Archive for Friends

Spicy Shangzhi

Last weekend was the start of China’s National Day holiday, one of three so-called Golden Weeks during which business throughout the country comes to a stand-still as trains cart urban yuppies and migrant workers out of the bustling metropolises of the eastern and southern coasts and back to their small cities and farm towns in the country’s vast interior. My friend (and co-worker), E., was heading home to her hometown in the northernmost province, Heilongjiang, which borders Siberia and North Korea, and she graciously invited me to join her there for a long weekend of exploring a very different part of China–and of eating lots of spicy food with her Korean-Chinese family.

Red peppers drying - Shangzhi
Crescent moons with red-bean filling  - Shangzhi

Since the trains are always crammed full at these officially sanctioned vacation periods, and since regulations limit purchases of train tickets to the five days preceding a journey, we were blocked from buying seats on a sleeper train heading to her town, Shangzhi, via Harbin, on Friday evening. Instead, we paid 900 kuai each (about 500 kuai or $60 more than hard sleeper tickets on the train) to fly from Beijing to Harbin, from where we would take an airport shuttle to the center of town and then a two-hour bus ride to her city. E. had never flown before, and she was a bit nervous (I can only imagine how much I would freak out if I didn’t have hundreds of flights under my belt by now–I still quiver a little when turbulence rocks the plane or we sway a bit on take off). However, the 1.5-hour flight passed quickly enough when we started talking, and I don’t even really think she noticed we were in the air. I think it was pretty disconcerting for her to land in Harbin before the train would have left the outskirts of Beijing, though. It must be strange to experience that compression of distance for the first time. In any case, the trip was uneventful, and when we reached the center of the city, her friend J. met us in his friend’s van, and the two of them drove us through the mid-day traffic jam to the bus station. After two hours of zooming along the highway through shimmering fields of wheat, we finally arrived in Shangzhi, and had the bus driver pull up in front of E.’s parents’ hotel.

White porridge with carrots - Shangzhi
Purple rice - Shangzhi

From the minute we arrived until 10 minutes before we left that Monday, I don’t think more than an hour passed without my being expected and encouraged to eat something. It was tough, let me tell you, but everything was so incredibly delicious and fresh that I somehow managed to summon up the appetite. That first afternoon E. requested pork ribs cooked with delicious local long beans, which we were served along with homemade kimchi, sweetly pickled (but still fiery) peppers, and the first of many bowls of teasingly purple rice, which tasted just like regular white rice, if a bit softer, but which instantly won me over with its regal hue. The two of us then headed down the street to her parents’ apartment and looked at some old family photos and her middle school yearbook until it was time to join her parents for dinner.

Jing fish grilling at Korean barbecue - Shangzhi
Grilled mantou buns at Korean barbecue - Shangzhi

That night, we went to one of the two restaurants that E. had described to me before we left Beijing, a version of the typical Korean barbecue spot, made more exciting by the fact that it wasn’t just marinated meat you were grilling but your very own kebabs. The grill-your-own-chuanr (chuanr being the Chinese word for kebab–the character, δΈ², even looks like two chunks of meat on a skewer!) included such delicacies as liver, kidney, and tendons, but I stuck to lamb, small whole fish, bone marrow (a first for me), and delicious mantou, doughy Chinese buns, brushed with oil and spices and placed over the fire. As we removed the meat from the flames, we dipped it in a mixture of dry spices and seasonings including chili pepper, cumin, sesame seeds, ground peanuts, among others. We washed it all down with tea and beer, and I managed a veritable feast, even though at the end of it her mother didn’t quite believe that I was full.

Glutinous rice sweets - Shangzhi
Assorted homemade baozi - Shangzhi
We awoke relatively early the next morning, at nine, though that was late compared to the schedule that people in the region usually keep. Her parents had been up since around six, since they had to head over to the hotel that they run and prepare for a Korean wedding that was to be held that morning in the banquet hall on the first floor. E. and I meandered over there in time to catch the couple saying their vows, though she couldn’t
Flower girl at a Korean wedding - Shangzhi

translate as her parents never really taught her Korean. We watched them pledge their love, if that’s what they were saying, and saw the bride appear three times in different clothes–a Korean dress, a Chinese one, and a white Western one. Then, they ducked into a limo bound for Harbin, the provincial capital, where the groom’s parents were holding a separate wedding for their friends and family. The bride’s parents stayed behind in Shangzhi to host the celebration for their loved ones. By 11 in the morning, the entire room was drunk on baijiu (noxious Chinese liquor), and E. and I decided to walk over to her middle school. When we returned around noon, the dregs of the party were still there, dancing in a typical Korean style in the middle of the room, and I received my share of dance invitations in broken Russian. None of them could even conceive of the fact that I might have come from farther away than Siberia–though I guess I do look quite a bit Russian.

Crispy pancakes filled with egg and scallion  - Shangzhi
Spicy cabbage soup  - Shangzhi

We ate lunch that day with her parents in the foyer of the hotel, slurping down a tomatoey cabbage soup and devouring crispy crepes filled with scrambled egg and scallions, this after the homemade baozi (stuffed buns), porridge, and sweets made for the wedding downstairs that had magically appeared before us when we arrived at the hotel only a few hours earlier.

Shizui Mountain - Shangzhi
Red flowers at Shizui Mountain - Shangzhi

After lunch, E. convinced her dad to take us out into a countryside, up to a mountain called Shizuishan (Stone Mouth Mountain), that a friend of his had bought a few years ago. He and his brother-in-law, E.’s mother’s brother, borrowed a three-wheeled car, which seemed to be the most popular form of transportation in this city, from a friend, and we set out. As long as the road remained flat, we sailed (well, sputtered) along, but as soon as we reached the slight incline of the path heading up to the mountain, the tri-wheeler died. E.’s uncle had an amusing spot of trouble trying to start it from an uphill position, and the three passengers ended up getting out to make it easier for him. After this happened for the third time, E. and I came to the realization that her uncle probably hadn’t driven before, since her father took over driving and had no problem with the car. It seems this had all been a learning opportunity for her uncle, and she and I were happy to be entertained by his education. It’s not like we were in a rush–we were surrounded by the golden autumn countryside–so what did it matter if he couldn’t get the car past first gear? Finally we made it to the mountain, which, though far from unspoiled by Coney Island-style amusements and games of chance, was still a gorgeous refuge to anyone accustomed to the grit and grayness of Beijing. The sky was a clear cobalt above us, and wildflowers lined the stone steps that we ascended to the summit.

Fish with spicy tofu - Shangzhi
Our fish - Shangzhi

Once we had explored the mountain’s various paths, E.’s father decided we should head to the fields on the other side of the city for some fishing, and we hopped back in the little, lime-green car. Fifteen minutes later, we turned off the main thoroughfare onto a rough dirt road, which led to a large pond where local men were fishing like their dinner depended on it. Half an hour later, we understood what all the fuss was about, as we yanked a five-pound fish out of the water (well, after E.’s father did, she and I both having failed to tug hard enough on the reel-less rod). Her dad paid 25 kuai ($3) or so to take home our catch, and then we drove back to the hotel and eased it into a tub on the kitchen floor, which had already become home to a giant catfish, presumably for the restaurant patrons. From our bounty, though, we got four different dishes an hour later: deep-fried fish, fish with spicy tofu, fish-head soup, and fish jiaozi (boiled dumplings). I had never before caught a fish and kept it, let alone ate it. It made me feel a little more at-one with my food, which was definitely interesting–plus everything was delicious, especially the spicy fish and tofu dish that her dad had made himself. After dinner, E. and I walked off some of the fullness and headed home, where we talked for a few hours before going to sleep.

Deep-fried fish - Shangzhi
Spicy pork, watercress, potato and sweet potato stew - Shangzhi

On Sunday morning, we avoided notice and thereby skipped breakfast, since her parents were busy organizing yet another wedding in their banquet hall, this time of a Chinese couple. Instead, we headed fifteen minutes up the street to Shangzhi’s small but bustling downtown, where ancient farm women were selling wine-dark grapes, bloody pomegranates, and small yellow fruits that looked like tomatillos (I later determined that they were “Chinese lanterns”, and, yes, a close relative of the tomatillo). After checking out some cell phones for E. and looking up and down a couple of streets, we made our way back to the hotel, where her mom had set out some deliciously soft small pears, which we munched on while she prepared her signature dish for us. The family-favorite, a stew of pork, watercress, potato, and sweet potato, was steeped in a more-liquid form of the spicy Korean paste that always accompanies bibimbap at restaurants both in the States and in China (and therefore, I imagine, in Korea as well). It was as good as E. had promised me, and thankfully she’s lived up to her other promise regarding it, that she would learn how to make it before she came back to Beijing. Sometime later this week or next week she’s going to teach me how to make it too.

Korean barbecue trailer - Shangzhi
Chicken feet kebabs at the Korean barbecue trailer - Shangzhi

By that afternoon, we had pretty much exhausted the sights to see and things to do in Shangzhi, so we just went back to her apartment, watched TV, read, and dozed for a bit. That night, however, proved to be the highlight of the weekend. E. had been trying to convince her parents since we arrived that they should take me to her favorite restaurant, which is basically a trailer parked in the street housing a dingy barbecue joint. They seemed to think it wasn’t right to take their foreign guest to dinner there, but E. did a great job persuading them that this was exactly the type of place in which I wanted to eat, and from the moment I walked in there with a huge grin plastered on my salivating mouth, I think they finally believed her. The chuanr there was incredible: the lamb taking on an entirely new taste, the hot-pepper skewers piercingly spicy, the chicken feet kebabs smothered in a tempting-enough sauce that I actually tried one for the first time–and thoroughly enjoyed it! The other tables were full of locals out enjoying a hearty meal together, we swatted flies between bites of spicy meat, the trailer seemed to rust noticeably in the time it took to eat our dinner, but all those things made it one of the most perfect meals I’ve had in China. I’d highly recommend that everyone eat in a Korean barbecue trailer if the opportunity ever presents itself.

Super spicy pepper kebabs at the Korean barbecue trailer - Shangzhi
Spicy pickled vegetables at the Korean barbecue trailer - Shangzhi

After dinner, the four of us walked abreast back from downtown toward their house. Passersby continued to stare at me even on the third day there, despite the fact that I’m sure the entire city had heard there was a white girl roaming their town. E.’s parents decided to stop for roasted corn when we were halfway back, and we sat down on little stools on the side of the street, while men and women crouched in the half-light of the fire they had built to roast the just-picked corn. One of the men, his face eerily illuminated by the flames, asked E.’s father what I was doing here, and told us that he’d seen me walking around the night before. When they told the crowd that I was their daughter’s coworker in Beijing, that I was from the States and I was staying at their house for the National Day holiday, there was an appreciable gasp of awe. My visit gave some clear cachet to her family, made them seem more worldly in the eyes of their neighbors, which was something I hadn’t quite foreseen, even though I knew beforehand that my presence in this city would certainly be an unusual occurrence. As for the late-night treat itself, I’d never before had corn that was roasted without having first been boiled, and the kernels took on a completely new texture, juicy inside and lightly charred without. We hooked arms and gnawed on the cobs the rest of the way home.

If you want to see the rest of my photos from Shangzhi and Harbin, you can check them out here on flickr.

Posted by on October 8th, 2006

The friend formerly known as M.

As you’ve probably noticed, when I mention the people with whom I interact in actual life in this virtual representation of it, I refer to them by initials only. I figure that I wouldn’t want to stumble across a mention of my name linked up with weird things I’ve said or done on someone else’s blog without knowing about it first, and I don’t particularly feel like getting permission from my friends to write about them. Sure, I’m not going to post pictures of them if I haven’t mentioned that possibility with them, but pseudonymic initials seem pretty harmless. Some, however, have asked for more–in particular, M., who would prefer I call him by his full name, Matthew Pereira, in order to further inflate his web presence and the Google ranking of his blog. I don’t know that I’ll oblige: it seems silly to use his surname all the time, and I might just resort to using “Matt,” but I figured at least I should explain why I’m expanding his identity from a mere M. At least it frees up the letter for someone else!

Posted by on November 11th, 2005

Beijing’s Little California

In the northeast corner of Beijing, between the third and fourth ring roads, exists a neighborhood called Lido (pronounced lee-DOO), where large stand-alone restaurants line a long strip of street, foreigners stream into Starbucks and Baskin Robbins, and I spent an evening last weekend with my friends, eating at a restaurant called Eudora Station and, amazingly, going bowling.

The twenty lanes at Lido Place were fitted with high-tech Brunswick equipment, electronic scoring systems, and fluorescent bowling balls with holes perfectly spaced for my hands–small by American standards but seemingly average here in China. We had a wild time, drinking Asahi until at one point one of us released a bowling ball in the wrong direction, letting it fly out toward her amused and frightened friends (that was me, but shhhhhh). R. fell a bunch of times, as she told us beforehand she was certain to do, and then on the way out lifted a small pumpkin from in front of a shop in the lobby, with which we proceded to play catch until we got in a taxi on our way back to our part of town. The cabbie taught us how to say “pumpkin” in Chinese–it’s nangua–although I never did learn how to say “bowling,” and we convinced him to take it from us as a gift. In any case, the experience was a bit surreal, as there was even a group of expat middle school students bowling and causing trouble in the lane next to us. I don’t think I have ever felt less like I was in a foreign country before in my experience. It was disconcerting, but also great fun–it may happen again this weekend, although I’m pushing for karaoke on my last weekend in Beijing before I head down to Hangzhou on Monday (or Tuesday, but probably Monday) for a month and then New York for three weeks.

Posted by on November 10th, 2005

Food in Singapore

If I had to describe Singapore in one word, it would not be “clean,” “sterile,” or “strict,” but “yum!” The diversity of cultures and the way its inhabitants prize good cuisine is striking, and it means that there are tons of unique and delicious foods to try. Last night, my friend A.F., who grew up there and now works for the government, and his girlfriend C., originally from San Francisco but now a writer for The Straits Times, took me to Maxwell Food Centre, a hawker center in Chinatown, where we ordered an array of native foodstuffs and incredible tropical juices (soursop, star fruit, sugar cane, and watermelon). I took some photos, but it was dark out so they didn’t come out too well. Still, the first one is of what the locals call Carrot Cake, which is the result of someone’s bright idea to dice up the traditional dimsum treat of turnip cake (my boyfriend P.’s favorite thing to order) and fry it with an egg and chiles. The second is Hokkien prawn noodles, which is a dish beloved of the straits Chinese (Nyonya), who originally left Fujian Province (where Xiamen and Fuzhou are, and where the unusual dialect of Hokkien, different from both Mandarin and Cantonese, is spoken) to settle throughout southeast Asia in the late 19th century.

Earlier yesterday, I grabbed a snack in Little India, at a little vegetarian restaurant called Komala. I couldn’t help but order the traditional roti paratha, which in Malaysia is known as roti canai (and which I’d had at the restaurant Penang in New York a number of times as a kid). It was both doughy and flaky, steaming hot off the griddle, and served with a small cup of delightfully spicy curry. I also(had the joyful opportunity to drink what was in my experience (limited as it is by not having yet made it to India) the best mango lassi in the world.

For breakfast, A.F. met me at my hip and clean hostel, where the in-house restaurant, Wild Rocket has been making a buzz among Singaporean foodies. We ordered mojitos (crisp and well-mixed) and pancakes with strawberry compote and fresh cream (buttery and brown outside and nice and soft within). Since the food took a while to come, the chef, Willin Low, sent out complimentary grapefruit and basil granitas (herby and refreshing). I had actually grabbed dinner there the night before, when I arrived, since it was 10:30pm and I was worried that by the time I found my way to a restaurant outside the hostel anything I found might be closed. Then, I tried a lychee martini and crabmeat linguini in a lightly piquant tomato cream sauce, both of which were spectacular as well. If only Beijing had food like this–and at such affordable prices!

Oh, and at some point, I popped into one of the 25 or so 7-11s I saw around town to check out potato chip flavors and other assorted local snacks. The best one on the shelves was this bag of “Ethnic Flavor” chips.

Posted by on October 3rd, 2005

Chinese punk rock and caipirinhas

I just returned from a less-than-raucous night out at what’s supposed to be Beijing’s best bar–Yugong Yishan. I have no idea what the name means, but I know characters homophonic with most of the syllables, which has led me to decide it means The One Mountain for Getting Down to Business. I’ll probably never learn the real translation, so my imagined meaning will have to suffice. It doesn’t bother me very much that I go through the day making associations like these. That’s what I get for living in Chinese imaginary space.

But anyway, at this bar, which _that’s Beijing_ voted Beijing’s Best Bar of 2005, I met up with R., a fellow teacher and an artist from New York who’s become one of my best friends here, our friends M., a graphic designer from Buenos Aires, and S.L., a Chinese speaker from Lima who works dubbing CCTV shows into Spanish for some reason, and a bunch of their friends. The international origins of the crowd don’t stop there, as I spent most of the time chatting with S.A., a girl from Denmark who has two jobs–one with a Danish shipping firm and another as a bartender at a British pub here. C. and A., girls from Kuala Lumpur who are fixtures in this crowd were there, but they were talking to two guys, a Brit and an Italian, who never became even acquaintances (not even in hope of reducing them to initials here).

We were there to hear some “French funky band” perform, since Yugong Yishan is known for its live music shows, but when R. and I got there after a late bite at O Sole Mio, we found out that they were a no-show. Or maybe our friends had just been wrong to begin with. Instead, we were going to witness the debut of a ragtag ensemble. Two punk rockers S.A. had seen play a show a few weeks before were onstage with the bartender as their adopted lead singer. Now, punk in Chinese sounds a lot like punk in English–linguistically indistinct, lyrically unintelligible, and loud. They actually played pretty well together, though, and a couple of us were moving along with the songs. We even shouted and clapped after some of the numbers, since the Chinese audience, which was fairly large for 10:30 on a Wednesday night, still managed to seem entirely dead despite the fact that they could understand the songs and we couldn’t. However, that might actually be understandable. The leader, whose haircut gave him the mien of a Wookie trying to look like John Lennon, announced toward the end of their set that he knew one song in English, and he was going to sing it for all us ladies in the back, who were smoking and drinking our delicious and surprisingly strong-for-Beijing caipirinhas ($3). The song was called, as he announced before beginning to sing it, “All I Want to Do Is to Do You.” That sentence formed the base of the refrain, along with lines like, “Shit for the shitters, fuck for the fuckers, put it in your motherfucking mouth, fill the empty spaces,” all to the strains of a punk ballad. In Chinese, he announced it as a love song. We keeled over with laughter, but gave loud whistles and cheers when they were through. Maybe the Chinese songs were of similar quality–and the Chinese audience slightly less easily amused?

In any case, my sole reaction was to want to film a movie about the punk rock scene in Beijing. It would be ridiculous.

Posted by on August 18th, 2005