A Travellerspoint blog

Post-Thanksgiving Post

In which I find a file, on my disorganized computer, that was written in November. And I don't think it's the only one...

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. It’s also a time of year when I especially miss my family. I’ve been away from my family for four Thanksgivings in a row, but I really try to make an effort to recreate the day wherever I am. In China, living with expats of all geographical origins, creates an exciting opportunity to inflict my holiday traditions on others. Last year, over thirty of us gathered around the ping pong table for a Thanksgiving potluck. This year, about twenty of us, mostly Americans (or, United Staters, as I think we should be called because, technically, Canadians, Mexicans and people from South and Central America are also Americans and I don’t think people from the US should be so greedy with the title), a Brit, a Canadian, a German and a Chinese gathered for our potluck feast. There was roast chicken (not a reasonably-priced turkey to be had, though, there were rumors of one restaurant selling them, with gravy, for close to $100US), roast duck, gravy, mashed potatoes, green beans, stuffing (of the apple, cranberry and Italian sausage variety), a relish tray, cheeses the likes of which I have not seen in many months, bread and pies. I made two pumpkin pies for the occasion, from fresh pumpkins. I love to make pie. Crust behaves for me, and the finished product is such a reward for the time invested. I made the filling from fresh pumpkins which, come to find out, bakes much, much slower than when made from canned pie filling!! Wine, beer, home made hard cider and strawberry jello shots rounded out the night. We were done, and cleaned up by 9:15!! Efficiency. Teachers have it!

Things have been fairly quiet and uneventful around here. I’ve been into the city most weekends, visiting parks, the Military Museum, and even going out dancing.

I love Beijing parks. Water, gardens, paths, exercise machines, singing, tai chi, birds in cages, white ferrel cats, trees, pagodas, bridges... They offer everything one could want as an escape from the city. One of the best aspects is the people-watching. Men with long-handled, over-sized paint brushes practice ephemeral water-calligraphy by painting poems on the pavers. Ladies walk backwards, patting themselves on the arms, stomach and legs as they chat with their friends. Old women stretch their legs to amazing heights, and practice their martial arts and work out on exercise machines. Brave guys in tight black speedos swim, even in November, just behind the “no swimming” sign. At less than 10RMB a visit, these parks help you forget you’re in Beijing, for just a little while...

The Military Museum is an incredible edifice, filled to the gills with the gory and triumphant details of various Chinese military endeavors, especially the cultural revolution and rise of modern China. Already ensconced in a giant plastic showcase is the re-entry capsule from the most recent manned space mission. My friend Mathieu and I were pleased to find that admission is free, and an English audio tour only 10RMB. We spent such a long time on the first floor learning about the Third Encirclement Maneuver of the First Assault Campaign, that we left at least two floors of the museum unexplored. The collection of tanks, guns, planes and bombs is mind-boggling.

One evening, I was persuaded to go out to a club. Normally, I am quite content to live vicariously through the experiences of my braver colleagues who seem able to stay out all night. I worry that, if I go, I’ll be pooped by 11 pm, hate the music, or will otherwise have a bad time, and ruin it for everyone. Against my better judgement, I joined a group of friends first for pizza and beer (oh, so sublime!) and then dancing at a hole called Shooters. Shooters specializes in cheap...shooters. And a tiny dance floor. And a crowd bent on making me feel like a pinball. Actually, it was fun, if you let the crowd move you around, and don’t mind wearing half your drink. Predictably, I was pooped early, but not until almost 1:00 am. I was quite surprised by myself. The music was decent, and mostly danceable. I escaped relatively unscathed.

Posted by ucpegasus 00:26 Archived in China Comments (0)

The Omnivore's 100

sunny 15 °C

Lots of people are italicizing items that they havn’t tried, but would like to. If it’s in bold, I’ve eaten it. If it’s not, I’d like to. A few I didn’t bold, I may have tried, but they left such a weak impression that I may as well leave them as untried until I have a memorable experience!

1. Venison (first disguised on a pizza, then in Kate-drop stew…)
2. Nettle tea
3. Huevos rancheros
4. Steak tartare
5. Crocodile
6. Black pudding
7. Cheese fondue (and chocolate!)
8. Carp
9. Borscht (in Haerbin, China, near the border with Russia)
10. Baba ghanoush (Mmm, Sahadi in McAllen, TX)
11. Calamari
12. Pho Vietnam!
13. PB&J sandwich (the official hiker’s lunch – always delicious at the top of a mountain)
14. Aloo gobi
15. Hot dog from a street cart
16. Epoisses
17. Black truffle (underwhelming on pizza and on pasta in an Italian restaurant in Beijing)
18. Fruit wine made from something other than grapes
19. Steamed pork buns (I consume as many of these as often as possible)
20. Pistachio ice cream
21. Heirloom tomatoes
22. Fresh wild berries (especially in bear pancakes)
23. Foie gras
24. Rice and beans (Costa Rica gallo pinto)
25. Brawn, or head cheese
26. Raw Scotch Bonnet pepper
27. Dulce de leche (also Costa Rica, especially in Frosted Flakes, and over cake)
28. Oysters
29. Baklava
30. Bagna cauda
31. Wasabi peas
32. Clam chowder in a sourdough bowl (in San Francisco, after getting scared out of my skin by “The Bush Man”)
33. Salted lassi (UConn’s Indian lunch dive)
34. Sauerkraut
35. Root beer float
36. Cognac with a fat cigar
37. Clotted cream tea
38. Vodka jelly/Jell-O (most recently, on The Roof)
39. Gumbo
40. Oxtail
41. Curried goat
42. Whole insects
43. Phaal
44. Goat’s milk
45. Malt whisky from a bottle worth £60/$120 or more
46. Fugu
47. Chicken tikka masala
48. Eel (ohhhh, mmmmmm [insert interpretive food dance here])
49. Krispy Kreme original glazed doughnut
50. Sea urchin
51. Prickly pear (note from Sylvie: wear gloves)
52. Umeboshi
53. Abalone
54. Paneer at Ganges in Beijing
55. McDonald’s Big Mac Meal
56. Spaetzle
57. Dirty gin martini
58. Beer above 8% ABV
59. Poutine
60. Carob chips
61. S’mores
62. Sweetbreads
63. Kaolin
64. Currywurst
65. Durian
66. Frogs’ legs
67. Beignets, churros, elephant ears or funnel cake
68. Haggis
69. Fried plantain
70. Chitterlings, or andouillette
71. Gazpacho
72. Caviar and blini
73. Louche absinthe in Cambodia
74. Gjetost, or brunost
75. Roadkill
76. Baijiu (uuugh…I keep trying, but I haven’t met a palatable baijiu!)
77. Hostess Fruit Pie
78. Snail
79. Lapsang souchong
80. Bellini
81. Tom yum in Laos
82. Eggs Benedict
83. Pocky (I smelled a chocolate/red wine pocky the other day, and that was enough to convince me never to actually eat one. Maybe the more traditional flavors are more palatable!)
84. Tasting menu at a three-Michelin-star restaurant.
85. Kobe beef
86. Hare (with maple syrup…)
87. Goulash
88. Flowers
89. Horse
90. Criollo chocolate
91. Spam
92. Soft shell crab
93. Rose harissa
94. Catfish
95. Mole poblano (thanks to co-workers in Texas!)
96. Bagel and lox
97. Lobster Thermidor
98. Polenta
99. Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee
100. Snake (Rattlesnake Roundup and Wild Game Dinner)

Dear Mom: Copy and paste to your blog and bold the ones you’ve eaten!

Posted by ucpegasus 05:23 Archived in China Comments (3)

Hairy Crab

In which I happily eat more food in all price ranges.

sunny 22 °C

In Beijing, there is a proliferation of free magazines, in English, for expats. These publications detail goings-on around the city in the way of restaurants (with English menus), nightlife, events and shopping for those foreign residents with cash to burn. Predictably, most articles and listings have a hedonistic slant and make me feel like an unkempt elderly country mouse who is wasting her life away drinking cheap beer and reading in bed on the weekends. This does not stop me from reading these magazines.

Recently, Natalie and I read an article about hairy crabs. This delicacy is in season for a short time in the fall (September for male crabs and October for females) and was promised to be a food experience not to be missed. I don’t often indulge in fine dining (and my definition of a really fancy restaurant meal is anything costing more than 50RMB per person which is, I remind my dear readers, less than $7.50). In need of a really good meal and wanting an experience to match, after much hairy crab research and an exciting hunt for someone’s passport, Natalie and I taxied, bussed and subwayed ourselves into the city for the weekend.

We reserved a place to sleep at a hostel in the very heart of downtown Old Beijing, south of Qianmen, which is literally the “front gate” into the city. Part of this area has recently been revamped into a pedestrian shopping and dining experience, but part remains untouched, except by the constant pressures of commercialism: narrow streets packed with pedestrians, bicycles, cars and vans, tiny restaurants steaming jiaozi and baozi out front with owners bellowing out menu excerpts, stalls selling candied fruit on sticks, shops purveying everything red and Mao, hairdressers, convenience stores, and storefronts that exist only to house three red telephones from which a person can pay to make long-distance calls. We wove our way down these streets, checked into the hostel, prettied up, and headed out.

We had made reservations at the Summer Palace Restaurant at the China World Hotel, at the China World Trade Center. We thought we were dressed appropriately (and seriously, I was wearing one of the nicest outfits I own), but upon entering the grand marble-and-gilt lobby with cathedral ceiling and crystal chandelier and grand piano and the works, we knew…this was going to be quite the experience. The willowy and beautiful, far taller than average, qipao clad girls at the front of the restaurant instantly “lost” our reservation (note to self: acquire high-rolling Chinese “acquaintance” as escort to future fancy meals) and seated us at a too-big table with a great view of the hall leading to the kitchen. Our initial perusal of the menu yielded no hairy crab options, but upon inquiry, the manager found us the crab menu. After some initial sticker shock (which we had promised ourselves would not dissuade us from acquiring some amazing food), we both ordered the hairy crab set meal, amidst giggles from the wait staff who stood behind our table and scrutinized our every move.

This meal was incredible. It was easily the finest, most beautifully prepared and well-thought-out meal I have ever had in my life. It was also the most expensive. The meal started with an appetizer plate of delightful sesame oil-marinated cold asparagus, delicate white radish wrapped around carrot marinated in sweet rice wine, shaved slices of pig’s ear, teriyaki-style pork, and cold poached chicken marinated in rice wine. At that point, I was eager to record the details of what we were eating, and also to be taken seriously by the staff of the restaurant. Natalie suggested that we pretend to be restaurant critics (and in fact, we both blog, so it wasn’t a stretch) and take notes on the meal. Once we started making notes about the meal, the service magically improved, despite the persistence of giggles from the wait staff. I’m going to assume they were nervous, but seriously, they work at an expensive international hotel. Surely, we were not the first foreigners they had ever seen!

Next came shark fin soup. This is not something I would ever order separately, nor am I likely to order it again due to it’s not-so-environmentally friendly nature. It was mild and pleasant, with a thick, rich broth and fine threads of fin. However, it very well could have been an intense chicken broth with rice noodles. Following that was steamed mandarin fish (I have no idea what species that was – some mild whitefish) in the most delicious broth of green onions and yellow wine. I ate the broth with my spoon after I ate the fish. The memory is making my mouth water as I write. Oh my, it was amazing.

Then came a mystery metal bowl of brownish liquid and a lemon slice. Upon inquiry, it was determined, via hand motion of a non-English-speaking waiter, that it was a fingerbowl. Gosh, good thing I didn’t drink it. Finger bowls are intimidating, especially when they look like soup. I am proud to say that I warmed up to mine by the end of the meal and that I can now recognize the item, just in case I ever eat another meal of this caliber.
Next came the crab herself. It was steamed in a bamboo steamer, and disassembled at the table by the trainee crab disassembler. It came with some nice soy and ginger dipping sauce. My crab was full of bright orange, creamy roe that had a deep, mellow flavor. The single most sumptuous bite of the entire meal was the chunk of crab meat in the wide part of the claw. Amazing.

All this was followed by sautéed rice “cake” with pickled pork and vegetables, and white fungus and baby bok choy wrapped in bamboo pith. Then, soup dumplings. These are large dumplings with a broth center (in this case, containing pork and crab roe), with vinegar for dipping. They were scrumptious (and quite difficult to eat). Then, the strongest ginger tea I have ever tasted, to counteract the “cooling” property of the crab. Having had my internal heat balanced, dessert arrived. It was a divine cold creamy mango puree with pearl tapioca and little bits of pomelo floating inside. It was so novel and quite magical – a lovely ending to the meal.
The overall effect of the progression of delicious dishes was almost intoxicating. We really didn’t know what was coming next, and each dish followed beautifully the one before. Every dish was so delicious and a wonderful break from heavy northern China cuisine. Definitely a meal to remember, especially since I doubt I’ll eat like that again for a very long time!

Our meal was followed by an outing to an Irish pub where we met “the boys” who were enjoying a football match (Americans: soccer game), and then an exhausted return to our hostel.

The next morning, after jiaozi and hot soy milk in a little café, and a quick stop to caffeinate, we headed out for my least favorite shopping area in Beijing – Yashow. I believe that I have noted that I’d never return, but Natalie needed this experience. Surprisingly, in the morning (especially for a Sunday), the place was very quiet, and the salesgirls were behaving themselves. But by afternoon, the tour busses had rolled in, and the chaos set in. I bought a pair of knock-off designer jeans for less than $25 and considered it a worthwhile shopping trip.
The evening brought us back to Qianmen for a dinner at a restaurant that aims to revive Old Beijing cuisine. The place itself is full of character – old woodwork, walls lined with black and white photos of life in the city, a big tv showing Beijing opera at top volume. The menu is huge and includes pictures and hilarious English translations. We sat upstairs, which is half the size of the first floor with a balcony overlooking the crowds below. We had a Beijing standard: noodles with an assortment of vegetables (sprouts, soybeans, julienne radish, celery) and cold pork sauce to mix in. We also had a raw green vegetable with sesame sauce, and sugared tomato (one of my favorites). The specialty of the restaurant is quite remarkable: in the evening, a vat of organ meat simmering in a seasoned broth is rolled to the doorway. Small circular breads are added to the pot. The chef chops up a few breads, an assortment of intestines, stomach and liver and pours broth over the lot into a big bowl. Locals, mostly older folks, poured into share tables and devour this delicacy. Tourists and younger Chinese gathered around the doorway to gape at the spread. The place was noisy, crowded and fascinating, and our meal came to less than $7.50, including beer. I will be back!

Posted by ucpegasus 23:05 Archived in China Comments (0)

Global consumerism

In which Walmart is the answer to every question, and China becomes a little bit less...Chinese.

sunny 16 °C

Dear Walmart,

You are an evil corporation, selling sub-quality goods at prices slightly cheaper than neighborhood competitors, putting little shops out of business, paying your employees minimum wage and providing inadequate healthcare benefits. Pox to you.

Sincerely, A responsible citizen

Dear Changping Walmart,

You are three floors of overwhelming amazing-ness. You carry goods that would otherwise require a trip into the city by bike, bus, subway and on foot. You stock capers, high-gluten flour, real(er) bread, cheese, New Zealand butter, and barley. You are a short bike-ride away and provide an entire afternoon of entertainment. I want to hate you, but then I see your vast assortment of prepared Chinese snacks (pumpkin and pig-shaped steamed buns filled with red bean paste!) and your sweetened condensed milk and I can not find it in myself to boycott you.

You have caused an internal conflict in my food-loving soul. Damn you, Changping Walmart! (But thanks for making my life tastier.)

Love, Katie

Posted by ucpegasus 19:33 Archived in China Comments (1)

Chefcation

In which I stay at home and cook, happily.

semi-overcast 20 °C

Week three of “vacation,” this, the real vacation week. The difference between this week and the last two is that now, the office is closed, and I have no reason to check in daily and to stare at the neat piles of papers on my desk and to make attempts to “plan ahead” with the looming knowledge that plans made too far in advance rarely survive to the “execution” part of teaching. And so, I must continue to keep myself occupied during this “staycation” because travel this week is a nightmare (please refer to Xi’an trip one year ago). Train and bus tickets could not be had, and the trouble and aggravation and price of getting around left me less then excited about leaving the greater Beijing area. And so, I decided to embark on the Great Sourdough Starter Project of 2008.

Actually, it is not as epic (or really, as exciting) as I’m trying to make it seem. This is vacation, after all, and I’d love some fun and adventure. But really, culturing little yeasties doesn’t really require slow-motion replay. Last week, I read just about 3 percent of what there is to read on sourdough online. “Don’t attempt to make your own starter!” “Making starter is brain-dead simple!” “Don’t use chlorinated water or a metal bowl!” “Really, nothing can kill it!” “Send away for a dried starter brought on the Oregon Trail by my family in 1847!” “Buy this sourdough starter for an exorbitant price!” In the end, I mixed equal parts flour and water, made it a home in a one-quart plastic ice cream container, covered loosely with a paper towel, and installed the set-up on my bathroom counter, just west of the toothpaste. It is the warmest and least drafty corner of my apartment. I fed it a half cup each flour and water every twenty-four hours, and was observing bubbles and a sour aroma by day three. I think this is the smell of success.

Today, I fed it, proofed it in a warm place (on top of the toaster oven) for a few hours, and mixed up a batch of really simple sourdough bread dough. As I am currently enjoying The Icky Cold (a major and unfortunate feature of most of my vacations), I put the dough ball in the fridge, where I expect it is happily rising. Tomorrow, we bake. The rest of the starter is happily refrigerating under it’s perforated lid in the cozy ice cream container house. I’m already planning ways to get it back to the US next year (dried, perhaps?) and what to tell customs when I’m inevitably stopped (“It’s face cream, sir.”).

Yesterday, Natalie and I made brioche. The dough was veritably oozing butter. The process involved baking dough balls in paper cups with big chunks of chocolate stuffed in their centers. The end result was awfully decadent, and not something I’d subsist on for any length of time.

I’m currently enjoying beef stew and whole wheat bread leftovers. Next project will be roasted chicken and mashed potatoes, then chicken noodle soup with homemade egg noodles. Ahh, the chefcation. I love it.

Posted by ucpegasus 04:37 Archived in China Comments (1)

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