Beijing

Out with the Old and In with the New: Beijing and Clay-Pot Yoghurts

Like Heraclitus’ river, Beijing is in constant flux — constructing, deconstructing, reconstructing. Everywhere the heavy banging of demolition can be heard in tandem with the pitter-patter of firecrackers being set off at building inaugurations. On March 23rd, the Beijing Municipal Commission of Development and Reform unveiled their 2017 budget plan, which promises a complete makeover of the cityscape with 230 new projects at a total cost of 190 billion USD. I once asked an urban planner what was the point of all these endless renovations apart from their novelty value. He replied rather cryptically, “Perfection, of a kind, is what we are after.” The same question when posed to a taxi driver incited a more direct answer: “Kid, how else can we hit our 7% GDP growth target?”

In light of Beijing’s drastic transformations, ordinary city-features have taken on a new historical significance, attracting legions of visitors longing for a reminder of the vanished past. One former neighbour of mine developed a peculiar attachment to old railway stations. Every month or so he would drive over a hundred miles to Qinghuayuan station and take a thirty-minute ride on one of its clunky, outdated trains. Another acquaintance began shopping regularly at Hufang Street Department Store, one of few remaining municipal enterprises left from the Maoist era. “Yes, it may seem impractical to spend two hours on the bus just to buy a pair of over-priced scissors,” she conceded while trying to persuade me to join her on these excursions. “But the place has handwritten promotion posters and moody sales associates who are unafraid to offend their customers, exactly as things were in the 80s!”

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First opened in 1911, Qinghuayuan Station was one of the oldest railway stops in Beijing. Unfortunately, the station had been shut down in October 2016 to pave way for a new intercity rail line.
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Hufang was built in 1959. It still carries some retro household goods like giant bars of lye soap and kitschy ceramic mugs printed with the side profile of Chairman Mao.

Following my neighbours’ lead, I have picked up a habit of my own. When in Beijing, I would constantly scour the streets and alleyways for convenience stands that sell clay-pot yoghurts. As madeleines : Proust, yoghurt : Beijing millennials. In the early 90s, before Coke and Pepsi attained dominance over the beverage market, tuck shops and convenience stores sold drinkable yoghurt that came in grey, round pots individually sealed with a piece of wax paper tied down by red rubber bands. Thick and tangy, it tasted like a cross between Greek yoghurt and kefir. Conservative eaters ate it plain, while the more adventurous minded mixed it with cheap orange soda to create a strange concoction reminiscent of melted creamsicles. The yoghurt could also be heated up and served hot during the winter months to provide some much-needed warmth in chilly evenings. It usually tasted slightly sweeter in the winter than in the summer because the bacteria culture grew at a slower pace in the cold environment.

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The empty clay pots were promptly returned to the vendors for reuse. Children were permitted to keep the rubber bands, which were considered a highly coveted toy in a time before the Internet. Some boys would use the bands to make sling-shots or shoot them at unsuspecting passersby.

A few years ago, cunning Chinese marketers sought to capitalize on this growing nostalgic movement, and started packaging Beijing-style yoghurt for mass distribution. If you live around the Greater Toronto Area, they are now widely available in many Asian supermarkets. Even though it’s tempting to wallow in past memories again, I’ve decided to follow the Beijing zeitgeist and find some new uses for this old product. As Emerson wisely noted: “All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make the better.” This holds especially true when the experiment in question yields a light and moist cake topped with whipped cream. The berries are just added to assuage any guilty feelings that may arise from reaching for a second (or third slice) of cake 😉 Please free feel to add another topping of your choice.

Yoghurt Cake

Makes 6 servings

INGREDIENTS

  • 60 g (1/2 cup) cake flour, sifted
  • 20 g  (1.5 tablespoons) corn starch
  • 160 g (3/4 cup) Greek yoghurt or Beijing yoghurt if you can find it
  • 100 g (1/2 cup) granulated sugar
  • 4 eggs, separated
  • 40 g (3 tablespoons) vegetable oil
  • 1.5 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 240 mL (1 cup) whipped cream, chilled
  • 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon of vanilla
  • An array of different berries

INSTRUCTIONS

  1. Preheat the oven to 340 F or 170 C. Line an 8-inch springform pan with parchment, and wrap the outside of the pan with two layers of aluminum foil. Because the cake will be baked using a bain-marie, the aluminium foil is needed as a precaution against possible water leakages into the pan.
  2. Bring 2 litres/quarts of water to a boil and set aside.
  3. In a medium bowl, whisk the flour, corn starch, and salt together, and set aside.
  4. Beat the yoghurt, egg yolks together until smooth. Add the vanilla extract and oil, and mix until well combined. Fold in the dry ingredients in two batches.
  5. With a clean mixer, start beating the egg whites on low speed. As the egg whites begin to increase in volume, gradually drizzle in the sugar. Keep beating until stiff peaks form. Gently fold the egg whites into the batter.
  6. Pour the batter into the springform pan. Place the pan into a larger roasting tray, and set the roasting tray on the centre rack in the oven. Slowly pour the boiling water into the tray until the water reaches halfway up the cake batter.
  7. Bake for 25 minutes, and then turn the oven temperature down to 285 C or 140 C. Continue baking for another 30 to 35 minutes.
  8. Take the cake out of the oven, transfer it onto a cooling rack, and let it completely cool to room temperature.
  9. Using electric mixers, beat the cream, sugar, and vanilla together on high speed until stiff peaks form, which should take about 1 to 2 minutes.
  10. Spread or pipe the cream over the cake, and drop two heaping handfuls of berries on top of the cream. Put on some 80s music and enjoy!

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6 thoughts on “Out with the Old and In with the New: Beijing and Clay-Pot Yoghurts

  1. Well, what can I say. Grün vor Neid! It seems you’ve been everywhere. Just another amazeballs (I know I tend to over-use this word) blog post. I love, love, love your style.

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    1. Thanks Debra, I really appreciate your feedback! I’m not a traveller by choice actually. I’m just conditioned to move around a lot because my wayward parents are crazy travellers. What have you been reading lately? I really enjoy your amazeballs book posts. I got sucked into reading Finnish mysteries lately. Just finished The Rabbit Back Literature Society by Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen. It’s such a strange and funny read that has me doubting my own reality (of course, given the current political climate, some might argue that’s a good thing ;)).

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      1. Actually, I have been a bit lazy lately when it comes to reading. I despise myself for not sticking to my reading lists but I will try to get back on track. Ever since I went to Germany in March, I have a hard time getting back into my routine and this includes reading. I have millions of started and unfinished books scattered around. I have to admit that I finished the entire Nikki Heat series this year and just finished the new one (like days after publication of the ebook). If you started with the Finnish mysteries, you have to read the Maria Kallio series by Leena Lehtolainen. I had my friend bring the newest over from Germany in October and I finished it again 3 days after publication. I re-read the entire series last year and could do it again. For the days that I do guiding (which can be awfully boring at times) I read Morrow’s Thomas Carlyle biography from 2014 (?). I promise to get back to my reading list and write some reviews. Ta

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