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Temple of Heaven and Heavenly Tea in China

The Temple of Heaven, along with the Forbidden City, is a must-see attraction in Beijing. Both of these amazing building complexes were constructed in the 15th century by the Yongle Emperor, the third emperor of the Ming Dynasty.

The Temple of Heaven comprises a complex of beautiful buildings set inside a lovely and extensive park. Its purpose was for the Emperor to pray for good harvests.

The Circular Mound Altar was constructed in the 16th century in the time of the Ming Dynasty. Its purpose was for the Emperor to pray for favourable weather, particularly in times of drought. It has three circular terraces, each of which has four entrances with precisely nine steps. The number nine plays a significant part of the architectural design with many of the numbers of pillars and slates being multiples of nine. It is surrounded by gorgeous marble carvings. The design also allows sound to resonate throughout the construction creating an echo that amplifies a voice – useful for the Emperor to make certain that the gods would hear his prayers.

The Imperial Vault of Heaven is circular building, one storey tall.

From this, a walkway leads to the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests. Like the Imperial Vault, it is a gorgeous circular construction, and large too, at 36 m across and 38m high. As its name suggests, it was here that the Emperor prayed for good harvests. A wooden construction, apparently built without using nails. The decoration is marvellous – highly detailed and intricate. The detailed decoration contains images of mythical creatures and birds and radiates with a wonderful glow as the light of the setting sun casts its rays upon the building.

There are a number of tea houses just outside the park. They provide an opportunity to taste a variety of Chinese teas.

It was in one of these that we discovered blooming teas. These are neatly crafted hand-bundled into a small ball, a little smaller than a ping pong ball. They look rather nondescript folded up.

But pop them into some boiling water and they bloom into a flower whilst infusing the water to create tea. They are usually comprised of white tea or green tea leaves. Sometimes jasmine or similar flowers are used.

The flavour is mild but some have a touch of tannin.

Delicious and beautiful. You can buy these online. We also treated ourselves to a splendid glass teapot so that we could enjoy watching the flower bloom.

Couple of things worth noting. If you are on a tour you are likely be invited to purchase products in the inevitable shop that can be found alongside museums, factories, tourist attractions and tea shops. Our experience was that we weren’t pressured to buy anything. We also found that in some factory outlets prices were regulated by the government which meant that we didn’t have to haggle, much to our relief, because we’re rubbish at it. Although we did somehow come home bearing a vaccuum-packed silk duvet from one emporium because it was genuinely good value.

There are some scams whereby friendly people approach you and invite you to drink tea with them at a local tea house. It may be perfectly legitimate and genuine but there have been situations where you are taken to what appears to be a charming, authentic tea house and when the bill arrives it is considerably higher than you might expect for a pot of tea.

Noodle Review: Sau Tao Shrimp-Eggs Noodle

BRAND: Sau Tao Brand
FLAVOUR: Shrimp-Eggs Noodle – Wonton Soup Flavour
TYPE: Normal (with shrimp egg)
No. OF SACHETS: Two – Soup base and sesame oil
COUNTRY: China/Hong Kong

Sau Tao Brand Shrimp-Eggs Noodle (Wonton Soup Flavour) is a product that is as tasty as its name is unwieldy. Although not the most competitively priced noodle the extra money has been lavished in all the important areas – the noodles themselves are made with the titular shrimp-egg, which appear in the ingredients listing before the cheaper standard egg and result in extra bite. It doesn’t end there as the water used is apparently Alkali Water and the noodles themselves manufactured strictly using ‘Electrical drying, Fresh and clean,’ techniques for optimum consumer confidence and bags of flavour. Likewise, the soup base packs in plenty of prawn powder punch and even finds room for some dehydrated chives, a refreshing change from the occasional leek that one comes across. The oil is a sesame/vegetable blend that is not too overpowering, which means that the overall package offers a highly recommended gourmet noodle with a delicate aroma and a wonderful creamy stock.

Not for the novice as it can be easily under/overcooked but we wholeheartedly endorse this for the experienced noodler. Even the packaging is light and breezy, assured and modern with a gentle contrast between the featured blues and pinks.

*Retro noodle packet

Gong Xi Fa Cai or Gung Hay Fat Choy! Happy New Year!

Lunar New Year is the most important date in the Chinese calendar. It is celebrated not only in China but many other South East Asian countries. Although it is usually known as Chinese New Year in Western countries it is more commonly known as Spring Festival at home. It’s a really busy time of year when people travel across the country to visit their families in their home towns and it’s worth noting that flights and trains are likely to be booked up and very crowded. But it’s a joyous time and everyone in the country views it as a cause for celebration. Displays featuring the animals of the zodiac can be found all over town.

It’s also a lovely time of year because spring blossoms are often coming into bloom, especially in the southern part of the country.

Food is an important part of Chinese New Year when families come together and enjoy the celebrations. We have spent new year with Chinese friends in the UK who served us a feast. Traditional dishes include a whole fish, this one cooked with ginger, garlic and spring onion. It’s important that the fish is served whole – head to tail represents the start and end of the year and it also represents plentiful food and good luck.

This fish dish is easy to cook and tastes delicious. There’s a recipe here. Catfish and carp are popular fish.

We also sat around the table and made jiaozi (dumplings). These represent old-style Chinese coins which symbolise prosperity throughout the year. It’s great fun to sit around a table together drinking beer and chatting as you fill the dumplings, which are later boiled, steamed and/or fried and then enjoyed at midnight. Sometimes a gold coin is put inside one of the dumplings for a lucky recipient. The dumplings can be filled using a variety of ingredients: minced pork and cabbage or chive (or cabbage and chive), chicken, mutton, prawns or fish are popular, as are vegetable fillings, such as mushrooms, cabbage, leek, spinach, and spring onions. Any of these ingredients can be combined. The dumplings are usually served with a dipping sauce. Soy sauce with vinegar and sesame oil is popular and gives a salt, sour, smoky flavour to accompany the dumplings. You can make it to taste but it’s worth noting that you only need a tiny amount of sesame oil – just a few drops – as it has an incredibly intense flavour. Some dipping sauces add a dash of chilli oil to provide heat.

Other traditional foods include noodles, which represent longevity (due to the length of the noodles) and happiness as well as spring rolls which represent wealth. Sweet dishes include glutinous rice cake which apparently ensure you can aim for a higher position in life/work (and hence the prospect of a better income) and sweet rice balls which represent family harmony. These, particularly, are eaten throughout spring festival.

Although the highlight of the celebrations revolve around the lunar new year, Spring Festival actually lasts for a fortnight. It begins on the new moon and ends 15 days later on the full moon. The last night is known as the Lantern Festival.  Red lanterns can be seen everywhere towards the end of the celebrations. This can be a bit confusing as during the rest of the year red lanterns will often indicate that the establishment is a restaurant.

We were lucky enough to be in Xi’an on the last night of Spring Festival some years ago and went along to the Big Wild Goose Pagoda to join in the celebrations. We had never seen so many fireworks – they started at 6pm and went on till midnight – you could see fireworks in every direction you looked – and hear firecrackers. (In recent years, use of fireworks has been reduced or banned for environmental reasons.) The atmosphere was terrific – everyone was incredibly friendly on this happy occasion – and it was very much a family event.

Xi’an has a dancing fountain – it has the form of a T shape that is about 50m across and 100m long. It’s located on the north square of the Big Wild Goose Pagoda. Every night a variety of music that ranges from traditional Chinese to Western classical and Cantopop plays – and the fountain dances along, forming a colourful waterscape. All the water drains away immediately into a reservoir to be stored for the next show. The timing of the show varies depending on the season so, if you are visiting the area, it’s worth checking out the timetable so as to be sure to catch it.

2021 is the year of the Ox. According to legend the Ox is the second animal of the zodiac who was originally due to be the first to arrive at the Jade Emperor’s party. However, the sneaky rat had cadged a lift on the ox’s back, jumped off as they approached their final destination and arrived first.

Recipe: Baked Sea Bass with Ginger, Garlic and Spring Onion

1 whole sea bass, scaled and gutted

5 cm ginger

5 spring onions

3 cloves of garlic

1 chilli for garnish

To make the dish:

Turn on the oven to 200C, 180C fan, or gas mark 6.

Slice the ginger and 4 of the spring onions into julienned strips, roughly chop the garlic and stuff into the cavity of the bass.

Place the whole sea bass onto a sheet of baking parchment.

Bring the sides of the paper over the fish and make a loose fold.

Bung into the oven and cook for 25 minutes.

When the sea bass is cooked, open up the paper parchment – the smell is amazing!

Then garnish with the remaining chopped spring onion and finely sliced chilli. When celebrating Chinese Spring Festival at New Year, the fish is served whole to the table as a sharing dish.

Noodle Review: Doll Sesame Oil and Vegetarian Diet

FLAVOUR: Sesame Oil and Vegetarian Diet
TYPE: Normal
No. OF SACHETS: Three – Sesame oil, dried vegetables, soupbase
COUNTRY: Hong Kong

It has its own insulated cook-in pot. It comes with a ‘complimentary fork’ (and indeed it was, it mentioned how healthy I was looking today, the plastic tongued little devil!). It’s got kitsch cool graphics around the side. It’s veggie. It cooks like a dream (one water trip – no fussing). All the dehydrated veg re-hydrate (masses of plus points there). It smells divine.

But wait. Let’s eat. Cracking stuff -there are wonderful coils of mock squid, there’s seaweed (and it tastes of it too – not just like crap spinach) and whole sesame seeds, there’s mushrooms and all sorts of stuff. Not spicy, just nicey. I’ll be honest and say I really wasn’t expecting much from this one but I can honestly say that this is a treat to make and eat – a little pricey and the plastic fork is strictly for emergencies but the flavour and choice of textures and tastes on offer make this a real winner.

*Retro noodle packet

Noodle Review: Samar Chilli Chicken

BRAND: Samar
FLAVOUR: Chilli Chicken
TYPE: Normal
No. OF SACHETS: One – Soup base

Noodle Review: Samar Chilli Chicken

Plain but kaleidoscopic wrapping and the indication that this is ‘Delicious Chilli Chicken’ with the CorelDraw noodle bowls and the general ‘normalness’ of the whole packaging affair leads one to presume that this is an average product. Indeed this is not the world’s greatest noodle but it’s cheap, tasty and there is a nice ginger kick that is unexpected but welcome. Not just the chicken flavour with some chilli added, this really is a separate flavour – unfortunately it lacks the subtle depth of its heat-free chicken stablemate but don’t let that put you off a more than adequate snack.

*Retro noodle packet