Hello Uncle Foreigner

food

Jan 10, 2012

New food on sticks

Very similar to the old food on sticks

New sticks
Fish boat

Part of our explore-the-city mission is to find places to eat other than our beloved sticks pavilion. With that in mind, last week we got gussied up and went out.

Our intention was to finally hit up one of those boat restaurants we see along the river. Turns out - and we totally should have expected this — they are fish restaurants. You can even go pick out which fish you want. Unfortunately, we wanted zero fish, so we left. Strike one.

Looking for a rotating restaurant

But, we had heard about this rotating restaurant on the top of the Luzhou Hotel! So we went to search that out. When we found it, it looked like the whole building had been closed for quite a while. Strike two.

Fancy pants chain

Our next thought was to try this street near our house where we had seen several indoor eating establishments that looked cool. We picked one - and it was more food on sticks! It was a little more upscale than our favorite outdoor place - there were wooden benches instead of plastic stools and there was a wider selection of food. We got a bowl that was split in two, one side with super spicy broth and the other with a vegetable stock. It was a nice change of pace to have a similar meal with different flavors.

It was slightly more expensive than our usual place, but we’d definitely go back.

Dec 30, 2011

Dinner with our principals

Welcome to school

Our first banquet dinner

Last Friday night, or Christmas Eve eve, our head teachers Linda and Sarah took us for a long promised welcome dinner with our schools principals - we have one head principal and four vice principals. We went back to a restaurant that they had taken us to before: It’s hot pot, but everyone gets their own individual bowl of broth. I think because most Chinese dining is done family style, it’s a novelty to have your own portion.

We dressed nicely, to impress our bosses, but the rest of the night was not a staid, impress-your-bosses type of affair. There’s a manner here that we’re not sure is Chinese or local Sichuan, but people are very loud and forward. If you need more tea, you either yell for a waitress, or get up and get it yourself. Dropped your chopsticks? (Which I do often.) Go grab another pair from the waitress station. Even at upscale places, there’s a lot of yelling and getting up and grabbing. It’s brash and we like it.

But, anyway, ordering food is always a loud and confusing ordeal. Sarah did all the ordering for the table, but she and the waitress seemed to need to consult for a long time. In that time, the principals came in and were introduced to us. They had all been stuck at a meeting, so they were a little late, which they apologized profusely for. Each of them asked each of us for forgiveness, which was kind of astonishing and a little embarrassing - you’re the boss! Show up whenever you want!

After introductions, Sarah broke out the special bottle of Luzhou Laojiao that she had brought along, and the toasting began. Everyone was served a tiny thimble of the white liquor, and when someone toasted you, you stood up with them as they made their speech to you. The principals all could speak a little bit of English, but mostly Linda and Sarah translated. They wished us Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, and told us how happy they were to have us at their school. They were thrilled to have us as part of the family, they said. It was all very flattering. When the toast was finished, you drank your glass down to the bottom and held it out to show the other person that you had indeed drunk it all.

The spread

The food just kept coming. There were meat slices, leafy greens, sprouts and other veggies, mushrooms, bamboo shoots, potatoes, pumpkin, fish bits, dumplings and much, much more. The good thing for us about this meal is that you only take what you want, meaning we could skip the intestines, etc. Halfway through the meal they brought out some desserty items: fruit, sticky rice cakes and mini pumpkin muffins. (None of these went in the soup.) This did not mean the meal was done, however. More main course stuff followed. As did ice cream. And then more leafy greens. When we thought we were done, the question was posed to the table: rice or noodles to finish the meal? All of our hosts were pretty drunk by then (the Chinese really do metabolize alcohol much differently than we do), so the discussion was a hilarious one (they were all laughing about it, anyway), with one of the VPs chanting “mian, mian, mian!” Somehow, the decision was put to me. I chose noodles, of course.

The jokes were flying around the table, though even translated they didn’t always make sense to us — I have a whole post about Chinese humor to come, but from what I’ve seen it involves making a statement that is obviously false and then laughing your head off. As they had more to drink, there was less and less of an effort to translate things into English, but it was kind of interesting to sit back and watch the room descend into silliness.

When the meal was over, it was over. Everyone abruptly stood and gathered their coats and things. There was no lingering, no talk of an afterparty. The meal was done, it was time to go home. Everyone said their goodbyes and wished us Merry Christmas again as they bundled us off into a cab.

We may not have understood the whole night, but it was a fun time anyway. We feel so lucky to be at a school where everyone loves having us here. We’ve heard stories that that isn’t always the case — foreigner teachers can be resented, ignored, cheated, etc. But everyone from the students to our fellow teachers to our bosses has been incredibly nice and generous with their time and help and attention. I’d say, as winter break approaches, it’s going quite well.

Dec 20, 2011

Hong Kong: The search for Mexican food

Spoiler: We find some

Our need for pizza sated, the mission Sunday night was Mexican food. We looked up a few places in Central that sounded good.

An awesome thing about Central district: It’s situated on a super steep hill, so they’ve built a giant 800-meter long escalator. There’s a break every block, so you can get off and on where you need to. It’s super cool.

The Mexican place we found was called something like El Taco Loco, and it was just the kind of disgusting cheese-covered junk food we were looking for. It was a super casual place, with tacos and burritos served in red plastic baskets, and it seemed to be super popular with the younger ex-pat crowd.

After eating, we hit up an English-style pub called Waterloo Station. Basically, we wanted to suck up all the foreign-ness that we could before we returned to China.

We found some terrible Mexican food!
Follow the full journey to find Mexican 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.