“Bizarre Foods” on the Travel Channel: Season 2, China

Location: Mostly Guangzhou, China, a city at the mouth of the Pearl River, about 100 miles northwest of Hong Kong. Until the 1980s, this city was called Canton and is the home of Cantonese style food. Because of its location, it’s the largest trading post, thus has a vast assortment of things to eat and enormous markets for picking up ingredients. Andrew Zimmern pointed out that it also has the most restaurants per capita in all of China.

Episode Rating: 3 sheep testicles (out of 4) using Aaron’s system from his post on the Minnesota episode.

Summary: Although the China episode wasn’t the travel spree of the Bolivia one, I began to pine for real deal Chinese food and fantasized about moving to Guangzhou. Except for the worms, the starfish, the chicken feet and the jelly fish, nothing Zimmern ate seemed all that bizarre–or unusual. The focus of the episode wasn’t so much on bizarre foods, but on the culinary arts of Cantonese cooking and the philosophy around it. Perhaps, the normalcy is because I’ve wandered in such markets and know that squid-on-a-stick, as gangley as it looks, is delicious. It’s my husband’s and daughter’s favorite street food.

Zimmern did explain that there is a saying about Cantonese food that goes something like this: “Anything that walks, swims, crawls, or flies with its back to heaven is edible.” The key to great taste is with freshness. Fresh ingredients makes the best food.

I first got hunger pangs during Zimmern’s eat-fest at Guangzhou Restaurant where dim sum is wheeled from table to table on carts. You pick what you want to eat as it passes by. As Zimmern explained, dim sum originated in Guangzhou at the time of the Silk Road’s heyday when travelers needed snacks to take with them on their journeys. At this meal, Zimmern sucked and gnawed away on fried chicken feet–which he loved. He turned up his nose at the stir fried milk with shrimp dish and proclaimed the braised and steamed abalone as melt in your mouth delicious. The duck feet stuffed with ground shrimp was also terrific.

The next stop was Jin Ling Lou Restaurant where the offerings wandered into the unusual. Turtle meat soup, pigeon, arachnids and suckling pig. Maybe not the suckling pig, except it was whole, and Zimmern commented on the earwax and hair.

During a walk through Qingping Market, Zimmern talked about the Chi, of foods. Rabbit meat has a cooling energy flow while chicken’s energy is hot. A balanced meal includes both. Next stop was the 5-star restaurant Summer Palace at the Shangri-La Hotel where executive chef Jacky Chan, cooked up jelly fish salad, frogs legs, hairy crab and braised pork. Zimmern mentioned the number of ingredients in many Chinese dishes. One sauce has 30 plus items.

More arduous than making sauces is noodle making. At the Jiu Mao Jiu Noodle Restaurant, Zimmern gave noodle making a try. Experts can make one noodles 50 to 60 meters long. If I were in Guangzhou, I’d head here. The noodle dishes sounded yummy. Truly. Nothing strange about them.

Zimmern’s foray outside Guangzhou included a stop in Qinxin, a mountain town that specializes in fungus. Two dishes I’d love to try are the river fish with fungus and the morel mushrooms stuffed with pork and then breaded and fried. The last stop was a family farm where all the food was grown and caught by the family members. Again, all 12 dishes looked and sounded so good, that I was salivating by the end of the episode.

One theme that showed up over and over again was the generosity that Chinese people show through their food. I can vouch that if a person in China or Taiwan takes you out for a meal, you’ll be in for a visual and tasty treat where dish after dish appears. No one expects you to eat chicken feet if you don’t want to.

To find out more about the food on the episode and the principles of Chinese food, check out Zimmern’s blog.

Long weekends: Penang, Malaysia, perfect for a three to four day jaunt

One of the great things about living in Singapore is how easy it is to travel from there to other places. When I lived there, one of the first things we would do each August at the start of the Singapore American School school year was figure out where we wanted to go on school holidays. There were several three-day weekends sprinkled throughout the year. Planning early meant getting a flight to where we wanted to go. On holidays, everyone scrambles to get out.

One place we headed to on a three nights, four day vacation was to the island of Penang on the north-western coast of Malaysia. This trip was before kids, but everything we did was kid-friendly. It was also dad-friendly. My father went along with us on this particular long weekend away.

Penang is a perfect mix of history, beaches, nature and terrific food. Not too touristy, unlike what has happened to several beach areas of Thailand, but touristy enough that the hotels know what travelers might like and you can find a variety of interesting things to do. We went here based on recommendations of a few different teacher friends of ours.

Although we did hang out on the beach a little, we’re not exactly beach people, so we spent more of our time at other Penang offerings. George Town, the state capital has historic buildings which have not lost their flavor for what life was like here in the 19th and early 20th century. There is an interesting mix of temples, museums, shop houses and hotels that can easily take up an afternoon of sightseeing. We did take a day tour with a guide that made getting around to various sites simple and easy. (When traveling with family members, almost always choose simple and easy. It’s a sanity saver.)

Another place we went was The Butterfly Farm. According the Penang Web site, this was the first butterfly farm set up in the world. I remember it as being utterly gorgeous and fascinating. The ride through the island countryside was part of the allure.

Here’s another travel hint. Stay at a modest hotel and splurge on a brunch buffet at a swankier place. We stayed at the Lone Pine Hotel in Batu Ferringhi and had brunch next door at the Shangri-La. We also took over a few of the Shangri-La’s beach chairs and no one seemed to notice.