Saturday, March 24, 2012

Huang You Chao Mi

Here's another street food to file under the "guilty pleasures" category.

Huang You Chao Mi (黄油炒米) originated in Mongolia, so you're most likely to find it in the parts of China that have a big Mongolian influence (namely, Inner Mongolia). There are really only three main ingredients, listed here in order of prominence: butter, crispy millet pellets, and sugar. Attentive readers will have already noted that the first--and therefore most prominent--ingredient is butter. This simple fact is the reason that huang you chao mi is such a guilty pleasure. You are essentially eating a bowl of butter, with some millet for texture and sugar for taste. If it sounds delicious, that's because it is. The butter is sweet and creamy, which the millet contrasts with a satisfying crunch. It is served chilled, so the butter is firm enough to retain its shape while you dig in. All in all, this is a rich, decadent treat. Though I personally ate it in below-freezing temperatures, I suspect eating this dish would be a wonderful way to pass a lazy, hazy summer afteroon.

Going to the Bathroom in China

At the risk of broaching a subject that is unsuitable for polite conversation/blogging, I would like to take a moment to talk about going to the bathroom in China. While first-time travelers to China often have no trouble with the eating of Chinese food, they can be confounded, stymied, or otherwise caught off guard by some of the practicalities of tending to the other end of the digestive tract. It is for those travelers that I present this straightforward guide to the ins-and-outs, so to speak, of using the restroom in China.

1. Most travelers have been (accurately) forewarned that Chinese toilets are traditionally squat toilets, rather than the Western-style toilets that you actually sit on. This is not to say that you will never see a Western-style toilet in China, of course. You should just be aware that these seated commodes are more commonly found in private homes than in public restrooms. My general rule is to always expect a squat toilet wherever I am. If you are always hoping for a chance to sit down, you will be frequently disappointed. If you've never used a squat toilet, the procedure is pretty self-explanatory so I won't describe it in detail. The only tip I might suggest is to try to keep your feet completely flat on the ground. Most Westerners squat on the balls of their feet, with their center of gravity pushed forward a bit. If you look around China (and other Asian countries), you'll see that most people here keep their heels flat on the ground, which allows them to shift their weight a little farther back, right over their feet. This might feel awkward at first, but it is much more comfortable for long-term squatting (whether using the restroom or just resting). For what it's worth, studies have shown that squatting is a much more efficient way of vacating one's bowels than sitting down in the Cassiopeia position. If you are sitting, your colon is sort of pinched like a garden hose with a kink in it, which means more effort on your part to get the job done. Squatting positions the colon straight up and down, which means most of the work is done by gravity. Benefits include shorter times in the restroom and fewer instances of hemorrhoids. Just something to keep in mind.

2. Some would call this the first commandment of independent travel in China: ALWAYS CARRY TOILET PAPER. It is very, very rare for a public restroom to have toilet paper for you to use. Most people in China carry small packs of tissues with them wherever they go. When nature calls, you don't want to put the call on hold while you go in search of tissues. You can find these packets of tissues at almost any convenience store or small market in China. A pack should never cost more than 2 yuan.

3. While we're on the subject, you generally want to avoid flushing toilet paper down the toilet in China. The pipes can't always handle the paper, which causes clogging and unpleasantness for all. If you see a trash can next to a toilet, you can assume that you should throw your used toilet paper into there. One exception to this rule is on trains. Most train toilets exit right out onto the tracks (yes, it's gross), so there aren't really any pipes to get clogged.

The train tracks are screaming by right underneath that hole.

4. If you're out on the town and need to use the restroom, you have a few options. International fast food chains (especially the ubiquitous KFC and McDonald's) have reliably cleanish bathrooms that you can use without buying anything. The restaurants might frown on this, but they never stop you. If you don't feel like freeloading, you can usually count on finding a public restroom out on the street somewhere. You have a better chance at finding one of these if you are in a downtown area, though they exist in every part of the city. They are generally advertised with street signs that use internationally recognized bathroom icons to point you in the right direction. Most of these restrooms are free to use. If there is a fee, it's negligible--usually no more than 0.5 yuan (about $0.08). Don't expect much from the public restrooms in China. They are there to get the job done, and that's about it. Most (not all) are smelly, dirty affairs. Some have no doors on the stalls. Once in a while you come across one that is just one long trough with short (1.5 meter) walls to offer the tiniest bit of privacy. In general, though, they are entirely functional and usually offer enough privacy for the Western sensibilities. They aren't palaces, but they'll do in a pinch.

5. In closing, some advice about smoking in restrooms:


That's about all I have to offer. If anybody else has further tips on using the restrooms in China, feel free to say so in the comments.

5/3/2012 EDIT
I'm adding one other important item today:

6. I wrote above that public Chinese bathrooms rarely provide toilet paper for your convenience. It's worth noting that the same applies to soap. There is almost always a sink with running water, but very rarely is there any soap to use. If you're the type that likes to wash your hands with something more than water after using the restroom, you'll probably want to have your own supply on hand. 

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Funny Things in China Part III

In my continuing series of funny things seen in China, I offer you Exhibit C:

This is a public restroom in Fuzhou. I want to draw your attention to the scrolling LED displays above the door, which tell you if the stall is occupied or not (you can see the word "Occupied" starting to scroll across on the right stall). What caught my attention was that if a bathroom was, in fact, occupied, the display also listed a running count of how long it had been occupied. See the display over the left stall for an example of this (six minutes and counting!). I'm not sure if this is a ploy to shame folks into not taking too long or if it's meant to be a helpful tool for those trying to decide which door to line up in front of. If they had the former goal in mind, it seems to me that the process could be improved by having a video display in the stall that shows this video after, say, five minutes.

The Yinchuan Train Station

In the past two months, I have passed through many, many Chinese train stations. In most cases, there is very little variation from station to station. They are functional, straightforward affairs, and I have nothing particularly negative to say against any of them. Once in a while, though, a train station separates itself from its brethren and stands out as exceptional in one way or another. Last week I had the pleasure to pass through one of these exceptional train stations, and it didn't take long to decide that it was my favorite of all the train stations I have seen thus far. The station is in Yinchuan, the capital of Ningxia Province--an area infrequently visited by Western tourists. According to a friend in Yinchuan, they have only recently finished redesigning the station. In order to avoid disrupting train traffic, they simply built a new terminal onto the opposite side of the tracks, so now they have the old station and the new station back to back with all of the platforms in the middle. The old station was fairly unattractive. I only saw it for a moment, but in that glimpse I saw an outdated structure that looked like it was designed in a Soviet space-age motif. Here's a picture I stole from the Internet so you can see for yourself:

The new station, in contrast, was designed with a gorgeous Islamic motif, which is appropriate as Ningxia is designated as the Hui Autonomous Region in China. (The Hui people--one of China's 56 ethnic minorities--are Muslim Chinese descended from Arabic traders many centuries ago.) Here's the new station:

Pretty nice, eh? In addition to to those great cathedral arches, the windows there contain some beautiful green and white stained glass.  Here's a magnification of the same picture:

This stained glass is also on the sides of the building, which you can see from the inside of the station.

So we've established that the new station is much more attractive than the old station, and it incorporates some traditional Muslim architecture and decoration. Is that alone enough to make it my favorite of all of the Chinese train stations? No--there's more. Remember when I said that Yinchuan is infrequently visited by Western tourists? If I had to take a totally out-of-thin-air guess, I would say that this station handles fewer than 500 Westerners per year. In comparison to the hundreds of thousands of Chinese folks that pass through (again, just a ballpark estimate), Westerners are a rare breed 'round these parts. And yet every single sign in the station had an English translation underneath the Chinese. This is not too common in some of the smaller cities in China, even provincial capitals. But Yinchuan didn't stop there. They took it one step further and added good English translations to all of the spoken announcements that came over the station's loudspeakers. This is really rare in China. Even some of the big coastal cities don't offer this courtesy to English speakers.

Now, of course I realize that I'm in China, a country where they speak (believe it or not) Chinese, so I make it a rule to never expect English anywhere. That would be mighty arrogant. That being said, if a restaurant, hotel, or train station does offer English translation (especially when it's not a ploy to drum up some extra tourist money), it really makes you feel welcome. It shows that they've gone out of their way to cater to a very small portion of their clients. They don't have to--they just do.

So there you have it. Congratulations, Yinchuan Train Station. You're my new favorite station in China.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Fried Persimmon Cakes

If your taste buds share the same characteristics as mine--and I can only assume that they do--then you have a natural proclivity for sweet tastes and mushy textures. Yes? Good. Because friends, do I have some good news to share: behold the Shi Zi Bing (柿子饼) (fried persimmon cake).

The fried persimmon cake is a specialty in Xi'an and is, by far, one of the most addictive street foods I've eaten in China. The cake is made of a persimmon dough stuffed with a variety of different pastes, including osmanthus, peanut, black sesame, and more. The dough is flattened into a disc (perhaps the diamter of an American silver dollar, except about an inch high) and then fried. They are best eaten shortly after cooking when they are still hot. These things are amazing. They have a very thin crispy layer on the outside from the frying, but the inside is all mush and goo. The dough is soft and glutinous, while the paste on the inside oozes out as soon as you penetrate that inner wall. It's sweet (fruity sweet, not sugary sweet), gooey, and warm. One will cost you about 2 yuan. Something that delicious for such a good price means that I went back for seconds, thirds, and fourths. If I stayed in Xi'an any longer, I am sure I would have had many, many more. The Shi Zi Bing are available in many places in the city, but the best place to look is in the Muslim quarter behind the Drum Tower.