Hello Uncle Foreigner

pizza

Mar 9, 2017

The easiest border crossing we know

Exploring new areas in Hong Kong

This apartment building was cool enough to stop us.
We thought this apartment building was pretty cool looking, so we stopped for a photo. A local tapped me on the shoulder to point out …

As a kid, I dreamed of going to Hong Kong. I was an unrepentant Anglophile, and fascinated by its colonial English roots.

These days, I’m really attracted to spaces that seem caught between two worlds, and as an adult I’ve been lucky enough to have been to HK a lot. As is well documented, Peter and I have fallen completely for Lamma Island. This most recent trip, however, we stayed for the first time on the Kowloon Peninsula, the northern bit of the city part of Hong Kong. We bunked down in the infamous Chungking Mansion — a commercial building with approximately 5,000 cheap guesthouses crammed into every nook and cranny. Our room was spacious, for a sea voyage, but the price was right.

Kowloon, especially the Kowloon City neighborhood, has a large immigrant community, which means — food from all over! The Indian Curry King, who lived up to his name, was our best meal of the trip. Also serving food was Ebeneezer’s Kebabs & Pizzeria. It’s a good name.

Our unofficial mission for the two-day trip was to track down a Marvel Legends Iron Fist action figure. Peter has been checking our Luzhou Toys “R” Us for months now, to no avail. (And, yeah, Luzhou has a Toys “R” Us now.) We got lost all over the place and at one point ended up at a Ruby Tuesday’s for onion rings. It’s amazing the places a good quest will take you.

In the end, we never found that figure. But we did find Pizza Express! A British chain that serves a pretty decent tomato sauce on their pie. (Their crust could do with a little more time in the oven, but this is pizza in Asia, so we’ll take it.)

The famous Tiger's Head Rock, which needed to be pointed out to us.
… we were missing the real view of Tiger’s Head Rock directly behind us.

Jul 27, 2013

A taste of the international

Willkommen! Bienvenue! 欢迎!

Green Lake, in the center of its park
Other foreigners in Green Lake ParkBoat rides in Green Lake ParkMore Green Lake ParkMore foreigners in Green Lake ParkGreen Lake Park
Green Lake Park is a lovely hangout spot in the center of Kunming.
Dianchi LakeA park near Dianchi Lake聂耳 at his museumThe cable car up the West HillsDianchi Lake from the West Hills
The West Hills and Dianchi Lake are just a short cab ride outside the city. Don’t skip the 聂耳 museum tucked away behind the cluster of tourist eateries; it’s really cool!
Salvador's on Wenlin JieHeavenly Manna on Wenlin JieWenlin JieNighttime on Wenlin Jie
The cool kids hang out on Wenlin Jie.
Jinbi Square
Shopping in Jinbi Square; there’s a Carrefour around here somewhere.
The Hump RestaurantGoat cheese Burmese curry at the Hump
Get the goat cheese Burmese curry at The Hump.
Central KunmingCentral KunmingA sandwich in central Kunming
Street scenes around central Kunming
The mall where we found the Indian restaurantOur Indian meal
The Indian restaurant we went to was in a gigantic mall just outside the Second Ring Road.
The little alleyway where you can find the Lost Garden GuesthouseThe little alleyway where you can find the Lost Garden GuesthouseLost Garden's rooftop restaurantSnacks on the rooftop loungeLost Garden has pizzaThe real fire oven at Lost Garden
Lost Garden Guesthouse and environs were peaceful and beautiful. And their pizza was excellent.
Sunnyside massage centerBeauty spots in Kunming
There’s something fun tucked around every corner!
Fishing at Dianchi LakePineapple and cucumber -- yes, please
Left: A party of fishermen and -women at Dianchi Lake. Right: Yunnan food knows how to use its pineapple effectively.
A perfect bloody MaryA view from the rooftop at Lost Garden
A good drink in a relaxing hideaway: Bloody Marys on the terrace of our hostel were just too wonderful.

When we arrived in Kunming, it was almost like reverse culture shock.

I mean, we were still clearly in China. But it was a much different China than the one we’d been living in.

For one thing, Kunming is actually beautiful. There are green spaces, walkable neighborhoods, trees everywhere, architecture in a style other than “Communist Poured Concrete” … It’s the first city we’ve been to that visually dazzled.

It helped that we stayed right around the corner from Green Lake Park, an impeccably landscaped green space surrounding the titular body of water. We passed through there daily, and, it appeared, so did everyone else: tourists and locals, foreigners and nationals. Available activities: Snacks, street musicians, small pedal boats, people watching.

Further afield, we explored the beautiful West Hills overlooking Dianchi Lake, about a half-hour’s drive from the city center. As you ascend, there are temples and traditional structures interwoven into the nature, as well as an interesting museum about 聂耳, a young musician from Yunnan who rose impressively quickly through the ranks of the Communist party before dying at age 23. You can hike the mountains, though we took a bus and then a cable car across the lake. Fun, natural fun!

Between those two extremes was a city still ringed by the ginormous highways that define all Chinese cities, but tucked in between those were funky-cute nabes, with space for urban rambling, and trees and shops and people and traffic. We loved it.

Keep in mind, we are city people, however.

Peter from America: Do you like Kunming?

Peter from Malaysia: No. The oxygen is so bad.

— Malaysian Peter, a two-year Kunming veteran, introduced himself to us when we stopped at a street side stall to buy an icey coffee drink. We traded travel stories (“You’re from Malaysia?! We’ve been to Malaysia!”) while our drink was being made.

The other big loop thrower was how international our experience was. By which I don’t just mean the fact that there were other westerners, but that all cultures — Western, Chinese, local ethnic minorities, other Asians — mingled together in a hip, cosmopolitan way.

Particularly the neighborhood around Wenlin Jie — which felt like a transplanted Lower East Side with Chinese Characteristics — was lousy with foreigners, but exuded an “All are welcome” vibe. The bars, and there were many bars, served up western-style cocktails alongside Chinese nibbles (beware the mustard potatoes; they’re like boiled fries drenched in wasabi!). The crowds were always international and mixed. We did, however, run into three separate expat meet-up groups in that area over the course of our time there.

Outside of that area, it was less common to glimpse obvious foreigners, but we could tell that we were turning many fewer heads. Which was a nice thing. It’s fun being a superstar, but it’s also a constant reminder that we’re in but not of the place we’re calling home. We want a pot in which to melt, please.

Drunk Beijinger: Where are you from?

Emily and Peter: We’re American.

DB: [accusing, but friendly] I thought you were Italian!

Emily: Well, we’re not!

French friend of DB: I’m French. We can’t all be perfect. [leads drunk friend away]

— A nighttime encounter at a bar on Wenlin Jie. Later, when we went over to say goodbye, the pair said that they could tell we were English teachers because we spoke so slowly and carefully.

Actually, the extreme (to us) cosmopolitanality of Kunming was disorienting at times. It may have looked and sounded like we were just around the corner from somewhere familiar, but that really wasn’t the case. It led to confusing situations like when I asked the (Chinese) server at French Cafe if we could “sit outside.” He looked at me in panic and turned to get an English speaker. I realized my mistake, repeated my question in Chinese, and wondered what made me do that.

Emily: [reading a poster at a small Burmese cafe] Oh! They have a farmers market here on Sundays. That’s so great. We’ll have to come here … What am I saying?! We live in the middle of a farm.

— It only took a few days to forget my current countryside life. My only excuse is that I’m an urban girl. The Burmese curry, it must be mentioned, was fabulous.

But it was a relief to be reminded that we are still in China after all. We like living China! We like learning the Chinese language! And we love eating the Chinese food!

We didn’t get to eat as much Yunnan food as we wanted (we didn’t get to eat as much food as we wanted, full stop), but the one meal we had, at Heavenly Manna, was terrific. We, of course, ordered the fried goat cheese, which was light, gentle and delicious. We possibly “did it wrong” by dipping our triangles of cheese in the tangy sauce that came with the cucumbers and pineapple dish, but whatevs. I also got a fantastic pork and coriander plate, and we completed the meal with curried mashed potatoes, which should be eaten every day, all day.

And we wanted to. But we were too dazzled by all the options available to us. In one week, we did pizza, Mexican, Indian, felafel, Carrefour picnic, sandwiches, dumplings, french fries. Some of it was junk and some of it was the best, but all of it was different. All we knew was that there just weren’t enough meals in the day.

There is a fear
That it’s a misplaced bit of meat
Or an undercooked morsel.
But maybe you just ate too much.

— A late-night Emily original

On the first night (over wood-fired pizza at our hostel), we both decided that Kunming was the place for us. And then, we reminded each other to stay real. The second day (after hour-long massages and cupping treatments), we decided again that Kunming is the place for us. And then, again, we tried to keep our heads level. It became a joke for one of the other of us to declare, “I know it’s not cool for me to decide unilaterally, but we’re moving here.” But by the end of the trip, it wasn’t a joke, we know that Kunming is the place for us.

We love that you can get western food, obviously. But more than that, we’re really excited to see that fusion that occurs in an international city, where everyone has different ideas and wants to share them. It’s a city where language exchange programs are hosted in every other cafe; where the guy at the next table is more likely to ask to take that extra chair than to take your picture (that was embarrassing!); where there’s room for a couple of westerners to not only exist alongside and separate from the local goings on, but to integrate, interact and participate. We may not always understand each other (sometimes literally), but there’s a willingness and desire to have fun trying.

Chinese server: [handing over two wonderfully spiced bloody Marys] Can I ask you something? How do you like this kind of cocktail?

Peter and Emily: We love it!

Server: Really? I think it’s too crazy!

Peter: Well, it’s the best of this kind of drink that we’ve had in China!

Server: [big smile] Thank you!

— We spent a lot of time on the rooftop terrace at our hostel, because it was beautiful, the staff was super friendly, and they had great drinks.

Peter at Dianchi LakeEmily on the roof at Lost Garden

Jan 6, 2013

Pizza party II

Our first gathering in the new apartment

Serving the pizza

Tina and the girls wanted to come see us in our apartment so we invited them over during their free time one Sunday evening. Unbeknownst to them, we started planning the pizza party. There was a double motive there in that we wanted to show them our favorite American food … and we also suspected that they might lose track of time and miss out on their dinner, and we didn’t want to let them go unfed.

By this time, we had gotten to know the girls a lot better. Tina is the boss, the ringleader of the pack. It is on her say so that other girls talk to us and sit with us. But she wields her power generously. I’d say, next in command is Jane. Bookish and reserved, Jane has the best English, so if anyone is unsure of what they want to say, they run it by her first.

Sky is quite bold and confident. She dreams of international travel, especially to Paris, and has lots of good questions. Elaine is quiet and kind. Her manner is friendly and open, and I’d guess her to be the conciliator of the group.

Poor Helen couldn’t make it. The girl who is NOT a turkey had to study during our little get together. In fact, she’s often studying. Though she’s the same age as the other girls, there’s something of a tag-along little sister to her. She’s adorable and they clearly love her, despite the hard times they give her.

Pizza cooking on the grill
We picked up black olives on our last trip to Chongqing, and their existence made up a lot for the crummy Laughing Cow-style cheese that we’re stuck with.
The pizza party in full swing
Sky: I don’t think I can finish my last piece.
Jane: I can help you with that.

The girls arrived as the grill was getting hot; we were using our good friend Martha’s grilled pizza recipe again. They oohed and aahed over our new grill — “You know how to cook with this!?” — and were generally very impressed before the food even came out. We discussed BBQ culture in America, which they appreciated, though they were confused as to why summer is BBQ season. “You’re already hot,” they pointed out.

I was a little nervous serving them food, as I am still perfecting my bread making, but they really seemed to like it. They had never had pizza before, they told us. We beamed with pride, and I exempted myself from the fight for the last slices — which was really, really hard for me, but I did it!

A funny thing happened with our American pizza feast in that it evolved gracefully into a Chinese dinner party. As we waited for each batch to grill, the girls started to entertain us, singing American pop songs, telling jokes, and then performing a little traditional Chinese opera. Jane, in particular, was a lovely singer, demonstrating the technique singers use to vocally switch genders. “Where did you learn these songs?” we asked. “From TV,” they told us.

Too soon, they had to go back to class — yes on a Sunday evening, there is still more class. But after getting so much from them — they periodically give us little gifts and notes and cards in addition to friendship — it was nice to be able to give something to them. We’re buds for life.

Oct 11, 2012

Summer vacation: Trattoria Verde

Our Italian splurge

Real Italian food!
Our new friend at the table next door took a picture of us all fancyPeter, outside the restaurant

The online expat reviews of this Italian joint were strong, so we made a reservation and got all dolled up.

The split-level restaurant is cozy, and has a breezy, beachy style — with quirky, cute artwork and tchotchkes on the walls — that wouldn’t be out of place on Main Street in Southampton. Upstairs is a little dark, but we were sat downstairs, with a view of the open kitchen. I can verify that everyone was working very hard.

It was exciting to see a real wine list after so much time. We were trying not to go too crazy, however, at a restaurant that was at the upper end of our budget, so I ordered a glass of the house red, which did me right. Peter’s martini was garnished with a black olive — the one small disappointment of the meal.

We started with an appetizer of roasted asparagus with some sort of hard cheese shaved over the top. (It was something delicious and fancier than Parmesan, is all we can remember; one lesson of this trip was: take better notes.) This was the first time we had seen asparagus anywhere in China, and so we anticipated the dish hungrily. And, oh, it was so good! The asparagus was roasted just perfectly, and the salty tang of the unknown cheese was a wonderful compliment.

As for mains: Peter went with a cheese ravioli, garnished with pine nuts — another rarity over here — and I got a pizza with prosciutto and ricotta cheese. The ravioli were incredible, and the pizza was the Best in China So Far. The crust was thin and crispy, and the sauce (which is most often what Chinese pizza gets wrong) was light and just the right amount of sweet and salty.

It was a pricy meal, but we definitely felt that it was money well spent.

The Trattoria Verde kitchen

Let’s repair to the bar for a digestive …

Oct 2, 2012

Summer vacation: Finding that Spark

Beer and pizza still works in China

A wide sampling of the Spark menuReal microbrewThe Spark exterior

Just up from May 4th Square is The Spark, a modern little microbrew pub specializing in fancied-up American diner food. The whole menu is tantalizing (and we were seriously tempted to come back for brunch), but we ultimately settled on a pizza, a salad, a steak sandwich with fries, and pickles. (Pickles are emerging as a surprise contender in the “what do we miss most” game.) And, of course, beer.

Beer was the big reason we sought out the Spark, having read that Beer City actually had its own microbrew. And though we were well full up on Tsingtao (this was the meal had after our brewery tour), we did have room for one more — especially one more made small-batch, on the premises.

It was absolutely fantastic. The beer had a golden honey color, a good head, and it was cloudy and full of flavor. The food, also, did not disappoint. Everything we ordered was comforting, authentic and delicious. The steak on my sandwich was beautifully marinated, and it was served with hard-boiled egg slices, making it extra hearty. Peter’s pizza did pretty well by the standards of pizzas we’ve had in China.

We read about this place on some expat boards (obviously; we still don’t speak Chinese). But, as we’d seen in most of our western dining experiences in Qingdao, the Spark’s patrons were a good mix of westerners and Chinese. And everyone looked to be having a good time.

Now that we’re well fed, let’s get out on the water …

Sep 16, 2012

Summer vacation: A pizza hunt

Ending up in a familiar place

Dinner at Pizza Hut
Shapingba District is not the city center, but it is a city center — and much more convenient to our hostel.
Shapingba

We were too tired to get into the main city center for dinner, but there was another center, Shapingba, that was a short bus ride away. So we researched a pizza place on the internet (we’re always on the lookout for good pizza in China) and hopped on the bus.

After much searching and a very long walk, we never found the internet pizza place … but we did stumble upon a Pizza Hut!

And I can report that Pizza Hut pizza tastes exactly the same in China as it does in America. It really brought me back to those days of grabbing a Personal Pan at Penn Station on my way out to visit my parents on Long Island. But for Chinese people, Pizza Hut represents a really fancy night out. It’s expensive (relative to a normal Chinese dinner), for one thing. And we saw many dressed up couples out for a date.

The menu, much like many of the Western restaurants in Luzhou, is about 20 pages long. In addition to pizza, they offer salads, pasta, rice dishes, fried snacks … pretty much any kind of stereotypical western food. We tried a garden salad and onion rings. They weren’t very good. But the iced tea we got was pretty tasty.

Next stop, Qingdao …

Jun 25, 2012

Replace your passport: Time for fun

Book shopping is the best

☆ Side Quest: Bookworm and Le Sud

Objective: Have some big city fun (and possibly a pizza) before catching the bus back to Luzhou

Reading and drinking is pretty much the best
By the way, the mint candy soda at the Loft is tops!

We were finished at the consulate by noon, but both Peter and I agreed that it was just too soon to get back on the bus to go back to Luzhou. Also, the silver lining of the passport mess was that we got to revisit a city that we really liked. So we agreed to stay another night, and set about enjoying Chengdu.

First thing: We were in need of lunch and new books, and The Bookworm is only a short walk from the consulate. It was a no brainer.

After lunch, we wandered around the city, soaking up the cosmopolitan atmosphere until our feet started to complain. We retired to the Loft courtyard to enjoy some minty refreshments while we read our new books.

For dinner, we had our sights set on pizza. You may have noticed that people love to argue about things on the internet, especially food. So the search for “Best Pizza in Chengdu” turned up many conflicting results. But French-Mediterranean restaurant Le Sud kept coming up as well-liked, and they had very few detractors.

And, just to put this out in the aether: There seems to be a little confusion online about whether the restaurant is closed, be it for renovations or permanently. But a man answered the phone when I called, and was really excited that we might be coming in for dinner later.

So, the restaurant was empty, but the meal was delicious enough

When we got there, the restaurant was empty. It would remain so for the duration of our dinner. So, for the record, Le Sud is open, and it’s delicious! The pizza had a delicate, thin crust with just the right amount of tomato sauce (that’s an issue with Chinese pizza), and cheese, lovely cheese.

After dinner, we retired back to the Loft for a healing sleep, and then it was back on the bus for us.

The action resumes in back in Luzhou …

Apr 22, 2012

Pizza party

So delicious

The final result

As I said in my last post, more food ingredients are coming into focus out of all of the visual clutter. I’m also getting much better at writing down characters from Google Translate and at guessing where a given product might be found (unlike with the plunger hunt). And that’s enabled us to recreate all kinds of non-Chinese food; we’ve done Mexican, Brazilian, Indian, Thai, American, Italian and random fusion of all sorts of cuisine.

Pizza in the wok

One thing we do really miss is pizza. They serve something called pizza at the Western Restaurants around town, but we have to be really desperate to go for that. But, over the past few months, cheese has shown up in a couple of the grocery stores. It’s mostly processed singles, but one grocery store has an analog of Laughing Cow cheese that, if we’re being generous (and we are!), has a texture like goat cheese. Tomatoes here are treated like a fruit — meaning ketchup, juice, et al. are on the sweet side — but the international sections of most bigger supermarkets carry recognizably Western tomato sauce. (Of course we could stew our own sauce in the rice cooker; that’s a goal for next time.) And, the last piece of our puzzle, using our translation notebook, we found yeast last weekend at the spice man’s stall at the farmer’s market.

And what does that all spell? PIZZA!

We used our good friend Martha’s recipe for pizza on the grill and just did it on the wok. As you can see above, we piled on the fresh vegetables, which were really good. The cheese behaved just as I had hoped it would, getting slightly crispy on the outside and ooey-gooey in the middle. We added some smokey tofu crumbles to one of the pizzas for a smokey-facon flavor (that was the best one). The crusts came out OK for my first time making them, though I think I’d like a little more practice before serving our homemade pizza to our Chinese friends.

It was pretty much a full day of work (not to mention all the ingredient hunting in the week before), but it was so worth it. Even with the not-perfect crust, the pizzas were delicious! It was also really satisfying to figure out how to make the impossible possible.

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!