Monthly Archives: April 2010

I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter! Trip to the Unilever Test Kitchen

A few months ago, I was contacted by I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter to attend a V.I.P. event at Unilever Test Kitchens  in New Jersey to test products and recipes .  I was truly ecstatic — #1 this would be my first traveling opportunity as a result of the blog and #2 I get to go on a FOOD related adventure, what’s not to love about that? The trip and expenses were all generously provided by ICBITNB (I am one lucky girl!).

They placed me in the swanky Hudson Hotel in New York right by the fabulous Columbus Circle.  It was a very modern-chic upscale hotel with random quirks that give it a little spunk.  The lobby was breathtaking, with the gigantic crystal chandelier and the open-window roof draped with plush green vines, gave the entire room a very cool greenhouse effect.

It was pretty amazing, the patio was converted into a bar at night.  Filled with the beautiful and the fabulous young professionals of New York City — I was pretty awestruck by it all.  Until I got assigned my room number.  I was placed in – “666”.


hotel clerk: yeah don’t pay attention to the number — I know what you’re thinking.

me: Are you sure satan doesnt live under the bed?

hotel clerk: Everyone has the same reaction, trust me it’s not cursed.

me: (*thinking to herself*) yeah easy for you to say because you’ve never slept there.

I accepted my room key wearily — Okay but if anything is funky I am requesting a different room!  Thankfully no evil juju seemed present.  The room was pretty small, especially the bathroom (anyone above 5’4″ would have leg room trouble big time haha) but the bed was very comfy.

I was able to meet up a couple of friends that lived near my hotel, and Patrick suggested Meze Grill — which is a Mediterranean themed eatery with a modern eco-friendly twist.  Owner Marwan Salem,  came up with the concept back in college: he wanted to offer a fast, healthy (extremely delicious) affordable meal with a modern Mediterranean twist.

Not only does Marwan make amazing food but he loves the planet — most of the restaurant is made from recycled materials, my favorite being the wooden walls made from recycled barn wood.  All of their dressings, dips and desserts are all made in house and they use all natural meats with no artificial ingredients.  One can see how Meze Grill was selected by diners as one of Google’s favorite places in New York to eat! (Out of the 28 million businesses, only less than 1% of businesses receive this honor.)

Now let’s move onto the food! You start out by selecting a choice of pita sandwich, rice platter or salad and then inventing your own creation from a vast choice of toppings and meats.  If you need a little help, any of the friendly employees will guide you down the right path 🙂

They make fresh pita chips daily which pairs perfectly with their rich and smokey babaghanoush — a Mediterranean dip made mainly from eggplant and of course the traditional hummus made from FRESHLY soaked chickpeas NOT canned.

I told Marwan to give me his special and he created a  half pilaf half bulgur wheat bowl with a falafel and grilled chicken on top and finished it with lettuce, tomatoes onions and my favorite — pickled turnips.  OKAY folks before you start scrunching your nose, these turnips are out of control.  THEY ARE SO GOOD, crunchy and brined in a magical concoction, I would put these on everything.  One of my favorite dressings would have to be the VEGAN garlic aioli, that’s right, it is not made from eggs — just a simple but perfect combination of garlic, olive oil and salt.  It packs a nice bite to awaken your senses.

I think my only complaint would be to have a bigger stomach, so I could’ve fit all of the delicious food that was given me, the portions are HUGE.  Not only did I find Meze Grill’s food to be inspiring but Marwan’s journey to this place reiterates my belief in life — “It is important to pursue your passions”.  Marwan is an inspiration indeed.

(pictured above: left, Patrick Chang; right, Marwan Salem)

Born into a family of mostly doctors, Marwan received family pressures to puruse the medical field.  But deep inside he knew his true calling was someplace else.  With the encouragement of his favorite college professor, Marwan followed his heart and opened up Meze Grill — a place that shares a piece of where he comes from as well as making it healthy and good for you.

It was really quite a pleasure to meet someone like Marwan — though we met as two strangers, I left the restaurant feeling as if I’ve made a friend.  His warm charismatic personality, instantly makes you feel at home– it is hard to meet people of such genuinity now and days.  I told Marwan – “Dude you gotta open up one of these in Texas, people would go crazy for it.”  His reply?  “One day I will.”  Marwan, I will be patiently waiting for that day :).  Until then you guys can enjoy the hummus recipe I made in honor of Marwan’s delicious food.   For all you lucky New Yorker’s, check Meze Grill out.  I promise you it won’t disappoint!

I hope you guys have a great weekend, please stay tuned for the 2nd part of my New York trip :)!

Part 4 of 5 — Wuxi SuZhou and Chenghuang Miao

The second part of the Wuxi trip we went to Turtle Head Peninsula on Tai Lake.  It is the most beautiful place of Tai Lake and the name comes from  the tip of the peninsula that is shaped like a turtle head!  Inside the park are ten famous scenic spots, which include Chongshan Garden, Jiangnan Orchid Garden, Taihu Fairy Islet, and Guangfu Temple.

We only had about an hour to venture through the park, so Collin and I practically sprinted through the different scenic spots.  Inside the park was filled with lush vegetation of vines, trees, and vibrant flowers, creating a serene and splendid view for the eyes.

The traditional Taoist culture has influenced this island in many ways of becoming a natural wonderland.  The Sanshan Taoist Temple built during the Taibo era (around 3,000 years ago) was actually the only Taoist temple built on an island in China.

Scattered all around the park were these uniquely shaped limestones, I especially liked the checker board carved into a large slab of stone, complete with 4 little stone chairs.  Legend has it that the emperor of the Song dynasty nearly bankrupted the country because of his obsession with finding these uniquely shaped limestone rocks.  What unusual formations they were indeed!

I saw this alluring women adorned in traditional Chinese silk robe playing the Gu Qin – which is a seven stringed zither with no bridge, I call it an old-fashioned Chinese piano.  The notes are strummed by the hand, creating different effects by the skillful techniques of well trained fingers. Confucius was actually a master in this instrument, and said it had powers of enriching the heart and elevating the human spirit.

There were so many different types of flowers, the colors and fragrance permeated throughout the entire park.  I couldn’t help but snap numerous pictures of their magnificent beauty, I find flowers fascinating.  To think that all of their traits were developed soley for evolutionary effects — with their sweet scents, rich colors, various formations — they not only attract humans but so many different types of animals and insects too!

A friend once jokingly said — “Joy you take pictures of food and FLOWERS.  You’re just like my mom, always snapping random pictures of flowers and trees and plants and stuffs.”  Gosh, I honestly have NO idea what she’s talking about! 🙂  It comes down to the basics for me though, the simplicities of life.  The beautiful and pure things that people often overlook throughout the day but never realize their enchanting effects.

9 times out of 10, if I see a beautiful flower I will stop to appreciate it — whether it’s to observe it’s exquisite flawless beauty or it’s intoxicating smells, it never ceases to amaze me what the world is able to create.  Are you diggin the babushka I am sportin on the left?  Also note the lack of enthusiasm on my face, that’s because sprinting through a freaking GIGANTIC park and then getting LOST in between made Zhang very tired.

Our last stop of the day: Su Zhou.  By this time, it was around 7:00 PM, we were all very tired but a wedding dress had to be made people!  Most well known for their silk industry, Su Zhou is also heavily populated with wedding factories (score!).  As we were taking the city bus to the area, Jiu Ma just so happen to sit next to a young man whose family designed wedding gowns. WELL THANK GOODNESS FOR THAT because upon our arrival, there were THOUSANDS of wedding dress boutiques I honestly don’t know where I would’ve started.  It was absolutely overwhelming.

But wait.  The story gets better. The minute I walked into the young man’s boutique I spotted a dress that was almost IDENTICAL to what I wanted.  I couldn’t believe my eyes, I literally thought I would be stuck in SuZhou for hours searching through hundreds of thousands of gowns until I found the perfect one.  Thankfully all the praying I did in the temples brought me good fortune :).  I picked out my dress, made a few modification, took some measurements and BAM I was out in less than an hour.  Oh did I also mention that my custom made gown was a whopping $85?  Verrry niiice!

After dress shopping we had to grab some grub.  We went to the main market center in SuZhou where there were numerous eateries, clothing stores and gift shops.  The streets were full of hip youngsters dressed in colorful and ecclectic fashions, I was surprised as to how up to date the youth seemed to be here.  I also saw this donut shop, probably the weirdest donut shop I’ve ever seen.  I usually go for the usual glazed and maybe on a good day I’ll go for a chocolate glazed with sprinkles.  They had crazy flavors like “Italian-style Bacon” (what the heck does Italian bacon taste like??), “Spicy Fluffy” (wow yeah I dont know about that..) and Burberry ( would that donut cost like $400?).  I did not buy one, I just couldn’t — all these flavors were just too much for me to handle. (Shipley’s will always be #1 in my heart.)

The next night, Jiu Ma (#1!) suggested that we check out one of the most famous market areas in Shanghai — Chenghuang Miao otherwise known as The City God Temple, an area of temples that are reminiscent of old Shanghai.  Back then, every Chinese city had a designated Temple of the Town God which served as a shrine for Daoist worship.  The temple in Shanghai was named “Cheng Huang Miao” which was devoted to the god of commerce.

However, the temple was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution but thankfully restored during the early 90s.  It now has been transformed into one of the largest marketplaces in Shanghai filled with gift shops, restaurants, bulk food shops, basically anything you can think of!

I loved the lighting of the shrines at night — the structures looked incredibly magestic.  It is hard to imagine that long ago these were the buildings people prayed in!  The antique Chinese architectural designs really brought you into another dimension of time, especially with the elegantly curved roofs crowning the shrines.

Nestled inside the shrines were individual vendors selling a variety of goods.  This woman sold hundreds of different types of Buddhist bracelets and name stamps carved from stone.  Back then when people wrote letters, instead of signing their signature they would have a name stamp containing the character of their last name.

This man sold Jian Zhi or Chinese Papercutting, an art practiced since the beginning of the Han dynasty in China when paper was first invented.  Back then people who used paper as a means for decoration were considered to be nobels and royalty.  Now they are used commonly in every household for decorative use, many families enjoy placing papercuttings by the front door to bring good fortune.  One must have much patience and a steady hand to master the art form of Jian Zhi!

This man sold miniature figurines and jewelery made from copper that he made with only a scarce set of tools and his hands.  If you look at the bottom left hand corner of the photo on the left, you will notice the miniature little figurines (you can barely see them) but I have blown them up in the picture on the right.  The detailing is pretty incredible, the figurine literally fit on the tip of my index finger.  He told me it took him about 6 hours to mold each of the miniature figurines, I think it’d take me a solid 6 weeks haha 🙂

Now.  Onto the important stuff…THE FOOD.  Oh man, the food possibilities are ENDLESS here.  Many people come to Chenghuang Miao for the infamous Xiao Long Bao — there is a small restaurant here (I do not know the exact address) that serves only Xiao Long Bao.  Don’t worry, you won’t have any trouble finding it once you are here — just look for the long lines that pour out of their doors (the wait could be as long as an hour sometimes!).

We actually went to the main food court for their wide range of options.  They serve hundreds of different types of traditional Shanghainese dishes — think lots of seafood, dim sum, soups, and steamed dumplings.  The woman in the photo above is serving “Tang Yuan”, tiny glutinous rice balls served in a steaming hot broth sweetened by Jiu Nian or fermented rice.  Some tang yuans are filled with traditional fillings like black sesame, red bean, etc.  The weird picture on the top right is Lotus Root stuffed with Glutinous Rice — for those of you who have never had Lotus Root it’s delicious.  It’s the root of the beautiful Lotus flower — with a very slimy but crunchy texture and slightly sweet nature, it is often stuffed with glutinous rice soaked in soy sauce and steamed to a wondrous perfection.

There were so many different types of crab — I honestly had no idea what kind they were.  The common crab we have here in Texas would be the blue crab and other than that I don’t see much else.  Here they had square shaped crabs, trapezoidal (is that a word?)  shaped crabs, tiny round looking crabs — I mean there were a lot of freaking crabs dude!

But don’t panic non seafood eaters, there’s plenty more to choose from.  They also had a variety of fried foods — fried chicken wings, tempura vegetables, fried fish cakes, fried rice cakes as well as various types of chow mein, soup noodles, cold noodles, hot noodles… I think even the pickiest of all picky eaters would be able to find something here.

They also had a HUGE selection of dimsum, some things I recognized other things I hadn’t a clue.  They had Xiao Long Baos, Glutinous Rice wrapped in Bamboo Leaves, various types of Puddings, Steamed Cakes and Desserts, different kinds of steamed dumplings, it was seriously the most intense dim sum spread I’ve ever seen.  Mind boggling.

Unfortunately, the dishes we picked actually weren’t that great.  The weather was really cold that day, and they don’t really use heaters here so all of our food was cold by the time we brought it back to our table 😦 Better luck next time as one would say!

With full tummys and empty pockets, we headed home to enjoy a homecooked meal from Jiu-jiu.  The livin is good in Shanghai!  🙂  My last installment will be more family photos, more food of course and any other random blurbs (they are pretty random…) If you have any questions about the places I’ve been or good places to eat in Shanghai, feel free to contact me!

Israeli Hummus with Paprika and Whole Chickpeas

I decided to take a break from Shanghai and introduce this wonderful recipe I found through Food and Wine.  I was instantly drawn to this recipe for its simplicity– made with wholesome healthy ingredients it not only goes great as a dip but is awesome in sandwiches, salads, and wraps.  This recipe is from Chef Michael Solomonov who was born in G’nei Yehudah, Israel and was raised in Pittsburgh. In May 2008, Michael opened Zahav in Philadelphia, where his main influences come from the traditional cuisine of his native Israel.

An excerpt from chef Michael Solomonov in Food and Wine  states —

“Before opening Zahav restaurant in Philadelphia, chef Michael Solomonov visited hummus parlors all over Israel trying to find the best recipe. “Hummus is the hardest thing to get right,” he says. “It has to be rich, creamy and mildly nutty.” To make his hummus luxuriously smooth, he soaks the chickpeas overnight with baking soda to soften them. While Americans now flavor hummus with everything from pureed red peppers to fresh herbs, Solomonov says among the fanciest garnishes you can find in Israel are whole chickpeas, paprika and lemon-spiked tahini, used for hummus masabacha.”

Ingredients for Israeli Hummus with Paprika and Whole Chickpeas:

  • 1/2 pound dried chickpeas
  • 1 tablespoon baking soda
  • 7 large garlic cloves, unpeeled
  • 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cumin, plus more for garnish
  • 1/2 cup tahini, at room temperature (see Note)
  • 1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
  • Salt
  • Paprika, for garnish
  • 1/4 cup chopped parsley
  • Pita bread, for serving

In a medium bowl, cover the dried chickpeas with 2 inches of water and stir in the baking soda. Refrigerate the chickpeas overnight. Drain the chickpeas and rinse them under cold water.

In a medium saucepan, cover the chickpeas with 2 inches of fresh water. Add the garlic cloves and bring to a boil. Simmer over moderately low heat until the chickpeas are tender, about 40 minutes. Drain, reserving 10 tablespoons of the cooking water and 2 tablespoons of the chickpeas. Rinse the chickpeas under cold water. Peel the garlic cloves.

In a food processor, puree the chickpeas with 1/2 cup of the reserved cooking water, 1/4 cup of the olive oil and 6 of the garlic cloves. Add the cumin along with 1/4 cup each of the tahini and lemon juice and process until creamy. Season the hummus with salt and transfer to a serving bowl. Wipe out the food processor. Add the remaining 1/4 cup of tahini, 1/4 cup of olive oil, 2 tablespoons of reserved cooking water, 1 tablespoon of lemon juice and garlic clove and puree.

Using a ladle, make an indent in the center of the hummus. Spoon in the tahini-lemon mixture. Sprinkle the hummus with the cumin and paprika. Garnish with the reserved whole chickpeas and the parsley, and serve with pita bread.

I like making fresh hummus at home without the weird preservatives that you find in-store.  It’s made of pure ingredients: organic chickpeas, extra virgin olive oil, tahini, lemon juice with paprika and cumin to finish it off — it’s amazingly simple yet delicious.  To learn the proper way to soak legumes and obtain the maximum nutrients, my friend Divina offers a wonderful guide here.  Chickpeas rich in protein and folate, are high in dietary fiber which results in healthy colons and lowers your risk for diabetes and heart disease.

Shanghai Part 3: Wuxi

Wu Xi also nicknamed “Little Shanghai” for its booming economy and proximity to Shanghai, is one of the most beautiful places in China.  Divided into two halves by the Tai Hu Lake (which is the third largest fresh water lake in China), the beautiful scenery has served as inspiration for many Chinese poets.

My grandparents are originally from there so Collin and I wanted to explore their hometown.  Jiu Ma was our tour guide and took care of our travel arrangements because she’s the best – we taught her to say “I am number 1” which she often repeated throughout the rest of our visit while giving a thumbs up sign every time.  She’s so cute!

At the crack of dawn we packed our bags and took the subway to the train station.  Shanghai’s subway system is not only easy to comprehend but everything about it is modern and the grounds are kept immaculate, it was a vast difference from NYC’s often dirty, stuffy (only in the summers), stinky subways (no offense my fellow NYers). You can find more information on subway systems here. We took Xu Jia Hui up to Shanghai Railway Station and from there we took an hour train ride to Wu Xi.

I often wonder why bullet trains are not more common in the States.  For an example, why don’t we have a bullet train in Texas that would take you to places like Dallas, Austin, San Antonio and Houston?  Because taking those drives is not only exhausting but are often EXTREMELY boring (Yes, I have drifted in and out of consciousness while driving, I can’t help it, it’s really that bad).

Once we arrived in WuXi we were originally going to take a bus to Ling Shan but were approached by a tour group, where they took us on their shuttle and we also got a discount on tickets since they bought it at a group rate.  They charged us 100 rmb per person which calculates out to be roughly around $18.

Pretty much the minute you step out of the train station you will be bombarded by locals trying to sell you passes to Ling Shan – I recommend you get a solid price (It shouldn’t be more than 100rmb/person) and make sure that there are other people traveling to the destination with you before agreeing to anything.  Luckily Jiu Ma made sure everything was set in stone and alas we were on our way to the magical Ling Shan.

Every year, over 2 million visitors come to this site to gaze at the magnificent scenes such as the Lingshan Grand Buddha, the Ancient Xiangfu Temple, The Five-Wisdom Door, the Lingshan Buddhist Palace as well as many other sites representative of the Buddhist culture.

The Lingshan Grand Buddha – standing at an impressive 88 meters, is the tallest statue of Skyamuni recorded and largest Buddha statue in China.  It is said that his raised right hand represents the elimination of pains while the gesture of his left hand renders happiness. On each of his hands is imprinted with the symbol “wish” and the symbol on the Buddha’s chest represents solemnity and virtue.

I was amazed at all the intricate details and beautiful colors that enriched each structure throughout the park.  From the beautiful hand-carved designs in the granite to the rich reds and golds that were used on the temples, one can see the countless time and detail that must’ve gone into each task.

It was truly impressive to say the least. All the while they had meditation music flowing in the background, which made the experience even more ethereal.  Though the park was crowded, it still felt serene – with the beautiful flowers and trees placed throughout, paired with the familiar smell of incense floating through the air, my heart naturally felt at peace.

Above is the Lingshan Brahma Palace which has the art palace and spiritual sanctuary.  The architectural influences include Kazo tower styles combined with Chinese Buddhist grotto art, keeping Buddhist influences strong in every structure.  I especially liked the gold tipped domes and gold-plated doors, which gave off a very majestic appearance.

They also made all visitors wear shoe covers before entering the palace.  I thought this was quite clever, because not only does it keep the dirt off the exquisitely designed marble floors, but the millions and millions of feet constantly “sweep” the floors as they walk.  Collin had to wear TWO shoe covers since he has unusually large feet (haha!).

All around the palace you will find these hand carved wooden structures also known as Dongyang wooden carvings – some of these intricate structures took as many as 1800 working days to finish (almost FIVE years), talk about dedication people! But the result is well worth the time – my eyes were stricken by awe, observing all the details and beautiful craftsmanship that went into each piece of art.

As you walk towards the Aisle and Tower hall of the Brahma palace, this visually stunning tower of magic awaits you.  The 60 meter arch roof is filled with orchestrated lights that transition in colors – surrounded by more painted wooden sculptures of Buddhist elements; you couldn’t help but become enraptured by the all the astounding details throughout the domed ceilings.  At the very center of the ceiling looked like a certain circle of constellations – anyone who’s an astronomer (or who loves astronomy) can tell me what the constellations are?  I was curious of their significance.

This was probably my favorite piece of art.  This entire wall is made of Liuli glass – which is an ancient tradition of glass making in China.  Liuli glass uses a very special type of casting method referred to as a “lost-wax” technique that uses finely powdered glass mixed with a binding substance and colorants. The process of creating Liuli Glass is not an easy task – the entire formation is painstakingly difficult including the instability of the molds used and the high temperatures needed to mold the glass paste into a solid form.  The beauty of Liuli glass is the immersion of bright beautiful colors and only this type of glass can contain multiple colors within one piece, it is not possible with any type of glass or crystal work for they would crack under the high temperatures.

My mother is Buddhist, and as a child she never really explained much about the religion.  She would always take me to temples during the New Year where we would light candles and she would buy prayer cards that served different purposes – prayers for love, health, longevity, good fortune.  But that was about all I knew.  Aside from the smelly incense that would stink up the house and finding Buddha’s ears to be unusually large, it wasn’t until later that I fully came to appreciate the religion.

Buddhism of the contemporary world is known as “Humanistic Buddhism” which preaches belief on the importance of appreciating life and contributing to society – with a heavy emphasis on equality for all and maintaining a harmonious coexistence.  The ultimate goal is to promote the world’s harmony, civilization and development so that the people of the world can share harmony, happiness and unlimited brightness regardless of nations, races and beliefs.

All throughout the grounds, you will find thousands and thousands of people carrying around red candles and incense, each person carrying a different hope.  I was amazed to see how many candles there were – and yes, I bought one too and lit it (5 times because it kept blowing out) and placed all of my wishes for my friends and family into it.  On the candle it says in Chinese “Nian Nian You Guang” meaning every year you will have light.

I often wonder what people pray about – the health of their parents, success for their business, good marks on report cards for their kids.  But all of their hopes are poured (prayed) into these candles – I found it interesting that the wax collectively pools into one large vat, containing all of our good and positive thoughts for loved ones.

I come to understand that hope and faith is what keeps our lives going – it gives us a reason to wake up each morning, to tackle the world with the best of our abilities and ultimately achieving the results we’ve thought and prayed so long for.  I remember the simplicity of my hopes when I was younger – “I hope Jonathan goes out with me. I hope dad lets me go to the movies with my friends. I hope I get straight As.”  The naivety of my adolescent nature made life seem so dramatic back then.

Now as I’m entering the early stages of “adulthood” my hopes have gradually evolved – “I hope I live a fulfilling life.  I hope I make my parents proud.  I hope I will inspire and spread good virtue to others.”  Life quickly becomes complicated as you are presented with bigger responsibilities and yes, it is scary but at the same time, extremely exciting.  The evolution of oneself is dependent entirely on you – the way you interpret shortcomings in life, the effect you chose to have on others and most importantly, the lessons you learn through the people you meet and the experiences you’ve had.

This is the largest Buddha hand in the world, standing 12 meters tall it is an exact replica of the hand on the Grand Buddha.  Supposedly, if you walk around the hand and repeatedly slap (or high-five) the bronze hand it will bring you good luck.  The wear and tear over the years is clear from the million upon million sets of hands that have touched the Grand Buddha’s palm.  Note the extreme happiness on everyone’s faces as they walked around the structure.  I gave it at least 20 high-fives, because a bit of good luck never hurt anyone ^_^!

I found this hand beautiful because people of all different ages go to touch this hand, from small children to adolescents to young adults down to the elderly.  It’s as if everyone’s happiness is infused into this gigantic palm – perhaps that is why it brings good luck and fortune.

As we were walking through the grounds, we had several little children come up to us – eager to practice their English skills “Hello! How are you? What is your name?”  It was absolutely ADORABLE.  I was so impressed to see how well they all spoke English and with such a sense of fearlessness and confidence in their personalities.  It was a nice break from the blatant staring we usually get wherever we went.

Ah yes. The BLATANT staring.  I first noticed it when I went back in college — wherever I went, people would stare.  I asked my mother ” What are they looking at? Why are they staring at me?” which she replied “It’s cuz you’ve got a big head.”


But this time, with my 6’2″ white partner in crime, the stares got turned on to a whole new level.  People are shameless here, they will stop in their tracks and just STARE at you.  But here, people stared of course, but Collin developed a fan group.  Yes ladies and gentlemen, little girls around the age of 10-12 chased Collin around asking to take pictures with them and please guess who had to take the pictures. Yes, that would be ME.

Please note the level of smugness all over Collin’s face as well — because nobody wanted to take a picture with me 😦 *saaad panda*.  It was cute though, those little girls sure did get giddy, maybe they thought he was a movie star or a sports player but either way Collin welcomed the glorious attention :).

Our last stop was the sculpture of devil suppressing.  This grand sculpture is representative of how Buddha achieved enlightenment through suppressing the devils of women, terror, money, power, and slander.  For six years, Buddha sat under a Bodhi tree, where for 7 days and 7 nights of deep meditation he was finally able to prevail the different devils of evil.  It was then that he finally attained true Enlightenment.  (INTENSE!)

After a wonderful adventure in Lingshan we worked up quite the appetite.  But of course Jiu Ma had it all planned out (because she is number 1!!).  Unfortunately I forgot the name of the restaurant we ventured to but they served traditional Wu Xi cuisine.  We ordered Wu Xi xiao long bao and the infamous Wu Xi Spare Ribs.

Wu Xi cuisine is known for their play on sweet and savory cooking styles.  These spareribs adopts the common Eastern technique of “Red Cooking” where the meat is slowly simmered in a stock of rice wine and soy sauce, enhanced by the rich flavors of ginger, star anise and cloves.  It is then smothered in a sweet red sauce, I am not sure what it’s exactly made of but I DO KNOW that it is finger-lickin good.  The Wu Xi xiao long bao were quite tasty too, though I prefer the Shanghainese ones more, the filling was a bit sweet for me.

I will save my second half of the trip for the next post — from Wu Xi we went to Su Zhou where I had my wedding dress made!  Also stay tuned for all the different types of Szechuan food we ate in Shanghai — Collin loves spicy food so my family made sure he had his fair share before we went home.  Thanks for sticking it out for so long, until next time…

Shanghai Pt. 2 – Introduction to the Family

The excitement of my aunt and uncle was so endearing to me.  The minute we arrived at their house they busily buzzed around, making sure we were taken care of — “Would you guys like some hot tea? Do you need more hangers?  We have fruit, apples, pears, oranges — here we’ll cut you some to eat while you unpack.”  Why would I ever want to stay at a 5-star hotel when I get treatment like this?  It just comes to show that nothing is better than family. Granted I’ve only met them a total of three times, their love and hospitality instantly made me feel at home.  Jiu Ma surprised me with my favorite breakfast in the morning – Sheng Jian Bao.

I think one of the most incredible culinary treasures of Shanghai would have to be the Sheng Jian Bao.  Don’t get me wrong, I love Xiao Long Bao but these are just absolutely ridiculous.  Every time I come to Shanghai, this is the first place I stop.  I still remember the first time I tasted one — my dad woke me up bright and early and said “Hey wake up! Let’s go get some breakfast”.  Bundled in our winter coats, we marched out into the cold in search of the perfect breakfast.  Thankfully it was right down the street! At the intersection of Tian Ping Lu and Guang Yuan Lu, every morning you will find a line of vendors selling all different kinds of traditional Chinese breakfast items.  But the best spot is obvious from the long line that eventually leads to a gigantic cast iron skillet, where the little bao zis are sizzling away.

In each dumpling is a glorious combination of pork filling and gelatin, the outside skin is made of semi-leaven dough so the texture is dense yet light at the same time.  The opening of the bun is placed face down on the hot oiled skillet so it creates a crispy crust opposed to a soggy one from the melted gelatin.  Water is sprayed on top of the buns to steam the outside as the bottom sizzles to a crunchy perfection.  It is then finished off with sesame seeds and chopped green onion.  With the wondrous combination of the savory soup from the melted gelatin and meat paired with the golden brown crust, it makes this a breakfast for champions.  I always feel like I am ready to take on the world every time I scarf down a couple …or four orders of these bad boys.  Collin’s favorite was Shanghai’s version of the breakfast burrito – a green Scallion Pancakes with a fresh egg on top smothered in sweet bean paste and hot chili sauce, and to kick it up a notch you can have a “You Tiao” or Chinese styled donut wrapped in the middle.

After breakfast Collin and I decided to go for a stroll at the neighborhood park – Xu Jia Hui Park before all the DIM SUM MADNESS.  One of the many things I love about Shanghai are all of the beautiful parks nestled throughout the city.  We loved all the different types of trees and plants they had growing all around the park, it was truly impressive.  The parks here serve as a peaceful place for people to relax, a solace from the busy city commotions — a fresh breath of air to center yourself and take the time to appreciate the beauties of life.

Many of the elderly come to the park early in the morning to perform “Qi Gong” which is a common meditative practice in China that employs controlled breathing techniques along with slow movements to move the “qi” or air in your body.  It is believed that  these exercises promotoes proper circulation to your body and helps maintain your overall health.

Today my grandmother was inviting Collin and I for dimsum at Jing Jiang Fan Dian (Maoming Nan Lu 59, 1 block north of Huaihai Zhong Lu, Luwan District)– which is situated inside the Jing Jiang hotel on the 5th floor.  This restaurant offered a variety of traditional Chinese Dim Sum, many dishes they have here are not made in the states so I was extremely excited about this culinary adventure.

Does this look familiar?  Apparently all the women in my family are very serious when it comes to food.  Since both my mother and Jiu ma have proper ordering glasses, maybe I should invest in a pair too :).  I have always enjoyed the culture of Chinese meals — it is always family style and there is always MORE than enough food.  A typical meal here usually lasts at least an hour and a half and sometimes over two!  You just become lost in good conversation, delicious food and the overall joyous tone that spread throughout the table.

Please note, I didn’t even take a picture of the complete spread of what Jiu Ma ordered, but let me assure you that we ran out of room on the “Lazy Susan”.  I could see Collin panicking — “How many more dishes are there Joy?  I don’t think I can eat anymore.”  Let’s rewind.  Before leaving for dimsum, I told Collin “Hey dude.  Be sure you eat A LOT because for some reason Chinese people really like it when someone new to our culture has a ‘healthy’ appetite so bring your A game.”  I couldn’t help but snicker as I watched little beads of sweat collect above his brow as my Jiu Ma enthusiastically shoved more food on his plate “COLLIN EAT” as she pointed to the two new dishes that arrived to the table, “EAT EAT EAT!!”.

Isn’t my grandmother beautiful by the way?  Despite her age, I think she really keeps it hip with her shades, granted she wears them because her eyes have become sensitive to the light, I think she is fabulous to the max 🙂  Now, onto the food.  My top favorites were the Soy Braised Chicken Feet — okay I know half of you are running towards the toilet dry heaving but I’m telling you people, don’t let the name fool you, this stuff is GOOD.  The combination of textures — the soft gelatinous skin with the denseness of the tendons, slowly braised in some kind of magical soy reduction, it instantly brings comfort to my heart (stomach).

Plenty of Xia Jiaos were consumed — shrimp dumplings wrapped in rice flour but I was not a fan of the Shanghainese version of Shu Mai.  They made theirs with a glutinous rice also braised in soy and I don’t remember it having any meat…WHERE’S THE MEAT? Some of the more unconventional dimsums included mini durian pastries, which were excellent (I was weary because I find the taste and smell of durian really off putting), Xue Mei Yang — which were little mochi balls filled with whipped cream and a sweet mango center, and puffed scallion pancakes that I personally liked better than the traditional flat pancake which is more dense in texture.

During the meal, I served as the translator between Collin and my family — it is much harder than I expected.  I found the wheels in my head turning a little rusty as I struggled to find the correct English words for the Chinese phrases and vice versa.  I tried to remember to translate as often as possible, Collin was a good sport about it the entire time.  He actually tried to pick up as many words as possible and sometimes could guess to what subjects we were talking about at the table.  By the time the food stopped coming and each of us ate to our maximum capacities, I had to put my camera down because I was truly having trouble breathing through my immense “fullness”.

This is my Jiu-Ma — she was pretty much my second mother during this entire trip.  She served as our tour guide and took us to all the eateries, tagged along on all the adventures in Wu Xi and Shu Zhou and made sure that our time in Shanghai was the best she could offer.  You will see her several times throughout my posts on Shanghai.  In her early 60s, she walked, looked and acted like she was in her mid 30s.  She really became an inspiration to me in the sense of her adventurous spirit, fearless attitude and her eagerness to learn new things and stay with the trends.  She called me and Collin “old hags” because many times throughout our trip we had trouble keeping up with her, but in my defense, this lady can speedwalk like NO OTHER.

Here is another picture of my (mom’s) family (not pictured is my First Aunt and Uncle).  Jiu Ma and Jiu Jiu are on the left along with my grandma — Collin and I are standing between Xuxu Ayi and Gufu who are long time family friends.  They are kind souls and it was really nice to see them doing so well and in good health.  The next post will be a long one (mostly pictures) — it will chronicle my adventures to WuXi and ShuZhou (where I bought my wedding dress!!).