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Thick skin and dilemma

21 Mar

I have been spending a lot of time with H., S.’s nanny. She started working for us three weeks ago. She is a soft-spoken and kind-hearted lady in her late forties with a lot of experience with young babies.

Both H. and I like to cook and I think that’s how we hit it off. We have a natural curiosity for each other’s cuisines and are keen to learn from one another. She cooked a few jiāchángcài (home dishes with pork mainly, including the famously delicious Shanghainese dish hóngshāo ròu) using many of the ingredients I already had (dried mushrooms and dried tofu) in my pantry but didn’t know how to use. She’s also explained to me at length which foods you should eat when according to the heat or lack thereof within your body (basic principle of Chinese medicine). Unfortunately, I am ashamed to say that so far I think I only understand 60% of what she tells me and am therefore not in a position to faithfully relate all of it but I get the jinx of it. I hope that with time I’ll get used to her accent (very Shanghainese whereby all the sh become s and the zh z) and build up my vocab.

Two days ago, I saw a small box in our fridge containing some kind of shapeless black paste. I didn’t ask H. about it, she’s welcome to put whatever she needs in our fridge. Over lunch, she asked me whether I had seen the box and offered me a piece. Looking at it, the paste could be many things; the first thing that came to my mind was a brownie with very dark chocolate. As I took a bite of the piece she gave me, I naturally asked H. what it was. She said it was lǘpí but it didn’t ring a bell. While she was trying to explain and even mimic something, the paste’s taste invaded my mouth. It wasn’t particularly horrible, though not good either. Mostly it was very strong. I continued chewing and trying to make sense of what she was telling me, I knew pí can mean skin but still wasn’t sure what it was. Then I finally understood, took my phone to double check the translation and suddenly my heart sank more than a little bit, when I figured that I was eating donkey skin!

As I was trying to recover from the shock and hide it, H.’s explanations started to become clearer. Basically she told me that eating lǘpí is very helpful during winter if you have some sort of deficiency (don’t ask me which one). She added that this one in particular came from the province of Shandong (northeast of China) and was of really good quality. I told her that the taste was too strong for me and that I wasn’t used to it, to which she replied that she couldn’t feel it but that her family thought likewise and wouldn’t eat lǘpí. She laughed when she said that they even ask her how she could it! Very kindly, she told me that if I didn’t like it, it wasn’t a problem.

I now have this remaining piece I bit into in my fridge. As much as I like to be open-minded or to think that I am, I am not quite sure what to do with it. I would hate to throw it, out of respect for H.’s kindness. What I am sure of is that I don’t feel like eating it. I don’t look forward to its taste and now that I know it is donkey skin (I have eaten Italian donkey salami a long time ago) I can’t stomach it.

Sigh.

What would you do?

Donkey skin

Lǘpí

Year of the Horse – Part 2: Dinner with my Chinese teacher’s family

3 Feb

The day after our Chinese new year baptism, last Friday, we, along with our friends L. and M., were invited to have dinner at my Chinese teacher S. and her husband K.’s house with their family (his side of the family to be precise – Spring Festival is celebrated with the husband’s family). This is the equivalent of being invited to spend Christmas at your friend’s place, so a real token of friendship (by my standards at least). Just for information, as K.’s was explaining to me, the first day of Chinese new year, Chinese people do fireworks but also stay at home and usually watch the national show of the Spring Festival on national television during which celebrities sing and entertain. This year, wearing a red dress for good luck, French actress Sophie Marceau, apparently a real celebrity in this country, was part of the show and sang “La Vie en Rose” in French with Liu Huan (singer and song writer) for the good people of the People’s Republic of China. See it on YouTube here.

But back to our evening.

We had already been invited to dinner at S. and K’s place some time before Christmas. J. and I had arrived about 10-15 minutes late and found all the guests already sitting at the table and waiting for us to start. There was no small talk or drinks before sitting on the dining table. It was a little bit embarrassing that everyone waited for us to start eating. This time, I insisted that we get there on time, especially that K.’s whole family would be around. We got there only five minutes late and thankfully, although many dishes were already laid on the two tables, we were not the last ones to arrive and nobody was sitting at the dining tables yet.

We were introduced to the family and were very warmly welcomed by everyone. There were four generations, with the grandmother, two of the mum’s brothers and their children and grand-children. One of the uncles was particularly talkative and we chatted with him for a while. He commented on our understanding of Chinese and encouraged J. to be more “nǔlì” i.e. hardworking at studying Chinese. He asked us about our drinking capabilities (how many cans of beer) and showed us the báijiǔ (Chinese white alcohol distilled from sorghum or maize, a traditional and VERY strong drink reputed to be absolutely vile), a very old one in small bottles, they had selected for the occasion. I was a bit nervous at the idea of tasting it. It is a much-dreaded drink amongst the lǎowài* community of China as it is a very acquired taste for us. Somehow I managed to escape it after over two years but tonight, clearly there was nowhere to hide.

The evening was lovely. Surprisingly, I liked (this) báijiǔ! Then again it was a very special one. We had fun conversation with K’s cousins at our table, tons of great food, with K.’s mum and other uncle tirelessly cooking as the rest of us were eating. The friendly uncle went back and forth between the two rooms to do “gān bēi” (bottoms up) with us and make sure we were eating well.

As other Chinese occasions, things tend to end up fairly abruptly. So around two hours after we had arrived, when we started to feel stuffed, some members of the family started to leave. We lingered an extra 20 minutes or so and then started to make our way out. We were the last ones to leave. I guess the sudden end shocks us less (after attending S. and K.’s wedding and having already had dinner at their place) but we probably still need some time to get our act together and actually leave.

Just as we were putting on our coats and L. and M. getting their son I. ready to go, K.’s mum gave us bags filled with a huge bags of home-made crisps (with white and black sesame seeds), two different (and big) pieces of beef (one cold-cut and another salted and dried one), as well as a full lotus root stuffed with rice (sweet and chewy).

What else to say… We were very moved to be so well and so generously received by a very special friend and her lovely family on the most familial celebration in Chinese culture. Good times!

* lǎowài: respectful word for foreigner

The acupuncture diary 2

15 Dec

Shortly after my first acupuncture session, about 36 hours to be precise, I woke up around 2:00 am with a burning and irritating sensation on my upper lip. I got up and discovered that not only I had one cold sore but two! Needless to say, one, I was so angry I couldn’t sleep for the rest of the night; two, I wasn’t exactly thrilled when, two days later, the doctor asked me if I was feeling better on my second acupuncture appointment. Also one of my lymphoma under my jaw had grown back, so I was in a very dark mood… (The theory of J. and another friend was that perhaps the point was to get it out of my system.)

Not looking the least surprised, the doctor asked me if I was “feeling hot in my body.” I knew what she was referring to but could not relate to the sensation she was describing, so I just said: “… In winter I feel cold most of the time…”, fully aware it was not the answer she was looking for. The Chinese believe the body has a natural balance between hot and cold. Different kinds of foods are also hot (oranges) or cold (grapefruits) and should be eaten to preserve the balance which is affected by outside elements. For example, if I remember correctly, chicken soup should be eaten in autumn to prepare yourself for winter and such things.

After the chitchat (I’m sparing your some details), she said: “Today we need to step up a notch, so I’ll put some needles near your lips. I took it easy last time because it was your first time resorting to Chinese medicine.” Given that I was ready to anything to get rid of cold sores, I was almost expecting it and so didn’t bulge. She proceeded to position needles on my arms, shins and ankles like last time, as well as two needles near the sores on my upper lip. It did hurt a bit and made me quiver, but it was ok.

I was getting ready to relax and snooze like last time, but felt things moving around me. I opened my eyes and realised she was putting wires on the needles near my mouth. She explained she was going to turn on a mild electric current. Me of course: “Will it hurt?” Her again: “You will feel the sensation but it will not hurt.” And again she spoke the truth.

And so I lied down for about 15 minutes, feeling a swarm on my upper lip, which varied when I moved my lip. It was a bit trippy. When the session was over, she said that it should help me recover quicker. I don’t know if it’s in the head or for real, but I think I did feel my wounds drying faster than the usual… So maybe it does work after all.

More next time.

Mooncakes

18 Sep

Those who know me and with whom I have discussed living in China know how enthusiastic and in what state of salivation I can get when speaking about some Chinese cuisines. Not that I have become an expert at it, but after nearly two years I have come to looooooove parts of it. I say parts of it as, I may have mentioned it before in this blog or at least in conversations, when you arrive to China you quickly realise that there is no such thing as Chinese food. China is so wide and diverse (geographically, topographically, climactically, linguistically, etc.) that it is absurd to assume that it is homogeneous in any way – it is after all as big as Europe! This is a common mistake, and one which I was certainly a culprit of before and when arriving here. Thankfully, I’ve realised a few things since then.

So far, I have liked or loved most dishes I have tasted, particularly dishes from the Sichuan (super spicy), Hunan and Yunnan provinces. Fortunately I guess, I can’t say I have been pushed to my relative or absolute limits in terms of tasting bizarre foods. With J., we are regular jellyfish eaters, but we haven’t yet tasted chicken feet or, to address the common and somewhat lame joke, dog, cat, rat, snake, monkey and the likes. Those harsher dishes are not common in Shanghai and known to be more the speciality of the Guangdong province or, in other words, of Cantonese people.

Nonetheless, one common and national, if punctual, pastry I have to admit I do not enjoy are mooncakes. As their name indicates, they are small cakes which are round or square and which look very pretty on the outside. They are generally produced and consumed around this time of the year, in September and October, as part of the Mid-Autumn Festival (literally zhōng qiū jié) honouring the moon goddess of immortality and celebrated on the day of the full moon. During this time, families are meant to come together and eat round foods, such as (round) mooncakes or grapes. In the corporate world, any self-respecting company also usually offers mooncakes to its employees and sometimes clients. So far, J. has received two boxes, one from his own company and one from a supplier. I wouldn’t be surprised if he gets a third one.

Corporate mooncakes always come in fancy boxes.

Corporate mooncakes always come in fancy boxes. You can barely see it, but the top of this one is embossed.

Mooncake 1

This is our third Mid-Autumn Festival. I have tasted mooncakes when we settled in Shanghai and, since then, I have stayed clear from them. The reason I do not enjoy them is because they are Forrest Gump’s chocolate box, but with far more surprises. First, mooncakes can be savoury or sweet. However, from their shape or colour, there is no way (for us at least) to know what you’re gonna get. Second, you can be in for a big surprise. The mild version comes filled with some sort of bean paste which is either neutral in taste or vaguely sweet. But there are mooncakes filled with cooked egg yolk, maybe even duck egg yolk which can be extremely salty, or worse: fish. The trouble is that when you are expecting bean paste, you taste buds are in for a wild ride if you get fish or egg. J. is far more courageous than me and goes for it with the risks it entails. That’s how I know what’s in them. He did insist that I taste one yesterday, which was filled with sweet coconut paste and was therefore very nice. But it’s the first mooncake bite I had since I got here.

Most likely, egg yolk filling.

Most likely, egg yolk filling.

As in other countries, the year is punctuated by delicacies, dishes and foods that announce the time of a season or some festivities. Next in line in November are the hairy crabs which, unlike the mooncakes, do announce the real arrival of autumn in Shanghai as they coincide with a drop in temperature and, incidentally, are far more appreciated by my palate.

The Return of the Chickens

25 Jul

About three months ago, all residents of Shanghai and east China turned totally psychotic because of the resurgence of the avian flu and its mutation from H5N1 to H7N9. Four of our five friends coming to China were equally worried about the outbreak of the virus and regularly updated us about the number of dead in Shanghai. While we were vaguely following the news, we were not that concerned. As Shanghai residents we were not short of a food or health related scandal. In fact, at this specific time, we had:

  • The resurgence of the avian flu,
  • Tens of thousands of dead pigs in the Huangpu River (Shanghai’s main river). We never got to the bottom of this story,
  • Who knows how many mysteriously dead fish in the Huangpu as well,
  • People had received text messages about rotten beef meat from Suzhou.

And, to make it exhaustive, we should include the permanent air pollution we live in, our friendly neighbour Kim Jong Un then playing about with his nuclear arsenal and threatening to use it and the contamination of the Nongfu Spring water (apparently the most widely bought bottled water in China) with lead. Nevertheless we were trying to re-assure our friends by telling them that you had to be in contact with live poultry to have any chance to get the virus, that even if you ate an infected chicken it would be ok because the virus is killed when you cook the meat above 70 degrees Celsius…

In the meantime, I was secretly planning to avoid taking them on any road where I knew live poultry was sold (Chinese like to buy their poultry and fish live and have it slaughtered on the spot). However, within a week or so, we noticed important changes in our immediate environment. All the loose and caged chickens on the street suddenly vanished. It was as if the whole species became extinct overnight. On our street, the lady who sells vegetables and chickens didn’t have any. My Chinese teacher told me it was increasingly difficult to buy chicken meat anywhere. Where I work in Jiashan Market, we can usually see and hear the poultry live and then be killed at the daily wet market. I arrived one morning at the same time as about 30 policemen, coming to check whether there were any live chickens still being sold. Although I don’t usually tend to panic too much about these things, I have to admit I was reassured to see that there was a certain level of control as I still didn’t want to spend several hours about 10 meters from any live poultry.

April 2013 - Jiashan Market 2

Jiashan Market, some time in April 2013

Jiashan Market, that same day

Jiashan Market, that same day

Our friends’ trip went well, although we did come close to a living chicken somewhere in the countryside near Yangshuo in the south of China, but no one got sick. By now, the whole matter seems to have disappeared from public concerns as well as from local and international media. People consume chicken again and in fact, they are back at Jiashan Market, as if they had never been away, tucked in their usual corner and being slaughtered the good old-fashioned way. And as per all things food and health related, we will never get to the bottom of that story either.

Two days ago also in Jiashan Market

Two days ago also in Jiashan Market

The Avocado Lady

30 Mar

In more than one post I have referred to the Avocado Lady. Far from being an elusive character, she is nothing short of a celebrity for the foreigners’ community of Shanghai who regularly go fill up their fridge and pantry at her very unassuming shop in the former French Concession. There you can find all sorts of Western food products as well as fabulous vegetables at really reasonable prices. I think she sometimes has more on offer than expat supermarkets. I never went there to shop and not found what I was looking for! Polenta, couscous, fresh basil, fresh mint, fresh rosemary, parmeggiano, parsnips, San Pelegrino, very good dried fruits, red and green lentils and other pulses, tehini, De Cecco pasta, etc.

The shop is held by two Chinese ladies, but the one with short hair is the one in charge. Just Google: Avocado Lady Shanghai and you’ll see what she looks like. She speaks English or at least knows the English name of all her products and so you can ask her for whatever you want and she’ll find it somewhere in her tiny shop. She’s very friendly and will never hesitate to round down what you owe her which, amongst other things, makes her a great trader. I was told three years or so ago, her shop was half its current size but due to her success and being able to win the loyalty of many foreigners, she’s expanded into the next unit.

She’s been dubbed the Avocado Lady because avocadoes used to be a very rare commodity in Shanghai and she was one of the first to sell them. Now you can find them in many places but the nickname stuck, which comes in handy because her shop, like most fruits and vegetable shops of the city, has no name.

So next time you’re despairing over the expat supermarkets’ prices and complaining about not finding this or that, head to the intersection of Wulumuqi Lu and Wukang Lu and walk southwards on Wulumuqi Lu on the right hand side of the street. Just watch for the many laowai holding blue plastic bags and you’ll spot the place!

The Avocado Lady's shop

The Avocado Lady’s shop

Shanghai Flâneur: the Old Town

5 Mar

Some time last October, I discovered a “walking think tank” called Shanghai Flâneur. It promotes the art, you may say, of walking in the city and, one thing leading to another, I have now started to collaborate with the consultancy attached to it, called Constellations. Shanghai Flâneur organises thematic walks to the wider public, generally urban amateurs or professionals, or more corporate clients as part of a wider programme.

To date, I have been on one walk, which focused on the old city of Shanghai. I was particularly curious as I had previously been with a friend to the old city and, much to my dismay, couldn’t find it! We wandered in-between vast construction sites and tall residential buildings. One or two streets were quite popular and picturesque but that was about it.

The Flâneur talk-walk – twalk is probably the best term for it – was led by Katya Knyazeva, a Russian resident of Shanghai, who became passionate with this part of the city and researched it to the point of becoming an expert and now working on a book dedicated to it. There was a whole lot of fantastic information, historical, urban and human, and the discovery of unsuspected treasures. I have tried to filter some of it here in a comprehensible and palatable way, but excuse me in advance for the length of this post – and this is just a part of Katya’s talk.

The first thing to know is that the origins of Shanghai are actually very modest. As its name indicates, the old city is where it all started. However, it used to be a small fishing town built on wetlands, where some of the streets of today were actually a network of canals leading to the far larger Huangpu river and linked to the hinterland. This is why most of the streets in the old town are winding and curvy, following the geology of the land rather than a set plan. The old city was also fortified and, although the wall is no longer, you can guess its trace in the circular road going around what used to be all of the old town.

Adapted from Google Maps

Adapted from Google Maps

Not all that was part of the old town remains today. As I mentioned above, there is a lot of new and prospective development around. However, life in the older neighbourhoods is certainly buzzing and full of artefacts witnessing Shanghai’s history. We started off at Penglai Road and got straight into a daily street market. The street was packed with all sorts of products from fresh and ready made foods to clothing. It was difficult to keep your cool with so many curious things going on and the pedestrian traffic in all directions. We started off with some of those winding streets with very modest buildings, some of which are very very old but, due to various alterations and extensions, bear few marks of their historical importance. If I recall correctly, one of the buildings dates as far back as the early 19th century, but you could never ever tell by its appearance as it’s been mended practically everywhere.

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The high rises looming in the horizon like a threat

The high rises looming in the horizon like a threat

Hand-made pork dumplings

Hand-made pork dumplings

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Mending and mending one's house

Mending and mending one’s house

Incidentally, this was pyjama land (read this post for more info)

Incidentally, this was pyjama land (read this post for more info)

After crossing the market, we carried on to slightly wider streets where more imposing, European-inspired houses fronted the street. Some prominent people lived in this area and their presence is indicated by weird plates to the front of the house, written in Chinese only, which sadly limits the appreciation of their importance. We went through the gates of some of the housing blocks, where we discovered beautiful ornamental details and where Katya told us a little bit about the past and current inhabitants and their misfortunes during the hard core Communist times. Like this 70 year-old lady who was the daughter of a poet’s butler and, just for the mere association of her family with a more bourgeois one, was sent to do forced labour for 17 years in the Xinjiang province (the westernmost province in China where conditions are harsh today and were harsher then).

Curving street

Curving street

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Entrance into a Shikumen

Entrance into a Shikumen

We then carried on into another neighbourhood, passing on the way by three small trees fenced off from the passage. The reason for this is that these trees are officially listed for being something like a 100 or a 150 years old. This neighbourhood was yet a different world. The various houses and occasional restaurant can be accessed by a network of narrow lanes, where cars cannot circulate. Before we reached our destination, we were shown by our guide these wooden pots/boxes, just lying there.

Guess what these are!

Guess what these are!

Just as I was thinking that they looked quite nice and was wondering whether it would be nice to get one or were used for rice, we were told that they are actually toilet pots! Shanghai may be the wealthiest city of China with an amazing concentration of billionnaires, yet some people still live in houses with no toilets and therefore use these pots, drop them on the street the following day for the “pot cleaning” service to come, empty them, give them a quick rinse and put them back for the owners to use again.

After about an hour and a half of walking, we knocked on a door set in a blank wall and got into what is Shanghai’s best kept secret and the city’s oldest known house. The lady who lives in it is its owner and direct descendent of the original owner, a highly learned ex-bureaucrat, who commissioned the building of the house. Because the owner and Katya know each other, we were able to visit the house, which is in absolute shambles as the owner and her family do not have the means to restore it and the government is lingering on the matter, not seeing the many values of such a house and probably having “grander” plans for the area. The house is organised in three courtyards and throughout the different indoor areas, you can clearly see the remnants of the grandeur of this house, the amazing craftsmanship and how important this family once was. This was further attested by the presence of a “Golden Stone”.

The very fine and detailed sculpted top of the gate to the second courtyard

The very fine and detailed sculpted top of the gate to the second courtyard

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This “stone” looks like a table with a thick top tile on top of it. In reality, it’s everything but that. A “Golden Stone” is a tile similar to the ones found in the paving of the Forbidden City in Beijing. They were produced in special workshops in Suzhou and the process of their fabrication used to be (and maybe still is) a very well guarded secret. Those who owned one were particularly lucky and wealthy. It’s meant to just stand and never ever be used as a table. The lady told Katya that when the Red Guards came to pillage the house during the Cultural Revolution and heard about the Golden Stone, harassed her father to give them the stone, thinking it was literally made of gold. Being 15-16 year old uneducated boys, they failed to see any value in a large piece of ceramics and that’s how it still remains in the property of the family.

The Golden Stone

The Golden Stone

The stamp of the factory in Suzhou

The stamp of the factory in Suzhou

The state of the house and courtyard was obviously very sad to see. What was worse was the fact that a Danish practice had managed to solve the puzzle so to say, by looking at every single beam and piece of wood and understand which piece goes where in the overall structure. They proposed to restore the house and found funds for it but the Shanghai Municipality didn’t let them proceed with it for sheer national pride. They argued that such a project could only be undertaken by a Chinese firm…

Equally sad and weird was to see in what conditions the owner lived, especially coming from such a learned family and whose mother is, we were told, a most refined and well-mannered woman. See for yourselves…

The room where the owner lives

The room where the owner lives

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In spite of the enlightenment and wonderful discoveries made on this day, the end of the walk had a bit of a bitter taste. It comforted my theory that Communism is responsible for China and Chinese people losing millennia of culture, manners and finesse, which can be seen in the way they live and sometimes act…

The owner with a drawing from her father who re-organised Yu Garden (Yu Yuan), probably the only historic site to see in Shanghai

The owner with a drawing from her father who re-organised Yu Garden (Yu Yuan), probably the only historic site to see in Shanghai

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