Hello Uncle Foreigner


Sep 23, 2012

Summer vacation: Fatema Indian Restaurant

The best Indian meal in China so far!

Fatema Indian RestaurantOur mealOur meal

The exterior of Fatema Indian Restaurant was modest and unassuming. It was in the middle of a quiet block that we had written off as non-commercial on a previous jaunt through the Hong Kong Garden neighborhood that the restaurant called home. Inside, the setup was no more fancy — but the smell of spices wafting through the air was immediately inviting and set our taste buds to watering.

The owner and staff of the restaurant are all Indian residents of Qingdao, and we had heard that Fatema was the most authentic of the city’s (two) Indian places. With Bollywood videos blasting on the overhead TV, we looked over the menu. The hardest thing to do was to not blurt out, “One of everything, please!” We narrowed our choices down to an aloo chaat, a chicken curry dish, a cauliflower something or other (I’ve got to take better notes!), garlic naan, spring rolls and the most delicious spicy pickles. The cauliflower was kind of a dud compared to the rest of our dishes, which were absolutely glorious. The chicken was tender and well-seasoned, and the aloo chaat was savory and rich. The star of our meal, though, had to be those pickles, which were tangy and sweet with just the right amount of heat.

We only managed to eat about half of our meal, so we took the rest to go. Back in our hostel room, we didn’t have forks, but the leftovers still made a fantastic midnight snack.

Qingdao’s signature attraction is up next …

Sep 22, 2012

Summer vacation: Beer in a bag?

Yup. Beer in a bag!

Beer and BBQ
Beer in a bagThe corner bar is pretty much just stools and kegs outside The wonderful Beer MamaBeer Mama's future dinner
Beer Mama is a neighborhood fixture in the old town. You can even find word about her online, although I don’t think she is aware of her Internet presence.
This chicken was to be Beer Mama’s dinner later in the week. She was feeding it beer to make it extra tasty.

While they weren’t all as refined as the Ratskeller, the streets of Qingdao were filled with places where one could enjoy an outdoor beer. Scattered throughout the old town were tiny little establishments that basically consisted of a few kegs and some folding chairs. During the day, trucks from the brewery rumbled through the neighborhood dropping off fresh beer, and at night, locals and tourists alike crouched around the small tables for a refreshing drink. Some of these places also had a little grill, and you could order delicious skewers of meat.

Beer was sometimes drunk out of a mug, but often it was sipped straight out of a plastic bag with a straw. (This could get precarious.) Neighborhood denizens would even stop by to get a to-go bag for home consumption. Lighter to carry than a growler, I guess.

Our favorite of these sidewalk bars was run by a woman who called herself Beer Mama. Ask around in the neighborhood of the Kaiyue Youth Hostel and you’ll find her. She knows just enough English to entice western passers-by to come sit and drink her beer. And she gets a lot of takers. “Beer Mama’s beer is the best,” she said one night (thanks to the German guy at the table next to us for translating). “It’s good for the brain.” She also admitted to drinking a lot of her own wares herself.

The way to the bathroom
Peter, on his hunt for the bathroom: “It was like playing ‘Resident Evil,’ when your flashlight is dying, and you’re about to be killed.”

The only drawback was the bathroom situation. Even out of a bag, a liter of beer can fill you up. On our first night at Beer Mama’s, we saw other customers going in and out of the building that we were set up in front of. They handed off a flashlight to each other as they came and went. When we got to a point where it came to alleviate the problem or go back home, Peter stepped up to check it out. An Australian girl gave him the flashlight and directed him toward the building.

On his return, he reported the situation: “It’s terrifying in there.” Apparently, the “bathroom,” was a grate in an outdoor courtyard in an apartment building. But the whole area was pitch black, and there were mysterious noises coming from all directions. “I swear I heard a zombie sputtering from a room down one hallway,” Peter said. That’s when he turned around. We’ve acclimated to many things in China, but we both decided that this was a sign to call it a night.

But it definitely did not dampen our enthusiasm to return!

Coming up, it’s time to eat again!

Sep 21, 2012

Summer vacation: Zwei bier, bitte

Hoisting a stein in the Far East

We've got sauerkraut
The Ratskeller

With all that German-ness around, it made sense to check out some German cuisine. The Ratskeller is on the luscious grounds of the former German governor’s residence, and it has an absolutely beautiful outdoor patio. The night was pleasantly warm, and the cicadas droned their lovely bagpipe tune all through dinner.

As is our habit, we shared many dishes between us so as to taste the most of the menu. The food was slightly on the bland side, though there was a squash soup that was pretty good. But my schnitzel was flavorless and the sauerkraut lacked bite. It’s possible that the cooks didn’t really understand the flavors; Peter’s salad had both shaved Parmesan and nori. But it was nice to have something different, and now I’m further inspired to try to make my own sauerkraut at home. (So many projects!)

A gentleman of leisure
A gentleman of leisure enjoys his martini.

The martinis were also weak and bland. But the beer (Tsingdao, of course) was served in tall, frosty steins, and it was just delicious. The drinking culture in China is completely different from the United States (it’s basically: do shots until your wife has to carry you home), and all summer I was dying for a place to sit outside and just sip a good brew. So if nothing else, the Ratskeller did that well.

You may be asking, “Isn’t this a beach town?” Well, hold your horses, we’re getting there …

Sep 16, 2012

Summer vacation: A pizza hunt

Ending up in a familiar place

Dinner at Pizza Hut
Shapingba District is not the city center, but it is a city center — and much more convenient to our hostel.

We were too tired to get into the main city center for dinner, but there was another center, Shapingba, that was a short bus ride away. So we researched a pizza place on the internet (we’re always on the lookout for good pizza in China) and hopped on the bus.

After much searching and a very long walk, we never found the internet pizza place … but we did stumble upon a Pizza Hut!

And I can report that Pizza Hut pizza tastes exactly the same in China as it does in America. It really brought me back to those days of grabbing a Personal Pan at Penn Station on my way out to visit my parents on Long Island. But for Chinese people, Pizza Hut represents a really fancy night out. It’s expensive (relative to a normal Chinese dinner), for one thing. And we saw many dressed up couples out for a date.

The menu, much like many of the Western restaurants in Luzhou, is about 20 pages long. In addition to pizza, they offer salads, pasta, rice dishes, fried snacks … pretty much any kind of stereotypical western food. We tried a garden salad and onion rings. They weren’t very good. But the iced tea we got was pretty tasty.

Next stop, Qingdao …

Sep 2, 2012

Easy like Sunday morning

Your table is ready

Noodles for breakfast

This morning we woke up on the early side — early for us, anyway — and, after weeks of rain, the sun was shining. It was a morning that said: Go get brunch!

Of course, the nearest diner is thousands of miles away. But the noodle house is just down the block. And here in China, often breakfast is a spicy noodle soup. We got a prime table outside — there isn’t really an inside — and watched the Sunday strollers as the cook prepared my regular. (Peter had an apple.) The bodega next door to the noodle house has six coin-operated kiddie rides out front, and we watched the babies bounce up and down in their rocket ships and race cars. Returning students stopped to chat with us. And, the sun, oh, the sun!

The food may have been different, but it was exactly the meal we wanted.

Aug 18, 2012

Word of the day: 筷子

That’s chopsticks

Chuan Chuan Chengdu

Of all my Chinese language resources, this word came courtesy of a “learn Chinese!” section of a menu in a restaurant here that caters to ex-pats. 筷子 (pronounced “kuai zi”) is chopsticks! I had the opportunity to put it into practice this week at a restaurant, when they forgot to put chopsticks on our table. I was delighted to realize that I could use words to ask for them, instead of doing a silly little pantomime. And then we were struck by the fact that it took almost 11 months for the word “chopsticks” to come up.

Some things you know about China are true: Chopsticks are the default utensil. And at every meal I’ve been to with a Chinese person, they always compliment me on my ability to use them. “When did you learn to eat with chopsticks?” they’ll ask. And I say that I don’t really remember, and that Chinese food in America is served with chopsticks. “Americans eat Chinese food?!” They’re always impressed by this fact. “Yes,” I say, “though American Chinese food is pretty different from what you actually eat over here.”

One friend’s reply to this: That makes sense. That soup [I think she meant “Sweet and Sour soup”] that they always order on “Big Bang Theory” is not a real Chinese dish.

Jul 1, 2012

Replace your passport: Cocktail hour

Take a break with some bloody Marys on the patio

Drinks are on us

After dinner, we retired to the patio for a round of Bloody Marys.

Jun 30, 2012

Replace your passport: Eating freshly

It’s sandwich time

A real, live Subway sandwich

☆ Side Quest: Subway

Objective 1: Put it all together: This trip, occasioned by a visit to “American Soil,” has become a total western long weekend
Objective 2: Don’t feel guilty about it; You’ve given China its due, and you just miss some things from home. That’s OK!
Objective 3: Have a sandwich

It was a hot and humid afternoon, we were a little lost and a little hungry when Subway the Sandwich Chain hewed into view. We were curious (and, don’t forget, hungry), so we decided to take a break from being lost and try out a Chinese Subway sandwich.

Subway in China? Is exactly the same, down to the smell, as every other Subway in the world. They’re even on the lookout for good “Sandwich Artists” or potential franchisees. (We took a flyer, just in case we get bored of this teaching thing.)

It was totally surreal. Outside the window was China, but inside was always and only Subway. This is where we realized that the occasion of our “trip back to America, sort of” had unconsciously triggered a sort of west-stravaganza for us. All week, we’d been hunting down cheese, English-language TV, felafel, scotch, new books, olives

Part of the reason we moved to Luzhou, rather than a bigger city, was so that we could fully immerse ourselves in Chinese culture, without being tempted by the ease and comfort of, say, taco nights, or ex-pat Scrabble groups, or whatever. Not that these things are bad, and I’m sure that plenty of ex-pats live fulfilled Chinese lives with them, but for us, having access to them would mean that we’d still be saying to each other, “One of these days we’ll get to learning Chinese, making Chinese friends, venturing out from our comfortable English-language hidey-holes …”

But cutting ourselves off from our home culture completely and forever was never part of the plan. So when we’re on vacation, we have some cheese!

And, realizing what we were doing - indulging in western goodies - cast the crappy theft and replacement of my passport in a totally different light: That crook did us a favor!

And the sandwich was pretty good, too.

Jun 28, 2012

Replace your passport: Back to the Consulate

I can almost prove my identity in an international context

Should you try a hot dog?
No hot dogs for me

New to Passport Quest? Follow the adventure from the beginning here.

☆ Side Quest: 7-Eleven

Objective: Have a snack

We were about an hour from having the best tacos in China, so Peter talked me out of the 7-Eleven hot dog, though he did take a photo of it. That’s for you, dad! (Coincidentally, we later read a small write up of 7-Eleven in Chengdoo. About the hot dog, they said: “It’s depressing to look at. … All I taste is ketchup and soggy bread.”)

Instead we got some juice and a Snickers. We sat at the counter to eat our snack, because 7-Eleven has a dine-in option here. A nearby school let out while we were there, and the place flooded with junior students on break. You may already suspect this, but I can tell you for sure: being a 12-year-old boy involves a lot of punching and shouting, wherever you are.

☆ Side Quest: The Lazy Pug

Objective: Mexican food!

Part of the reason that we planned our return trip to Chengdu the way we did was so that we’d be able to hit up Taco Night at the Pug. We’ve been salivating for these tacos since the last time we were there in January.

And they did not disappoint. What’s more, our delirious memories of cheese and tortillas had overshadowed what was a superb drinks menu, so we were pleasantly surprised all over again. They had bitters! And ice cubes! And mint! And ginger ale! And … wait for it … GREEN OLIVES! They were big and meaty and stuffed with peppers.

Giddy with delight over the meal we had just had (OK, and the drinks may have played a role in this too), I went to pay the bill while Peter went to the washroom. I struck up a conversation with the bartender/half-owner:

Me: Where do you find olives here? Do you have to have them delivered?

Bartender: No. They’re just at the grocery store. At Carrefour. [He seemed a little surprised that I wouldn’t know this, I think.] Though they can be hit-and-miss.

Me: Really! I’m living in Luzhou. We don’t have olives there.

Olivetender: Oh! Where is Luzhou?

Me: Four hours south of here. We don’t get a lot of western things there - like olives, and olives - so we’re excited to be here for a short trip. So we can have olives.

Oliver: What do you do in Luzhou?

Me: We’re ESL teachers. We never get olives! OLIVES!!!

Here's where the tacos happen
Tacos and martinis make me awkward with strangers.

There’s no official transcript of our conversation, but I’m pretty sure that’s how it went. On first analysis, I thought the awkwardness came from the fact that I hadn’t small-talked anyone in English in ten months, but now I think that each of us just thought the conversation was about something different; he was having a nice back-and-forth about a Chinese city near to his own, and I could not be swayed from my single-minded pursuit of olives.

Regardless of the awkwardness, the takeaway was that the Case of the Olives in China was back open!

(Actually, the literal takeaway was a couple of extra tacos that we enjoyed back in the hotel room later that night.)

Chapter 5: The Consulate

Objective: Pick up your new passport

When we got to the consulate on Friday afternoon, the line for Chinese nationals wrapped around the block. And there were a ton of school groups (we could tell by the uniforms) on line; our guess was that summer study abroad programs were starting soon. Being American, I got to jump to the front of the line - which felt like fair play; at the Chinese Consulate in New York last August, we waited forever while Chinese nationals just cruised right upstairs.

I presented my receipt and paperwork, and received my shiny, new, visa-less passport.

The main quest beckons us back to Luzhou, but there’s still plenty to do in Chengdu before departing …

Jun 27, 2012

Replace your passport: Return to Chengdu

More eating

☆ Side Quest: The Sultan and The Shamrock

Objective: Eat something delicious

The Sultan front doorA delicious Middle Eastern meal

Back at Bookworm, we had picked up a flier for a Middle Eastern restaurant called The Sultan. They prominently touted their vegetarian options, and the word online was good, so we figured it was worth a try.

And it was delicious. In an attempt to try everything on the menu, we ordered way too much food. Beautiful hummus, felafel, shawarma (for the meat eater), peppers stuffed with homemade cottage cheese, Turkish naan (made with real butter!) … It was too good to leave anything behind, so we ate it all with the intention of walking it off.

Rolling up on the ShamrockDrinks

Along our walk, we passed by The Shamrock, an Irish bar that we had checked out in the winter. We actually didn’t really like it in the wintertime - it was smokey and they played horrible music really loudly - but they had an outdoor area that looked palatable, for one drink, at least.

And it was pleasant. Some European soccer tournament was on, so all the seats facing the TVs were taken. But as non-sports fans we were happy to sit at an obstructed-view table. The place still had kind of an impersonal super-pub vibe, but a martini under the stars provides its own atmosphere.

And, green olives! Back in the fall, when there was no sign of them in the grocery stores in Luzhou, I tried to order some from an ex-pat grocery delivery service. They told me that to deliver to our small city would cost around $200, so, dead end. Occasionally we see “martinis” on a bar menu, but they’re usually served with black olives, which isn’t quite the same. We’d came to accept that living in southern Sichuan meant no green olives. Which is really not a bad trade-off for everything wonderful that we’ve experienced.

But, at Shamrock, these magnificent libations had our precious green olives. We were so psyched we even briefly considered buying a jar or two from the bar. (Though we both realized that that was the gin talking.)

The world tour continues …