Tag Archives: food

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

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

Visits: Hong Kong

13 Jan

A little over two months ago, we went to Hong Kong for the first time. One of our best friends, R., was there for work and, given that she had already visited Shanghai last year (and inaugurated our first flat with us), we thought we’d make the trip this time.

I had heard a lot of great things about Hong Kong from friends in London but the most enthusiastic ones, by far, certainly are our fellow Shanghainese residents. They praised Honk Kong’s shopping offer like it was paradise and spoke a lot about some small streets with independent shops and art galleries. Following their advice, we went to these places but not being a big fan of malls or a shopaholic (mind you I do have occasional shopping sprees), I actually was quite disappointed by all of this.

As my father said to me, I may be a bit blasée. Having spent 10 years in Europe, it might be true. By contrast, our friends in Shanghai, who have spent many years in mainland China, do crave that European feel which is after all closer to our cultural background, whether we come from Europe or the Middle East. I thought about it again and actually realised that I liked Hong Kong, just not for the reasons everybody in Shanghai seem to worship it. Here is why.

First, I absolutely loved the view of both the sea and high mountains in the backdrop of the city and its skyscrapers. I cannot stress this enough. I think coming from Beirut, the visual connection with the mountains from probably anywhere on the coast and the sense of altitude and topography is very important to us. So Hong Kong reminded me of that. I was always annoyed at the flatness of Paris and London and now of Shanghai. You can’t see beyond the buildings, this eternal flatness can feel claustrophobic…

Going from Kowloon to Hong Kong island

View of Hong Kong island with the mountains in the back

Quick and very retro ferry ride

Quick and very retro ferry ride

Second and still in connection with those mountains, their dense and lush vegetation holds the promise of nature beyond and it just makes you want to cross them and see what’s out there. We met with a Lebanese friend who has been living in Hong Kong for 7 or 8 years and who doesn’t intend to go anywhere else. She confirmed to me that 70% of Hong Kong’s territory is nature and there are great treks to be made through the mountains and jungle to reach beautiful small creeks with lovely beaches and a shack serving fresh seafood and fish. It sounds lovely to have this so easily accessible, instead of having to plan a trip out of it. That’s when I felt quite jealous…

Third, I thought the urban experience of Hong Kong was such a weird trip. The city is extremely dense, particularly on the island of Hong Kong, and it feels like every square centimetre has been exploited. It’s a mix of New York, Asia and London, with the double-deckers and the driving on the left side of the road.

A bit of New York

A bit of New York

A bit of London

A bit of London

Asia

Asia

The local Leicester Square

The local equivalent of Leicester Square

A bit of British debauchery

A bit of British debauchery

Also, because of its density, roads are very narrow and in a considerable part of the centre, pedestrian mobility is ensured by seemingly endless elevated walkways, totally segregated from the street. Even if we were fairly efficient in terms of our route (J. and I are very good at reading maps and directing ourselves), we still had to go through malls to carry on and get where we wanted. We were eventually able to reach ground and street level to get to another segregated outdoor path to reach the tram station, which takes you to the Peak, where you can enjoy a plunging view of the city.

Starting on the elevated walkway

Starting on the elevated walkway

Looking at the street level

Looking at the street level

Carrying on

Carrying on

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Walking to the Peak tram station

Walking to the Peak tram station

On the tram

On the tram after about 30 minutes queuing

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Fourth, J. and I thought the Kowloon part on the other side of Honk Kong island was actually quite nice. Yes, it is more local but it has its charm and, in spite of the crowds, it feels more spacious and human, less utopian. Less walk-ways everywhere around. If you have dinner on top of any sky-scrapers there, you’ll have an amazing view of the other side. But there are also little gems to be discovered, such as the world’s most affordable 1 star Michelin restaurant, which, much to my disappointed, we couldn’t enjoy as we got there too late and the queue was too long for me not to miss my plane back.

Dinner at Hutong on Kownloon

Dinner at Hutong in Kowloon

Strolling in Kownloon

Strolling in Kowloon

Tim Ho Wan - cheapest 1 star Michelin in the world

Tim Ho Wan – cheapest 1 star Michelin in the world

So here we are. Hong Kong: been there, done that. Off the check-list. I’m not saying that there isn’t a whole lot more to discover or that it’s not interesting. But given how much of Asia and the Far East we still have to discover, I’d rather use my money to go to a new destination.

Nopes, no way, can’t do it!

12 Dec

I recently got overly excited about an online “premier” “safe, high quality” grocer called Fields. Their website is very well done and they’ve got quite a large variety of fruits, vegetables, meat and pantry products, which they deliver to your home. This is primarily why I was so interested. As a foreigner, you probably find 90 to 95% of what you need here to cook the dishes you are used to. The trouble is you have to go to a few places to get them. I get my meat from Yasmine’s, an Australian butchery or from some specific supermarkets renowned for their good products (mainly Metro). For pantry and dairy products (and anything else really), you could go of course to City Shop but it costs an arm every single time. So I usually go to the Avocado Lady (on whom I still need to dedicate a full post), on Wulumuqi Lu/Wuyuan Lu, who just has everything you can think of at very reasonable prices. But, it sometimes feels like a mission to get all you need, hop on a cab, get to the other place and hop on a cab again to go home.

This is why Fields sounded brilliant. And it is! I had my first delivery last Saturday. The vegetables, most of them organic, look fabulous. I had ordered, amongst other things, their value pack which is filled with all sorts of vegetables (including green and purple kohlrabis, which I need to experiment with), as well as 10 organic eggs and a free-range chicken. When I received the package, the chicken was frozen in its bag. It looked small and I tried to figure out if it was a whole chicken or two legs or… I couldn’t so I simply put it in the freezer and only got it out yesterday to be defrosted for today’s dinner.

IMG_2949_small

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So here I was just a few minutes ago, enthusiastically getting some spices out and opening the bag to start marinating the beast before putting it in the oven. I get it out and find out that a) it is a whole but really small chicken and b) it still has its full head and two feet!* I got a squeamish “eeewww” out and put it in a dish. I froze for a while, took a deep breath and thought: come on, this is your dinner, man up and just chop the neck and feet. With two fingers I grabbed a leg and, as the neck and head unfolded from under the body, the full head appeared and a black eye, mostly pushed into the head but still able to peak out through translucent skin, gave me a horrible deadly look. That’s when I thought, ok no way, can’t do it… I froze again, wondering if I should throw the animal or what, then decided better let the āyi (cleaning lady) do it for me tomorrow. I’ll give her the feet to munch on** and have pasta tonight.

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* That’s how chicken are sold here – see the post Chop the head yourself!

** Chicken feet are a big delicacy in China.

Shanghai Randoms #2

14 Jun

Our balcony

View from a friend’s house – very typical of Shanghai

Mailbox – in the former French Concession

Chinese don’t like number 4 because it sounds like the word “death”

Cats in hammocks

Chinese are mad about crickets and the sound they make!

Surviving Sichuan food

On motorbikes: like father, like son

Cutie

Overloaded!

Chair seller

Must buy two of these eventually

Paraphernalia

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