Saturday, March 21, 2015

Beer!

Ask anybody outside of China to name as many Chinese beers as they can, and I suspect very few would get past Tsingtao.

Right?

It is well-known throughout much of the world as well as in China, where it comes from the country’s second largest brewery. So why would a beer available in its recognizable green bottles all over the world be included on a website meant to highlight hyper-local street foods? Easy: because in its home city of Qingdao (Tsingtao is an earlier transliteration of the city’s name), you can purchase it by weight on the street. The Tsingtao brewery was founded in the early twentieth century when Qingdao was under German rule as part of the Kiautschou Bay concession (1898 – 1914). Of course establishing a brewery was a priority for the Germans living in Qingdao, so they built it in 1903 and it has been operating ever since. Think about that—it has stayed open while the city was controlled by Germany, Japan (twice), the Republic of China, and the People’s Republic of China. It was nationalized for many years (at which time the Chinese government changed some of the strict German beer rules to allow rice in the recipe) until the early 1990s when it was privatized once again. The Tsingtao brewery has been through a lot during its long history in the area, and it is a source of pride for many citizens. So in a way, it is no surprise that the brewery’s flagship product is available all over the city. Poke your head into many of the city’s hole-in-the-wall restaurants and you will find a keg of beer waiting for you. Ask the vendor for a bag (yes, a bag), fill it up as much as you want, weigh it, pay for it based on the weight, and you’re on your way.


You can either drink it right out of the bag or relocate it to a mug when you reach your destination. Qingdao is the only city I’ve ever visited where you can buy beer in a bag by the kilogram and then drink it as you wander the streets. It’s a unique opportunity that has resulted from the city’s unique history. Don’t miss it.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Thoughts on the Chinese Revo-loo-tion

It's been a good long while since I've written a post that focused more on general travel in China and less on street food or my writing progress, but an article I read recently has encouraged me to break that fast. Here's the article. If you don't feel like clicking over, I can give you the short version: Li Jinzao, the head of China's National Tourist Administration, has announced that China is going to begin a massive overhaul of their toilet infrastructure, with a focus on tourist locations. That may very well be good news for China and for tourists, but I have to admit that I'm of two minds on the subject. On the one hand, as I've written before, Chinese public bathrooms can be somewhat dismal affairs. Every traveler has a couple of stories about ridiculous bathroom situations in China. Generally you'll have your pick from a row of squat toilets, possibly with dividers between them. If you're lucky, you may run across a bathroom with doors on the stalls. If you're less lucky, you may find yourself in a bathroom with a single long trough and no privacy at all. Toilet paper and soap are almost never provided. So, needless to say, it can take a little getting used to, and perhaps there is some room for improvement. On the other hand, getting back to my two minds on the subject, I am a pretty strong believer in the traveler ethos that encourages adaptation to the local culture. If these toilets are what the locals are happily using, then doggone it, that's what I'm going to use. It's not my place to adopt a snooty sense of cultural superiority based on something as silly as different standards for privacy and odors.

Now, it's possible that there is a great amount of support for this toilet-updating venture coming from the Chinese hoi polloi. If that's the case, then I'm all for it. If anybody has the right to demand a change in the way people are being treated at some of their most vulnerable moments, it's the people themselves. Somehow, though, I fear that the main reason behind the change are the big tourist dollars. This paragraph in the article certainly seems to point that way:

"Following complaints from visitors, Beijing last week announced the start of a revolution (or "revo-loo-tion") that should see the number of toilets at tourist sights rise, along with their quality." [All emphasis mine.]

Or this one from another article:

"Li admitted that the current state of public toilets in the country leaves much to be desired and should be improved to meet with international tourism standards." [Once again, emphasis mine.]

I am reminded in all of this of a singularly strange meeting I attended when I lived in Jiujiang, Jiangxi, in 2006 - 2007. Jiujiang is not a big draw for tourists (although it's a good starting point for visiting Lushan), particularly for Western tourists. That's part of what I love about the city. And yet one night my wife and I, along with three or four others from the city's very small expat population, were invited as guests of honor to a panel discussion with local government officials about how to make the city more appealing to Western tourists. We cringed as some of our fellow laowai complained about the lack of English menus at restaurants or how loud some of the streets were (not at night...on Saturday afternoons...). We were put on the spot to say something to these officials, so we stumbled through some silly thoughts about public benches in pretty areas or something, and left it at that. Everybody went home, the government officials (rightfully) ignored all of the ideas that were suggested that night, and Jiujiang stayed just the way it was.

The point is, a city shouldn't have to change who it is just to attract tourist money, and neither should a country. I understand the economic realities of the situation, of course. Sometimes your local economy relies on tourists, and if you can get a few extra RMB by updating the toilets, then I certainly can't blame you for making the change. But I think it's kind of sad. We tell kids all the time to be true to themselves and not worry about what others think of you, but even nations can fall victim to that sort of peer pressure.

Now, just to be clear, I'm not saying I think China should stay in some sort of dark age of toilets just so that travelers can have what they consider an "authentic" experience. That sort of thinking seems to me equally as patronizing as it is to insist China change to meet your standards. All I'm saying is that the desire to change should come from within. Perhaps that's happening here, in which case everybody wins (hooray!). But if not, then it seems like China is losing a little bit of itself.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Street Food Around the World

One of the fun things about writing this website and book is opening up my email account to find messages from strangers regarding street food. Not long ago I received one such email from Zara at Backpack ME asking if I wanted to contribute to a post documenting street foods around the world. I would, naturally, be representing China in that post. It sounded like fun, so I got on board. It was tough to choose a single street food to represent a country as massive and gastronomically diverse as China. There are so many great foods, some of which are currently available throughout the country and some that are really limited in geography. In the end, I settled on 煎饼 (jiān bĭng), as it seemed there was a solid argument to be made for it being the quintessential Chinese street food.


Despite it's Beijing/Tianjin origins, this greasy thrill for the taste buds is widely available in China. It also has all the hallmarks of a great Chinese street food (quick, cheap, greasy, and filling). All considered, it seemed as good a representative dish as any. So, I wrote up a paragraph or two and sent it off to Zara. Earlier today I got another email saying that the post had officially gone up. Besides my piece about China, there are entries from Mexico, Vietnam, Burma, Iran, Madagascar, Grenada, Tanzania, Slovakia, Romania, Egypt, Guatemala, and two dozen other countries. Wow! It's a terrific and remarkably mouth-watering list. What a wonderful reminder about the diversity of the human experience. I want to try all of them in one weeks-long street food binge.

Anyway, I encourage you to hop on over and check out the Street Food Around the World post. While you're there, poke around some of the other articles Zara and Ashray have posted--there's lots of good travel writing to discover. Thanks for the invitation, Backpack ME!

Friday, January 23, 2015

Peculiar Name; Great Taste

One of Tianjin’s most beloved street foods, 耳朵眼炸糕 (ĕr duŏ yăn zhá gāo) was invented around the turn of the 20th century by a man named Liu Wanchun. The hutong where he lived and sold his wares was, for some reason, named Ĕr Duŏ Yăn (“earhole”). Why? I don't know. Anyway, over time, as his sweet fried rice cakes became more and more well-loved in the city, they were identified with Mr. Liu and his earhole alley, which is how they became known as ĕr duŏ yăn zhá gāo: earhole fried rice cakes.


The non-orifice part of the name (i.e. "fried rice cake") gives you a pretty good idea of what you’re getting into here. A blob of yellow rice and glutinous rice dough about the size of a persimmon is stuffed with a mixture of red bean paste and brown sugar and then fried. What you end up with is a ball with a thin, crispy, blistered skin and a gooey, squishy, sweet interior. It is a delightful treat for the senses, particularly if you are a normal person who likes sweet and fried foods. A food that I have used the words “earhole” and “blistered” to describe might not sound very appetizing, but you’ll have to trust me—this one is a winner.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Three Year Update

Well, another year has come and gone. It's now been three years since I left my wife in DC and jetted off to China for my culinary research trip / adventure. I've posted updates at the one-year and two-year marks, so I figured I might as well provide another annual update now. As regular readers (you know who you are) may recall, a year ago I finished writing the bulk of the book, and yet here it is 2015 and it's still not available for purchase. So what happened between then and now? Two things prevented the book from being totally finished. For one thing, my life got in the way a little bit. The list of life things that made me put a hold on book-work includes such items as buying a house (with some logistical surprises along the way), traveling during a couple of months for my other job, and visiting with family, but the biggest life event standing in the way of getting the book to market was the birth of my wife's and my first child. Since my daughter was born, especially after my wife's maternity leave ended, I have been a stay-at-home dad, acting as her primary caregiver during the workweek. Believe it or not, taking care of an infant sucks up a decent amount of one's free time. (Who knew?) So my ability to work on the book was seriously inhibited for parts of the year.


The other main reason that I don't have the book on the market yet is that I am actively hunting for publishers. I had been on the fence about self-publishing vs. traditional publishers, but last spring a friend convinced me to give the traditional model a real, honest-to-goodness try. So that's what I've been doing. Much of the time I did have to work on the book in the past year has been spent contacting publishers and waiting to hear back from them (hello to any publishers or literary agents reading this!). The waiting is killer, since you can't do anything active towards completing the book--you just sit and wait for a response to come (which it usually doesn't). So it's a bit discouraging. Nonetheless, I am going to keep heading that direction for a few more months. If nothing pans out then I will go the self-publishing route; I am determined to have the book available for purchase by this time next year.

So that's what's going on. It's not an especially satisfying update, I'm sure, so hopefully I'll have something more substantive to offer soon. Thanks for reading and for your continued interest/support!

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Snail Noodle Soup

Thanks to some curious historical pigeonholing, Liuzhou is best known in China as a producer of coffins. This reputation even makes its way into a well-known Chinese saying about the key to a happy life that goes: 生在苏州, 活在杭州, 吃在广州, 死在柳州. This translates to something like “be born in Suzhou [a city reputed to produce the most beautiful people], live in Hangzhou [which is renowned for its scenic location], eat in Guangzhou [the seat of world-famous Cantonese cuisine], and die in Liuzhou.” Although the coffin industry casts a macabre pall over the city’s history and culture, it is not the only game in town; Liuzhou is also known for its delicious snail soup, known to locals as luó sī fĕn. 


Most people who hear about this snail soup expect at least a handful of the eponymous gastropods to lie in wait, lurking squishily within the shimmering, murky broth. This assumption is actually wrong, as snail meat is not a direct ingredient of luó sī fĕn. In fact, the soup gets its name because its base is snail stock. River snails and pork bones are stewed for hours with vendor-specific combinations of spices (generally including cardamom, fennel, star anise, cloves, pepper, and other similar spices) to create the distinctive broth. In addition to the snail broth, the recipe for luó sī fĕn includes a thick tangle of skinny rice noodles, crispy fried tofu skin, peanuts, pickled vegetables (this is Guangxi, after all), fresh green vegetables, and heaps of chili oil. This is usually a very spicy bowl of noodles with some intriguing contrasts of taste (spicy, sour, and faintly musty) and texture (slippery, crunchy, and soft). You can buy luó sī fĕn in nearby cities like Nanning and Guilin, but if you want the finest bowl of snail soup money can buy, I’d recommend making a stop right in Liuzhou. If nothing else, it will give you something other than coffins to remember the city for.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Interview With Chinese-Tools.com

Just a quick post today to draw your attention to this interview I recently did with Chinese-Tools.com about street food, travels, and my book. While you're over there, be sure to check out some of their great resources for learners and lovers of Chinese language and culture.  They've got dictionaries, articles, a tool that lets you write in Chinese without downloading any software, and lots more. Thanks for the interview, Chinese-Tools.com!