Hello Uncle Foreigner

food

Dec 7, 2011

Translation fun

Eat up, bacon face

The noodle menu
I can’t read this!

I’ve been eating lunch pretty much every day at the noodle stand down the road from the school. It’s worked like this: The first day I went I asked for mian (“noodles, please!”) and the woman behind the counter said a bunch of stuff in Chinese that I just said yes to. I ended up with a delicious bowl of spicy noodle soup. The word has spread among the staff that this is what I eat, so I just walk in and someone brings me that same dish.

It’s a pretty convenient system, but I’ve been noticing other diners with other dishes I would like to try. One day, I tried pointing at a different dish that someone else was eating, but they smiled, nodded and served me the same thing I always have. So the solution I hit on was to take a picture of the menu (pictured, ha!) and I’ve been working on translating it at home.

In case you didn’t know, Chinese is hard, man! Some characters have a few different translations depending on context - like for example, that character at the end of each menu item (面), that’s mian, which means “noodle.” But it also can mean “surface” or “face,” which is how I ended up with a translation of “dirty burning surface” for one of the dishes. And I spent about an hour trying to figure out what “Wang surface blood broth” really might be. (I’m 80% sure it features pig intestine.)

Another dish came up as “blanket noodle.” But, as it turns out, it’s a wide, flat noodle that resembles a blanket, so it’s actually supposed to be called that.

My favorite mistranslated dish: “bacon face.”

Dec 1, 2011

A little help from the kids

Noodles and shoes

Most days at lunch, I like to go out to a little noodle stall by our house for a bowl of spicy noodles. (Peter generally naps during our break.) I bring a book to read, and every once in a while some of my students will spot me, and come over to sit and talk.

Today, some of my junior students came to sit with me. Their English isn’t so good, so the conversation was pretty slow and repetitive, but it was fun, nonetheless. They also translated some questions that the non-English-speaking adults that run the stall had. “Do you like the soup?” being one of the most frequently asked. Of course I like it. I eat it every other day!

I finished, and they asked if I was going back to the school. I told them I had some shoes I was going to drop off to be polished at the shoe shop a few doors down, but after that I was going back to school. They offered to walk with me, which turned out to be very helpful.

I do think I could have accomplished the transaction completely through gestures, but the girls very nicely translated for me - which was funny from my end, but must have looked hilarious from the POV of the people at the shoe store: this American comes in with two eleven-year-olds who conduct business for her. But now I know for sure that she said come back in three days, not three hours. They’re also going to re-sole them for me, too, which I can use because I walk the crap out of my shoes.

Nov 29, 2011

Hong Kong: Pizza and Martinis

A decadant feast

Martinis!

On Saturday night, we found a lovely place that served pizza and martinis! In Luzhou, we can find neither. (Well, the Western restaurant has something they call pizza, but it isn’t. “You can call it a ham pie,” says Peter.) Spasso is actually located in a giant mall in Kowloon, but Ruby Tuesdays it isn’t. When we asked if they had olives and could they make us dirty martinis, our server asked us, “How dirty?” which was music to our ears; She knew there was a variable degree of dirtiness to a martini!

Pizza at Spasso
The pizza was not the best pizza, but it was very good pizza. It fit the bill for us. Also, It was quite nice to have some real wine. A night of indulgences was just want we needed! Or, wanted, I guess.
Look at the lights
This was the view from the patio. You’re looking back at Hong Kong Island.
We're actually here, in Hong Kong!
Here’s us, with our backs to the view. We had a lovely meal, Spasso. Thanks!

Nov 9, 2011

Food on sticks

Yum

Since we’ve been here, we’ve been seeing these vendors all over everywhere selling food on sticks. Just an array of lotus root, cucumbers, bamboo, everything, all skewered and stacked on top of each other.

Food on sticks
More food on sticks!

In the past few weeks, we’ve figured out what the deal is. Things on sticks, as we call it, is a meal where you grab up some things on sticks and throw them into a spicy broth to cook. It’s kind of the same idea as hot pot, although it’s not the same. I don’t know why, but when we told some locals about it, they were like, “That’s not hot pot.” Whatever it is, it has become our favorite meal out. Partly because of the level of control we have over the food - you take what you want, and no one’s trying to serve you “duck’s paw”.

The place we frequent is just down the street from our house. You start out by grabbing a tray and hitting the big table.

Sticks 1

Grab all the sticks you want. We’re partial to the broccoli, green beans, cucumbers and red pepper. I like to grab a few porky-looking ones as well. We also like to get a couple different kinds of tofu. (Chinese for tofu = dofu. Pretty easy.) That little silver dish below has a mix of more spices, cilantro, peanuts and some other stuff. It’s really tasty to put on the cooked veggies.

Sticks 2

When the broth is bubbling, throw in your sticks. We often see groups of five to ten people out sharing one pot. They throw handfuls and handfuls of sticks in at a time. We like to do only a couple at a time, so nothing gets overcooked; the more it cooks, the spicier it gets.

Sticks 3

Because we’re out on the sidewalk (oh yeah, this restaurant is basically a few tents set up on the sidewalk), the steam blows every which way. Usually into my face. The white bowls, we use them thusly: When we’ve decided a morsel is finished cooking, we plunk it off the stick and into the bowl to cool off. Maybe we mix in some of the silver bowl spices. Not everyone uses the white bowls, but there’s no shame in it. It’s not like being given a fork or anything. (Chinese people constantly express amazement that we can use chopsticks.)

Sticks 4

Anyway, it’s a really fun, delicious meal. We’ve gone twice so far this week. Every time, you can pick something different, according to what you fancy, so it doesn’t get tired. Last night (our fourth time there), the staff started to chat (in a limited fashion) with us - we’re regulars!

Nov 7, 2011

I did it! I ordered noodles!

I love noodles

You know how on Chinese menus, they have Lo Mein or Chow Mein or whatever? Well, “mein” is the Chinese word for noodles! It’s pronounced with two syllables, though, something like “mee-yan.” But I said this to a Chinese person and they understood me! Of course, this was in a shop that only served noodles … but they were delicious nonetheless.

Nov 3, 2011

Dinner with our new friends

Introducing Hank and Summer

We went to dinner the other night with our brand new friends: Summer, the English teacher; Mr. Han, the manager of the music store; Lan Lan, one of the store’s employees; and Sugar and Jenny, English teachers who work with Summer.

It was a lot of fun. We went for hot pot, a local specialty. It works like this: There’s a big bowl of broth (usually very spicy) in the center of the table that’s heated to a boil. You order a bunch of things and then throw them in the broth to cook. When things have cooked, you fish them out with your chopsticks and dunk it in your personal bowl, which usually has some kind of additional flavor.

We had told our friends that Peter was a vegetarian, and they were super accommodating. We got a bifurcated bowl — on one side, there was a spicy chicken broth, and on the other we got a less spicy vegetable broth. I didn’t even know that vegetable broth was an option in this country. They were also really careful to use one set of utensils for the meat side and one for the non-meat (which Peter isn’t actually that strict about, but definitely appreciated). It was super considerate of them, and the first time in this country that anyone fully grasped the whole concept of “vegetarian.” (By contrast, at another hot pot meal, our coworker’s husband offered Peter an egg, which Peter does eat - but in the ladle he had also scooped up the chicken head that was flavoring the broth. Peter declined.)

It’s tough to guess anyone’s age here, but I’d estimate that Summer and her husband are in their mid- to late-thirties, and her colleagues were maybe a little younger. Lan Lan was a mystery. She’s finished school, but she looks like she could be as young as 19. However old they are, they’re a lot of fun. We talked about the differences between China and New York, things to do in Luzhou; they toasted us, we toasted them … it was basically a party. Mr. Han doesn’t really speak any English, but he didn’t let that stop him from a good time; he had lots of questions for us, and well-wishes, and everyone translated for him.

Toward the end of the night, one of the girls mentioned KTV (karaoke). Maybe we’d go with them one night. Now Peter and I hate karaoke. But it’s a huge social event here … and our new friends were so much fun, we were like, “Of course we want to go to KTV with you!”

I also accidentally bestowed an English name on Mr. Han. He was telling us his full name, which we dutifully repeated, but had a hard time making stick. Because Chinese names are made up of phonemes we’ve never used/heard before, they’re really difficult for us to remember. But “Mr. Han” was too formal. So Summer told us that we could call him Han-gu, which is “brother Han” - a designation that is much more friendly. I said, “Oh, that sounds like an American name: Hank.” They loved it! And everyone decided right then and there that his American name would be Hank. Later in the night, Lan Lan asked for an American name, too. I couldn’t think of anything right on the spot, so I said next time I see her, I’ll have one. I’ve thought of something, but I want to see if she likes it before I broadcast it to the internet.

We ate and ate and ate. Everything was so delicious, and the food just kept coming. Our new favorites include lotus root (which we’ve been seeing everywhere) and this tofu that almost tasted like fresh mozzarella cheese. At what we thought was toward the end of the meal, the servers brought in plates and plates of leafy greens to throw in the soup (did I mention that we were eating in a private room?). In China, it seems like they end a meal with the greens, rather than starting with a salad or something. I remarked on such, and our friends just shrugged and said, “yeah, we don’t eat salad.” I don’t know what I was hoping for them to say.

To end the meal, we had little bowls of melon-flavored ice cream. Like everything else, it was sooooo good. There were enough for everyone to have two, but mostly everyone tried to foist their second bowl on us. We were just as full, however, so we had to refuse.

So many of the people we’ve met here are so generous and gracious with us. It’s really been an honor to spend time in this city and feel so welcomed. Definitely part of it is that we’re so exotic - that’s why we get hollered at in the streets - but the people we’ve spent time with are genuinely kind to us. We’re definitely having a great time.

Oct 28, 2011

Dinner with our coworkers

Mapu dofu and more

A view of the bridge

Tuesday night, our bosses took us and some of the other English teachers out for dinner. We went to a small place by the Tuo River (which you can see above). Here, when you go out with a big group, you eat family-style - this place had a kind of lazy Susan on the table, so you could easily get to the food that you want. It was really good. Because our bosses have worked with foreigners, they understand “vegetarian” a little better than the average Chinese person (although they still think it’s kind of weird to not eat any meat) so there were plenty of vegetable-only dishes for Peter. The flavors here are really intense. If it’s not super spicy, it’s really salty or even sweet (one of the dishes was a sweet boiled cabbage). I love the spicy stuff, even though it totally empties out my sinuses (actually, maybe that’s why I like it). So I become a red, teary mess, but I love it.

So there were a lot of vegetarian dishes (Mapu tofu, green beans and hot peppers, sweet corn, cabbage, some kind of sweet salad made with dandelion greens or something, eggplant, and these noodles that they said were made of sweet potato, I think). But also some meat. As some of you know, I eat a mostly vegetarian diet, only because Peter is the cook in our house. So when meat is on the table, I take advantage … to a point. They’re big on serving whole animals here, which I am a little picky about. I’ll eat a shredded chicken breast (which was one of the dishes), but I’m a little more hesitant to eat a chicken foot (which were part of our soup a few weeks ago when we went for hot pot). There was nothing too outrageous (to my sheltered palate) on the table - some fried pork thingys that I remain ignorant as to what part they actually were, a fish stew and the chicken.

But the food is only half the story. Chinese meal time is all about togetherness. And that felt really nice. Throughout the meal, everyone made toasts to us and to each other. The custom is: So you have some beers out on the table. Everyone gets a small shot glass. You can sip from this when you want, but when a toast is being made, the toaster and toastee fill their small glasses and drink the whole thing down to the bottom. It’s rude to refuse to drink, though some of the older teachers told me I could switch to tea later if I needed too. I don’t think men really have this option. (Though our friends have pretty low tolerances, so we weren’t really in any danger.)

The whole affair was a nice unofficial “welcome to our school!” It was great to sit with our new coworkers and get to know them a little better as people. They spoke a lot of Chinese with each other, but everyone made an effort to talk with us in English and make us feel a part of the group. They also, later on in the night, invited themselves all over to make us Christmas dinner. We’ll see what happens.

Oct 22, 2011

Bake me a cake

Life without an oven

The cake

I made a cake! In our rice cooker!

I used this recipe, and it came out OK. Not my best work; I over-cooked it by a lot, so the whole thing bowed upwards and the bottom was pretty crunchy, and I substituted five-spice for the matcha powder she used - which gave the cake kind of a strange taste. But, for what I had to work with (the only measuring tool I have is a tablespoon), that it came out at all was a success. It’s really dense, kind of like coffee cake, and I think if I try it again, it’ll result in something that I could actually call dessert. Which is pretty darn amazing considering we have no oven, no dairy and no measuring cups.

Oct 16, 2011

Lonely God returns

Now with new cabbage flavor

Lonely God cabbage

We found more Lonely God! This one is cabbage flavor, we think. It tastes kind of sour cream and onion-y, if you’re not thinking about it too hard.

Oct 13, 2011

Lonely God

It's a snack

Lonely God is delicious

We saw these snacks for the first time today, and they’re really tasty. Like sweet tomato-flavored curlicue chips.

And I am sensitive to the fact that the English mistakes we see over here are still 2,000 times better than anything I could say/write in Chinese, but I still find the misuse of language hilarious.