’s most famous dish, sha cha main is a base of rich, creamy, nutty curry satay soup with the addition of wheat noodles and seafood and meats of the diner’s choice. 
Sha cha mian restaurants display trays of squid, shrimp, oysters, cockles, and baby octopus alongside cooked pork intestines and fat pork which you add as you wish, the final price of your soup reflecting the number of ingredients you add. The result is a heady and fragrant meal with whispers of laksa, which it most closely resembles.
353 Zhongshan Lu, Xiamen
Open 7 days
About 12 yuan ($2) per bowl
1980烧肉粽
中山路353号
2. Gold Wraps Silver 金包银 Jin Bao Yin
These street snacks have a wonderful name, a reference to the treasure within and without. They are common on Gulang Yu island, where a steamer full of the plump little buns can be found on every corner. 
The outer wrapper is made from sticky rice and arrowroot flour, soft, warm and pleasantly chewy. The inside is a rich, dark mixture of finely shredded mushrooms, bamboo shoots and pickles, sometimes with a little meat added.
Try at: Gulang Yu street stalls
4 yuan (65cents) each
3. Tu Sun Dong 土笋冻 Sea Worm Jelly
How can I describe this in a way that sounds anything other than off-putting?
A popular cold dish with pride of place at every banquet dinner in Xiamen, tu sun dong is made using a short marine mud worm – the ‘bamboo shoot of the earth’ (tu sun 土笋 , actually the sipunculid worm, 星虫). After being washed clean of any residual mud the worms are set in a light vinegar aspic.
Yet for the adventurous eater this little dish is a masterpiece of textures and distinctive and novel flavours – the cold vinegar aspic is cool and smooth on the tongue, and as you bite in there is a rush of briny saltiness then the pleasant chewiness of the worms themselves. The accompanying sauces – horseradish, satay, and chill, with cold shreds of lightly pickled radish, add more layers of flavour as you eat.
Try at: Lujiang Harbourview Restaurant
7th Floor, 54 Lujiang Dao, corner Zhongshan Lu, Xiamen
The restaurant is on the waterfront overlooking Gulang Yu, and has incredible views. Thank you to one of my readers for the great recommendation!

鹭江宾馆观海厅

鹭江道54号鹭江宾馆7楼

4. Popiah 薄饼 Baobing
These Fujian-style fresh spring rolls have different filling variations according to where they originate. In Xiamen they are made with a very fine wheat pancake spread with a sweet red sauce and fine sprinkles of dried seaweed, then filled with a cooked mixture of carrot, radish, pork and sometimes seafood. 
Try at: Hao Qingxiang Restaurant – A clean and inexpensive eatery selling local Xiamen foods from a picture menu
200 Hubin Nan Lu, Xiamen
Open 7 days
Popiah 4 yuan each
好清香美食中心
湖滨南路200号
5. Oyster Omelette 蚝仔煎 Haozi Jian
Green shallots are mixed with tiny brown haozi (oysters) and fried until they brown before being surrounded by a halo of golden omelette. The tangy red sauce is optional. 
I must admit I ate this famed Xiamen street food with some trepidation because it broke one of my tried and tested Street Food Survival Rules – to never eat seafood on the street, especially when the weather is warm. But hey, I figured I was working in a hospital all week anyway, so if I ran into trouble help wasn’t far away.
As it turns out, the oyster omelette did me no harm. Was it fabulous enough I would risk it a second time? Probably not.
Try at: 189 Longtou Lu, Gulang Yu. Be prepared to join a long, hungry queue!
鼓浪屿龙头路189号
6. Zongzi 粽子
No ordinary zongzi, Xiamen’s sticky rice wrapped in bamboo leaf rises up from the plate like the snout of a sea beast, its severed head resting in a puddle of what are by now a familiar trio of chili sauce, horseradish and satay sauce.
The zongzi in Xiamen are large and filled with a tasty combination of fat pork, chestnuts, mushrooms, shrimp and small pieces of other seafoods. Each one is an entire meal in itself.
Try at: 1980 Shao Rou Zong Restaurant (see also – 1. Shacha Mian)
353 Zhongshan Lu, Xiamen
Open 7 days
5 yuan (80 cents) each
1980烧肉粽
中山路353号
7. Peanut Soup 花生汤 Huasheng Tang
Peanuts are commonly used in Xiamen’s cuisine, and locals love to eat bowls of warm, sweet peanut soup. The peanuts are soaked and boiled before being cooked into a thick sweetened soup. Rather bland on its own, the soup is often served with crunchy youtiao fried bread sticks, fried dumplings or steamed pork buns.
Try at: Huang Zehe Peanut Soup Restaurant, Xiamen’s most famous. They also serve local snacks.
22 Zhongshan Lu, Xiamen
Open 7 days
3 yuan (50 cents) bowl
黄则和花生汤店
厦门中山路22号
8. Zhan Sanfeng’s Milk Tea 张三疯奶茶
The island of Gulangyu is famous for its beautiful old buildings, its pianos, and apparently also a portly cat called Zhang SanFeng. He has his own milk tea shop there, and his story is explained on the wall outside (transposed verbatim):
“Zhang SanFeng is a cat lives on Gulang Yu, Xiamen. He lives leisurely andcarefree. He acted crazily in his chilhood while he is now thinking deeper. He has many romantic stories. Sometimes he elopes with the dog of next door in Gulangyu a few days. If there is no interval of sea around this island, they’ve already travelled around the world.”
His motto: Be yourself. Enjoy life. Sweet home.
A trip to Xiamen wouldn’t be complete without trying the wares at Zhang Sanfeng’s milk tea shop. The milk tea (hot or cold) isn’t bad – it’s milky, it’s tea, and it has added sultanas and flaked almonds – either delicious or alarming, depending on your viewpoint. There is also milk tea flavoured nougat, and jars of Zhang Sanfeng’s favourite snack – dried shrimp with peanuts. 
Try at: Zhang Sanfeng Milk Tea Shop
Gulangyu - main square
or 35 Zhongshan Lu, Xiamen
张三疯欧式奶茶铺
鼓浪屿
厦门中山路35号
9. Mango Ice
The warm, humid sub-tropical climate of Xiamen means icy desserts are hugely popular in flavours of green tea, red bean and purple taro. Xiamen’s mangoes, as big as footballs, are available almost all year round and are one of the most popular flavours for juices and ices.
This delectable dessert is a mango parfait with layers of diced mango in syrup, mango jelly, shaved frozen mango (like a sorbet, made on the spot from chunks of frozen mango flesh) served up topped with sweet biscuity crumbs.
Try at: Ice Leisure
Zhongshan Lu Pedestrian Street, Xiamen
Open 7 days
Mango Parfait 18 yuan ($3)
冰帝
厦门中山路
10. Fresh Seafood 海鲜 Haixian
Fresh seafood is Xiamen’s trademark, and it’s difficult to go twenty four hours without having a shrimp, scallop, or piece if fish pop up in your meal.
Small seafood restaurants and stalls abound, with some seafood available live in tanks (and therefore fresh), and some on ice (and alarmingly, some not on ice). You choose your seafood – shrimp, langoustine, lobster, ten kinds of crab, fish, shellfish – pay by weight, then have it cooked to order.
The seafood is plentiful and the choice on offer utterly staggering, but a word of caution from the head nurse at Xiamen No 1 Hospital:
I asked if she was preparing for the usual winter surge in patient numbers, the same as hospitals everywhere.
“Hah! No!” she said. “Winter is my heaven! Summer is my hell!”
“But why?” I asked. “Everywhere else in the world winter viruses and illnesses outnumber summer’s two to one…”
“Well,” she replied, “Firstly there’s the tourists – they mostly come in the summer, and they all do stupid things outdoors and injure themselves. Secondly, there’s the typhoons – we have many, many of those through summer. And lastly….well, lastly there’s the seafood.”
“The seafood?” I said.
“The seafood” she confirmed. “All those street seafood vendors, no refrigeration, the hot, humid weather. Food poisoning is rife.”
So there you go. If you visit Xiamen in the summer, check the weather report, don’t do anything stupid, and steer clear of the seafood on the streets.

All of China, Food by Food:




24 Hours in Xiamen

“Dear Doctor Teacher Fiona, 

If you have time , Please come to Xiamen China to help me. I want to set a triage system in my hospital. I apply a project, invite specialist like you to help us. The deadline of this project is NOVEMBER 10.”
So began my unusual invitation to Xiamen, from a doctor I had once taught in Shanghai. 
Now he was Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at the Xiamen Number One Hospital, and was attempting something no-one else in China had ever done before. He wanted to establish triage, a system of sorting the sickest patients from the rest so they get medical help sooner, in his chaotic emergency room where 800 sick children arrived every day and were cared for by just five doctors.  
For China it was nothing short of a radical idea, and he needed outside support. Of course I would come, I told him. 
Xiamen is an island city I had long wished to visit – I heard it was beautifully tropical and lush, with warm weather, wonderful seafood and clean beaches, and old colonial architecture from its days as a treaty port. Like Hong Kong, Xiamen (then called Amoy) was ceded to the British in 1842 following the disastrous Opium Wars.
If you have just 24 hours to pack in the best Xiamen has to offer, here’s some suggestions. I spaced out my sightseeing over a week between helping out in the Emergency Room, giving lectures, writing reports and…er…visiting restaurants. 
There was lots of eating – of course! – and I’ll be covering Xiamen’s top foods in the next post. 

Morning: Gulang Yu Island 鼓浪屿
Gulang Yu is the essence of Xiamen, a small jewel of an island off a bigger island. Rimmed with gold sandy beaches and crowded with the stately mansions and consulates of Xiamen’s colonial past, it’s just a few minutes by ferry from western Xiamen.
The island has no cars, and its winding small streets are perfect for strolling. Just head in any direction form the ferry and see what you find amongst the palms and fig trees.
The five main attractions – the Sunlight Rock (from where they say you can see Taiwan on a clear day), beachside Shuzuang Garden and the Piano Museum, Bright Moon Park, and the Organ Museum all require ticket entry. Several of China’s most famous pianists have come from Gulang Yu and the island is also known to locals as ‘Piano Island’. This might explain why all the tourist signposts are in the shape of a grand piano!
Sunlight Rock – a heady climb to the island’s highest point, from where you have spectacular 360-degree views
Bright Moon Park, with a massive stone statue of hero Zheng Chenggong
I think Gulang Yu’s best attractions are actually its old houses. Consulates of foreign governments, churches, schools and an old hospital, they speak of a wealthy and decadent past on the island. Many are now abandoned and are overgrown with vines and tree roots, but are being gradually restored and preserved by the government. 
Before you head back to Xiamen from Gulang Yu grab some lunch in one of the island’s many, many seafood restaurants. Most famous are the oyster omelettes (hail jian 海蛎煎)at 189 Longtou Lu.
Gulangyu Island: Details
The island is reached by a ten-minute ferry from the main pier near the western end of Zhongshan Lu.
Ferries run every ten minutes from early until midnight.
You can buy boat-only tickets (8 yuan) or a combination ticket that includes ferry, and entry to all five major sites for 108 yuan.
You can purchase tickets to individual attractions on the island itself, but you will save about 35 yuan by buying the combination ticket.
Allow at least three hours to see Gulangyu, although if you plan to climb Sunlight Rock and have a swim, make it 4-5 hours. Swimming is permitted off the main beaches, and the water is very clean.

Afternoon: Fan Tian Temple 梵天寺
After a good lunch, head north off Xiamen island itself to the stunning Fan Tian Temple. It’s a good ninety minute drive from downtown, but the temple is beautiful and well worth visiting, situated high on a hill in the middle of a nature reserve full of walking tracks.  
The original temple site is over 1500 years old, but the temple itself has been rebuilt several times.
If you walk up and over the hill behind the temple you will find yourself walking back downhill through a beautiful sculpture-filled park to the tiny but wonderful East Mountain Ancient Temple (Dong Shan Gu Miao 东山古庙), more than 600 years old and creaking with age. It’s roof is crowded with glazed ceramic wonders – dragons, fish, warriors on horseback, gods riding tigers and more. 
‘Heavenly official bestows good fortune’
Fantian Temple: Details
Lunshan Lu, Tong’an District, north of Xiamen Island
梵天寺,大同镇轮山路 
Admission free, open seven days

Night: Zhongshan Lu Pedestrian Street 中山路
Night time is the best time to meander along neon-lit Zhongshan Lu, a pedestrian-only street in downtown Xiamen. The street has a great laid back vibe and starts in the east, running westwards towards the waterfront. 
It’s lined with shops selling local delicacies like pineapple cake, dried shrimp, pastries and sweets, and the middle of the street has been given over to outdoor cafes selling tropical fruit juices and desserts, a perfect antidote to the warm weather (even in November!).
There is a terrific street food market running along Ding’an Lu, between Zhongshan Lu and Zhenhai Lu. Find a stall you like the look of, choose from the heaving tables filled with seafood and have it cooked to order. 
Zhongshan Lu Pedestrian Street: Details
Open 24 hours
Most shops close at 9pm, restaurants open later.

Next post: Ten Must-Try Foods in Xiamen

Shanghai Street Food #34 Egg Puffs: Jidan Bing 鸡蛋饼

Breakfast is when street food always beckons me – the early morning life of the streets is just beginning but already the street food vendors have lifted their awnings and are doing a brisk trade in hot soy milk, steaming baozi and crispy you tiao. So many people buy breakfast on the street I actually wonder if any Shanghai locals breakfast at home.
This street food treat hails from Nanjing, but you’ll find it on many early morning street food corners in Shanghai and Beijing. 
It’s one of many kinds of bing 饼 – meaning it’s flat and round. You’re probably already familiar with jian bing (rolled savoury breakfast pancakes) and cong you bing (scallion oil pancakes).
This one’s a little different – it’s made of the same yeast dough as you tiao crispy fried dough sticks, so as soon as it hits the oil on the griddle the dough puffs up with big bubbles of air that are trapped as it cooks, giving it a texture like fried sourdough bread.
On top of this an egg is cracked, scallions added and the egg yolk broken. Then the whole thing is flipped so both sides get a crisp finish.
To serve, the vendor will add some hoisin sauce and fold the bing in half to make it easier to eat. Eggy, chewy, light and puffy.

How Many of These Shanghai Street Foods Have You Tried?

Number 1   Roast Sweet Potatoes
Number 2   Snack-on-a-stick 
Number 3   Liangpi – a spicy cold noodle dish
Number 4   Langzhou Lamian – hand-pulled noodles
Number 5   Cong You Bing – fried shallot pancakes
Number 6   Baozi – steamed buns, Shanghai style
Number 7   Jian Bing – the famous egg pancake
Number 8   Dan Gao – street cakes
Number 9   Shao mai – sticky rice treats
Number 10  Summer on a Stick – fresh fruits

Number 11  You Tiao – deep-fried breadsticks
Number 12  Dan Juan – egg rolls
Number 13  Shao Kao – street barbecue
Number 14  Bao Mi Hua – exploding rice flowers
Number 15  Chou Doufu – stinky tofu
Number 16  Bing Tang Shan Zha – crystal sugar hawthorns
Number 17  Mutton Polo
Number 18  Yumi Bang – puffed corn sticks
Number 19  Mian Hua Tang – cotton candy
Number 20  You Dunzi – fried radish cakes

Number 21  Suzhou Shi Yue Bing – homestyle mooncakes 
Number 22  Gui Hua Lian’ou – honeyed lotus root stuffed with sticky rice
Number 23  Cong You Ban Mian – scallion oil noodles
Number 24  Guotie – potsticker dumplings
Number 25  Nuomi Cai Tou – fried clover pancakes
Number 26  Da Bing, Shao Bing – sesame breakfast pastries
Number 27  Ci Fan – sticky rice breakfast balls
Number 28  Gui Hua Gao – steamed osmanthus cake
Number 29  Zongzi – bamboo leaf wrapped sticky rice
Number 30  Shengjianbao – pan-fried dumplings

Number 31  Mala Tang – DIY spicy soup
Number 32  Salt and Pepper Fried Chicken
Number 33  San Xian Doupi – Three Delicacies Wrapped in Tofu Skin


The Embroidery and Antique Textiles Market, Kaili

“In ancient times…there was a smart Miao girl named Bang Xiang. The beautiful girl was very skilful at embroidering flowers – they were so vivid they could even compare with real flowers.
After Bang Xiang was married she had nine sons and seven daughters. Her seven daughters were as smart as her. In no time, Bang Xiang’s daughters themselves reached the age of marriage. Bang Xiang made wedding gowns in seven different colours for her daughters and told them to pass down the colours of the wedding gowns to their own children.
Later, only by taking a look at what colour girls wore, could Bang Xiang recognise whose children they were.”
                                                                                                                    Traditional Miao Story

Central Guizhou is a living museum of opulent textile arts with more than one hundred varieties of ethnic dress worn by local women, all typified by colours, styles and patterns of embroidery particular to one local area or village – as the story goes, each village descended from one of Bang Xiang’s colourful daughters. 
Having no written language, Miao women have long told their legends and history stitch by stitch, on their clothing. – the terrifying migration across the deep waters of the Yellow River, the battles and victories, the mythical beasts and birds that saved their ancestors, and the Butterfly Mother from whom all Miao people are descended.
Even today, every Miao girl learns to embroider and in her teenage years will produce two masterpieces – a full set of embroidered panels to be attached to the sleeves and bodice of her wedding jacket, and a richly decorative baby carrier. Later, she will embroider another set of panels for festival dress, hats and clothes for her children, and in her later years a set of funeral clothes. 
This rich textile heritage is beginning to be appreciated by museums and textile collectors all over the world, and there is a growing market for the buying and selling of new and antique textiles. Now every Friday and Saturday in Kaili you can find pieces from all over Guizhou gathered together in a single marketplace. It’s a dream for textile lovers and collectors – wall to wall embroidery, colour, pattern, weaving, pleating, applique, knot work, batik, and metal threadwork. Stunning.
Baby’s hat, and Miao woman making appliqued shoes
Detail of baby carrier
Miao woman selling knot work baby carriers, and an embroidered baby carrier in use
Scraps of old embroideries re-made into bracelets

Embroidery patterns for sale – the designs for the panels are drawn by hand then paper cut, and then tacked to the back of the fabric.
Typical completed design (detail) with birds and animals
Paper cut design set depicting the Butterfly Mother and a dancing woman. Every idle moment is spent embroidering.
Antique panel used to decorate the top of an everyday apron. 
The market stretches the length of the street and into the building on the left. Miao woman from Shidong village.
Dress aprons for festival wear
Gejia Miao woman with distinctive head dress and highly decorative wax resist indigo textiles. Metal thread embroidery on back of jacket. 
Antique woven head scarf, fragment.
Miao woman selling indigo and plant dyed stiff cotton fabric, used for festival jackets. Embroidered panels are then sewn on top of the finished jacket. 
Occasionally textiles from further afield find their way to the market – like these Yi minority embroidered belts
Kaili Embroidery and Antique Textiles Market – Details
Jinquan Lu Textile Market
Jinquan Lu, Kaili, near the Kaili National Stadium
金泉路场,在凯里民族体育场附近
Every Friday and Saturday, 9.30am – 3pm

Some Like it Hot! Food Adventures in Central Guizhou

‘Do you eat chili Fiona?’ asked our local Miao guide Billy, as we watched a young woman trimming four enormous baskets of chilies outside a restaurant. It was the restaurant’s daily chili delivery.
He looked slightly defeated in advance, as though he already knew the answer was likely to be no. He often took small groups of foreigners around central Guizhou, but they all found the hot, sour local food intolerable and Billy was thwarted, yet again, from showing them the delights of Guizhou’s cuisine, also known as qián cài 黔菜。
We had been driving since early morning on bumpy back roads, the car expertly handled through mud bogs, deep ruts and climbing mountain switchbacks by our driver, who appeared to be fourteen years old. A Miao himself, and therefore small of build, I’m sure he was actually about twenty-two but with a soft baby face. He was carefully cultivating two things – a long whisker on his chin that stubbornly resisted being joined by any others in the way of a beard, and a nonchalant attitude whilst smoking. Both looked oddly out of place on one so young.
‘Of course I eat chili’ I replied. ‘I enjoy it very much.’
‘Really?’ asked Billy and the driver together.
‘Really.’  A love of all things spicy had served me well on past travels through India and Thailand, and I loved all of China’s spicy cuisines – from Sichuan, Hunan, Yunnan and Guangxi, and now Guizhou. 
Billy and the driver smiled. And so began four days of Guizhou food adventures, guided by Billy, and fitted in around finding weavers, silversmiths and traditional indigo dye artisans. 
I can’t claim to be any kind of expert on Guizhou’s foods (you can read about Ten Must Try Foods in Guizhou and Guangxi), but after four trips to the same area in central Guizhou I am beginning to understand the Miao-influenced local cuisine better. 
Guizhou’s cuisine is characterised as suānlà 酸辣 – hot and sour. It feels rustic, but is far from simple  and dishes are rich in a complexity of both taste, colour and texture. Wild ingredients are commonly used – wild peppers, wild herbs, water roots, and fruits – which lend the food an exotic and unusual edge.
We began with the area’s most famous dish, synonymous with the Miao people:
Sour Fish Soup Hotpot 酸汤鱼火锅 Suan Tang Yu Huo Guo
The saying goes that, due to the cool damp weather in Guizhou, the Miao people are unable to go more than three days without sour soup or their legs become unsteady.
You must try this dish, if you ever get the chance – it is unbelievably rich, flavourful, nourishing and addictive. 
The soup is a complex blend of sour tastes – the lemony sourness of a clear base of lightly pickled bean sprouts, tomato slices and cucumbers, the clean acidity of fresh tomatoes, the sweet sourness of fermented sticky rice and the kicking hot sourness of fermented fresh mashed chilies – mixed together with wild herbs and spices – Guizhou ‘mint’ resting on top, mu jiang zi or tree ginger seeds (a kind of tart peppercorn), and finely chopped and spiced water root zhe ergen 折耳根 (known as yuxingcao 鱼腥草 in other parts of China), ginger and fermented soybeans.
Added to all of this are six or so uncooked freshwater carp. The best versions of the dish are found in smaller villages where the carp are grown in the water of the rice paddies, small but sweet of flesh. 
The whole pot then bubbles away at the table, cooking the fish and the fresh tomatoes and filling the room with steam and wonderful smells.
In front of each diner is a small dish of diced garlic, chopped fresh chillies, chopped cilantro and dried chili flakes. Once the soup is cooking you add a small ladle of liquid to this dry mixture and use it as a dipping sauce for your fish.
Once the fish have been eaten, heads and all, the real ‘hotpot’ begins – fresh cabbage leaves, fresh spindly bean sprouts, and white enoki mushrooms are added to the remaining soup to cook.
(If you read Chinese there’s a clear and concise recipe here)

Bracken Root Starch Fried with Smoked Bacon 腊肉炒蕨粑 larou chao jueba

Billy told me during China’s three years of Great Famine (1958-1961) the local Miao people survived on wits and instinct by eating wild plants like this. 
Bracken fern roots are pounded to release the starch, which is then steamed into a heavy ‘cake’ that can be cut into pieces and cooked. The bracken root cake (jueba 蕨粑) is fried, rendering the outside crispy and the inside dense and chewy, with a texture like bacon rind, mixed together with smoked chilies and slices of la rou smoked bacon. 
Guizhou Beef Hotpot 贵州牛肉火锅 guizhou niurou huo guo

A slightly different style of sour hotpot, this one functioned more like regular hot pot from other parts of China – we started with a fairly clear, sour, hot-as-hades soup base, and then added all the other ingredients ourselves – pieces of beef, lengths of chive stalk, slices of firm tofu, mushrooms, bean sprouts and cabbage.
The heat from the soup base was amplified by then dipping each piece of meat into a mixture of dried and fresh chill mixed with salt, until none of us could speak and sweat literally dripped from our brows. But still we kept eating.

 We finished the meal with a bowl of the clear, slightly sour pickled vegetable ‘starter soup’ that is the hotpot base, which restored some much-needed coolness to our mouths.

Filled Rice Rolls 卷粉 juanfen
Minutes after I tried juan fen for the first time I jotted down a page of frantic notes, determined to capture the essence of its amazing taste. (Doesn’t everyone write notes about what they eat?) 
‘A completely textural dish. Soft pillows of rice sheet rolled with sliced fresh green beans, tiny cubes of tofu and slivers of mushroom. The beans give a squeaky crunch. Topped with guizhou water root zhe ergen, scallions, lajiao chill paste, peanuts, fresh tomato sauce, Guizhou pickled greens, whole garlic cloves and chopped green chili.’
It was a revelation – the soft smoothness and relative blandness of the rice sheets gave way to more than ten different flavours and textures on the tongue. 
It’s often eaten as a breakfast food or mid-morning snack.
Rice noodles 米线 mi xian and Rice tofu 米豆腐mi doufu
All over central Guizhou are small food stalls like this, typified by a row of enamel bowls and plates filled with condiments. 
To one side are the starches: large platters of cold rice noodle sheets cut into broad or narrow strips, deep bowls filled with cubes of soft rice-starch known as rice tofu, or cubes of mung bean jelly or sweet potato starch jelly.
The diner chooses a cold starchy base – noodles or cubes – and to this is added a mixture of textures and tastes from the many bowls. These include dried chill, fried peanuts, diced garlic with coriander stalk, hot spiced water root, finely chopped shallots, pickled spiced beans, pickled green vegetables, fresh chopped chilies (red and green), fermented chili sauce, pork mince, soy sauce, mild vinegar, or oil.
The result is fresh, tasty, cold and spicy all at the same time, the intense chili heat balanced by the soft coolness of the starch.
I suspect you could go an entire year without eating the same combination twice!

Traditional Village Life in China: The Miao Village of Qingman

I was looking for weavers in the villages of central Guizhou – artisans who still knew the old ways and methods to weave cloth, without machines, without electricity – and they were proving very hard to find. The local Miao women had largely abandoned the making of handwoven cloth because modern factories and machines could produce quality cotton at a fraction of the price, and so weaving had become nothing more than a lost tradition for most Miao women, an indulgent waste of time that could be better spent growing crops or tending to business.
Miao women don’t often take short cuts – they spend two years embroidering the colourful panels they place on their wedding garments, and another year embroidering and appliquéing a baby carrier for their first child. They still dye all their own cloth – with indigo they have grown themselves – and sew all their own clothes from the dyed cloth.
But weaving is different. Weaving consumes so many hours it’s difficult to fit anything else in. Setting up a loom takes five women one whole day, and once the loom is set the weaving proceeds at a snail’s pace – about a yard a day. The time for weaving has to be found between rice planting and harvest, and unlike embroidery, which you can carry with you anywhere to work on when you have a spare moment, weaving ties you to a loom, completely immovable. 
So weaving is a dying art in Guizhou. 
We needed handwoven cloth for a large artwork, for which every component was to be handmade by the local Miao people. We had already found expert dyers who used traditional indigo and plant dyes to render the cloth a deep, rich aubergine, and silver smiths who made ornaments to sew to the cloth, but our stumbling block was the cloth itself, and the weavers to make it – it seemed wrong to start the process with factory-made fabric.
We had chased many leads only to find dead ends – elderly women who occasionally wove brocade strips for special orders, villagers that used to weave, but no longer did. Our guide thought he had heard of some weavers in Qingman village, southwest of Kaili in central Guizhou Province, and so we set off to find out, prepared for more disappointment.
Qingman village is typical of a Miao village, of which there are hundreds in central Guizhou, microcosms of a traditional way of life preserved well into the modern day. The geographic remoteness of many of the villages, combined with the strong ethnic identity of the Miao people means that modern life has been a long time coming, and its encroachments are ponderously slow – an electricity wire here and there, an occasional television set.
The houses are made of wood, raised on stilts to climb the steep hillside and tightly packed together to maximise workable farmland. Between the houses hung with newly-harvested corn run narrow stone lanes leading up and down. A woman passed us, hoe in hand and baby on her back held tight by a patterned and embroidered baby carrier. Another woman passed, with a bamboo pole over her shoulder balancing two enormous panniers full of pig manure being carried from the sty to the fields. Miao men and women both work the fields, but women have the added task of running the home and rearing children.  
 

The village square, usually reserved for festivals, markets and celebrations, was being put to good use as a flat place for drying harvested rice, raked carefully. Elsewhere bright red chilies and bunches of millet, tied together with grass, were spread out to dry in the early autumn sun.
It was clear that village life fell into a natural cadence determined by the ebb and flow of the seasons and the crops, with intense activity during planting and harvest interwoven with quiet periods reserved for other activities – weddings, festivals, preserving of foods, sewing, repairing and even occasional afternoons spent sitting in the sun drinking mi jiu, a sweet rice liquor.
As I watched an elderly couple outside their house – he smoking tobacco, she repairing a woven grass mat used for drying rice – it seemed village life had remained as it was for a very long time. Certainly, most of the villagers carried mobile phones now, and they didn’t all wear indigo cloth, but they still farmed, and their year was governed more by the passing seasons than what they read in the newspapers or heard on their radios.
The unseasonably warm autumn weather – known in Chinese as an autumn tiger (qiu laohu 秋老虎) – was proving perfect for dyeing indigo, with every house hung with a length of the deep purple-black cloth, and nearly every woman’s fingers stained dark blue from the dye.

After enquiries at a number of houses we came across the first positive sign that weaving was still being carried out in Qingmen – five women preparing a loom for weaving silk. At last!

Now I could understand why it took an entire day – the threads were carefully measured, cut, combed and separated, and wound onto a giant spindle attached by a harness to one woman’s waist. Bamboo slats were placed under the threads at intervals to prevent tangling and intermingling of the threads. 
When we asked about weavers the women directed us to the house of Pan Yanlian, the young woman whose loom they were preparing.
We found Pan Yanlian at home, in the cool area under her house set up with a loom. She was weaving, not for tourists or for fun, but for a Beijing fashion designer who was using the village’s traditional checked silks in a small range of clothing. Of all things. How very wonderful.
She had learnt weaving from her mother and mother-in-law and had found it both relaxing and enjoyable, a welcome break from outdoor work. 
We sat and talked with her for hours, hearing about village life and her two children (China’s ethnic minorities are permitted two children, as are rural families), and learned that there were at least eight functioning looms in the village, and more than eight women who knew how to use them. Even more wonderful! 
It was a delight to know that thanks to the value placed on handmade things by visitors from Japan and some Chinese designers, she was able to make a living from weaving and in her village, it was no longer a dying art. 
So tell me – do you have a fascination with textiles? I believe there are more of you than I ever suspected after posting about this on Facebook recently! 

How far have you travelled to find unusual textiles, and what treasures have you brought home with you?

Qingman Village 青曼 – Details
Qingman village is a beautiful example of an intact traditional Miao village and visitors are welcome. The village is about two hours’ drive from Kaili in central Guizhou and is best reached by private car. Kaili is two and a half hours’ drive from the provincial capital Guiyang.
Few local villagers speak Chinese and none speak English, so travelling with a Miao-speaking guide is very helpful – try Gateway to Guizhou for help.
There are no restaurants or guesthouses in the village, but there are two small stores where water and snacks can be bought.
The local Miao families sell their silk and old textiles on market days. 

A trip to Qingman can be combined with a visit to the beautiful paper-making village of Shiqiao (Stone Bridge) nearby.