A stroll along Wudaoying Hutong by Thomas O'Malley

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A quick piece I wrote for the Ritz-Carlton’s JOURNEY magazine, part of their ‘Great Streets’ series. View original here.

A stroll along this gentrifying Beijing lane reveals the many faces of China’s historic yet swiftly modernising capital.

‘Hutong’, the grey-brick lanes that pattern central Beijing, were once home to Imperial elites living it up in quadrangle mansions designed according to feng shui. Today, after decades of decline, these chequerboard alleys are in the push and pull of gentrification. Wudaoying, bookended between the magnificent Lama Temple and the now vanished Andingmen, a gate in Beijing’s Ming-era city wall, is the city’s most enticing example of a revived commercial hutong.

Yi Zhuo (84 Wudaoying Hutong), a purveyor of delicate porcelain tea ware and ornaments, has a tranquil, white-walled teahouse attached. If coffee is your preferred caffeine-hit, Metal Hands (65 Wudaoying Hutong), founded on the alley, is one of Beijing’s finest third wave coffee roasters, with perfect pour-overs and dreamy cheesecake. Or for a more potent pick-me-up, Panda Brew (61 Wudaoying Hutong), an all-Chinese craft brewer, entices with its locally-inspired ales paired with pizza.

Plastered 8 (60 Wudaoying Hutong) is famed for clothing designs that subvert Beijing iconography – everything from retro road signs to Peking opera. Playful souvenirs abound here, including cans of ‘Beijing Air’ to take home. A more refined apparel experience, Na Qu Boutique (59 Wudaoying Hutong), crafts womenswear that, while contemporary, draws upon the golden age of Shanghai style using elements of the qipao, a one-piece Chinese dress dating back to the 17th century. If it’s actual vintage you’re seeking, Wudaoying is known for its many retro clothing and objects d’art emporiums. Delia (52 Wudaoying Hutong) is a treasure trove of 1970s Chinese clocks, Chairman Mao busts and pictures alongside used Gucci dresses and handbags.

There are many spots to eat along the lane, but one of the most atmospheric is Sixi Xiaopang (29 Wudaoying Hutong) which opens into a leafy courtyard serving traditional Beijing hot pot, a meal where diners scald wafer-thin sliced mutton and beef, together with raw vegetables and tofu, into cauldrons of bubbling soup. Vegetarians, on the other hand, won’t want to miss King’s Joy (2 Wudaoying Hutong), serving beautifully presented dishes in a plant-strewn, light-filled space. The food, inspired by Buddhism, imitates meat using mushrooms, wheat gluten and other healthful fare. From the restaurant you can observe the graceful arched roofs of the Lama Temple (12 Yonghegong Dajie), Beijing’s most resplendent religious site, beckoning you into its incense-infused folds.

Taipei's Best Craft Beer by Thomas O'Malley

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The Taps Run in Taipei

Writer Tom O’Malley travels to Taipei to drink in the city’s emerging craft beer trends.

This article on the craft beer scene in Taipei appeared in the April 2018 edition of Hong Airlines mag. Read the original (with much nicer photos) here. 

The word ‘revolution’ often gets misused by journalists, but I’m going to risk it anyway: there’s a beer revolution in Taipei. I’m in Zhangmen, a brewpub that sits just off touristy Yongkang Street, scratching my head at a chalkboard scrawled with over 20 beers, including hammer-blow styles like Imperials and barley wines. I sample their latest, ‘Zhangmen Peated Beer’ – a smoked beer made with peated malts that proves a little too out there for my tastes, instead settling on ‘Good Kumquat’, a mouth-watering, delicately sour fruit beer made with local kumquats.

One of Taipei’s new wave of craft breweries, Zhangmen opened in 2015 and already claims ten locations around town. Last year they expanded to Hong Kong. It’s a remarkable story of growth, and one shared by other trailblazing Taipei beer brands like Taihu, which started in 2013 and now has six outlets, including a vintage airstream trailer. Their latest downtown taproom is Driftwood, a place so high-concept it barely registers as a brewpub. I drink a crisp Taihu IPA watching millennials under straw canopies at raw wood bench tables, one of which is as big as a boat and has an open flame dancing from it. It’s all absurdly stylish, looking something like a Great Gatsby shindig on Treasure Island.

Next on the list (OK, let’s say crawl) is Sunmai, a gleaming brewpub barely two months old. It’s another impeccably designed Taipei joint, rocking a sort of Scandi minimalist vibe, but unlike Zhangmen and Taihu, Sunmai are old hands. The company has been in the beer game since the Taiwan government first liberalised brewing laws around 2002, the year Taiwan joined the WTO and was required to break-up its industry monopolies. Private breweries were legal in Taipei for the very first time.

“We started life in 2004 as Le Ble D’or, back when there was only Taiwan Beer and Heineken, so we were something new,” explains founder Quentin Yeh, recalling Taiwan’s beer awakening, its first wave. Yeh has the bulky build and cropped hair of hired muscle, but he’s as sweet as the Taiwanese Longan honey in their flagship (and World Beer Cup winning) Honey Lager. Le Ble D’or, I’d discovered on a previous visit, is one of the most sensationally bizarre going-out experiences you can imagine. Essentially a hybridised American Brauhaus restaurant (with a daft French name) that brews its own German-style beers, they have several gargantuan locations in Taipei and mainland China, the largest of which can seat a staggering 900 customers at a time.

“The drinking culture in Taipei was always drinking with food,” says Yeh. “Traditionally people would go to a re chao – a kind of diner where all the dishes are the same price – after work to eat and drink beer. So when we opened our first Le Ble D’or location, we figured that we needed to make it a restaurant as the best way to promote our beer. People came to eat, and then secondly, they would try our beer.”

Sunmei, Quentin reveals, is the natural next step after Le Ble D’or, a more stylish, global craft beer brand for a rapidly maturing, more internationally-minded market. “Unlike Le Ble D’or, Sunmai is focusing more on the beer, on deep beer culture,” says Quentin. “Now we want to do local ingredients, local culture, and promote Taiwan to Asia.”

On Yeh’s recommendation, I go for a Burning Temple Smoke Beer from their ‘Asian Creation Series’, a range where they try to seek out new, locally-inspired ingredients and recipes. “People think we add smoke, but actually we use a kind of Taiwanese smoked plum called longyang, or ‘dragon-eye’.” This time the smoke notes are muted and it works delightfully.

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“Now we want to do local ingredients, local culture, and promote Taiwan to Asia.”

Quentin Yeh, Sunmai.

The place, too, is packed with drinkers. Gone are the days when you needed to be a restaurant to get people to drink beer. Vive le revolution. One person who’s been watching the development of the scene closer than most is Mark Popplewell, a British national living in Taipei, craft beer expert and owner of the popular BeerGeek Micropub.

“Taiwan’s craft beer scene really started to get noticed a little over three years ago,” says Popplewell. “Many people got involved in craft beer because it was the latest trend, and quite a few entrepreneurs with small to huge budgets started to invest in beer-only bars, and from that started to offer their own unique beers.”

All this activity begs the question: is this revolution sustainable? “In my time in the industry I’ve have seen big ups, and some downs,” admits Popplewell. “Brands came and went, bars opened and closed within months, but now I feel we’ve got some stability and calmness in the market.” Popplewell reckons that genuine passion for beer culture is key if you want to succeed in Taipei. “There’s a lot to be said for experience and passion within an industry, and these people continue to stick around. Everyone is still learning, adapting and improving – it’s an evolving industry. 

Passion is exemplified by another local brand doing things a little differently – Jim & Dad’s, based not in Taipei but in Yilan County, a couple of hours southeast by car, through a series of seemingly never-ending mountain tunnels. The longest, the snow mountain tunnel, so named for the Hsuehshan range it passes beneath, is a whopping 13km of hypnotic darkness.

But emerging through the other side I’m greeted with jade rice terraces, low-rise development and a snoozy vibe a world away from the Taipei buzz. The old name of Yilan is Kavalan, which also happens to be the name of Taiwan’s much decorated whisky brand with its behemoth of a distillery here. But I’m heading just across the highway to another drinking pilgrimage site, the brewery of Jim & Dad’s. It being a few minutes after 11am, I order a tasting flight, kicking off with a hangover-busting Bourbon Barrel-Aged Imperial Red Ale, clocking in at around 12% abv. Next up is the beer I probably should have started with – Cold-brewed Coffee Amber, a coffee-infused brew made using a cold drip coffee machine. Does this count as breakfast?

“Most breweries build in Taipei or close by, but I wanted to be outside the city,” says Jim Sung, the brewery’s softly-spoken, youthful founder (along with his dad, hence the name). “People come here, they’re not working but on vacation, so when you show them something they’ve never had before, they want to learn more about it.”

Another new-wave craft beer newcomer like Zhangmen and Taihu, Jim & Dad’s opened in 2015 on what was formally an abandoned gravel plant. It’s now a tourist brewery kitted out with comfortable tasting room, garden and three-storey watchtower, offering brewery tours and a huge range of beers to drink in or take away. 

Although born and raised in Taiwan, Jim spent time in the U.S., including the Bay Area where he discovered Napa Valley, the inspiration for Jim & Dad’s. “I was really impressed with how you could drive to this scenic area that also had restaurants and drinking places where you can just chill for the day. Taiwan didn’t have anything like that.”

Beer number three (the last one, honest), is their Kumquat Wheat Ale, the fruit grown on Yilan farms a short distance from the brewery, claims Jim. “I guess we are probably the only brewery in Taiwan, or at least north Taiwan, that tries to identify very strongly with our brewery location.”

This connection with place and use of local ingredients has been vital in getting Taiwanese people to try craft beer in the first place, according to beer expert Popplewell. “For locals who may have never had a craft beer before, a familiar local ingredient on the bottle might just be the pull to get them to taste it.”

Breakfast is now long overdue, so Jim tips me off on a killer chicken joint nearby, something of a food pilgrimage for day-trippers. Thumbs Up Chicken is a raucous family restaurant where hundreds of birds are roasted daily in giant clay ovens, torn apart by gloves and gobbled up alongside mouth-watering stir-fries. The place is heaving with diners, and I notice that most people are supping down bottles of Taiwan Beer, Taipei’s crisp, flavourless state-owned brew. A reminder that, despite all this talk of revolution, craft beer still commands a tiny share of the overall market (less than 2%, according to a study by Euromonitor International). But, as Popplewell says, the typical Taiwan consumer knows a great deal more about craft beer than they did a few years ago.

“More and more Taiwanese are prepared to try new styles of beer, and their knowledge of what they like is increasing all the time,” says Popplewell. Likewise, when Taiwanese travel, according to Sung, it’s traditional to buy the products – be it fruit, meat or snacks – that a place is famous for. “We’re hoping that’s the same with our beers,” says Sung, “so when people come to Yilan they won’t go back to Taipei without a couple of Jim & Dad’s six packs in the car to share with friends.”

I’m not the only one, then. But who said anything about sharing?

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 Extra bit… about Kavalan Whisky

It’s not all about the beer in Taiwan. The country’s first home grown whisky brand, Kavalan, has been a huge success since it was established in 2005. Its cavernous distillery opened to the public in 2008, and has become a mandatory stop for anyone passing through Yilan County. The self-guided tour (free) takes visitors through the site, explaining the distilling process before finishing in the gift shop, where you can pick up a discounted bottle of Solist Amontillado Sherry Single Cask Strength for about 90 USD, named ‘World’s Best Single Cask Single Malt Whisky’ at the 2016 World Whiskies Awards. If you’re lucky you might catch workers scorching oak barrels. But the highlight is the epic barrel warehouse itself, with towering stacks of booze stretching off into the distance.

Five design hotels in Beijing by Thomas O'Malley

This article was originally written for Etihad, and can be viewed here.

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Beijing Design Hotels

Beijing boasts a parade of trendy, unique and thoughtfully luxurious hotels, at prices far cheaper than cities like New York, Paris and London.

VUE Hotel Houhai

Singapore agency Ministry of Design have transformed a former government compound on the shores of Beijing’s historic Houhai Lake into a boutique sanctuary that’s ready to party. Shades of slate, grey and black are punctuated by pink wireframe rabbits peeking over rooftops, and quirky, Beijing-themed art pieces in the 80 guest rooms. Room design is spacious and contemporary, with bed-side hot tubs and integrated tech. But Vue’s crown jewel has to be Moon Bar, an expansive terrace space overlooking the water, with a swimming pool, DJ booth and menu of creative cocktails.

9 Yangfang Hutong, Xicheng District, Beijing (+86 10 5385 9000)

Hotel Eclat 

Owned by a wealthy Hong Kong art collector, this 100-room design hotel boasts original Salvador Dali and Andy Warhol art pieces, and ostentatiously-themed guest rooms ranging from the modish (Playboy) to the magical (Harry Potter). The entire hotel is set within a LEED-certified glass pyramid also containing the city’s coolest shopping mall, meaning you can sit “outside” on your balcony in the middle of a freezing Beijing winter. It also means there are twenty “lagoon suites” boasting their own private pools – popular for high-rolling birthday parties and fashion shoots.

9 Dongdaqiao Lu, Chaoyang District, Beijing (+86 10 8561 2888)

Orchid Beijing 

The designers at this ten-room boutique hotel have transformed a crumbling Qing Dynasty-era courtyard into a beautiful boutique space, offering white-walled rooms with private gardens and rooftop terraces with magisterial views of the nearby Drum and Bell Towers. Clever architecture blends the old with the new, preserving original rooftops and beams, while making the most of a compact space. A new in-house restaurant, Toast, offers modern mezze small-plate dining and an excellent wine list.

65 Baochao Hutong, Gulou Dong Dajie, Dongcheng District, Beijing (+86 10 8404 4818) 

Opposite House

Built for the Beijing Olympics in 2008, this Swire-owned property is a five-storey box of emerald-tinted glass designed by Japanese architect Kengo Kuma. Rooms have a minimalist yoga-studio aesthetic with wooden bathtubs and Egyptian cotton beds, and the capacious public areas host rotating sculpture exhibits by Chinese and international contemporary artists. David Beckham choose one of the Studio 95 suites when he stayed, taking advantage of a spacious rooftop balcony (complete with hot tub) overlooking Sanlitun, the capital’s most happening party district.

11 Sanliun Lu, Chaoyang District, Beijing (+86 10 6417 6688) 

Rosewood Beijing

When the reception staff are sporting bespoke tailored three-piece suits, you know you’re in for something special. Though it’s rather bigger than boutique, Rosewood Beijing feels personal thanks to all the little details, from trendy mismatched furniture in guestrooms to odd pieces of sculpture, bound books and object d’art. The CBD location means striking views of Beijing’s iconic CCTV Tower from most guest rooms and the hotel’s trio of restaurants, which includes the excellent Country Kitchen, a Chinese restaurant dishing “hidden recipes”, local northern ‘Shang’ dishes forgotten during Communist times but rediscovered by the hotel’s culinary team.  

Chaoyangmenwai Dajie, Chaoyang District (+86 10 6597 8888)

Red Hot Guide to Hunan Cuisine by Thomas O'Malley

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This guide to one of China’s spiciest cooking styles was written for Starwood Hotels.

Ask a local what single characteristic defines Hunan cooking, and you’ll get the same answer every time: heat. Chilies dominate almost every dish with what might seem like reckless abandon to the uninitiated. Duo lajiao – chopped, spicy chilies pickled in vinegar and salt – is the singular Hunan condiment, added liberally to stir-fries, stews, soup stocks, or, in the case of the province’s best loved dish, simply dumped in a heap atop the steamed head of a carp. But more about that later.

Pickling lends Hunan cooking the sour note that its spicy neighbor Sichuan lacks; conversely, Hunan makes scant use of the famously lip-tingling Sichuan peppercorn. So, although the two cuisines are often confused, it helps to think of Hunan as a straight-up heat fest: salt, sour and spice from all those pickled chilies, lent a smoky richness from larou, a deliciously fatty peasant-style bacon that shows up in countless dishes.

Whereas Sichuan dazzles with its magical ma la one-two punch (mouth-numbing and spicy), Hunan instead turns everything up to eleven. Salt, spice, sour, oil, smoke. Big flavors balance out other big flavors. Stewing, braising and cooking on a low heat results in concentrated richness. Dry-pot dishes bubble away on the table, flavors infusing, spice-levels mounting. Hunan cuisine is food designed to make you sweat, beg for mercy, weep for joy, order another beer to put out the flames, but not be able to stop. Oh no.

“Hong shao rou, or ‘Chairman Mao’s favorite Red Braised Pork’, is a master class in how chefs turn base fat into gold.”

The Xiang River, a tributary of the mighty Yangtze, winds through the heart of Hunan province, giving the cuisine – xiang cai – it’s name. Xiang cai has been attributed one of China’s ‘Eight Great Cuisines’, a roll call of regional Chinese culinary traditions argued over by officialdom half a century ago. (Others on the list include Sichuan, Cantonese, and Shandong).

The Xiang knits together the lakes, mountains and plains of Hunan, a rich rice-producing region with a history of hearty peasant cooking. The Xiang also passes the provincial capital, Changsha, once home to a young revolutionary by the name of Mao Zedong. Parallels are often drawn between the cuisine of Hunan and the fiery spirit of its people - many epithets exist that purport to show Mao’s love of fiery spice. “You can’t be a revolutionary if you don’t eat chilies,” he once told a Russian diplomat. It is rumored he would even put chilies on slices of watermelon.

Curiously, though, the dish most associated with Mao and Hunan isn’t spicy at all. Hong shao rou, or ‘Chairman Mao’s favorite Red Braised Pork’, is a master class in how chefs turn base fat into gold. Hefty cubes of pork belly (mostly fat with a little lean meat attached) are cooked in a braising liquor spiked with whole spices like star anise and cassia, and flavored with Shaoxing rice wine and soy sauce. It reduces to a sticky-sweet, caramelized sauce as the meat becomes unctuously tender. Hong shao rou is best eaten over plain white rice, to temper the salt and soak up all the delicious juices.

Red-braised pork is the signature dish at hundreds of Hunan and Mao-themed restaurants across China, prompting the Hunan government (never one to miss a chance to cash in on Mao) to release an official recipe in 2010, to quell the rise of inferior versions, which states that the pork must be derived from a rare breed in Ningxiang county, close to the capital Changsha. Alleged to be Mao’s favorite dish, in his later years his physician warned him about consuming too much of the rich, fatty pork belly, to which he is said to have responded, “how can something that makes me so happy be bad for me?”

Another Mao favorite, according to his former chef Master Cheng Ruming (interviewed by this writer in 2009), was a dish we mentioned earlier - doujiao yutou. Translating to ‘fish head with pickled chilies’, this classic Hunan dish consists of pickled and diced red (and occasionally green) chillis stir-fried with ginger, garlic, spring onion, oyster sauce, soy sauce, vinegar and rice wine, before being served with the giant steamed head of the aptly-named “big-headed carp.” The sour heat of the peppers complements the tender, comparatively bland white fish. (As a historic note, the same chef said Mao also rather liked Western style cream éclairs - presumably the cream helps cut through all that spice).  

And a final word about spice: Hunan and neighboring Sichuan are so defined by the chili pepper that many people, Chinese included, assume it to be native to China. It’s not. The chilli came from South America perhaps as recently as the late 17th century. Its widespread adoption in regions like Hunan and neighboring Sichuan, rather than Guangdong, for example, while partly explained by favorable growing conditions, can also be understood in Chinese medicine terms. The climate in the central regions is stiflingly hot and humid, and so people believe that eating spicy food helps to relieve ‘internal dampness’ and cold, and, most importantly of all, stimulate the appetite and get people to the table.

Beijing: love is blind by Thomas O'Malley

Here's a blurb I wrote for Lonely Planet recently, where writers were asked to compose a love letter to their adopted city: 

Whoever said love is blind must surely have meant you, Běijīng. Dressed in your gown of prim modernity, girdled with skyscrapers and garlanded with scarlet flags and socialist flowerbeds. Harmonious, civilised, and just a little bit bland. But I see the fire in your eyes that tells of a life richly lived. Triumphs and tragedies, love and laughter, secrets that reveal themselves to those who get close to you. Your winding lanes and willow-lined lakes, temple relics and wall remains, culinary and artistic treasures that survive and thrive. What I’m really saying is drop the act, you’re not fooling me. I love you for who you really are.

The moment I fell: Wandering through silent, sleeping hutong alleyways by the light of a silvery moon.

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