Monthly Archives: March 2013

Xibo: An Expedition to a China I Never Knew

What was the saddest thing that you experienced in your travels?  Mine was Phuket the year before the great tsunami.  I booked a four-night birthday break and it rained straight for 48 hours.  I didn’t even get to swim in the beach because the red flag was up all the time.  I cut my trip short, packed my bags and headed back to sunny Bangkok.   Some friends lost all their gadgets and valuables to burglars in Barcelona.  A friend who was connecting from Singapore to Jakarta never got through Indo Immigration.  She left her passport in the SQ plane.  A client fell to a tourist trap somewhere in Europe – he succumbed to wily bar escorts, and then couldn’t leave unless he’d settle a faux bill worth hundreds of Euros.  Another friend had a bad fall while walking the streets of Oslo, and had to recover for two weeks in a Norwegian hospital.

But the most heartbreaking story I heard was from a friend who toured Rome, Venice, Florence and Paris with friends.  All they ate was Chinese.  One of his companions would only eat rice and some familiar meat dish.  Not a bite of foie gras, flamiche, soupe à l’oignon, pasta, risotto, not even the fabulous Venetian pizza.  He was too scared to wander off and dine alone.

I’m lucky to be a Kapampangan with a hearty appetite; luckier to have a dad who influenced me to be adventurous with food.  Scrimp on anything but food, he’d say.  Food, glorious food, is one of the prime pleasures of travel.  Discovering new tastes, scents and unfamiliar ingredients is as mind-opening as watching crazy teenagers in Harajuku.

In my last trip to Shanghai, my friends brought me to Xibo, a classy restaurant in the French Concession that served Xinjiang cuisine.  I hadn’t even heard of the Xinjiang province.  Xinjiang is in the northwestern part of China, close to Russia, Mongolia and Tibet.  The Xibo minority was descended from the Manchurians and they hosted Marco Polo when he was traversing the Silk Road.  They’re Muslims.  So if you’re craving pork dumplings, dine instead in Din Tai Fung.

I’m a useless food chronicler so I can’t tell you in detail what we had.  But trust me, it’s not your average Chinese.  It’s colorful, varied, tasty, sometimes fiery.  There’s a lot of skewered mutton, beef, chicken, fish with pickled herbs, cumin, eggplant, pumpkin, carrots, potatoes, onions, fennel, baked pancake, cold noodles, stretched noodles, a lots of chili.  The meat seemed to have been cooked in very simple ways – water-boiled, grilled or shallow-fried – thus, preserving the original meaty taste.

When in Shanghai, you must do Xibo.  It’s pure gastronomic paradise.  It’s complex, decadent, a wonderful expedition to a China that you’ve never gone before.

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Xibo: 常熟路83号3楼 83 Chang Shu Road, 3FL (near Julu Road) / +86 (21) 5403 8330

A Tourist/Traveller in Shanghai

A tourist, one writer wrote, is just someone who complains.   On the other hand, a traveller is one who sees everything else is the same back home.   Disdain pours forth against those who inspired phrases like “tourist trap” or “touristy”.    Good taste is not associated with tourists who come in teeming hordes and frenetically conquer one major sight after next.  I must call myself a traveller then.  I don’t complain; I ask a lot of questions.  But, really, it’s all semantics.   We’re all tourists most of the time.

In Shanghai, I did ask a lot of questions, though, to my Mandarin-speaking Malaysian friend who had been living there for five years.  Why do people go to the mall in their pajamas?  It used to be a status symbol; in old, poorer China, only the rich had nice sleepwear.  Why do they say Good Morning all day?  There’s no equivalent to ‘Good Afternoon’.  Just say ‘Ni hao’.  Why do turning motorists have right of way over pedestrians?  They’re in a hurry and it’s a strange government regulation.  I only see one dog being walked at a time.  Why so?  You pay higher taxes with more dogs. 

And what I always ask:  Why do people here always seem so angry and rude?  Why do you always have to raise your voice with taxi drivers?  That’s as friendly as we can get.  That’s how it is.  You have to be aggressive and direct in Shanghai.  Pushovers die in Shanghai. 

So I don’t blame Pinoys for not wanting to visit China.  I hear them complain how people spit in public, cut in lines and talk rudely to foreigners.   But snobbery against cultures alien to your own must be outlawed in tourism (or travelling).  Besides, we may be the happiest nation on earth but our own sanitation and taxi issues generate as much vitriol.

Travel includes travail.  The hazards are part of the adventure.   Cultural differences force you to be compassionate.  It’s all part of the learning process, clichéd as it may sound.  And they’re a small price to pay for the widespread pleasure.

Like eating in a nondescript local noodle shop near the French Concession in Shanghai.  Everything’s in Mandarin.  You’d find the most arrogant carinderia owner in this shop loosely translated as “Most Delicious Noodles”.  But once you get past that, you’d know why it’s worth leaving the familiar back home.   Most delicious is an understatement.

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Lessons from Beijing

I wasn’t excited at all when I was told to go to Beijing for 5 days to attend our agency’s global summit.   I remember not enjoying my first visit there 10 winters ago.  After being holed up in a hotel for 3 days, I took an extra day off to do the obligatory tourist stuff – Tiananmen, Forbidden City, the hutong stalls, Peking Duck and The Great Wall.  I thought watching the Travel Channel and Bertolucci was far more magical.  The skies were grey.  The smog was unbearable.  The city was too huge, too inaccessible and too cold to explore by foot.   

Of course, I didn’t have any choice about my return to Beijing.  But I was interested in the work part.   It was my first summit where 130 people or so from all over the world would convene to talk about how to better themselves as admen.  It was also my chance to learn about China and its consumers.  The future of marketing in my part of the world would already be happening in China.

Just being in China was also a way to learn about myself as a traveller.   After all, the whole point of travelling is to lose ourselves, understand ourselves better.   I could hear my friend Madonna say, “I don’t care where the flight would take me.  I just like being on a plane and getting my passport stamped”.

So what did my recent trip to Beijing tell about myself?

  • I’m big on airports.  The airport experience foreshadows what awaits the tourist outside its doors.   Upon my arrival, the huge Beijing International Airport conveyed a certain coldness that was more chilly than the weather outside.  Lights were turned off; so the airport was generally dark.  From the posters hung all over the terminal, the city was visibly campaigning for its people to smile more.  The campaign had yet to reach critical mass.
  • I like staying in nice hotels, and I will continue to ignore what most other tourists say: it’s enough to have a bathroom that works, and a bed to lie on.  For I spend as much time in my room recovering from an exhausting 10-hour walking tour.  I must always save enough money to afford to stay in a beautiful hotel like the Park Hyatt, wherever I go.

  • I can live without duck.
  • I love just the right amount of snowfall to recreate my Edward Scissorhands moment.  The time we spent at the Forbidden City wouldn’t have been dreamlike if we had our team banquet day in daylight, with the smog hovering.

  • I’m only a walker when I’m not in Manila.  But I can’t walk when smoke gets in my eyes.

  • Man-made architecture is just as important as natural wonders.  The soul of a city lies in its design aesthetic.   Beijing has yet to find its groove.  And it ought to be not just about scale.

  • It’s ok to keep going back to a city that I love.  I must quickly move on to a nicer place after getting bored in one.  And that’s how my nth visit to Shanghai came to be.

Someone had so much fun with a pizza menu.

Thanks to my chatty brother who told his friends from Angeles City that my group of foodies would be sampling Dennis Lim’s feast in San Fernando, we received two complimentary giant pizzas from Good Boy Pizza last Saturday. Mylo the owner wanted me to try it. If I liked his product, he asked that I promote it within my network. And if I didn’t, I thought I should just keep mum about it.

I did like it. The test of a good pizza is its quality the morning after. Those who took some home (we couldn’t finish it all since we were all stuffed from the Dennis Lim dinner) gave good reviews. So do check out Good Boy in Clark Field (tel. 045-4996969). It’s close to the Neapolitan kind. The tomatoes may not come from the slopes of Mount Vesuvius, but trust the great cooks from the Central Plains in making the ingredients necessarily excessive.

I was just as awed by the name studies in the menu. Naming brands is one of the many things we do at work. And it kills us and makes the whole dining experience un-palatable if we find pretentious offerings in the menu. We especially hate puns. “Puns are the refuge of the witless”, as one poet said. Them, in all their manifestations should be eradicated from the English language. It’s a lazy, pathological condition amongst writers.

Good Boy’s is different. It’s downright silly and does not pretend to be clever.

Mama’s Boy

AmBoy

PalaBoy

HellBoy

CowBoy

DaBoy

PlayBoy

KantoBoy

In-chickBoy

Even “CallBoy”. It’s all pepperoni.

Remembering Chino

My brother Luis Chino would have been 44 today.  We lost him one summer in late March 1974 in a drowning accident.  The circumstances that led to the unfortunate episode are still vivid in my memory.   Through the years, I have always wondered, was his death really accidental?  Was he fated to die on account of the combination of causal chains?

We were a swimming family back then, and my parents would always be there watching over us at the beach or a pool.  But they couldn’t join us the day we wanted to swim at our friend’s house.  That pool would always be clean and chlorinated.  That time, it wasn’t, and we couldn’t see the bottom of the pool.  The clinic where we brought his body was understaffed that day and was unable to administer first aid.  I was the last one to see him alive.  He wanted to climb up the guava tree with him.  I refused lest he’d fall.

In explaining the explicable, I had considered what I heard constantly during Chino’s wake.  It’s God’s will.  God works in mysterious ways.  Of course, now that I’m more mature, I reject the notion of a superior force wanting to inflict pain and despair on my family.  There remains no good evidence that God wanted that to happen.  Maybe those things were said to make it easier for us to deal with the tragedy.  Maybe we were all trying to find a reason why all those quantum forces, involving wayward guardians, the absence of chlorine and E.R. people had to happen.   The pattern was just too great to assign  to a random force.

I don’t subscribe to the belief that things happen for a reason.  In the same way that I can’t hold on to my dreams or goals knowing how my life would certainly unfold.  What I do know is I’m in control of how I must react to causes, whether good or bad.  I just have to learn from my mother, who a month after Chino’s death, tried to pull herself together and stopped grieving publicly.  She moved one with her life, with one less child to love, the moment she tucked away Chino’s effects, including his favorite red overalls.

She didn’t blame anybody for his death.  She found meaning in her loss.  She learned to love those that Chino left behind even more.  By her example, she showed how to ride the flow of challenges, and make each day an opportunity to be thankful for the gift of family.

Happy Birthday, my beautiful brother.

Pampanga’s Best-Kept Culinary Secret

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Who is Dennis Lim, and why did he cause so much stir amongst my foodie friends last Saturday?  He could well be the best Pampangan cook of his generation.

The Lim family comes from San Fernando where they put up L.A. Bakeshop near the town plaza in the mid-80s.  Ask any Fernandino about L.A. and “cheesebread” would be the immediate response.  Because of cheesebread, L.A. Bakeshop has since put up other stores around San Fernando where other must-have pasalubongs are sold.  There’s the the stir-fried pancit maiya, which I prefer to the usual rice vermicelli, more Southeast Asian in texture, much like chow mein and chow fun; dimsum; different breads; even chicharon and suka.  But that’s not what we went to Pampanga for last Saturday.  I wanted to sample food other than the traditional Pampangan fare of sisig and binagoongan, and show my friends that we also cook stuff beyond what hops, flies over or crawls through our sugarcane fields.

I knew I was in for a treat at Dennis’ kitchen, located in Sindalan, San Fernando, Pampanga.  But I didn’t expect to be balled over by his cooking.  It was also surprising that the 40ish Dennis  never had any formal culinary training.  Yet, his work deserves a whole season on The Food Network.

I can only surmise how the whole Lim baking business helped shape Dennis’ passion for uncomplicated and unpretentious cooking.  Helping Mrs. Lim make the sticky dough, and dust the pan lightly with flour, should have given him a high as a kid in the kitchen.  Bread itself is plain and unfussy, but dresses up well with the addition of accessories like cheese, bacon and butter.   Bread is familiar and comforting.   The advantage that I see in unschooled cooks is their success in making comfort food – like bread – taste and look even better.

With unschooled cooks, there are no rules to follow, no mentors to ape.   They’re free from rigid techniques, and only have instincts to trust.  That makes them creative and adventurous.

And self-deprecating, too, since they have no culinary certificates to hang on their walls.  When we walked into Dennis’ kitchen – the L.A. Bakeshop commissary-turned-dining place that was a chic and eclectic mix of exposed brick backsplash; stainless countertops; shelves of china and cooking equipment; and a long, unfinished dining table – he intimated to me that he felt quite intimidated to be cooking for a party of mostly advertising people, the stereotypically opinionated.   It didn’t help him any that we all looked tired and famished from the drive from Manila.  But from the moment he put the first dish on the table – the milkfish spread with capers and olives with freshly baked ciabatta – Dennis didn’t disappoint.  The group yelled Bravo! Bravo! after every dish was served.

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Here was the menu for that night.  All these you must sample when you book at Dennis’.  (You must book way in advance because the Sindalan secret’s out.  His weekends are getting filled until June.  He only cooks for one party a night, and only does dinner. )

Milkfish-Caper Spread:  Shredded bangus with capers, olives and herbs
.  With Ciabatta Loaf – his version version of a crusty bread.3

Zach’s Twisted Salad – A twist of Asian and Western salads: papaya, bean sprouts, apples and carrots, topped with sesame peanut crunch.2

The pièce de résistance:  Pugon Liempo with Balsamic Reduction.  A wood-burning, oven-roasted Pork Belly that takes 5 to 6 hours to cook.

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My fave:  Beef a la Dione.  Slow Cooked Beef Brisket on Red Wine and Smokey Sauce.6

Gone in an instant.  Pasta Nathalia.  Garlic, Capers, Olives, Anchovies and Smoked Red Capsicum.4

The highly recommend Grilled Pepper Crabs.  Freshly ground black pepper and lemon butter marinade, then grilled and topped with chili flakes.  5

Dessert isn’t served.  I suggest you bring Nathaniel’s Buko Pandan, the perfect counterpoint to all of those intense flavors.

Again, Bravo Chef Dennis Lim!

You may reach Dennis through:                                                                                                         Tel no. (045) 4350067; or Facebook account denlim1210@yahoo.com.ph