Chinese Fast Food:

New Orleans Real Chicken Hamburger in Beijing, China

Having grown up in the USA, fast food is nothing new to me. It’s something that has always been there. Something that is, for better or worse, a normal part of life. My home town in Kentucky was even sort of a testing ground for new fast food concepts, so as a kid I had access to some things before they were available anywhere else and even to some things that never made it nation-wide. Perhaps because of this, fast food in America has never been particularly interesting to me. It’s just something I see everyday. Fast food overseas, on the other hand, is something I find endlessly fascinating.

Renjoy mobile RV convenience store in Beijing, China

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As I mentioned in my previous posts, while there has been a great deal of media coverage in recent years about the proliferation of fast food in France, this is really something that is happening everywhere and has been for a long time. Every country I visit, in between hunting down traditional local specialties, I always try at least a few things from various fast food establishments. This ranges from the localized options at predominantly American fast food chains, to modern and quasi-traditional items from fast food joints of local origin.

Beijing is home to an endless variety of both of these things. It’s a place where Pizza Hut is kind of a fancy restaurant, with red wine and steaks; where KFC sells congee and Cantonese egg tarts from stores that are often open 24 hours. You can get steamed buns and fish cakes in hot broth (to go) at 7-Eleven and pretty much every American junk food brand has Chinese versions, from Coca Cola in cans labeled in Mandarin to red cooked pork flavor Lay’s potato chips.

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Beyond that there are even more interesting things, near clones of Western fast food restaurants with similar looking branding that sell Western-style food like pizza, tacos and burgers to a predominantly Chinese clientele. Find your way to any one of the hundreds of upscale shopping malls and on the top floor or in the basement you’ll find a food court plastered with advertisements for places with fast food versions of traditional Asian fare sold from shiny kiosks, each with its own specialty and corresponding back-lit full color signage.

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With an infinite number of places offering excellent versions of classic regional Chinese cuisine in Beijing, I definitely don’t recommend skipping any of it to eat cheeseburgers and fries, but fresh steamed bao stuffed with pizza ingredients?

That’s harder to argue against trying.

À La Carte (Blanche):

Fish for soupe de poisson at Toute la Maree in the Avignon Les Halles in Avignon, France

If there is anything I’ve learned in all these years of traveling, it’s that there is no substitute for first hand experience. No amount of reading or research can prepare you for what you actually find on the ground in a given place, there are just too many details, too much depth in an overwhelming volume of information to uncover. That’s why I had to go Back to France, to visit some places I’ve already been and see what changed, but mostly to go to places I’ve never seen, to see if what I’ve heard is true. Even after a decade of reading about France, of watching documentaries and travel shows, navigating endless chains of Wikipedia articles and scanning countless magazine articles and blogs in both English and French. I still found things I never knew existed, things I’ve never read about in any article and things I can’t really put into words.

A view of the village of Gordes in Vaucluse, France Flowers used as cover crops in a vineyard in Burgundy (Bourgogne), France A vineyard and house with blue shutters in the Côtes du Luberon AOC in the Rhone Valley, France

I guess that’s why I take pictures.

If you’ve been following my exploits for any length of time, you know that my concern is with the foundation of cuisine. I focus my lens primarily on ingredients, then markets and vendors, farms and fishmongers, butchers and bakers. Restaurants are important, but it is this foundation of ingredients and tradition among the general population that everything else is built upon. As long as a strong foundation exists, whatever it holds can still stand, even if completely torn down and rebuilt from scratch.

Local vegetables at the L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue market in Provence, France A view of the market in Chalon-sur-Saone, Burgundy (Bourgogne), FranceCharcuterie at the Les Halles de Lyon in Lyon, France Charolais cows in Burgundy (Bourgogne), France Fishmonger with mussels at the market in Amboise (Loire Valley)

After visiting dozens of cities and towns on this trip, driving from the Cote-d’Azur through Provence and the Rhône Valley to Lyon, then on through Burgundy and the Loire Valley, I offer a couple of observations. First, French Cuisine is alive and kicking. Second and just as importantly, the foundation of French Cuisine is still strong. I have to admit I was a little worried after all the things I’ve read over the years that all I was going to find was a cuisine completely ravaged by fast food and pre-packaged convenience foods, but that is not the case… yet.

Artisan baguettes at the L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue market in Provence, France Relatively rare French cheese (fromage) at the Les Halles de Lyon in Lyon, France. Charcuterie at a small butcher shop in Roussillon, France Banon (AOP) goat cheese (chevre) at the Marche Provencal in Antibes, France A variety of charcuterie for sale at the Marche Provencal in Antibes, France Cured ham and sausages in the Avignon Les Halles in Avignon, France

If there was any indication to me that everything had not changed for the worst, it is when I set foot in the Avignon Les Halles. While I’m sure some of the vendors have switched out over the years, in principle, the Avignon central market is more or less the same as I left it a dozen years ago. The market still sells a huge selection of the products of the region and from other parts of France. You can buy everything from seasonal, local Provençal vegetables and olive oil to Bayonne Ham. Longtime mainstays of the market, like the fishmonger La Marée Provençale, are still displaying a dizzying array of pristine seafood manually arranged on a long bed of ice every morning, just as they have done for the last two decades and more. The butchers are still cutting meat early in the morning before any customers arrive, often from whole animals.

The exterior vertical garden of the central market Avignon Les Halles in Avignon, France The Avignon Les Halles in Avignon, France Mantis shrimp (squilles) at Maree Provencale in the Avignon Les Halles in Avignon, France Jambon Ficelle a l'ancienne aux Herbes in the Avignon Les Halles in Avignon, France Herbs de Provence marinated olives in the Avignon Les Halles in Avignon, FranceSaint-Omer beer in the Avignon Les Halles in Avignon, France Oysters (huitres) at Maree Provencale in the Avignon Les Halles in Avignon, France Brie de Meaux cheese (AOP) in the Avignon Les Halles in Avignon, France Fresh fish at Toute la Maree in the Avignon Les Halles in Avignon, FranceSausages and offal at a butcher (boucherie) in the Avignon Les Halles in Avignon, France A vegetable vendor in the Avignon Les Halles in Avignon, France

French restaurants have not given up on their regional products either. Tons of places in every town I visited prominently offered “produits du terroir” on a “menu du marché”. Indicating that they (or at least their customers) still care about the provenance of the food they are eating. Traditional places and “cuisine du pays” are still the rule. Just try walking into any of the long-standing old-school joints that serve the traditional cuisine of a particular region on any night without a reservation, you’ll find it full. This phenomenon doesn’t just apply to traditional sit-down restaurants. The longest line I saw for anything on the whole trip wasn’t for corporate fast food, it was for socca, a kind of plain chickpea flour pancake baked in a huge copper pan in a wood burning oven. This is a typical dish of the region of France near the border of Italy, one of many French-Italian hybrid dishes you’ll find here, along with straight Italian Cuisine.

A large pan of socca (or farinita) at Chez RenéSocca in Nice, France Cœur-de-bœuf tomatoes from Provence at the Cours Saleya market in Nice, France Linguine with roasted prawns at Restaurant Albert 1er in Antibes, FranceFougasse at La Fougasserie, a Provencal bakery in Nice, France Meringues for sale near the Cours Saleya market in Nice, France Pastis de Marseille, traditional anise flavored spirit for sale in Antibes, France Cote Vin wine shop in Nice, France Pate en Croute at the Cours Saleya market in Nice, France

So if the French still love their regional ingredients and traditional cuisines, what about all these doomsday scenarios about fast food, hamburgers and processed food? First, I would argue that PIZZA is actually more popular than burgers. Pizza was everywhere, not just near the Italian border, not just at places aimed at tourists. It seems like I saw more pizza on menus in France than I saw in Italy. Even in the most remote areas and in the smallest villages there were tiny pizza stands or in many cases, pizza trucks, stationed on the side of the road waiting for customers to drive by.

As for hamburgers, yes those were popular too, but not just the fast food versions. Restaurants with otherwise very traditional menus often had a hamburger or two, not as an alternative, as an addition. I saw everything from raclette burgers in Loire to “hamburgers Provençal” in Provence. I even had a burger at a joint in Burgundy that was called a “Burger Franchouillard”, meaning “typically French”. This burger had a patty called a “steak haché” and toppings like tranches de lard (fatty bacon), Camembert (runny cheese), roquette (arugula), confit d’oignons (onion jam) and sauce oignon. I have to say, it was a pretty good burger. Plus, hamburgers make some sense here given that white Charolais cows dot almost every field in Burgundy not filled with grape vines.

Hamburger Franchouillard (meaning typically French) in Burgundy (Bourgogne), France La Cabane pizza truck in La Croix-en-Touraine (Loire Valley), France

I don’t know what the future of French Cuisine looks like, but the present is actually looking pretty damn good. Moving forward, without forgetting the past. You see it in the market in L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, which more or less takes over the whole town on Thursdays and Sundays, selling local products from all around Provence. Similar markets everywhere from Antibes in Côte d’Azur to Chalon-sur-Saône in Burgundy to Amboise in the Loire Valley, as well as city markets like the aforementioned Avignon Les Halles and the Les Halles de Lyon, will remind you how the food in France got its reputation in the first place. You might want to skip restaurants altogether and just find a place to stay with a kitchen. Just be careful of buying any hallucinogenic fish (eaten since Roman times), which I like to imagine is how Picasso came up with Night Fishing at Antibes and what put Van Gogh in an asylum in Arles during their time here.

The sign above the Marche Provencal in Antibes, France Red berries for sale at the Marche Provencal in Antibes, France Charentais melons and walnuts (noix) for sale in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, France Local thyme from Provence at the L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue market in Provence, France Vegetables from Provence at the Marche Provencal in Antibes, France St. Benoit Tomme Provence cheese at the L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue market in Provence, France Fava beans (feves) at the Cours Saleya market in Nice, France Boudin blanc (white sausage) at the market in Amboise (Loire Valley), France

As far as less formal approaches to dining go, there are many examples. A few good ones are Le Bistro du Fromager in Nice, which is run by two brothers, one in a two-man kitchen and one on the floor. These guys care a great deal about what they are serving and giddily explain that your biodynamic wine (all they serve) was made on a farm by some guy with two last names, he used one for the red and one for the white. You can still afford to eat here though, you can show up in jeans and even physically choose your own cheese plate from the cold case filled with about 30 different varieties. Fou De Fafa, a restaurant in Avignon whimsically named after a Flight of the Conchords song is making beautiful traditional French cuisine from regional products, but the couple who runs it just happen not to be French. Oh Terroir in Orléans is an actual “Bistronomy” joint that serves items all made from regional products, in the manner of fast food. You order from a touch screen, pay and sit down. Your meal is made from scratch and delivered to your table.

Guineafowl (pintade) from Landes at Restaurant Les Saveurs Gourmandes in Menerbes, France Galette de sarrasin (buckwheat pancake) "La Mam Goz" at Creperie Mam Goz in Arles, France Assortment of shellfish (fruits de mer) on ice at Restaurant Albert 1er in Antibes, France Saucisson de Lyon and rillette de harengs at Cafe des Federations in Lyon, France Salade du chef in Bligny-sur-Ouche, Burgundy (Bourgogne), FranceQuenelle brochet, sauce langoustines at Cafe des Federations in Lyon, FranceMagret de canard aux fraises at Restaurant Fou de Fafa in Avignon, France Terrine de Canard "Maison" (duck pate) at restaurant Les Lavandes in Vence, France Epoisses cheese at Le Caveau des Arches in Beaune, Burgundy (Bourgogne), France Tarte a la praline at Cafe des Federations in Lyon, France

I personally love old-world places like Café des Fédérations in Lyon, for whatever Lyonnaise dishes they are serving that day and extremely simple places like Le P’tit Coin in Charolles, a tiny local joint that serves nothing but Charolais steak and fries. It’s hard to go wrong in some of the newer places though. If you overdose on French Cuisine (strictly speaking) and want a pizza, the La Cabane pizza truck in La Croix-en-Touraine has got you covered. They also use regional products and sell local strawberries from the same truck.

Are there threats to French cuisine? Yes, but they are the same threats faced by all cuisines. Every place I went still had small local boucheries, pâtisseries, fromageries and poissonneries selling regional products, and beautiful local produce was available at more smaller markets than I could even count. But… every town also had an increasing number of giant supermarkets carrying versions of the same corporate products found in every supermarket in the world, and giant chain restaurants. This is not unique to France, I’ve seen the same thing everywhere, even in China. It seems like these places all operate on the same model, largest volume, lowest price, central distribution. Oddly, most of the produce in big French supermarkets… was from Spain.

Baker at La Cabane a Pain bakery at the market in Chalon-sur-Saone, Burgundy (Bourgogne), FranceLa Cabane a Pain, bakery on wheels at the market in Chalon-sur-Saone, Burgundy (Bourgogne), FranceFresh fish on display at La Sirene in the Marche Provencal in Antibes, France Poissonnerie La Sirene at the Marche Provencal in Antibes, France Pastries on display at a patisserie in Lyon, France Macarons at Patisserie Wagner in Beaune, Burgundy (Bourgogne), France Paris-Brest dessert at Boulangerie Soulier in Arles, France

I know quite well the possible outcome. I’ve seen it in numerous small towns all over America, where it is increasingly difficult (if not impossible) to find a local place to eat or buy any of the products of the region. If you are buying food or eating out in these places, it’s at a giant chain… the same giant chains as in every other town. While a playful Flight of the Conchords song might best describe the current state of the New French Cuisine, in much of Small Town USA, the old Fugazi song Five Corporations off the album End Hits was pretty prophetic. In little towns all over France, such a thing is potentially devastating.

Hamburgers Provençal and pizza trucks, though, aren’t really a threat to French Cuisine. They may sound odd, but a French love of burgers is no more odd than an American love of French fries (forgive me Belgium). Pizza? A natural fit. Anyway, these things are already past and present. The future, however, is a blank slate. The menu for tomorrow? It always remains to be seen.

{ 300 Photos from France, 2016 }

The Yemas, or the Egg?

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A sign for Yemas de Ávila or Yemas de Santa Teresa in Ávila, Spain (2015)

When I arrived in the town of Ávila, Spain, I had some idea of what to expect. The centuries old stone village surrounded by a massive wall is a World Heritage Site not far from Madrid, that in itself is reason enough to visit. As I walked the streets of Ávila though, I saw a number of signs for something I had never seen before, something called Yemas. The signs themselves were of all shapes and sizes but each one depicted the same thing, a bright yellow sphere wrapped in a paper baking cup like a cupcake. I chose one of the shops open at the time and bought a box of half a dozen of these mysterious spheres, each one about the size of a large marble. As I bit into one, not knowing what to expect, I had one of those Ratatouille moments. I knew exactly what this was! I had tasted it before… in Thai Town, Los Angeles.

You see Yemas or Yemas de Ávila or Yemas de Santa Teresa as they are sometimes called are made from basically two things, egg yolks and sugar syrup. These two items are stirred together in a pot with a copper interior (which helps keep the sugar from crystallizing) until they reach the desired consistency. Think of the texture of soft-ball stage sugar mixed with egg yolk custard. They are then rolled into spheres and dusted with powdered sugar. The story goes that Yemas were invented either at a local convent or by a local baker in honor of Saint Teresa. The odd thing is, they are nearly identical to a Thai dessert (kanom) called tong yòt or tong yod (ทองหยอด), aka “golden egg yolk drops”. These are made by dropping spheres of sweetened egg yolk mixed with starch into sugar syrup boiling in a brass wok.

How is it possible that such a seemingly unique item can co-exist simultaneously in such disparate cultures? I have two words for you, the Portuguese. As anyone who has ever bitten into a Portuguese egg tart or Pastel de Nata can tell you, the Portuguese are egg yolk masters. Add to that, ancient world travelers. This same basic item can be found at your local dim sum joint in the form of the Cantonese egg tart (蛋塔), generally considered Portuguese in origin. When it comes to sweetened egg yolk pastries, it would appear the Portuguese spread their knowledge particularly far and wide. Thin egg strands known in Portuguese as fios de ovos likely spawned Spanish huevo hilado, Japanese keiran somen (鶏卵素麺) and the Thai “golden threads” (foy tong / ฝอยทอง) in the middle of your kanom buang. Portuguese Ovos Moles de Aveiro, egg yolk dumplings molded into various shapes, are more or less Thai tong yip (ทองหยิบ) or tong àyk (ทองเอก). There’s even a Filipino version of Yemas, no doubt tracing to the same Portuguese origin, perhaps with a short detour through Spain.

In fact, if I had a dollar for every time my research into some food item ended with “introduced by the Portuguese”.

I could have bought a-lot more Yemas in Ávila.