Autumn’s eating

I’d thought that our trip to Germany would be a quiet one, where we would largely stay at home, read, go for long walks in forests turning to gold. We did this for about a week before we began to travel extensively. My plans of cooking with seasonal produce came to nothing. I passed a farmer’s markets once, and looked longingly at the pumpkins, mushrooms and ginger. A mushroom stock is a nice thing to use with a pumpkin, tomato and ginger soup. I had it planned out in my mind. But because I was going to travel for the next four days, I just took the featured photo instead of buying the produce.

Eventually my closest brushes with seasonal food came in some restaurants. I searched for a place which would serve goose, though the beginning of November was too early for it. The first two courses gave us goose, quail and duck. Game is also seasonal food. The main course of roast duck with potato dumplings, baked apple, and red cabbage with pears was a typical Westphalian dish, with a balance of sweet and salt. That night the temperature had dropped to about two degrees, so this hearty food was delightful.

The dessert was another very local and seasonal creation: gingerbread creme brulee with a pumpkin seed parfait. The nutty parfait was wonderful with the candied orange peels that you can see in the photo above. I’d never had a gingerbread creme brulee before. It was quite a surprise. It was a big meal, but one I was happy to have tasted.

The familiar dumpling

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Until yesterday I subscribed to the myth that Chinese food in India is nothing like the real Chinese food. But yesterday I walked into one of a chain of dumpling restaurants called Meituan. The menu was in Chinese, the English part was not a translation, but Pinyin: Chinese written out in the Roman script. This left us a little flummoxed. Our terror grew when the waiter explained with gestures that when we made our choices we should enter them into a printed form that was on the table. Eventually this turned out to be easier than it first seemed, because every dish was numbered, and the form had the corresponding number.

This problem being resolved, we turned to the more pleasant job of deciphering the Chinese from the photos. The first discovery was that wontons were on the menu but they were called hun tun in Mandarin (the word we are familiar with comes from Cantonese). Siu mai was also on the menu, but called shao mai. We decided to have one of each, and then add some dumplings which looked familiar, and one which didn’t. When they arrived, these tasted completely familiar: exactly what I have eaten in Chinese restaurants in India. We confidently spiced the wonton soup with the chili sauce and soya to make a complete Indian potage out of it. The unfamiliar looking dumpling was dark in colour and the skin had a very nice flavour. Perhaps it was made of millets.

There were many things which were new to us. Among them was something which had been recommended by a friend: er ba. These are glutinous rice balls rolled in bamboo leaves and then stuffed inside the hollow stem of bamboo to be steamed. We ordered a plate. They were unfamiliar but very good: the flavour of bamboo reminded me of the Kerala breakfast dish called puttu. But the rice has a different taste, and it had little crunchy pieces of something fairly aromatic which added to the experience.

The most surprising items were the other two whose photos are alongside. The Shou Gong Ci Ba was the one dish The Family was dubious about, “I hope it is not egg”. It was the first thing to arrive at the table. I looked at the deep brown sauce and the light tan dusting of garnish over it and said it reminded me of something sweet. It was. The dark sauce was molasses, with a wonderful dark and earthy taste, and the filling in the dumpling was sweet. It reminded me of a traditional Bengali sweet called pitha which my grandmother used to make.

From the fact that the balls came in so many colours, we figured that the Du Jia Zhan Fen Tang Yuan would be sweet. It was the last to arrive. The garnish was sweet: crushed biscuits and peanuts, and the filling was mildly sweet. A good end to a satisfying meal.

Interestingly, the eight dishes we had ordered cost very little. With the beer added on, we paid a touch over RMB 100 for the meal. The Family pronounces it a good meal and the best value we have got from an unrecommended restaurant.