Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The Dumpling Place

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 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

Christmas and New Year's Parties.

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.