Beijing 1984 – Pakistani Curry, Chocolate Almond Ice Cream & The I. M. Pei Hotel

When I returned to Beijing after three months of research work in Shanghai and Jiangsu province, I decided it was time to become part of the capital’s foreign community just as I did in Shanghai. I must admit that I missed the convivial Friday evening Planter’s Punch and the Old Jazz Band at the Peace Hotel.

There were no more than a few hundred or so of us long-term Beijing residents excluding diplomats, students and the few foreign correspondents assigned to “new” China.

I got into the swing of things in Beijing through meeting people from the British Chamber of Commerce. They invited me to join them at the British Embassy for a drink at the Bell, a pub that was (and still is) on the actual grounds of the embassy.

It was on a Friday evening and, afterwards, they took me to the Xin Qiao Hotel where, to my surprise, Pakistani curry was being served in a function room. How on earth was this possible? My new friends from the British Chamber of Commerce explained that, on that particular day, the Pakistani Airlines crew was in town.

They regularly brought spices and other ingredients for the hotel chefs to prepare succulent curry. The icing on the cake was chocolate almond ice cream that they also brought almost every week. At that time, the only ice cream available in Beijing was vanilla while curry was not on any restaurant menu so it was an amazing treat.

This is how Xin Qiao became a rallying point for many expats in the mid-1980s. I used to go there at least twice a month and always enjoyed the company and the culinary treats.

At the Minzu Hotel along Chang An Avenue (close to the Forbidden City), the Western restaurant used to offer borsch, chicken Kiev and other Russian specialties. It was rather expensive but quite authentic so I only went there on special occasions, as my research grant did not cover wining and dining in western restaurants.

We also used to meet from time to time on Sunday evenings at a small Chinese restaurant located in Ritan Park for a plate or two of local jiaozi, the traditional north-China dumplings. This was a very inexpensive but nevertheless delicious meal. Nowadays, this particular restaurant has long gone but the park has several well-known eateries including Xi He Ya Ju, serving tasty Sichuan food, Xiao Wang Fu serving Peking Duck, as well as a couple of tea houses and even a Russian restaurant, Moscow.


Steamed and fried jiaozi

By Houhai Lake, on the north side of Behai Park, was another Chinese restaurant that I enjoyed very much and which is still in operation. Called Kaorouji, it used to have one small room just off the main dining room that had a large round barbecue in the centre. Going there in wintertime was absolutely delightful for the heat generated by the open barbecue kept everyone warm. My favourite was a succulent lamb dish spiced up with ziran (cumin). It tasted so delicious that it was impossible to stop eating. Sadly, it has been totally renovated and lost all authenticity and appeal for me.


Kaurouji at Houhai Lake

From Spring to Autumn, expats would often meet on Sunday for “R&R” (Rest & Recreation) and lunch at the Fragrant Hills, west of Beijing. A very nice hotel hidden in the hills had been designed by renowned architect I. M. Pei (The I.M. Pei who had already designed the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and would later create the Louvre Pyramid in Paris and the Bank of China Tower in Hong Kong amongst many others). Opened a couple of years earlier (1982), it had a distinctive and elegant feel with a four-storey central atrium covered by glass panels, a couple of restaurants, a large swimming pool and a beautiful garden. It was the perfect spot to unwind regardless of the weather and we used to stay until late.

FH Hotel

 I.M.Pei’s Fragrant Hills Hotel

Our lives in 1984 were very much Yin and Yang. On the one hand we faced many obstacles at a time when telex was only becoming the means of communication with the outside world (no fax yet) and international calls had to be booked at least one day in advance, when access to medical care was “limited” and various supplies were only available from Hong Kong. But, we also had the immense privilege of being trail-blazers as we discovered a fascinating new world going through amazing changes.

Within two decades, it became an economic giant and, thinking about it 30 years later and comparing our lives then and now, I sometimes have the feeling that I am actually living on another planet!


The man with the key is not here – May 1984

James Moriarty’s quote “In a world full of locked rooms, the man with the key is king” in the latest Sherlock Holmes TV series, rings a very strong bell with me and, I am pretty sure, with fellow expats who used to live in China in the early 80’s. Indeed, we all had the opportunity to experience its real meaning 30 years ago when China was truly a land full of locked rooms (so to speak).

During my stay at the Shanghai Museum of Natural History, Dr. Cao Keqing, Peach Blossom (my trusted translator who had the complexion of a fresh Peach) and I decided to go and visit a small museum in nearby Jiangsu province with the intention to study Milu fossils and sub-fossils. It was located in (at that time) a beautiful little town called Yangzhou at the junction of the Yangtze River, the Grand Canal and the Huaihe River. Marco Polo is said to have served as a Government Official in the city in the late 13th century before returning to Venice. In its heyday, the city was one of the most prosperous cities in China due to its flourishing trade in salt, silk and grain.

Marco Polo

Marco Polo

To get there from Shanghai, the trip took us over 16 hours. First, we took a boat, appropriately named ‘East is Red’, to go upstream on the Yangtze River. I was very excited, as I had wanted to travel on the Yangtze since coming to Shanghai and be able to learn more about people’s lives along one of the key waterways in China, which had long been the backbone of China’s inland water transportation system.

Boat on the Yangtze River

Boat on the Yangtze River

Initially we were given a large room with six or eight beds where a family with a small child had already settled in. After the little boy nearly urinated on my camera bag (imagine the look on my face and the tantrum I created!), we decided that it would be better to get a smaller room on our own and luckily we managed to do so. We had dinner in the room and enjoyed delicious eggs, hard-boiled in tea leaves and cold vegetables that Dr. Cao’s wife had prepared and given to her husband for the trip.

MB Yangze River 1984

Maria Boyd on the East is Red ship

We reached Zhenjiang City on the south shore of the Yangtze and disembarked at 6 am the following morning. We waited for the pontoon boat to take us across where we were met by a friend of Dr. Cao who drove us to Yangzhou, a 20-mn drive. We stayed in a former government state guesthouse and I was told that Peach Blossom and I would be staying in the very same room where the much loved late Premier Zhou En Lai had stayed years before. Whether this was true or not, I did not know, but I felt very special to be in this particular room, set in a small villa in the middle of a beautiful garden in the middle of ‘nowhere’ (once again, a term applicable at the point in time).

Yangzhou GGH

Gardens of the former guesthouse in Yangzhou

We had breakfast and then, fully rejuvenated, we walked to the museum famous for its fossil collection and particularly one well preserved Milu sub-fossil antlers in its entirety. It only took us about 10 minutes but unfortunately, upon arrival, we were simply and plainly told that ‘the man with the key is out of town’ and that, as a consequence, we could not see the Milu antlers!!!

Sub-fossil Milu Antlers

Sub-fossil Milu Antlers

I must explain that in the 1980’s and 90’s, different people were in charge of different exhibits or particular sections of any museum and that the same principle applied China-wide, from a small museum in Jiangsu province to the Palace Museum in Beijing. All exhibit rooms were pad-locked at the end of the day in addition to any standard fixed locks eventually used and the keys preciously kept at all times by the various people in charge. In their absence (for whatever reasons), access was therefore impossible making them the true masters of their respective kingdoms.

It was very much a “fait accompli” but I decided to try to beat them at their own game. I told them that I would simply not leave until ‘the man with the key’ would return and that they should not worry, as I would be just fine. I immediately sat on the steps leading to this particular exhibit room and started to ask various questions about where did the man go to, how long it would take him to come back, etc.

A foreign visitor refusing to leave was un-heard of and the staff felt rather uncomfortable and worried. What to do with me at the end of the day? They could not remove me from the premises by force and calling the local authorities was not an option but leaving me behind even less. There was no way, after nearly one full day of travel, that I would just leave without seeing this full set of antlers and Peach Blossom dutifully passed the message to the Head of the museum.

We therefore settled in an uneasy stalemate and the wait started. Eventually, just before lunch the ‘man with the key’ appeared out of nowhere. He was not apologetic, did not say a word, and simply opened the pad lock allowing us to enter the room to view and study the antlers that were in a special glass case. When we left, an hour or so later, he immediately locked the room again and disappeared. I can guess that not too many visitors ever saw these particular antlers.

Several weeks later, I mentioned upon returning to Beijing this particular episode to several friends. They found it quite hilarious and teased me about my short temper and the fact that I basically put the museum staff in a difficult position …. Little did they (and I for this matter) realise that similar encounters would happen again and again during the following 30 years…. but this is another story.

It eventually led Karin Malmstrom to use my “Yangzhou experience” as the title for a humoristic small 50-page book she wrote in 1990 showcasing etiquette issues and how to interpret and understand the real meaning of common phrases used in China. With a similar format as Chairman Mao Zedong’s “Little red book”, it pokes fun at the hurdles foreigners used to deal with in the Middle Kingdom at that time and is called “The man with the key is not here”. In the acknowledgements, she referred to me as “Ms. Milu” and I still have a broad smile when I remember this episode and the shockwave I created in this little museum 30 years ago.

The book.....

The book…..

PS: the book is now out of print and has become a collector’s edition. Should you have a copy, keep it preciously!

Shanghai Museum of Natural History – March-April 1984

diplodocusMamenchisaurus (a long-necked dinosaur from the late Jurassic Period)

As soon as I arrived from Beijing, and while still staying at the Park Hotel, I went to the Shanghai Museum of Natural History, a stone’s throw away from the Bund, to meet the Director and to bring my books and documents to my new ‘office’.

Located on the top floor of the museum, very close to the library, it was ideal as I had to use the library extensively. Indeed, as part of the preliminary work leading to the actual re-introduction of the Milu Deer to the former Imperial Hunting Park in Beijing (planned to take place in 1985), I had to do extensive research on the Milu based on fossils and sub-fossils finds to better understand its original habitat and other key factors.

The Director, Madam Zong Yu, was very kind. She took me around and officially introduced me to the staff, to whom she told to help me with anything I may need for my research study. I was assigned a translator that I called Peach Blossom (she had the skin of a ripe fresh peach) who proved instrumental in the success of my visit. Not only did she taught me the local way of life and habits of Chinese people (like the traditional one-hour afternoon nap after lunch where staff would either rest in their office or on straw mats in corridors) but she also proved to be an excellent translator. It was not an easy task as, when dealing with officials, translators used to ‘adjust’ the translation to soften eventual harsh points so that they, the messengers, would not be shot (so to speak). I just told her once that I wanted her to translate exactly what I was saying even if it was very direct and just make sure that she would mention “Maria said that” so she would not get in trouble. It worked very well.

The museum was established in 1956 in the former Shanghai Cotton Exchange Building, a classical British building built in 1923, just behind the Bund. It is located at 260 East Yanan Lu and, in 1994, the Shanghai Municipal Government designated this building a “Heritage Building” to ensure its conservation. However, and very unfortunately, the Yan’an Elevated Road has since been constructed within meters of the front of the building making it impossible nowadays to enjoy the architecture of this beautiful building.

The Museum incorporated various collections of previous museums including the Musée Heude, the first museum of natural history in China set up in 1868 by a Jesuit Missionary called Pierre-Marie Heude. The exhibitions consisted almost entirely of rows and rows of wood and glass cases filled with stuffed animals, fossils and other valuable artifacts.

Visitors entering the magnificent entrance hall, were welcomed by a 22-metre long 140 million years old skeleton of a giant Mamenchisaurus (a long-necked dinosaur from the late Jurassic Period) that had been discovered in Sichuan Province. The rest of the first floor was dedicated to explaining the evolutionary processes that led to Homo Sapiens. On the second and third levels, the animal kingdom was represented with preserved specimens ranging from butterflies to giant turtles.

exhibitExhibition Hall

At that time, the museum had a collection of 240,000 specimens, including over 62,000 pieces of animal specimens, 135,000 plant specimens, 700 specimens of the Stone Age, and 1,700 specimens of minerals. There were also rare species, which cannot be found elsewhere outside China, such as the Yellow River Mammoth, Giant Panda, Yangtze Alligator and Milu.

In 1985, I donated to the museum some penguins from the Mc Murdo Sound in the Antarctic where my late husband, Johnny, has done research on temperature regulation in Emperor penguins’ feet and flippers. They were added to the museum collections.

Penguins exhibit

Penguin exhibit (and that is me, looking on….)

It was thrilling for me to find journals and writings from the old Heude Museum where the well-known naturalist and explorer Arthur de Carle Sowerby, author of a “guide to the Shanghai Museum” in 1936, conducted research work. Staying in Shanghai also allowed me to do research on Milu fossils and sub-fossils in nearby Jiangsu Province, a very interesting trip but this is another story (please click here to see the post on this trip).

Exactly 30 years after my first visit, the museum was closed earlier this year and will soon be relocated to a stunning new 40,000 square-meter building. Located in the Jing’an Sculpture Park, its shape is inspired by a nautilus shell and a tribute to 50,000,000 years of evolution (the drawing shown below is from the leading global architecture and design firm Perkins + Will in charge of this project) . I look forward to discovering this new and extended museum with great anticipation later this year. Talk about a walk down memory lane!

Perkins-Will design for SHNatHistory museum“New” Shanghai Museum of Natural History


My First Trip To Pudong, Shanghai In May 1984

Maria's quoteWhen I was preparing my trip to China, I read a lot about Beijing, Shanghai and many other places from east to west and north to south that I wanted to visit.

But, maybe due to the fact that I was born in Bratislava, a beautiful city on the Danube River, I kept wandering about Shanghai – the city nicknamed “Paris of the East”. I was intrigued and did not know what to expect.

I must say that, even in 1984, Shanghai was already an exciting and cosmopolitan place. There was a distinctively European feel in many places and especially on the Bund and in the former French Quarter where even the plane trees lining up the streets made it look so much like France!

It was so strange and amazing to discover this unique blend of East and West with so few foreigners around.  And the old area around the Yu Garden was very quiet and beautiful at that time without all the commercialism that is currently affecting the area so terribly.

All in all, the city reminded me very much of Europe. How could this small European encroachment survive and how did the Shanghainese of old manage to maintain this architectural heritage?

I always felt that people who live near rivers or the sea are more open minded than others but how would local people welcome me?

All these and many more questions were on my mind when I moved from the Park Hotel to a dormitory at a teacher’s college where I was going to live for several months, before moving back to Beijing.

I immediately loved the Huangpu River. Every time I went walking around the Bund, I would wonder where the waves were coming from and how long it would take them to reach the mouth of the Yangtze River just as I used to do when I went for walks along the Danube River when I wondered how long it would take the waves to reach the Black Sea, or where did the gulls fly in from and where they were going to …..

The Bund was – and still remains – one of the most interesting areas in Shanghai although it was rather dilapidated at that time. On one end was the renowned Peace Hotel opened in 1929 as the Cathay Hotel. It was regarded before 1949 as the most prestigious hotel in Shanghai and, during my stay, the handful of foreigners living in Shanghai used to meet every Friday evening in the bar of the hotel.

The famous Peace Hotel with its green roof - photographed in the mid-80's

The famous Peace Hotel with its green roof – photographed in the mid-80’s

It was an opportunity to share experiences, compare notes and inform each other of our upcoming travelling plans. Those travelling to Hong Kong were receiving shopping lists to bring back to Shanghai some essentials from toiletries and rolls of Kodak film, to office supplies and not so essential items such as chocolate and cheese, as there was very little that could be purchased in town.

Interestingly, I later discovered that similar gatherings were happening in Beijing at the Xin Qiao Hotel in the south-east corner of the old Legation Quarter but this is another story.

This bar at the Peace Hotel in Shanghai was famous for the “Old Jazz Band” performing every evening. The story goes that during the Cultural Revolution, members of the band had to bury their instruments in order not to have them destroyed by the Red Guards. True or not, I do not know but it makes an interesting story.

I used to look forward to these Friday evenings where I felt like a 19th century explorer trying to find the long extinct Milu while sipping a Planter’s punch and listening to timeless jazz tunes performed by musicians in their 70’s and 80’s. Decadent indeed!

At the Teacher’s College, I became quite friendly with an American who was teaching English while learning Chinese. One weekend, we decided to take off on bikes to discover Shanghai. The day was beautiful and we rode from the college (nearby the Western Suburb Guesthouse) to the Huang Pu River. Obviously, there were no bridges and tunnels at that time. We took a pontoon boat to cross the river and being the only foreigners, it created quite a stir with Shanghainese people staring at us, pointing fingers and chatting among themselves as if we were strange creatures who had escaped from a zoo.

In Pudong (which means East of the River), no skyscrapers, no 5-star hotels, no fancy restaurants and top-end shopping malls welcomed us. There were mostly agriculture fields, a few clusters of small houses for local farmers, and not a single tall building in view.

We did not have a map but wanted to reach the sea so we went biking on mud paths in the middle of nowhere. After a while, we saw in the distance a little boy standing in an open doorway. As we approached, the little boy stood frozen and started screaming as loud as he could.

His mother came out running fearing something terrible had happened. When she saw us, she laughed and started calming the little boy who kept pointing out at us and saying we were devils, ghosts and a host of other terrible creatures from the underworld. He had never met foreigners and the vision of a blond and a dark haired “alien” ladies was just overwhelming …… I often think of this boy and wonder what he became and if he still remembers this episode in Pudong.

We continued our ride after this unexpected and charming encounter but little did we know that the sea was more than 30 km east ….. and we obviously never made it.

View of the mighty Huangpu River as seen from the Bund in the mid-90's on the left side of the river. The iconic Pearl TV Tower on the right side - which is Pudong.

View of the mighty Huangpu River as seen from the Bund in the mid-90’s on the left side of the river. The iconic Pearl TV Tower on the right side – which is Pudong.

In 1996, I returned to Pudong for a client planning to open a garment factory. It will surprise many people to learn that apart from the area closest to the Bund where the Oriental Pearl Radio and TV Tower had been built 10 years after my first visit (1994) most of Pudong was STILL at this time agricultural land. Roads had been built but no road signs, no directional signage and no maps were available. Finding the factory was a bit like finding a needle in a haystack.

The Pudong Shangri-La only opened in 1998 and by that time Pudong was on the way to becoming the show-window of “new” China and the financial capital of the country, a “Manhattan upon Huangpu” for the 21st century. Unbelievable to realize that it was built from scratch in only 20 years!!

Till the next chapter…..


Summer Salads I

Temperatures in Beijing are climbing rapidly (it already reached 42 degrees C the other week!!!) and our diet is reflecting this drastic change with a lot of fresh vegetables and salads.

In my story on Exotic Spices and Herbs (please click here to read) I mentioned the cookbook “Jerusalem” that is the source of the following recipes (adapted from the original ones) where the Jewish and Palestinian cooking styles meet and co-exist in perfect harmony.

Fried Cauliflower with Tahini Dressing

Fried Cauliflower in Tahini Dressing

Fried Cauliflower with Tahini Dressing

Ingredients for 4 to 6 people:

1 kg Cauliflower (2 medium heads)

8 spring onions

180 gr of tahini

Parsley and mint (1/3 cup each) chopped

2 cloves of garlic crushed

150 gr of Greek yoghurt

6 cl of lemon juice

Zest of one lemon

50 cl of sunflower oil

1 tsp of pomegranate syrup

Salt & pepper for seasoning

Mint leaves for decoration (optional)


1. Warm the oil in a large frying pan (medium to high heat).

2. Rinse and dry the cauliflower and start cooking the florets, 3 to 4 minutes each, while turning them around so they are colored evenly.

3. Once ready, place them on paper towel to remove the extra oil and season them lightly.

4. Repeat the operation until all the cauliflower has been cooked.

5. Fry quickly the spring onion in the same oil (1 minute). Then add it to the cauliflower and put aside. Let it cool down.

6. In a large salad bowl, place tahini, garlic, parsley, mint, yoghurt, lemon juice, lemon zest, and pomegranate syrup.

7. Mix well while adding 1/3 cup of water to obtain a smooth paste (with a consistency similar to honey and not too liquid).

8. Place the cauliflower and spring onion in the salad bowl and toss carefully.

9. Check seasoning and adjust it. Eventually, add some lemon juice.

10. Place some mint leaves on top for decoration (optional).

It is ready to serve with pita bread. Enjoy!

Eggplant Sandwich “Meli-Melo”

This dish actually does not originate from Jerusalem but from the nearby city of Ramat Gan, where it was created by Iraqi Jews in the 1950’s. It perfectly summarizes the culinary influences of the region: Arabic, Sefarade, Yemenite and Israeli.

Eggplant Sandwich 'Meli Melo'

Eggplant Sandwich “Meli-Melo”

Ingredients for 4 people:

2 large eggplants

4 pieces of pita bread

4 boiled eggs sliced or cut in quarters

Tahini sauce

4 Tbs of Zhoug Amba *

Spicy mango condiment (optional) – Mango chutney is NOT recommended as it is too sweet and not appropriate for this particular recipe

For the salad

2 medium size tomatoes (200 gr) cut in chunks

1 cucumber (120 gr) cut in chunks

2 spring onions thinly sliced

1.5 Tbs of chopped parsley

For the salad dressing

2 tsp of lemon juice

1.5 Tbs of olive oil

Salt & pepper for seasoning

* for the Zhoug

Mix the following ingredients together with 2 table spoons of water. The paste should be a bit rough and not smooth. It can be kept in the fridge in a sealed jar for a couple of weeks maximum.

35 gr of coriander roughly cut

10 gr of parsley

2 spicy green chillies roughly cut

½ tsp of cumin (powder)

¼ tsp of cardamom (powder)

¼ tsp of cloves (powder)

¼ tsp of salt

1 pinch of sugar

1 clove of garlic (crushed)

2 Tbs of olive oil


1. Slice eggplants in length (2.5 cm thick slices).

2. Salt on both sides to make it release waterand let it rest for 30 minutes.

3. Warm the sun flower oil in a large frying pan (medium to high heat) and place the dried eggplant slices. Count 4 to 5 minutes on each side to have them nicely grilled and cooked in the middle.

4. Place them on paper towel to remove the extra oil and let them cool down.

5. Prepare the salad by mixing tomato, cucumber, and spring onions. Add lemon juice, oil and seasoning and toss well.


6. Place a pita bread on each plate. Put one table spoon of tahini on top (try to spread it well).

7. Put slices of aubergines on top and add tahini on top.

8. Place egg slices on top and drizzle with tahini.

9. Add a little Zhoug Amba (optional) that is VERY spicy and eventually the mango condiment.

10. Add the salad on top and decorate with chopped parsley.

Alternatively, one can stuff the pita bread with the meli-melo of vegetables but, regardless of the way it is prepared, it is simply delicious!