Tea Eggs

The first tea eggs I saw were in a battered metal bowl perched on a stool on the side of a road in a small Chinese town. Submerged in frothy, brown cooking liquid, they seemed almost an afterthought—a meager offering compared to the intricate noodle dishes offered at the neighboring street food stalls. But the stream of traffic was steady, and the older woman, with cropped, graying hair, had a friendly chat with each customer.

It took a few week to try the eggs—I had heard rumors of eggs fermented in horse urine (completely untrue as I later discovered), and didn’t have the language skill to ask if these were them.

The smell of the liquid convinced me to try one. It was warm and Christmassy, like a savory mulled cider. How could that ever be scary?

I peeled my first tea egg to reveal a beautiful, batik-like pattern on the egg white. I was quickly hooked—the rich fragrant liquid permeates the egg white with hints of soy, anise and rice wine, elevating a boiled egg to a flavorful accompaniment to rice porridge or a quick snack on the go.

Tea eggs: 茶叶蛋

Eight years ago, when I arrived back in New York City after living in China for a year, I not only missed the chaos of living in close proximity to 1.5 billion other people — well, in reality, my town was a “village” of just eight-hundred thousand — but I also craved delicious bowls of my favorite street food, lamian.

I had lived on these hand-pulled noodles, and sometimes suspected that the rumors of opium-laced broth were true, as during winter nights, there was little that could take my mind off that delicious meal.

I Googled lamian immediately on my return, assuming that surely, in New York City, there would be an abundance of options. I was thrilled at the prospect of introducing friends to the wonder of lamian.

I was, however, shocked to find that in 2002 the search “lamian+new york” returned no results, so I spent the better part of a year on obscure sites and expat forums.

About six months later I found a brief mention of a hole-in-the-wall that served hand-pulled noodles. Lamian wasn’t specified, but I was hopeful.

I trekked downtown with a hungover friend in tow. We were the only non-Chinese in the restaurant and the other patrons regarded us with a look of surprise, especially when I used my rusty Chinese to order. I requested  lamian, but was corrected by the waitress, nui rou mian (beef noodle soup). The meal was tasty, cheap, and a close approximation, but it lacked the depth of flavor I was hankering for.

About that time, another American teacher, a friend I’d meet in China, called and casually mentioned a new cookbook, The Food of China. “The food actually tastes Chinese,” she noted. I quickly ordered the book and was drawn to the recipe for cinnamon beef noodle soup. While the recipe didn’t specify lamian, the combination of flavors looked right. One test and I was proven correct — I’d found my lamian!

There are now lamian restaurants throughout New York; however, I find many of the broths weak imitations of the first lamian I fell in love with. So here’s the recipe from The Food of China that I believe captures the complexity of flavors I’ve been searching for but can’t always find.

Although about.china.com has thorough instructions on how to hand-pull noodles, my level of coordination isn’t up for the task, but with this recipe I have mastered the broth.

Lanzhou Lamian (Cinnamon Beef Noodle Soup)

Serves 6

1 teaspoon oil

10 scallions, cut into 1″ pieces

10 garlic cloves thinly sliced

6 slices of ginger smashed  with the flat side of a cleaver

1 1/2 t chile bean paste (Togan Jiang)  *****need photo

2 cinnamon  sticks (primarily use cassia in China)

2 star anise

1/2 cup light soy sauce

2 lb chuck steak, trimmed and cut into 1 1/2 inch cubes

thick wheat noodles

chopped scallion and cilantro for garnish

Heat oil in large saucepan. Stir-fry scallions, garlic, ginger, chile bean paste, cinnamon and star anise until fragrant (1 mintue). Add soy sauce and 9 cups of water. Bring to a boil and add beef.Simmer covered for 1 1/2 hours, until beef is tender. Skim foam from surface of broth to remove impurities and fat. Remove ginger and cinnamon.

Cook noodles in broth, serve topped with chopped meat, scallions, cilantro and lajiao.

Radishes and Carrots

Radish and Carrot Street Food Vendor in Delhi

Radish and Carrot Street Food Vendor in Delhi

Piles of white radishes and garnet-colored carrots, simply adorned with typical Indian flavors, are the simplest of Indian street food and offer a refreshing antidote for a humid summer day. But these basic treats are potentially the most hazardous, as vendors sometimes clean their wears with polluted water, which can cause catastrophic stomach upsets.

Radishes and Carrots

Radishes and Carrots

Only frequent a vendor whose carrots and radishes are not yet peeled. (The vendor in these photos had already peeled her veggies but I wanted to take these photos as her sari was a majestically colored contrast to her wears and the Deli cityscape.) Use your bottled water to wash the vegetables and rinse the vendor’s knife before peeling–most vendors expect this request from foreign visitors. Then watch hungrily as the vendor slices open your root veggie of choice and sprinkles on a mixture of roasted crushed cumin and salt. A slice of lime, expertly squeezed on top, completes this snack.

White Radish with Cumin, Salt and Lime

White Radish with Cumin, Salt and Lime

The Chilean Completo

Completo Stand at the Chilean Border

Completo Stand at the Chilean Border

We hadn’t even crossed over the Chilean border in the Andes, when a road-side street food stall and a five hour wait at customs enticed us to try Chile’s most popular street food: the Completo–the ultimate South American hot dog.

For 1000 Chilean Pesos, ($1.59) I was given a microwaved hot dog in a white bun, heartily adorned with fresh chopped tomatoes, smashed avocados and topped with a theatrical squirt of mayo–the fixings making it the Completo. To further customize your dog, two jars at the counter contained a spicy, mustard based salsa and ketchup.

The Completo

The Completo

While it wasn’t the most refined meal, and I personally would have preferred a little less mayo, the texture of the chopped fresh tomatoes provided a crisp contrast to the mashed avocado and firm ‘dog. And of course, as I’m a spice fiend, I relished the additional spicy sauces. Now, if only we can figure out how to make Chilean customs faster…

Lamian, My Love!

Lamian Broth Boiling

Lamian Broth Boiling

My love affair with Chinese street food began at the lamian stall on a tree-lined alleyway, across from the school where I taught English in Danyang, a “small” town of 800,000, near Shanghai.

With the first chewy slurp of lamian (拉面)—hand-pulled noodles—served to me in a rich meat broth, I was addicted.

To create this delectable dish, wheat dough is expertly stretched with a few flicks of the wrist into long, thin noodles—a move that would be at home in a Looney ‘Toons cartoon—then dropped into a cauldron of boiling mutton, or beef, broth.

The noodles are a Hui dish from Lanzhou, a town in Gansu Province in western China. The Hui are ethnically Han but converted to Islam, different from the Uighurs, China’s other large Islamic minority, who are of Turkic descent.

After 4 minutes the cook scoops the noodles and broth into a deep bowl, which he tops with a few tender chunks of fatty, braised meat. The dish is garnished with fresh scallions and cilantro, providing a sharp contrast to the oily richness of the broth. However, a bowl of lamian is never really complete—at least for my spice-loving palate—without a generous dollop of lajiao, which is the roasted chili condiment found on nearly every Chinese restaurant table.

Hand-Cutting Daoxiaomain

Noodle Maestro at Work

During my first few weeks in China, I didn’t understand the mysteries of the simple street-side restaurant, as many resembled open-air houses rather than places of business. Toward the back of these “restaurants”—or even on the sidewalks in front—I often saw men lounging on string beds, which made the deciphering of home or restaurant all the more difficult. I feared embarrassing myself by walking into someone’s private kitchen.

But at my neighborhood lamian stall, the elder son, with his hennaed-hair and white cap, would stand at a metal table just off the street, flicking the dough and impressing those who passed. This was clearly a restaurant.

The husband and wife team were in charge of the broth, continually simmering large joints of meat and spices from early morning till their late-night closing, while their youngest son took my payment and served the food. Although I was thousands of miles from Lanzhou, the diaspora of the Hui and Uyghurs to affluent eastern China (and, thankfully, to the US) has made this dish a staple throughout this vast country.

Like all great street eats, lamain is cheap. In 2002, a large bowl of lamain sold for a mere 2 yuan (USD $0.29). Six years later the price had risen to about 5 yuan (USD $0.73), mostly due to China’s rocketing food prices. But at least for the visitor, a hearty bowl of lamian is still one of the best deals around.

It’s easy to spot a lamian stall in China. Just look for a poster of Mecca taped to the wall, the white-capped chefs, and the show-boating of the noodle pullers. Or, as I have done when craving the dish and not knowing where to look, ask any passerby, “Lamian?” while make a pulling gesture with your hands—it’s instantly understood.



These stalls often serve other tasty dishes like daoxiaomain—irregularly shaped, hand cut noodles originating from the Shanxi province—or chaomian, stir-fried hand-pulled or cut noodles in a meaty tomato broth…kind of like a delicious spaghetti bolognese!

I have rarely found a broth that rivals that of my local noodle haunt in Danyang, where the combination of flavors, from cassia to pepper and garlic, mitigated any need for the still-ubiquitous MSG. But though that broth was a far cry from some lesser lamian broths I’ve since slurped, each time I eat lamian I savor the chewy noodles and the artistry of the pasta-pulling.

Menu Decoder:
lamain (拉面)—hand-pulled noodles in a meat broth (5 yuan = USD $0.73)
daoxiaomian (刀削麵)—thick and chewy hand-cut noodles served either in a beef broth (6 yuan) or stir fried with tomato and cabbage (8-12 yuan = USD $1.17 – $1.75)
chaomian (炒麵)—stir-fried, hand-pulled or hand-cut noodles in a beef or tomato based sauce (8-12 yuan = USD $1.17 – $1.75)

Coffee in Pondy

Coffee on the Rocks

When my neighbor on the train from Kolkata to Chennai finally stopped snoring–20 hours into the rain-delayed journey–I wasn’t really in the mood to chat. But within minutes he caught my attention, “The south of India is different from the north,” he said. “We drink coffee down here.”

After traveling across Russia, Mongolia and China, where people are tea drinkers and coffee is at best cheap and watery but generally ends up costing more than a hotel room (and is still watery), those words were magical.

In the US, coffee is the ultimate street food. In urban centers, during rush hour, most people seem to be clutching a coffee-to-go. That doesn’t exist over here. Chai stands (the most ubiquitous morning beverage) are served roadside in glass cups which are then rinsed and reused for the next customer. Questionably hygienic but great for the environment! The morning tea break in India is a stop on the way to work with a few moments to catch up with friends and neighbors rather than a walk-to-work accessory.

Pondicherry (now officially called Puducherry), our destination in Southern India, was a French colony until the 1950s and with locals riding on bikes and chatting in French past the elegant colonnade homes that line the waterfront, Pondicherry’s colonial history didn’t seem that far past. So we felt we were well placed to quench our coffee cravings.

The Pondicherry tourist office runs a cafe overlooking the water selling small plates of food and non-alcoholic drinks. I typically take my coffee plain, but the hot humid heat coerced me into trying the Coffee on the Rocks for 50 rupees ($1) — espresso on ice with lemon. The menu didn’t disclose the secret ingredient, the item that took this coffee from merely refreshing to sublime: cassia.

Cassia bark is thicker and coarser looking than the cinnamon we commonly get in the US, although it’s a related spice and native to parts of Asia. The flavor is sweeter than our traditional cinnamon, but a little still goes a long way.

Coffee on the Rocks

  • 2 shots of espresso
  • 1 t sugar
  • 1 inch piece of cassia bark, broken into quarters
  • 2 2-inch long strips of lemon zest
  • Ice

Brew 2 shots of espresso (or strong coffee): I like mine from my Moka pot

Pour coffee over the sugar and cassia bark. Stir to dissolve sugar and muddle cassia.

Twist the lemon zest and throw it in the coffee along with a handful of ice.

Pondicherry, India

Pumkpin Bought in a Kolkata Market

Even though we’re in India, and have been eating copious quantities and watching sport (cricket!) each day, we couldn’t let the fourth Thursday in November go by without doing more of the same.

So to thank our friends, Michael, Mina and Munu Anthony, who’d treated us to a week of deliciously home cooked meals, evenings out, restaurant visits and Bengali sweets, we decided to host Thanksgiving in our borrowed flat.

We’d already cooked one meal, a simple chicken (no ground beef in India) bolognaise and learned that no matter how tasty the dish, it wouldn’t fly with our Bengali friends without some amount of pique—the Anthonys chewed on fiery green chilies in between each bite of bolognaise! So we spiced up traditional Thanksgiving fare with chili, cayenne, turmeric and a myriad of other spices.

  • Spiced Sweet Potato Soup
  • Dry-fried Sichuanese-style Green Beans
  • Roast Cauliflower and Pumpkin
  • Chicken Onion Curry

A Kolkata Fish MarketThe day began with a trip to the local market, where Mina haggled over the price and quality of each ingredient on our list, walking us from one end of the market to the other, ensuring our potatoes, cauliflower and chilies were the best available. We bought our veggies and then perused the fish market as Mina needed fresh fish for lunch. It was the only fish market I’ve visited where the fish smells fresh and oceany rather than pongingly fishy.

The fish mongers sat on tables with two-foot-long fixed knives jutting up in front of them and their fish laid out to the side. As they sliced the fish as per their customer’s instructions, they dribbled the fish blood over the other fish to enhance the flavor of the meat as it lay waiting to be bought.

After buying fish steaks we walked to the grains, where dal and rice were stacked in 50-pound, burlap sacks. Mina walked to the corner of a rice stall and waited as though doing some undercover deal, and within moments, a guy wearing a blood-covered shirt approached Mina; she spoke rapidly to him in Bengali, he asked a few questions, which she answered, and then we were off. Did we just buy rice? Contract a murder? We continued our shopping and about 15 minutes later returned to the edge of the rice and grain stall. The man met us again with a bag of bloodied chicken bits, slaughtered, cleaned and cut to our specifications! We returned to the house by rickshaw and began our cooking.

Spiced Sweet Potato Soup

Sweet Potato Soup

Serves 8-10

  • 6 cups chicken stock either store bought or for home-made: 1 onion (we used a red onion as that was the only kind available), veg ends, 2 lbs chicken backs and any other “extra” bits
  • 3 lbs sweet potatoes, peeled and chopped into 1/2 chunks
  • 1 large onion, finely chopped
  • 2 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
  • 1 1/2 T garam masala * We used Shahi brand garam masala with is a combination of clove, cinnamon, nutmeg, small cardamom, big cardamom, black pepper, taj, and paprika. But there are many variations and many recipes out there.
  • 1 T chili powder
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 2 cups milk
  • Cream for garnish
  • Vegetable oil

We divided the chicken, so fresh it was still warm, into wobbly, boney bits (for stock) and meaty bits for our main meal.

For stock: Heat oil and fry up diced onion and garlic until they release their juices—3-5 minutes. Add chicken bits and brown. The browning of the chicken will determine the end richness of the stock so don’t move too quickly here—10-15 minutes. Once sufficiently brown, add 1 t salt and any vegetable trimmings you have—we used green bean ends and cauliflower trimmings—cover with water and simmer for about an hour until the stock is rich in flavor and strain.

In a fresh pan, heat 2 T of oil over medium-high heat and fry the finely chopped onion and garlic until they begin to brown. Add the spices and cook gently to increase their flavor. Add potatoes and cover with stock. Simmer until potatoes are tender, about 20 minutes.

Transfer potatoes to a blender with a slotted spoon and puree in batches with broth. Adjust amount of broth (you will not need all of it!) to create a thick, soup-like consistency. Depending on the starchiness of the potatoes this will vary greatly.

Return to pot and add 2 cups of milk and bring to simmer. Season with salt and pepper and serve with a swirl of fresh cream.

*We were only able to find white sweet potatoes in India. The flavor of the soup was still divine and the garam masala brought about hints of pumpkin pie; however, the sludgy grey color left a bit to be desired.

Dry-Fried Sichuanese Green Beans

I love Fuscia Dunlop’s Dry-Fried Green Bean recipe from her brilliant cookbook, Land of Plenty, as seen on Leite’s Culinaria. However, with the constraints of the local Kolkata market, we needed to improvise. Also, we wanted a milder dish so as not to compete with our main spicy chicken dish. We’d been seduced by the smell of the Sichuanese peppercorns in a market in Xian and had bought a bag of them all the way from China (and yes, my scent du jour is eau de peppercorn!) So this is a milder dish than Dunlop’s (and not authentically Chinese) but it maintains that addictive “mala” tang and allows the floral Sichuan pepper corn to really take the lead!

  • 1 lb green beans, trimmed
  • 2 T oil
  • 1 1/2 T Sichuanese peppercorns
  • 1/2 red pepper flakes

Dry roast the Sichuanese peppercorns over a medium heat until they begin to color. Remove from heat and crush coarsely.

Heat oil in a frying pan and stir fry beans over a medium-high heat until they begin to pucker. The beans will be tender but firm. Add crushed peppercorns, red pepper flakes and season with salt and pepper.

Our main course was from Great Indian Dishes, by Rafi Fernandez:

Chickens in Spicy Onion (Murgh Do Piyaza)

Serves 4-6


  • 3lbs chicken jointed and skinnedChicken with Spice Rub
  • ½ t turmeric
  • ½ t chili powder
  • Salt, to taste
  • 4T oil
  • 4 small onions, finely chopped
  • 6 oz (2 bunches) of fresh coriander (cilantro) leaves, coarsely chopped
  • 1 piece fresh ginger, 2 inches long, finely grated
  • 2 green chilies, finely chopped
  • 2 t cumin seeds, dry-roasted
  • 1/3 cup plain yoghurt
  • 1/3 cup heavy cream
  • ½ t cornstarch

Rub the chicken joins with the turmeric, chili powder and salt. Heat the oil in a frying pan and try the chicken pieces without overlapping until both sides are browned. Remove and keep warm.

Cooking Up Onion and SpicesReheat the oil and fry 3 of the chopped onions and 5 oz of the coriander (cilantro), half the ginger, the green chilies and the cumin seeds until the onions are translucent. Return the chicken to the pan with any juices and mix well. Cover and cook gently for 15 minutes.

Remove the pan from the heat and allow to cool a little. Mix together the yoghurt, cream and cornstarch and gradually fold into the chicken mixing well.

Return the pan to the heat and gently cook until the chicken is tender. Just before serving, stir in the reserved onion, coriander and ginger. Season with salt and pepper and serve hot.

Thanksgiving Dinner

And in true Indian fashion, the feast wouldn’t have been complete without the finery. Both David and I were dressed up, painted, and adorned in traditional Indian clothes. Me, in an orange, sequin-encrusted saree and David in a traditional Punjabi top.