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Ellen Shapiro

eGullet Society staff emeritus
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Posts posted by Ellen Shapiro

  1. That cheese looks almost like pasta, though the colors get all muted on my low-quality LCD screen.

    As for the honeycomb coals, thanks for showing how they're made. I wondered about that in Hanoi, where they're used regularly for street-side cooking. Imagine a metal pail lined with concrete, or just a medium concrete 'flowerpot' with one of those in them... they use metal tongs to turn the coal over or pull it out, and you just stick a new one on top of an almost-burned-out one to keep going. Or so my memory says, it's a bit fuzzy.

    It does indeed look like pasta, your eyes do not deceive you but it is dried and hard (the way commercial pasta is when it comes out of the box, though not as thick and therefore not durable enough, for say, macaroni necklaces), unlike fresh pasta.

    Regarding Jinmyo’s observation, it does look like it could be soy milk skin and while the Bai do make and consume a number of soy milk products I was told that this particular product was cheese of, amongst other things, the sort they sell on the street cooked and served on a skewer as a snack food (which Bev, Martin and I tried our first night wandering around in Dali before dinner at Mama’s).

    mb7o -- The honeycombs are used exactly as you remembered—stacked one on top of the other. Good recall!

  2. Those roosters for sale as food look beautiful; it's almost too bad they were going to be killed. But I wonder how they prevent them from pecking each other in that basket, and why they don't flee. Do they breed roosters for docility in that region?

    Did you try any of that cheese in the market?

    Pan, as far as I know, the roosters are not bred to be docile here or anywhere else in the country. The handling of birds in China is so different from the U.S. and other western countries—the ducks on the back of the motorbike or the chicken in the bag on the bus—are commonplace. There are more such tales and photos coming, too.

    As for the cheese, I did try some. I particularly liked the kind that was flat and dried (as pictured). It is eaten cooked and is something that street vendors in old Dali sell as a snack. Of course, processing the cheese like this preserves it through the winter months.

  3. << previous installment << ----- >> next installment >>

    On the plane to Kunming (the capital of Yunnan Province, dubbed the Eternal Spring City due to its mild climate year round), although we theoretically had assigned seats, we found that the other passengers had happily settled themselves into ours. Every seat on the plane was full and we stood blocking the aisle.

    The flight attendants pushed up and, rather than moving the people who were occupying our seats, they simply moved the flight attendants’ belongings out of the last row -- the row that doesn’t recline, the one next to the bathroom, the most uncomfortable row on the plane --and pointed. So three people took those seats (admittedly, I was not pushing to get seated there) and, little by little, uncomfortable and cramped seats were procured for most of the members of our group. But we were still a few seats short and I was still standing.

    My fingers were crossed: it looked like Bev and I might end up in first class (not that this would mean much, but at least the seats wouldn’t be cramped). We were directed to follow the male flight attendant forward and, as we got closer and closer to the front of the plane, it was looking like we might be headed for the soft seats. But at the very last row of sardine class before the comfort zone, a uniformed arm shot out and pointed us to the two bulkhead seats -- a middle and an aisle. I wasn’t complaining, mind you, I could have been in the last row of the plane, but I had been so close to escape. As I was later served my beverage (there seemed to be an ample selection on the cart, but the male flight attendant seemed to have ESP and so decided on my behalf that indeed I did want the unidentifiable orange-ish, overly sweet drink that he plopped down in front of me in the paper cup that had all but disintegrated by the time I picked it up to take my first and only sip) and my fried peanuts (a worthy bar snack), I could only imagine the tantalizing delicacies that I must have been missing in first class.

    Those of you who have driven around France are no doubt familiar with the Carrefour chain of supermarkets (hypermarches, the French call them, “hyper” being one step up from “super” in the pecking order of marches). You might be surprised to learn, then, that the chain is represented in China as well. (They actually have more stores in Asia than in Europe). So, after checking into our rooms at the Camellia Hotel, Kay and I, roommates for the night, decided to make the 25-minute walk over to the local Carrefour before heading to the “Muslim strip” for dinner.

    We stepped into a bizarre, sterilized Chinese version of Western -- now very much incorporated into Chinese culture -- consumer heaven. It was the size of the two largest Costco warehouses you've ever seen, one stacked atop the other. The first floor had clothing, household items, electronics and wine. But the second floor was where the action was. All of the food products -- packaged and fresh, baked and bulk, fish, meat and poultry and alcohol both domestic and imported -- were here, with fixed, no-haggle prices. And it was all as clean as if it were in Ogden, Utah. Better still, the majority of the food was local or at least domestic. There were a limited number of imported items like chocolate (Snickers bars, for example) and biscuits (cookies, to Americans) but, for the most part, the Kunming Carrefour was a hypermarche paradise of Chinese food products.

    We hadn't anticipated this level of complexity and diversity, so we were short on time. I rushed around wildly, like a woman on a television game-show 60-second shopping spree, examining as many of the local products in the packaged food section as I could. The dried sweet potato looked promising, and while I would find that it was a bit like shoe leather, it was tasty, gave my jaw a good workout and became a staple of my diet during travel and trekking days. I also found a selection of mantou (buns), which I had been trying to find in Hong Kong and Yangshuo. While nobody at the counter spoke English, I could tell based upon color that the plain white buns were the traditional plain steamed bread (eaten at breakfast), whereas the burnt orange buns appeared to be pumpkin flavored. The gray bun speckled with black flakes remained a mystery. I selected one of each and determined that I liked plain best. The other two didn’t really have any identifiable flavors but had a bitterness that made them unpalatable. I don't really know what I ate. I looked forward to our return to Kunming at the end of the trip, when I would have ample time to further explore Carrefour.

    Kay and I studied the map and tried, based upon the mosque we had passed and the mosque we were headed towards, to determine where we would find the strip of Muslim restaurants we had heard about. (Yes, they have mosques and Muslim restaurants, and even Muslims, in China). Through diligent forensic detection (will CSI: Kunming be next?), or maybe just dumb luck, we stumbled upon a two-square-block area that had approximately 30 restaurants packed into its. As if the selection wasn’t great enough already, in the middle of one block we stumbled upon an indoor food mall which had another 20 or more restaurants -- some with seating inside the individual stores and most with seating in the center aisle that divided one side from the other.

    Both inside the food mall and out, people stood outside of their restaurants with menus, trying to lure customers inside. The bigger restaurants outside of the mall had both large indoor restaurant spaces and equally large outdoor sitting areas. They had grills fired up outside, along with displays of all the ingredients, upon which the Muslim cooks maneuvered skewered meats around the grills to utilize the varying levels of heat for different degrees of doneness.

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    We settled on a restaurant in the mall. We walked by each of the entryways (none had proper doors -- they were just open, like the three-sided stores) and looked at the produce in bins outside the kitchens. In many restaurants around China, the produce is displayed out front of the restaurant, presumably for patrons to see freshness, variety and quality. Most that served fish had tanks or buckets out front rigged with aeration tubes, and an assortment of vegetables -- whatever was in season. Considering that, at first glance, they all looked the same, it seemed a daunting process to make a selection amongst all those restaurants. But we narrowed it down based upon the appearance of the fresh produce and what we saw people eating; and so we selected one in the mall that had tables and seating inside the shop (we didn’t want one of the more upscale restaurants with patio seating, but we didn’t want to sit at the McDonald’s-style plastic chairs attached to plastic tables in the center of the food mall either).

    The restaurant we chose had no English name, no English menu and no English speakers present -- anywhere. Luckily, I had my phrasebook, which has a section dedicated to eating, we had a cheat sheet from our orientation and I was getting better at Chiniculation every day. No matter what, one could never be certain of what would actually turn up (I'm convinced this would be the case even if you spoke every Chinese dialect fluently), so each of the methods was equally viable. Kay had just come off of another Intrepid trip (through a different part of China), on which her group ate virtually every meal together with the leader, so she already had some favorite dishes and had accumulated a body of trial-and-error experience in restaurant ordering. Between us we selected four dishes: spicy sauteed tofu; egg and tomato (one of Kay’s staples and soon to be one of mine too); spicy sauteed eggplant; and sauteed greens with fresh garlic. We ordered rice to accompany our small feast. We heaped some rice into our bowls, and atop that we served a bite or two at a time of each dish. Every dish was excellent -- my best meal in China yet (though the trip had scarcely begun).

    The next morning we were off to Dali. It would be another long travel day, this time on a bus. If there was no road work being done, the trip would be a five to six hour trip but, due to the road work (aka absence of a road), we were in for a nine hour bounce-a-thon.

    Breakfast was included with our rooms at the Camellia hotel and we fortified ourselves for the day ahead. There was a full buffet with an assortment of Eastern and Western specialties: Danish and pastry rolls, yogurt, a couple of varieties of meat dumplings, mantou, raw vegetables, cut fruit and fried eggs cooked by a griddle man who cooked the eggs one egg at a time, plated each individually, hoarded the plates until several had accumulated, and then threw a dozen or more plates up on the pass at once -- an ideal arrangement for producing consistently cold fried eggs.

    By 8:00 am we were on our first bus, which would take us from the hotel to the central bus station (45 minutes). Our next bus was in its bay and ready to board. We threw our big bags underneath and wedged ourselves into our assigned seats (ironically, on the bus everyone obeyed the seat assignments, but that’s probably because it was all Westerners on the bus). Luckily, I got an aisle.

    The first hour was relatively smooth sailing, and I wondered what all of the hubbub had been about. Then our bus took the right fork and, suddenly, the road disappeared. In China, when a road is being built, do not assume that the road is closed and traffic is rerouted. To the contrary, it means that the vehicles drive wherever they can, switching from one side of what might someday be the new road to the other and avoiding heavy machinery -- in operation -- and lines of small muscular men wearing what appear to be hard hats made of paper and doing manual labor like sifting sand with screens and chopping up the dirt with pick axes, cooking bricks on the side of the road in ovens and carrying wheelbarrows of dirt from one place to another. One of the many incongruities I’d see in China: big modern heavy machinery operating just up the road -- on the same project -- from these manual laborers who, based upon the tools with which they were working, could easily have been mistaken for Chinese peasants building a road 100 years ago.

    We bumped along for the next three and a half hours and, in addition to getting my knees slammed into the seat in front of me on a regular basis, the “road” was in such a state (well, there wasn’t really a road) that people’s belongings rained down upon us from the storage area above, clocking some in the head, on the legs or perhaps just in the lap for a wake up call. One of the highlights was when John got knocked on the head by a 1.5 liter bottle of water as the bus tilted 15 degrees (when you're in the bus, that seems very steep) and we all held on to our seats for dear life. A strapping young Aussie surfing farmer, he rubbed his noggin and took it in stride.

    Our lunch break was at a road junction just off the construction zone and marked the end of our drive on the road-in-progress. I selected snacks from my purchases at Carrefour and wandered out of the parking lot and over to the nearby fields to watch farmers harvesting their rice. To my surprise, they had a small threshing machine. I expected the harvest process would be traditional “separating the wheat from the chaff” sort of threshing where the plants are beaten to extract the grain, or tossed up into the air. Having this small portable machine was another surprising incongruity. The harvesting was done manually, with small hand-held scythes, but the separation of the rice from the stalk was done in the modern machine. Standing on the side of the road, I was unable to see what the end result was -- did the machine actually thresh the rice or did it simply cut the stalk from the grain to be threshed at another time, presumably by hand.

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    We arrived in Dali at about 5:00 and, fortunately, got Shanghaied by a couple of cabbies who were waiting for the bus to arrive. (I had overheard Sylwia discussing the impending activity of finding yet another bus to get us to our final destination). We checked into our hotel in Old Dali (15-20 minutes outside of Dali -- a separate town, really), where we would be staying for the next three nights, and reconvened for a little orientation tour around town. Sylwia brought us to the main street and announced that it was time for dinner. We looked around at each other and I declined, as did Martin and Bev. We had just been cooped up on a bus for that last nine hours or more, and the last thing I wanted to do was sit down again. I was in a new place, I was excited and I wanted to get out and see what was around.

    Bev, Martin and I set out wandering down the two main cobblestone streets that made up the center of Old Dali. The city is surrounded by an old stone wall with entrances at the compass points, complete with lookouts above the gateways. The two streets cross in a T and other cobblestone streets in the town center bisect and radiate out from them. On what locals consider the main boulevard (Wenxian Lu), on one side there is a stream separating the street (which is restricted to pedestrian traffic) from the sidewalk and adorned with trees. On the other side of the boulevard is a mirror image -- benches, trees, sidewalk and shops -- but without the stream. It was a lovely environment for strolling both at night and during the day and, as we explored, the streets were lively with locals and tourists, the shops were open and Bev and I darted into a few shops to check out the local wares while Martin wandered about trying to amuse himself while we behaved like girls.

    By 8:00 we were ready to eat but we wanted to get off the beaten path, so we decided to venture outside of the city walls. Not far out of the south gate, we came upon a street that seemed to be, go figure, the wood-carving district -- virtually every store front had someone carving wood shutters and furnishings by hand. On the same street we also came upon a few restaurants in the now-familiar format: a room with no front wall, bins of produce out front, buckets of water with live fish and, at the one that drew me in, a significant Chinese matron standing over two large burners -- one with a wok, the other with a boiling cauldron -- and working both, one with each hand. Inside there was a woman eating dinner with her daughter. It had the right feel and I steered us into the restaurant.

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    Of course, there was no menu, or at least we never saw one, but it’s not like we could have read it anyway. Bev and I went outside and pointed at the beautiful fresh mushrooms. A nod of acknowledgement. There was a pot, bubbling on the burner, that contained tofu and greens. I pointed at that. Bev suggested a beef dish -- a nod. We selected some greens for the wok and that’s when the woman at the other table got involved. The Chinese matron was concerned that we had no fish on our menu. What about a dish with fish? We looked at each other and shrugged our shoulders. We weren’t really interested. Having picked my way through all of the bones of the filleted beer fish, I wasn’t particularly enthusiastic about the prospect of this dish because I knew that there would be even more bones to work around as well as skin, fins, head and tail. I know that cooking the fish on the bone theoretically adds more flavor to the meat but I’ve never been able to tell the difference (except maybe with turbot) and the number of bones in the regional fish that have to be fished out of the mouth with each bite far outweigh the pleasure of eating it. But there was no explaining this to Mama (literally and figuratively) and, as she stood with her hands on her hips and a stern look on her face, we took the safe route and told our intermediary that we would indeed have a fish dish -- whatever Mama said. Fish soup? Yes, yes, fish soup sounds perfect.

    The three of us settled into our table for six and, chuckling amongst ourselves, we debated what dishes would actually appear on the table. In the mean time, Mama was hard at work on the fish. She reached her big paw into the tank and grabbed an energetic flapping fish of indeterminate species. She walked to the edge of the sidewalk, almost to the street, squatted down, raised the wriggling fish out in front of her and threw it down onto the cement.

    Nope. The fish wasn't dead yet. So she picked it up and threw it on the ground again. Now the fish was dead, or close enough. Without a moment’s pause, she grabbed a small knife and gutted and scaled the fish in about the time it took me to take one photo and for my flash to recycle. The fish was handed off to one of the three young girls working in the restaurant with Mama. None of them, it turned out, was her daughter, but they were living with her and working in the restaurant while attending the local school.

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    The team of them went to work on our meal: one hacked up the fish, another was cleaning the mushrooms and the third was working on the ingredients for the fish soup. It was not long before the dishes started to arrive at the table. The mushroom dish was first and it was bliss on a plate (I love mushrooms more than most any other food). Red peppers had been added for color and two types of hot chili peppers, red and green, had been added for a little zing. The greens arrived -- straightforward and delicious, stir fried in the wok. And the piece de resistance -- the fish soup, bubbling in a cast iron cauldron -- was placed on the table for our inspection while Mama stood over us waiting for our nods of approval. We looked up at her and nodded our heads like bobbing head dolls and she lumbered away, back to the stove.

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    Watching Martin try to sift his way through the bones was enough to confirm my choice to avoid the fish, but that didn’t stop me from digging into the broth and the heaps of vegetables that were floating around in the kettle. Martin got into the spirit of things, first removing the bones from his mouth by hand, and then, when we told him that the Chinese just spit them out onto the table (most restaurants have plastic sheets over the table cloths), he began to do the same, creating a significant mountain of bones next to his bowl.

    Throughout the meal we interacted with the three girls. They had some basic English and, after they got over their initial shyness about speaking the foreign language, they tried to answer some of our questions. One of the girls was surprisingly proficient -- more so than many of the other people we had encountered around town including shopkeepers, who presumably deal with tourists on a daily basis. One thing I came to learn, however, was that in China tourists don’t usually equate with Westerners. If you look at the population of China -- well over a billion -- and the expense and difficulty of getting a visa and going abroad, you won't be surprised to learn that, when most Chinese take vacations, they travel within their own vast and varied country. So most tourists in China are, not surprisingly, Chinese.

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    Every once in a while, our Chinese Mama would stand over us at the table, checking our progress. She would reach in with the ladle in order to examine the remaining contents of the fish soup and shake her head in disapproval. I fished out lots of vegetable from the cast iron pot and Martin valiantly made his way through the fish -- meat, skin, bones, tail and head. When he finally proclaimed himself full up, Mama (her name, we learned, is Yang Su Fa) came over and, with a great deal of solemnity, ladled through the casserole dish, shook her head in disapproval and proceeded to ladle the three remaining pieces of fish into Martin’s bowl. She nodded at him in assent and no amount of gesturing on his part -- patting his stomach, blowing out his cheeks or making a circle with his arms out in front of his stomach -- would remove the frown of disapproval from her face.

    Martin looked at me and then at Bev and said “I suppose there’s no way I can get out of eating this, is there?” It was, of course, a rhetorical question. We all looked up and saw Mama standing over him, now with her hands on her hips and her feet spread apart -- a clear indication to me that she wasn’t going anywhere until Martin achieved an outcome that was to her satisfaction.

    Mama stood over him and watched as he consumed each bite and spat the bones onto the table until he was through, at which point her stone face broke into a wide smile and, with a big paw, she clapped Martin on the back in approval. By my estimation, that ranks as high praise from Mama.

    The bill total: 50 RMB. That's $6.04 US.

    We took a round of photos, some prints of which which are now en route to Dali (Cecil, the owner of the China 46 restaurant in New Jersey, addressed the envelope for me) and, should I ever have the opportunity to return, I expect I’ll find our group photo pasted to the wall. We departed beaming, with friendly waves and wide smiles as we made our way back to the walled city.

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    The next two days were free days in Dali and, on our first free day, we all decided to take a day-long tour that would include visits to neighboring villages of ethnic Chinese minority groups. Our guide, Henriette (a Dutch woman), married a local guy of Chinese and Tibetan descent and together they opened a restaurant in town (catering primarily to Western tourists). They run these tours to neighboring ethnic minority (as everyone other than Han Chinese are referred to in China) towns and villages.

    In retrospect, after spending more than nine hours in transit the day before, the first half of the tour would have been enough (dayenu, if you get my meaning, to those of you who have ever celebrated Passover). The second half of the day included more than four hours on a mini bus crossing a mountain range yet, to me, the most interesting part of the day was the first half, which was only 20 minutes from old Dali. It’s possible, I suppose, that had I not spent nine bone-jarring hours on a bus the day before I’d have felt differently.

    Our first destination was Xizhou, a Bai village (Bai being the name of the relevant minority). It was market day and we had 30 minutes of free time to wander around. The market was alive with brisk activity -- everyone was buying or selling something. All of the usual merchandise was available: meat, poultry, fish, many varieties of whole and crushed chilis, pickled vegetables, blocks of brown sugar (I had never seen this before but I would see it in most every other market I would visit) and giant pieces of crystallized sugar that looked like chunks of minerals from a mine (or really big rock candy).

    A few items unique to the Bai were the local cheese (cheese, in general, is not an ingredient in the Chinese diet) and different forms of soy products (sold by the pound and cut from blocks based upon the desired amount) that looked like giant rectangles of wobbly cheese, whitish and sometimes yellow in color.

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    We walked through the streets and were lucky enough to be able to enter a home. There were still many indications that the cultural revolution was hardly ancient history: political slogans were still visible on many of the town and residence walls and, outside of one home, there was a chart with a list of people’s names with numbers next to each name indicating the number of hours each person had worked.

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    In the courtyard of the home we visited, there were paper thin slices of apple laid out on flat U shaped baskets drying in the sun -- there were no orchards in evidence around the village, though it was peak apple season, so the family likely had apple trees in an orchard outside of the city (or they had bartered for the apples) and they were drying the excess for the upcoming winter season.

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    The kitchen was off the courtyard. It was a relatively large rectangular room with no window. The stove was in the far right corner -- the farthest possible location from the door (and therefore from ventilation). Immediately inside the door was a stack of what looked like black honeycombs. These, it turns out, are the common local fuel source for stoves: coal dust compacted and stamped into honeycombs and then cooked in an outdoor oven in the village. The men I observed who were making the honeycombs had coal smudges on their faces like coalminers, although, fortunately for their lungs, every step of the job takes place outdoors.

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    The honeycombs are stacked vertically one on top of another inside the body of the stove and the holes allow the air to circulate and the coal to heat up hotter and faster. Regionally, it is the most inexpensive fuel for cooking (and the heating byproduct -- which is why the stove is so far from the door and the room has no windows) and therefore the most widely utilized. Other fuels, like yak dung, are used in Tibet and the economics of the free fuel are not insignificant; and elsewhere, where wood is readily available, it is collected and used for cooking.

    As we exited the courtyard, we were directed to the electric meters above the entryway. There were three. This, we were told, was the surefire way to know how many families were in residence on the property—three electricity meters, three separate families, three separate bills.

    Lunch was on the other side of the Cang Shan mountains, in a Muslim village. The food was Hallal Chinese food -- same drill as regular Chinese food, but no pork.

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    Next to the restaurant was a mosque, which, interestingly enough, was not architecturally reminiscent of any other mosques I’ve seen -- it looked nothing like a mosque (yet in other parts of China, like Kunming, for example the mosques look like mosques) to the extent that you wouldn’t know it was a mosque . . . unless you knew. The bathrooms at this mosque, in an attached building adjacent -- were a cement trough (standard for modern, not fancy) with two slots for standing, divided by a three foot wall and no doors on the building or the individual slots. Why then, one might ask, do they even bother to put a wall between the slots when, in reality, there is no privacy since the person who is squatting (we’re talking about women here) in the first slot is not only passed by the person who is going to the second slot (both on her way in and on her way out) but if there is a line (as there was with the women from our group) the woman in the front slot is doing her business in full view of the line of women who are standing in the open doorway. Yes, things in China are very public. Not much room for privacy. Of course, there were plenty of toilets that were communal -- not even a three-foot wall between the slots -- and you can be sure that all of us Western women (I can’t address the male toilets first-hand, though I assume the same rules apply) were wishing for that wall when faced with the open trough alternative, especially, dare I say, when one’s bowels were active.

    From the restaurant we visited a second, much sparser market, this one populated primarily by the Yi (another ethnic minority), and then to a Buddhist pagoda-style temple with an excellent lookout point over the surrounding countryside.

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    Upon arrival back in Dali at 7:00 pm, Sylwia dropped the bomb on us that, upon departure from Dali the morning after our second free day there, we would need to separate out seven days worth of belongings for our trek through the Tiger Leaping Gorge. In our trip dossier, a “day pack” was suggested for days 11-15 of the itinerary in the Tiger Leaping Gorge. It turned out that we really needed to account for 8 days (including our day of departure and our day of return when we would be reunited with our bags). You can imagine our surprise, and many people, including me, were caught off guard and some even purchased intermediate-sized packs, since we had observed the written instructions and brought only day packs, to accommodate the belongings they would need for the eight days.

    Thrilled to be off the bus, and processing the new packing and travel information, I decided that I would wander the old town streets and try to find a more promising place to get my linen trousers copied. I walked into a few shops and ended up with a very sweet girl with extremely limited English (though more than my Chinese).

    Armed with my phrasebook, however, which had a complete section on shopping -- including tailoring -- I managed to convey what I wanted. At least, I thought so. This was proceeded by some pantomiming about a jacket I had tried on in another shop the night before where they had told me that they could not make the jacket to my color specifications. Here, I was told, I thought, that they could get it done but I still had been unable to convey the issue of time and multiple jobs -- the jackets and the trousers. These items had to be done by the following night, whenever the store would close, and furthermore, I tried to explain, if the trousers came out well (I wouldn’t make that mistake twice), I wanted to get additional pairs made.

    Much Chinglish and Chiniculation ensued. I didn’t grow up in a game-playing family (thank heaven) so I’ve never been able to test this out, but I’ve come to think that I must have a talent for charades. If there were a pantomime game show that involved conveying information -- entire conversations -- between two people who speak different languages, I’m pretty sure I’d be in the Showcase Showdown.

    Communicating all of this information to a point at which I was relatively confident that I had a chance took about 45 minutes and, in the process, I got to teach the girl some English, which I wrote down for her so she could remember the words later (purple, material and jacket were the beginnings of our lesson). There was some back-and-forth between my girl and another girl who seemed to be the go-to girl. She was the one who could make it happen -- who could make my trouser dreams come true.

    It was at this point that I was taken to the “factory.” I was led down a dark alley (with my passport, all of my money, travelers checks and camera gear in tow), into a dark courtyard, then a dark vestibule and finally into a room of about 14' x 20' full of different bolts of material and one guy, working on a ping-pong table. They must have explained the jacket to him first and, with a cigarette hanging out of the corner of his mouth with ash on the verge of dropping off at any time, he whipped out a tape measure and expertly took my measurements, said them out loud to himself, jotted them down with a pencil on a scrap of paper and then told the two girls -- my English student and the go-to girl -- that it couldn’t be done, he couldn’t get the trousers and jacket ready by 4:00 the next day, it would have to be 5:00 for the trousers and later, 9:00, for the jacket. They argued back and forth, meanwhile I was watching the cigarette bob up and down in the corner of the tailor's mouth, waiting for the ash to fall.

    The girls ushered me back outside into the dark courtyard and, after a few quick hushed exchanges between them, the English student whispered to me (as if the tailor could now magically understand English) that I should come back at 4:00 pm tomorrow to try on the trousers, not 5:00 as they had said inside. The go-to girl nodded her head in assent. I left with a mixed image of success. On the one hand, I had a gut feeling that this guy really knew what he was doing. On the other hand, I had the instinctive feeling that these, my favorite trousers, which the ping-pong loving, cigarette-smoking, ash-dropping tailor now had in his possession would not be ready at 4:00 tomorrow and if I was going to gamble, perhaps I should have simply told them from the start that I wanted 5 pair made all at once, not a first sample pair to be theoretically ready at 4:00 and 4 pair to follow by night’s end if I liked what I saw.

    Once again I was walking back to my hotel, well after dark, pressed for time, having voluntarily given up my trousers -- the bottom-half equivalent, I mused, of the shirt off my back.

    << previous installment << ----- >> next installment >>

  4. From the picture above it appears french fries and onion rings are dessert items in China. Phew. If that's the social norm I may have to move there then.

    That's what is so funny--because these food items are by popular demand (because it is so charming, Yangshuo is a hang out destination for western travelers who have been on the road in China for weeks or even months and as a result the local savvy restaurateurs have learned to make the favorite comfort foods—often taught by the travelers themselves—that the westerners miss when traveling in Asia) and not part of the local diet, the restaurateurs have no clue how to categorize these foreign snacks.

    Along the same lines, after having ordered one of these western food items, it’s a great pastime to anticipate what form of the food will actually appear—will it be onion rings as we know them—or will it be onion rings fried in the wok with oil (ostensible sautéed onions)? Will it be French fries as we expect them or cooked shredded potato with no crispness or relation to French fries or even home fries? Don’t laugh, I’ve been with people who have been served both!

  5. I sure wish you had a picture of those Jerusalem Baklava shops.

    Are you sure it is honey that they use, not syrup flavored with rosewater? Unlike the Greek Baklava, in Lebanon honey is never used to drizzle over baklava. Personally I much prefer the rosewater syrup, since I think honey can be overpowering.

    Elie

    You're absolutely correct. It is rosewater syrup, at least at the places that I love in Jerusalem. I forget sometimes that with this crowd, I have to be precise.

    Interestingly, even though Titan Foods is a Greek market, I think they use the rosewater syrup in their baklava. But for the sake of all of you, I am willing to make the sacrifice and get out to Queens so that I can make the most informed assessment possible. I know, I know, it will be difficult, but for egullet and the sake of research, how could I not?

  6. *sigh*

    i miss middle eastern sweet platters.

    I second that!

    My favorite baklava to date is from a place in the old city in Jerusalem right across from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. There is a line of these baklava shops—probably three or four—where the big round trays of all different varieties of baklava are laid out. You point to what you want, either for take out or, my preference, to eat on the spot at one of the little sticky tables in the shop. It is the very wet sort of baklava—dripping with honey—which is my favorite.

    There are those in the dry baklava camp and my friend who lives in and is from Nazareth has taken me to what she and her family consider to be the best baklava bakery. It is indeed very good baklava, but too dry to rank as my favorite (not, mind you, that I would ever say no to this baklava) because if the baklava on the tray is not sitting in a pool of honey (with rose water), for me it’s too dry.

    When I'm craving baklava, I go to Titan Foods (a Greek grocery in Queens) and get a pound or so. It's the very wet sort so a pound gets me only about 8 very small squares--and I might even share it. :wink:

  7. I would have to agree with Gifted Gourmet and Daniel--take the safe route with desserts wherein dairy substitutes aren't employed and your chances of having edible (and even tasty) desserts increase by at least tenfold. And Swisskaese is absolutely on the right track with the fruit dessert idea (strudel seems like a perfect dessert for your occasion). Another possibility is to supplement with a box or two of dark chocolates. Of course you will want to be sure they are stamped with a (P) but that is always a hit at a Passover seder, when the true meaning of dessert abomination is in evidence.

    Have fun! Wish I could be there too.

  8. Some Googling indicates that the technical term for this style of chopping block is "end grain bamboo" and that it is, by whatever method they measure such things, exactly 16% harder than maple. It is also, we are told, an environmentally friendly, renewable resource. Here in the US, they sell them at, among others, Sur La Table -- where it costs $65 (US). Ellen reports that she paid 45 CYR (China Yuan Renminbi) for the item, which apparently translates to $5.44.

    I've read comments here on eGullet and elsewhere that bamboo is too hard on knives but if it's only 16-percent harder, it seems that concern would be mute. I rather like that chopping block.

    I'm guessing, based on observation, that there are both different varieties of bamboo (that we all know) and that, as FG has said, different parts of the bamboo are used for different things. For example, you don't see exposed grain on scaffolding (as you do with the cutting board) because it would be too soft. Going on deductive reasoning, I'm guessing that the discussions about bamboo being too tough on knives are in reference to either a different variety or a different part of the bamboo--interior versus exterior. I have some pictures from Yangshuo of buildings with bamboo scaffolding and I’ll get one up later today. I may also have a photo of one of these cutting boards after being “broken in” -- and while a cleaver is the “knife” of choice in most Chinese kitchens I saw, the cutting boards had a healthy depression in the center from the use.

  9. Some Googling indicates that the technical term for this style of chopping block is "end grain bamboo" and that it is, by whatever method they measure such things, exactly 16% harder than maple. It is also, we are told, an environmentally friendly, renewable resource. Here in the US, they sell them at, among others, Sur La Table -- where it costs $65 (US). Ellen reports that she paid 45 CYR (China Yuan Renminbi) for the item, which apparently translates to $5.44.

    Actually, I believe I paid 35 RMB (abbreviation used for Renminbi), though I can't remember for sure.

  10. johnnyd, this isn't the Three Gorges on the Yangtze River. No flooding is going to happen here, unless it’s a natural occurrence. We were cruising on the Li River to get a good view of the karsts, which are all around Guilin and are what makes the region famous.

    As for the cutting boards, good eye! I really liked them too, which is why I schlepped one home for FG—it weighs a ton. Would you believe they're made out of pieces of bamboo? It's really strong stuff—harder than maple, they say—they use it for scaffolding all over the east.

  11. >> next installment >>

    I confess I did not really spend seven weeks in Tibet during this past September and October. Instead, I spent seven weeks altogether in Hong Kong, China and Tibet. But who could have resisted the title?

    Those of you who have come to know these travelogues are already familiar with the mix of danger (albeit riotous danger), delight, culinary adventure and inexplicably bizarre human conduct that makes travel so enjoyable. You may not, however, be familiar with the tale of the smelly bag.

    That's because I've been remiss in reporting on my trips, and haven't yet caught you all up on last year's trek in Nepal (or, for that matter, my trip earlier this year to language-school in Honduras). To make a long, smelly story short: there was a porter (he might colloquially and incorrectly be called a sherpa); there was a duffel bag, a lovely yellow North Face bag, that this porter carried for several weeks on the trail; there was much contact and transfer of perspiration between the porter and the bag due to the exertion of carrying my bag pack-style through a number of ecosystems and to altitudes in excess of 18,000 feet; and the smell followed me home.

    Over the course of several months, I applied a variety of legal and controlled substances to that bag. I used soap, bleach, various products that were “guaranteed to get the smell out or your money back!” a couple of chemicals I got in unmarked containers from a friend in medical school, and even something called Nature's Miracle, which is an enzyme based cleaner intended for removing all traces of the smell of pet urine. I hung the bag in the window for weeks, through rain and snow and other conditions that the postman allegedly braves, though not in my neighborhood. (As well, I endured nosy neighbors asking, “What's up with the bag in your window? Going somewhere? Heh, heh!”). Nothing worked.

    So, a year later, my still-smelly bag in hand, I set off for the other side of the Himalayas, this time the Tibet side, with a primary mission of having the adventure of a lifetime, and the secondary mission of finding a solvent or perhaps even a holy person who could eradicate, once and for all, the smell from the smelly bag. But I digress.

    On the first segment of the trip, I traveled with a group under the auspices of an Australian company called Intrepid Travel, which my research (four years ago I met an Aussie guy en route to Everest Base Camp who told me about Intrepid; at home I looked the company up online and have been following their progress and growth ever since) had indicated would represent a good middle ground between the undesirable extremes of, on the one hand, being reckless (according to my husband -- traveling alone as a woman in rural China) or, on the other hand, taking a dumbed down bus tour with no real opportunities for cultural contact (there are plenty of those available, some at great expense). Taking advantage of numbers and significantly decreasing the hassle factor of getting around the country (which in a country like China are significant), Intrepid arranges economical trips for small groups of adventurous travelers who desire minimal supervision but prefer to benefit from the expertise of an operator that knows and has local contacts in the region. There is a general itinerary in place in advance, with a start and end date and an outline of points in between. There is a leader-liaison to deal with transportation and lodging for the group. And a few key cultural activities are pre-planned. But the rest is highly flexible, and most appealing to me was that all meals are up to you, so you can eat alone, with other members of the group, or not at all. None of this pre-arranged banquet stuff that ruins so many meals for tour groups the world over. The trip was scheduled to last 19 days, and it was recommended that we each budget $200 for meals. That's $200 for the whole 19 days, not $200 per day as one might budget in New York, Paris, or Tokyo.

    I met up with the other six members of my group, as well as our group leader-liaison, in Hong Kong. We went around the table and did the old “tell us about yourself” thing. The cast of characters:

    – a young brother and sister from Australia (John, 18, a fourth generation farmer -- cattle and apples -- and Amy, around 23, a Ph.D. student in soil ecology or something akin to that); John had never been out of the country and Amy had decided to invite her “little” brother along for the adventure (talk about a crash course in culture shock);

    – Wendy, a mid-30s techie from New Zealand;

    – Kay, a 40-something pharmacist from England;

    – Bev and Martin a 50s-ish couple from New Zealand (she a teacher, he a producer of, primarily, high end horse feed);

    – our leader-liaison, Sylwia, a young 30-something Polish immigrant to Australia; and

    – me.

    We were then treated to an inspiring speech from our leader-liaison, a summary of which is “It's China. Shit goes wrong. Don’t bitch to me about it.” That aside, the members of the group all seemed extremely nice, and seeing as it was the first night and we all wanted to be amicable, everyone chose to dine together at a nearby restaurant recommended by Sylwia. I restrained myself from taking photos at the table that first night (you know, that first night you can either become someone the group likes, or you can become the annoying American bitch who takes photos at the table; I wanted to wait at least a day before establishing that reputation), but what a smorgasbord it was. (Perhaps someday I'll endeavor to learn the Chinese term for smorgasbord, if there is one.) It was approachable Chinese food, delicious but not worth describing in depth here (we need to get on to the real culinary adventures and then some), with an assortment of dishes based on pork, chicken, shrimp, vegetables, and starches, and everyone grabbed a pair of chopsticks and a rice bowl and dug in. John -- farmer John, if you must have a mnemonic to get you through this -- had never used chopsticks before and this was one of many occasions when his easy going personality served him, and us, well. He wasn't he least bit daunted, not even by fried peanuts or rice. Then again, this was Hong Kong, where people spit their bones on the table and their phlegm on the floor.

    One reason you have to spend a lot of time in China is that it's so big. You can't go for a week and expect to cover very much of it. Even in seven weeks, you only get a snapshot of a few sub-regions. But the other reason you have to spend a lot of time in China is that you have to spend almost a week and several billion brain cells just getting to your first real destination. To recap, I had started in New York City and flown to Hong Kong via Japan, a process that took just about 24 hours but did allow for a viewing of Win a Date with Tad Hamilton. Then there were two nights in Hong Kong (the night my flight arrived and the night I met my group). And then there was to be an exciting bout of train travel in order to get to Yangshuo, our stepping-off point in China.

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    (On the street in Hong Kong, a woman demonstrates, infomercial-style, the wonders of this plastic ladle, which removes the layers of fat from the broth . . . voila!)

    The border crossing into China was uneventful except for the number of vehicles we utilized -- a taxi and three buses -- in order to drive the one hour to the border. Before we got off our bus on the Hong Kong side, we were “stickered” by our bus driver (yes, we were given round stickers to apply to our clothing). This was so that after we passed Hong Kong customs our driver could identify us on the other side and usher us back onto the correct bus. After everyone was reloaded, he walked up the aisle collecting the stickers. I wonder what he worried we might have done with them had we kept them.

    We were dropped in Guangzhou, where we had about 45 minutes to amuse ourselves until we headed for the train station. Sylwia was eager to point out the McDonald’s and mentioned more than once that, while she waited with our bags, if someone would be kind enough to get her a shake and fries at McDonald’s, she would be much obliged. I went in search of an ATM and a couple of snacks to fortify me for the upcoming 13-hour overnight train ride to Guilin.

    Somehow, rather than taxiing or riding the subway, we ended up walking with our personal effects to the train station, where we waited on the slippery-with-spit floor amongst the hundreds of other passengers eager to board the train. Each car had an open interior layout with back-to-back rows of three-tiered bunk beds. In our class of service (“hard sleeper,” which somehow doesn’t refer to the softness of the bed -- it is more padded than the majority of Chinese beds I slept in after -- but rather to the number of beds in the railroad car) we were each provided with a blanket, pillow and sheets, and there was a ladder at the aisle end of each stack of bunks so that those in the middle and top bunks could access their beds. I was in a middle bunk (about 5.5 feet off the floor) and, once situated in there, I was loathe to get out during the night.

    The train car was bustling with commerce. Vendors roamed the aisles selling everything from dried noodle buckets (think KFC meets Ramen), to overflowing foam containers full of cooked rice with a side of, presumably, some sort of meat and vegetables, to fresh cut fruit, to spinning tops that do tricks and illuminate, to decks of playing cards. There was a hot water tank with boiling water at one end of each car (so people could make tea and “cook” their noodles) and there was also a dining car on the train, where a few members of our group dined and gave the following report: one dish good, two dishes mediocre. I was surprised by the variety, apparent quality and reasonable prices. We were a captive audience, so I’d have supposed the markups would have been similar to food in an airport or at a ballgame, but here the markups were inconsequential, even relative to Chinese pricing. Lights out at 10:00.

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    The lights came on and the speakers were blaring by 6am the next morning, and we were due to arrive into Guilin 30 minutes later. Though the train would be continuing on for another 12 hours, we had ample time, along with the other passengers alighting in Guangzhou, to get off the train with all of our gear. Bleary eyed, we staggered off the platform and out through the station to get to our next and last mode of transportation -- a mini bus -- to Yangshuo, where, thankfully, we were to remain for the next two nights and actually do stuff.

    Sylwia negotiated for our mini bus -- we would only take it if we weren’t waiting for the bus to fill up with passengers. Yes, yes of course -- get on, get on. No, really, we won’t wait for the bus to fill up, we want to leave immediately. Yes, of course, of course (this, by the way is all taking place in “Chiniculation” -- my designation for the language of broken Chinese and gesticulation that was to become the mainstay of communication for the trip).

    Once we were loaded on to the bus with our packs and bags, with no possibility of escape, the money handler (each mini bus was administered by a team consisting of a driver and a money handler) of course went right ahead and tried to encourage other people to board the bus. The bus driver, magically forgetting his promise of immediate departure, waited while the hawking, money-handling lady unsuccessfully solicited other passengers to our bus bound for Yangshuo. After that delay, the driver kicked the engine to life and we chug chugged out of the parking lot and into the throng of four wheeled (cars and trucks), three wheeled (motor tricycle -- like a tuk tuk) two wheeled (bicycles, rickshaws, animal drawn carts), motorized and human-powered traffic.

    After a short walk from the bus station to our hotel, we hauled our bags upwards one last time, first up a hill and then up multiple flights of stairs, to our safe haven the Fawlty Towers Hotel (next door to, by the way, the Hard Seat Café). We had 15 minutes in our rooms and then we would assemble downstairs for a quick orientation walk around Yangshuo before setting off to explore as we wished. Because there were an odd number of female participants, the three of us would rotate roommates and so I was blessed with my own room for the next two nights.

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    Sylwia walked us through the quaint old cobblestone streets of Yangshuo (read: tourist area) and pointed out an internet “bar,” a good place for Chinese pressure-point massage, and some dining options, including the best coffee in town. The tour ended at Sylwia's favorite restaurant and bar, where we were all invited to join her for breakfast. I wasn't interested, so Bev, Martin, and I (I had scarcely spoken to them other than for introductions and exchanges of pleasantries) decided to explore the town rather than settle for a Western breakfast at a western oriented tourist restaurant on Xi Jie Road (the main tourist drag).

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    We explored for five hours without pause -- so much was going on, there was no opportunity to stop moving.

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    Just across the street from the cobblestone tourist streets was the famed Yangshuo Square, which, as far as I could tell, was a parking lot. It just so happened that there amidst the fresh vegetables, raw meat, live poultry and dead rodents (an ingredient, not pestilence) being sold at the outdoor street market, and amidst the two-wheeled hand-drawn cart for garbage collection, was a fashion show.

    At the fashion show, in addition to fashions, were three brand-spanking-new Volkswagens. The stage (aka the parking lot), cordoned off with a piece of rope (not the red velvet sort), was at the center of the public square. There were two announcers with hand-held wireless microphones standing just to the rear of the three new cars, which were well spaced so the announcers would be prominent. And off on the right edge of the parking lot/stage was a tour bus functioning as the “backstage.” Visible through the front windshield up the aisle of the bus was a line of young Chinese women in tiny, shiny, skin-tight skirts or shorts with belly shirts or halter tops or mini halter dresses -- all covering only the essentials. Pinned to the front of each model was a number, which, I deduced, indicated that the event had the status of competition rather than fashion show.

    The women stood on the bus awaiting their turns. The one on deck would stand poised on the bottom step of the bus, eager to strut her stuff. When one strutting woman made the pivot, signaling her return to the bus, the next was en route, making her parking lot debut. She would reach her designated car and then proceed to stroke it, bend over it -- perhaps open a door and run her hand suggestively along the frame -- whatever might turn the tide to make her queen of the Yangshuo parking lot. From the car she would then strut over to the two MCs, where one would give her a microphone and our model (now a “spokesmodel” in Star Search terms) would make a little speech. Then she would make her pivot and the next girl would set out on her walk to Yangshuo fame.

    Lined up just behind the rope were a number of photographers jockeying for position, and even a television crew or two. We decided to pass on the skinned rat, turned our backs to the fashion show, and walked on.

    Not long after our encounter with celebrity, we stumbled upon an indoor market. This was my first of many indoor markets in China and I browsed the aisles of ingredients and remembered what I had been told many times leading up to this moment: if it flies, walks, buzzes, crows, swims, or moves, the [insert province] eat it. Chicken Little was in one pen with her sisters; Ping was in another; Little Bunny Foo Foo was next door; Fido was gutted and on a table; Wilbur was in parts on another table; Daisy lay across the way; and Frog and Toad were contained in net bags sitting on the floor. Vegetables were plentiful and fresh; eggs from all manner of poultry were available; and dry goods like rice, soy sauce, whole chilis and chili powder, noodles and dried beans were laid out for inspection. The market itself (a cement floor with a peaked sheet-metal roof) was clean and did not smell beyond the odor of the inhabitants. I was happy to see that Fido looked nothing like our bulldog, Momo, but rather was a mean-looking wild dog sort with rigor mortis and teeth bared.

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    It was nearing 1:00 pm, we were due to meet a local guide who would take us for a cruise on the Li River to see the karsts (karsts are limestone formations; you've probably seen photos of them, and if you haven't you'll see mine), and we still had not eaten. We considered a number of roadside restaurants and in the end settled on a restaurant with outside tables within the perimeter of the cobblestone streets. There were only Chinese customers and a wide selection of dishes were available, so we flopped down and watched the world go by. In the meantime, another patron ordered the highly touted “beer fish” of Yangshuo. This refers to the preparation of the fish (yes, with beer), rather than to the fish itself -- though the locals do refer to that species of fish simply as beer fish.

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    Everyone in the group had opted to spend the afternoon taking a cruise on the Li River, and together we had hired a local guide named “Gloria.” We boarded a local mini bus and waited for the seats to fill before we could depart. As is the local practice, we stopped to pick up passengers who waved us down. The money handler stood watch and, upon packing each additional passenger onto the bus, she would indicate the fare due.

    A woman climbed on carrying a chicken, which she held by its feet hanging upside-down. Nothing particularly unusual about that. Later I noticed that the woman with the chicken was about to get off the bus but her chicken was AWOL. She stood by the money handler, who was wearing a rectangular bag approximately the size of a magazine cross-wise against her body. Shortly before the chicken woman got off the bus, the money handler reached into her bag and, as if by magic, pulled the chicken out by its feet. The chicken, still upside down, flapped and cackled and raised its head to look around and eyeball nearby passengers and then settled her feathers and tucked her wings back into her breasts and hung there still and silent.

    We walked through the small farming village of Fuli, with its narrow stone lanes leading to dirt tracks down to the Li River. There we boarded a wooden boat with a small outboard motor and we cruised first up the river and then down. This was reputed to be one of the best places to view the limestone karsts.

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    Later that evening I decided to try to have my favorite pair of linen trousers duplicated (something I’ve done in Nepal in the past). On our walk earlier that day, we had passed a street with a cluster of tailor shops and I was going to try to navigate my way back there and see what I could negotiate.

    None of the shops seemed to have linen available, but one did have some textured fabric that I thought might make a nice substitute. The seamstress had no English, but I was armed with my phrasebook and was confident in my Chiniculation so I gave it a shot. The shop was a three-sided store with no front (presumably a shutter of some sort is attached at closing time). There was a single bare light-bulb, the illumination from which was questionable at best. It was completely dark outside and the street had no illumination of its own. It did cross my mind that I was fighting a losing battle. I finally decided to give it a shot, so I pulled out the pants I wanted copied and held them up for viewing. The woman nodded her head indicating (I hoped) that yes, she could copy them. I still couldn’t see if the material was blue or black. I thought I’d try to find someone on the street who might speak a little English. I found no such person. As I was calling it quits, the woman beckoned me back again. Idiot that I was, I returned to her shop.

    She pulled out the same material again and, when she saw my hesitation, she pulled out others in an effort to tempt me. None of them piqued my interest. I settled on the first fabric and again motioned to my sample trousers. She took out her measuring tape and took down a couple of measurements. I had only one more day in Yangshuo so I needed to be able to pick up the finished product by tomorrow night. How do you communicate this to someone when you have no language -- no words in common? I pointed to my watch and tried to gesture ahead for the time. She looked at me blankly. I took out my calculator and typed in the day’s date and pointed down, to indicate today then I typed in the next days date and gestured forward. A blank stare. I tried this on paper too; perhaps clearing the date on the calculator was confusing her. In the end, we settled on a price, she wrote out a receipt (on which she wrote in Western numerals the day's date!) and I walked away, having left my favorite pair of linen trousers behind without any clue as to what the outcome might be. I passed a hotel en route to Binjiang Road and the Lijiang River, so I stopped in to see if the girl at the desk could make heads or tales of the receipt. This young woman, who spoke English and Mandarin and who could read the Chinese characters, was unable to learn anything further from the receipt beyond what I already had deduced. I’d see the next night if the pants were ready and if my own trousers were still intact.

    The next day we were to take a bicycle ride through the countryside. The bike ride was the source of much irritation during the planning stages of my trip. I had an itinerary that I had printed out from the internet, and I showed it to my husband, my mother, my brother and various others. For some inexplicable reason, every single one of them fixated on this one-day bike ride. After reading the entire itinerary, which included more wonders of the world than you could shake a stick at, they would forget everything save for the stupid bike ride. Within minutes, the questions about the trip would be phrased, “So when are you leaving for your bicycle trip through China?” To this day, people ask me, “How was your bicycle trip in China?” So far I haven't killed anyone.

    Eager to get the bike ride over with, I got outfitted with a passable mountain bike. I was then instructed to ride up and down the extremely busy main street to make sure the brakes worked and the gears shifted. After adjustments here and there, our group (all members of which were still, miraculously, alive after the brake-testing exercise) attempted to cross the road. Did I mention that in China they don’t believe in or even appear to know about protective headgear?

    Making a left turn across the traffic seemed impossible without loss of life, but we got a lucky break in the action and made a mad dash for the far side. Then we turned onto a little-traveled but paved back-road through farmland and then onto dirt roads through small villages. The ride lasted all day and, while it was hot, we meandered more than rode, so we were never long between stops and the pace was leisurely.

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    We made a stop in order to climb Moon Hill, a karst with a half-moon shape eroded out of its middle third. It was a steep climb and the temperature was high. Entrepreneurial women carrying little Styrofoam coolers and selling cold drinks each attached themselves to one of us and proceeded to follow us up the trail’s many stone steps (more than 1,200), in the hopes that en route to the half-moon or at the top they might convince us to buy their heavily marked-up cold drinks.

    A nice woman accompanied me to the top and we chatted along the way. Ordinarily, I don’t reward pestering by vendors, but she actually wasn’t pressing me to buy -- mostly she walked alongside me making conversation and asking me questions, or we walked in amiable silence. At the half moon, the stone trail ended and that’s where the pack of ladies stopped. We all continued up to the top, where we scaled a narrow and somewhat treacherous steep dirt trail with roots and rocks sticking out at all angles.

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    When I got back down to the half moon, my escort was awaiting my return. While I had some water in my backpack, I couldn’t bear not to buy a bottle of water from this woman who had just made the climb alongside me for the who-knows-how-many-th time that day. And anyway, the cold water tasted great. As long as I had bought a beverage, might she also have some coins from home for her collection? I didn’t have any US coins on me, but I did have one from Hong Kong. I gave it to her and she walked alongside me back down the trail. At the bottom she made a bee-line for her bike and she was off before I could sit down.

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    Our lunch in a nearby village was a terrific feast prepared by “Jane” (most everyone who deals with Westerners picks out a Western name), one of our two adorable, intelligent and conscientious Chinese guides. We were fed beer fish, stir fried eggplant with garlic sauce, egg and tomato, and stir fried lotus root, amongst other dishes.

    Our 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.

    After a dip in the river, we parked our bikes at the old stone farmhouse with enclosed courtyard where the Chinese cooking class was to take place. The cooking school is a new endeavor started by a former Intrepid guide who leases the farm house and employs local women to teach the classes and run the school.

    “Jackie” -- a young, energetic and somewhat frenetic individual -- taught our class. Each of us was stationed at a wok that rested on a single-burner catering stove -- very high-tech and high-concept for where we were. We each had a spatula, a cleaver and cutting board, seasonings and sauces (salt, oyster sauce, and soy sauce), oil, and all of our ingredients prepped and ready to go sitting below the counter.

    Jackie stood at the front and quickly barked out instructions. There were two middle aged women checking out our work (in addition to the six participants from our group, four other people were taking the class) and bringing out additional ingredients (perhaps from a refrigerator?!) as needed. Between trying to follow the instructions and taking photos, I was heavily occupied and therefore always behind and continuously asking my neighbors what the heck I was supposed to be doing. Fortunately for me, the two women -- neither of whom spoke any English -- were both adept at grabbing the cleaver out of my hand and demonstrating what I should be doing. Crush the garlic with the blade of the cleaver; slice the carrot thinner; chop the spring onion finer—each instruction conveyed by demonstration and gesticulation.

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    We cooked each dish and ate it while it was hot, standing at our woks. On the menu was: eggplant Yangshuo style (recipes and photos to follow), steamed stuffed pumpkin flower, Pijiu Yu (beer fish), chicken with cashew nuts, and green vegetables with garlic. The fish was filleted, though still full of bones. That was the last thing we cooked and we took it to the table in the courtyard to enjoy the fruits (or, rather, fishes) of our labors. Beer and soft drinks were available for those who were interested, at an additional cost. The cost of the class and the food was 80 RMB (just shy of $10 US at the exchange rate of 8.25 RMB to the USD).

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    Safely carted by bus back to town with our bicycles, the only thing left to do before collapsing into bed was return to the tailor.

    I found my way to her door by 9:00 pm. A young girl, who was sitting in the one chair in the shop, was sleeping. I clicked my feet on the steps as I walked in, hoping she would stir. She raised her head and met me with a blank stare. I spoke in English, which she didn’t understand. I figured I had to be the only Western customer they had ever had, so I assumed (incorrectly) that word would have gotten around and she would know why I was there. No such luck.

    I pulled out the receipt and placed it in front of her, and finally the proverbial light-bulb went on. She gestured, indicating that I should stay there, and she ran out of the shop to retrieve the older woman with whom I had dealt the night before. The woman appeared from the dark street, carrying the new trousers in one hand and a big pair of tailor’s shears in the other. My originals were nowhere in sight. She held the new trousers up to me, and I Chiniculated that I wanted to try them on. She pulled down a piece of fabric that was strung across a string and indicated that I could change behind it. I dropped my trousers and tried on the new ones.

    It wasn’t pretty. Somehow, even though I had left my original trousers with her, the fit was not right. It was as if she had cut the fabric unevenly, such that there was a bigger piece in the front and a smaller piece in the back. Actually, now that I think about it, it is possible that she had sewn the bigger back piece (designed to accommodate my Western ass) to the front and vice versa. But I am no seamstress. I just knew that my ass didn’t fit in those pants.

    I shook my head in disapproval. I tried on my original trousers and Chiniculated vigorously, explaining that the old ones fit while the new ones didn't. I tried on the new ones again and shook my head in disapproval. All the while she was taking out her measuring tape and stringing it across both pair of trousers and Chinicluating, falsely, that the pants were the same!

    There was no way I was taking those defective pants with me. At the same time, I couldn’t just leave without paying the woman something. I didn’t want to cause her any hardship. Were this an affluent area, I’d have left with my originals and not looked back. But this was a different scenario and I didn’t feel it would be right to do that. So I picked up my original pants and made a big production of placing them on the table in the shop and gesturing that I was leaving them there, as security of a sort, and I turned and walked out in search of language assistance. I asked people up and down the street if they spoke English, but I couldn't find a single person who had as much English as I had Chinese (approximately five words, half of which were food related and half related to cost and negotiation thereof). So I headed back to the hotel and hoped someone there might help me.

    There was only one young woman at the desk. I told her my predicament and asked if she could help me. She told me she couldn't leave the desk. I asked her to write that the trousers did not fit, that I was not going to take them, that the seamstress could keep them and that I would pay her half of the agreed upon fee. She wrote all of this out for me, I think, and I walked back to the store. I felt this was an equitable arrangement, especially since I had not haggled with the woman over the price of the trousers in the first place and was therefore probably paying at least twice the going local rate anyway. Still, I was dreading the encounter. I had seen and heard many Chinese people yelling at each other, and I’m not one for dramatic confrontation.

    I returned to the shop, picked up my trousers and handed the woman the piece of paper and the money. She looked at me quizzically. With her brow furrowed, she positioned herself under the light of the single light bulb and bent her head down to read the paper. I was motioning to walk away but didn't want to go before the message registered. She finished reading and looked up. She was not shouting. I turned and walked away and, when I looked over my shoulder, it appeared that our arrangement had registerd. The woman gave a friendly wave and I was on my way.

    From the Chinese cooking class:

    Eggplant Yangshuo Style

    1 large eggplant (or by weight, approximately ½ pound, 250 g) thinly sliced in ½ inch strips

    4 tablespoons peanut oil

    1 red pepper, sliced

    4 cloves of garlic, crushed

    4 spring onions, chopped

    1 teaspoon salt

    1 tablespoon oyster sauce

    1 tablespoon 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.

    Steamed Stuffed Pumpkin Flowers

    100 g minced pork

    ½ bunch chives, chopped (or spring onions or scallions)

    ½ 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.

    Beer Fish

    200 g fish (firm white fish with skin on)

    3 tablespoons peanut oil

    1 tomato, chopped

    1 red pepper, sliced

    1 green pepper, sliced

    2 tablespoons of sliced garlic tops or spring onion

    25 g ginger, sliced

    4 cloves garlic, crushed

    2 tablespoons soy sauce

    1 teaspoon salt

    1 cup 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).

    Chicken with Cashew Nuts

    150 g chicken breast (boneless, skinless), thinly sliced

    ½ cup 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 tablespoons peanut oil

    4 cloves garlic, crushed

    1 carrot, sliced

    4 spring onions or garlic tops

    2 tablespoons water

    1 tablespoon soy sauce

    ½ tablespoon 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.

    Green Vegetables with Garlic

    1 bunch green vegetables

    3 cloves crushed garlic

    1 teaspoon salt

    2 tablespoons 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.

    >> next installment >>

  12. Yes, Lesley. The pastry kitchen is on the other side of the hallway that runs back from the dining room to the kitchen areas and is not visible to the dining room. Nor is the downstairs production kitchen. Only the main service kitchen is visible. Once the last savory dish goes out, that crew cleans up and goes home, while the pastry crew remains until the last petits fours go out. I hope to be able to show some photographs of the pastry kitchen one of these days, but the restaurant is so busy around holiday times that it may be impossible for me to nail down the appointment I was hoping to have. So this may have to wait until January.

  13. I don't read many restaurant reviews because I don't find them interesting as a form, but having just spent time in ADNY's kitchen I picked up Fat Guy's copy of Gourmet from the dining room table this evening and, after struggling to even find the review via the incomprehensible table of contents and buried deep within reviews of three other restaurants, was surprised by something.

    I was not surprised that ADNY's kitchen overcooked a piece of veal. Stuff happens. What I was surprised about was that Mr. Cheshes had nothing nice to say about the dishes at all. Not one positive assessment of a dish!

    For me as a writer I would feel compelled to give examples of both the good and the bad, not just the bad, even if I felt the restaurant was overrated. As an editor I'd point that out to the writer. Otherwise it feels like the writer is unfairly stacking the deck.

    P.S. I prefer what most people would call "undercooked" langoustines.

  14. Fat Guy and I had dinner at ADNY with Christian and Mary Delouvrier during ADNY's first year in business. Approximately one year before that, if I have my timeline correct, Lespinasse had received four stars from Ruth Reichl in the New York Times. What I remember most vividly from that dinner, in addition to a dreamy sea urchin royale the likes of which I never tasted before or since, were Christian's comments about Ducasse the chef and the restaurant. Chefs, especially the good ones, can be brutally honest with themselves. Christian was effusive in his praise for Ducasse's food. "He's the guy," and "If only we could do this," were the types of comments he kept making. Christian was invited in for a tour of the kitchen and must have spent half an hour in there. He emerged looking like a kid who had spent the night locked inside a Baskin Robbins. And since at the time everybody in the world except for my husband and Christian was sure that ADNY would be out of business within a year, Mary and I observed that maybe Christian would get the restaurant back someday. Nobody could have predicted the way it would happen, but it happened.

    I'm making a point here somewhere. Yes, it's that at or near Lespinasse's peak under Delouvrier we know that Delouvrier would have told anybody who asked that ADNY was the better restaurant. He probably also would have said, if asked, although nobody would have thought to ask, that working with Ducasse he could make ADNY even better than it was. My personal opinion is that he has done that.

  15. This lamb dish illustrates the more rustic end of the ADNY menu. It's meat and potatoes served with just enough panache to remind you of where you are. The lamb is browned in butter and the potatoes are finished in a rich lamb jus before being plated.

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    I'm pretty much at the end of the "roll" here. This weekend I'll try to get some answers to some of the questions that have been asked upthread. And, as Fat Guy mentioned, if all goes well I'll be going back at a later date to visit the pastry kitchen.

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