Thursday, July 24, 2014
Tuesday, July 22, 2014
Tuesday, February 18, 2014
The second activity held by Huawen that I attended was a dumpling party. I love dumplings as you’re probably aware by now. Like the tea party, Stephanie had invited a friend of hers who was meant to be an expert of sorts. Li Zhenjuan was from is the town of Linyi in Linshu County, Shandong Province. Shandong is in the north of China. According to Stefanie, “most of the provinces in northern China are home to dumplings. Almost every household is good at making dumplings, which is their main food, especially for the spring festival.” Li Zhenjuan grew up making dumplings and she showed us how her family makes them.
The party was a bit awkward at first. Whenever you first walk into a situation with Chinese people you don’t know there is sometimes an expectation in them that you don’t know anything. When someone points to a plate of dumplings and says; “these are called jiaozi,” it is difficult for me not to respond sarcastically. It helps to try to remember that they are only trying to be polite and helpful. It helps even more though to realize that any sarcastic remark would be wasted because most people usually won’t understand it and there wouldn't be any satisfaction from having said it. Knowing this I managed to hold my tongue when in the first few moments of having arrived it was explained to me what jiaozi were, what chopsticks were and myriad other things that I was already aware of.
Eventually things became more interesting. We watched Li Zhenjuan make dough. Then using a small rolling pin she showed us roll a piece of it out into a dumpling wrap. The rolling pins are very small. They are about ten inches long, maybe shorter, and a little less than the diameter of a quarter. The trick is to control the rolling pin with one hand while turning the dough with thumb and forefinger of the other hand and to do this very quickly. Do this correctly and you end up with a flat almost perfectly round shape about three inches wide.
It takes several tries to get this down. The first few times everyone ends up with strangely stretched shapes that aren't good for anything. Several people gave up on this. A few didn't even try. I and a young man named Evan were the first to more or less get the hang of it. Evan is from Portugal and is the first foreigner I've met who lives here working as a translator. Portugal is China’s second largest market behind the US. Evan works for manufacturing companies. His job is to take documents, like user manuals that have been written for English speaking consumers and translate them into Portuguese.
Neither mine nor Evan’s wraps were near the quality of Li Zhenjuan’s but we didn't expect them to be. Evan’s actually were slightly better than mine. Though we both got good at making them we both agree that we wouldn't want to do this regularly. After thirty to forty minutes of rolling out these wraps my hand was starting to hurt and I didn't want any more of it.
We had three different kinds of fillings. One of them was 白菜肉 (bai cai rou) pork mixed with Chinese cabbage. The second was a mixture of some green vegetables. I didn't recognize what they were. The third was another meat filling with bits of corn and other vegetables.
To make a dumpling you first wet the edges of the wrap. The side you wet will be the inside once you've pressed it together. Then you put a small scoop of filling into it and then fold the edges between your thumbs and the sides of your palms pinching them shut. You have to be careful not to over stuff them. You also have to make sure that they are completely closed and that all of the stuffing is in the middle. None of the stuffing can reach the edge of the dumpling nor should it come near. If you don’t do this the dumpling will fall apart when you cook it.
We started cooking some of the jiaozi by steaming them. We used a rice cooker filled with water with a metal basket on top. I had one of these when I lived in zhuan kou. They are the easiest way to cook rice I have ever seen. Rice is never overcooked or under-cooked. It’s always perfect. Rice cookers can also be used to boil eggs or to steam something.
Some of the dumplings came out great. Some came out horribly. Most were somewhere in between. How they came out depended on whether or not they had been closed properly. There are actually other, more creative ways to close them. If you want you can make them look fancy by the way you close the dumplings. These were some of my better ones. After a while we fried a few of the ones that had previously been steamed.
I have not tried to make any dumplings at home but I have thought about it several times since the party. When and if I do I will share the results with you here.
Tuesday, February 11, 2014
“I’d like a cup of coffee,” I said.
"Uh…" the Chinese kid hesitated. He may have been in his late teens or early twenties. He was probably a student in Jiang Han University which was only two blocks away. He had that puzzled expression on his face that I've begun to recognize in Chinese people when they know a bit of English but are trying to think of what they want to say and are uncertain how to say it. It is a mixture of fear and embarrassment punctuated with nervous laughter. He finally manages to pull the right combination of words from the dusty recesses of his mind to utter the question I've come to both expect and dread. “What kind of coffee do you want?”
And with those seven words the satanic games began.
I didn't drink a lot of coffee before coming to China. I drank it on rare occasions, once or twice a month at most. I frequented Starbucks of course but like most of Starbucks’ patrons in the States I was chugging down Frappuccinos. My first year in China I used Starbucks as an alternative environment to study in when I didn't want to be in the house all day. In this first year there was a gradual shift. Real coffee was less expensive than the coffee flavored milkshakes. It was also something warm to drink during the cold winter months. At the same time I reasoned that it was probably healthier.
Over the second and third year I frequented Mr. Mai’s Coffee House in Zhuan Kou. This was partly because the atmosphere was more comfortable. Fewer people bothered me during the daytime hours in Mr. Mai's. The ones who did want to talk to me I didn't mind as much. The coffee at Mai's was also cheaper. A tall cup of coffee in Starbucks was 32 rmb and most of the time Starbucks in China will not refill your coffee. Mr. Mai’s only had two sizes; regular and large. The regular for 15 rmb is about the same size as a tall in Starbucks. This alone would be enough but Mr. Mai’s offers one refill. I've also gradually come to believe that Mr. Mai’s coffee tastes better than Starbucks.
Unfortunately both of these companies have spoiled me. Starbucks knows that foreigners in China will gravitate to their stores and will more or less come with certain expectations. They seem to have trained their baristas accordingly. In every Starbucks I've walked into in every city I've been to in China they will only ask one of two questions. Either they will ask, “Do you want brewed coffee?” or they will assume that I do and ask “What size?” and all will be right with the world. Anticipating this, when I go to Starbucks I usually will say “Brewed coffee” when I order and they understand immediately. At Mr. Mai’s it is the same. David, who owns Mr. Mai’s, has taught his employees to make similar assumptions. If you ask for coffee at Mr. Mai’s, you get coffee without any other questions.
The problem with all this is that Wuhan is a large city. There are only two Mr. Mai’s here. While Starbucks is busy putting a store on every corner of every street in all parts of the world, they haven’t gotten that far yet. Sometimes you have to go to other places. Sometimes you want to go to other places.
The coffee shop I was in this day was called Measure Cup. I had passed by on several occasions but had never before gone inside. There are hundreds of independent coffee shops around Wuhan. Some of them are great. Some are not. Many look like Starbucks. Many are obvious attempts to copy Starbucks. Measure Cup looked fancy, bordering on possibly expensive. They had few customers in the middle of the day and several employees. This was not an uncommon sight. Their six employees are all gathered in proximity to the bar waiting for my answer to the most fiendish of all questions.
“What kind of coffee do you want?”
“Brewed coffee,” I said. It was the answer that Starbucks had taught me to give. It was the answer that made the most sense. It was the answer that should have explained everything and expedited the rest of my day. Yet it did none of these things.
“Booed coffee,” he said. I could tell by the look on his face that this was not just a mispronunciation he didn't understand.
“Brewed coffee,” I said again exaggerating the words. He said something in Chinese to one of the others. There was a response given in Chinese.
“I’m sorry,” the other person said. “What kind of coffee do you want?” These two men had been standing side by side the whole time. He had heard the entire conversation. He opened the menu and started showing me different drinks. “We have cappuccino, latte, mocha café…” he said thumbing through the pages.
“No,” I said. “I don’t want a mixed drink.”
“Mixed drink?” When people repeat words like this it is almost always because they don’t understand the words. He didn't know what “mixed drink” meant.
“Regular coffee,” I said trying a new word. It was the first word that came to mind.
“Regular?” he repeated because he didn't know the word.
“Regular,” I repeated because I didn't know how to make him understand. “Yeah, normal coffee.”
He squinted and looked at his friend. They exchanged a few words in Chinese. The friend shook his head. He looked down at the menu.
“Sir, I think all of our coffee is normal.”
“I want black coffee,” I said wondering why I hadn't started with this. “Hei kafe,” I added in butchered Chinese hoping they would understand it. This created some more conversation between them. I had no idea what they were saying. It went on for a minute.
Finally he asked, “You want espresso?”
If I’d wanted espresso I would have said espresso and not coffee, I wanted to say but I knew he wouldn't understand because he doesn't know the difference.
“No,” I said instead. “I do not want espresso.” I flipped through the menu hoping that I might find brewed coffee. The closest thing I found that I could read was café Americano, watered down espresso. This was what I ended up with. One of them pointed to the café Americano and asked if this was want I wanted. I acquiesced knowing that it would be the closest I'd get.
While I was waiting I looked around at the decorations they had arranged on shelves and walls. There was a lot of coffee paraphernalia here. Among the paraphernalia there was a vacuum coffee pot. These are sometimes also called siphon coffee makers. There was a coffee shop not far from this one that used the vacuum pots to brew their coffee. It looks a little bit like a mad science experiment and delivers a decent cup of coffee. Near the vacuum pot, on the same shelf but divided by a wall there were two drip coffee makers. I just smiled at this and went to find a seat.
Tuesday, February 4, 2014
From early September through November I took Chinese classes at Huawen. My teacher’s name was Stefanie. She ran Huawen alongside one other teacher. Over these few months Huawen organized a few different activities outside of regular classes.
The first of these activities was on tea culture. Stefanie was friends with a woman named 李莉 (or Li Li but from here on we’ll call her Lilly). Lilly’s parents own a tea shop 星享茗茶, No.112-1, Luyu Chadu, Ziyang Road, Wuchang. Lilly studied tea for many years. She grew up in her parent’s tea house and later she went to school at Zhangzhou College of Science and Technology (漳州科技学院) a university founded by a tea company (http://www.tftc.edu.cn/). Lilly also has an online presence through Taobao, http://llilyteahouse.taobao.com. Unfortunately her online store is completely in Chinese but there are many pretty pictures there if you’re interested. Stefanie invited Lilly to Huawen where she gave a demonstration of tea culture. She brewed several different kinds of tea for us allowing us to try as much as we liked.
Tea has been one of my favorite parts of the Chinese experience from the moment I arrived. When Stefanie told me about the tea party I couldn't refuse. Any chance to drink free tea is something that I find difficult to resist. This is especially true when the tea is likely to be high quality. One of the great things about tea shops, which my friend Chris first pointed out to me, is that once you've bought anything from them they will remember you forever. Not only will they remember you but they will serve you tea for free every time you come to their shop. They don’t skimp on this either. It’s always the good stuff. I believe tea shop owners do this for two reasons. First, I think they've understood for a long time what online marketing gurus have been championing for the last three or four years. The best way to promote a business is to give things to your customers for free. The second reason is that I believe tea shop owners are genuinely enthusiastic about their products. They love tea, they want you to love it to and they want to show off the teas that they have. In the end they know that you’ll buy more from them later.
Stefanie and Lilly had arranged the conference table so that the two of them were sitting in the middle and ten of Stefanie’s students, including myself, were sitting around them. Lilly brewed all the tea. Between heating the kettle, pouring and serving Lilly would talk to us in Chinese. Stefanie translated. She served us Green Tea, Oolong and Pu’er. Over the past three years pu’er has been my favorite. She told us about the different kinds of tea and she made predictions about the different teas that she thought we would like. She suggested that the men would like the darker pu’er more and that the women would like the lighter ones. She was mostly right. She rattled off facts about different teas. One is said to be good for helping you sleep. Another is good for giving you energy. Yet another is good for aiding digestion. She cautioned not to drink too much too quickly because it could make someone light headed and dizzy. One of the women present asked what about it caused you to become dizzy. Lilly looked puzzled for brief moment before suggesting that this feeling of dizziness was the tea helping your digestion. As far as I could tell I was the only one who found this statement amusing.
While I don’t readily buy her explanation of dizziness being linked to aiding digestion I did enjoy her tea and in the not too distant future I will likely seek out her parents shop to buy some pu’er. I’ll need something to drink once I finish off the earl grey that the University gave me for Christmas.
Tuesday, January 28, 2014
The majority of the restaurants I've seen in China appear to be family owned small businesses. Certainly there are regional, national and international chains everywhere. But these have not completely taken over and it doesn't look like they will any time soon. Roughly 80% of the restaurants that I see in Wuhan are of the Mom and Pop variety. This is excluding the larger fancier places. In the smaller shacks it will often be just two people working there. This is usually but not always a husband and wife. I know of one place that is run by two sisters and another that is run by a mother and daughter. In places that serve dishes you’ll often see a whole family. There are no hard and fast rules here but you get the feeling that family and friends are hired first. It is not uncommon to see one or two of my students working in one of these restaurants near the school.
Among the restaurants outside the school gates there is a dumpling place. The people who own the dumpling place are friendly yet unobtrusive. They always seem happy to see me. They have also seen me studying Chinese and they wrongly believe that I know more than I do.
There are of course many different kinds of dumplings. The ones that seem the most ubiquitous are called jiaozi. This seeming ubiquity may simply be due to the fact that jiaozi are what I’m most familiar with and so are what I tend to notice more often.
Jiaozi have been one of my favorite things over the last three years. These are dough shells wrapped around some kind of stuffing. They can be prepared a number of different ways. Usually they are either steamed or fried. I generally prefer the steamed jiaozi. The fried ones tend to be greasy. In theory the steamed ones are healthier for you because of this but this isn't really why I prefer them. I think the steamed jiaozi taste better. You could also boil them.
There are several different kinds of stuffing that jiaozi can be made with. Anything, really can be used but I think that there are a few different kinds of stuffing that are traditional. In the dumpling place across from the school there are eight different kinds of stuffing. I've written these down two or three at a time over several visits.
牛肉绞 niu2 rou4 jiao3 (beef)
猪饺 zhu1 jiao3 (pork)
香菇肉绞 xiang1 gu1 rou4 jiao3 (mushroom and pork)
香菜肉绞 xiang1 cai4 rou4 jiao3 (coriander and pork)
芹菜肉绞 qin2 cai4 jiao3 (celery and pork)
白菜肉绞 bai2 cai4 rou4 jiao3 (Chinese cabbage and pork)
韭菜肉绞 jiu3 cai4 rou4 jiao3 (chives and pork)
韭菜鸡蛋绞 jiu3 cai4 ji1 dan4 jiao3 (chives and egg)
The numbers represent tones though to be honest I seldom get the tone right even when I know what it is. That’s fine in most situations such as ordering in the dumpling place. When I sit down and say “san liang bai cai,” I can murder the tones and while it may take them a second or two longer to process they will understand that I’m asking for three servings of Chinese cabbage and pork dumplings. However there is a definite context here which is unambiguous. In this restaurant there is a very limited number of things for which I could be asking for. While they do have other things on their menu such as fried rice or noodles, it is even more limited by the fact that I almost always order dumplings. They may laugh but they’ll understand.
You may also notice that six of the above eight kinds of jiaozi are made with pork. Only one of the items listed on their menu uses the word for pork. The rest of them use 肉 rou which means meat but when used alone is generally understood as pork.
Most of the foreigners I know lack a sense of adventure when it comes to food. I don’t understand this. We’ll come halfway around the world in search of culture, adventure and new experiences and yet when we meet these things we’re only willing to explore a small percentage of them and we often grumble and complain that we can’t find the things which we had back home. At the same time the willingness to try something new rarely applies to food.
Most foreigners will order either pork or beef. Usually they will order beef if it is available. Over the last eighteen weeks I've worked my way through the majority of the items on this menu. Every few weeks I’ll try one that I haven’t had before. The experience is almost always the same. I always try the first one plain, without any sauce. Every time it has been something good. Every few days I’ll go back and order the same thing until I feel like moving on to something new. At the time of this writing the only item on this menu I have not tried is the eggs and chives. I imagine I’ll have that one soon.
Tuesday, January 21, 2014
The university held a party for the foreign teachers on the 24th of December. They called it a New Year’s party when they told us about it. In the emailed announcement Mr. Li sent out he asked each of us to respond telling him what we would perform in the talent show portion of the party. Independently of each other and to Mr. Li’s disappointment each of us responded that we did not have any talents that we were the most untalented people in the world and had diligently practiced the lack of talents every day of our lives.
The week before the party Daniel had come around to our classes bringing each of us a gift. Inside was a porcelain tea mug with a saucer, lid and strainer. The mug was decorated with a dragon design. When I got home I noticed that they had left the price tag on. Leaving the price tag on a gift isn't considered tacky here. Some people want you to know the price but my feeling is that most just don’t think about it. The tea mug cost 230 rmb which seems fairly expensive to me. It is the kind of thing that I like having but would never have spent the money for myself.
Not everyone attended the party and some had to come late due to their class schedule. Once we’d all set down people from the school brought each of us another gift. The bag was brown and across the front it said Cutty Sark. The custom is not to look. Perhaps not looking at the gift is their equivalent to our removing price tags. I pushed the gift under the table and waited till I was home before I looked at it. Inside there was a wooden box with a glass lid. It held four boxes of different kinds of tea. None of these teas are Chinese. They’re mostly English varieties.
At the party there was a concert in which a group of girls played a couple of traditional Chinese songs. Four of the girls were playing the erhu, a two stringed instrument held upright and played with a bow. The others in the group played guzhengs or Chinese zithers. This is another stringed instrument. All the ones that I’ve seen have been made of wood. I've seen a couple of different sizes but these were about the length of a park bench. The strings run across the top of the wood. There are at least eighteen strings on a guzheng though most today have twenty-one strings. For each string there is a movable bridge. The player sits at the zither the way a person would sit to play a piano. She plucks the strings the way a person would a harp. The zither looks a lot like a harp laying down.
The concert was followed by a play. It was a strange play. I believe that the play was an adaptation of a Chinese story. They added things to it from English stories and put their own small twists on the story as well. The result was a Chinese Emperor asking his magical cellphone who was the most beautiful man in all his empire, then plotting to assassinate his rivals so that they don’t find out that he is better looking than they are. This was at the very beginning of the play and it was the last thing that I understood. The rest of it, while entertaining was also confusing. The confusion may have added to its entertainment value.
After the party we were taken to an expensive buffet restaurant in Jei Dao Kou. Buffets like this are great. There was sushi, crab, Thai dishes, Beijing Duck, lamb chops cooked in a black pepper sauce. There was a chocolate fountain to dip fruit in. There was an arrangement of breads, small deserts, a cabinet full of gelato and a cabinet full of Häagen-Dazs. To drink there were different kinds of juice and at one end they served hot chocolate. There were several things there I didn't recognize and after eating one or two I still don’t know what they were.
Christmas day we had off. There was a Christmas party held by English Salon. I attended this only because I thought I had to. Had I known that most of the others weren't going to show up I wouldn't have been there either. I sat at one of the tables and talked to the students sitting around me. One of the foreign teachers who is in his late forties and dyes his hair blonde and who has absolutely no talent for singing enthusiastically sang Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. I would have rather been anywhere else on the planet at that moment.