BBQ

May 1, 2018

Labor Day is a perfect time for a picnic in the park

Outdoor meat is universally a celebration

In China, watch on YouKu.

I met Jessy on a bus, who introduced me to Michael, who invited me to Xi Jiang’s BBQ this Sunday! It was a lovely afternoon of grilled meats and outdoor karaoke. The sun chased us around the lawn a little, but we found refreshing shade in a small grove of trees.

This particular spot of green is right next to the “new bridge”. It’s a piece of land that Peter and I are very familiar with … from the window of the bus that took us in and out of the city when we worked at the countryside campus of Tianfu Middle School. As we drove by, we’d spy people out cavorting there, and wonder about the attraction of hanging out next to a major road. You can see the approach in this video that we took of that bus ride in 2015.

Having now spent an afternoon there, I can say it’s actually quite peaceful. The bridge is far enough away that it just makes for a nice view, and the landscaping is arranged so that when you’re on the lawn, you’re hardly aware of the traffic at all.

Of course, that area across the “new” bridge is hardly countryside at all any more. In the past few years, there’s been SO MUCH construction: apartment complexes, shopping malls, more schools. The People’s Hospital of Luzhou — where Peter and I get our health checks to renew our visas each year — is moving to a new facility out there, Jessy told me. I’m not loving this urban sprawl; the charm of Luzhou is that it was a little more contained (and downright walkable!) than China’s bigger cities. But, as long as the city keeps planning parkland alongside its concrete monstrosities, at least it will still be pretty. And we’ve got friends with cars.

Mar 31, 2018

An adventure into the Stone Sea, Yibin, Sichuan

I finally make good on a student home visit

In China, watch us on YouKu.

The visit to a student’s home, we assumed, was an English-teaching standard. After all, Peter Hessler was close to all of his students. The offers must come flying, one after another. But after a solitary invite my first year teaching, that we were unable to take advantage of, I had to wait four years for my next one.

Lydia had been my student at Tianfu Middle School in my first year teaching and then again in my last year. From the very first, she was a hard-working young woman. The junior class she was in was somewhat rowdy, but I could usually count on her to answer my questions. Except for one day, when she wanted to do her homework in class. “We’re in the middle of my class,” I told her. “You can’t!” What I didn’t add, but was desperately thinking was, “I need someone to be paying attention.”

In our last year at Tianfu, Lydia and her friend Serena — who was Peter’s student — would spend their afternoon break at our office hours, asking us about our lives and practicing their English. When they found out I was studying Chinese, they’d bring me lists and lists of idioms and contemporary slang so that I’d sound cool. And that Labor Day, they planned a full-day event for us — an adventure out into the nearby Stone Sea geopark. It’s one of the lesser-known places to visit in China, but in our neck of the woods, it’s a big deal.

I had set Lydia up as a pen pal with my cousin in Minnesota, and the day of our outing, she was texting with him during our morning drive. “Have fun on the family field trip,” he wished us. It was great to have this time with the girls. I sat in the back between Lydia and Serena so that they could each have a side. It was reminiscent of family trips with my own sisters, when they would make me sit in the middle because I was the shortest. This time, I was not the shortest, so I could eventually request a window seat.

We got to talk about everything through the course of our day: boys, future plans, even specialized English vocabulary — Karst, limestone, sinkhole, cave. It was a long day, but the girls were so proud to have arranged it. They thought of everything, from car snacks for the early morning drive to a visit to a flower show while dinner was being prepared. After dinner, when the men started smoking, we took a walk down Jiangmen’s main street. Lydia’s younger cousin joined us as a tag-along. She hadn’t been interested in English before, but now that we were all speaking it, she was dying to know what we were talking about.

To cap the night off, all of us went out for post-meal BBQ with more friends and family, including Lydia’s former English teacher. It was funny to have a snack after such a nice meal, but it was a holiday! BBQ was much more relaxed than the formal dinner. Lydia and Serena relaxed, too, and the focus was finally off entertaining The English Teacher. Everyone asked me about the girls, for a change. How they were doing out in the world, in the big city high school. They were genuinely proud to see their girl speaking English so fluently, and I was proud too.

Jun 14, 2015

Goodbye to Vietnam, back in China in time for the New Year

After all this time, finally leaving Baiyun International Airport

Some delicious noodle soup in a Guangzhou alleyway was just what my cold wanted.
The view from the Lazy Gaga hostel in the center of Guangzhou city
Check out the view from our hostel window. We stayed at the Lazy Gaga, mostly because it was called Lazy Gaga. But it turned out to be a great place to stay, right in the city center. The staff, in particular, was super friendly and helpful.
Canton TowerThere are crazy rides at the top of the Canton Tower.
The Canton Tower — at 600 meters tall, the fifth tallest freestanding structure in the world — was one of the few local attractions that was open during the holiday. Also, we had seen it on a recent season of “The Amazing Race,” so we had to check it out. At the top, there are some crazy rides.
Our international New Year's Eve dinner
Our brand new Chinese friends, from far-flung corners of the country, treated us to a New Year’s Eve BBQ feast.

Guangzhou, in southeast China, was the last stop on our trip, between Vietnam and home. It’s the vibrant capital city of Guangdong (formerly romanized as Canton) Province, world famous for it’s cuisine. For us, this was an exciting chance to leave the somewhat terrible Baiyun International Airport — a place we’ve layed-over about half a dozen times in the past few years. Though, after 16 days on the road and a contracting mild colds, we were determined to take it easy.

Guangzhou was happy to cooperate. We landed a few days before Chinese New Year, and the city had that the-extended-family’s-home-and-a-lot-of-stuff-is-closed feeling that you find in America in the run up to Thanksgiving. A kind of relaxed frenzy; the streets were busy with happy relatives trying to find something to do. We took in the sights and snacked our way through the city center.

New Year’s Eve was a beautiful, clear night, and Guangzhou is far enough south that the weather was quite warm in February. Walking by the Pearl River, we fell in with a group of young Chinese travelers who invited us to dinner. Traditionally in China, Spring Festival is a time for family, but in recent years, more and more young people are using the time off to explore their country, and abroad.

Over BBQ, we shared our stories, making quick friends of strangers in the manner of the Canterbury Tales. We had all been brought together that day by Luo Ao from Xi’an, who had left his phone number at reception, looking for someone to have tea with. Our ringleader was a soft-spoken young man, pale with boyishly chubby cheeks. He told us that he was studying technology at university in Chengdu, but that his dream was to transfer to school in Leicester, England. It was a dream deferred, however, as he recently failed the IELTS. But he is determined to try again.

Sheng Gaole — “Call me Lawrence,” he said — from the eastern city of Hefei in Anhui province, had been the first to answer Luo Ao’s invitation. He was a tall and angular fellow whose whose calm demeanor belied a rebellious streak; traveling alone in Guangzhou against strict orders from his father, he was making plans to go and visit a friend in Ohio. His father was ready for Lawrence to settle down and get married, but Lawrence wasn’t having it. “You are so free,” he told us wistfully, as we shared our own stories.

By coincidence, Kevin Lee and Quan Hui were originally from the same small city in inner Mongolia, though they had only just met tonight. Quan Hui, by far, was the quietest of the bunch. She said that she had studied English in university, but after a few years, it was starting to fade. She was happy just to soak up the conversation, I think. Kevin, on the other hand, was quite confident in his speaking ability. Another recent graduate, he works as an engineer at a firm in Shenzhen with many international connections. He may even get sent abroad, a possibility that really seemed to excite him.

The night was festive but not too wild. We toasted the holiday and each other, and ordered more and more food until everyone was very full. We talked about our jobs, our lives, and our dreams. “When do you stop getting the hong bao?” I asked, referring to the traditional red envelope full of cash given to children at this time of year. “When you get married,” said Quan Hui. “When you get a job,” said Lawrence.

When the meal was over, our four companions consulted over the check with our waitress. At the conclusion, they informed us that it was their treat, and that they got a bargain, too! It was a Happy New Year all around. They bundled us into a cab, and we were home in time for midnight. A group of travelers crowded the couch in our hostel lobby, watching the annual CCTV New Year spectacular. We, however, headed up to bed and listened for the illegal fireworks that never came; because Guangzhou is far enough east that rules are followed.

Feb 2, 2015

Video: Eating Barbecue with Dave in Naxi

You’ve got to try the pig intestine

Dave lives in Naxi, a suburb about 20 minutes south of Luzhou. He works construction for money, but he is a dance teacher for fulfillment. When we first met him — he approached us at a restaurant to practice his English — we discovered that he had known and befriended the Double Alex! Their school is close to where Dave lives. Sadly, they themselves are no longer around. (Their school, as it turned out, was not licensed to have foreign teachers.)

But life must go on. Now Dave is our friend, and he recently took us to a Naxi barbecue place that he and the Alexs enjoyed. It was delicious. And I had my first taste of Sichuan specialty, pig intestine!

Nov 1, 2014

Video: A Good Night in Tai’an

Dinner in our favorite countryside neighborhood

A good night in Tai’an from Uncle Foreigner on Vimeo.

For dinner most nights, rather than go into Luzhou city, we hang out in nearby Tai’an. And it’s always a good night.

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.)

Mar 29, 2014

The girl gang

Pinkay and friends down Qian Dian Alley

I run wild with the girl gang by Changjiang River

Down Noodle Street — aka Qian Dian Jie — by the old school, there runs a pack of girls, daughters of the business owners there. Pinkay, 9, as the oldest and boldest, is the undisputed leader. Her parents run a restaurant; as do the parents of Shuper and Little Sister; and those of the Not-Twins, who are styled the same but are different ages. Lovely Rita, who probably doesn’t remember this is her English name, belongs to the shoe repair shop. And Ling Ling, the youngest, comes from a small hotel down the way. Sometimes she bounces around on all fours like a puppy, and it’s the cutest thing you’ve ever seen.

We know them because we eat down that street at least twice a week. They’ll hover over our table as we dine, peppering us with questions, and then walk with us as we pick up some nighttime shopping and head home. Pinkay is the best conversation partner I’ve ever had, chiefly because she doesn’t believe that I can’t speak Chinese. She’s willing to repeat herself endlessly, and accepts all kinds of faces as legitimate responses. Our chats, naturally, hew closely to my recent language lessons. (Thanks, Hello Mylo!) Can you swim? Aren’t these flowers pretty? I can’t play badminton. Can you dance?

At a recent dinner, we had an especially sensical convo. We talked about families and our animal signs. I’m a goat. This is when I asked if they could dance. They said yes so I asked them to do it, and THEY DID! From now on, I’m asking everyone to dance.

They pop up now and again, in different configurations, and basically have an unsupervised run of the neighborhood. They’ve got beef with the dog at the hardware store, but other than that, they’re tolerated and sometimes welcomed everywhere.

Peter and I have started checking out their parents’ restaurants, this week hitting the BBQ place owned by the parents of Shuper and Little Sister. “The girls won’t be around until Saturday,” mom informed us. But we were there to eat. Pinkay, Rita, Ling Ling and a new girl showed up as we were finishing. We talked fruit names, they gave Peter a Chinese name — 圆绿帅, or Handsome Green Yuan — and then they walked us home.

Me and the girls at chuan chuan
From left to right: Shuper, Rita, Pinkay, Ling Ling and Emily

Jul 3, 2013

In search of good beer in China

Oh, how hard life is!

Year of the Snake beer

We love beer. China does not. At least, there is no real mainstream beer culture to speak of. And we’ve accepted that, as part of living here, for the most part the drinking is going to be water-light Bud imitations. It goes well with spicy food, anyway.

Which is not to say we don’t find our nice surprises from time to time. Qingdao, with it’s German-founded brewery, had its special local dark brew. Locally, we’ll always have Golden Hans. And, most of the grocery stores stock at least a German brand hefeweizen and stout in their import sections. Sometimes you can even find a pilsner or a dunkel. Last summer, there was even a canned shandy that hit the shelves for a minute. This winter, Kaiserdom put out a special Snake Year dark lager. You’ve just got to keep your eyes open.

This is the most expensive PBR we've ever seen!

Our most recent find was a bottled PBR, at 10 times the price of the good old canned PBR (that gleaming blue ribbon is widely available here, and costs about US$1) it was beautifully intriguing. Popping it open, we found a dark, viscous liquid, reminiscent of that Sam Adams that costs a billion dollars. The Navigator, as it’s called, was more like a complex liqueur than the expected yellow swill. A delicious quaff, although too expensive to be part of the regular rotation. But we’re keeping an eye on the shelf for when it goes on sale. (I’m pretty sure no one else is buying it.)

Import beer from the grocery store, however, doesn’t come with bar buddies, and that’s something we still really miss. But we’re slowly expanding our social circle — we’ve gone from zero friends to some friends! — and recently our friend Maybell’s Boyfriend invited us to come out with them to a place that had “beer even better than Golden Hans!”

Real beer from a real keg

We met Maybell and BF (ugh, I’m sorry; he doesn’t have an English name, and Chinese characters are still sliding from my brain mere seconds after I hear them) at a restaurant that served fresh kegs from the Moutai brewing company. Moutai is a nationally famous brand of baijiu produced in Southwest China, but their beer production, according to BF is not widely known outside of our area. The joint was hopping, and large tapped carafes of lights and darks were continually being delivered to tables full of revelers. They had two fruit beers, too, but only girls drink those, so I was dissuaded from ordering a carafe for the table. Though I did get my own pint; it tasted like a melted blueberry popsicle.

The food was fantastic. (I feel like I’m always saying that, but it’s so often the case.) Spicy cucumbers, green beans, delicious pork bits on a bed of hot peppers, edamame …

And, it turned out, we were celebrating. Maybell had just attended her official college graduation ceremony the day before. And, they excitedly told us, the were going to get married this year. Just an official ceremony; they’re going to have a big reception with friends two years from now. But, still, what fun news!

We talked about the job market — both Maybell and her boyfriend are lucky to have good jobs they like, but their classmates are having a tough time of it. Kids signed on for conditional contracts are being laid off after their first year is up, and others can’t find jobs at all. Maybell said she doesn’t like talking about her ample teacher’s vacation time with them, because she feels like she’s rubbing it in her unemployed friends’ faces.

We toasted each other, shared travel ideas — Maybell gave us some great advice on an ancient town located just an hour outside of Luzhou — and made future plans. BF is really interested in cocktails, so we’re hoping to have a bartending night sometime soon. And we want to host them to a real American BBQ one of these days. We shared jokes, cultural tidbits, the meaning of life — all that kind of fun philosophizing that beer was meant to accompany.

At the end of the night, Maybell got a server to write down the address and phone number for us, so that we can return one day. And we will, because BF was right, the beer is even better than Golden Hans!

Delicious dinner with good friends

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

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