Adventures of Life in Beijing

“Just keep putting out the cookies,” my pastor advised years ago after we volunteered to lead a Bible study in our home.

Now I know why this is so important. Cookies create community, offering comfort, encouragement and laughter. If you calculate the payback on a cost-per-cookie basis, I’d say they’re a pretty good investment.

Growing up in America, most of us have some fond memory from childhood of making chocolate chip cookies with mom or enjoying one as treat with a special friend.

There’s a reason realtors bake them for open houses. We’ve formed an emotional attachment to these sweet little rounds, and the smell reminds us of home. One whiff of Nestle Toll House and we’re transported back to a time when life was simple and we felt safe and loved. That’s a lot of power packed into one little sweet.

Living in Beijing during COVID-19 has turned our world upside down. Everything is foreign, uncertain and sometimes scary. Crossing the street during rush hour and trying to decipher between hand sanitizer and hair spray are both challenges that make me long for home, or at least a good strong cup of coffee and a warm, chocolate chip cookie.

The thing is, chocolate isn’t really popular in China. Every now and then I get my hopes up only to be fooled by a red bean paste- or black sesame seed-filled pastry masquerading as a brownie or pain au chocolat. 

So I bake my own. But just like finding a clean public bathroom or ordering from a Chinese menu, making cookies presents challenges too. I shop at at least three different stores (sometimes four) to find all of the supplies. Brown sugar and chocolate chips are scarce here.

While I mix the dough and wait for my Easy Bake-sized oven to preheat, my thoughts are on my community. Some of the faces have changed, but we still hold a weekly Bible study in our home. My family, friends and the cookies are the glue that makes me stick with this place.

They’re not magic, but this combination of butter, flour, sugar, eggs and chocolate speaks where words fail.

A warm chocolate chip cookie says “I’m sorry you have five hours of math homework. I can’t understand any of it but I’m so proud of you.”

Five or six in a small cellophane bag with a gold ribbon says “I’m glad your surgery went well. I hope you recover quickly.”

It takes at least a dozen to say “I’m so happy we’re neighbors. I really needed a friend” or  “two weeks of quarantine in a Chinese hotel sounds awful. Welcome home.”

Occasionally cookies say thank you to my son’s guitar teacher, and to our Chinese tutor (anyone who has enough patience to teach my husband how to deliver a toast at a Chinese wedding deserves a treat).

Cookies speak the language of teenagers when everything I say just comes out wrong. I usually keep extra dough in the freezer in case my sons have friends over; moms really aren’t cool anymore but cookies are chill.

Cookies say “I’m sorry the borders are closed and you’re stuck in China. I know you miss your friends.”

On Sundays, I bring out the yellow platter and fill it with few dozen and put it at the end of the kitchen counter next to the watermelon. We share a meal and remind each other that even here, God is with us.

So, for as long as we live in China,  I’ll keep putting out the cookies. I made a fresh batch today and I was thinking about you. I miss you and wish you could join me.

CHOCOLATE CHIP COOKIES

Feel free to add your own special touch. One friend doubles the chocolate chips and uses all brown sugar; my mom adds vanilla pudding mix to keep the cookies moist. If you can’t find chocolate chips, substitute baking drops or break a chocolate bar into small chunks.

RECIPE

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Two sticks of butter, softened  (about 227 grams)

3/4 cup brown sugar

3/4 cup white sugar

2 eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla

2 1/4 cup all purpose flour

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon baking soda

2 cups chocolate chips

In a large bowl, cream butter and sugars together. Add eggs and vanilla, mix well. In a small bowl, mix flour, baking soda and salt. Add dry mix into large bowl, stirring to combine. Add chocolate chips and mix well.

Drop one spoonful of dough on a baking sheet at a time, leaving room between cookies. Bake at 375 degrees for 8-10 minutes or until cookies are lightly brown around the edges and on top.

 

Comments (18):

  1. Brooke

    September 25, 2020 at 12:06 am

    I love this! It’s amazing how those rituals and rhythms ground and connect us. I’m sure you’ve converted many non-chocolate loving people in your community to cookie lovers because of your sincere heart and hospitality.

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      September 25, 2020 at 12:34 am

      Thanks Brooke. When I feel weary sometimes of hosting I hear Renaut’s voice “just keep putting out the cookies” ❤️. Miss you guys tons.

      Reply
  2. PaulaKasnitz

    September 25, 2020 at 3:23 am

    Delightful as usual. My special twist is Heath Bar Bits. Don’t even try finding them in Beijing.
    The fabulous adventure continues.

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      September 25, 2020 at 3:25 am

      Ooh now there’s an idea:). I like Andes Mint Chips too. I’ll have to see what candy bars I can find here.

      Reply
  3. Shannon

    September 25, 2020 at 4:12 am

    So well put! Thank you for sharing– it makes me want to go bake! And I’m glad you can bake a. little bit of home right there. Wish we could visit- for China AND for cookies!

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      September 25, 2020 at 4:26 am

      I wish you could visit too! I bet the boys would love the adventure. I think of you often – this place takes Grit!

      Reply
  4. Jackie

    September 25, 2020 at 2:06 pm

    I can’t wait to have that cookie with you. Miss you guys

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      September 26, 2020 at 4:23 am

      Sweet! Miss you too. Seems like a long time we’ve been gone.

      Reply
  5. Carolina Henry

    September 25, 2020 at 3:27 pm

    Absolutely just love how you can master us all and transport is into your wonderful experiences I feel so privileged to be able to live out and experience each and every one of your description items specially your treasured friendship and most importantly your delicious cookies 😋😁🙏🙌❣️!!!

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      September 26, 2020 at 4:22 am

      Thinking about all of you as I wrote:)

      Reply
  6. Francesca

    September 25, 2020 at 6:33 pm

    I am so very tempted to ship a few bags of toll house chips to you, yet I am not sure if they would make it through customs. You will have to let me know. A delicious read as always, with warmth and love shared generously. Miss you.

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      September 26, 2020 at 4:21 am

      The chocolate chips would probably reach us eventually but they would be very expensive 😂

      Reply
  7. Beth

    September 25, 2020 at 9:28 pm

    You had me smiling the entire time I read this! Despite a stinky airport surrounding me right now, my brain smells those cookies. Thank you for such a sweet break from this crazy time.

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      September 26, 2020 at 4:20 am

      Yes I started craving cookies while I was writing. Glad you enjoyed it.

      Reply
  8. Denise

    October 5, 2020 at 7:15 pm

    I think I will go make some cookies right now!! Thanks for the inspiration. Miss you😘

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      October 5, 2020 at 9:39 pm

      Miss you too! Enjoy the cookies😊

      Reply
  9. Irene

    October 18, 2020 at 6:50 am

    Oh, how this is very well said! Love it! I am an addict to your Chocolate Chips cookies, by the way 🙂 xoxo

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      October 18, 2020 at 7:19 am

      So thankful that we can share this adventure together !

      Reply

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Pick up Sticks

Who Says You’re too Old to Play with Your food?

From meaty, cumin-scented lamb skewers to sweet, candied hawthorns, Beijing is filled with food on a stick. These fork-free dishes are perfect for strolling, sharing, dipping or indulging. If you’ve ever cooked over a campfire or savored a popsicle, then you remember that hand-held food is fun for all ages.

Local Flavors

Head to Qianmen or Nanluoguxiang to start, and grab some lamb skewers, “whirlwind” potatoes, squid or sausages on a stick.

 

Cumin-rubbed lamb skewers are a must try.

 

Called “whirlwind” or “cyclone” potatoes, think of them like fresh potato chips on a stick, seasoned with salt and pepper.

 

Choose your squid and have it cooked to order.

 

For the truly adventurous, there are scorpions, silkworm larvae and tarantulas, perhaps best left for capturing with your camera and not your taste buds.

 

They’re mostly a gimmick, but you’ll find scorpions and tarantulas too. See the starfish in the back?

 

For an experience that’s a little more off the beaten path, head to Xinmin market (subway stop Guloudajie) and spend the morning exploring the produce, spices and wet market. When hunger strikes, look for the ma la tang stand selling a variety of skewers including mushroom bundles, quail eggs, meatballs, broccoli, lettuce, noodles and much more. Don’t worry – there’s no menu to decipher; just point to a skewer that looks good and give it a try. For just a few kuai a skewer, it’s a fun, affordable outing.

 

Tofu, potatoes and broccoli are my favorites. Choose “spicy” or ”non-spicy.”


Travel the Globe

Don’t limit yourself to Chinese food. Beijing has a whole world of flavors just waiting for you to try. Grab a map and start checking off your destinations. At Athena Greek restaurant the Chicken Souvlaki comes on a suspended skewer.

Nearby Alameen offers a platter of mixed Lebanese kebabs, and a taste of Turkey is just a hop, skip and a jump away at Turkish Feast.

Branch out from curries at your favorite Indian restaurant with a skewer of cheese-like paneer or head to NomNom in Haidian District for Indonesian mutton or beef Satay with a side of Sambal Kecap, sweet soy sauce mixed with chilies and shallots. And of course, don’t forget to stop in Thailand for some peanut-y Chicken Satay.

If you’d rather take cooking into your own hands, Café Zarah offers Cheese Fondue every evening after 6pm. Each bowl of melted cheese-y goodness comes with crunchy cubes of bread, vegetables, cornichons and a bowl of pineapple.

 

A cozy evening at Cafe Zarah.

 

Cheese fondue.


Sweet Endings

Winter is the season for tanghulu, those shiny, sugary fruit sticks decorating the city like ornaments.

Round red hawthorns are the most popular, but you’ll also find grapes, kiwi slices and Chinese yams. There are even some Santa-themed ones with marshmallows and strawberries.

 

Freshly dipped in molten sugar water gives fruit a crackly, sweet finish.

 

Santa-themed fruit skewers.

Keep an eye out for purple sticky rice dipped in sugar or waffles on a stick that spell “I Love Beijing” in Chinese characters.

 

Warm glutinous rice dipped in sugar makes a filling snack.

 

Waffles on a stick make it easy to snack and stroll.

 

Find your zodiac sign fashioned in sugar candy or grab a stick full of sweet-and-sour shan zha (dried Hawthorn).

 

Floral scented gui hua cake drizzled with syrup beckons with its golden yellow hue, derived from Osmanthus flowers.

 

 

For a more interactive experience, head to Qianmen Kitchen restaurant  to make some S’mores. Roast American marshmallows over your own charcoal brazier, add some Lindt Chocolate and sandwich it all between Biscoff cookies and digestive biscuits.

 

Lastly, don’t rule out ice cream just because it’s winter. Beautiful rose-shaped ice cream and vibrant fruity popsicles (at Nanluoguxiang) will make you forget how cold it is outside, even if just for a moment.

 

Chinese Medicine

When my brother and I were little, we spent summers with our grandparents in Denmark. My grandmother didn’t have a drier, so she hung all of the clothes on the line. They smelled like sunshine, but were so stiff and sharp that we pretended to sword fight with pointy wash cloths.

My body feels like one of my grandmother’s line-dried wrinkled wash cloths. We are less than two months into Beijing’s winter but the extreme dryness and cold temperatures have wrung every once of moisture out of my hair, my skin and my lungs. The level of static electricity means I look a bit like Einstein when I return from shopping and take my hat off.

If it were possible to bottle some warmth and humidity from Florida, I’d ask you to send it to me. Add a pinch of salty ocean air too please.

I’m in a Chinese Medicine chat group and I saw a post recently for “Moistening Yam Tea.”  The recipe promised to “benefit my Qi, nourish my Yin and promote fluid production.” I have no idea what that means, but since slathering my skin with gallons of lotion only goes so far, I’m willing to try anything that promises moisture. Maybe it will work like a Bounce dryer sheet, softening my skin, reducing stiffness and eliminating my static cling.

Out of the five ingredients listed, I recognize two: Chinese yams and licorice root. I like licorice (my roots are Danish after all), so how bad can it be? (Chinese medicine concoctions in general aren’t designed to taste good).

 

I took a tour of a market recently about 30 minutes away, and I know they have a Chinese medicine shop. (It’s called a wet market, really, but I don’t want to scare you into thinking they sell snakes and bats. The most exotic things I saw on my visit were  eels, frogs and turtles.

 

I think he’s trying to escape.

 

 

Do they kill them for me or do I have to do it myself?

 

Turtle soup anyone?

 

So I hopped on the Subway to Xinmin market and found the Chinese Medicine shop. I had a photo of the recipe with Chinese characters, which I’m hoping the doctor understands because I can’t tell astralagus root from licorice root.

 

The red board contains combinations of ingredients for a variety of ailments.

 

There are a variety of dried teas, flowers and herbs for sale.

 

“How much is this going cost?” I asked the doctor. I’m not sure what maidong is, but if it’s as pricey as ground dragon bones, I’ll just rub my hair with a Bounce sheet instead.

She takes a little note pad and adds some figures, and shows me: 150 kuai, a little over $20 bucks. I give her a thumbs up, and she measures the ingredients.

 

 

I wanted to take a picture with her, but felt a little embarrassed to ask. Just as I’m practicing the words in my head, she hands me my purchase with a smile and comes out from behind the counter and starts taking a video of the two of us. I’m guessing I’m the first foreign customer she’s had, and she wants to brag about it on social media. I wonder how many followers I have on TikTok now?

A lifetime supply of moistening tea.

 

She was quite excited to capture me on video. I’ve been filmed in restaurants, hiking, in the elevator, shopping…..I always wonder what they do with the videos. No one ever asks permission.

 

“How much of this stuff should I be drinking?” I asked in the Chinese Medicine chat group.

“It depends on your constitution,” came the reply. “Just brew a big pot and drink it as you need it.” How will I know when my constitution has had enough ?

I measure out the ingredients and brew a pot.

 

Getting the potion ready for brewing.

 

The doctor was kind enough to number the ingredients according to the recipe so I know which ingredient is which.

 

It’s not bad. It’s earthy, with hints of licorice, spice and leather. Oh, wait, that was my wine from last night. Wrong glass.

I add a few more pieces of licorice root (at least I think I did), close my eyes, and think of chocolate as I take another swig. It doesn’t taste like chocolate, but I can pretend.

Honestly, it’s not bad and I manage to down a pot a day. It’s only been a few days so I don’t have any data to report. I’m hoping in a few weeks I’ll feel less like a wrung out wash cloth and more like a rehydrated sponge. But you can go ahead and mail that package with the tropical, Florida humidity. Throw in a few Bounce sheets while you’re at it; they cost almost as much here as ground dragon bones.