hot pot

Nov 25, 2018

You’re eating fat birds

Thanksgiving in China, behind-the-scenes

Presenting our very special Thanksgiving episode! Which features very little of the real, traditional American Thanksgiving!

Our friends were so great to help us out filming this. You may not be able to tell from the video, but none of them are professional actors. They’re just our friends ;)

Also, I am notorious for overestimating people’s level of English reading. Back when I was writing lessons for middle schoolers, I’d have to revise them at least three times to make them simpler. The same happened here, but I was able to do some quick rewrites on the fly to find everyone’s level. And, as you can see in “Behind the ‘Facts,’” they practiced like mad to get it perfect!

When working with friends and amateurs, Peter and I try to be as organized as possible, so we’re not wasting anyone’s donated time. We also try to keep an eye on the fun level in the room. Originally in our script, we had a few more sequences to film, but by the time we go all the individual lines filmed, we decided to call it a wrap. Everyone had worked really hard, but they were still enjoying the evening. I felt like we could have pushed it and gotten the extra jokes, but the mood would have turned from “friendship through a difficult challenge!” to “this slog is never-ending and we’re not friends after tonight.”

Something that always impresses our non-filmmaking friends is our slate. It’s such an iconic signifier of the movie business, that people are really impressed to see one in action. The real reasons we use one are two-fold. Firstly, when you’ve got a lot of video files to sort through and upload, it’s helpful to have a literal signpost stating “Scene 1, shot C, take 3.” This way, you don’t have to scrub through the entire file to figure out what’s going on in a given shot. Secondly, the clap gives you a spike in the sound that is incredibly helpful in matching video with the recorded audio. Our software is OK at doing that automatically, but I have had to do it by hand more than a few times.

So another Thanksgiving has come and gone. For the past few years, our actual Thanksgiving celebration has been going to Peter’s Tex Mex for the expat turkey extravaganza, and this year was no different. Except, this year they comped us our meal! Thanks, Peter’s! Luzhou is always welcoming us, all over town.

Jun 16, 2018

Hot bowl challenge

Foreigner vs. Hot Pot

Hot pot is the real sport of kings. Watch me eat soup. Marvel at the spice.

Jan 10, 2015

Huun-Huur-Tu comes to Chongqing

And we do, too

Huun-Huur-Tu on stage at NUTS Club in Chongqing, December 2015
Peter filming 小舟 at 16th Bystreet Music Bar in Chongqing
Peter, in action, at 16th Bystreet Music Bar
A mixologist at NUTS Club
The bartender pours some kind of ’tini at Nuts Club.

I’m not going to lie, this weekend away was a little difficult. We only had a few days free, Peter had a cold, and the trouble I was having purchasing concert tickets at one point had me in tears. (A Chinese-language website, international banking and computer-related issues all conspired to let me know that I was a failure as an adult.) The dark, cold winter days only amplified our discomfort.

But we weren’t in Chongqing to be comfortable, we were there for the music. And the hot pot. But, mostly the music.

First up, 小舟. We dropped in on our favorite hole-in-the-wall venue — the 16th Bystreet Music Bar — to find him and his friends doing a loosey-goosey jam. 小舟, unbeknownst to us at the time, is actually a Beijing folk-rock artist of some renown. Sound at the Music Bar is kind of crap — the house drum kit has the timbre of a bucket of nails — but these guys were really great. With each new player to take the stage, the style meandered from traditional to funky, or sometimes both at once. The audience was small but into it, and the staff particularly was having a good time. You could tell that they love working at a live music venue.

Huun Huur Tu from Uncle Foreigner on Vimeo.

The whole reason for our trek, however, was the legendary Tuvan throat singers of Huun-Huur-Tu. Peter has loved these guys since the early ’90s and the second he saw that they’d be at Nuts Club, he said we had to be there.

Nuts is now in the basement of a downtown shopping mall. (Lots of stuff is in malls in China.) Jogging through the empty corridors, past closed-down shops — we were late, because getting anywhere from anywhere in Chongqing takes FOREVER — we followed the sound of music to find our destination. New Nuts is slightly bigger than the old club, and they now have one of the best bars in China with a meticulous staff.

When we arrived, the four men of Huun-Huur-Tu were already on stage, wearing their traditional Tuvan costumes. Between songs, Sayan Bapa — one of the group’s original members — addressed the crowd in English, explaining the meaning of each piece. “Each of our songs is a short story,” he said. About friendship, love, loss, homesickness and, of course, horses. All very human things, but some more specific to the nomadic Tuvan culture than others. Before a song about caravan migration, Bapa joked, “[it] usually takes three months, but we’ll play a shorter version.”

Some of their songs are as old as the 12th century, he told us. And the group plays mostly traditional instruments — including one wooden clopper that mimics the sound of horse hooves perfectly. But their vital spirit and the plain emotion that comes through the music keeps the experience from feeling musty. Live, the overtone singing becomes something you feel as well as hear, and it was almost as if you, too, were there on the central Asian grasslands, with the nomads. And the horses. It was a truly fantastic performance.

After the show, the guys changed into street clothes, and sat around the merch table eating takeaway noodles. We shook their hands on our way out, but being shy (and unsure of which language to address them in) we didn’t say much beyond “thank you” (and 谢谢).

Dec 22, 2014

Snaps: Should your potatoes taste like bacon?

Yes. Yes they should taste like bacon.

Potatoes and bacon

We’re particular eaters with limited vocabulary, so we’ve established a fairly consistent routine for dinner. At Riverside Hot Pot we get the pork meatballs, at Pork Rib we get the pork rib, and at Beef Hot Pot we get the Dragon Boat. We add to this from time to time, when we’re feeling adventurous or when I get some new vocabulary. And occasionally, our restaurant owner buddies make some suggestions.

The woman who runs Around the Corner restaurant in Tai’an knows us pretty well, and the other night she gestured toward another table and said something about potatoes. We went for it, and the result? Homemade potato chips fried with cured pork. We have a new winner!

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.)

Jun 14, 2014

The victory lap

Leveling up in Luzhou

The kids and us at Egg Bar, with the boss
Our buddies at Egg Bar, in Tai’an
Briefly, there were hot dogs
Sadly, after a strong opening, the hot dog guys fell prey to a decline in quality and we haven’t actually seen them in a few weeks.
The Luzhou pig cakeTaste that savory meat
猪儿粑, or Pig Cake, is a delicious Luzhou specialty that our friend Listening introduced us to earlier this year.
Post-flood Yangtze RiverThe river walk today
Left: One month after the 2012 flood, makeshift tea houses reclaimed the crumbled banks of Yangtze Riverfront. Right: These days, the walk along the river has been greatly spiffed up.
Far-away-hot-potThe crew of far-away-hot-pot
Far-away-hot-pot has some truly delicious meatballs.
At Chinese Bar with Claude and MaybellDownstairs Chinese Bar
After a spicy meal at far-away-hot-pot, we love to stop at Chinese Bar for an old-fashiony night cap.
The kids at Around the Corner restaurantSome buddies at Snaggles'More young friendsA friend on the road
We’ve made all kinds of friends out in the village of Tai’an.
The old, rickety carnival by the riverShiny, new Spirits Land
Left: The old carnival by the river; right: The rollercoaster at Spirits Land
Is it a Transformer?The X-Men branded swings at Spirits Land
At Spirits Land, everything looks a little familiar.

A new vendor appeared at the bottom of the hill behind the Old School in early April. Next to the ladies selling dumplings, cold noodles, and fried 串串 snacks, two young guys set up the Little Bear Hot Dog stand. And their efforts were delicious: Perfectly savory dogs — the Chinese tube meats we’d come across before tend towards the sweet — on homemade buns served with pickles and real French’s mustard (“It’s American, just like you!” said the guy in the mask, in Chinese). We quickly made Little Bear part of our Old Campus routine. And joked to each other that this represented a huge level up in our ongoing RPG of a life. “Achievement unlocked: American-style hot dog.”

As spring progressed, it felt like less of a joke. Luzhou is changing and we are changing, and everything feels a bit more comfortable. For maybe the first two years, I’d look back every few months and think, “I have no idea how we even survived without the knowledge and experience that I’ve just gained. We were such ignorant fools until now!” But recently, so slowly that I’ve barely noticed, my mindset has become, “Hey, we’re doing pretty well these days. China’s awesome and we’re awesome!” Some of that’s due to small things, that are really more Luzhou’s doings than our own, mostly having to do with what gets stocked in the imports section at at the supermarket. There was even butter, for a short while.

But, we’re the ones who’ve found the fun at far-away-hot-pot and Chinese Bar. Far-away-hot-pot is our latest hot pot find: A place that does it up Chongqing-style, located 15-minutes in the direction away from the city center from our Old Campus apartment (hence our name for it), right on the Yangtze River. It has a beautiful view, a friendly staff and fantastic meatballs. We introduced it to our friends Maybell and Claude, and they too really liked it. Chinese Bar is the actual name of an historically themed Chinese restaurant, where the waiters dress in old fashioned river worker costumes and we drink rice wine out of ceramic bowls. Both establishments seem to be where the young and cool of Luzhou hang out. And now, it’s where we hang out, too.

We’ve also established ourselves out in Tai’an, chatting often with both the locals and the many construction workers who are in town to make this little hamlet into a city. I’m working pretty hard on my Mandarin, and these conversations are more in depth than ever before. People are starting to accuse me of speaking the local dialect, even.

The lovely spring weather has seen us get out and about nearly every weekend — whether to destinations remote and spectacular, like the Bamboo Sea, or far flung corners of Luzhou city, like Spirits Land. Spirits Land is the English translation of Luzhou’s new amusement park. According to Listening, Crela and Echo, after the flood of 2012 wiped out the scrappy old rides by the river, the city carved out a space to rebuild all that kind of thing on the outskirts of town. When we visited, mid-May, the park was only half complete, but 100% safer looking than the river carnival had been. The new park had multilingual signage in Chinese, Japanese, Korean, French and English; and willy-nilly copyright infringement: The Krusty Krab and the Chum Bucket were places to buy snacks, X-Men characters festooned the “Hurricane Fly Chairs”; and good-old Mickey ears sat atop the entry ticket booth.

During all this travel and fun, Peter and I talked constantly about our upcoming move, and how much we were going to miss Luzhou. The more we reveled in our first Chinese hometown, the more fiercely attached we felt to it. One afternoon, in conversation with our boss, we successfully floated the theoretical idea of a raise. “What if we stayed?” we started wondering.

After the first time that was voiced, it didn’t take too long for our “Say Goodbye to Sichuan Province” tour to turn into a campaign advocating for “Bonus Year in Luzhou.” Over lunch at corner restaurant (we call it that, because it’s on a corner) we called our boss Linda to sign on for another year. “God bless you,” she said.

Kunming will still be there in 2015, and we’ve finally found our footing here. So we’re staying, to revel in our achievements and to enjoy the comforts we’ve worked so hard for. Bonus round: GO!

An afternoon at Baizitu

Mar 2, 2014

The Chongqing stopover

Oh, let’s just stay

Ciqikou, teeming with tourists
An acoustic performer at 16th Bystreet Music BarHere's Sheldon!
Need some “Big Bang Theory”-inspired art? You can find it in Ciqikou.
We eat hot pot in Ciqikou.
The return to Sichuan spice at our favorite Chongqing hot pot.

Chongqing has been our transfer point often enough that we’ve developed a cozy routine: Check in at the Perfect Time Hostel, snack and mingle with the tourists in Ciqikou Ancient Town, eat hot pot at the place, and take in a drink at the 16th Bystreet Music Bar. Maybe hit up Carrefour for some imported goodies. Then, catch the bus home to Luzhou.

Once we settled in this time, however, we just wanted to stay. The weather was nice, Ciqikou was humming with activity — we saw some shops go up literally overnight. And we didn’t have anywhere to be for at least a month.

Adding on some extra days meant we had some time to go exploring around the city; we went book shopping, Sichuan-food eating, and neighborhood wandering. “It feels like we’re back in China,” we said to each other as we meandered down a small alleyway filled with hair salons, mahjong parlors and kids playing outside. Sanya is on the mainland, too, but it felt like another world.

The main event was a Saturday night surprise, to us, concert at the Music Bar. The band drew a small crowd, made up of a small group of their friends, us and some other extras, but they were amazing! Their music mixed Chinese traditions and western rock influences — Dylan, Hendrix, Costello — in the best way. It had a dark and moody vibe that held together through it all, and the frontman had a simmering intensity that captivated the small audience. It may have been a mostly friends event, but they performed like they wanted to rock the world. I just wish I remembered their name.

May 24, 2013

Chongqing Punk Fest: Back to Ciqikou

The rat-free Perfect Time is the perfect place

We found a great hot pot place by Ciqikou

We probably never would have gone back to Ciqikou were it not for punk rock. The Chongqing version of the ubiquitous replica “ancient” town doesn’t really invite repeat viewing, and the hostel there is too far from the city’s central peninsula to be convenient. But, it’s not far from Chongqing’s Shapingba district, home of the Nuts Club, host of this April’s Chongqing Punk Festival. When we heard about the concert, we had a reason to return. And this time around, we were quite charmed by the neighborhood.

It started when staying in such a touristy area meant that I could actually tell cab drivers where to go, instead of thrusting a page of scrawled out characters in their faces, which is my usual move. I feel so cool when I can talk to people!

After we settled in at the hostel, we ventured back out into Ciqikou for some Chongqing hot pot. There’s something of a rivalry between Sichuan and Chongqing (which used to be part of Sichuan but is now its own municipality) as to whose hot pot is the hottest, and there’s a hot pot restaurant pretty much every few feet in Ciqikou. We chose one that was just outside the neighborhood’s entrance gate, because it was the most crowded with people looking like they were having the most fun.

Look at this spice
This here, that’s only Meiguo spicy.

So, I’ll put it up front, Chongqing hot pot is SPICY! Spicier than we’ve had in Sichuan Province. They really aren’t messing around. They even held back on us, I think, seeing our non-Chinese faces. (Which, honestly, was a good call on their part.) We saw other tables’ pots packed with chili peppers — also a healthy scoop of lard, which initially surprised me, but accounts for the richness of the broth.

We got our usual array of vegetables, plus a few wild cards: rolled-up tofu skins — which weren’t a hit — and something that turned out to be the Mexican fruit! When that was delivered to our table, I pulled out my translation sheet and copied down the relevant menu item. Our waitress watched over my shoulder, cheering me on. Generally, I get a lot of smiles when I pull out this sheet — mostly copied from the menu at Tofu Hot Pot.

On our way home, walking through the closed down and mostly empty Ciqikou streets, we heard the sounds of Radiohead wafting on the breeze. This was a surprise, because most of the music we hear while out and about in China is of the terrible pop variety. It was even more surprising when we realized that it was live.

Without really even discussing it, Peter and I both turned down the small alley from where the music was coming. The alley ended in a series of stairs leading to a giant temple, but just before the temple entrance was a small bar. Led inside by our ears, we found a Chinese band playing American rock hits. It was magical.

Unfortunately, it was also quite short. We arrived almost at the end of their set. “I’m sorry, it’s over,” they said to us in English after they finished their last song. We were the only people besides the employees in the bar, so I’m not sure who was more disappointed in our timing. But we had a drink and a good time anyway.

Hey, there's a wedding
Hey! There’s a wedding outside our window!

Saturday we took it easy, resting up for the night’s concert. We breakfasted on roti pancakes, and coffee from a cute little coffee shop near the front gate of Ciqikou. After a quick Carrefour run to replenish our stocks of foreign herbs, spices, and olives, we mostly lazed about in the hostel, enjoying both the English-language channel on the TV, and the view of the river from our window. There was a giant inflatable slide set up outside, and we watched babies and their mother teeter up to the terrifying top and then make their dizzying descent. It was more exciting that it had any right to be. We also watched a wedding take place on the top floor of one of the floating seafood restaurants in the river. It was a big day for someone!

And then, before we knew it, it was time to rock.

May 18, 2013

Friday in China

May 10, 2013 • 2013年 05月 10日

Can you spot Uncle Foreigner?

Fridays, we teach Juniors, and it’s Peter’s earliest day. His first class is second period, 8:40am. For me, it’s my sleep-in day; my first class isn’t until third period, 9:30am.

The kids today are more rambunctious than usual. Opening class with “How are you?” gets me answers of “Unhappy!” and “Terrible!” Their parents are coming in for school conferences.

I hear more about it at lunchtime. Peter is taking a nap and I am done for the day, so I walk down the hill with my student, Amy. She is wearing a shirt that says, “We are all greedy bitches.” I know that she knows what the word “bitch” means, because she keeps calling her history teacher one. “I know what the rules are! I never break them,” she complains to me, her voice quivering with the rage of the unjustly wronged. And yet, her history teacher yells at her a lot, and will presumably give a bad report to Amy’s mother and father. Amy is also worried what her parents will think about the 0 she got on her math exam. “I don’t like math,” she says in defence. She did, however, get a 95 in English.

After we say goodbye, I go up to the track. On my second lap, a Senior 3 student, Zhang Rae, joins me. We try to run together every week, and he’ll practice his English on me. He tells me he really liked the movie “Silence of the Lambs.”

We discuss films, future plans, Chinese history … everything. “Many young people think Deng Xiaoping was a great man,” Zhang Rae says. They don’t like Mao. But, he adds, Mao was a great man.

On my way back to my apartment, I’m met by one of my neighbors, an older man in his 70s. With Zhang Rae’s translation help, we have our first conversation: He sees me running all of the time! Would I like a plant that will cure my freckles? Chinese people really don’t like freckles.

Curious, I take him up on his offer. The plant turns out to be aloe — my neighbor is cultivating, like, hundreds of aloe vera plants. He chops me a few stalks and mimes rubbing them all over my face. When I run out, I am free to pick some more, he tells me.

After the lunch break, Peter goes to his final class. Ten minutes later, he returns. It turns out parent-teacher conferences are happening during afternoon classes. Not for the first time, our classes are cancelled without anyone telling us. But it’s a hardship we’ll bear. The internet is out, so we spend all afternoon reading comic books and playing cards.

For dinner, we are meeting a new friend, Melody. She spotted us at chuan chuan a few weeks ago and introduced herself. Her English is really good. She’s actually a former English teacher from our school, and these days she does private tutoring while she stays home with her baby. She keeps current on her English by watching and reading American TV and books.

While we wait for Melody, at the corner near chuan chuan, one of Peter’s students spots us. Walking with her father, she proudly says hello. They disappear around the corner … and then she comes running back. She offers us a bag of delicious flaky pastries filled with red bean paste. We eat two on the spot and have the rest for days.

Before dinner, Melody takes us to get Chinese massages. These are the best massages either of us have ever had. More theraputic than, like, a pamper-yourself spa package, they treat all of our aches and pains. As we’re finishing up, Melody asks if we’d like to try cupping. “Does it hurt?” I ask. Not really, she said.

Peter got cuppedMelody brought us to a new restaurant
Left: Peter’s post-cupping back. Despite the welty look, it doesn’t hurt. I promise. Right: Melody and me, and the many fine cuts of beef we ate.

Cupping is one of those things that the hosts of Chinese travel documentaries have to try out, always with an air of, “Isn’t Chinese medicine wacky?!” But it didn’t really feel any stranger than other poking and prodding I’d been through in the name of beauty and comfort. I was thinking of Gwyneth Paltrow, though, the whole time the cups were suctioned on my back. In the end, I felt great and Peter said that his 22-year-old back injury felt better than it ever had.

In this state of bliss, we go on to dinner. Melody takes us to a new hot pot restaurant that specializes in beef. We get individual pots, and a large spread of delicious food. They also have a spice bar there, and Peter and I go a little nuts. Looking at our bowls, Melody says she can tell we are newbies because we took so many different things. But I need garlic, peanuts, oil, 2 kinds of peppers, tahini AND sesame seeds!

The conversation is equally as delicious. We talk about what it means to live a good life and how to follow your heart, both philosophically and pragmatically. We also talk English; Melody asks us what a trust fund is — something she’d come across in her reading. “The characters are always saying, ‘Don’t touch my trust fund!’” she says. She’s surprised when we tell her that not all Americans have trust funds.

After dinner, we say goodbye to Melody and cap off the night at Manchester United. They always have interesting music there. Tonight on rotation: “Rock and Roll All Nite,” KISS; “Personal Jesus,” Depeche Mode; “Get it On (Bang a Gong),” T.Rex. Why? Who can say. That’s just China.

We ate BEEF

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.