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Ellen Shapiro

eGullet Society staff emeritus
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Posts posted by Ellen Shapiro

  1. Having written two books about New York City (New York City with Kids and Relocating to New York) I can tell you that the value of a paid walking tour is not to be found in the food. You're paying for several things: The comfort level of knowing you won't get lost in an unfamiliar, scary, intimidating place. The time savings of having someone else do all the research. The expertise of the tour guide, who is a live person who can answer questions. Some people go on these tours in the hopes of meeting other travelers.

    Having grown up in the region I was never a "tour person" util I started working on guidebooks, at which point I had to go on various tours in order to evaluate them. What amazed me was how much I learned and how enjoyable a well-run tour can be. The experience actually changed the way I travel. My procedure these days, upon arriving in an unfamiliar city, is almost always to get on the first available general overview bus tour, whatever is the local equivalent of the Gray Line tours that go around New York on those double-decker buses. In about three hours, you totally get the lay of the land in a new city and you are able to sort out a lot of the good and bad recommendations that you came to town with ("That's the castle everybody was talking about? Forget it!"). I've also started taking some cultural walking tours, especially ones where access has been arranged that might not otherwise be so easy to achieve, like getting into the synagogue in old Jewish London.

    There are some things you should look out for: A small group size (not a busload of people). A company that has been in business for awhile. Leaders who have seniority (not students). A tone that you identify with in the literature. For me, as someone who prefers down-to-earth, non-glitzy operators, I favor a company called Adventures on a Shoestring. Howard Goldberg, the wonderfully eccentric owner, has operated these tours for more than 40 years. They are very economical -- the tour fee is only $5 (or at least it was last time I checked, maybe three years ago when I was working on the second edition of NYC w/ Kids) plus you have to pay for whatever food you eat (for example on the Brighton Beach/Little Odessa tour he arranged for a light lunch at Primorski for a flat fee of $5 each including the tip) -- and the tours in and of themselves are real New York experiences on account of Howard and the eclectic clientele. He has no online presence, of course. Call 212-265-2663 for details. He does a Chinatown tour. I've not been on that one but everything he does is good. Another company I can recommend is Big Onion http://www.bigonion.com -- the tour fee is $15 and there are discounts for seniors and students.

  2. Beer Shrimp

    While in China during my Seven Weeks in Tibet, one day on bikes ended at the cooking school. It was an optional activity, and I was tired, but I knew I had to do it for my fellow eGullet Society members.

    • 200 g fish (firm white fish with skin on)
    • 3 T peanut oil
    • 1 tomato, chopped
    • 1 red pepper, sliced
    • 1 green pepper, sliced
    • 2 T of sliced garlic tops or spring onion
    • 25 g ginger, sliced
    • 4 cloves garlic, crushed
    • 2 T soy sauce
    • 1 tsp salt
    • 1 c beer

    Heat wok. Add oil and heat. Put fish into wok, skin side down. Put salt on top of fish and fry on each side for about 3 minutes or until skin is brown. Put all vegetables, garlic and ginger on top of fish. Add soy sauce and beer. Cover and cook for 5 minutes. Remove lid to reduce liquid (approximately 2-3 minutes).

    Keywords: Main Dish, Chinese, Seafood, Shrimp, Easy

    ( RG1272 )

  3. Beer Shrimp

    While in China during my Seven Weeks in Tibet, one day on bikes ended at the cooking school. It was an optional activity, and I was tired, but I knew I had to do it for my fellow eGullet Society members.

    • 200 g fish (firm white fish with skin on)
    • 3 T peanut oil
    • 1 tomato, chopped
    • 1 red pepper, sliced
    • 1 green pepper, sliced
    • 2 T of sliced garlic tops or spring onion
    • 25 g ginger, sliced
    • 4 cloves garlic, crushed
    • 2 T soy sauce
    • 1 tsp salt
    • 1 c beer

    Heat wok. Add oil and heat. Put fish into wok, skin side down. Put salt on top of fish and fry on each side for about 3 minutes or until skin is brown. Put all vegetables, garlic and ginger on top of fish. Add soy sauce and beer. Cover and cook for 5 minutes. Remove lid to reduce liquid (approximately 2-3 minutes).

    Keywords: Main Dish, Chinese, Seafood, Shrimp, Easy

    ( RG1272 )

  4. Green Vegetables with Garlic

    While in China during my Seven Weeks in Tibet, one day on bikes ended at the cooking school. It was an optional activity, and I was tired, but I knew I had to do it for my fellow eGullet Society members.

    • 1 bunch green vegetables
    • 3 cloves crushed garlic
    • 1 tsp salt
    • 2 T water

    Heat wok. Add oil and heat oil. Add garlic, salt and greens. Stir fry. Add water and continue cooking for 2 minutes or until cooked. Any number of different green vegetables can be used including bok choy, spinach, snow peas, even green beans. We used a green leafy vegetable, which would take less time to cook than, for example, string beans.

    Keywords: Side, Dessert, Vegetables, Chinese

    ( RG1207 )

  5. Green Vegetables with Garlic

    While in China during my Seven Weeks in Tibet, one day on bikes ended at the cooking school. It was an optional activity, and I was tired, but I knew I had to do it for my fellow eGullet Society members.

    • 1 bunch green vegetables
    • 3 cloves crushed garlic
    • 1 tsp salt
    • 2 T water

    Heat wok. Add oil and heat oil. Add garlic, salt and greens. Stir fry. Add water and continue cooking for 2 minutes or until cooked. Any number of different green vegetables can be used including bok choy, spinach, snow peas, even green beans. We used a green leafy vegetable, which would take less time to cook than, for example, string beans.

    Keywords: Side, Dessert, Vegetables, Chinese

    ( RG1207 )

  6. Steamed Stuffed Pumpkin Blossons

    While in China during my Seven Weeks in Tibet, one day on bikes ended at the cooking school. It was an optional activity, and I was tired, but I knew I had to do it for my fellow eGullet Society members.

    • 100 g minced pork
    • 1/2 bunch chives, chopped (or spring onions or scallions)
    • 1/2 teaspoon salt
    • Pumpkin flowers

    Mix the minced pork (minced or finely chopped tofu is a tasty vegetarian alternative), salt and chives together. Stuff vegetables and steam for 15 minutes in a steamer (we used a bamboo steamer placed on top of a wok with water). Note: any edible vegetable flower with a pocket can be used as an alternative to pumpkin flowers -- including zucchini flowers. Other variations could include (but not limited to): vegetables -- peppers, mushrooms and tomatoes -- and quarter sized cream puff shells (break through the dough and stuff with the minced mixture). Minced chicken or beef can also be substituted for the pork.

    Keywords: Chinese

    ( RG1206 )

  7. Steamed Stuffed Pumpkin Blossons

    While in China during my Seven Weeks in Tibet, one day on bikes ended at the cooking school. It was an optional activity, and I was tired, but I knew I had to do it for my fellow eGullet Society members.

    • 100 g minced pork
    • 1/2 bunch chives, chopped (or spring onions or scallions)
    • 1/2 teaspoon salt
    • Pumpkin flowers

    Mix the minced pork (minced or finely chopped tofu is a tasty vegetarian alternative), salt and chives together. Stuff vegetables and steam for 15 minutes in a steamer (we used a bamboo steamer placed on top of a wok with water). Note: any edible vegetable flower with a pocket can be used as an alternative to pumpkin flowers -- including zucchini flowers. Other variations could include (but not limited to): vegetables -- peppers, mushrooms and tomatoes -- and quarter sized cream puff shells (break through the dough and stuff with the minced mixture). Minced chicken or beef can also be substituted for the pork.

    Keywords: Chinese

    ( RG1206 )

  8. Eggplant Yangshuo Style

    While in China during my Seven Weeks in Tibet, one day on bikes ended at the cooking school. It was an optional activity, and I was tired, but I knew I had to do it for my fellow eGullet Society members.

    Heat wok and add oil. Heat oil until smoking, then add eggplant and fry until browned and cooked through. Move eggplant to side, away from center of wok, reduce heat and fry garlic, ginger and pepper for one minute. Mix eggplant in with vegetables, salt, water and oyster sauce. Add spring onions and serve. Note: while we were cooking, all of our measurements were done by eye and taste. You can do the same or follow the recipe exactly, which I have also tested

    • 1 large eggplant (or by weight, approximately ½ pound, 250 g) thinly sliced in ½ inch strips
    • 4 T peanut oil
    • 1 red pepper, sliced
    • 4 cloves of garlic, crushed
    • 4 spring onions, chopped
    • 1 tsp salt
    • 1 T oyster sauce
    • 1 T water

    Heat wok and add oil. Heat oil until smoking, then add eggplant and fry until browned and cooked through. Move eggplant to side, away from center of wok, reduce heat and fry garlic, ginger and pepper for one minute. Mix eggplant in with vegetables, salt, water and oyster sauce. Add spring onions and serve. Note: while we were cooking, all of our measurements were done by eye and taste. You can do the same or follow the recipe exactly, which I have also tested

    Keywords: Easy, Chinese

    ( RG1205 )

  9. Eggplant Yangshuo Style

    While in China during my Seven Weeks in Tibet, one day on bikes ended at the cooking school. It was an optional activity, and I was tired, but I knew I had to do it for my fellow eGullet Society members.

    Heat wok and add oil. Heat oil until smoking, then add eggplant and fry until browned and cooked through. Move eggplant to side, away from center of wok, reduce heat and fry garlic, ginger and pepper for one minute. Mix eggplant in with vegetables, salt, water and oyster sauce. Add spring onions and serve. Note: while we were cooking, all of our measurements were done by eye and taste. You can do the same or follow the recipe exactly, which I have also tested

    • 1 large eggplant (or by weight, approximately ½ pound, 250 g) thinly sliced in ½ inch strips
    • 4 T peanut oil
    • 1 red pepper, sliced
    • 4 cloves of garlic, crushed
    • 4 spring onions, chopped
    • 1 tsp salt
    • 1 T oyster sauce
    • 1 T water

    Heat wok and add oil. Heat oil until smoking, then add eggplant and fry until browned and cooked through. Move eggplant to side, away from center of wok, reduce heat and fry garlic, ginger and pepper for one minute. Mix eggplant in with vegetables, salt, water and oyster sauce. Add spring onions and serve. Note: while we were cooking, all of our measurements were done by eye and taste. You can do the same or follow the recipe exactly, which I have also tested

    Keywords: Easy, Chinese

    ( RG1205 )

  10. Chicken with Cashews

    While in China during my Seven Weeks in Tibet, one day on bikes ended at the cooking school. It was an optional activity, and I was tired, but I knew I had to do it for my fellow eGullet Society members.

    • 150 g chicken breast (boneless, skinless), thinly sliced
    • 1/2 c roasted cashew nuts (if nuts are raw, as most nuts sold in China are, fry in a little oil first, which is what we did)
    • 2 T peanut oil
    • 4 cloves garlic, crushed
    • 1 carrot, sliced
    • 4 spring onions or garlic tops
    • 2 T water
    • 1 T soy sauce
    • 1/2 T oyster sauce

    ½ teaspoon salt


    Heat wok and add half of the oil. Add chicken and garlic and fry until chicken turns white and feels firm. Add soy sauce and remove from wok. Add remaining oil and cook carrot and salt. Fry one minute. Return chicken to wok. Add water and cook until only a little sauce remains. Add oyster sauce, spring onion and cashew nuts. Heat through to serve.

    Keywords: Main Dish, Chicken, Chinese

    ( RG1199 )

  11. Chicken with Cashews

    While in China during my Seven Weeks in Tibet, one day on bikes ended at the cooking school. It was an optional activity, and I was tired, but I knew I had to do it for my fellow eGullet Society members.

    • 150 g chicken breast (boneless, skinless), thinly sliced
    • 1/2 c roasted cashew nuts (if nuts are raw, as most nuts sold in China are, fry in a little oil first, which is what we did)
    • 2 T peanut oil
    • 4 cloves garlic, crushed
    • 1 carrot, sliced
    • 4 spring onions or garlic tops
    • 2 T water
    • 1 T soy sauce
    • 1/2 T oyster sauce

    ½ teaspoon salt


    Heat wok and add half of the oil. Add chicken and garlic and fry until chicken turns white and feels firm. Add soy sauce and remove from wok. Add remaining oil and cook carrot and salt. Fry one minute. Return chicken to wok. Add water and cook until only a little sauce remains. Add oyster sauce, spring onion and cashew nuts. Heat through to serve.

    Keywords: Main Dish, Chicken, Chinese

    ( RG1199 )

  12. I thought it might be interesting to discuss three themes that we've been discussing in the Shaw/Shapiro (aka “Shawpiro”) household lately:

    When cheaper is better

    When less is more

    When none is enough

    I'll start a separate discussion on each and edit in the links after they're up. (done)

    “When less is more” is a topic that has come up a lot lately when we've been out at restaurants. It seems that there is an unfortunate tendency, especially among “New American” chefs, to say “one ounce of cream is good, therefore ten ounces must be better!”

    But when you think that way, you get dishes that taste like cream and nothing else. There are appropriate amounts of ingredients for different purposes and more is not necessarily better.

    I use the example of cream, because cream can make food delicious but at some point it starts to mask and dull flavors. What are some other examples of overused ingredients where cooks could benefit from understanding that, sometimes, less is more?

  13. I thought it might be interesting to discuss three themes that we've been discussing in the Shaw/Shapiro (aka “Shawpiro”) household lately:

    When cheaper is better

    When less is more

    When none is enough

    I'll start a separate discussion on each and edit in the links after they're up. (done)

    “When cheaper is better” is something that came up recently when we went on a pancake kick courtesy of a friend who makes really good pancakes. The context in which it came up involves maple syrup. Steven, and I reveal this little known secret but you can't tell anyone, has family in the maple syrup business. Specifically his uncle married a woman whose family produces maple syrup in Vermont. Every year at holiday time we get quarts of maple syrup and they vary from year to year depending on the trees and whatever else affects maple syrup's quality, “terroir” and things like that.

    Anyhow, for those of you not familiar with the grades of high-quality Vermont maple syrup, they are as follows:

    Fancy Grade: this is a very pure maple syrup that is highly refined and almost clear in color, the most expensive

    Grade A Medium Amber: this is slightly darker than Fancy Grade with slightly stronger flavors

    Grade A Dark Amber: this tends towards a brownish color like most syrup products you see on store shelves

    Grade B: darker still, with the strongest flavors, but still pure maple syrup with no flaws

    We have tasted these grades of maple syrup for years under the best of circumstances, expert production from a small family farm and hand schlepped to us from Vermont by relatives, and the conclusion is inescapable that Grade B is the best. That's right, the lower, cheaper grades of maple syrup have more and better flavor. There is no advantage we can see to the higher grades. They do not trade robustness for subtlety. They just don't taste as good. As further evidence, we have been told anecdotally that those in the maple syrup business prefer the lower grades.

    Another example:

    One of my favorite foods is smoked salmon, and one of the ideal food combinations to me is a bagel with lox, cream cheese, capers, onions and tomato slices. That reminds me of the old joke, which was just used in the introduction of the new book Jewish Food: The World at Table, by Matthew Goodman. A Martian crashes his spaceship on Earth, blowing out the tires on his landing gear. He goes in search of a substitute for his tires and passes by a bagel shop. He goes up to the counter and requests four tires. The counterman explains, “These aren't tires, these are bagels, you eat them,” and hands him a bagel. So the Martian takes a bite of the bagel and exclaims, “Hey, these things would be great with lox and cream cheese!”

    To get back to the point, we have recently been purchasing a lox-and-cream-cheese spread at Fairway. It is made from the unusable pieces of lox down towards the tail end of the salmon, the pieces that can't be nicely sliced and sold for $30 a pound. Those little pieces are chopped up and mixed with cream cheese to form a spread.

    The amazing thing is that this spread is in some ways better than the real thing. The little bits and pieces, when combined with the cream cheese, spread their flavor throughout the cream cheese and everywhere it is spread. It's more lox flavor for $3.95 per 8 ounce tub.

    Do you have any examples of when cheaper is better?

  14. The butter has now been Press'd'n Seal'd on that plate since last Saturday. We have used it almost every day at least once and sometimes twice or thrice. The original piece of Press'n Seal material is still in use and makes a good seal every time.

  15. My mother-in-law was just down in Texas visiting friends and came back with a report that EVERYBODY down there was using this stuff. She even went so far as to buy a box for me. I used it for the first time the other day, when I had a mound of Vermont Butter & Cheese Co. butter out on a little plate for brunch and had to put it away in the refrigerator. This was a stoneware plate with a rough texture. The Glad Press'n Seal (and by the way I would like to know what two words "Press'n" is a contraction of) pressed and sealed very, very well, so much so that it scared me a little.

  16. I've always wondered if any of the fancy old hotels in town did an afternoon tea.

    The question is do any of the fancy old hotels in town not do afternoon tea! Okay just kidding. But the challenge isn't finding it as much as the challenge is finding the places that do it well. There are also some service differences that, to me, are really important. If you're a real afternoon tea fanatic (can you tell I am?), you might also wish to keep track of which pastry chefs are moving around where. There's also the question of music, which is important to some though sometimes annoying, and the setting is important because tea is so much a see-and-be-seen activity.

    Food quality: I'm partial to the St. Regis, the Waldorf=Astoria and the Mark -- they seem to have the strongest pastry departments of the places I've tried while researching my book, New York City with Kids. Although, neither the St. Regis nor the Mark is as good as when Chris Broberg (now at Cafe Gray) was at each. Still they are good. The Waldorf is very consistent.

    Service: The St. Regis is particularly generous with refills and the servers are attentive.

    Music: The St. Regis usually has a harp (harpist?), and the Waldorf is my favorite because someone is always there playing on Cole Porter's piano, for real..

    Setting: The St. Regis has what is to me by far the nicest room, with its gorgeous painted ceiling. I do like the Waldorf, but while most hotels do tea in or near the lobby, at the Waldorf I really feel as though I'm in, you know, a lobby. Avid people-watchers may like this, though.

    I haven't been every place, but I have been to a lot of them. Ask and I might have some memories to share.

    From a totally different direction, Gramercy Tavern has excellent pastry at what they call the "between meals" aka afternoon tea service but it is not a traditional tea.

  17. Thank you for reporting your trip and the wonderful pictures. The White Water Terraces is one of the few memories I have from the trip at three years old. Would you be going to the five colour lake(not sure if this is the exact name) too?

    Yuki, I did not get to visit the five color lake. Do you remember where it was--close to the White Water Terraces (Baishuitai), what town it was near or what province it was in? I did visit Erhai Lake near Dali and Bita Lake near Zhongdian (Tibetan: Gyalthang).

  18. ellen,

    this is fabulous. the white water terrace is spectacular. can you tell us a bit more about it? do the locals divert the water for crops...are there animals that seem to favor them?

    Reesek, the White Water Terraces are extremely shallow pools and they are cordoned off so that no one can walk on them (if you look very carefully at the photos, you should be able to see a couple of the stakes in the terraces that hold the wire boundary). As a result, they are inaccessible for walking on or in and animals do not water from them (that I ever saw, though I can’t vouch for what happens when the tourists aren’t there). They are, according to this source, the "result of a continuous piling up of calcite sediments resulting from the disintegration of calcium bicarbonate in the water."

    In Turkey the terraces are deep enough to sit in and they are also fed by hot springs. The waters are said to have healing powers but I have heard that in recent years the terraces at Pamukkale have been cordoned off as well in order to protect and preserve them.

  19. << previous installment <<

    I was delighted to have a free day with nothing scheduled. It was a lazy morning -- I did laundry, hung my clothes out to dry on the roof (where I encountered an older woman with a British accent who was getting high) and then hooked up with Bev for a leisurely day of exploration around old Dali. We covered not only the old cobblestone-paved city and its offshoot side streets, but also many streets and dirt paths outside of the city walls, often ending up at the entrance to someone’s yard, at a gate or a stable.

    gallery_122_566_1105111198.jpg

    gallery_122_566_1105111265.jpg

    We stumbled upon a lively market and, despite my attempts to refrain from taking photos (after all, how many photos of a market can I take? Lots it would turn out), I couldn’t pass up the photo op. The usual suspects were present as always, but a few things in particular caught my eye. You’ve heard of chicken (or rooster, as the case may be) in a basket? How about baby in a basket? No, the baby wasn’t for sale.

    gallery_122_566_1105111320.jpg

    gallery_122_566_1105111389.jpg

    There was also a guy selling chili peppers -- nothing unusual about that -- but what was interesting about this guy was that he was grinding them by hand. More accurately, he was crushing them with a giant metal pestle -- a rod of at least four feet in length -- in a stone mortar, to customer specifications. I would see stalls in other markets that sold chili peppers in whole and crushed forms, and even machines that crushed the chilies to different degrees of fineness, but this would be the only time I saw them being crushed in this manner. In no other market I visited in China or Tibet -- and I visited a few -- did I see anyone crushing chili peppers in this manner.

    gallery_122_566_1105111544.jpg

    By 2:00pm we were ready for a coffee, but for the most part the coffee in China is either dreadful (it is, after all, a tea-drinking culture) or limited to Western tourist destinations and therefore dreadfully overpriced (think Starbuck’s prices) and often mediocre at best. We settled into a place that looked like it would be a happening nightspot in about seven hours and discovered, to our great delight, something called Yunnan coffee. It was served black and it was dark, rich and brewed just right. Milk was available when we asked (the young man working the bar was the only employee in evidence and he didn’t speak English) or, rather, when a French-speaking fellow who seemed to live behind the bar (the building, not the counter) asked, in Chinese, for milk on our behalf. This was the first I had heard of Yunnan coffee and I would look for it elsewhere, though outside of Yunnan province and farther afield it would be difficult to find. We settled into a couple of sling-back chairs in the courtyard behind the bar, under a giant umbrella, and enjoyed the coffee (and, if you must know, a bit of a bitch session) while being pestered by a small, flea-bitten kitten that was especially fond of Bev.

    In desperate need of a snack, Bev and I came upon a man selling a crepe-like item on one of the cobblestone offshoot streets in old Dali. He had a wok full of coals with a small grill placed across two thirds of it. He took out paper-thin sheets of a white substance that I thought might be cheese or maybe tofu skin, but I was skeptical of my theories because cheese is not prevalent in the Chinese diet and, as I watched, I wasn’t certain that tofu skin would behave the way this product did when cooked. Then again, there are some in the region, like the Bai, who do incorporate a limited amount of cheese in their diets. I stopped to photograph the chef and we were so curious we decided we had no choice but to try it -- otherwise we wouldn’t have a chance in hell of figuring out what the white stuff on the grill, now puffed up like a hot pita, was.

    The people ahead of us, who had stopped to get their mystery crepes, were now happily munching and walking away. We pointed to indicate that we wanted one and observed the whole process again from start to finish. The three rectangular sheets of white stuff went on the grill. As they began to puff, the grill-master turned them. While they cooked further, he took a crepe-like item out of a covered pot to his right. As each rectangle browned and puffed, he removed them and placed them -- starting in the center of the crepe and working outward with a great deal of overlap -- over the area of two rectangles. He gestured towards a number of condiments in some uncovered plastic containers just next to the pot. Not knowing what most of them were, we nodded cluelessly as he pointed at each one and then spread a bit of each on top of the white rectangles, now covering about half the area of the pancake. He then placed the pancake on top of the grill, open and face up, and folded it into a neat rectangle, approximately the size of one piece of white stuff. Bev tried it first and gave a nod of approval while some peanuts and unidentifiable sauce dripped down her chin. She handed it to me. I took a bite.

    gallery_122_566_1105111600.jpg

    gallery_122_566_1105111620.jpg

    gallery_122_566_1105111643.jpg

    gallery_122_566_1105111661.jpg

    It was delicious. Still, I had absolutely no clue what the white stuff was. If it was cheese or tofu skin, it wasn’t like any I’d had before. It seemed like it could be a relative of the cheese I saw in the market the previous morning -- the flat kind -- but I had eaten a piece of that grilled and it had a different taste. I knew there were chopped peanuts and chili paste in there. There was also some white stuff spread around on top of everything, and if I didn’t know better (or taste otherwise) I’d have guessed it was mayonnaise. So, here we were, eating this delicious and interesting street delicacy, and I was no closer to knowing what it was than before I had tasted it.

    So, we did what any self-respecting food-obsessed people would do: we tried to find English speakers who could tell us what we were eating. This, as you might have guessed, was far easier said than done. We strolled along the cobblestone side street, taking mousy bites so we would have enough left to use as a demonstration.

    We came to an odd-looking place that had big windows from street to eye level. There were a handful of people sitting inside. Half were Westerners, and half were Chinese. We peered inside trying to determine if this was a bar. A restaurant? An art shop? The residents, mostly around my age, some maybe a bit younger, saw us looking in at them and gestured for us to come in. But there was no door apparent. They intuited, from the look of confusion on our faces, that we couldn’t figure out how to enter. One of them held his arm up above his head bent at the elbow and pointed across his head with his finger to indicate, we gathered, that we should go around the side and enter through the back. We walked down a narrow alley between this building and another, through a courtyard in the back and, upon entering the building, we were no closer to figuring out what kind of place this was than we had been standing on the street. It seemed to be a theme.

    “Hi.” We greeted them.

    They all looked up, somewhat dazed and confused, but not unfriendly at all, and said almost in unison, “Hey.”

    “Is there music here?” We had seen a sign out front possibly indicating there would be live bands.

    “Tonight there will be,” one of them answered. The others seemed to be industriously busy and involved in detailed finger work.

    “We’re trying to figure out what this food is, do any of you know?” We held it up for inspection. A few of them put their heads together and conferred.

    “What is it?” they asked, unhelpfully.

    “We don’t know,” we said. “It’s sort of like a pancake or crepe. We bought it on the street from a guy selling them just over there on the corner.” We pointed catty-corner to the building to indicate.

    “You’ll have to ask our friend but he’s not here now. He’ll be back in a minute though.”

    We stood looking at each other. Some of them sprawled out, half reclining, on a low built-in L-shaped bench with thick fitted cushions and pillows on one side of a long farmhouse-style rectangular table. The rest were on the other side of the table on a couple of chairs.

    While we stood there, one of them held up an alarmingly hefty joint, already lit, and gestured to us -- an offering. Just then, their friend, a Chinese guy, walked in. He didn’t seem surprised by the addition of two extra Westerners. He found himself a seat and sank into it. We again held up our snack, only one third of which was left (talk about self-control), and asked him if he knew what our street food was. What was the white stuff, what were the other fillings? We ran through the drill, explaining what we saw the chef cooking on the grill and how. He offered that it was “a street food.” But did he know what kind of a street food it was, or perhaps even what the ingredients were? No, he didn’t know. He couldn’t tell us.

    Bev and I looked at each other and realized that, while we had indeed found some people who spoke English, and even someone who spoke English and Chinese (and was presumably even a local) they were all too stoned to do us any good. We thanked them -- a few of them grunted responses -- and we left. We weren’t going to find out what we were eating, so Bev had another two bites and handed the rest to me to finish. It was delicious, even if it was to remain a mystery.

    4:00pm rolled around and it was time for me to check in on my English student and the go-to girl to see if my trousers were ready. I expected they would not be and that the ping-pong-loving, cigarette-smoking, ash-dropping tailor would have them ready at 5:00pm -- as he had told them.

    I was not disappointed: my trousers were not yet ready. I was told, in between profuse apologies, to return at 5:00pm. With an hour or so to amuse myself until the final trouser experiment would reveal its success or failure, I decided to return to a shop that Bev and I had passed earlier in the day. It was, I had figured out, a facial parlor.

    There were four or five narrow salon-style beds lined up with enough space between them to fit a standing person or a steam machine. I had determined earlier in the day, through Chiniculation, that the woman did facials (the steamer helped me develop this theory, so I brought my hands up to my face as if to ask if the face was the area that would be treated; the answer was yes), that they lasted approximately one hour (I pointed at my watch, she looked at me blankly, so I pointed at the clock on the wall and then gestured to show the hand moving around; she did the same, showing me that it lasted one hour) and then I pulled out my calculator to find out the cost. 20 RMB. Not a typo. The facial would cost 20 RMB (approximately $2.42 US). And, for the bonus round in the Chiniculation Olympics, I asked her (again, by gesturing to the clock on the wall and pointing at the hour hand and the numbers) what time the shop closed. 8:00pm.

    So here it was, 4:00pm, and with an hour to kill I returned to my lady at the facial parlor. She greeted me and gestured to the second-to-last bed from the entrance.

    I took my shoes off and climbed onto the bed. She pulled the bed slightly out from the wall so that my heels could hang off one end (otherwise my head would hang off the other). I closed my eyes to avoid the fluorescent lights and settled into the blissful experience of having my face massage with lotions and potions, steaming, and more lotions and potions rubbed in. Perhaps 15 minutes into the hour, one and then perhaps three or four voices began a loud discussion near the head of my table.

    My eyes were covered at this point, so I could only guess what was going on. But using my best powers of deductive reasoning, I figured that because the sliding glass doors of the shop were always open (that’s how I found it), some friends or acquaintances must have walked by, seen her working on me and stopped in to have a chat. After a few loud minutes, those people left. Shortly thereafter, a male voice, coming from the other direction, began speaking to the facial genius. They too had a loud chat and he disappeared out the back. The contrast between this “salon” experience, with its open door, public space and people coming, shouting and going, and a big city spa or a resort in the United States, with private darkened rooms, bullshit Eastern trickling water music, “cleansing chai tea,” and all of the technicians wearing rubber soled shoes and speaking in hushed tones, was amusing.

    After about an hour, the facial genius touched me on the shoulder to indicate that I was finished. I pulled out my calculator and typed in 20. She shook her head yes. I handed her a 20 RMB note. Then I held out a 10 RMB note and typed in 20 + 5 = 25. She looked at the calculator. She looked at me. She looked at the 10 RMB note extended from my hand. It registered. She took the 10 and somewhat tentatively handed me back a 5. I smiled. She smiled and the first English words were exchanged between us.

    “Sank you,” she said.

    “Hen how,” I replied (very good), with my best effort at a 100 watt smile.

    “Sank you, sank you,” followed me as I went out the door.

    Tipping is not really part of the Chinese culture, and I was likely, based upon her reaction to the tip, the first Westerner to be a customer. So she was surprised and delighted with her bonus for the job well done. I knew I was sort of breaching the social contract -- I do try to respect the local culture and not taint it with my own -- but she had done such a good job, and I had enjoyed the experience so much, that I decided a very modest tip would be acceptable. To me it was only 5 RMB. To her it seemed much more.

    When I returned to collect my pants, the English student looked at her watch and told me I was late. I chuckled to myself. It was 5:20pm. I tried on the trousers and, as I suspected, the ping-pong-loving tailor had not let me down. They were perfect.

    Time to negotiate once more. I asked if additional pants could be made that day. The English student ran to the shop next door to consult with the go-to girl. The two of them returned and huddled together. The go-to girl sent the English student to the “factory” and stayed with me in the shop.

    Two additional pair could be made, but I was told I’d have to get them quite late: 11:00pm. No, I said. I could collect them at 10:00pm along with the jacket. Agreement was reached. I again left my original pair of trousers and took the new ones back to the hotel.

    Bev and I had made a plan to meet up for dinner and, it turned out, everyone else had decided to join us too, with the exception of Sylwia, whom I assumed they had not seen. We chose a place with plastic tubs full of ingredients out front and ordered five dishes. This place turned out to be mediocre and, although a few dishes were good, overall it was a disappointment to me (especially after our dinner the night before with Mama), though it would be the only one of the entire trip. By the time we had settled on a restaurant, we had lost Farmer John and Amy to the chore of packing for our upcoming week away from our bags. Bev and I spearheaded the ordering based on the visible ingredients. We asked for a mushroom dish (and ended up with a few mushrooms and some unidentifiable meat), baby bok choy and another green (only one of which was good), a tofu casserole (which was the best dish but was full of mystery meat), a spicy chicken (that Wendy selected; she was very pleased with the level of spice) and a fried rice with egg and vegetable (that Kay suggested and was an excellent choice -- very light and flavorful, not heavy, greasy and brown with soy sauce like the sort common at home).

    At 10:00pm, I went to the shop to find my English student and there she was, standing out front with the go-to girl. Everything, it seemed, was ready. I tried on the waistcoat (an overshirt, really), which was perfect. Aside from the chalk marks that the ping-pong loving, cigarette-smoking, ash-dropping tailor didn’t have time or inclination to wipe off, it could not have been improved upon. I tried on the trousers -- two pair. The fit was acceptable. Clearly rushed along, they were not entirely as good as the first pair, but they were good. In my gut I knew that I should have ordered all of the trousers up front after meeting the tailor and that, because I didn’t, I should have left it at one pair. But having gone through all of the work to find the right guy to make the trousers, I couldn’t bear to pass up the opportunity to have more made since I had finally found the right material (one of the vocabulary words I continuously tested my English student on), the English student, the go-to girl and the skilled tailor.

    Before I left, I did a final run-through of the vocabulary list with my English student, packed up and headed off into the dark night, again turning around to wave over my shoulder and again being showered with smiles and waves. The final episode of the trouser drama had come to a fitting conclusion.

    The next morning I was awakened at 7:00am, as I had been every morning in Dali, by the mechanical tune (think Good Humor truck) of “Happy Birthday to You.” By consensus we had figured out that the music was emanating from the miniature garbage trucks that plied the town, but until I actually saw one of these trucks and heard the music, I was skeptical. These trucks, approximately the size of a minivan, would play this tune on an endless circuit. Elsewhere, we heard the ice cream truck version of “It’s a Small World” -- those drivers must have done something really bad in a previous life to end up in such purgatory. People would run out from their shops, homes and restaurants and throw bags of garbage into the side of a truck -- sort of like a side loading dumpster. I tried to imagine what could be worse than singing and hearing “It’s a Small World” over and over and determined that the ice cream truck version -- hands down -- beat Disney by a longshot. Two days later, I was still circuiting one of the two songs through my mind and, during lulls in conversation, I occasionally and involuntarily burst into song.

    We traveled by mini-bus from Dali to Qioutou, where we met our Chinese guide, Sean, and left our bags for the next eight days in his wife Margo’s cafe while we traveled to Zhongdian, trekked in the Tiger Leaping Gorge and finished up in Lijiang.

    There was no toilet at the cafe, which is par for the course in China (though, admittedly, I was a little surprised because Sean is married to an Australian woman and they seem to cater primarily to Westerners), so I was directed outside, down a very steep driveway and around the back to get to the nearby public toilet. This particular public toilet seemed to be for the citizens of the town but was also conveniently located right next to holding pens for pigs. I stepped into the dark cement block and, as my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I stopped in my tracks. I had a companion. And, unlike some other public toilets that had waist-high cement walls allowing for at least the illusion of a little privacy, this one had a wooden plank with three holes cut out -- and only air between me and my neighbor. I wanted to turn and flee but what was the difference? There would likely be someone else there if I came back, and it's not like I'd ever see this person again, so I figured I might as well get used to it. I dropped my trousers and silently praised myself for being so international.

    When I got back to the cafe, Margo was flitting around, talking incessantly and generally behaving like she was off her rocker. We unloaded the bags we planned to leave behind and re-boarded the mini-bus for the remaining three to four hours of bus torture.

    Our hotel in Zhongdian (Gyalthang to Tibetans, and recently changed to Shangrila by the Chinese government for, as far as I can tell, the purposes of marketing to tourists), had a beautiful lobby, so we were hopeful that the rooms would live up to expectations. We were so wrong. The rooms were utter crap. We had no hot water, no heat, and the ceilings were water damaged, as was the industrial astro-turf like carpeting. Amazingly, we were told, the hotel was brand new and had just opened.

    I met up with Bev and Martin for a wander. Zhongdian, at approximately 10,000 feet, didn’t seem to have all that much to offer. I had been anticipating a beautiful Tibetan town. But because of a Chinese program of economic incentives for construction, the entire city was under construction. While there seemed to be some rules about building only in sort-of Tibetan-style architecture, the city was growing at an alarming rate and it seemed to have lost its soul.

    The old town, however, although also under construction, was beautiful and charming. All of the homes were old traditional Tibetan flat-roofed residences with attached stables in the yards and lower level of the home for winter. We climbed to the top of a hill where there was an enormous prayer wheel (imagine a merry-go-round). It had a waist-high bar wrapped around its middle and, to turn it, at least a couple of people had to grab the bar and apply all their body weight to walk and turn the wheel. There were a couple of young Israeli boys trying to turn the wheel counter-clockwise -- the wrong direction -- so in true Israeli fashion, I good naturedly scolded them and advised them to go the other way. They were so excited that I was speaking to them in Hebrew that before long I was chatting with their two sets of parents. One set of parents included the Israeli ambassador to China (visiting from Beijing) and the other parents were visiting from -- where else? -- Miami. The ambassador asked where I was headed and I told her that we were going to the Gorge. Be careful, she warned, several Israelis have died there -- the trails are narrow and the rock is often slippery -- proceed with utmost caution. Was I headed to Beijing? Too bad. I surely missed an interesting opportunity to meet with them there. In parting they wished me a happy new year, and I wished them an easy fast.

    Martin, Bev and I settled into a cafe along the cobblestone streets of the old town. There was an inviting small stove in the middle of the room, a fully stocked bar, some tables with chairs and other tables with big futon couches for hanging out. The menu was limited but interesting. I ordered a vegetable and tofu stir fry and stir fried seasonal vegetable (aka cabbage) to share, and Bev and Martin ordered a chicken curry dish (hacked up chicken with skin and bones and all) and a spicy pork dish. The vegetarian dishes were beautifully cooked and delicious, and came in enormous portions. Each cost 6 RMB. The meat dishes cost considerably more but also came in generous portions and received rave reviews from my companions. An excellent find in an otherwise seemingly overrun town. Note: Come to find out, Hazel, the owner, was a recent transplant from Xian. She came to open the business and was taking advantage of the Chinese government incentives for people who were building and opening new businesses. Unfortunately, there in the heart of the old town, the old Tibetan town, all of the new funky restaurants and “pubs” seemed to be owned not by Tibetans but by Chinese -- a situation that I found repeated in other Tibetan towns and cities and that was much bemoaned by Tibetans I met in Lhasa.

    After a day in Zhongdian, we had a 7:15am departure for the bus station to catch a 7:50 bus to Haba. We all kept our eyes peeled for breakfast snacks and just outside the bus station we were rewarded by a few vendors plying their wares: boiled eggs cooked in tea, steamed meat buns, and boiled corn on the cob on a stick. Kay established the trend of eating corn on the cob on a stick, and Sean and I were quick to follow. The corn was an extremely deep yellow, and the texture and flavor were rather unlike the corn we eat in the US. The kernels themselves were much tougher and chewier (dental floss a must) and getting a bite off the cob -- especially because the cob was stuck through with a chopstick-size skewer -- was a bit of a workout. The corn was sweet and I would look for it elsewhere.

    Inside the bus station, the bus was apparently waiting for us for departure. We loaded ourselves and our packs onto the mini-bus, the driver kicked it into reverse and . . . klonk. The bus lurched and stopped dead. The driver put it into neutral, and a bunch of guys who had climbed off the bus (aided by others who were standing around, presumably waiting for their own buses), tried to push the bus backward and out of the bay. After about four feet . . . klonk, and again klonk. The bus went silent and the engine started leaking oil. They pushed it back a bit more and the pool of oil was revealed to be more like a small sea. When Sean informed us that the driver had left -- in search of a part -- we filed off the bus and watched and waited.

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    The driver went to work and, about an hour later, claimed to have fixed the broken part. Six guys pushed the bus out of the bay and the bus, now facing in the correct direction to be put into drive, sputtered to life. We piled back onto the bus and watched as two Chinese lady passengers refused to get on. They were fearful that the bus would break down and they wanted a “guarantee” that the bus would run to its destination. No guarantee was given, but eventually they got on anyway. What choice did they have, really?

    The route was a winding, narrow mountain road with sharp dropoffs and nothing between us and the great abyss. The road was under construction so everyone, including the reluctant ladies, went airborne on countless occasions. We had a lunch break at the foot of Baishuitai, the White Water Terraces, which reminded me a great deal of a place in Turkey’s Pamukkale, though on a smaller scale.

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    We started up the staircases next to the terraces. Bev, Martin, Kay and John were walking ahead toward a small old man standing at what seemed to be a little shrine on one of the terraces. The man held out incense and gestured that they should light it and put it in the terrace shrine. Sean came up behind me laughing and, as the four of them lit the incense and gingerly put it into the white water terrace, Sean informed the rest of us that this shrine was specifically where women who were trying to conceive went to make offerings.

    Haba was an hour farther along the mountain road. Half of us were in the cab of a truck, the rest in an open bed. We would be two nights in Haba at a basic and simple guest house. The toilets were down the stairs and across the courtyard. The showers, one of which worked, were at the other end of the courtyard. Wendy, Kay and I were bunking up in a triple.

    Dinner was a feast, and good: stir fried sweet potato slices (soft, not crispy); julienne zucchini and squash, stir fried; mushrooms with Sichuan peppercorns; sauteed eggplant with garlic; boiled chicken legs; fried white potato shreds (like hashbrowns); dried yak meat cooked with vegetables; pork with vegetables; and steamed (or boiled) pumpkin, which tasted like acorn squash. I ate so much, I became uncomfortably full, so Bev, Martin and I finished up the day with a nighttime walk through and beyond the village.

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    We awoke to rain and a valley full of dark rain clouds. The plan was to spend four or five hours climbing up the hill (approximately 1,500 or more feet vertical) to a Yi village where we would have a very simple lunch and make our way back down through some other villages and back to the road.

    Breakfast was family style: plates of fried egg and tomato from the wok, platters of banana, orange and apple slices, naan-type bread and honey, and a rice bread that looked like a fried egg without the yolk.

    We watched the rain, hoping it would stop, but at 10:00am, with no reprieve in sight, we set out up a muddy and slippery trail in the rain. The rain picked up. It poured down on us for the next two hours. We were totally clouded in so we had no view, the trail was becoming increasingly treacherous and a trip participant meltdown was about to ensue. But there was nothing that could be done. If one of us went down, we all had to go down and we were, according to Sean, 30 minutes from the top and the village. We pushed on.

    In the village, we were ushered into a home. Sean, having grown up in and leading trips through the Gorge area, knew many people. We were served bowls of Yunnan “brick” tea and later wok cooked potatoes (the potatoes were placed in the wok and the wok was set down into the fire on top of a three-pronged metal ring) and a hearty and heavy dark bread which seemed to be made of barley flour.

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    It was two hours down a different slippery slope back to the guest house, and I managed to do a complete ass-plunge into the mud. I was, by this time, soaked to the bone and covered in mud from toe to waist, and the crowning glory was the mud print on my ass where I had so gracefully landed. I was officially ready to be inside and out of the rain. I plodded along somewhat miserably for the last 30 minutes, sustained by dreams of hot showers and clean dry clothes. Except, the showers were solar powered. Eight people, one shower, no sun. What were the odds of hot water?

    In the end, most of us simply hosed down our shoes, our clothes and ourselves. Literally, as in with a hose. I also scrubbed my socks, still on my feet, with a scrub brush. I put my shorts on backwards, soaped them up and tried to work the clay-like mud off the ass of my shorts. The rest of my clothing would have to wait for a sunny day -- after all, that’s what deodorant is for.

    << previous installment <<

  20. Monica, you have the top 20 reasons to fall in love with India, I already love India and I’m countering with the top 5 reasons I enjoyed your post:

    5. I loved your photos, they really illustrated what you were conveying with words (and by the way, knowing what kind of camera you have is overrated—so long as you know how to get good pictures, what does it matter?)

    4. You whetted my appetite and now I want to know more--particularly about the details of your time spent in the kitchen with Chef Qureshi

    3. Your cousin is beautiful—and I love the photo—what a field day I could have taking her picture!

    2. The buffet looked delicious—can you tell us more? And is that the same buffet as the high tea you made mention of at the Sea Lounge? If I assume correctly that it isn’t, can you post some photos of that too? You’ve piqued my interest and I’m a sucker for high tea.

    And the number one reason I enjoyed your post:

    1. I particularly liked your neighborhood “encounter” walk with your father. It really gives a sense of what the streets around your home are like and what one might find in visiting a residential neighborhood.

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