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China: Days 4 & 5

February 1, 2011

Sunday, May 16th, 2010

Breakfast the next morning was similar to what was served yesterday. There were different sweet rolls.  The fruit was the same.  There was also whole tempura fish, bitter melon with scrambled eggs (they’re not kidding when they call it bitter!  I couldn’t eat it), lotus root, miso soup, a couple different types of noodles, and squash.

Sunday was a cold and rainy day, and most of it, between phenomenal meals, was spent making travel arrangements, unmaking travel arrangements when my brother lost his passport, then remaking travel arrangements when he found it again, with large allotments of this spent in cabs.

Since my brother and I just missed celebrating Mother’s Day together for our mom, we took her to a famous steamed dumpling restaurant called Din Tai Fung.  We ordered mini pork dumplings, pork dumplings with soup, pork and shrimp dumplings, and of course, fried rice.  While we waited for our dumplings, we watched the staff make the dumplings in the viewing kitchen, which was pretty amazing.  First they cut tiny balls of dough, weigh them out on a digital scale the size of a cell phone, drizzle oil on the stainless steel countertop and with a smooshing motion, smooth and flatten the dough out to paper thinness.  You can see the tiny balls of dough in the top left corner and the scale in the bottom left.

A little scoop of filling goes in the middle, then well practiced hands tuck and pleat the filling into the dough (that’s why the hands are blurry in this series – they’re just moving that fast!).

Since dumpling folding is an artform in China, there are lots of ways to form a dumpling.  The prepared dumplings are lined up in large bamboo steamers lined with wet muslin, then stacked on top of steamer tables that shoot jets of steam upwards through the stacks.  When the dumplings are done, someone wet each order’s printout and stuck it to the top of the appropriate stack.

We were in for two surprises:  We discovered that when you order water in a restaurant, if they don’t bring you room temperature bottled water, they bring you boiling hot water in glasses.  According to my brother, the water in China has been unsafe to drink for so long, that it’s become the norm to drink water boiling hot – even now that it’s not always necessary for safety.  The servers at this restaurant, and everyone thereafter were perennially confused about our requests for ice.  (Also according to my brother, it’s the sign of a high class restaurant to have ice in the urinals.  Another statement I never felt the need to investigate for myself…)

The second surprise was that dumplings with soup did not mean dumplings floating in soup as we expected.  Instead, it meant dumplings filled with a meat filling, which was floating in soup inside the dumpling.

They also had the most adorable dumpling mascot…

Sunday was a day for food.  We rounded out the evening with an extensive Hot Pot experience.  Hot Pot is a traditional Mongolian style of cooking that has been refined over the years to something between Hibachi and Fondue.  Everyone was given a bright red apron, since we’d be doing most of the cooking.  There were peanuts, cherry tomatoes, and pineapple on the table to nibble on before the meal.  We had a large enough group that we took up two tables.  Sunk into the middle of each table was a two sided hot pot.  One side was filled with a milky colored, seasoned broth.  This side had sliced mushrooms, herbs, and what I think were dates floating in it.  The other side was filled with chili paste, chili peppers, flower peppers, and chili oil.  That side was a bright orange-red with droplets of gold chili oil roiling on the top as the pot simmered.  The diners then get to choose which side to cook each food in.  A side note:  I quickly found that you either love flower peppers, or you hate them.  They’re tiny, caper sized and shaped peppers that cause a tingling numbness wherever they touch.  This effect is multiplied if you actually manage to bite into one.

While the ingredients were being gathered, we all got up and made our sauces from a communal bar.  Options included: ground peanuts, sliced chilis, chili sauces, chili paste, chili oil, sesame oil, Chinese BBQ sauce, a tofu pudding, shredded dried meat, minced garlic, chopped coriander, snipped chives.  There were others, of course, but these are the ones I can remember.  Also available on the same bar were jars of spicy pickled vegetables and corn on the cob.  We were offered some sort of grey bean milk to drink, but I must admit I didn’t care for it; it was warm and rather ashy tasting.  One of the other diners suggested we try lemon water instead, which was cool, lemony, and syrupy.

Then came the raw food for us to cook.  First, rolled paper thin slices of lamb and beef.  Then rounds of creamy on the inside, crispy on the outside fried tofu.  The shrimp balls were my favorite:  a server held a pastry bag of ground, seasoned raw shrimp over the boiling hot pots and snipped off chunks with chopsticks.  The hot liquid cooked them so quickly they retained their shape.  Hairy crabs so tiny they contained only a single bite of delicious meat each – these were cooked whole, but arrived from the kitchen with the carapace already opened and the leg tips and claws snipped off. (Those are napkins in the pop up box pictured, not tissues)

Whole fish that tasted just like catfish.  Cow stomach (yes, you squeamish readers, I ate cow stomach) which was black with tiny white spines and was sort of chewy.

Clumps of enoki mushrooms.  Greens (forgive me, readers, but in this extensive list, I cannot remember if we ate these cold as a salad or cooked them – I think we cooked them).  There were also different kinds of noodles, dumplings in tiny pie tins filled with pork and greens.  As a last course, we were brought fried half moons of dough that were pristine white and finely textured on the inside and tasted like marshmallows when dipped in the coconutty sweetened condensed milk that was also provided.  Then the staff invited us to tour the kitchen!

Everything was very clean, and mostly white.  We were given hairnets to wear during the tour.  There was a cold room for the cold dishes, a store room, a fridge, a freezer, a prep kitchen with shelves of prepped bowls, a meat room where all the meat was sliced, clean and dirty dish rooms, and a room with fish tanks, including one tank full of live frogs.  I apologize that my kitchen pictures are slightly blurry, but our tour guide kept us moving!  (hover your mouse over the pictures to see a caption)

We left, and one of my brother’s classmates informed me that we were standing on Bing Jon Dao (spelling approximate), the longest shopping street in Tianjin.  Since we have now been in China more than 48 hours without any shopping whatsoever, it was a chore convincing me not to shop right now!

Monday, May 17, 2010

Breakfast was in the hotel again.  Mostly it was the same as the previous two days, but some of the new offerings were: tempura eggplant, red bean paste rolls (I have fond memories of red bean filled pastries from living in Korea – my brother and I used to love the watch the little machine in the little booth make walnut shaped pastries filled with red bean paste), sweet and sour pork slices, greens with scrambled eggs, spaghetti noodles with tuna fish and tomato sauce – very Italian, Italian style clams in tomato sauce, roasted chicken, fried rice and eggs with veggies.  The meats, eggs, soups, rice, fruits, and juices were all the same.

For lunch, my brother took us to his friend’s family’s restaurant.  We had BBQ pork short ribs that literally fell apart when served, garlicky, gingery scallops scrambled in egg whites with a soy and vinegar sauce, broccoli sautéed in garlic oil, and spicy chicken with red and green peppers, and onions.  Hot tea to drink.

We decided to take an overnight train to Shanghai to combine sleep time with travel time.  A stop on the way to the train station yielded one long Subway sandwich for us all to share.  I know, I know, American fast food while in China is just so wrong, but I was out voted.  It did taste significantly different from a comparable American Subway sandwich, and they did not go easy on the mayonnaise.  It will be a long time after this trip before I eat mayo again – I had to scrape most of it off and there was still too much for me – again, I was out voted.  We went through security, which was almost as stringent as at an American airport, and found our train.  Amazingly, there was a man on the platform polishing our train with a cloth –  something you’d never see in America.

We were all pretty excited about riding a sleeper train.  My dad, in particular, was nearly bouncing in anticipation.  Our compartment had four berths, stacked like a pair of bunk beds.  There was a table between the berths, under the window with a table cloth, a glittery flower arrangement, a carafe that at one point held hot water, and a small pedal trash can underneath.

Each berth had its own little TV with headphones, a padded hanger, slippers (you get these almost anywhere you sleep in China as well), a reading light, a sheet, and a pillow full of seeds that can be pushed and molded to fit you best and was surprisingly comfy.

The mattress reminded me of the gym mats we used when I took gymnastics and Tae Kwon Do: not very thick and covered in blue vinyl.  The bathrooms were also pretty nice, but good luck holding your balance on a moving train.

We were also pretty excited because the train had functional air conditioning, and after three nights in a hotel where we couldn’t get the in suite thermostat below 26*C (approximately 80*F)¸ in spite of my brother’s bilingual negotiations with housekeeping, a cool and restful night’s sleep was very appealing.  Once we got about an hour underway, the obnoxiously loud single song loop had been turned off the PA system (thank goodness I always travel with earplugs!), and we’d gotten tired of the novelty of our private car and settled in to sleep, the train personnel very thoughtfully turned off the air conditioning in case we got cold.  The air conditioning and the music were both turned back on about an hour outside of Shanghai.  So much for restful sleep.  At this point in my increasingly incoherent notes, I scribbled “if sleep conditions don’t improve, will be zombie by return.  Watch out for your brains!”

Next stop, Shanghai!

2 Comments leave one →
  1. February 1, 2011 4:43 pm

    I totally love your travel part of your blog!!!! Its so awesome, I feel like I’m tagging along on your fam’s vacation. Tell them all I miss them! And I love traveling in foreign countries! Its SO different and you always come back with good stories! ; )
    Sarah ❤

    • cooklaughlove permalink*
      February 1, 2011 8:02 pm

      thanks!! I’m glad you’re along for the ride! and will do 🙂

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