27 February 2009

The Cost of a Meal in China

Turner and I went out to eat tonight at a local, family-style restaurant. For a little more than six dollars we ordered the following:
  • One-liter bottle of Tsingtao beer
  • Two bowls of rice
  • Stir-fried eggs with tomatoes
  • Shredded potato fried with garlic
  • Sweet and sour pork
Not too shabby and utterly satisfying.

When my students ask me if I cook Chinese food at home, I usually say no, because we can get it for cheaper and tastier just a few hundred yards from our door.

(This picture is from Shanghai, not a few hundred yards from our door.)

26 February 2009

Street Snacks

China probably has more street vendors than anywhere else in the world. India might be a close second, but, as I have never been there, I can not compare.

Fruit, fish, rice crackers, bunnies, fireworks, dumplings, kebabs, watches. You can buy just about everything you need for daily life and special occasions without setting foot inside a building.

At every gate of our campus, food vendors set up shop. They arrive in the mid-morning to prepare for the lunch rush. Should we decide to grab some food around lunchtime, noon or so, we have to wait in line for quite awhile. Their popularity stems from the food's cheap cost, speed of preparation, and overall deliciousness. More on these purveyors of meals some other time.

Today, after lunch at our local noodle joint, we came upon a vendor of dried snack food. He was selling various seeds, nuts, and fruits out of large plastic bags. Our go-to snacks from these "establishments" are banana chips, unshelled roasted peanuts, and sweet potato chips. This last item has me in a state of enthrallment whenever we buy a bag. Sweet, thick, crispy, just the right amount of oil, these are sweet potatoes like you could never have imagined. I can't ... stop ... eating ... them!

I used to not like sweet potatoes, but since being in China and seeing the multitude of ways they are cooked, I am a convert. And these chips are quite possibly the best snack food ever.

Until I break into the bag of peanuts.

25 February 2009

Garlic Lovin'

I think I had a run-in with destiny today.

As I was ea
ting my scrambled eggs on toast for dinner last night, I thought about the good food that I could be eating. Now, don't get me wrong, I love eggs loaded with cheese and topped with Cholula hot sauce, but one night a week is enough. For some reason, meat loaf sprang to mind.

Being a home cook in China presents wonderful challenges and many impossibilities. For one, I've learned to carefully select my proteins and their cooking method. It's hard to screw up ground meat and a loaf pan. It's hard to screw up the flavors of onion, garlic, tomato, and cheese. Meatloaf offers a few bonuses: easy preparation and cooking, compatibility with many side dishes, and tasty leftovers.

Back to my date with destiny though. I went grocery sh
opping this morning, picking up some staples (butter) and the fixings for dinner (ground beef and pork). The ground lamb winked at me, but I thought its flavor would overpower the other meats. I came home, put the food away, and then sat at the computer for my daily food blog perusal. How did I ever pass my time before the world of food blogging opened up for me? It's wonderfully addictive.

One of my favorites, Smitten Kitchen, blogged today about Meatball Sliders. Meatloaf, meatballs, basically the same thing--except hers are cooked in tomato sauce, while mine will be slathered with ketchup. The epiphany came when I saw her recipe for Roasted Garlic Buns at the bottom of the post. They would be perfect as a dinner roll accompaniment to my meatloaf! I had all the ingredients in my pantry and few glorious heads of Chinese garlic.

If you ever want to impress someone, foodie or not, have some garlic roasting in the oven when they come over for dinner.

Mine turned out well, despite a few alterations due to lack of fresh Pecorino in China, and I did not find it too difficult to work the roasted garlic in for the second rise. I ate one already, fresh out of the oven, and am having problems saving the rest for the meatloaf.

I also made healthy oatmeal cookies since I did not have to teach any classes today. I found a recipe from Martha Stewart that uses vegetable oil instead of butter (hence the "healthy"), which works perfectly in China because butter is a luxury item. Two things did me in, using Chinese peanut oil instead of soybean oil and using Chinese brown sugar. The oil had an odd smell, not rancid, just not as odorless as I would have preferred. Sometimes, Chinese brown sugar contains "rocks," as I call them, which are really just hard clumps of sugar that do not mix in well. I ended up with brown sugar pockets in the cookies.

Martha's dozen or so cookies turned into my six. (I can never make cookies tiny to meet the recommended quantity! It just feels like a waste of space in my toaster oven where space is at a premium.) I also added walnuts that have been wasting away in my freezer.

The cookies taste, well, "okay" would be a good adjective. They'll do in a pinch, but I won't be making that recipe again. "Healthy" and "cookie" should rarely be uttered in the same sentence as far as I'm concerned. One of my obstacles in China is that I have to bake cookies on a rimmed baking sheet all of 12 inches by 6 inches, approximately. This tends to lead to too many cookies baked at once, hence the flat edges.

24 February 2009

Simple Pleasures

Sometimes it's something so simple that so sensationally satisfies. Okay, I got alliterated-away. The other day I craved chocolate, surprise surprise, who doesn't get a chocolate craving every now and then? I really don't get them that often, but when one hits, I have a fail-safe remedy.

The best brownies ever!

It's a fairly simple recipe that even the most hard core box-mix bakers can follow. I think it's from Martha Stewart, like many other pleasurable recipes, but I have been making this one recipe for so long that I can't quite remember its origins.

Double Chocolate Brownies

Probably adapted from Martha Stewart

  • 6 T unsalted butter
  • 6 oz. coarsely chopped semi-sweet chocolate (I prefer Ghiradelli for its price point and quality.)
  • 1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder (Don't know what the unsweetened bit means but I use Hershey's.)
  • 3/4 cup flour
  • 1/4 t baking powder
  • 1/4 t salt
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 2 large eggs
  • 2 t vanilla
  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F and butter bottom and sides of 8x8 or 9x9 pan.
  2. Put butter, chocolate, and cocoa in double boiler over simmering water. Stir until melted and then set aside to cool.
  3. In medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder and salt and set aside.
  4. In large bowl, whisk sugar, eggs, and vanilla until pale, about 4 minutes. Add the melted chocolate mixture. Beat until combined. Add flour mixture and beat until well-incorporated.
  5. Pour in prepared pan and bake for about 35 minutes. (I prefer to underbake instead of overbake for fudgier brownies. Your choice.) Let cool 15 minutes before removing from pan.

You'll think you'd died and gone to heaven after eating these. I don't think I've made any other brownie recipe for almost 5 years, and I never add anything to these--no nuts, no frosting.

They're not the most photogenic, but sometimes all you need is a warm brownie and then all is right with the world.

22 February 2009

Day 05 Shanghai

This is the day I got sick. I felt exhausted, had sinus pressure, and dealt with a nose that would not stop running. I'm not sure if the change in climate and pollution levels did it or if I was just run down from traveling. Still, we spent most of the day walking around the city, finally making it to the French Concession in the daylight. First though, we walked along the building-side of the Bund so Turner could stick his head in the extravagant banks, most of which had surly guards and "No Pictures" signs, if they let you in at all. Turner likes to break the rules though.

During our perambulations, I started to get a chill, so we ducked into the nearest warm, quiet place we saw. Turns out it was a Dunkin' Donuts! I exaggerate. Turner saw the sign from the street and said he hadn't had a doughnut in ages, so we had to stop. Everything tasted like we were sitting in a doughnut shop in the US. Warm coffee can do wonders.

Not long after our late breakfast stop, it was lunch time. We had yet to eat dim sum, the Cantonese version of tapas, or small plates. Because we were in a retail/business district, most of the restaurants were fairly fancy, linen tablecloths and tuxedoed servers. But because it was lunch, prices weren't too high. We ordered a few dishes to give this cuisine a try: cucumbers in garlic sauce, chicken spring rolls, egg and onion pancakes, Shanghai pork dumplings, and sweet Shanghai dumplings (what you see in the foreground below).

These sweet treats look harmless until you try to pick one up with your chopsticks and realize that it is squishy. The outside is made from glutinous rice flour and coated in peanuts. The inside oozes a black substance that I think is made from either black sesame seeds or beans. As harmless as the ingredients are, it was the texture that I couldn't get past, only managing to eat half of one. Nothing we had for lunch was exceptional, somewhat of a let down.

All was salvaged with dinner though. Since I was sick and we were both tired from a day walking around, we decided to order pizza and have it delivered. We chose a place called New York Style Pizza, for obvious reasons, and ordering was surprisingly easy. They delivered it right to our hotel room for about the same price you would pay in the US. And let me tell you, this pizza would pass muster in Buffalo any day. I couldn't believe how authentic it tasted, right down to the pepperoni. What a great way to end our culinary adventures in Shanghai!

After some coffee and leftover pizza the next morning, we made our way by taxi and subway to the Maglev station in the outskirts of the city to take us to the airport. Turner was thrilled.

This was my first time on any high-speed train, let alone one that levitates on magnets. As we left the station, the train continued to pick up speed for about 3.5 minutes, topping out at 431 kilometers per hour and taking the rest of the trip to slow down. I am not kidding. It was like riding a 7-minute-long roller-coaster without the hills, though the train did make some steeply banked turns. Even I found the train ride exciting. Thus ended our vacation in Shanghai. It was a great experience, but I was happy to see our little city of Qingdao from the plane windows.

Bye-bye Shanghai; Ni hao Qingdao!

21 February 2009

Day 04 Shanghai

Our intention was to have brunch at a restaurant in the French Concession, which was a good 1/2 hour journey from our hotel (because we did not want to take a taxi). Turns out, this is too far for me to travel in a strange city without any sustenance, so we made it as far as McDonald's and succumbed to their breakfast menu. We got some egg sandwiches, hash browns, and coffee--a welcome change from the mornings of instant.

From there we meandered to the People's Square. As it was Sunday, the park was full of men and women, father and mothers, trying to marry off their children. Picture eHarmony without the internet and a feisty old woman as the matchmaker! Parents (or grandparents) wrote all the pertinent information--birth date, height, salary--on a piece of paper and attached it to a bush with a binder clip or secured it to the ground with some stones. Some even had pictures. Over a hundred people were taking part in this weekly activity, as marrying a Shanghaiese is very desirable in order for the hukou, or residency, of the bride and future children to be in Shanghai instead of a rural village. I think the parents or matchmakers exchange numbers and hopefully leave the rest to the couple, but I'm not sure.

After standing on the sidelines for awhile, we went to the Shanghai Museum, which I had heard was the best museum in China (or at least cost the most money to build). Entry was free, but you had to wait in a security line. They made me drink my water to prove it wasn't acid or something that could destroy the "relics." The museum had four floors organized by type: coins, jade, furniture, calligraphy, ceramics, painting, sculpture. Each exhibition contained the most exemplary objets d'art from across the country. I thought the most impressive were the ceramics (china from China) and the sculptures.

Around lunchtime we were hungry but had only seen half the museum. If we wanted real food we would have to leave the museum and then wait in line again, which had gotten much longer as the day wore on. This left the tea shop. Tea and cookies--not very filling and very pricey as "museum food." Then, by the time we left the museum, it was past lunch and we did not want to ruin our appetites for dinner, so we had a bit of street food and made our way back to the hotel.

Deciding on where to go for dinner took some time. We started looking through the city guides with the intention of going for Cantonese (or dim sum), but most of the restaurants were large, expensive hotel venues, which we were not in the mood for. Then the pendulum swung to pizza, which sounded okay, but not quite perfect. After frustratingly looking through literally hundreds of restaurants, I was getting very hungry and cranky (they usually go together). When this happens, one of the cuisines that can quickly cure my foul mood is Indian. Turner and I consider it comfort food--warm, satisfying, spicy, sweet--everything you want a good meal to be.

We chose Vedas, recommended as having very authentic food that could have come straight from Delhi. I was doubtful when we pulled up in the taxi to a large house in the French Concession with daunting wooden doors and a club next door. It seemed pretentious from the outside, but inside was inviting, with subdued decor (nothing overly exotic) and very friendly fuwuyuan (waitresses). Ours was downright giggly! The restaurant also has an open kitchen, glassed in to save the restaurant from being smoked out from the tandoors (Indian-style ovens, of which the restaurant had two, a good sign), but giving diners a view of the Indian chefs (another good sign).

We ordered drinks, a martini and an apple martini (guess who got which), and started salivating over the menu. This almost literally happens when I read descriptions of Indian food. I went straight for the naan section, happy to find more than one version--plain, butter, garlic--and knew we would need more than one order. We ended up getting butter naan and garlic naan, plus chicken tikka masala, palek paneer (spinach with housemade cheese), dhaba tadka dal (yellow lentils with ginger and other spices), and lamb botti kebabs (tandoori lamb with a crazy spice rub that tickles all your taste buds).

The chicken tikka masala was by far the best dish of the night. The chicken was tender, the tomato-based sauce was sweet and spicy, the whole thing just worked. I could have eaten bowls of it. The paneer was good, but there was too little cheese in the dish. The lamb was on the verge of being overpowering, but it was tasty. Of the meal, the dal was the least inspiring, slightly one-note and lacking salt. For dessert we shared a mango kufti, housemade mango ice cream, which was like eating a frozen mango--divine! We had enough for leftovers that we ate with dinner the next day. Restraint is hard to come by when I eat Indian food. It's becoming one of my favorite cuisines.


20 February 2009

Day 03 Shanghai

February 14th, Valentine's Day and our three-year anniversary. While out and about the past couple days I have been wearing just a t-shirt, but today was much colder and cloudier than previous days. Our itinerary today included a few tourist sites and then a fabulous dinner that we made reservations for a month ago.

First, we took the Bund Sightseeing Tunnel from the west side of the river (Puxi) to the east side (Pudong). This is no ordinary tunnel, mind you. You ride in enclosed modules (rather space-agey) on tracks through a tunnel covered in LEDs, lasers, and inflatable clowns. It's a good thing that neither one of us suffer from seizures because this was a mind trip. At the same time, it was a classic Chinese attraction because it was a lame attempt to be high-tech, well worth the 5 dollar ticket though.

Once we were on the other side, we went to visit the iconic Oriental Pearl TV Tower, a simultaneously perverse and communist building that is the symbol for Shanghai, like the Space Needle for Seattle.

You can buy tickets to the top, but since the air was not clear, we stuck to the Shanghai History Museum on the bottom floor. Rather than using artifacts or pictures, the museum relied on dioramas to recreate thousands of years of history. Some of them were very accurate; the hair on some of the Chinese mannequins was authentically balding--you could see individual hair follicles. Some of the exhibits though left us bewildered. Take the image below for example:

This is supposed to be a famous dance hall for the westerners in the French Concession during the occupation of Shanghai at the beginning of the twentieth century. The figures are about the size of Barbies and look like zombies. I'm not kidding! I call this the "Zombie Ball." It was really creepy because opposite this was a life-size reproduction of a hovel with poor Chinese covered in dirt. I'm not sure if this juxtaposition was intentional by the museum staff, but you can just imagine the message they're conveying: Look at the tiny, money-grubbing foreigners sucking the life out of the honorable, proud Chinese. Overall, the dioramas with Chinese figures were much more lifelike than any that contained a baigui (white devil). We left the museum in a state of befuddlement.

Then on to another museum, the Urban Planning Museum in People's Square, that was chock full of more dioramas about the future development of Shanghai and, more importantly, for the World Expo in 2010. (Shanghai has count-down clocks around the city that let you know there are 440 days left until the Expo.) By this time, we were tired, cranky, and overwhelmed by all the minute details. Turner took a lot of pictures though.

For dinner, we had reservations for the special Valentine's Day menu at Casanova, an Italian restaurant in the French Concession. At our table was a red rose and specially printed menus for the evening's four-courses, along with two flutes of Tattinger champagne. My menu consisted of Steamed Crab Meat with Cress Salad, White Beans, Sun Dried Tomatoes and Fig Vinaigrette Dressing; Fettuccine with Boston Lobster Sauce and Thyme; and Crispy Red Fish Fillet with Saffron Sauce, Mashed Chick Peas and Asparagus. Turner had Pan Fried Goose Liver with Port Sauce, Goose Liver Terrine with Orange and Marinated Goose Liver in Sweet Wine Sauce; "Candy" Dumpling Stuffed with Porcini Mushrooms Served with Butter Sauce, Truffle Pate and Crispy Parmesan Cheese; and Pan Fried Beef Tenderloin Wrapped with Smoked Ham, Rosemary and Mustard Sauce. The dessert course was shared, called the Cupid's Platter with Chocolate and Rum Mousse, Ricotta Cheesecake, Coconut Shooters, and Truffles. (You can tell that I saved the menu so I would not forget all the details!)

After our first glasses of champagne, we knew we would need more to go with dinner so we ordered a bottle of Prosecco. Everything was delicious! Yes, I ate a little crab and lobster, the first tasted like tuna and the second I gave mostly to Turner to eat but it flavored the pasta sauce nicely. Turner said that his beef was "something else," the best he'd ever had. This was a very memorable V-Day and anniversary, with better food and drink than we can usually afford in the US. Ah, the benefits of being an expatriate.


19 February 2009

Day 02 Shanghai

After a breakfast of instant coffee and pastries bought from Paul the night before, we headed out with the intention of visiting People's Square in the morning. From a previous taxi ride I had noted an area full of book and stationary stores that was on the way to the square. I couldn't resist taking this detour, which turned into a morning browsing the shelves. Turner found a set of small notebooks that he has been looking for for almost a year now. They are the perfect size and have perforated pages--he loves them; it's cute. We also went to the Foreign Language Bookstore and bought a couple books on China and some leisure reads. I was amazed at the selection, all for about what you would pay in US dollars. I think most of the books were authentic, not black market copies. They have a lot of classics, for obvious copyright reasons. Anyone can make an edition of Pride and Prejudice or The Odyssey.

Laden with books, we decided to return to the hotel, deposit our purchases, and then head over to the riverside for a boat tour of the Huangpu River. On the way back, we stopped for lunch at a fast food chain that serves Chinese food and each got a set lunch that arrived cafeteria-style. The food wasn't outstanding, but it was honest and very cheap. After a heavy, expensive steak dinner, it fit the bill.

That afternoon, we bought tickets for a 3-hour river cruise that left the Bund at 2pm and advertised that it went to the confluence of the Yangtze and Huangpu rivers where they meet the China Sea. The small cruise boat had about twenty other passengers, mostly foreigners. I think the cheaper, one-hour tours are more popular with Chinese tourists.

The first half hour of the cruise was interesting, seeing both sides of Shanghai amid all the sampans, ocean liners, and fishing boats on the river. After a while though, the scenery became monotonous, one gray factory or shipyard after another. Three hours was going to be an awfully long trip. I don't know why I expected to see any nature, false hopes I guess. The most interesting part came when the boat reached the sea. The temperature dropped 10 degre
es. The wind picked up. The waves got bigger. The coastline was lost in the fog/smog. We could have gone all the way to Taiwan, but the boat turned around and headed back upstream to Shanghai.

On the way we passed a large boat and saw a man walking along the edge holding a precious bundle wrapped in red. Behind him a woman poked her head out of a cabin holding similar cargo. Both had broad smiles on their faces as the lucky parents of twins (even luckier if they were boys). The dreariness of their surroundings couldn't stifle the joy of these new parents.

The boat ride left us cold and shivery, so we took a taxi back to the hotel for a nap and shower before heading out for dinner. We decided to try the Thai restaurant we had shunned the night before in favor of steak. The restaurant, Simply Thai, all dark and modern, appeared on the surface to know what it was doing, but the ensuing dinner fell short of the mark. We ordered cocktails, a mojito for Turner and Down Under Fizz for me (vodka, sprite, orange juice, grenadine), and flipped through the large menu. Our waitress cursorily took our orders for pad thai, green curry, and spring rolls, which arrived shortly, all at once. To them, we head just ordered appetizers instead of any main courses which seemed overpriced. This might indicate why the service was lacking and we felt sidelined. Turner's curry was very good, and very spicy like he ordered, but the pad thai tasted like it came out of a box and the noodles were undercooked. The spring rolls were nothing special either. This was our most disappointing dinner of the trip. I think Simply Thai should go back to the simple part of Thai cuisine instead trying too hard to be upscale.

We hightailed it out of there and headed straight for Paul, again. This time we ordered two croissants for breakfast and a tarte au citron to split for dessert. Sometimes all it takes is a little pastry to make an evening perfect.

18 February 2009

Day 01 Shanghai

Our first morning in Shanghai dawns sunny and hazy (as you can see from the view from our hotel room window), but since this is China, a little pollution doesn't scare us. Reconnaissance the night before left us with no breakfast options within a coffee-cup throw of our hotel. I can really only make it a few blocks sans caffeine.

We decided then to try out the hotel's room service and dutifully filled out our door-hangey with our breakfast requests. Playing it safe, we only ordered one breakfast because either a) there would be enough food for two of us or b) the food would be awful (this is a Chinese hotel doing a western breakfast so we were already on shaky ground). The food arrived on time and warm, so it had two things going for it. It also included a cup of coffee, so another point for the hotel breakfast. Alas, the toast was square, white (no sign of having been near a toaster), and dry. The eggs, while cooked fairly well, were covered with chopped ham, which we had ordered but did not expect to come as basically a garnish. The juice was essentially Tang and I preferred my cup of instant coffee to what came in the cup. All this enjoyment cost us almost $8 US. Needless to say, this was our first and last hotel breakfast. For our subsequent mornings, we had our instant coffee with yogurt, fruit, and the occasional croissant (more on these delicacies later).

Sometimes we would grab a cup of authentic coffee from Starbucks later in the day. They have them on almost every corner in the more touristy, commercial parts of the city. I remember reading that Starbucks was kicked out of Tiananmen Square because of its symbolism for all things capitalist. Well, Shanghai is more ready to embrace its western attitudes than Beijing. This Starbucks is a stone's throw from the Yu Garden, publicized as the most famous garden in southeastern China. Most of the tourists we saw were Chinese, so Starbucks clearly has a strong foothold in the Chinese market despite its high prices.

For lunch we ate at a crowded dim sum palace in the Yu Bazaar, enjoying some spring rolls and baozi, or meat dumplings. Unlike the baozi of the north, Shanghai baozi taste more like the wontons from the wonton soup that is ubiquitous in American Chinese restaurants. I actually quite enjoy them.

Yu Garden (Yuyuan) provided a tranquil break from the chaos of the Chinese marketplace just beyond its gates. Though small in size, the garden is emblematic of the Chinese style of landscape architecture that creates a labrynthine, enchanting setting in the middle of a crowded city. There were twisting corridors, serene pavilions, flowering trees, hidden nooks, still ponds--everything characteristic of the feng shui philosophy that became popular in the West only recently.

After touring the gardens, we decided to return to our hotel for a rest before heading out for dinner. We had made reservations at a Thai restaurant earlier in the day, so we took a taxi to its location and looked for a place to have a drink before dinner. The area we were in is called Xintiandi and is a reconstruction of a town street from Old Shanghai (kind of like a cutesy downtown pedestrian area with upscale shops and restaurants). While it was clearly built for tourists and well-heeled locals, it has some nice, relaxing places to eat and drink.

We had drinks on the patio of Cantine (a cosmopolitan for me and a martini for Turner) before deciding to cancel our Thai reservations because Turner saw a steakhouse and couldn't resist. It turned out to be Steak Out Thursday at Kabb (the restaurant) so we both ordered the set dinner that came with a salad, a steak, sides of vegetables and mashed potatoes, and a glass of the house wine. We also got another round of drinks, another martini for Turner (this one better than the previous one) and a chocolate martini for me (it was like dessert in a glass) and an appetizer of a bread and dip platter, which consisted baguette slices, Turkish flatbread, and another sort of bread along with hummus, baba ganoush (eggplant dip), and an olive tapenade. The whole meal was delicious. The steaks tasted authentic, the potatoes were garlicky, the dips rich and flavorful. Combined with the mellow lighting and dark wood decor of the room, our dinner was relaxing and comforting.

With very full bellies, we needed a walk around before heading back to the hotel, so we cruised the area taking in the strange surroundings of an area that could be dropped into any American town and no one would notice anything Chinese other than the occasional sign (and a larger percentage of people with dark hair).

It's a good thing we decided to explore because we never would have found the delicious little treat that is Paul, a French boulangerie and patisserie that has outlets around the world. It's no small surprise that Shanghai has its share of French food, what with the French running a large part of the city after the Opium Wars. This enjoyable little shop had a few counters and display cases filled with baguettes, boules, pains de campagne, tartes, macaroons, quiche, and many other delightful gems from the oven. We ordered their Valentine's Day special--a linzer cookie with custard and raspberry filling and a chocolate-dipped sable (shortbread) cookie garnish--along with a croissant and pain au chocolat for breakfast the next morning.

My eyes were probably wide as dinner plates as I took in this delightful establishment. This is my version of heaven: wood panelled walls, purple velvet-covered banquettes, plush rose-tufted chairs, all Old World charm in a very modern city. Turner asked me if I owned it what would I change, and I said almost nothing! It was the perfect piece de resistance to our first day in Shanghai.

So, for now, "Bonsoir, mes amis!"

First Taste of Shanghai

We arrived in Shanghai in the late afternoon to warm air and green leaves on the trees, already very different from Qingdao. After taking a taxi to our hotel, our stomachs, as usual, dictated what we would do next--find food. At least they gave us peanuts on the plane, a rarity these days on US flights, but we were still ready to eat.

The hotel staff directed us to the closest area for food, a street a few blocks away, that had a range of options from street stands to fancy, "pet shop" restaurants (because you point out the fish that you want to eat from a range of aquariums, or in less posh places, from buckets of water on the
floor). As it was only 4pm, we didn't want to sit down for a full dinner so we found our go-to street food--lamb kebabs! It is really hard to go wrong with one of these little Muslim places. You order however many kebabs you want and then have a seat in the little restaurant. From the grill on the street arrive your lamb skewers, perfectly seasoned with spice and salt. They go well with beer (which at most Muslim joints is a no-no), but we managed to get a "black beer" to wash down our food.

Satiated, at least for the next hour, we wandered around the vicinity of our hotel, to the famous Nanjing Road pedestrian area, filled with shops, restaurants, and of course, people (tourists and locals alike). Around dinnertime, we started to aimlessly look for a place to eat, someplace simple and not too expensive. Down one street, a hawker started yelling at us that his place was a good place to eat. We think he said they have American "sala," what we know as "salad." Because we were getting tired and hungry or because of his friendly demeanor, we caved and chose that restaurant for dinner. It turned out to be pretty good. The menu was enormous, with English and pictures! Always a plus.

Along with rice and
a couple of Tsingtao beers (hard to beat our local brew, we ordered family-style Shanghai dishes: bean sprouts with tofu, eggplant in garlic sauce, stir-fried spinach, and sweet and sour pork spareribs.

The ribs were delicious, sticky, sweet, and awfully similar to American Chinese food. Because Shanghai is closer to southern China, its cuisine reflects the Cantonese style of cooking, which is the cuisine that Chinese immigrants brought to America. In Qingdao, the local food is more northern in character, using less sugar and more vinegar.

Although the rice was photogenic, it was mushy and on its way to being porridge!

11 February 2009

Answer and Update

Here is the answer to the second Chinglish food product quiz:

RAISINS! Can you believe it? Our winner this week is Paul Gutmann, a.k.a. Popsie. He guessed bay leaves, since he at least chose a food product. Although, considering the advertising copy, I think condoms was a good guess (way to go, Mom).

Turner and I leave for Shanghai this afternoon, so there will not be any posts until I return. However, I will take lots of pictures and record our culinary adventures. I am looking forward to some good Shanghai cuisine and also foreign food as we have reservations at an Italian restaurant for V-Day/3-year anniversary and a French restaurant for a buy-one, get-one dinner deal.

As long as we don't get Shanghaied, we will be back in one week. Until then, happy eating!

Up and Running

Yesterday was the soft opening of Cookies Cafe, which Turner and I have worked diligently to get off its feet. The cafe was fully functional, selling hot drinks and baked goods.

In the morning I baked while Turner manned the cafe with the new waitresses. The foreign patients at the hospital have showed a strong interest in having good coffee, comfort food, and a relaxing place to sit and sip, so we have done our best to provide this. Some of the owners show an interest in the cafe becoming more of a Chinese restaurant, which would counteract our efforts to make the cafe a unique environment as there are about as many Chinese restaurants as there are people. What the area inside and around the hospital does not have is a quiet, soothing environment with authentic western food and drink. Our job has been to create this, so we feel that it has been a success. Whether or not it is what the owners want is up to them.

We had quite a few customers who said the coffee was great and the food tasty, so it was not a bad first day for a new business. Everyone involved seems excited at this new venture.

09 February 2009

La Soupe Pour Deux

It started raining last night. The morning dawned misty and overcast, making the bed seem like a warm haven from the dreary world, but the day beckoned. Before I had even finished my coffee, I was already planning the soup for tonight's dinner. This happens to me a lot and is one of the reasons I have problems sleeping in. I start thinking about food and what I can concoct in my kitchen with the resources at hand. If you've ever had the urge to jump out of bed and consult a cookbook or search the internet for a recipe, then you've the same "disorder" as me. My husband doesn't complain though because it usually results in good food.

After my morning cuppa and my run, I stopped by our campus store for ingredients. In America, a small supermarket like this would purvey Doritos and Pepsi. Although you can get your fair share of junk food in China, most stores also have vendors selling fresh vegetables, fruit, meat, and tofu. Only the vegetable guy has returned from the New Year holiday, but sometimes all it takes is a plump tomato or firm squash to get my culinary juices flowing. I bought all the vegetables seen above for only $2! And all were of excellent quality, better than most supermarkets in the US.

My plan was a simple minestrone that could be made around our hectic day. I made the vegetable stock while I stretched and showered. Simply put a whole onion (skin and all), a few carrots, and a bunch of celery in a large stock pot. Cover with water and let them simmer for about an hour with a bay leaf and some salt. I was amazed at how flavorful this broth was (I was a vegetable-stock virgin, usually using chicken for depth of flavor). I think a lot had to do with the quality of the vegetables.

We were going to be gone for the afternoon so I turned off the burner and let all the vegetables steep until we returned (no meat there to spoil). After a cold day working in a dirty kitchen (not my own, thank you), it was comforting to come home to prepare an easy and very healthy dinner. I strained the vegetables out of the stock and added carrots and chopped tomatoes before putting it on to simmer again. After awhile the new vegetables began to soften and I added some black pepper, more salt, oregano, and basil. The zucchini, cannelloni beans, and spinach went in
toward the end. Everything came together into a light, fresh soup full of vegetables. I served it with cheesy toasts and forgot my worries over a steaming bowlful.

Chinglish Quiz #2

Round two of the Chinglish food product quiz.

In case you can't decipher the image, the advertising on today's item reads, "Cool Fashion Need cool Taste. You Are The New Man." I will post the answer in a couple days, so send me your guesses as to what these words are advertising. Good luck!

A Well-Deserved Treat

After working hard the past few days at opening the coffee shop, during which my nerves have been tested, we decided to go out for dinner last night to unwind. Well, that and we didn't have any food in the house. We didn't want Chinese or Asian and were thinking of pizza, but we can make pretty good pizza at home. We have a pretty solid rule of eating out at places whose food we can not replicate at home because what's the point if you can do it better.

We chose La Villa, a French restaurant, with a good wine list, bar, and pricey but excellent food. This meal was maybe my first in China that in no way tasted Chinese. You would know what I mean if you lived here for awhile. Even the cheeseburgers and pizza that are served in western restaurants usually taste vaguely Chinese. Not at La Villa though. The food we were served would pass as decent French food in any city. We started with cocktails (buy one, get one free)--Turner having a martini (obviously with olives) and me with a White Russian. So far so good, except we forgot the camera so my words will have to suffice.

On to the food, for an appetizer Turner ordered a Caesar salad and I had French Onion soup (which could have been the death blow right there). Both were very good! The salad had anchovies and real bacon bits (not from a can) and my soup tasted fairly authentic, if lacking in pepper. We decided to split a main course, saving our stomachs and wallet for dessert. There were many choices, ranging from goose livers and snails to salmon and lamb chops (there was even a pasta section for those suspicious of French food). We ordered a goose leg confit with mushrooms and peppers and parsley sauce. The presentation was great, the taste was comforting, and the potatoes garlicky. Mmm, mmm, good.

After another round of cocktails, we had to order dessert and choose a blueberry cheesecake from a range of choices like a Normandy apple tart or chocolate cake. Our cheesecake looked beautiful but lacked some flavor. It also had a strange fruit roll-up like top, tasted like fruit snacks. Overall, the dessert was good, but not the best part of the evening.

Even the inside of this restaurant took you out of a China for a few hours. It is housed in a stand-alone house (a rarity in a Chinese city) from the German colonization back in the early 1900s, so it has old doors and windows. The decor is eclectic but not over-the-top, with seating options from large dinner tables to overstuffed couches and coffee tables.
A downfall of choosing the couches is that it is very difficult to leave after having a satisfying meal and a couple drinks.Service was perfect (both our appetizers actually came out at the same time!!) and attentive. Also, the waiter spoke English and understood the cuisine he was serving and the atmosphere the restaurant was trying to preserve.

All in all, the best foreign restaurant I have eaten at in Qingdao.

05 February 2009

Coffee Shop Crash Course

Turner and I have embarked on a new adventure, some might say crash course, as restaurateurs. To make a long story short, we are helping some investors start a coffee shop at a hospital in the Chengyang district of Qingdao, near where we taught English last year. My background as an amateur baker and aesthetic eye and Turner's business background and skill with numbers make us a pretty good team. It will be called Cookies Cafe. (As an English major, I'm still trying to wrap my head around the pluralization... should it be possessive? And if so, who's Cookie?)
When we entered the picture, the coffee shop and kitchen had the bare minimum, tables, chairs, refrigerator, oven, stand mixer (which is almost as big as me!). We have had to buy the rest in the past couple days to get both up and running, including everything from sugar packets for the cafe to spatulas and flour for the kitchen.

Tomorrow I am going to be testing recipes before training the
Chinese staff in western baking and cafe service. The menu will be fairly simple and straightforward to start. Remember, they have never heard of putting cinnamon in something sweet. Baby steps, folks. Here's the game plan: granola with yogurt, fruit salad, apricot scones, banana bread, sugar cookies, chocolate chip cookies, and lemon cake.

The things that we have not been able to find thus far in Qingdao? Muffin tins and vanilla extract. The thing that will drive up the price of baked goods? Butter.

This next picture should accompany the punch line of a joke...

"Howdya like 'dem beaters!?"