Monday, February 28, 2011

Lanterns Festival

February 17th was the official end of Spring Festival, and boy were we glad to see it go. I can only take so much noise from fireworks before my head explodes. Unfortunately, this holiday, called Lanterns Festival, was a little disappointing to us. Helen and John were out of town on a family emergency, so we were left to celebrate by ourselves. That means we probably missed the cooler things we would have done otherwise. Still, following everyone's advice, we went to People's Square to see what we thought would be lanterns (makes sense, right?), but there weren't any. There were a couple of big, bunny shaped lanterns, and the same red lanterns that had decorated the square for the past month, but nothing like we'd thought we'd see. Our apartment seemed more festive than People's Square, yet still there were thousands of people elbowing their way through the square. We're still not sure why. Maybe just an excuse to be outside at night and mingle with the crowd?

The one thing we were really interested in doing was lighting paper lanterns and sending them up into the air. We saw a handful of people doing that, but we couldn't find anyplace to buy the lanterns. Apparently, last year, there were some fires set because of these paper lanterns, so this year I guess people were more subdued. But the fireworks were loud, as always.

So we didn't spend too long out, and instead retreated to our apartment to watch a movie.
fireworks stand outside our apartment

While he's not at all connected to Lanterns Festival, not long after I saw little Mop Dog and got some decent photos of him because he was in a calm mood and didn't squirm too much. He's gotten a little bigger, but is still teddy-bear adorable.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Beijing Birthday

After our exhausting and filling cooking class, we walked around the hutongs surrounding the cooking school. This was a completely new neighborhood for us, and we really enjoyed exploring it. Hutongs are old alleyways that usually lead into courtyards where families live. To be honest, though Lonely Planet and every other Beijing visitor gush about the hutongs, we had never seen a reason to be impressed with them. Sure, they're ancient streets, but they're still just alleys. However, exploring the more famous hutongs in this area changed our minds. It was more like a friendly, busy, pedestrian walking street, obviously aimed toward tourists, but totally the type of thing we love. Where else can you find entire shops dedicated to panda merchandise?

Or Oba-Mao propaganda?

And despite the warning outside this public toilet, I found the toilets to be quite clean and more comfortable than most Chinese bathrooms.

We enjoyed a leisurely walk free from the notorious Beijing traffic and stopped by the nearby Drum and Bell Tower, where we got to see a demonstration of the drums. Also, in this area we found the nicest, most helpful people we've ever experienced in China, and that was a welcome change.
On the recommendation of the Australian quartet, we walked around another new neighborhood, Houhai. This beautiful pedestrian area runs alongside a lake, and while shops are expensive and obviously targeted toward tourists, it was a nice area to wander around. Andrew even spent about $15 on some chocolate truffles for me from a European-style shop.
We didn't stay too long, because we were hoping to head to the zoo before it closed that day. Unfortunately, because of a mix-up on the metro, it took forever to get there and we ended up arriving after it closed. Instead, we got back on the metro and headed across town to the Sanlitun area for dinner and a movie. We had hoped to see either "Narnia" or "Tron" in English, but we made do with "The Tourist," which was fun and entertaining. We also ate a wonderful sushi dinner before going back to the hotel for some drinks in the bar before bed.

On our last morning in Beijing, we got up early and tried the zoo again, this time with more luck. The ridiculously low entry fee should have been a clue as to how run-down this place was, but just seeing the panda cubs playing around was worth the trip out there. I was a little upset about the bears who would perform little tricks in exchange for food, but it was cute. There wasn't much special about this zoo, but I do love animals so it was a good time spent.
I almost forgot about crazy raccoon guy. This little guy was doing a million jumping jacks in his enclosure...up against the wall. It was really bizarre. Some form of razzercise???
Finally, we gathered our backpack and went across town for my favorite part of any trip to Beijing: Jenny Lou's. We went a little crazy and spent more than $100 stocking up on tortillas, alcohol, and cheese. We managed to squeeze all this into our bag and make it to the bus station just in time to grab a Subway sandwich for dinner and head home on the bus back to Qinhuangdao.

Cooking Class

After lunch on Valentine's Day, Andrew and I hopped on the bus and headed to Beijing. We arrived late in the evening, checked into our hotel, and then went to the Sanlitun ex-pat area to meet up with a fellow Californian, Adam, for dinner at Luga's Mexican Villa. We splurged and gorged ourselves on fajitas, nachos, tacos, and enchiladas. It was heaven! I'm so jealous of all you people back home who can have Mexican food whenever you want. It's definitely the food we miss most when we're abroad.

The next morning, I got up early, fighting a margarita hangover, and we went to our cooking class at Hias Gourmet. This was a Christmas present from Andrew's mom, but we hadn't had time to get to Beijing until my birthday. First, we took a market tour and learned about the different spices, sauces, and vegetables used in Chinese cooking. We also found water chestnuts, something we've been trying to find since we got here. It was freezing, and because of Spring Festival, there weren't a lot of vendors out at the market, but at least we got a lot of nagging questions answered (why are some eggs blue? what is the long green vegetable with a flower at the top?).

Next, we had a private session on seasonings. Our teacher showed us the differences between soy sauces, vinegars, and cooking wines. Now we know what to look for when we go shopping!

Finally, we started our four hour cooking class. We were joined by four Australian women who lived in Beijing. They were fun and rowdy, and gave us lots of great advice on where to shop and what to see in Beijing.

Our first dish was Braised Chicken with Ginger and Broad Bean Paste. This one took the longest to cook, so we just watched the instructor prepare everything. The guy was very talented with a cleaver, which he used for everything, from cutting chilis to peeling garlic and mincing onion.

Our next dish was Stir-Fried Pork with Sweet Flour Sauce. We had thought this was going to be sweet-and-sour pork, but it was something completely different, but still tasty!

Our favorite dish was Fish Flavored Pork, which didn't actually taste anything like fish, but was cooked with pickled chilis, thus imparting a slightly sour taste often associated with fish. It also had some black mushrooms and overall, a more complicated ingredient and preparation list.

The last dish we made was Three Treasures, one of our staple foods here in Qinhuangdao. It consists of eggplant, potato, and bell pepper stir-fried with soy sauce and oyster sauce, and it's absolutely delicious. It's probably the most popular dish in the north of China, but doesn't seem to exist in Chinese restaurants in the US. I've included the recipe here for you guys to try at home. You should be able to find all the ingredients at any grocery store.

vegetable oil
1 large eggplant
1 potato
1 bell peppers
(these veggies should equal about 500g, or 1 pound)
(eggplant>potato>bell pepper)
spring onion, minced
3 cloves minced garlic
1 tbsp. light soy sauce
1 tbsp. oyster sauce
1/2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. sugar
2 tsp. rice wine (optional)
100 mL water (almost 1/2 cup)

1. Mix soy sauce, oyster sauce, salt, sugar, and rice wine in a bowl.
2. Cut potatoes, eggplant, and bell peppers into 1/4" thick slices.
3. Heat oil in a frying pan or wok, and when the oil is hot, add eggplant. Cook until browned, and slightly soft. Remove the eggplant, add more oil, and add the potatoes. Cook in the same way at the eggplant, and then remove. Repeat with green peppers. Remove.
4. Add spring onion and garlic and saute for one minute. Add all vegetables. Add the sauce.
5. Finally, pour in water, cover, and cook on high for about 5 minutes, until the water is gone.

Hao Chi "How Chuh" (Delicious)

Monday, February 21, 2011

More Celebrations

The parents of my student Karen took us out to dinner the other night. They must have been testing us, because they decided to order the weirdest possible food ever (all the stuff we'd been avoiding). Really, I think I would have been OK never having eaten chicken feet in China, but the slimy little claws were basically forced on us. We had crocodile stomach with snails, but the highlight of the dinner was a dish ordered in our honor, called "Travel Around the World." Unfortunately, it consisted of chicken feet and pig feet. Yum. To be fair, the foot wasn't disgusting, I just didn't understand the appeal. There's hardly any meat on either one, and what is there is fatty. Also, I didn't like the little chicken toenail poking me in the mouth while I gnawed on it. Too much information? Sorry.

I turned 27 on February 15th. I still feel like a little kid most times.

For my birthday/Valentine's Day, Helen and John took us out to a restaurant to celebrate. Believe me, the last thing I wanted to do on my birthday was eat more Chinese food, but there's no saying no to these people! ;) The highlight of the day was forcing Andrew to wear matching couple shirts (they're all the rage in China), wearing not one but two birthday crowns, and getting an awesome gift from the husband.

First, my mom (who is the greatest in the world and never forgets to send me something for holidays) sent me a box of V-Day candy, along with some beautiful Silver Forest earrings, my absolute favorite jewelry company in the world. I shared the candy with students. They were excited, really, though you wouldn't know it by the look on their faces.

Second, we went to lunch, ate Chinese food and cake, and opened gifts. Helen and John got me a beautiful jade bracelet, and Andrew lovingly prepared a scrapbook full of pictures of me in China. It was really cool.

Third, we got on a bus to go to Beijing for the weekend. More on that in another post.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Xinnian Kuai-le!

This weekend was full of holidays.

We started the festivities by celebrating Candlemas, or "Crepe Day" as we called it in France, on February 2nd. That morning, we made our own crepes, albeit not nearly as good as French ones, and stuffed them with bananas, chocolate, and powdered sugar.

Not only is February 2nd Candlemas, it's also Groundhog's Day. As the entire US was covered in snow east of the Rockies this past weekend (sucks to be you guys!), no shadows were to be had for Mr. Groundhog, which means "Have no Fear, Spring is Near!" As cousin Catherine put it: the sky must be running out of snow.

Now for the biggie:

Chinese New Year
was February 3, 2011 this year!!! The celebrations began on Wednesday night, February 2nd, but fireworks began long before. Starting about a week in advance, no day was complete with 1+ hours of fireworks somewhere nearby. This year is the Year of the Rabbit, so everyone is rabbit crazy right now. Even the salespeople in Tesco were wearing bunny suits all week. I desperately looked for a pair of bunny ears to add to my funny hat collection, but none could be found. A popular gesture used this year looked something like this:

So New Year's Eve day, we ate our Candlemas crepes, then chilled out for our luxurious 4-day weekend. Around 5pm, we headed next door to Helen and John's to begin the festivities. Helen presented us with a gift of red socks, which we immediately put on (for good luck!). John had cooked an amazing seven course meat dinner for us, the highlights being giant grilled shrimp and BBQ ribs. After that, we watched some of the crazy TV specials for the New Year before beginning preparations for dumplings. There were nice parades in other cities, like Xi'an, and various operas, magic shows, and comedy shows, which we couldn't really understand.

Despite the language barrier, Andrew, John and I managed to turn several card games into a Chinese baijiu (pronounced "buy Joe") drinking game. That stuff is really potent, even at 36% (weaker than the 43-50% normally found), but that didn't stop the two men from finishing off the bottle within two hours. Gan Bei! (Bottoms Up!)

After the games, we started on the dumpling preparation, which took over two hours to complete (we made A LOT of dumplings). We went outside to set off our own fireworks around 11:30pm. The whole city was hazy from the constant barrage of fireworks throughout the day. Sometimes, it sounded like a war zone, with green and orange flashes lighting up the sky all around. Other times, it sounded like a thunderstorm, cannons, or even the sea. By the way, fireworks are much like that girl you picked up at the bar last night: they aren't improved by daylight. Anyway, Andrew had excitedly bought some nicer fireworks, which did have pretty colors instead of just noise, and we had a lot of fun setting them off on the street.

I should probably say that while the Chinese are credited with having invented fireworks, most of them are pretty un-impressive. It seems that noise, not light, is the key factor, which explains why the entire city had been setting them off without interruption all day starting at 8:30am. The story goes that the noise scares away a monster called Nian (pronounced "knee N"), who brings bad luck to people. According to this legend, the ugly and ferocious monster Nian would hunt humans on the 1st and 15th of every month. The locals approached a wise old man, who organized them and together, they ambushed Nian with drums, gongs, and fireworks. Nian ran away, frightened. The villagers chased him until he was exhausted, at which point they slew him. Today, Chinese celebrate Spring Festival to remember that ample applications of cooperation and gunpowder will fix all of society's problems.

After Andrew had satisfied his pyrotechnic, incendiary urges, we returned to the apartment to countdown and eat dumplings. I don't know how we had room for any more food, but somehow we managed. The dumplings were delicious, and the perfect finish to the festival.

In other news, in the spirit of Spring Festival (another name for Chinese New Year), Andrew went lantern-crazy and decorated our apartment like a hutong courtyard. I think it's a bit much, but the effect is quite pretty.

So we wish you
Xinnian Kuai Le (Happy New Year), (she knee N kwhy luh)
Gong Xi Fa Cai (Congratulations, Wealth, Prosperity), (gong she fat sigh)
Shi Shi Shun Li (May everything be easy for you), (shuh shuh shoon lee)
Ji Xiang Ru Yi (May your happiness come true). (G she yang roo yee)

Dumpling Recipe

Most of you probably just received your Chinese New Year card, complete with a dumpling recipe, but you may still be intimidated by the recipe. To prevent further panic and give y'all one less excuse to make them, here's a step-by-step photo guide to making your own Chinese dumplings.

Step 1: Put 2 cups of flour into a bowl. Slowly add a little cold water and mix with your hands. When the dough is tough, dense, and compact, divide your dough into three or four small loaves. Cover with plastic and set aside.

Step 2: Mix 1 lb. ground beef or pork with minced green onion and garlic and any other minced veggies you want to add. Cabbage, leeks, and carrots all go well. Add 1 tsp. chicken bouillon powder, 1 tsp. sugar, and 1 tsp. soy sauce to this mix and set aside.

Step 3: Make a hole in the center of the loaf with your finger and slowly stretch the dough until there's a big circle in the middle of the dough, like a bagel. Then, sever the bagel, making one long string of dough. Pinch or cut off little marble-sized pieces of dough from this string. This part just helps with uniformity, making all the dumplings the same size, but you could just as easily pinch off the dough without stretching it first.

Step 4: Roll the pieces in your hands until they are smooth balls, squashing them slightly before moving onto the next one. Repeat this process until you have lots of slightly-flattened discs.

Step 5: Holding onto one edge of the dough circle, rotate the dough as you use a rolling pin to widen the circle to about 2 1/2 to 3 inches in diameter, or roughly the same size as your palm. The idea is to widen the circle from the edges only, leaving the center thicker than the rest of the dumpling.
Step 6: Fill the dough with the meat mixture, being careful not to overfill it. About 1-2 tsp. should do it.

Step 7: Fold the two edges of the circle together at the top, pinching it shut. Then, pinch the sides shut, slightly bending them inward so the dumpling has a curved shape and will sit on its own. If you're feeling creative, you can try making a scallop design in the dumpling. The important thing is to make sure that the dumpling is completely closed so that no filling falls out: the beautification technique is up to you.

pinch top

Pinch one corner

Pinch the rest closed for that side. Repeat other corner

Step 8: Boil a big pot of water and drop the dumplings in. After about ten minutes of cooking, the dumplings should float to the top, signaling their "doneness." Don't be afraid to taste one to make sure they are cooked all the way through. Alternatively, you can steam them for the same amount of time, which makes for a drier dumpling.

Step 9: Serve the dumplings with a dipping sauce of soy sauce, dark vinegar, sesame oil, and minced garlic. You can freeze any extra dumplings you have for use at a later time.