Sunday, September 21, 2008

The Real China

I remember having a conversation with my friend Dave awhile back. Dave lived outside of Tianjin for a few years and in this one conversation he was expressing how he didn't like Beijing or Shanghai because they weren't the "real" China. I took mild offense at his words because I had lived in Shanghai so it felt like he was saying that I hadn't really experienced China. The point I made at the time (and hold to even now) is that China is a multi-faceted place. China is both the new and the old; big modern cities and little provincial country towns, luxury import cars and bikes that are 20 years old, wealth and poverty, capitalism and communism. So in my opinion, cities like Beijing and Shanghai are the "real" China... but only one side of it.

Carri, Pippa, and I outside Hua Shan. (Notice the nasty air.)

Xi'an is a great example of the other side of China. It's dirty, polluted, messy, poor. It's not the modern, clean developed face that China likes to present to the world. Scratch the surface of any Chinese city and you are bound to find the poor underbelly of modern China - migrant workers, disadvantaged minorities, crippling poverty. In Xi'an however, I feel like there is no effort made to disguise or hide this reality.

I really like Xi'an. I think the reason for this stems from the fact that I like places that have an obvious historical heritage. Places where the long road from antiquity to the modern day is still on display. Xi'an was the ancient capitol of China and the terminus for the Silk Road. Unlike most modernized (or modernizing Chinese cities), Xi'an's ancient city wall is still completely intact. Unusual for a Chinese city so far to the east, it also has a large Muslim population, and therefore, an interesting and vibrant Muslim Quarter. I was thrilled to have an opportunity to return to Xi'an on this trip (I first visited there in 2001) and while I think Christy was thrilled to leave, my desire to return again has not abated in the least.

The Terracotta Warriors

The two highlights of our 3 days in Xi'an, at least for me, were visiting Hua Shan (more on that in a moment) and the food. On the food front, I loved being able to buy fresh, obviously locally-grown, produce. Top of my list were pomegranates (so sweet and so fresh), sweet potatoes, and macadamia nuts.

About to chow down on a pomegranate.

Our first day in Xi'an we checked into the hotel, freshened up a bit, and then headed out to the Terracotta Warriors. Along the way we passed groves of pomegranate trees and when we arrived at the warriors I was delighted to find numerous merchants selling fresh pomegranates outside the gates. Before heading back into town at the end of the day, we each bought a few pomegranates that we munched on over the next few days. 

Wood carving at a historical home in Xi'an.

Other food favorites from Xi'an included roasted sweet potatoes (one of my all-time favorite street foods), and the local Muslim food like yang rou pao mo (a lamb soup), sesame noodles, and a ground beef flat bread sandwich. At the very top of my list however, were the stir-fried noodles I picked up at a mini-night market heading back to our hotel after 2 hour massages one night. The girl making the noodles looked to be about 16 but she had her system down to a science. It was so much fun to watch her throw various ingredients into her wok, and then moments later be presented with a steaming hot bowl of incredibly tasty noodles. I think I could eat those every day.

Our favorite server at the Muslim restaurant.

Food aside, a definite highlight of the trip was visiting Hua Shan. Almost everything we did during our two weeks in China were things I have done before. I was perfectly happy to revisit cities/places because I wanted to share my favorite parts of China with my closest friends. However, it was a lot of fun to do one thing that was a new experience for all of us.

The somewhat terrifying ride up on the cable car.

Hua Shan is one of Taoism's five sacred mountains and is a major tourist attraction within China. It is also considered one of the most dangerous mountains in China. Per an information card at our hotel, it is known as the "mountain of extreme peril". At the ticket booth they give you the option of purchasing life insurance for 5 yuan (approximately 80 cents) along with your entrance ticket. Of course, I couldn't help but think that if I fell off the mountain my proof of insurance would fall right along with me.

Carri on Hua Shan.

As we were short on time we opted to ride the cable car to the top. At the top there are five peaks you can hike to. We spent almost 3 hours on Hua Shan and we only managed to make it to one, Central Peak. It was more than a little bit embarrassing to constantly find myself being passed by women in heels, 8 year old children, entire families (including grandparents)... when it comes to physical fitness as a societal ethos, China pretty much has America's butt kicked.

Chains of locks on Hua Shan.

One of the elements of our visit to Hua Shan that I loved the most was being able to participate in a tradition that is practiced on the mountain. Visitors to the mountain can buy padlocks from any number of vendors on the mountain. They will engrave the lock with a loved one's name. Then you find a section of chain on a part of the mountain that appeals to you (the chains are everywhere so this is not hard to do), lock your padlock there, say a prayer for your loved one while holding the key, and then toss the key off the mountain. This act signifies that the blessing/prayer you have requested for your loved one will never be removed. I thought it was lovely and had a lock engraved with my mother's name.

More locks.  More view.

My trip recap aside you may be wondering if I have a recipe for you today. Good news! I do. The recipe for today is my attempt to recreate a dish we had the day we visited Hua Shan. We ended up eating lunch at a little restaurant in the town next to the mountain and this dish aside, the rest of the meal was pretty disastrous. It's the only meal from our trip that I look back on with a shudder. However, when we sat down I noticed that they had some roasted sweet potatoes sitting out where I could see them. Once the waitress saw my interest/adoration she promised to make us a house specialty with the sweet potatoes. I didn't know what would come out, but was delightfully surprised when a plate of sweet potato fries covered in caramelized sugar hit the table. Delicious! (Although admittedly, not too healthy.)

Christy enjoying sweet potatoes during our lunch outside Hua Shan.

Caramelized Sweet Potatoes

Potatoes (adapted from Cook's Country, June/July 2008):
1 c. cornstarch
3/4 c. club soda
2 lbs. sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/2" x 1/4" lengths
Peanut or vegetable oil for frying - my fryer uses 1 gallon of oil... if you are using a Dutch oven you will probably only need 2 quarts

Adjust oven rack to the middle position and heat oven to 200 degrees F.

Heat oil to 375 degrees F. While oil is heating, whisk cornstarch and club soda in a medium bowl. Place a cooling rack in the sink. Working in small batches, dip sweet potatoes in cornstarch mixture, allowing excess to drip back into the bowl and then place dipped potatoes on the rack in the sink.

When oil is ready, fry half of the potatoes, stirring occasionally, until golden brown and crisp, approximately 6-8 minutes. Drain fries on paper towel-lined baking sheet and transfer to oven. Return oil to 375 and repeat with remaining fries.

Caramel (adapted from Classic Chinese Cooking by Nina Simonds):
1 1/2 c. sugar
1/2 c. water

Combine the sugar and water in a heavy saucepan. Heat slowly until the sugar has dissolved, stirring occasionally. Once the sugar has dissolved however, do not stir. Continue cooking the mixture over medium heat, occasionally brushing down the sides of the pan with a brush dipped in water (this will prevent crystals from forming). When the mixture has turned a light golden color (310 degrees F on a candy thermometer) and a chopstick dipped in the caramel spins a thin thread when lifted from the caramel, turn the heat to the lowest setting.

Prepare a large bowl with cold water and ice. Remove the fries from the oven. Working in small batches, dip the fries in the caramel and then immediately dip them in the water (this will harden the caramel coating). Place on a serving platter and continue until all the potatoes have been caramelized. Serve immediately.

The finished product.

Note: I don't work with caramel very often (read: never), so didn't really know what I was doing and thus learned a few important lessons the hard way. The biggest lesson was the need to keep the caramel on a low heat source so that it stays liquid. As soon as you are done dipping the fries, toss the caramel (tricky... not sure what to say as it will still be mighty hot... maybe dump it in a disposable aluminum pan) and rinse your pot immediately. I did not do this and as a result was treated to the joy of spending a good 20 minutes scrubbing hardened caramel out of my saucepan. Not fun. Second lesson, I made this alone mostly because I wanted to figure out the recipe so I could get it up on the blog. However, this would be a great desert to make with friends. You can invite everyone to dip their own sweet potatoes... almost like fondue.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Beijing 2008

I made it back from China about two weeks ago, and then spent most of that first week recovering from jet lag, a nasty cold, and the shock of returning to my 9-5 job after two weeks away. It was, by far, my worst case of jet lag to date and I'm not sure what the reason for that might be. Could be age (sadly, I am getting older). Could be the fact that the cold had me worn down. Regardless, I didn't sleep a night through until I'd been home for almost a week. For all those reasons (and maybe more), getting a post up on my blog fell way to the bottom of my list of priorities.

At beach volleyball

I'm sufficiently recovered now to cease slacking off and get back into the blog. I had to spend a bit of time trying to decide how best to approach blogging about the trip, and in the end, decided to do three separate posts, each one devoted to one of the cities we visited. Today I'm focusing on Beijing.

I visited Beijing twice back in 2001 when I was living in Shanghai and although I enjoyed it, I never really loved the city. This time around however, I became a huge fan. During this trip at least, its fair to say that I even liked it more than Shanghai... words that feel almost blasphemous coming from my fingertips.

The city was beautiful. It felt so modern and new. It was clean. The streets were devoid of traffic jams thanks to Beijing's authorities limiting the number of cars on the road. The venues for the Olympic events were amazing. And of course, there was a fantastic feeling in the air because the Olympics had come to town.

Downtown Beijing

While we were in Beijing I woke up early every morning and went for a walk around our neighborhood. Mostly this meant that eventually I stumbled upon a park of some kind and then spent an hour or so wandering amongst the groups of people practicing tai chi, ballroom dancing, hacky sack, or some other physical activity like thigh slapping. I loved being out and about at a time of day when the chances of running into other foreigners were relatively limited and I could kind of quietly enjoy being immersed in Chinese culture again.

During our week in Beijing we visited the Summer Palace, the Great Wall, took a tour of the Hutongs (old Beijing neighborhoods), and even caught a Beijing Opera performance (actually more like an introduction to Beijing Opera for foreigners, but still). On Wednesday afternoon, while Carri and Christy were at whitewater kayaking, Pippa and I rented a couple of bikes and rode around the city. That afternoon is one of my favorite memories from the trip. Initially I was terrified by the idea of attempting to ride a bike amongst the cars and scooters and motorcycles and other cyclists. But in actuality, it was one of the easiest, safest cities I have ever ridden in. Add that to the wonder of riding through old Beijing neighborhoods one moment only to find oneself cycling past Tiananmen Square the next, and it was a truly delightful afternoon (thanks Pippa!).

With our French friends on the Great Wall.

As far as the Olympics go, I was able to see three events. The process of obtaining Olympic tickets was somewhat convoluted because China retained 75% of all seats for Chinese nationals. That didn't leave very many seats for the rest of the world. The US hired a private company to distribute their share of the tickets which meant the tickets were distributed via lottery. Once in Beijing it was quite the bummer to learn that apparently every American, Carri and I excepted, made out like bandits in the lottery, while we each got just 2 or 3 of the events we requested. Regardless, I felt lucky to even be able to attend three events. I ended up seeing Whitewater Kayaking, women's Beach Volleyball, and Track and Field. I had a blast at every event.  I wore my Red Sox hat a couple of times and thereby managed to meet a few more members of Red Sox nation.  Honestly, it acted like a beacon calling Red Sox fans to my side. Unfortunately, I was not so lucky with my 99 Carl Edwards NASCAR hat.  

My favorite Olympic event was probably the beach volleyball (although I could have done without the lame scantily-clad cheerleaders). The most exciting match of the day was between Greece and Australia and it was the only match-up that actually went to three sets. Thanks to all the crazy Aussies in the stands it was far more entertaining than the earlier matches. However, being able to see track and field in the Bird's Nest was also a great experience. I am in love with that stadium. It was so fun to get inside and marvel at the crazy, but cool architecture.

Chinese fan at Badminton.

After talking to an American family at one of the events I now have a new life goal. I want to attend every Olympics. Possibly a tad "pie in the sky", but considering how much I love the Olympic games, it seems like a genius method for planning my future international travel. Vancouver 2010 anyone? My sisters are already on board and I'm pretty sure Carri is committed....


Before I sign off for the day however, I do have a few sour notes I feel compelled to mention. By the end of our week in Beijing I was very ready to leave. Sadly, the reason for my impatience to be gone was the way I felt China, and by extension its citizens, approached and handled the games themselves.

My favorite thing about the Olympics is being able to watch the entire world come together, to see/experience sporting triumphs by athletes from all over the world. It's never been about the United States for me. I love my country and its exciting to see our athletes do well, but I'm just as thrilled to see a Jamaican athlete kick our trash in track and field or India win its first ever individual gold medal. I knew China wanted these Olympic games to be a sort of "coming out" party for the nation as a whole, to be a way of announcing to the international community that China is a big kid now and ready to play ball. However, I didn't really envision how that would impact the games themselves.

Peking Duck

I can't deny that it's an amazing sporting feat for China to have won the haul of gold medals it did. Being in Beijing during the Olympics however, drove home the fact, again and again, that for China (and its people) these games were not about the world, or even about sport. They were about China. The rampant nationalism the games unleashed in Beijing had me feeling sick by the end of the week. If it had been accompanied by a respect for other nations or their athletes, it might not have bothered me so much. Unfortunately, seeing firsthand how the host nation only cared about cheering for its own athletes and teams drove me a bit mad.

Silk worms ready to BBQ

As an example, at beach volleyball as soon as the Chinese team finished their match, the Chinese spectators left the event. No joke. We found ourselves sitting in a stadium maybe a quarter full. The Chinese spectators didn't care to cheer on the other countries that had yet to play.

In our experience, and in talking to other foreigners at the games, it seemed like most events were like that. For one, most of the Chinese ticket holders didn't even go to the games, so every event had oodles of empty seats. Then the people who did go only cheered on Chinese athletes or teams. The television coverage also only focused on China. OK, I know NBC mostly focuses on US athletes, but at least they show everyone that has won a medal at the medal ceremonies. In China the camera would zoom in on whichever Chinese athlete had won gold, and they wouldn't even show the silver and bronze medalists, even if they happened to be Chinese. The television coverage also never showed a Chinese athlete losing or making a mistake. Instead the networks would re-air, again and again, the same clips of a select few Chinese athletes winning their events and accepting their medals.  

Hot Pot

Add all that to the fact that the Beijing Organizing Committee desperately needed to hire a few international consultants on the food front and that is was almost impossible to buy flags or t-shirts for any country other than China (Chinese entrepreneurs, where art thou?) and I found myself very ready to be gone by the time Saturday rolled around.

I did eventually find a savvy entrepreneur outside the beach volleyball venue and was therefore able to buy an American flag for my last day of events. It was definitely a "hallelujah" moment, even if my American flag cost twice as much as the Chinese flags that were also on sale. I bought the flag anyway and waved it proudly at the two events I attended that day. Honestly, I was hoping that a combination of the flag, my USA t-shirt, and the American flag painted on Carri's cheek might enable us to make it onto the NBC broadcast. Sadly, those efforts seem to have been unsuccessful. 

Hollow-heart vegetable at Bellagio, the Taiwanese restaurant

On the food front, Olympic Park at least had two McDonalds locations, so you weren't completely limited to the otherwise awful food offerings available everywhere else (never thought I'd find myself feeling grateful for McDonalds). There were, oh, about 7 food options and they were the same no matter where you went (unless they had run out of something, because you know, heaven-forbid we try to plan for those kinds of developments). The food options were: Oreo cookies, Snickers bars, breadsticks, a cold hot dog baked in a sweet bun and smeared with ketchup, saltine crackers, peach yogurt, and chocolate/marshmallow cookies. Drinks were cheap, but again, limited. For the most part the food was so lacklustre that it mostly inspired the foreigners to stay away from the refreshment stands and instead eat either before or after events.

Taiwanese shaved ice at Bellagio

On that note, it wouldn't be fair to go without mentioning that outside of the venues food in Beijing rocked. So tasty and so cheap.  My favorite kind. The night Carri and I arrived I took her to a little place across the street from our hotel for a quick bite to eat. We ordered just two things: 空新菜 (hollow-heart vegetable) and 番茄炒蛋 (stir-fried tomatoes with eggs), but they were both delicious and deeply satisfying after spending so many hours on a plane. Over the course of the week we followed that meal up with dumplings and noodles and Beijing roast duck and Taiwanese food, and oh so much more. A repeated theme however, that entire week, was the tomato and egg combination that Chinese people love. As mentioned, we had the stir-fried version, but we also had a dumpling version and a noodle version, all of which were delightful. Stir-fried tomatoes and eggs has been one of my favorite Chinese dishes since I lived in Taiwan, so in honor of both Taiwan and China, I'm leaving you with a recipe for that today.

番茄炒蛋 (Stir-Fried Tomatoes with Eggs)

4 eggs
1/2 medium-size yellow onion, thinly sliced
2 lg. tomatoes
1 1/2 T. vegetable oil, divided
3/4 t. sugar
1/2 t. salt
Pepper - to taste

Cut the tomatoes into 1" chunks and set them in a colander to drain.

Beat the eggs in a small bowl.

Heat 1 T. oil in a large skillet or wok over medium-high heat. Shake the colander with the tomatoes a few times to get rid of any excess liquid. Once the oil is hot, add the onions and stir-fry until slightly soft, approximately 3-5 minutes. Add the tomatoes to the pan and stir-fry briefly, about 1 minute. You want the tomatoes to retain their shape so you don't want to cook them for very long. Transfer the tomatoes/onions to a bowl and set aside.

Return the now empty pan to the heat and add the remaining 1/2 T. oil. Once the oil is hot add the beaten eggs. Quickly, but gently, scramble the eggs until they have just barely set. You want big soft clouds of egg. Add the tomatoes and onions back to the pan, sprinkle with sugar, salt, and pepper and then stir-fry briefly just to get everything mixed together.  Serve with rice.