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Beijing, China — This past week, my nephew Jordan Wittrock had his friend Cristobal Alvarez visited Beijing. Cris and Jordan attended culinary school together in San Francisco. While Cris was here to explore Beijing culture, history, scale the Great Wall, meander through hutongs, and bike to the markets, he was also here to explore Chinese food and share Mexican recipes. Beijing has a few Mexican restaurants, and while Amigo or the recently closed Casa Latina have come close to satisfying my Mexican food hankerings, those of us who have had the pleasure of eating Mexican food in Mexico, California, Arizona, Florida, or Texas, are desperately looking for the Beijing Mexican restaurant to quell our cravings for a moment.
The great thing about cooking Mexican food in China is that most of the ingredients are already here — thanks to spice trades and ships that sailed for eastern wonders. Chillies and cilantro are originally from Latin America. Cumin spice you’d find in Mexican food is also abundant in India and China. Xinjiang cuisine uses cumin to season their lamb, making it irresistible. One of my favorite snacks in China is the Xinjiang lamb kabob (羊肉串), seasoned with ground cumin seed, ground chili pepper, sesame seed, and salt. The only thing we couldn’t find was chorizo, a spicy, smoked spanish sausage. We thought about using xiāngcháng, the Chinese sausage, but the only spicy one I could think of, I was afraid might have Sichuan peppercorn in it thus throwing in a flavor we didn’t need.
As preparations began, Jordan shaved red onion and radishes for a salad he invented. I don’t own a mandoline, and I probably should, but Jordan brought his over from San Francisco. We had fun trying to shave the thinnest, most transparent radish slice.
A gorgeous fun addition to the fiesta on a plate was xīnlíng měi (心灵美, watermelon radish), green outside and fuchsia inside. Jordan taught me how to segment a green tangerine; very easy and makes the green tangerine look like a gem.
Cris brought to Beijing the flavors that send me into withdrawals after leaving California. We steamed tortillas (bought at Jenny Lou’s) in my Chinese bamboo steam basket and topped them with guisado de puerco (炖猪, pork stewed in salsa roja 红酱), and guisa de calabaza, a sauté of zucchini, corn, spicy sausage, and jalapeños. I think one of my favorite things was furthering the cross-cultural exchange by cooking Mexican food using my woks (炒锅), mortar and pestle (迫击炮和杵), and stacked steam baskets (竹蒸茏). I didn’t let Cris return to California without teaching me the recipes to sustain my Mexican satiations.
The next day, we hosted a dinner party of 15 people and brought Cris’ home flavor of Jalisco to Beijing. One guest brought a friend from Mexico living in Beijing, who was very happy to join us for dinner. I mused myself a sangria after Cris had told me how he boils down hibiscus flower to make an agua fresca (juice). I was surprised he found dried hibiscus at the local Carrefour (家乐福). I boiled down the hibiscus flowers for ten minutes, added vanilla pods, a little sugar, to make a tart, floral concentrate. Right before the party I added six bottles of sparkling wine (Brut), sliced green tangerine, and a little tequila.
Hibiscus rosa-sinensis was named by Carolus Linnaeus. It has many names in Chinese: chijin赤槿、riji 日及、fusang 扶桑、fosang 佛桑、hongfusang 红扶桑、hongmujin 红木槿、sangjin 桑槿、huohonghua 火红花、zhaodianhong 照殿红、songjin 宋槿、erhonghua二红花、huashanghua 花上花、tuhonghua 土红花、jiamudan 假牡丹 and zhongguoqiangwei 中国蔷薇. Each of these many names is from a different state in China, each state having its own name for the plant. — Wikipedia
We served the dinner with sour cream and guacamole then closed appetites with a crowd-pleasing flan for dessert. Naturally, tequila arrived towards the end to cap the evening with a little spirit. A little bit of Mexico graced Beijing in flavor and spirit. I want to take the ShowShanti project to Mexico some day, as long as bloggers are still welcome. Thank you Cris, for the delicious experience you shared with us in Beijing. We look forward to more of your talents as they pop up along your amazing culinary journey.