Feeding Four Hundred For Lunch In Guizhou

The first thing I noticed as we came over the rise was a crowd of people all over the road, most with bowls and chopsticks in hand, eating.
There must have been another two hundred people sitting outdoors at round tables on a terrace in front of a new-looking house. Dozens of motorbikes, the local transport of choice, lined both sides of the road. Was it a wedding? A funeral? Some other kind of celebration?
“It’s a new house party” said our driver. “Very auspicious day for it.”
It was late afternoon, just at that golden hour when the sun is slipping low into the hills and a chill is creeping back into the air from the lengthening shadows. Perfect light for photographers. 
My flight had landed in Guiyang, the capital of Guizhou Province, less than an hour before, and I was travelling to Kaili to do more work on a project involving Miao artisans, a project my husband and I have been working on together for the last half year, when the driver suggested we take the scenic road instead of the highway. Of course, I agreed immediately. Who wouldn’t? 
When we reached the house we were already deep into the countryside, in the midst of tiny villages smelling deliciously of woodsmoke and winter. 
“Can you stop?” I asked the driver. I thought I might be able to take some photos, as long as the house’s new owner approved and the light lasted.
The house, a two story building facing the road, was painted in white with grey trimming, and festooned with auspicious red ribbons and lanterns. It was built in the simple modern style common to all of rural China – two large rooms on the lower floor for storing farming equipment and produce, with a central staircase leading to the upper floor with bedrooms, a living room, and a kitchen. The flat roof meant that if the family continued to prosper a third floor could be readily added, but for now housed a brand new satellite dish.
The guests, initially a little surprised at seeing a stranger (especially a foreign stranger), soon pointed me in the direction of the home’s owner, a woman my age, who welcomed us like long lost friends, agreed without hesitation to my taking photographs, and insisted with some forcefulness that we stay to eat. When we thanked her for her kind offer but began to decline, she laughed, took me by the elbow and said:
“No, no! You must stay to eat!” and sat us on two empty stools. “Just wait!” she said. “More food is coming soon.”
Around me two hundred men, women and children were at the tail end of what looked to have been a long and tasty meal. Empty red and white enamel platters covered every table, food scraps covered the ground and the rosy flushed faces of the guests were reflected in rows of empty beer and baijiu bottles. Cigarettes were being smoked, jokes were being told, and legs were being stretched.
As we sat, the tables nearest to us began emptying out. Was the party already over?
I sat and watched as two hundred guests took leave of their lady host, two hundred plates were cleared from tables, and countless empty bottles were gathered up and taken away.
It was over. I felt a sense of disappointment – we’d arrived just a little too late.
But then our lady host rushed over and said, full of smiles: “Now the food is coming! Please enjoy yourselves!”
I looked about, confused – the tables had all been cleared and emptied, the guests all gone bar a few stalwarts – wondering if we were to have a small meal by ourselves. 
But now a small army of men and women appeared with fresh table covers, bowls, chopsticks, glasses and napkins, and began laying each of the twenty tables, again.
Within minutes more people began to arrive – by motorbike, by minivan, and on foot, a second wave of two hundred guests who now sat in every single empty place. I was astounded. This woman was about to feed four hundred people in celebration of her new house. 

We were joined at our table by an old man, his son, two granddaughters, his nephew, sister-in-law, and a couple of his friends. Out came the beer. Out came the baijiu. Cigarettes were handed around the table.

And then the food: the food was being cooked in a makeshift outdoor kitchen by a battalion of cooks, with steamers the size of hula hoops resting on wood-fired boilers, and two of the largest woks I had ever seen. The food began to arrive on great heavy trays.

There was roast crispy chicken, spicy pickled pig’s ear, translucent preserved quail eggs with fermented chili sauce, a fiery braise of pork and chitterlings in the centre of the table, and bowls of noodles and pickles. There was whole fried fish with sour chilies, mountain mushrooms, and plates of slow-cooked fat pork slices with mei gan cai, a salt-preserved green vegetable.
It was the tastiest food I’d eaten since my last trip to Guizhou. Every time I stopped chewing momentarily one of my fellow guests would urge me on.
 “Eat up! Have some more! Taste a little of this!”

While we ate I asked them about the house party. They told me in this part of the world it was considered very good luck to ‘christen’ your new house by having a celebration with all your family. And all of your friends. And your neighbours. And your neighbours’ friends. And anyone else you could think of, including a random foreigner. (Foreigners were considered to be especially lucky for the house, should one happen along at the right time, they told me. I felt incredibly auspicious for the first time in my life.)

When I asked my fellow guests how they knew our lady host they made vague mentions of living “over the hill” and “in the next village”.

“Not related?” I asked.


“So do you actually, like, know her?” I asked.

Chabuduo” came the hilarious reply. Sort of. Approximately. Kinda.

We all toasted her anyway.

“To the new house! Ganbei!”

Photo Essay: The Carnival Ice Wonderland of Beijing’s Beihai Lake

Imagine sitting on a miniature sled and gliding around a frozen lake, propelling yourself with two metal spikes, whizzing between small children on ice bicycles and tiny ice gondolas. 
For a child of the subtropics like myself, frozen lakes and rivers are a fantastic spectacle, so on this trip to Beijing there was only one place I wanted to see: the frozen wonderland of Beihai Lake, where for an hour or an afternoon you can glide around the ice on a chair on skates, Chinese style of course. 

Beijing can be a brutal place in winter – bitingly cold, densely polluted, shuttered and closed against the chill – but on the right day, it can also be stunningly beautiful. Out on the ice, surrounded by the madness and colour of hundreds of children on oversized cartoon character sleds and overshadowed by a gorgeous temple stupa, it’s as good as it gets.

Beihai – Details
Ice sledding is available every day through winter at Beihai (Wenjin Jie entrance), not far from the back of the Forbidden City. 
Ice sleds start at 40 yuan for hire, for an hour or a whole day – basically as long as you can stand in the sub-zero temperatures (about an hour for most people).

Nan Shan 南山: Skiing Chinese Style

Skiing? In China?
Is that a thing?
It’s not the reason most people visit China, for certain. 
And as for the participation of the local population, I’d heard Chinese people approach skiing much the same way they approach, say, hot air ballooning. That is, you plan to do it once in your life so you can boast about it to friends, and you take millions of pictures of yourself doing it so you can post them on Weibo and say – oh yeah, this is me hot air ballooning. 
Young Chinese woman takes a classic ski selfie: note pouted lips, absence of actual skis.
I’d heard Chinese ski resorts were struggling because nobody stuck around for long enough to actually learn to ski, rather, they took a lot of photos of themselves in ski outfits at the snow, had one or two disastrous runs on the beginner slope, had some pot noodles and went home. It being all about the experience, rather than the development of long term skill that would guarantee repeated business winter after winter for the ski resorts.
Well, turns out that’s all rubbish.
From what I can see skiing and snowboarding are hot in China, and growing hotter by the minute.
We spent all of this last week skiing at Nan Shan Ski Village, about 75km north of Beijing, where I learned a few surprising things about the Chinese ski industry:
1. It’s Cheap
I must say I did wonder what kind of ski experience I was going to get for $25 a day. I imagined dodgy rope tows, creaking rusted lifts and people skiing in jeans.
Here’s what we actually got for $25 a day: 
Airconditioned shuttle bus to and from our hotel in Beijing
Ski hire and lift pass
Thirteen runs: Seven green, five blue, one black
$25 would buy me about 45 minutes’ ski time back home, and the prohibitive cost means we ski way less than we would like. Welcome to Ski China. It’s affordable.
2. It’s Well Run
The slopes are groomed, the lifts run like clockwork, and the ski hire shop is a well-oiled machine.
There is close attention to safety, and the longest time I spent queueing for a lift was five minutes. Impressive.
3. There’s Something for Everyone
Snowboard slope: beginners
Although it’s not a resort where advanced skiers might enjoy spending an entire week, Nan Shan has enough variety and complexity for everyone for several days. There’s a long steep black run, a snowboard park, mogul fields of varying levels of difficulty, beginner slopes aplenty (separated for skiers, kids and snowboarders – brilliant idea), a kids’ playground and two toboggan runs, one of which is actually a high-speed luge that starts on the mountaintop.
Snowboard slope: advanced
Flying Saucer Toboggan Run: super icy spin.

4. The Food is Great
Spicy noodles. Bibimbap. Hamburgers. Hot chocolate. And my personal favourite: fragrant lamb kebabs yang rou chuanr cooked on the outside grill overlooking the slopes.
Canada Ski Cafe – burgers, fries, sandwiches, hot chocolate, passable coffee.

Which is not to say there aren’t some classic Chinese moments on the slopes: the guy who stopped in the middle of a narrow run to take a business call on his smartphone; the Chinese princess who lost the plot close to the top of one of the slopes dissolutely kicked her skis and beanie down the mountain, sobbing loudly and dramatically. When someone on a passing lift called gave her grief the sobbing immediately gave way to a torrent of high octane abuse.
Or the messages over the loudspeakers:
“Child Wang, Child Wang, please return immediately to the Ski Cafe where your mother is waiting for you.” 
Half an hour later: 
“Child Wang, Child Wang, please return immediately to the Ski Cafe where your mother is still waiting for you”
Later still:
“Child Wang, Child Wang. Your mother is getting very angry. Return to the Ski Cafe at once!
Child Wang wasn’t having a bar of it. He had discovered the joy of skiing.
Nan Shan Ski: Details
A daily shuttle bus service leaves the San Yuan Qiao and Wudaokou areas in Beijing
40 yuan pp return
Departs 0830 daily
Returns 1630, 1700, 1730 daily
Pre-book seats the day prior by calling or texting 010 8909 1909
Ski hire and lifts: 
Weekdays 155 yuan full day (advance booking – call or text 010 8909 1909 the day before to reserve)
Weekends 255 yuan full day
Weekdays 260 yuan full day (purchase on arrival)
Weekends 390 yuan full day
On snow accommodation is available at the Shirton Inn (580 yuan per night, standard double) or in a six-bedroom Norwegian Villa (4880 yuan per night).
Many people opt to stay in Beijing and travel to Nan Shan each day. The San Yuan Qiao area has a Novotel, an Ibis Hotel, and Oak Chateau apartments nearby.
Ski Clothing:
Ski and snowboard clothing (including goggles, helmets and gloves) can be hired at Nan Shan. There are several snow gear shops on site but be warned – they carry only expensive European and Canadian/American brands.
Decathlon sports store has several outlets in Beijing with a  wide range of ski and snow board clothing, helmets and goggles.

Shanghai Street Food #35 Pressed Pomegranate Juice: Shiliu Zhi 石榴汁

Street Foods are back! Today’s post is unforgivably short because I’m travelling – off to China for Chinese New Year! And I know those of you who are hard at work sometimes only have time for just a bite of China rather than a whole meal.
I think 2013 was street food’s year in every sense – the first International Street Food Congress was held in Singapore, and cities all over the world changed their minds about the perceived ‘risks’  of street food and approved legislation for street food trucks and street food precincts, bringing back a vivid street food scene to cities like Glasgow and Brisbane.
In China, of course, where street food has been part of a thriving food culture for centuries, that’s nothing new. But with tough new food safety laws in China being enacted with heavy justice, street food vendors may find 2014 the year they struggle to survive against the heavy hand of the law.  
So let’s celebrate street food, and support its ongoing role as an integral part of Chinese food culture, but also support it becoming cleaner and safer.
Today’s Shanghai Street Food is seasonal and special – fresh, tart, sweet pomegranate juice – shiliu zhi 石榴汁. The pomegranate vendors with their glass cases packed tightly with ripe pomegranates start to appear in Shanghai in autumn as the first pomegranates arrive from far western Xinjiang. 

The pomegranates have paler flesh, the colour of pale pink petals with blushes of rose, but are very juicy and have small seeds. Pomegranate seeds are not used in Chinese cooking but the juice is a popular seasonal treat for its value as a blood tonic, and the skin is used in traditional Chinese medicine for many ailments.

Each glass of juice is pressed freshly using a hand-operated press mounted on top of a tray back tricycle – it takes about three whole fruit for one glass.
The taste is fresh and acidic but also surprisingly sweet, and soothes the throat on those early cold dry days of winter. Come to think of it, it’s probably a very good tonic for polluted air…these vendors might be doing a roaring trade this year!
Pomegranate juice: About 10 yuan ($1.50) for a glass.
Shanghai Street Foods – The Complete Guide:
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

Number 34  Jidan Bing – savoury egg puffs
Number 35  Shiliu Zhi – Fresh pomegranate juice
Number 36  Dabing – big crispy pancakes

Chinese Soul Food: Homestyle Cooking From the Heart – Jiachang Cai 家常菜

Happy New Year to everyone! I’m feeling certain 2014 is going to be an exciting and adventurous year, and I hope it will be for you as well.

Never one to back away from a challenge, my ever-patient husband and children and I will spend much of this year restoring a decrepit, beautiful heritage house built in 1891 which will become our new home. I’m just jumping to get started, but there will be plenty of travel too – I leave for China next week to travel to Beijing, Guizhou, Yunnan and Shanghai, and April will see me attending the Miao Sister’s Meal Festival in Guizhou for the second time. A greatly anticipated trip to Sweden, Scotland and France is planned for mid-summer.

And of course, The Book. The book of our travels in China I’ve been writing for a year now, a struggle and a joy in equal measure but still a fledgling, will, I hope, find wings and take flight this coming year.

I’d love to know of your plans this year for food, travel and creative projects too – please fill me in!

I want to start the year with a post I’ve been planning to write for a long time. It’s all about Chinese home style cooking, known as jiachang cai 家常菜, a style of simple and unpretentious food made at home for those close to the cook – loved ones, friends, and guests.

Jiachang cai is bangers and mash, it’s southern fried chicken, it’s coq au vin, it’s black pudding and tatties. It’s a sticky plate of pulled pork or a fragrant bowl of herby chicken soup. It’s cheesecake and apple cake and red velvet cake, and all the kinds of cake that make you think of home.

It’s the food your mother makes when you come home for the holidays, it’s the food you cook your children every day.

It’s soul food, straight from the heart.

If you were to ask someone for their definition of jiachang cai it would probably vary enormously according to their culinary postcode and family history, but a few things are essential: the food must be simply prepared, simply presented, without fancy or hard-to-find ingredients. 

It has much in common with it’s country cousin, nongjia cai 农家菜 or peasant food, which is also simply prepared and presented, but is typically eaten on location at the farm where the food is grown, prepared and butchered by the farmer herself, right beside the table. I’ll write a more detailed post on nongjia cai in coming months.

Jiachang cai, on the other hand, can be eaten in in a simple restaurant or in someone’s home, and the ingredients bought rather than grown.
A typical jiachang cai restaurant, Qinghai Province

There are dishes ubiquitous to every jiachang cai menu – sour shredded potato with chill (suan la tudou si 酸辣土豆丝), smashed cucumber with garlic and vinegar (liang ban huang gua 凉拌黄瓜), tomato stir-fried with egg (fan qie chao ji dan 番茄炒鸡蛋), and fish-fragrant pork (yu xiang rou si 鱼香肉丝) to name just a few, yet even these very popular jiachang dishes vary enormously from place to place, reflecting local tastes, ingredient availability and cooking styles.

Take sour shredded potato, for example – suan la tudou si 酸辣土豆丝 - a dish of finely shredded potato stir-fried with dried chill, a little shredded green pepper, and a splash of vinegar until the potato slivers have just softened. 

Every Chinese cook has their own version of this dish – in Guizhou the dried chillies are kept hanging over the cooking fire so they impart a rich smokiness to the dish, and in the east a little sugar sometimes makes its way into the dish to counteract the sourness of the vinegar. In Sichuan chili becomes the dominant flavour, and in parts of Yunnan the dish has metamorphosed into a fried cake made of potato shreds studded with flecks of chill – as though the cook just dashed out of the kitchen for five minutes while cooking and came back to find the entire thing melted together into a wonderful crisp-bottomed potato cake.   

Here’s a taste of jia chang cai from all points of the compass in China – taste the diversity for yourself.


  • Sour shredded potato with chili and peppers
  • Smashed cucumber with garlic and vinegar
  • Stir-fried green peppers with pork

In Inner Mongolia the bitter cold means hotpot is a popular homestyle dish, served with (clockwise from top)
  • finely sliced mutton
  • pickled chilies
  • chive flower paste
  • red fermented tofu
  • pickled garlic
  • Boiled peanuts with soy beans 
  • Chitterlings fried with peppers and black wood ear fungus


From Shanghai and Zhejiang province homestyle dishes are cooked with a light touch:

  • Sliced wawa vegetable stems steamed then stir-fried with a dash of baijiu liquor
  • Tofu strips fried with pork and wilted greens
  • Soy cooked chicken
  • White-poached Chicken  
  • Steamed freshwater shrimp
  • Smoked dried carp
Many jia chang restaurants, like this one in southern Hunan, have no written menu but allow you to choose from what is fresh that day and have it cooked to order (any way you like, as long as it’s with a handful of sharp, searing fresh red chili) :
  • sliced pig’s ear
  • fat pork
  • pork ribs
  • squid
  • shrimp
  • fresh pork intestines
  • chicken gizzards

Guizhou jiachang cai, clockwise from top:
  •  egg fried with chives (also at bottom)
  • fish-fragrant eggplant, Guizhou style
  • plain fried potato
  • sour shredded potato with smoked chili
  • fried greens
  • home-smoked bacon slices – la rou

In the far south of Yunnan the dishes begin to look very different – inspired by local Dai culture and the hot, tropical climate.
  • fried pork intestine with local herbs and chill
  • fermented chill sauce
  • wild herb and peanut sauce
  • cold vegetables
  • wilted greens
  • crunchy fried pig skin
  • fermented chill with local herbs
  • assorted meats – chicken, fish, pork, pig’s ear

Sichuan food has a deserved reputation for heat, but homestyle Sichuan food is often a different story:
  • pork bone broth
  • baked yam
  • pickled green chilies
  • fat pork slices
  • poached chicken
  • pickled vegetables
  • rice steamed with jujubes
  • steamed squash

The arid lands of Xinjiang produce few vegetables, and so mutton with bread is a staple. Served here with clear broth and tea scented with cinnamon and saffron.


In the sparsely populated north-west homestyle means one thing – noodles. Served here with cold sliced beef, la jiao chili paste, cilantro and shallots. A dish of clear soup is usually served alongside.

That’s all on our culinary tour of jiachang cai – I don’t know about you but now I’m really, really hungry. Let’s eat!

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!
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. 

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’.
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.


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’.

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.

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.

Sometimes the English translations of the dishes can get wildly unappetising. Fried rings?

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.
  • 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.


  • 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.


  • 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


  • 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.


  • 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


  • 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.


  • super easy to use


  • 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.


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


  • 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
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!



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
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!
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
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
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
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)
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: