Hello Uncle Foreigner

food

Jan 1, 2013

你好, 老外!

“They’re saying ‘Hello, foreigners!’”

A walk home with new friends
Pull up a chair, have a drink

From time to time, at 串串 in the city, people take notice of us. They’ll practice their English within earshot, or dare someone to come 干杯 with us. Recently, a little girl, seeing that we had no meat on our table, brought me over some beef sticks. They were really, really delicious, and I’ve since added them to the rotation. But for the most part, we’re left alone. In the city, people are cool. “Yeah, we’ve got Americans. No big deal.”

Not so in the countryside. We attract tons of attention at BBQ Sticks, our favorite countryside haunt. And that’s part of the fun.

The restaurant belongs to the small, built-up oasis that sits in the middle of kilometers and kilometers of farmland. If you live out our ways, and you don’t live at the school, you probably live here. And if you live here, you probably socialize out on the street — that’s where everyone is. Including us.

Young children are generally equal parts terrified and fascinated by us. They try to catch glances without getting caught, or sometimes we’ll here a small voice yell out, “Hello, 老外[foreigner]!” from behind the restaurant’s tarp. If they’re with parents, the adults will encourage them to talk to us. They resist, despite our most enthusiastic 你好s.

Teenagers and adults are a little more brave. Teens, because they have to study English, are often a little more confident in approaching us, though often they’ll check with the restaurant owners first if it’s OK to ask to take a photo. I think the owners are amused by their roles as our agents.

Some of our best nights happen when someone is brave enough to sit down with us. Often the first foray is a tentative beer toast. He’ll drink with us (it’s pretty much always a man), and then return to his table. And then the others come, one by one. Sometimes they offer cigarettes to Peter, which is a little awkward to refuse; it’s a gesture of good will and male bonding, and saying no is tantamount to saying, “We’re not friends.” But neither of us wants Peter to start smoking again just for social niceties.

If the mood is right, our tables merge. We’ll run through the few Chinese phrases I know — “We’re Americans. We’re teachers at Tianfu Middle School. Are those your kids? Very beautiful. We love China. Let’s be friends!” It’s one of the greatest tests and exercise of my language skills, and very good fun. It feels like such a win every time I can understand a new phrase or make something understood.

Some brave students

Occasionally, our new friends will go behind our back to pay the bill. It’s incredibly generous of them, a real example of Chinese hospitality. Other times, we’ll have companions for our walk home — it was in this way that we met some young students who are bound for Tianfu next year. And every once in a while, our fellow teachers will spot us waiting for the bus and give us a ride back home. It’s funny for them, I think, to see the Americans out in the wild. But they, too, have felt the call of the barbeque, and they understand.

We definitely still have curiosity status in the neighborhood, but our experiences at BBQ Sticks are starting to make us feel part of something. Part of it is the fact that I’m getting more language — even a bit of the local dialect — but I think it’s the food that brings us together. Peter and I are total weirdos here, but we can share some hot peppers and laugh over a beer. And it’s nice to have friends.

Dec 27, 2012

And try them fried …

Another kind of sticks are discovered

Our lunch in Bao'en Plaza
Fried up veggies in black vinegar

We find the old apartment very unpleasant, so during our time there — as weather permits — we try to spend as much time out and about in the city as possible. On one of these jaunts, again in the Bao’en Pagoda plaza (where, it turns out, we spend a lot of time!), we came upon a large collection of street food vendors. One of whom was selling sticks.

We went for it, and were delighted that these were different still from both 串串 and BBQ sticks. Bao’en sticks are fried and then doused in this tangy, dark vinegar, and sprinkled with handfuls of dried chili pepper and sesame seeds. So lovely. And puts to bed our assumption that “food on stick” is one specific thing.

Lesson: Never say no to a skewered broccoli.

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!

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

Dec 6, 2012

Chongqing: Cici Park

Seriously, go for the warmed plum wine

The cool crowd hangs at Cici Park
Plum wineCici Park

Cici Park came highly recommended in every piece of travel writing we read about the bar. And, in fact, we liked it so much that we went there both nights of our Chongqing stay.

Tucked away amongst closed-for-the-night shops on the second-floor rooftop of a large, old-looking building, we might have missed the bar were it not for the precise instructions that we got from the hostel staff. Cici Park is quiet, understated and chill as hell.

The weather was mild enough that there was competition for the outdoor tables and benches, but the inside was lovely as well. The walls were decked out with neon, Spirograph art pieces, and smooth, loungey jazz played softly over the PA.

This was yet another no-vomit-on-the-floor crowd (who would think that would be so special?), and we noticed that many merrymakers were drinking tea and soda in lieu of something alcoholic. Not us, though.

There was a small, handwritten sign advertising “The Naoke: Draft beer by handmade.” it came in two flavors — light and dark — there was just enough crisp in the air to make dark the right choice. And it was lovely: rich with a hint of coffee. Another highlight was the plum wine — nice flavor without being too sweet. After a consultation with the bartender, I chose to go for the warm over the cold, again, with reference to the crisp in the air.

We had to try the martini as well, which was OK. Served with ice in the glass, but you take what you can get.

Dec 4, 2012

Chongqing: Cactus Tex-Mex

Running for a border

Tex-Mex-ish

Our quarry at the Hongya Dong Center? Tacos! The ninth-floor Cactus Tex-Mex Bar & Grill was touted (by some online randos) as the best Mexican food in Chongqing, and we just can’t turn down an opportunity for Mexican.

On the hunt for Mexican food in China

Stepping into Cactus felt just like walking into an American sports bar, down to NFL on FOX on all the big screen TVs. Their menu was a little all over the place (and somewhat pricey, but that’s just a fact of western food in China). It offered all your classic Tex-Mex faves, but also pizza, fried mozzarella, hamburgers, etc., and also French and German specialties. It was kind of like Chili’s married Applebee’s and they went on an around-the world-honeymoon.

The drink menu was equally hefty, but we had to go for your basic margaritas to compliment our basic tacos. It was nothing fancy, but they did their job. There was a sort of Old El Paso-canned taste to the meal, but what do you want? You’re in China.

I hate sports bars in America, and — surprise! — it turns out I don’t love them in China, either. But the bar wasn’t very crowded, which to me is appealing. The best tacos in China so far, they are not. (That honor is still held by the Pug in Chengdu.) But, if you find yourself needing Mexican food in Chongqing, as we did, Cactus will fit the bill.

Dec 3, 2012

Chongqing: Indian Restaurant

A surprise find!

Indian food in ChongqingWe just looked up, and there it was

Our first night in, we decided to wander for dinner. Chongqing rivals Sichuan as home of the hot pot, and we were pretty sure that we could find a good one just by flinging ourselves at the city.

But, instead, we found this Indian Restaurant.

We were led upstairs by a cute young woman in her 20s. She wore hipster black rimmed glasses and a chic short haircut, and she was kind of sheepish about her English, although she spoke well enough. “不客气 is ‘Not at all’, in English?” she verified with us, and then proudly and carefully used it throughout the meal to answer our 谢谢s [thank yous].

Peter and I split some hearty vegetable samosas and a perfect garlic naan. My chicken with cashew sauce was sweet and creamy with white chunks of breast meat, while Peter’s potato and cauliflower curry was just the right amount of spicy. The sauces tasted premade — it kind of reminded me of Progresso soup — but as far as Chinese Indian food goes, it was a pretty good meal.

Nov 22, 2012

Tofu soup and spelling contests

And shampoo jeans

Alex introduced us to tofu soup

During the National Day holiday, we made a date to meet up with our pal Alex. He was preparing for a big speech competition that was to be held in the following month, and he had asked for our help. Of course, lunch was part of the deal as well.

He took us up a windy road to a set up that looked a lot like our 串串, with burners set into the middle of tables and a bubbling pot on top. But, in fact, it was something totally different: A tofu soup!

(Now Peter and I both enjoyed tofu in the states, but coming to China we’ve realized that the way tofu is served in the US is often the most totally boring way you could do it. No wonder no one likes it. Here in China, tofu is treated as a real food and seasoned and cooked with accordingly. So when you read tofu soup, don’t think “Ugh,” think “Yum!”)

The soup was a live bubbling broth with tofu, veggies. beans, and a delicious cured pork. We ordered some extra cabbage from an extremely long menu of side dishes (“I don’t even know what everything on here is,” Alex said.), and a few lunch beers. It was vacation after all.

Alex showed us his speech, which was an incredibly thoughtful meditation on being a teenager and what your youthful opportunities and responsibilities are. I copy edited the crap out of it, and tried to reassure him that I’ve marked up native English speakers’ work as much. And then we just chatted. For the kids willing to take advantage of it, fluent conversation is really the best resource Peter and I can offer in terms of English language acquisition. It’s fun to have friends, but it’s also really cool to know that we’re helping those friends just by sitting around and talking.

At this lunch, we also solved a mystery that we’d been thinking about for the past year. Our favorite Chinese pop song came on — a song we had been calling “Shampoo Jeans.” And I started to sing along with our made up words. “You know this song?” Alex asked. We explained to him what “shampoo jeans” is and he laughed at us and revealed that the song is actually called “伤不起” [pronounced Shang Bu Qi]. Give it a listen and try not to hear “shampoo jeans” in the chorus.

Nov 1, 2012

Finding Golden Hans

Always remember to look up

Beer and meat at Golden Hans
The KegsThe buffetSome meatA table full of plates

A week or so after our return from Beer City, China, we were taking a walk by the river and Peter happened to glance up to a second story window.

“Beer, beer, beer, beer!” he said, or something more thoughtful than that. Because, visible from the street, there were four silver tanks, just the right size for a microbrewery.

On the banner below the window was pictured a cartoony German man and some prices. We had to know more.

Upstairs we found Golden Hans, a German-themed churrascaria with Chinese characteristics. There was an all-you-can-eat buffet, waiters carried be-meated swords from table to table, and they served honest-to-goodness, brewed-on-the-premises beer. A wheat and a stout that both beat the pants off of Tsingtao. (We love you Tsingtao!)

The place had probably been in Luzhou much longer than we had, and we had walked that strip of river many, many times before. But it was not until after we had traveled halfway across the country to drink beer out of a keg that we looked up. Luzhou is a vertical city, and there are a ton of businesses that are on the second floor, or above, of any given building. But we’re just not used to looking for things above street level. I think we’re missing out on a lot.

Golden Hans, anyway, was a terrific find. The food is unmistakably cooked in China, but they capture “western” better than any other local western restaurant. There are plenty of vegetable dishes at the buffet, and the meat-on-swords cuts range all over the place, from “too weird for me” to “honey BBQ pork, please give me much more!”

We usually spend a little more than 100RMB there, which is more than twice what a meal at sticks costs, so we’ve made it a special occasion place. But, with at least 4 return visits in the past two months, we’ve found reason to celebrate a lot of special occasions.