Recipe – Chinese tea eggs

A lot of the food I miss from living in Beijing is difficult to near impossible for me to cook now that I’m back in the states. Some of it is lack of ingredients, some just lack of specialized skills, and some of it is (in my opinion) a hearty dose of wizardry. I have never had properly cooked 干煸四季豆 (Sichuan dry-fried green beans) outside of China, not even in a Chinese restaurant. It’s like there’s some sort of magnetic field that keeps all the deliciousness on the mainland.

However, one of my absolute favorite Chinese breakfast/snack foods is actually easy (and fun!) to make at home. 茶叶蛋, known in English as “tea eggs” are a staple in China. You’ll see them bubbling away in vats at grocery stores, neighborhood restaurants, and sometimes just on the sidewalk with a long extension cord reaching back to someone’s apartment.

They’re made by cracking the shells of boiled eggs and then simmering them in a savory broth. The end result is a subtly seasoned egg with a pretty marbled pattern on its surface. While they’re great for eating pretty much any time, tea eggs would make a particularly great addition to your Easter brunch or Passover seder.

Lapsang souchong tea

The most important element to a delicious tea egg is obviously the tea. I am a firm believer in using Lapsang Souchong (known in Chinese as 正山小种), a variety of tea from Fujian Province. After the leaves are picked they dry them over a wood fire, resulting in a very smoky tea. You can probably find it in any large specialty market (like a Wegmans or Whole Foods) or you can do what I do and buy it online.

Now, when I say the tea is smoky I mean very smoky. It smells like a campfire when you open the bag. In addition to tea eggs, I think it’s great for making a hot toddy, especially if you’re a fan of earthy liquors like Laphroaig. If you can’t find Lapsang Souchong, yerba mate tea also has some of the same smoky qualities.

Some people just use regular black tea, and in a pinch it will certainly do the trick. The flavor won’t have quite the same depth, but you will still get the lattice patterns. I am a huge fan of this smoky Earl Grey tea from Fortnum & Mason, and if I ever find it for sale locally I would love to give tea eggs a try using it.

star anise

There are just a few other spices involved, but it’s important that you use quality star anise here. I promise that the eggs won’t come out tasting like licorice. It helps enhance the herbal qualities of the tea, especially when paired with the cinnamon sticks. It’s also important that you buy the star anise from a shop that you trust, because there are two different types. One kind (from China and Southeast Asia) is delicious and edible, while the other (from Japan) is poisonous and should only be used as potpourri. The link I provide above is for a reputable source, and although a pound of star anise is a lot to buy, there are all sorts of amazing recipes you can make with it.

Ingredients

  • 6-8 eggs, hard boiled (reserve boiling water in pot)
  • 1/2 cup soy sauce
  • 1 tsp. coconut palm sugar (or your sugar of choice)
  • 1/2 tsp. celery salt (optional)

Sachet containing:

  • 4g Lapsang Souchong loose tea (equivalent to 2 tea bags)
  • 3 pieces star anise
  • 1 cinnamon stick (broken in half if necessary to fit)
  • 2-4 pieces fresh orange peel

Recipe instructions

Place your eggs in a pot and add enough water to cover them, plus about two inches. I’d say just go ahead and cook them to hard boiled, but if you feel comfortable handling a medium boiled egg that would work as well. Once your eggs are cooked, remove them from the pot with a slotted spoon and leave the water in the pot. Turn the heat down to low and leave the water simmering. Place the eggs in a colander and run cold water over them until they’re cool enough to handle.

Once the eggs are cool, take each egg and tap all over the surface of the shell with the back of a spoon or the dull side of a knife. This is the only step that requires a bit of finesse – crack too lightly and the broth won’t make it through the layers of the shell; crack too hard and the shell will fall off and disrupt the pattern. I would say err on the side of gentle at first, until you get a feel for it. You can always give the shell another few whacks if you don’t think it was adequate the first time.

tea egg spices

Let the eggs sit for a few minutes on the counter before you put them back in the pot. This will allow for some of the water to drain from within the shell. While the eggs are sitting, add the soy saucesugar, and celery salt to the simmering water and stir to dissolve. Using the slotted spoon, carefully lower each egg back into the broth. Then, add the tea sachet into the pot and cover it.

The length of time that the eggs simmer is really a matter of preference. I like to let them simmer, covered, over low heat for about an hour. Then, I take the pot off the heat, leave it covered, and let the eggs steep in the hot broth for another hour. At this point, if you’d like to eat the eggs you totally can. But I would recommend transferring the eggs and the broth to a glass container (removing and discarding the sachet), covering the container, and leaving it to steep in the fridge overnight.

tea eggs

The eggs pictured here were steeped overnight and eaten cold, because I was lazy and anxious to bite into them. When I’m not feeling that lazy, I prefer to eat my tea eggs slightly warm (not piping hot). To do this, take the eggs (still in the shell) out of the fridge and simmer them in the steeping liquid until warm. Then peel and enjoy!

I think the flavor stands out enough on its own, but if you wanted to get a little fancier with your brunch presentation tea eggs also taste great with a little dollop of sriracha mayonnaise (1 part sriracha to 3 parts mayo).

Update 3/29

I had a lot of leftover tea eggs in the fridge from recipe testing, so I decided this afternoon to turn them into egg salad. You don’t get the cool presentation of the pattern, but I will say that chopped tea eggsmayo = super delicious egg salad. No other spices necessary, unless you want to add in a bit more salt.

Exit, pursued by a bear

For a while, it was all the rage for expats to write a “Why I’m Leaving China” essay on the way out. For Mark Kitto, it was a slightly bitter diatribe about the futility of assimilation. For Charlie Custer, who left in quasi-clandestine fashion, it was more like a heads up that he was gone, but still scathing nonetheless. These letters made such sexy fodder for the China news hawks that earlier this year CNN published a letter from a guy nobody had really heard of explaining that he was leaving China because he got a new job in Vancouver, so he left and is going to work there now, just in case you guys were wondering where he went.

The truth is, for the most part, expats are transient by nature. We’re people who like to explore, creatively minded, looking for an interesting challenge. Is this true of all people living abroad? No, of course not. But I think it holds true for a lot of the people I’ve met while living far away from home, and from time to time, far outside my comfort zone. If it wasn’t a valuable experience, I wouldn’t have moved abroad twice. Three times if you count Canada (it’s actually more foreign than you’d think).

There was pollution in 2005 too. We just didn't talk about it.

There was pollution in 2005 too. We just didn’t talk about it.

When I first moved to Beijing in 2005 I was a wide-eyed kid, freshly graduated from college. I wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted to do, but I knew that I wanted to do something different. When my Chinese professor suggested I consider taking an English teaching job at her childhood school in Beijing it took me about 15 seconds of deliberation before telling her to set the wheels in motion. The second time I moved here, nearly three years ago, it was more of a strategic decision than a whim. The financial crisis made it nearly impossible to find job opportunities at home in advertising (a field I had fallen in love with), but my CV pulled a bit more weight in China. I was able to cut my teeth in the digital marketplace with an amazing amount of autonomy and creative control.

Yes, the pollution is an issue, but it’s also not enough to drive me away. There are the little things that grate on my nerves, constant construction topping the list, but there are always going to be minor annoyances in your life. Changing location just changes their form; it doesn’t eliminate them. At the end of the day, the reason I’m leaving is the same reason I came here in the first place – I want to do something different. It really is that simple. Add to that the fact that I would like to live closer to my family for a while, and buying the plane ticket back to America was an easy decision.

When I started thinking about all those angry leaving letters I couldn’t help but fixate on the idea of a swan song. When a kettle boils, it whistles. So, why is it that when people boil, they seethe? (This is a rhetorical question, obviously, since kettles are not subject to human emotion. The moment they are, the machines have won.) But in all seriousness, I like the idea of a melodic exit, a moment of beauty plucked from a tumultuous time. In the spirit of that, I leave Beijing with this tune. It very eloquently sums up how I feel about this place, and this experience, both the good and the bad.

And if you find it cheesy, well that’s just how I roll.

Taste test: Potato all the chips!

A few months ago in the US, people were going crazy for 3 flavors of Lay’s chips pitted against each other in a contest for permanent production status. In reviewing the Chicken & Waffles, Sriracha, and Cheesy Garlic Bread chips, The New York Post said that they “were about as far away from the classic BBQ, Sour Cream & Onion and Salt & Vinegar varieties than one could imagine.” The good people at the NYP have obviously never been to China.

c-11

Just in time for stuff-your-face hibernation season, I bring you a comprehensive review of all the Lay’s flavors we could find at my local Beijing supermarket. What’s important to remember here is that these are just the Lay’s chips I rounded up. There are countless other crunchy potato snacks in countless other flavors, and quite frankly the task of collecting and tasting all of them is just too daunting.

As it was, I needed to enlist the help of my friends Alex, Ami and Sam (who are fellow snack food enthusiasts/fearless eaters) in order to make it through the stack of greasy goodness piled up in my living room. Ami also happens to be a mustard lover, and thus gave me her opinions of some chips dipped into all the mustards she found in my fridge.

c-08

These are what I would call “classic” flavors, meaning they’ve been around in China for quite some time and are the flavors you’re most likely to find even at a small kiosk shop. These are, from left to right, Texas Grilled BBQ, Mexican Tomato Chicken, and Italian Red Meat. Not pictured (or taste-tested) is the American Classic, which is just a standard no-frills potato chip.

Texas Grilled BBQ

Natalie: Tastes like something I don’t like. Just, no.

Ami: Bleh x2

Alex: Not too sweet, but not very meaty? It tastes, but I have no idea what it tastes like.

Mexican Tomato Chicken

Natalie: There’s nothing Mexican or chicken about it. But there is tomato. Sort of.

Sam: It just tastes like sweet tomato.

Alex: Sweet! Tomato flavor, but not chicken.

Italian Red Meat

Natalie: I get a hint of ginger and garlic, but not red meat.

Sam: Flavor is really weak. I don’t even know how to describe it other than vaguely sweet?

Alex: Actually tastes like meat, but also very sweet. It’s a very accessible flavor, not too weird.

Verdict

Of all the “classics” we’d honestly rather stick to just plain potato chips, but if we had to choose another flavor to declare edible it would have to be the Italian Red Meat.

c-04

This next group are the “fresh” flavors of Lime and Cucumber. The alleged freshness comes from the addition of xylitol powder to the chips, causing a sort of cool burst in your mouth like you’d get from chewing gum. Lay’s also makes a “fresh” Tomato flavor, but thankfully my market didn’t have any in stock. There were so many damned tomato chips in the bunch that I couldn’t even look at pasta sauce without cringing for a few weeks after we finished our tasting. They used to also make Blueberry flavor and Lemon Iced Tea flavor as part of this series, but they’re no longer on the market.

Lime

Natalie: Tastes sweet – like a citrus soda or a lime candy.

Ami: It’s like a Jolly Rancher in chip form.

Sam: Smells like Seven-Up and tastes extremely sweet.

Alex: KEY LIME PIE!

Cucumber

Natalie: It kind of reminds me of cucumber rind under all the xylitol dust.

Ami: Cucumber Mojito. Nori aroma.

Sam: Legit tastes like the Wrigley’s cucumber-mint gum. Mint chips = no.

Alex: Tastes like cucumber, but I don’t want that in a potato chip!!! Why would you sweeten it?!?!

Verdict

We’re a bit split on this one. Ami and I both liked the strange tingly cucumber flavor, but Sam and Alex were strongly against. Lime wasn’t terrible, per se, but it tasted more like candy than potato chip. Unless you’re a fan of coating your tongue with xylitol, it’s probably best to steer clear.

c-05

The new kids on the block, these flavors were also part of a flavor vote at the end of the summer. They include Sweetie BBQ Pork, Wildly Grilled Rib, Fun Wasabi Shrimp, Spicy Green Peppercorn Fish, and Zesty Tomato. In addition to the strangest pictures on the bag, this group also happens to have my favorite flavor translations. China has a habit of adding unnecessary descriptors that is in part responsible for the funny menu items you’ll see now and again.

Sweetie BBQ Pork

Natalie: Smells like dim sum. Not a strong flavor, but inoffensive.

Ami: Like pork floss.

Sam: Tastes sweet but then I was left feeling confused about if this is what pork is supposed to taste like. Chip gave up too soon.

Alex: Tastes like BBQ sauce, but only for a second. Unsatisfying long term.

Wildly Grilled Rib

Fun fact on this one: The Chinese name of the chip is Cowboy Flavor. Which thankfully is not what it’s actually made from.

c-07

Natalie: Tastes like a burst of cowboy in the face. Or chargrill.

Ami: Smoky, peppery, not meaty, not sweet. Improved by mustard.

Alex: I guess they can’t make it taste like meat, so they make it taste like things around the meat.

Fun Wasabi Shrimp

Natalie: Wasabi, yes. Shrimp, no. Mild, a bit sweet, and really tasty. I could eat an entire bag.

Ami: Not nose-tickling enough. Amazing with whole grain mustard.

Sam: Not that spicy, but definitely tastes like wasabi. My favorite so far.

Spicy Green Peppercorn Fish

By far, this bag had the least appetizing image on it. If I wasn’t organizing a taste test, I never would have picked this up in the store of my own free will.

c-06

Natalie: Firebombed my tongue. It’s 0% fish and 100% peppercorn, with a hint of lemon.

Sam: What? Where is the fish? Just tastes like nasty peppercorns.

Alex: VERY PEPPERCORN! It’s spicy, but long-term won’t burn your face off.

Zesty Tomato

Natalie: Tastes like tomato paste with a slight kick.

Ami: Little bit of zest at the end. Mustard was overpowered by the chip.

Sam: Wow! So zesty! Tastes like fresh tomato.

Alex: Not as sweet as other tomato flavors, and tastes more fresh.

Verdict

Chips in this group were unanimously hit or miss. If we were going to sit down with a bag of chips and a good rom-com on a cold night, we would all lean towards the Fun Wasabi Shrimp, despite its distinct lack of shrimp-ness.

c-09

This group of chips are a bit difficult to classify, so they’re lumped together as the oddballs. They include Hot & Sour Fish Soup, Cheese Lobster and Cola Chicken. Lay’s went so far as to call Cheese Lobster a “classic great taste,” but we refused to accept this and thus excluded it from the “classics” section. Interestingly, the Cola Chicken is the only variety of Lay’s we’ve ever seen in China that didn’t have an English translation of the flavor on the bag. There’s a fairly popular dish in China that is made by boiling chicken wings in a spicy cola sauce, and this flavor is meant to replicate that. More specifically, the flavor actually translates to Pepsi® Chicken, since they have the same parent company as Lay’s.

Hot & Sour Fish Soup

Natalie: Tastes like aged vinegar and nothing else.

Ami: Blah. Sweet. Marginally improved by the addition of Ikea mustard.

Sam: Thankfully does not taste like fish.

Cheese Lobster

Natalie: Strangely sweet. Vague lobster flavor. Even more vague cheese flavor.

Ami: Red Lobster biscuit! Not improved by mustard.

Sam: Initially tasted like a lobster, but later started tasting like a strange, bland version of an onion pie.

Alex: Definitely NOT classic flavor.

Cola Chicken

Natalie: Pretty much the only chip that tastes like the name.

Ami: Closest match to advertised flavor. It smells like flat soda.

Alex: Smells like Pepsi, tastes like chicken.

Verdict

We wouldn’t recommend any of these for actual snacking, unless you’re a fan of cola chicken. We’re not fans, but we’re still willing to admit it does actually taste like the food it’s supposed to mimic.

c-01

I wasn’t going to include canned chips in this review, but then I saw these flavors and couldn’t resist the urge to add them to the mix. They are Mediterranean Roasted Chicken, Finger Licking Braised Pork, and Spicy Seafood. A lot of the other flavors we reviewed are also available in the extra-processed, molded can chip form, for those who prefer their snack food pre-chewed and pressed into discs.

Mediterranean Roasted Chicken

Natalie: Vaguely herbal, no chicken, definitely nothing roasted.

Ami: Chicken bouillon.

Sam: I don’t really get what this is supposed to taste like, but it tastes bland with an aftertaste of oil.

Alex: Weird smoky flavor.

Finger Licking Braised Pork

Natalie: Just tastes like crunchy to me…

Alex: It only tastes like something when you lick it. And that’s no way to eat a potato chip.

Sam: I actually thought this tasted pretty accurate.

Spicy Seafood

Natalie: Smells like fish food. Tastes innocuous. Just not good.

Alex: Tiny spicy! Shrimp paste? Still just crunchy.

[Sam refused to even eat this one after smelling it. I think she had the right idea.]

Verdict

Just don’t. Not these. Not ever.

c-02

Ok, they’re not chips, but they are still technically a Lay’s product so we decided to include these as a bonus round. Regular, manna-from-heaven cheesy Cheetos are (for reasons unknown to me) not sold in China. Instead, they offer up these two varieties: Tomato Beef and American-Style Roasted Chicken.

Tomato Beef

Natalie: THIS IS NOT A CHEETO. It’s an impostor.

Sam: This is why China will never be a #1 superpower. They can’t even do Cheetos right.

Alex: Why does this exist? Although it is meatier than the Italian Red Meat chips.

American-Style Roasted Chicken

Natalie: This is the most unAmerican thing I have encountered in a while.

Alex: Tastes like Chicken Twisties.

Ami: Less offensive than Tomato Beef, but still not good.

Verdict

The fact that these even exist is an offense to common decency. And to cheese. And also cheetahs. Somewhere in China a drunk exchange student is quietly weeping into a bag of American-Style Roasted Chicken Cheetos and wondering if life is still worth living.

Previous Taste Tests

Hello Kitty Beer

Oreos vs. Faux-reos

Salad bar sociologist

When I was a kid I used to love family outings to Sizzler, although not really because of the salad bar. I mostly looked forward to the soft serve machine adjacent to the salad bar that they (abandoning all sense of logic and decency) allowed children to operate unsupervised. Thanks in part to health and safety regulations, it seems that Sizzler has all but disappeared from the American landscape. However, luckily for me, China doesn’t really pay much attention to health and safety regulations.

For ¥52 (roughly $8.50) you can get the unlimited salad bar at Sizzler, or 时时乐, which loosely translates as HAPPY TIME! Yes, the caps are necessary to convey the excitement of the double “时” in their name. This ¥52 also gets you one piece of cheese toast and as much people watching as you can get in before the restaurant closes. You technically receive the salad bar free if you order one of their entrees, but these are all insanely expensive and look as though they were microwaved by a stewardess on a regional airline.

I only eat the "gourmet mix" because I'm obviously a foodie

I only eat the “gourmet mix” because I’m obviously a foodie

Even better than all-you-can-eat wasabi potato salad (which is difficult to top) is all-you-can-watch couples on dates at Sizzler. Alex and I like to make sure we get our money’s worth, so we were there long enough for the tables around us to clear a few times over. She is by far more of a salad bar champion than I am, having managed to eat half a dozen plates of salad and fruit. She also turned pasta sauce into soup, because nobody tells her how to live her life. Respect.

Things I observed at the Sizzler while Alex showed the lettuce who’s boss:

  • Not one, not two, but three gentlemen ordering for their lady friends like they were at a restaurant with chez in its name
  • A dude sitting solo speared his steak rather than cut it into pieces. He bit chunks out of it like a raptor.
  • An older couple in track suits power walking between their table and the buffet
  • Lots of ladies food hoarding. They would fill five or six plates before they started eating. I don’t think they understand how a salad bar works.
  • At the insistence of his date, one dedicated fellow left Sizzler, bought hot milk tea at another stall, and returned triumphantly, a provider
  • A couple arrived already eating fried potato balls from a different restaurant. They did not properly prepare for salad bar domination.
  • Several guys drinking cans of beer not on the menu. Apparently Chinese Sizzler is BYOB.
  • A man who kept making trips to the salad bar for things his date requested. She would continue eating while he made subsequent trips. She obviously wears the (stretchy) pants in that relationship.

I’m not sure if the clientele is as entertaining at other locations, but I can safely recommend the U-Town Mall branch of Sizzler for some Grade A people watching and Grade D steak. Seriously, don’t order the meats. Just stick to the salad bar and enjoy the show.

Hello Kitty, goodbye liver

They released an official Sanrio sanctioned Hello Kitty beer in China, and I drank it so you don’t have to. You’re welcome, internet. Rumor is that there are at least 4 flavors, possibly 6, but currently I could only find two of them at my local 7-11. The one on the left is lemon-lime and the one on the right is peach. Both contain 2.3% alcohol and 5% fruit juice.

First impression? I swear it looks like Hello Kitty is farting out the fruit. This does not give me a good feeling about the contents of the can.

Lemon-lime and Peach

Lemon-lime and Peach

Kotaku recently had one of their writers test the beers as well, and he actually gave them a glowing review. His takeaway from the experience was this:

They’re so ridiculously smooth and tasty that one can barely tell they’re drinking beer. It’s almost like drinking fruit juice, even if the cans do say “beer” (啤酒 or pi jiu).

So, I figured that I was just being overly cynical when judging the can. Maybe Hello Kitty fruit beer wouldn’t be so bad. Maybe it would be refreshing and enjoyable. Maybe it would make an excellent option for daytime drinking in public.

I saved the can in case I need it at the emergency room

I saved the can in case I need it at the emergency room

I decided to try the lemon-lime beer first because it made a bit more sense to me. You put a lime in Corona or orange in Blue Moon, so a citrus beer is not all that divergent from what I’m used to. I cracked it open and was greeted with the unmistakable aroma of freshly laid asphalt. Seriously, holding the can near my face was like inhaling tar steam. Adorable, cartoon tar steam.

The taste? Absolutely terrible. It was like someone combined watery beer and flat Sprite, poured it on the pavement, had me lick it, then gave me a lemon rind to bite. The aftertaste was distinctly chemical, very bitter, and it lingered on my tongue for an uncomfortably long time. Consulting my notes, it seems I wrote: “I am belching and regretting my decision to drink this.”

I am concerned that this beer may be the world’s cutest poison. I would definitely never consume this again on purpose.

hello kitty peach beer

At least it looks like actual beer

After my harrowing brush with Hello Kitty death, I figured I was already halfway to hell so I may as well finish the journey. It was time to try the peach, and I decided that this time I better pour it into a glass just to make sure it wasn’t caustic. Luckily, this one didn’t smell nearly as toxic. The aroma was identical to that of a popular sweet bottled peach drink that they sell in China, and the flavor was basically a watered-down alcoholic version of it.

It is vaguely drinkable, and I could see non-beer drinkers being willing to drink it socially. If you pour it into a glass, you could blend in with other beer drinkers at a party. Then again, anyone who intentionally purchases Hello Kitty beer probably wants to be seen drinking it directly from the can. It could benefit from more carbonation.

I would also never consume this again on purpose, but at least I’m pretty sure it won’t kill me. I guess only time will tell.

Yep, it's official

Yep, it’s official

Always say yes to karaoke

This past Saturday night, we celebrated Alex’s last birthday in Beijing. It was carried out in the traditional fashion – eating meat on sticks, followed by fancy cocktails, followed by a marathon karaoke session, followed by dim sum at 6am. I only made it to the dawn because I switched over to Red Bull and bottled water around 1am, but the rest of the party was hitting the Bacardi Breezers like rebel teenagers. I know, man. S-A-T-U-R-D-A-Y Night!

If you’ve never spent any time in Asia, you probably have a very different mental picture when I say “karaoke” (or KTV as they call it here). The American image is that of a seedy bar where you have to get up on stage and perform for a room full of strangers. Either that or an adorable city hideaway full of adorable Zooey and JGL clones. Or maybe that’s just my own fantasy.

Here, karaoke is performed in a private room with your friends and a bunch of booze and snacks. Generally sweet popcorn and a fruit plate. Because we live life to the fullest. That’s not to say that karaoke clubs here aren’t still a bit seedy, but as long as you’re not there to entertain some out-of-town businessmen it’s totally legit. Just follow the rules and you’ll be fine.

They never let you have any fun

They never let you have any fun

We tend to stick to the classics – Queen, Spice Girls, Sinatra, Bon Jovi, Backstreet Boys. Okay, “classics” is perhaps a broad term. But we do know how to get down, as evidenced by Sarah’s very passionate rendition of “I Want it That Way.” This was the only photo I managed to take before someone found the mood lighting switch and we were bathed in the undulating glow of neon.

She really doesn't want to hear you say, "I want it that way."

She really doesn’t want to hear you say, “I want it that way.”

I think my personal favorite moment of the evening was when Lisa somehow found her second wind and decided to serenade us with “Wuthering Heights.” It was almost 4am, so I’d say it sounded more like Lisa doing an impression of Kristen Wiig doing a Kate Bush impression than an actual Kate Bush song. Which I think is what I liked most about it. Also, Lisa did some pretty great Kate Bush drama faces.

But more than anything else, the reason to stay up all night at karaoke is to get a first look at Beijing as the sun comes up in the morning. It’s a side of the city that I rarely see – tranquil, soft, still. It doesn’t have any of the bite, any of the pressure pushing back at you. Beijing is just there, waiting patiently for you to emerge from the KTV basement into the crisp, clean air. You can feel the city stretching, arching its back and reaching up to full height with the first light of day. It’s absolutely breathtaking, and somehow only best appreciated when you’ve been awake all night.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

I scream for ice cream

“Hold on a minute, I’m just negotiating an ice cream budget,” is an actual sentence I actually spoke recently in the course of doing my job. Since then I’ve been traveling around sampling the city’s frozen options (which it turns out are mostly gelato and not ice cream) and taking flavor and ambiance notes like, “A girl was annoyed that I asked her to move her Prada bag from an empty table so I could sit.” Ah, the joys of Beijing in the summer.

Lest your jealousy be frothing into a creamy foam at this point, let me just say that not all the dessert I ate for work was enjoyable. Some of it was actually downright terrible. The clientele (see: Prada brat) was less than pleasant at a few of the locations. I’m also pretty sure that one of the gelato shops I sampled was just a front for laundering money, based on the, “cash only, no receipts,” conversation I had with the manager.

But nothing beats the odd exchange I had with the waitress at the last shop I visited. I mention it briefly in my review, but I’ll share the entire exchange with you here because it’s such a quintessential China moment. This cafe is in an area heavily trafficked by tourists, and I was there on a Friday evening in the middle of the summer. So, you’d think they’d have their A-team out on the floor. Not quite.

soft serve

Tasty jasmine cone from a walk-up window

I looked over the ice cream menu and decided I’d try the maple-walnut since I hadn’t seen anything like it at the other restaurants I visited. When I called over the waitress to order, she got really flustered and explained to me that she didn’t speak any English. Not a huge deal. I told her in Chinese what I wanted and that seemed to sink in.

I started taking down some notes on price and surroundings, when I saw a cup with a bright orange scoop slide onto the table. I waved her back and explained that this was in fact mango, and not maple-walnut. Just to be clear, “mango” (芒果 - mángguǒ) and “maple” (枫 – fēng) don’t sound anything alike in Chinese, so it wasn’t a case of mishearing me.

I could see the confusion quickly filling all the creases of her face. “That can’t be mango,” she said emphatically. “It’s definitely mango, you can even smell that it’s mango,” I explained. “Well, are you sure that maybe it’s not the maple one?” she asked. “Nope. Mango for sure,” I said. “Hmmmm, come with me,” she replied.

We walked together back over to the ice cream cooler, and she pointed to a container that did in fact say “maple-walnut” on its lid. She lifted the lid to show the orange contents and I sighed. “That’s mango, the name on the container is wrong,” I told her. “Really?!” (She was incredulous.) She looked around for a container labeled “mango,” lifted the lid and saw that its contents were also orange. “So, then what’s this one?” she asked me, as if I were some sort of ice cream wizard. “That’s also mango,” I said. “Really?!?!” (The level of incredulity in her voice was steadily rising.)

She looked around for another “maple-walnut,” found two containers of it (both having been opened, scooped from, and left freezer-burned, I may add) and asked me to then confirm for her that these were in fact the flavor I was seeking. “Yes.” “Are you sure?” “Yes.” “How do you know?” “There are walnuts in it.” “Is that a walnut?” “Yes.” “You’re sure?” “Yes, haven’t you seen a walnut before?” “Well, yes, but I don’t know what a maple is.” “Not a problem. It’s maple-walnut, and those are walnuts.”

In the end I got my maple-walnut scoop, but I almost wish I hadn’t. It was so bad that I didn’t even bother finishing it. She probably thought she still served me the wrong flavor and I was just being polite.

maple-walnut

Actually maple-walnut ice cream