spice bar

Jun 7, 2013

What’s that you’re eating?

Or, why we keep showing you photos of boiling pots

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 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