Hello Uncle Foreigner

food

Jan 6, 2013

Dinner with Young Jane

Meet some of our junior friends

At chuan chuan with Alix, Young Jane and KOKO (not pictured)
We go shopping at the stationary store before dinner
Alix and Jane pose together outside of the stationary store. KOKO declined to be photographed.

I have another student named Jane, one of my juniors. And there is very little chance I’d confuse the two. Young Jane is incredibly loud and outgoing. On my first day in her class — when her classmates were shrieking in awe and running away — she strode right up and asked me, “You eat 串串, right? And drink 啤酒?” Apparently her home is near sticks, and she had seen Peter and me there eating dinner and drinking beer.

She can be a bit of a loudmouth sometimes, but in an incredibly endearing way. “Emily, that hat is not fashion,” she told me about my winter toque. “Well then, don’t wear it,” I replied.

A few weeks ago, she invited me to go shopping. And the rule is: Always say yes. So we made a date. The morning of our appointed day, she pointed out about seven students who were going to come with us. Although when it came time to go, we were joined by only Alix (a quiet and incredibly with-it kid; while her mouth is closed her eyes are open) and KOKO (I had to say KOKO’s name about 17 times before I got it right). They chattered away as we walked towards the center of the city. I can tell you that shopping with 12 year old girls in China is much the same as it is in the US. KOKO bought a pen, but it was mostly window shopping and then something to drink.

It was decided that after shopping we’d go to dinner, so I called Peter to meet us at 串串. On the way there, the girls taught me some words in Chinese and in the local dialect. In class, I don’t let the students know that I understand some Chinese, because it’s supposed to be a fully immersive English experience and some of the students are reluctant to participate as it is. But my guideline is that if you’re motivated to seek me out after class, you can probably handle the fact that I do know a tiny bit of the language. So I let the girls become my teachers for our walk. And let me tell you, they were as strict with my pronunciation as I am with theirs. It was really difficult!

Over dinner we chatted some more, and laughed and had general fun. They confirmed for us that the terrible erhu busker is playing bad on purpose so that you’ll pay him to go away. He’s been poking us for money — literally — since we’ve been going to sticks, and we had always suspected that he was just being obnoxious, so we hadn’t given him any money. “He’s so boring,” said Jane.

At the end of the meal, they managed to snake the bill from us. If you’re following along and getting the impression we get a lot of meals paid for by other people, you’re exactly right. It’s pretty remarkable. That’s why we try to do things like the pizza party to try to karmically balance it out.

Jan 6, 2013

Pizza party II

Our first gathering in the new apartment

Serving the pizza

Tina and the girls wanted to come see us in our apartment so we invited them over during their free time one Sunday evening. Unbeknownst to them, we started planning the pizza party. There was a double motive there in that we wanted to show them our favorite American food … and we also suspected that they might lose track of time and miss out on their dinner, and we didn’t want to let them go unfed.

By this time, we had gotten to know the girls a lot better. Tina is the boss, the ringleader of the pack. It is on her say so that other girls talk to us and sit with us. But she wields her power generously. I’d say, next in command is Jane. Bookish and reserved, Jane has the best English, so if anyone is unsure of what they want to say, they run it by her first.

Sky is quite bold and confident. She dreams of international travel, especially to Paris, and has lots of good questions. Elaine is quiet and kind. Her manner is friendly and open, and I’d guess her to be the conciliator of the group.

Poor Helen couldn’t make it. The girl who is NOT a turkey had to study during our little get together. In fact, she’s often studying. Though she’s the same age as the other girls, there’s something of a tag-along little sister to her. She’s adorable and they clearly love her, despite the hard times they give her.

Pizza cooking on the grill
We picked up black olives on our last trip to Chongqing, and their existence made up a lot for the crummy Laughing Cow-style cheese that we’re stuck with.
The pizza party in full swing
Sky: I don’t think I can finish my last piece.
Jane: I can help you with that.

The girls arrived as the grill was getting hot; we were using our good friend Martha’s grilled pizza recipe again. They oohed and aahed over our new grill — “You know how to cook with this!?” — and were generally very impressed before the food even came out. We discussed BBQ culture in America, which they appreciated, though they were confused as to why summer is BBQ season. “You’re already hot,” they pointed out.

I was a little nervous serving them food, as I am still perfecting my bread making, but they really seemed to like it. They had never had pizza before, they told us. We beamed with pride, and I exempted myself from the fight for the last slices — which was really, really hard for me, but I did it!

A funny thing happened with our American pizza feast in that it evolved gracefully into a Chinese dinner party. As we waited for each batch to grill, the girls started to entertain us, singing American pop songs, telling jokes, and then performing a little traditional Chinese opera. Jane, in particular, was a lovely singer, demonstrating the technique singers use to vocally switch genders. “Where did you learn these songs?” we asked. “From TV,” they told us.

Too soon, they had to go back to class — yes on a Sunday evening, there is still more class. But after getting so much from them — they periodically give us little gifts and notes and cards in addition to friendship — it was nice to be able to give something to them. We’re buds for life.

Jan 5, 2013

Firing up the BBQ

Camping out, on our own back porch

Our new grill set up on the porch

At the old campus, we live next door to a camping supply store where we’ve spent a surprisingly large amount of time given that we’re not outdoor people. But, they have good travel backpacks and it is one of the few places that we can find big enough pants for Peter. It also doesn’t hurt that the people who work there are super nice.

When we found out that our new apartment was going to have a small porch, the first thing we thought was: we need to get a grill. Never mind that most people just use that space for hanging clothes to dry and storing broken appliances — we’ll show them the real American use for a porch.

Peter and the grillBBQ breadTiger Striped Peppers

And the camping store had a perfect little hibachi, that wasn’t too expensive, either. This was in the midst of our mad bus trips back and forth between the old and new apartments, when we were functioning as our own moving van, so we didn’t actually get the grill over to its proper place for a few weeks. Once we did, the obvious problem of charcoal finally stared us in the face. I realized that I had been assuming that we could just pick up a bag of Kingsford at the True Value or the A&P. But, WE DON’T HAVE A TRUE VALUE OR AN A&P! AND NO KINGSFORD!

We did search our supermarket, to no avail. Then, Peter had the bright idea to ask the camping store people where to buy our charcoal! Of course, they would know.

And they did. The trouble was communicating it through our language barriers. I could ask the question: 在哪里买木炭 [At where do you buy charcoal]? But unless the answer was pointing out a location visible from where we were, there was no way I could understand the answer — I realized way too late.

Fortunately, the woman working that afternoon had a friend with some pretty good English. As she translated for us, a crowd of people gathered, excited to see one of their own talking in English with the foreigners. But though we were speaking the same language, it was still too confusing (“How long is your camping trip?” “We just want to cook dinner!” “Yes, but for how many nights?!”) The eventual solution: The camping store woman would go buy us some charcoal, and we would pick it up from her the following week. How incredibly generous!

And it worked out! We picked up the coal, hauled it out to the new campus and have been grilling away for months. We’ve done flat breads, curried veggie scrambles, dry-rub tofu and much more. Peter has even been perfecting the Tiger Striped Hot Peppers that we were introduced to at BBQ Sticks. (It’s thanks to our Fuchsia Dunlop Sichuan cookbook that we were able to identify the dish; thanks Lizzy and Jesse!)

Teachers are still startled to look out and see us relaxing out in our clothes drying area, but we’re having a lot of fun.

Our grilled sandwich meal

Jan 1, 2013

你好, 老外!

“They’re saying ‘Hello, foreigners!’”

A walk home with new friends
Pull up a chair, have a drink

From time to time, at 串串 in the city, people take notice of us. They’ll practice their English within earshot, or dare someone to come 干杯 with us. Recently, a little girl, seeing that we had no meat on our table, brought me over some beef sticks. They were really, really delicious, and I’ve since added them to the rotation. But for the most part, we’re left alone. In the city, people are cool. “Yeah, we’ve got Americans. No big deal.”

Not so in the countryside. We attract tons of attention at BBQ Sticks, our favorite countryside haunt. And that’s part of the fun.

The restaurant belongs to the small, built-up oasis that sits in the middle of kilometers and kilometers of farmland. If you live out our ways, and you don’t live at the school, you probably live here. And if you live here, you probably socialize out on the street — that’s where everyone is. Including us.

Young children are generally equal parts terrified and fascinated by us. They try to catch glances without getting caught, or sometimes we’ll here a small voice yell out, “Hello, 老外[foreigner]!” from behind the restaurant’s tarp. If they’re with parents, the adults will encourage them to talk to us. They resist, despite our most enthusiastic 你好s.

Teenagers and adults are a little more brave. Teens, because they have to study English, are often a little more confident in approaching us, though often they’ll check with the restaurant owners first if it’s OK to ask to take a photo. I think the owners are amused by their roles as our agents.

Some of our best nights happen when someone is brave enough to sit down with us. Often the first foray is a tentative beer toast. He’ll drink with us (it’s pretty much always a man), and then return to his table. And then the others come, one by one. Sometimes they offer cigarettes to Peter, which is a little awkward to refuse; it’s a gesture of good will and male bonding, and saying no is tantamount to saying, “We’re not friends.” But neither of us wants Peter to start smoking again just for social niceties.

If the mood is right, our tables merge. We’ll run through the few Chinese phrases I know — “We’re Americans. We’re teachers at Tianfu Middle School. Are those your kids? Very beautiful. We love China. Let’s be friends!” It’s one of the greatest tests and exercise of my language skills, and very good fun. It feels like such a win every time I can understand a new phrase or make something understood.

Some brave students

Occasionally, our new friends will go behind our back to pay the bill. It’s incredibly generous of them, a real example of Chinese hospitality. Other times, we’ll have companions for our walk home — it was in this way that we met some young students who are bound for Tianfu next year. And every once in a while, our fellow teachers will spot us waiting for the bus and give us a ride back home. It’s funny for them, I think, to see the Americans out in the wild. But they, too, have felt the call of the barbeque, and they understand.

We definitely still have curiosity status in the neighborhood, but our experiences at BBQ Sticks are starting to make us feel part of something. Part of it is the fact that I’m getting more language — even a bit of the local dialect — but I think it’s the food that brings us together. Peter and I are total weirdos here, but we can share some hot peppers and laugh over a beer. And it’s nice to have friends.

Dec 27, 2012

And try them fried …

Another kind of sticks are discovered

Our lunch in Bao'en Plaza
Fried up veggies in black vinegar

We find the old apartment very unpleasant, so during our time there — as weather permits — we try to spend as much time out and about in the city as possible. On one of these jaunts, again in the Bao’en Pagoda plaza (where, it turns out, we spend a lot of time!), we came upon a large collection of street food vendors. One of whom was selling sticks.

We went for it, and were delighted that these were different still from both 串串 and BBQ sticks. Bao’en sticks are fried and then doused in this tangy, dark vinegar, and sprinkled with handfuls of dried chili pepper and sesame seeds. So lovely. And puts to bed our assumption that “food on stick” is one specific thing.

Lesson: Never say no to a skewered broccoli.

Dec 24, 2012

School lunch … and dinner

Digging into Chinese cafeteria food

A bird's eye view of the cafeteria

One of the easiest mealtime options when we’re at the new campus is the school cafeteria. Now, while school food in America is not the greatest, Chinese cafeteria food is actually pretty good. A meal here comprises steamed rice and two entrees — with plenty of vegetables — and a bowl of soup (which is the “drink” of the meal). We see the produce dropped off daily, and everything is fresh, fresh, fresh. Jamie Oliver, your advocacy is not needed here. We also see the food waste collected in giant vats after each meal and driven off somewhere — possibly for compost!

The cafeteria occupies an important position at the center of the campus and serves three meals a day. The student hall is three floors that center around a large spiral staircase. One wall of each floor is a bank of serving windows where an army of cafeteria workers dole out food from large steam trays. The kitchens are right behind these, and if you’re nosy, you can poke your head in and see mad chopping, stir frying and steaming going on. The teachers have a separate room in the back of the building — furnished with round tables and chairs rather than the fast food joint-style benches that the kids sit at.

The student food is quite basic; a chopped vegetable sometimes paired with a small amount chopped meat. Cauliflower and peppers, say, or pork and celery, or steamed winter melon, or carrots and mushy fish. Most of the students say that the food cooked for them at home is much better. But, at 4.70RMB [.75USD], it’s a tasty enough meal.

There’s also a meatless option which runs 2.70RMB, or, .43USD. For most of the kids, eating this way is just about saving money. There are a few students who actively follow a vegetarian diet, but vegetarianism as a concept is largely not understood in China. (Peter is often met with puzzlement and concern when he says that he doesn’t eat meat. “How will you stay strong and healthy?”) Choices can include zucchini, bok choi, pumpkin or shredded potatoes, but sometimes you’ll just end up with two servings of steamed cabbage.

This place serves a lot of kids

The teachers’ cafeteria steps it up quite a bit. First of, there’s more meat in each dish, and slightly better cuts. Also, the dishes are actual dishes, assembled with care and spices — Sichuan peppercorn features heavily — and there’s a piece of fruit for dessert. The meal is served on real plates and bowls, rather than cafeteria trays. Price tag: 6RMB [.96USD]

For all that, I only eat in the teachers’ caf if Peter takes a nap through lunch. Early on, we realized that the teachers aren’t really interested in making friends, but the students are. And lunch and dinner seemed like the perfect time to put ourselves out there for those kids who wanted to practice their English, learn about America, teach about China, etc. And, while the food is not as exciting, the atmosphere is much more friendly and boisterous. So, while many helpful adults have tried to point us in the “right” direction, most of the time we’re right there with the students, waiting on line for our plastic trays and parking it at a welded-to-the-table metal chair. It’s much more fun that way.

Meal oneMeal twoMeal three
Spicy pork with peppers, celery and cucumber, peppery cabbage, and egg and tomato soup
Pork with scallions and smoky tofu, zucchini, and a dishwater chicken soup
Savory pork and onions, with zucchini, spinach and pumpkin soup
Meal fourMeal fiveMeal six
Left: Zucchini, pasta, and cucumbers; Right: Winter melon and chicken, and cucumbers
Left: Onions, peppers, carrots and potato with pork slivers, and cabbage; Right: Carrots, and potatoes and chicken
Left: Cauliflower, and turnips (or some sort of root) and red peppers; Right: Pork and onions, and cauliflower

Dec 22, 2012

Noodles by the old school

Our food exploration continues all over town

Our favorite noodle dishes
An order of 辣鸡面 and 牛肉面 make for a delicious lunch
The new noodles

We’ve gotta eat in the city, too, and so after juniors classes on Thursday and Friday mornings, Peter and I take our lunch at a small, new-since-the-flood noodle place. I order Peter a bowl of 牛肉面, which is a spicy, noodly soup with two easily removed chunks of beef brisket that I usually eat. For myself, I’ve been going down the menu a dish at a time. One of my new favorites is 辣鸡面, which I think is topped with chicken feet! Whatever, it’s tasty.

Again, we’ve found friends in the owners. A few weeks ago, we were a little late for lunch, but they took pity and served us anyway. (It’s possible that when we didn’t understand, “We’re closed,” they just decided it was easier to make two bowls of noodles than to get us to leave.) We didn’t fully get that they stayed open just for us until they chased out other potential customers!

Dec 22, 2012

Countryside restaurants

Here come the regulars

PIjiu Chicken
A delicious plate of 啤酒鸡
The hottest hot peppers
Wanna burn your face off?

As we’ve said, the countryside campus of our school is completely self-contained — you can even buy toilet paper and dish soap at the school store — and if you didn’t want to, you’d never need to leave. But that’s not our style.

In our first wanderings out to the little town we found a corner restaurant where I managed to order us some beer. It was a bunch of tables and plastic stools underneath a big blue tent, just outside of an open kitchen. We’d visit about once a week, just to get some time off campus. “This is gonna be our place out here,” we said.

Eventually, I got brave enough to ask for some food. On the menu, I recognized the characters 啤酒鸡 — beer chicken. We ordered this, with the hope that it came with some sort of vegetable for Peter to nibble.

It didn’t, unfortunately, but it was delicious for me! Tender chicken in a rich, tangy sauce with just a little bit of spicy punch. We took photos of the menu, intending to translate and come back to try some more.

BBQ

Our next excursion into town, however, we found more food on sticks! “We’ll try this tonight, and then next week go practice more Chinese with Corner Restaurant Lady,” we told each other. But after tasting the food, we had a different tune.

Instead of throwing our skewers into a boiling spicy broth like at 串串, at this place, they grill up the veggies and coat them with a dry spice. It’s magnificent. They also have some fantastic meat-kebabs (of ambiguous provenance) that satisfy my longing for American BBQ. And, if you want to up the ante, they have these crazy hot green peppers that they douse in brown vinegar and salt. We eat them and just stare at each other as our mouths throb and our eyes water from the heat.

The owners were amused when we returned the night after our first time, but now they seem used to us and the frequency of our visits. And besides deliciousness, BBQ Sticks also provides a nice view of the main drag; it’s a great place to see and be seen.

And one of these days, maybe, we’ll finally get back to our restaurant on the corner.

Inside BBQ

Dec 6, 2012

Chongqing: Cici Park

Seriously, go for the warmed plum wine

The cool crowd hangs at Cici Park
Plum wineCici Park

Cici Park came highly recommended in every piece of travel writing we read about the bar. And, in fact, we liked it so much that we went there both nights of our Chongqing stay.

Tucked away amongst closed-for-the-night shops on the second-floor rooftop of a large, old-looking building, we might have missed the bar were it not for the precise instructions that we got from the hostel staff. Cici Park is quiet, understated and chill as hell.

The weather was mild enough that there was competition for the outdoor tables and benches, but the inside was lovely as well. The walls were decked out with neon, Spirograph art pieces, and smooth, loungey jazz played softly over the PA.

This was yet another no-vomit-on-the-floor crowd (who would think that would be so special?), and we noticed that many merrymakers were drinking tea and soda in lieu of something alcoholic. Not us, though.

There was a small, handwritten sign advertising “The Naoke: Draft beer by handmade.” it came in two flavors — light and dark — there was just enough crisp in the air to make dark the right choice. And it was lovely: rich with a hint of coffee. Another highlight was the plum wine — nice flavor without being too sweet. After a consultation with the bartender, I chose to go for the warm over the cold, again, with reference to the crisp in the air.

We had to try the martini as well, which was OK. Served with ice in the glass, but you take what you can get.

Dec 4, 2012

Chongqing: Cactus Tex-Mex

Running for a border

Tex-Mex-ish

Our quarry at the Hongya Dong Center? Tacos! The ninth-floor Cactus Tex-Mex Bar & Grill was touted (by some online randos) as the best Mexican food in Chongqing, and we just can’t turn down an opportunity for Mexican.

On the hunt for Mexican food in China

Stepping into Cactus felt just like walking into an American sports bar, down to NFL on FOX on all the big screen TVs. Their menu was a little all over the place (and somewhat pricey, but that’s just a fact of western food in China). It offered all your classic Tex-Mex faves, but also pizza, fried mozzarella, hamburgers, etc., and also French and German specialties. It was kind of like Chili’s married Applebee’s and they went on an around-the world-honeymoon.

The drink menu was equally hefty, but we had to go for your basic margaritas to compliment our basic tacos. It was nothing fancy, but they did their job. There was a sort of Old El Paso-canned taste to the meal, but what do you want? You’re in China.

I hate sports bars in America, and — surprise! — it turns out I don’t love them in China, either. But the bar wasn’t very crowded, which to me is appealing. The best tacos in China so far, they are not. (That honor is still held by the Pug in Chengdu.) But, if you find yourself needing Mexican food in Chongqing, as we did, Cactus will fit the bill.