Hello Uncle Foreigner

Sichuan cuisine

Jul 4, 2018

In search of lost noodles ...

Three pillars of 面 to you

Noodles are for-real-deal one of my favorite lunches here in China, and as a genre, it is deep and wide. Here I talk about three of my favorite different kinds of dishes … which madeleine-like, transport me to a different time and place.

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.

Apr 30, 2018

Eating around the world

Drink Up Luzhou: Pilot episode

We first had the idea for “Drink Up Luzhou” almost two years ago. We had just moved back to Luzhou, and decided that our Chinese hometown was something worth doing a project on. The kind of podcast-y/talk show format of getting a bunch of friends together over a meal to discuss a topic seemed doable enough, with just enough action that there would be reason enough to film it. We had our camera, an iPad and a field recorder, and we were sure that we could make something great.

Well, actually executing the pilot … this was a much bigger job than we anticipated. For one thing, filming on location at a restaurant is as tricky as they say. Peter had to edit around a lot of interruptions, and the sound quality — even with our Zoom H4n! — was spotty at best. There’s a reason they filmed in an empty restaurant on “Dinner for Five.” The other big lesson we learned was that we can do it just the two of us, but an extra crew member, or five, would really help. It was hard for me to run camera-two and host the discussion at the same time, and a lighting and a sound tech would boost our quality a lot. Additionally, a script supervisor would have been invaluable to the transition between production and post.

But, I’m pretty proud of the job we did without those things. For the time being, we’re going to have to keep on doing it without those things. It’s an exciting challenge, and Peter and I are really looking forward to season one. I hope that you are, too.

Apr 21, 2018

What it’s like to live in China as an American expat

The same, but different, as living in America

Living abroad long term can start to make the abroad part fade away a little bit — turns out, you’re just living. There are some parts of the expat lifestyle in China that remain distinct from our lives back in America. Everyone wants to take you to karaoke, for one thing. And the food? It’s all Chinese food! But we’re not so different, you and I; we all agree that Chinese TV is terrible.

In this video, we highlight some of the major aspects to life in China that stick out to us, some that are quite different from an American lifestyle, and some that are surprisingly similar. You may not have WeChat (yet), but did you know that we have Uber? And Tinder?

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.

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.

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!

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.

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!