Hello Uncle Foreigner

food

Aug 28, 2014

Yak Meat: The King in the North

The meals we loved

Dried yak meat hanging on the high street
There is yak meat everywhere, all over Songpan.
Our barley bread of the gods
Out in Tibetan country, we enjoyed the food of the gods.
At some crazy barbecue
Confusing BBQ in Songpan is very tasty.
Dinner at Emma's Kitchen
Emma’s Kitchen in Songpan is a hub for visiting backpackers who want some hearty fare.
Have a chicken
We didn’t eat the head, but the rest our riverside chicken was just fantastic.
Tibetan food at Abu Luzi
We had a Tibetan-style feast at Jiuzhagou’s Abu Luzi restaurant.

When we took off northward, we really weren’t sure what to expect. We knew there would be mountains and nature — but would there be ATMs? We had an inkling that the area was influenced by Tibetan culture, but what does that mean? And what’s there to eat around here?

To answer our last question first: yak. There would be yak, everywhere. Live yak grazing all over the countryside; We spotted our first herd directly outside the airport. And in town: yak jerky, cured yak, yak dumplings, as well as all organs from tongue to testicles.

It’s not bad. Yak is kind of gamey, with just a little bit of sweetness. The winner for us was the cured yak, which was nice and smokey and paired well with the crusty Tibetan barley bread that was all over the place in Songpan. (We ate two loaves of the stuff in a little more than a week.) It makes a good picnic out in the fresh air. Though it’s less exciting sitting in the hotel room.

Yak meat and barley products, we learned, are staples of the Tibetan diet. And that’s relevant because Songpan and Jiuzhaigou and environs, while part of Sichuan Province, also comprise the Ngawa Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture, which is home to a large population of ethnic Tibetans. You can see this in the dress of the local people, the architecture, the strong Buddhist presence, and of course the food. But those TIbetans are not alone; the Qiang minority and the Muslim Hui people are also a strong presence, each contributing their own culture to the mix.

We tried to find some Muslim hot pot in Songpan, a rumored area specialty, but ended up at a confusing BBQ restaurant. In retrospect, at issue was some mild altitude sickness (Songpan is at almost 2,900 m above sea level), but they did give us a hot pot menu only to take it away when I tried to order from it. Instead, their thing was veggie and meat skewers that you cooked over a fire pit sunk into the table. Once we got the hang of it, it was delicious and fun. Although, I don’t think they were even Muslim at all, because they also served us beer. But I swear that sign out front said halal hot pot.

We had a different confusing-but-delicious BBQ experience in Jiuzhaigou. (Maybe that is the area specialty.) This time, we were looking for a Tibetan restaurant that had changed addresses since our 2011 guidebook had been published. We stopped to puzzle it out and inadvertently opened ourselves to the most persuasive waiter in the world. To be fair, he first tried to help us get directions, but when it became clear we weren’t committed to moving on, he implored us to stay and have a spit-roasted chicken. The spit was out front of his restaurant, and those chickens did look delicious. I couldn’t resist his command, and soon we found ourselves sitting riverside, eating a succulent, crispy skinned, with just the right amount of spice chicken. We gobbled it off the bone, and went back for seconds two days later.

But we did eventually make it to our Tibetan restaurant, and it was worth all the bumbling. Abu Luzi was kind of an upscale version of our yak and barley bread picnic from the beginning of our trip. The food was simple but extraordinary. We had the Grassland Harvest, a barley soup with fresh vegetables; barley potatoes, which had a nice onion-y kick; and the yak and carrot parcel, a flaky pastry filled with seasoned carrots and the most tender and savory yak meat. We came into this trip without a really clear idea of what Tibetan food would be, and it was a real pleasure to find out. If we had had more days (and more money), we would have returned here, too.

As for ATMs? There are Chinese banks everywhere. No problem for us. (Though if you need to access foreign currency, check with your local institution.)

Jul 30, 2014

In the kitchen with Jessi

Our first class is on their way

The girls in our kitchen
From left to right: Yi, Meichen and Jessi, preparing a feast in our kitchen.
Jessi made a fantastic Sichuan-style dinner
Our meal of pumpkin soup, egg and scallion, and mildly spicy pork with peppers.
Hanging out with the kidsHave some dumplings
Left: This was our first time entertaining so many people at the new apartment; we had to borrow dishes from next door. Right: Jessi and the mountain of dumplings we made.

“I think students are closer to there teachers here in China than they are in America,” I said.

Jessi agreed. It’s because they spend more time together, she told me, they’re more like family. She was, at the time, mincing up some pork for the dumplings she was making me. I was nominally helping, cleaning the chives, but really the bulk of the work fell on her.

Jessi had been my student in my first year of teaching. (She’s namechecked in this essay.) Overwhelmed by our new lives that year, Peter and I didn’t make too many real connections with our students, but Jessi and a few of her friends were wonderful exceptions. We’ve kept in loose touch since then, and this summer she’s come over a few times to cook for us — she’s quite accomplished at Sichuan cuisine.

Our first meal together was an absolute feast, and she brought with her Kevin, Meichen and Yi. It was great catching up with the kids. Kevin, whom we used to refer to as the Crane, was back from his training year in Singapore and is now pretty fluent in English. He starts university in Singapore in the fall, and we can tell he’s having an amazing adventure abroad. Meichen, one of Peter’s top students from his top class, has not waited to start her advanced education — she’s already taken an English course from online university Coursera. Meichen and Kevin talked books and translation with Peter for much of the evening. Yi is a new friend, and very shy — though she seemed to have fun. She did tell me that I taught her mother when I did that course at the local teacher’s college!

Jessi will be staying in Luzhou for school, attending the city’s Medical College. During one of our very first after-class chats she told me that she wanted to be a doctor, so I’m fantastically happy for her. Likewise, I’m happy for myself, because if she stays nearby, she can come over and make me more delicious dumplings.

Dec 2, 2013

A new couple enters the mix

Snow and Jeff host us for an amazing lunch

Jeff and Snow with all their friends

Snow is a native Luzhou-ite who is the director of the foreign languages department at Sichuan Foreign Language high school. Jeff, her husband, is an Australian who taught ESL at the school about a decade ago. They recently returned from a stint teaching English in Mozambique (Snow was on sabbatical), and looking for expat friends, they got in touch with us through our boss Linda. A lunch invitation was issued; “Snow loves to host parties,” Jeff told us.

Jeff and Snow
Jeff and Snow host a mean banquet

And he was not underselling. Expecting a modest bite of noodles or something, we were instead presented with an out-and-out midday banquet with a half-dozen of Jeff and Snow’s other friends. There was the writer for the local newspaper, a couple from Chengdu who own a hair salon in here in town, a woman from the Luzhou Planning Museum, a few teachers recently returned from a trip to Thailand, and, last but not least, a chef who catered the entire affair who was about to leave China for a job in New Zealand.

Most of our friends are pretty young, so it was interesting to hang out with a crowd of established locals with such an international outlook. It’s actually really expensive for the average Chinese person to get a travel visa to America, but that just means that these people set their sights elsewhere. Luzhou may be a small town, but that afternoon was spent excitingly with people from a small world.

Jul 19, 2013

Snaps: I’m helping!

Tofu baby gets things done

Tofu Baby helps out

Our little buddy helps out with the string beans at Tofu Soup.

Jul 3, 2013

In search of good beer in China

Oh, how hard life is!

Year of the Snake beer

We love beer. China does not. At least, there is no real mainstream beer culture to speak of. And we’ve accepted that, as part of living here, for the most part the drinking is going to be water-light Bud imitations. It goes well with spicy food, anyway.

Which is not to say we don’t find our nice surprises from time to time. Qingdao, with it’s German-founded brewery, had its special local dark brew. Locally, we’ll always have Golden Hans. And, most of the grocery stores stock at least a German brand hefeweizen and stout in their import sections. Sometimes you can even find a pilsner or a dunkel. Last summer, there was even a canned shandy that hit the shelves for a minute. This winter, Kaiserdom put out a special Snake Year dark lager. You’ve just got to keep your eyes open.

This is the most expensive PBR we've ever seen!

Our most recent find was a bottled PBR, at 10 times the price of the good old canned PBR (that gleaming blue ribbon is widely available here, and costs about US$1) it was beautifully intriguing. Popping it open, we found a dark, viscous liquid, reminiscent of that Sam Adams that costs a billion dollars. The Navigator, as it’s called, was more like a complex liqueur than the expected yellow swill. A delicious quaff, although too expensive to be part of the regular rotation. But we’re keeping an eye on the shelf for when it goes on sale. (I’m pretty sure no one else is buying it.)

Import beer from the grocery store, however, doesn’t come with bar buddies, and that’s something we still really miss. But we’re slowly expanding our social circle — we’ve gone from zero friends to some friends! — and recently our friend Maybell’s Boyfriend invited us to come out with them to a place that had “beer even better than Golden Hans!”

Real beer from a real keg

We met Maybell and BF (ugh, I’m sorry; he doesn’t have an English name, and Chinese characters are still sliding from my brain mere seconds after I hear them) at a restaurant that served fresh kegs from the Moutai brewing company. Moutai is a nationally famous brand of baijiu produced in Southwest China, but their beer production, according to BF is not widely known outside of our area. The joint was hopping, and large tapped carafes of lights and darks were continually being delivered to tables full of revelers. They had two fruit beers, too, but only girls drink those, so I was dissuaded from ordering a carafe for the table. Though I did get my own pint; it tasted like a melted blueberry popsicle.

The food was fantastic. (I feel like I’m always saying that, but it’s so often the case.) Spicy cucumbers, green beans, delicious pork bits on a bed of hot peppers, edamame …

And, it turned out, we were celebrating. Maybell had just attended her official college graduation ceremony the day before. And, they excitedly told us, the were going to get married this year. Just an official ceremony; they’re going to have a big reception with friends two years from now. But, still, what fun news!

We talked about the job market — both Maybell and her boyfriend are lucky to have good jobs they like, but their classmates are having a tough time of it. Kids signed on for conditional contracts are being laid off after their first year is up, and others can’t find jobs at all. Maybell said she doesn’t like talking about her ample teacher’s vacation time with them, because she feels like she’s rubbing it in her unemployed friends’ faces.

We toasted each other, shared travel ideas — Maybell gave us some great advice on an ancient town located just an hour outside of Luzhou — and made future plans. BF is really interested in cocktails, so we’re hoping to have a bartending night sometime soon. And we want to host them to a real American BBQ one of these days. We shared jokes, cultural tidbits, the meaning of life — all that kind of fun philosophizing that beer was meant to accompany.

At the end of the night, Maybell got a server to write down the address and phone number for us, so that we can return one day. And we will, because BF was right, the beer is even better than Golden Hans!

Delicious dinner with good friends

Jun 7, 2013

What’s that you’re eating?

Or, why we keep showing you photos of boiling pots

Hot pot 1Hot pot 2Hot pot 3Hot pot 4Hot pot 5Hot pot 6Hot pot 7Hot pot 8Hot pot 9

“Yeah, that’s not hot pot, that’s 串串,” people would correct us when early on we would go around talking about our favorite meal on sticks. “Whatever,” we would think, “It’s hot, and it’s in a pot. That’s hot pot.” But now, almost two years into our Chinese journey, we’re finally catching on to the subtleties of Sichuan cooking.

There are 33 distinct Chinese terms for cutting, according to our Sichuanese food guru Fuchsia Dunlop and 63 shapes into which food can be cut. And that’s just the specificities of prep work. When you scale it up, a pot of 豆花火锅 (tofu soup) is an entirely different thing than 串串 and neither of them are what people mean when they’re talking about traditional Sichuan 火锅。Hot soup isn’t just one thing, it’s a whole genre.

The traditional style 火锅 is a spicy broth that the table shares, with platters of beautifully cut meats and vegetables to dump into that broth. Distinguished from it’s poorer cousin 串串 by the quality and price of everything. And, of course, the sticks.

But, what else could be different? Well, everything: Is there one communal pot, or does everyone get their own? What’s the base of the broth? How spicy is the broth? What goes in the soup, ingredient-wise? What goes in the soup, spice-wise? Does the soup come fully prepared, or do you order ingredients a la carte? What’s the quality of meat that comes with the meal? Are we talking fish, chicken, beef, sheep or what? How are the vegetables sliced? Are there any vegetables? What goes in your spice bowl that accompanies the meal? Do they have a spice bar?!

There’s a meal for all spice levels, and there’s a meal for all price levels. A night out at 串串 usually sets us back about about US$8 (including beers). A recent adventure at a fancier beef hot pot place came to about US$30 (again, including beers), which is a major splurge for us. For reference, that kind of money can buy two bus tickets to Chongqing.

Speaking of which, start all over from the beginning in Chongqing, because they have a completely different flavor profile there. Chongqing spice is much sharper, more in your face as opposed to the creeping numbness of the Sichuan peppercorn, and just more … red. It’s a little hard to describe. But we were very proud when upon revisiting a 串串 chain that we had read was based out of Chongqing and could definitely taste the regional flavor. Which, upgrade us from Brand Newbie to Not Completely Lost!

May 12, 2013

清明节: Two dinners

An adventure for the face

Hot pot in Zigong

The double-whammy of it all is that not only is Chinese really difficult, but my natural tendencies toward introversion mean that every conversation with a stranger is one I don’t want to have. The other night at dinner, I told Peter that if I could just have someone else order beers for us — something that I’ve had more than a year of practice doing — I would do anything for that. Anything but ask, that is.

Given this reality, it’s really very easy for us to fall into a rut. When we order the same thing at the same restaurant every night, they bring us what we want without anyone having to say anything! It’s so comfortable … but also so limiting. Enduring a little social discomfort opens up exciting new worlds of food and vocabulary for us every time. So this Anglophone introvert has to keep pushing herself.

Travel is the obvious way to shake things up. In Zigong, of course we wanted to try the hot pot. There is intense regional competition regarding whose food is the best/freshest/spiciest, and we want to judge them all.

After a meander through the narrow market streets near our hotel, we found a clean, well-lit little place with the tell-tale burners sunk into the tables. “You want the spicy broth?” the server asked, I think. Whatever she said, I said yes. We also ordered cukes, lotus root, winter melon, cauliflower and potatoes. Delicious, and a whole different spice than our Luzhou usual. Hot, but we could handle it.

A new kind of pot in Luzhou

The night of our return from Zigong, emboldened by our recent, we set out to try out one of the Pot Pot restaurants by the river. We had no idea what 锅锅香 was, beyond the fact that a meal seemed to consist of a shallow pot of food atop a bucket holding a heat source. But we had been curious about it since we’ve arrived here, and we were feeling brave.

One of the hostesses beckoned us to her restaurant — there’s a cluster of about five or so in this particular area— and we obeyed. I picked at random one of eight options, and ordered up the beer: 4 bottles, cold please. They brought us out a bucket containing a red hot brick (yes!) and a small pot of pork belly (OK!). It also came with sprouts, cabbage, winter melon, potatoes and glass noodles. This dish, for a change, was not spicy, but more like a hearty pork and beans stew.

This place … is not yet a favorite. The broth and fixins we got were fine, but pork belly is so fatty and I just don’t have a taste for it. I left behind an embarrassing pile of blubber.

But, we went back a second time. This time I ordered spare ribs, which were fantastic for me … but that soup didn’t really come with enough vegetation for Peter. When we’re not Jack Sprat and his wife, sometimes I think we might be Goldilocks.

We’re determined to keep going back, however, in search of the perfect dish for both of us. There are six more things to try. And they already know how we like our beer.

Apr 30, 2013

清明节: Fushun County breakfast

Wake up with bean curd and rice

Spicy tofu for breakfast

Every place in China seems to have a claim on something they do best. (Maybe this is true of every place in the world.) Usually it’s food related. And in Fushun County, according to Sarah, it’s the bean curd and rice breakfast. You can find it other places, but it won’t be as good, she said. It’s something in the water. (Hmm … this is sounding a lot like New Yorkers and their bagels, or Sicilians and their pizza … )

We’re still a little baffled by Chinese breakfast, and we weren’t sure of what to expect from tofu for morning meal, but it was actually pretty good. It came with a spicy dipping sauce that had hints of anise, and extra bean curd juice served up hot as a beverage. Sarah scolded us for our cold Vitamin Water that we had brought with us … but soup is not a drink!

Apr 30, 2013

清明节: Celebration time

Holiday dinner with a family

Sarah showed us around her hometown
Sarah, above, shows us around her hometown; some guys in the background do a double take at the foreigners.

So the actual reason we were on vacation, the Qingming Festival, dates back thousands of years. It’s a day to pay homage to your ancestors — sweeping graves, burning spirit money, pouring out a little wine. A very solemn Confucian holiday in a country that is officially atheist.

Holiday traffic

Qingming Festival has only been a public holiday on the Mainland since 2008. And while some families do observe the holiday by visiting the gravesides of their elders — news broadcasts warned of the risk of fire from people burning incense and such in rain-deprived areas — a lot of the holiday traffic (and there is a lot of it; when a billion people go on vacation, there’s going to be traffic) is people using the time to travel and sit down to a meal with their living relatives. Actually, no matter what the traditions are, this is what a lot of holidays in China seem to be for: dinner with the fam.

As our families are so far away, there’s not a whole lot of celebrating we can get up to by ourselves. We celebrated Spring Festival this year in a closing restaurant, for goodness’ sake! Occasionally, though, we have friends to include us in their fun. And, for Qingming Festival, in addition to being our tour guide extraordinaire, Sarah was also a gracious and welcoming holiday host.

The business hotel
Business hotels in China are cheap and functional, but lack the charm of youth hostels.

After showing us around her Fushun County hometown, she set us up in a business hotel down the block from where we’d be having dinner that night. Mr. Wang picked us up at 6, and drove us the few hundred feet to Thousand Spices, Hundred Taste, the soon to be site of our hot pot dreams.

The family had a private room in the back of the restaurant, and Sarah’s parents and sister were already there. More of Sarah’s siblings would join us as the night went on, as would relatives of Mr. Wang. They were a close, happy family, Sarah told us. Her parents, who are in their eighties, still cook together and walk together every day. They’re very much in love, she said.

Sarah invited us to dinner with her family
We found the xiang dofu
After more than a year, we found the delicious and cheese-like Sweet Tofu, nestled right in between the imitation crab and pork dumplings.
The spice bar
First timers at the spice bar, we may have gone a little overboard mixing up our dipping sauces, but each of our mixes were fantastic.

Brief introductions made, Sarah sent us out to pick out what dishes we wanted. Usually, the host makes all the decisions, but thinking of our American paletes and half-vegetarianism, she wanted us to make sure to have food we liked. Out in the main dining hall, there was a row of refrigerated cases full of delicacies. On Sarah’s prompting, I grabbed a big tray, which was immediately taken from me by a server who accompanied Peter and I down the row of food. We grabbed so many plates of vegetables and tofu, and a few meaty dumplings for me … and Sarah encouraged us to get even more.

While we waited for the pots to boil, we all sampled some of Sarah’s father’s homemade grape wine. It was really nice, like a sweet liqueur. Mr. Wang brought out a bottle of baijiu, and they got some beers for us. Throughout the meal, there would be much ganbei-ing.

Oh, but before we started eating, we needed to prepare our spice bowls. When you eat hot pot, you get a small bowl of oil, peanuts, scallions, red peppers, etc., in which to dip each piece of food before you eat it. In most places we eat, these are prepared ahead of time, or you mix your own from a small number of ingredients. At Thousand Spices, they had a whole spice bar where you could assemble your bowl. There were peppers, pickled peppers, smashed peppers, sesame seeds, sesame paste, sesame oil, peanuts, garlic, pickled garlic, infused garlic, vinegar … so many choices. Everything looked and smelled so good. And this was just the garnish.

Back in our room, the pots were starting to boil. Each pot had a center bowl with a mushroom and chicken broth set inside an outer ring of red-hot spicy pepper broth. Peter and I alternated between the two, because the red broth burned our faces off but we wanted to eat as much of it as we could.

Our lavish spread

The mood was jovial and festive at the table, and the whole family was so welcoming and attentive to us outsiders who didn’t even speak Chinese. Mr. Wang made sure to toast us if it looked like we were getting too quiet, and Sarah’s mother offered us more and more food, as if we weren’t gorging ourselves already. The evening reminded me of holidays spent with my family and the happy chaos of a full table.

Food-wise, everything was fantastic, but the big star was the sweet tofu. Soft and textured almost like fresh mozzarella cheese, we had had it once before — more than a year ago — and it blew our minds. We hadn’t been able to find it since. Huzzah!

Before returning us to the hotel, Sarah took us to see her Fushun home. Her place is a few floors above where her parents live with her sister. Both apartments were big and open, with four bedrooms each, and spacious, jealousy-inducing kitchens. “Chinese people like to be comfortable,” Sarah told us.

I tried hard not to compliment everything we saw, because we’ve heard that if you admire something in a Chinese home, manners dictate they offer it to you, and it’s impolite to refuse. But I managed to say I liked a piece of art that one of Mr. Wang’s students had made for him, without incident.

We sat for a while and had some flower tea in Sarah’s parents’ apartment. They turned on CCTV News for us, the English-language channel. And then Sarah and Mr. Wang walked us home. It wasn’t my family, but it was nice to spend holiday time with a family nonetheless.

Mar 17, 2013

The eating continues

Homestyle in the hometown

Hot pot for dinner
Note the peppers. Sichuan cuisine is hot, hot, hot!
Mix up some cilantro and corn, and a Chinese dish tastes kind of Mexican
A cobbled-together taste of Mexico, right here in Luzhou.

It’s been a good season for Chinese food, or, as we like to call it in Luzhou, food. Our January Penang foodventures reignited our local explorations — after our initial fall push, we fell into a rut with some new olds — and we’ve expanded far beyond sticks and noodles.

The search for new has also put us in the position to consume much more culture and language. (Yum! It’s all delicious!) One of the boys at 串串, where we’re still regulars, has started teaching me vocabulary. 醋, he said one evening, as he delivered a small pitcher of vinegar. And then there was 芫荽 or, cilantro. He’s become one of my best teachers. (He’s second only to bodega lady, with whom I’ve been having conversations ever increasing in complexity pretty much since we arrived. She cheered on the day I said my first sentence in past tense! That sentence: “We ate chuan chuan.”)

At 串串 we’ve also learned that it’s no problem to order food from other restaurants to be sent to your 串串 table. The place next door does a fantastic corn and hot pepper salad — which, when mixed with cilantro, scallions and rice actually has a wonderful Mexican flavor — and the lady proprietor is tickled when I try out new words on her, too.

Out in the countryside, we’re no less social. At corner restaurant, over a meal of eggplant and pork with fried greens — the most vegetarian thing I have managed to order there — we had a chat with one of my old students one night. His father runs a clinic a few doors down, and he had “heard that there were foreigners out here and I thought it might be you.” He informed us that the restaurant owners’ son was in Peter’s class! Something, we then realized, that she had tried to tell us in Chinese several times. (“你听不懂,” or, “You don’t understand,” is a phrase we are now very familiar with.) There was general merriment all around that the facts were finally conveyed.

Our boss hates that we do this. Go out and talk with the people, I mean. We still hear about the time that we walked home to the new campus with a bunch of laborers. She’d much prefer that we spent our free time locked in our apartment, eating plain white rice and talking to no one. Our explanations that we’re meeting with friends and students and parents and fellow teachers falls on deaf ears. She just changes her lecture to “spicy food is bad for you.”

That only makes it more delicious.

Once again, finding (and being) the hot new thing

Tofu soup at our neighborhood place

We do a fair bit of hanging out in our little countryside town, and we were starting to feel like people were finally getting used to us. We wave and exchange brief words with the people we know. People help us get taxis back to school when the cab drivers give us a hard time. We’ve got a favorite vegetable stall at the wet market.

But a small change in location recently revealed that we are still the 外国人, and that still causes a big stir. In between BBQ sticks and corner restaurant, there’s a place that does a shared tofu soup that’s a lot like the one that we tried in the city with our friend Alex. A few weeks ago, when our noodle place was out of noodles(!), we decided to give it a go.

The table next to us was immediately interested. The leading man took our basic history — Teachers, Americans, Tianfu Middle School, and so on. Pleased with us — (a foreigner who can understand Mandarin is an entertaining curio; the Chinese know how hard their language is) — our inquisitor pointed at our water bottle and then his own, and said something like, “You have water, but I have some hooch! Want some?” It was 1 pm and we still had work to do, so we declined. But we have since taken up many similar offers when it was appropriate.

Last weekend, there was the two-table banquet party, men at one table and women at the other in the traditional way. The men were shy at first but they were drunk later, and found the courage to approach us with questions and toasts. It was one of the loudest rooms I have ever been in. One fervently friendly guy needed Peter to accept his gift of a cigarette. Fortunately, he didn’t insist on lighting it. We deflected with a toast, and I think he forgot about it. It’s weird to call this kind of experience normal, but it’s a situation we’re included in more often than not.

There’s a 10-year-old boy associated with the place who we actually met a few weeks before we ventured into the restaurant. He hangs out with a pack of kids who keep us company at the bus stop sometimes. He also knows a little bit of English, so we managed to have a brief chat one night. These days, he gives us a hello when we come in, and spends his after-dinner playing with the children of the neighboring businesses out in the streets. His main partner-in-crime seems to be the wild-haired girl next door, who is missing her two front teeth. They make for good dinner theater.

Birthday disasters turn fun and instructional

Birthday dinner at the Riverside Restaurant
Darting some balloons
After dinner, I tried my hand at the darts game that was set up across the street from the restaurant.

Our explorations don’t always go smoothly. Things can go wrong both geographically and linguistically. And my birthday dinner was a two-fer: The riverside restaurant we were meaning to visit for ages was a pile of rubble. It was a disappointment, and we were hungry and tired of walking. Both things ratchet up my anxiety about trying something new in another language. But we were not to be defeated. A short walk down the riverside promenade, we found a good-looking place with comfy outdoor chairs.

Between my translation notebook and the picture menu, we managed to order a fantastic feast: Sweet corn; barbecued scallions with a spicy, oily rub; garlicky cucumbers; fried rice; and chicken feet.

More than sense memory associations, mistake memory I think is even stronger. And now I will never forget the difference between 瓜, melon, and 爪, claw.

Having accidentally ordered them, though, I did feel I had to try what is really a very common Chinese dish. Chicken feet are kind of like chicken wings, where the point is really more the sauce they’re doused in rather than the minimal meat that you can free from the bones and cartilage. And, the little fingers scrabble at your face while you’re trying to nibble. It’s an odd sensation. I don’t think I liked them, but if you want, I can order you a plate.

A family holiday with kind strangers-turned-friends

I'm ready to eat

The discovery of Golden Hans taught us to look up. And on Chinese New Years Eve we scaled the heights to third-floor traditional hot pot restaurant. (This was only after visiting a fifth-floor enterprise that turned out to be an internet cafe.) Many places were actually closed for the holiday, so we were lucky that this place sat us as the last customers of the night. Our final alternative was going to have been McDonald’s.

We lucked out again in that our two servers both spoke a little bit of English. We’ve done hot pot many times before — it’s Sichuan’s signature dish — but this was our first time on our own. The four of us worked our way through the menu together — there was some drawing involved — and the woman triple checked that we wanted the spicy broth. Yes! We love the spice!

Our spread was delivered to our table on a three-tiered cart, and it included potato, lotus, sliced tofu, cabbage, winter melon, cucumber, and spicy beef slices. Happily, all deliverables conformed to my expectations. The service team hovered for a minute, to make sure the Americans knew what they were doing — Don’t eat the raw meat! Wait until the pot is boiling! — and then sat down with the rest of the staff to enjoy their after-work holiday party a few tables away. They were having a good time by the sounds of it. Throughout the meal, our guys returned to our table to toast us, wish us happy new year, and bring us small treats from their feast, including this wonderful Sichuan peppercorn cured pork sausage.

Peter and I tried to eat fairly quickly; we didn’t want to be lingerers when they were keeping the restaurant open only for us. But the staff party still died down before we finished. We are the slowest eaters in China! Our servers were gracious, however, and the man asked to take a photo with us before we left. 新年好!

Would you like fried with that?

One of our most useful recent food discoveries was maybe the most obvious: Fried rice is available pretty much everywhere, even if it’s not on the menu. Some things you know about China are true.

The basic dish that everyone serves is rice with egg and a bit of scallions or other greenery. It’s so simple but super delicious. We’ve added it to the regular rotation at BBQ sticks, which does our favorite version.

We’ve come a long way from our first time at 串串, when we stood nervous on the sidewalk wondering “How do we get them to give us some food?!” Once we figured that out — simply say yes to a question that is probably “Do you want a table?” and then grab some sticks — we spent at least six months eating dinner there nightly, because we were too scared to try a new place. Pointing and pantomime are still useful weapons in our menu-navigation arsenal, but some basic literacy has made our lives so much easier. And so much more enjoyable.

Every couple of months, I look back on how much I learned since we arrived in China, and am astonished that we were ever able to survive on the paltry knowledge we had then. And I can’t wait to see what will happen this spring.