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China: Days 1-3

January 12, 2011

This summer I was privileged to be able to visit China for two weeks.  I got to see some phenomenal sights, try some phenomenal food, and watch my brother graduate with his Master’s in International Finance and Business.  I also got to watch and listen to him demonstrate some pretty impressive skills in Chinese language and culture.  He acted as both tour guide and interpreter for the entire trip.  Over the coming weeks, I’ll share with you images, impressions, and memories, both cultural and foodie, of this trip.  To keep this from becoming a travel blog, I’ll be alternating with regular recipe posts.  Lastly, thanks for your patience as I (finally) put this all together (as I only have seven pages of notes and 1100 or so pictures). 

Thursday, May 13th, 2010

On the plane:

The first meal on the plane was teriyaki (Japanese, but who’s counting…) chicken with peas and carrots, white rice, a roll (white rice and a roll?  *shrugs*), a small salad and a packet of ranch dressing.  There was a triple chocolate brownie for dessert.  The dinner entertainment was Dirty Jobs – with Chinese subtitles.  Not exactly appetizing, but ignorable.  Nonetheless, the chicken was really good, and I was impressed the salad was romaine, not iceberg lettuce.  And I really should have savored the brownie more, since it turned out to be my last taste of chocolate for a while (the horror!).

A few hours later, we were served a snack of ramen (again, Japanese, even if the label did say Chinese Noodles) noodles with seasoned tofu (for you tofu haters:  it was actually pretty good!  Sweet and salty and slightly chewy).

The flight attendants came around with hot pots of water to prepare the ramen.  The hand model with chopsticks skills is my lovely mother.  There was a pecan cookie for dessert that tasted a lot like a sandie, but sadly, had trans fats.  Dear food industry, please try not to kill us with hydrogenated oils, thanks.

Breakfast was udon (Did I get on a flight to Tokyo by mistake?) noodles with shitake mushrooms, carrots, green beans, and daikon radish.  Raspberry yogurt and a pair of raspberry filled cookies rounded things out.  There was also the option of a turkey sandwich, but in a fit of enthusiasm, I chose the more Asian meal option.

When we arrived a few hours later, the airline played some sort of music to welcome us to China.  It sort of reminded me of what I imagine phoenix song from Harry Potter to sound like.  We’re here!!!

While we left the states on the 13th of May, because of the time difference, we landed late on May the 14th, which is why international travel this dramatic always feels a little bit like time travel to me.

Friday, May 14th, 2010

My brother met us in the Beijing airport.  He handed us each a torn scrap of paper that apparently said “may I use your phone” in Chinese and his Chinese business card, just in case we got lost.  (However, I wasn’t about to get lost and test that he’d outgrown the childhood urge to lose me permanently…)

He then proceeded to lead us through a massive airport that led to a still more massive train station.  We took a subway to the bullet train, then rode the bullet train into Tianjin (Tin-Jin), ending up in another huge train station – it felt as if we’d never left the first enormous one.  I’ve been in a lot of airports, in most US states and a number of other countries, but this was by far the largest I’ve ever seen.  All I can remember thinking was “Dear Texas, and you think you do it big…”

The bullet train was cool – you’d never guess you were going more than 200 miles an hour (330 kph max speed) if it didn’t say so on the LED board at the front of each car.  It was a very smooth ride with lots of leg room, a nice change after thirteen hours in coach – and you get bottled water when you get on.  In fact, we found out shortly that you get bottled water pretty much everywhere you go.  Helpful hint:  don’t drink tap water anywhere in China.  The half hour ride to Tianjin left me with vague impressions of dirty countryside, lots of small communal gardens, lots of billboards, and smog.  Also, I saw a girl wearing a particularly fabulous pair of purple and grey leopard print pants with black velvet trim and sequined tuxedo stripes – they reminded me of a particularly fabulous friend (she’ll know who she is) and served as my introduction to the unique fashion sense of the Chinese woman.

From the train station, we took one of the ubiquitous teal colored cabs to the hotel.  Our hotel suite was actually larger then my apartment.  Two bedrooms, two baths, a full kitchen – with a hot pot and a rice cooker, rather than the standard American coffee pot, and a night view of Tianjin that would have been amazing were it not for the smog.

After dumping our bags, we took another cab to a Mongolian restaurant, where we had spiced lamb on a stick, spiced beef with onions decorated with an orchid and parsley, some sort of griddle bread that looked like an English muffin and tasted like warm pita bread brushed with oil and spices, and the fried rice served at nearly every meal – white and oily with chopped carrots, peas, bits of egg, tiny shrimp, and bits of sweet Chinese ham.  The restaurant didn’t have water, so we washed it down with Chinese Sprite and Harbin (har-bean) beer, which I learned was the first beer brewed in China.  I forgot my camera, so no pictures of this meal.

Finally, after a long day, and minimal sleep on the plane, we went back to the hotel and slept.

Saturday, May 15th, 2010

Breakfast in the hotel in Tianjin was sweet rolls and bread, watermelon, pineapple, hand peeled Satsuma oranges, coffee, barley tea, rice, porridge, kimchee soup (Korean), tempura eggplant, sausages, ham, eggs to order, stirfry salad (actually, stirfried lettuce), tofu in soup, noodles, fried rice, salad, fruit juices, and cartons of drinkable yogurt.  Most of it was pretty good to my tastes – even the stir fried salad.  The sausages were very sweet and all the fruit was hand cut – none of the machine prepped stuff you see in the US.  By the time I got around to trying the yogurt drink, some little kid had snagged the last one.  They looked sort of like pudding cups – squarish plastic containers with peelable lids that you are apparently supposed to jam a straw through.

After breakfast, we caught a cab to the University.  The cab driver didn’t seem to know where we wanted to go, so he apparently let us off at the wrong gate.  Fortunately, we passed enough students who spoke enough English to get pointed in the right direction with plenty of time to spare.  For our entertainment while we waited, Enya and the Lord of the Rings soundtrack were piped into the auditorium.  We met some of my brother’s professors and classmates’ parents, took lots of pictures, my mother tried (mostly successfully) not to cry, and my brother graduated.

After pictures, both informal and professional, outside by the retaining pond, everyone made their way to the reception lunch.  Lunch was a large buffet, and most of the foods I was unable to identify.  Since I felt it would be rude to take pictures of the food in this particular situation and atmosphere, this is all I managed to get.

The dishes I was able to identify, with the help of my brother and his classmates, were: the ubiquitous fried rice, pineapple stuffed buns, sesame balls, cookies, meat on sticks, shrimp, noodles, veggies in sauce, spiced crabapples (these were really good, very soft and sweet, it was just hard to eat around the seeds), taro rolled in crispy noodles, fruit, and drinks served in tiny glasses.

Later that night, we were honored to be invited to a traditional Chinese banquet given by the President of Tianjin University in for  the students in my brother’s graduating class and their visiting University president.  We met at the University and took a shuttle to the restaurant.  The restaurant was a converted factory, with (I think – we just kept going up escalators) banquet rooms on at least four floors.  The main floor housed the public restaurant and a combination larder/aquarium.  Once again, I didn’t feel comfortable taking pictures in such a formal environment, but I (with the aid of my lovely assistant / mother) managed to get a few shots.

The food was brought out in multiple courses and laid on three large lazy-susan tables.  The servers were ever so polite.  There were so many items and courses that I can’t come close to listing them all, but some of them were: sweet and sour short ribs with a dragon fruit garnish (dragon fruit is pink with green spikes on the outside, pure white with tiny black seeds on the inside – slightly tart and sweet), duck and intestines, taro rolls, dumplings filled with eggs and greens, dumplings filled with pork and leeks, radish flowers, scallops in the shell, some sort of thickened fruit salad with lychee, veggie rolls that looked sort of like sushi, glass noodles, spicy noodles, whole seasoned fish, spicy meat bits in a woven basket (I think it was chicken).  And that yellow stuff we’re drinking?  Corn tea.  It tastes like blenderized corn on the cob, only without the butter and salt.  Some things were garnished with herbs, some with chopped peppers, some were even garnished with flowers.  Everything was lovely to look at and delicious.  (note: since I don’t have permission to post pictures of people here, I’ve cropped their faces out.  Apologies if you wanted to be famous, alternatively, if you recognize yourself, let me know and I’ll uncrop you).

I took some pictures of the aquarium downstairs on the way out.  There were big fish, sharks, turtles, alligators, giant salamanders, lobster, crabs, prawns, and a seal.  There was an alumni reception and wine tasting at a nearby hotel after the banquet, but we did not attend for very long due to jetlag.  The menu there was very Western: cakes and tarts and the like, along with a few Western style dinner foods (I think I remember spaghetti and meatballs.)

To be continued….

One Comment leave one →
  1. Brenda Bryan permalink
    January 13, 2011 9:40 am

    Thanks for sharing! I enjoyed the pictures and the commentary.
    Looks like you had a great trip.
    Thanks again,

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