Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The Huawen Dumpling Party

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

A Simple Cup of Coffee

“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

The Huawen Tea Party

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.