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Consumptiopn 2: Eating

April 10, 2012

We ate our first food in Shanghai on a campus tour with Cai. She steered us past important landmarks, emphasized cafeterias tucked into dorm buildings.  She had been an undergrad at SHNU and gave us her best-place recommendation.  It was the brightly lit, expansive dining room closest to the west gate.  One of the extended airport pick up group took us to the only counter open at the time.  Mr. ? signaled for the kerchiefed woman to scoop Shengjian bao (Shanghai pan-fried pork buns speckled with tiny black sesame seeds), crowded like monkey bread in a tub-sized wok, into a waxed paper bag for Liam.  Liam played the “Mikey hates everything kid,” took a cautious bite and was sold.  He would make the pork buns the mainstay of his eating on campus. He would hurry to the counter to count the buns, making sure he wasn’t stuck with the short end of the morning’s batch. The same server would always be there, as though she were waiting for my son.  She smiled at him with the look of a would-be kindergarten teacher stuck working at a job serving time-of-their-life college students and filled his plate with more buns than he ordered. 

The food service counters in the dining hall were assembled along one wall and wrapped around the back of the room.  The signs hanging above the counters differentiated one seller from the next.  The colors helped.  Cai asked us midway through our stay if we found we had a preference for one counter over another.  I was sheepish.  I had not yet come to differentiate one seller from another.  It was McDonalds vs. Burger King.

The sign for the canteen opening tells us that “you can have more choices,” but the pictures suggests a game of Othello.  Place one small green foody circle on a square and it’s green, place another one on the board and it flips to brown.  Another turn and it’s green again.  For Liam and me, it all was somewhat interchangeable.

The campus offered one restaurant catering to its international student and faculty population.  We photographed the helpful bilingual menu and figured we could puzzle over the Chinese characters back in our room where we had internet access and could check the online dictionary.  The Korean on the right-hand side of the menu was not helpful.  For us, anyway.

Students ate on campus using meal cards issued by the school.  A kiosk by the ATMs allowed them to refill their cards.  We were given a card when we got there and were told that the card itself would be replaced before we left if we wanted it as a souvenir.  I could only then imagine hacking into the Chinese banking system through a card previously used only to buy plates of dumplings and bowls of noodles.

But not all eating was done on campus. A short stretch of Guilin Road, immediately outside the campus gate, was lined with food shops that offered skewered meats and vegetables ready for the open-air soup pot and curb-side griddles where men in quilted jackets and white aprons expertly filled crepe-like rounds with assorted chopped foods and ladles of sauce.  In addition to the storefronts, there were street vendors who seemed to have no permanent position on any particular corner and whose offerings varied from day to day.  One day a cart brimming with fresh roasted yams called to the hungry and hurrying students, another day an outdoor burner cooked up popcorn on the spot.

I learned what a pomelo is in Shanghai.  Carts were full of the over-sized, glossy yellow and irregularly shaped citrus that I had mistaken for large grapefruits when I first saw them for sale in fruit stands on Avenue U in Brooklyn.  The taste was surprising in that it was much less sour than a grapefruit and completely satisfied a craving for something sweet in large doses.  Without its thick skin a pomela is half the fruit you thought you were buying, but its size still rivaled any other citrus fruit you might have tried. One day I peeled a pomelo, took a bite from a section and was amused by the abominable snowman that appeared in my hand. A colleague whose family immigrated to the US from Canton knew the Pomelo well and told me that his family used the bitter pith in a pork dish. They burnt the spongy white flesh and then mixed it with pork fat.  Nothing ever wasted, especially in a family that had survived the cultural revolution.

Related to the street food sold on the corners of Shanghai’s modern and heavily trafficed intersections, tourist areas of the older parts of town with cramped streets that had no vehicle traffic had shops selling local favorites. 

Glutinous rice is synonymous with historic Shanghai food.  We were impressed by the strength of the vendor pounding what appeared to be a small, spongy mattress of glutinous rice that he would shape and fry into several types of dessert logs.  We ate them in the small garden of a small museum, stretching the elastic food from our mouths and completing each bite with some trouble.

Despite an abundance of food sold on the streets of China, a concern for sanitary conditions would sometimes mark a meal.  More than one restaurant we ate at set its tables with shrink-wrapped dish, cup and bowl sets.

I crave one food from Shanghai more than anything.  We finished off the opening reception lunch after many courses with a crunchy, yellow corn cake, sliced and served like Chicago-style pizza off a black griddle. I found the cakes again when touring Qi Bao, an old section of Shanghai, occasionally pointed to as a consolation prize for Shanghai tourists who wouldn’t have a chance to get to Suzhou. Qi Bao has its canals and densely packed tourist streets.  Near the entryway to a town square show-casing a two-story, man-made rock mountain and waterfall, a vendor sat selling at least three versions of corn cakes: black corn (cooked up as a lovely lavender cake), the orangey-yellow cakes I remembered from the reception, and white cakes.  All were crunchy and sticky, like Rice Krispy treats with a less sugary sweetness.

I searched determinedly when back home for the name of the cakes, expecting I would find them for sale at one Chinese neighborhood or another, but lost hope after a time and began to recognize that these nameless corncakes, in coats of many colors, would be a thing in my life treasured for the time and place when I could have and enjoy them easily and only dream about them afterwards.

The ultimate street food may be what is found when foraging in street-less parks and woodlands.  My introduction to the concept of foraging came in a typically New York manner, and therefore not a typical manner at all.  Years ago I heard the so-called “Wildman” Steve Brill interviewed on the radio.  The Wildman led city folk through Central Park pointing in all directions to the previously unknown (to those signed on for the tour) ingredients for a complete and nutritious dinner.  I think Brill cautioned his followers against denuding the public park with their insatiable appetites, but I can’t say that I have seen an overwhelming number of foragers in New York City parks.

In China it felt different.  It felt as though the elderly couple I saw foraging on the foothills of the Fruit and Flower Mountain in Lianyungang had been gathering onion grass for their whole lives, had gathered it in the company of their own elderly grandparents, and had learned the ways of including nature’s free offerings in their vegetable dishes without ever listening to a human interest story on American public radio.

In contrast to dining in nature, we ate out at many restaurants in China. We visited Suzhou, “the Venice of China,” with our student guide Sharon.  Sharon was always concerned that she should save us money and after our four hour visit to the Humble Administrator’s Garden, Sharon let us across the pedestrian mall to a tiny restaurant with a narrow interior that zig-zagged back towards a wall with a wide window opened onto the canal.  The mismatched furniture of the restaurant was not the conscious work of a designer, but made use of what was available at the time the owner opened the place. 

The restaurant in Suzhou called to mind a tiny restaurant strip in Brooklyn, not on the now-popular Smith Street, but on Courtelyou Road in Ditmas Park.  Among the half dozen trendy restaurants found there is the Farm on Adderly, which got its name, the story goes, “from an expression that [the owner] grew up with in South Africa that basically means a long shot. Adderley is a main thoroughfare in Cape Town and  to have a farm there is somewhat of an impossibility. ‘If that ever happens I’ll buy you a farm on Adderley.’”  (http://thefarmonadderley.com/)

The Farm serves odd, yet surprisingly successful, combinations of foods: poached farm egg with wheatberries and kale, oatmeal with butternut squash and chilies, chocolate brioche with sea salt and butter.  Bentwood chairs sit side-by-side with wrought iron garden chairs and tuck under a variety of marble-topped, baked enamel and country kitchen wooden tables. 

In Suhou the furniture was mismatched, but the food was predictably Chinese.  We ordered every dish individually and it came out on a variety of crockery.  The view over the canal was entertaining but required turning around from our table, leaning out the window and craning our necks to see the off-duty gondola oarsmen dressed in loose blue pajamas and conical straw hats chatting it up from boat to boat.

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Following our formal farewell banquet, some friends from work invited Liam, Nell and me to eat at a favorite hot pot restaurant, Hai Di Lao (http://www.haidilao.com/).  We caught a bus close to the college and rocked our way to the Gubei section of Shanghai. We got off at what our friends thought was the stop we needed and walked back and forth along one street several times before the natives admitted that they had no idea where the restaurant was.  This was always our experience in Shanghai.  Shanghai is a city with a landscape that changes daily as new buildings go up, lots get filled in and the locals find their sense of direction all askew. We didn’t need to be on our own to be lost.  We were just as sure to have our nose in a map or to be listening to one of our guides repeat questions into a cell phone while trying to steer a course as we were to be on our own trying to place the Chinese characters for east and west on a road sign.  The kids and I took some photos by the gumby-like Haibao statue posed at the entry way to a shopping court. Meanwhile, XiaoXia, Ma and George puzzled over street signs, store signs and a cumbersome, foldout map, hungry and ready for lunch.

Once we got our bearings, we headed to the second floor of a newly constructed, mixed use building with spacious hallways and an eager line of servers waiting to greet us as we entered Hai Di Lao.  Manicure cubicles to the right, internet stations to the left. There was even food, an impressive condiments table and an acrobatic waiter spinning out long noodles to the table on our right.  When leaving the restaurant, we caught nearly the entire crew of servers following the steps of an exercise instructor twisting to some upbeat music and toning up the muscles midway through their workshifts.  It was hard to imagine McDonalds back on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn caroling the staff throughout the day to run through a “good-for-you” cheerleading routine to flex those tired muscles and perk up the spirits.

Hai Di Lao is one of many businesses filling up a rapidly expanding, new business district in Shanghai.  The Chinese are embracing a culture of disposable income and putting up elaborate restaurants in what would have been, before the advent of private car ownership, the most unlikely places.  On the long drive through the mountains to reach the Great Wall of China, we passed this outpost, gaily decorated with dozens of welcome lanterns, a large parking lot, and no doubt an extensive menu.

Westerners visiting China today are more than likely to be treated to a banquet at some point on their trip.  As an honored visitor at SHNU, I was treated royally to a welcoming lunch and a farewell lunch held at the college.  My son and I also enjoyed an elaborate meal in a private room at a restaurant in the city that housed his orphanage. Each meal was marked by an endless procession of dishes, ordered by someone at some point prior to our arrival.  It was rarely easy to understand when we had come to the end of the meal, although a fruit course was usually the signal that the meal was ending.  There were no fortune cookies, of course (for the interesting history of this and other Chinese food customs in the Americas, see Jennifer 8 Lee’s Hunt for General Tso’s, a 2008 Ted talk).  We were asked after many courses during each of these meals if we wanted rice.  I had been told that rice was always offered at the end of a banquet or not offered at all as a sign of the wealth of the host who could fill you first with expensive meat dishes and did not need to rely on rice for sustenance.

Yuyuan Gardens in Shanghai, a formal and ancient Chinese garden sits cheek in jowl with apartment buildings sporting the ubiquitous hanging laundry.  Near the entry way to the gardens, one finds also the Yuyuan Bazaar.  Tourists have many opportunities to shop for souvenirs and to eat.  We chose a second floor restaurant on the day we visited and puddle-hopped over to escape the rain.  Climbing the open staircase to reach the place, we previewed the menu pictured on the walls around us and couldn’t take our eyes off the Purple Osmanthus Taro the Ddtemple We ordered it as well and were disappointed in its mild taste and mealy texture.  The color, though, is unforgettable.

Other unusual food included the snacks sold at the Laiyifen shop on campus.  The store consisted of a long wooden display opened to passersby as rows of wooden compartments dividing up an array of small, mystery, packaged delectables.  Two gloved and hair-netted women stood bored and waiting behind the counter, ready to weigh out and bag the student orders. The varieties of dried fruit and nuts were identifiable, but many items were tempting and totally obscured by their vacuum-sealed packaging.  In my photos you can make your best guess, as I did, for what you think will hit the spot after dinner or as a mid-day snack.  The company web site reveals many of the secrets.  It displays each tempting item as it might appear on your banquet table.  I chucked a number of the delicacies I thought I would try after visiting the Laiyenfen snack stand, but there was one snack I truly did enjoy that will live with corn cakes as something I just can’t get in the US.  These were the Nan Zo He Tao Gao (南枣核桃糕) or Nanzo Walnut Cakes.  I always worked at peeling away the thin, tissue paper coating wrapped around these chewy snacks, first pulling off tiny shred with my fingers, trying then with my teeth and finally giving up when I realized that eating the treat, paper and all, did not seem to make a difference.  Google translate lists edible rice paper as one of the ingredients in the Nanzo cakes, so I am sure the paper coating is meant to be eaten and is just there so that you can slip the candy out of its plastic package.  These things are really yummy, but all I can find about the company and the United States is web sites that point to the unfortunate incident of someone’s finding a squashed fly in his leiyifen packaged pork jerky. 

http://www.laiyifen.com/index.php/gallery-13.html

http://www.laiyifen.com/index.php/product-320.html

Our first meal out in Shanghai at a fancy place was at Din Tai Fung, a modern, chrome and glass restaurant in the Xintiandi mall.  The mall was notably empty for a Saturday evening.  The only people in most of the stores were stylishly dressed sales women standing guard over coach handbags and Calvin Klein underwear.  The crowd waiting for tables at Din Tai Fung, however, was sizeable.  The New York Times gave the place a rave review in 2007, (http://www.nytimes.com/2007/11/13/travel/13iht-wdumpling.1.8315891.html?pagewanted=all).  Food writer Daisann McLane commented over her own surprise at finding the best of Shanghai’s noted dish, xiao long bao (little basket dumplings), in a mall, of all places.  A friend who had made the CUNY-Shanghai exchange trip before me had recommended that we try the place.  It seemed to me to be out of our league even as we entered the empty mall, but when  the hostess at the restaurant covered our knapsacks and packages with a chair cover especially designed for this task, I knew we would need to put on our best manners (Liam did not), and not eat with our fingers.  The food was good.  They took our American credit card.  It was not cheap.

I, like Disanne McClane, also expected the best of the local to be found on some back street in some small, one table restaurant.  Xiao Xia suggested we stop at one of her favorite bun shops down the street from the Shanghai Public Library we had just visited.  This, I imagined, was a close as we were going to get to Shanghai authentic, the natives know it and love it. I don’t know the know the name of the stand, if it is one of a kind or a chain, but you can see the big wicker steamers on either side of the counter and the local people gathered around at lunch time.

Another fine dining experience was in Beijing, when Nell was with us and we went in search of Peking Duck.  The internet battle of opinions and the location of our hotel made Da Dong the best choice.  Da Dong is famous for getting the fat out of its duck.  Reservations were a must and the presentation screamed nouvelle cuisine.  Large dishes, small portions artfully displayed.  Both Nell and I took many pictures and I’m sorry that Liam missed the final presentation of the oranges.  They were served with leaves and branches on misty dry ice, looking like a park on a foggy day.  The duck itself required the showmanship of a masked chef, carefully carving and re-constructing a three-dimensional mound of faux duck and his female accompanist explaining how to fill both the wrap and the sesame seed bun.

Despite enjoying the authentic Chinese experiences of buns and Peking Duck, we had our share of western food when the craving for yeasty breads and rich cheeses got the better of us.  A visit to the basement 2 level of the Xintiandi mall led us to the Bazaar Supermarket and below the elegant Shanghai Theater, where Liam’s well-spoken and somewhat cynical sitter, John, was volunteering for the jazz festival, we found the City Shop (http://www.cityshop.com.cn/webapp/wcs/stores/servlet/TopCategories1_10601_10551_-1).  We visited Bazaar a few weeks before Halloween.  Halloween is not a big holiday in China, but a cosmopolitan city like Shanghai and a western grocer like Bazaar would not let the holiday pass unnoticed.  A pushcart set up at the entryway offered as many rubbery horror masks and plastic, “blood” covered spears and javelins that we might have found had we been back home cruising the aisles of CVS or Walgreens. Visiting the Bazaar Supermarket satisfied even the simple need to see loaves of French bread.  Its sectional design allowed for an immersion experience with whatever culture or country a particular cluster of shelves supported.  Nationalities not often in harmony on the grander scale of things, co-existed peacefully side by side in markets designed for Americans dying for cheez whiz and Nabisco crackers.  These western markets seem to redefine the word “gourmet.” Suddenly taco chips seem exotic and the price tag underscores the status.  The ten dollar impulse buy of Tostitios Scoops, sent me running to compose an email to Nell, arriving from the States the following week, encouraging her to bring another bag as part of her carry-on luggage as she made her $1000 flight.

We satisfied our pizza craving one day with lunch at That’s Amore.  I didn’t want to go to Pizza Hut, although there are enough of them in Shanghai, and wasn’t interested in Papa John’s, oddly easily identified even when the signs were in Chinese, so found this place near Taikang Road, well recommended and about to close down lunch service when we arrived. The owners, émigrés from Naples, were gracious in keeping the kitchen opened and served us a delicious pizza.  Our Chinese companion, perhaps put off by the high prices and not wanting to be a burden on me, refused to order any food and my son was a little disappointed that he wasn’t being served New York style pizza.  The roof-top patio that opened above this fifth floor restaurant, was a glorious place to visit and stretch out on gargantuan lawn chairs. 

A couple of odder moments that I associate with eating at That’s Amore include:

  • asking the wait staff if we could take home the leftover bread in our bread basket (no we could not, and this had to get you wondering when you grew up in an American restaurant culture and we are told that any uneaten food left on a table by departing diners gets tossed) and
  • arguing with our Chinese companion about whether it was appropriate to tip the wait staff (I had read, not necessary in Chinese restaurants but appropriate in western restaurants, the owner assured me it was appropriate, and as I later learned from our companion, the staff told her that the owner would pocket any tips).  Oh, well.

We were not very successful in finding American food in China if this meant anything other than McDonalds or KFC.  No meatloaf and mashed potatoes or macaroni and cheese at a diner. One thing that was surprising about the American chains in China was that who knew they delivered?

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We did enjoy eating at one unusual restaurant.  Sarah. Sarah is odd in that it has only two locations in Shanghai, both on the campuses of Shanghai Normal University.  In fact, Sarah is located in the library on the Fengxian campus. Sarah offers an international menu, easy to read with large photographs and clear descriptions in English.  The first time we ate there we had little trouble ordering and the food came out promptly.  We dined outside on a patio that was build over the entryway to the library.  A few tables with no umbrellas and no ambient vegetation invited diners who didn’t mind the sun and preferred little  company.  The second time we ate at Sarah, we moved from the deck to the inside because of the blinding sun.  We were somewhat of a large group, about eight of us, and each dish came out painfully slowly, so that by the time the last person got her meal, the first person was done eating and wondering if it was worth ordering dessert.  The restaurant would never survive a New York minute, but it was a welcome site on our campus after one too many noodle dishes and a craving for French fries.

I couldn’t resist including this shot of the Bologni bus in this section on food.   Who would expect bologna in China?  It sure ain’t Oscar Meyer!

I’ll end this discussion of dining in China with a pair of photos that I enjoy seeing coupled.  We stayed at a fine hotel in Beijing, but didn’t get a deal that included breakfast.  That seemed like it would work best for us, since none of us is an early riser and the thought of rushing to wake up and dress to catch a free meal was not appealing.  We had had breakfast buffets in Lianyungang.  They were included in our tour package.  In fact, heading to breakfast at the Yuntai Hotel put us in touch with the few westerners we ever saw in that lesser-known city.  We ran into an orthodox Jewish man with a British accent one morning and wondered where exactly he would be able to eat, and we noticed a blond senior couple eating by the window overlooking the entry to the hotel at a table for four in an otherwise empty restaurant.  I wondered at the time what had brought them to Lianyungang but didn’t ask.

One day when staying in Beijing we were scheduled to join a tour going out to the great wall so we decided to try the hotel breakfast buffet since we had to wake up early anyway to catch our bus.  I remembered many stories of Chinese hotel breakfast buffets from the days of planning for Liam’s adoption.  Standard practice for American families adopting in China has been to check in to the White Swan Hotel for the final days of paperwork processing in Guangzhou and feast each morning until bursting on a magnificent breakfast buffet.  My ex traveled to China alone to bring Liam home and so I never had my chance at the famous White Swan buffet.  So now, at the Prime Hotel in Beijing, Nell, Liam and I had our chance to eat hardy and so we did.

I love to compare our dishes.  Mine, full of green things and Chinese noodles, Nell’s, American with sausages, eggs and pancakes scarfed down with a lovely expression more fitting on the face of an American teen.

Enough with food and eating. Let’s go shopping now.

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