New Shanghai Apartment and Cooking Lesson

China week two: this week we move into our new apartment and work hard making it into a home. I have my first cooking lesson and continue working to learn Chinese.

The beginning of my second week brought the move into our new apartment. We moved by taxi, in three trips. The apartment is gorgeous – the very best thing is that I can say my address and get home in a cab from most anywhere, regardless of the heavy accent when speaking Chinese.

For those of your who have been to our former home in Chicago, it might remind you of it ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú the walls are all white, but we have taken our minimalist look to a new level. No pictures, no vases, no plants- nothing. I am just proud now that we actually have furniture. We managed to get a desk and bookshelves, a dining room table and chairs, and our bed delivered. Amazingly our bed came with pillows, sheets and a comforter. For the guest room, I bought excellent cotton sheets at the Four Seasons. They had terrific white towels, as well, at somewhat below the going rate in Shanghai.

Our apartment is a three bedroom, which is great. We now have an official guest room with a comfortable double bed. The third bedroom is a den/office which I will enjoy more once I get an internet connection. Right now I spend time in the den listening to my language tapes. The three bedroom apartment is nice; we can actually sleep four guests comfortably, as long as they sleep in groups of two.

We have wood floors, which get amazingly dirty, even though we have taken up the Chinese slipper wearing custom. I do have someone who comes to clean, twice a week for about $6 each time.

Remote controls and other complicated electronic devices are very popular in China. In fact, each room in our apartment has its own remote for air conditioning and heat. I also managed to get my gas connected and buy a gas card which I do not understand. I suspect I?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢ll run out of gas sometime with no idea why. I figured out how to get satellite TV, which was much more difficult than it sounds. Previously we got about 50 channels; the only one in English was National Geographic. With the satellite, we have only gotten two channels so far, our building engineers are still working on getting four additional ones. So far, we get HBO and CNN.

So, I can?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t promise lots of good television, but our apartment is very comfortable and ready for guests anytime and I have started trying to cook Chinese good ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú some good and some bad.

I had my first cooking lesson, with a Chef named Mr. Wang Huiliang. Mr. Wang has written 8 cooking ?¢‚Ǩ?ìHow To?¢‚Ǩ¬ù books and cooks at a hotel in Shanghai. He holds regular sets of lessons – I managed to hook onto the last in the summer series. We made three dishes during the lesson: XiShi bing, Suanlatang and Fugui huangjin quan. See below for the details.

My next cooking lesson is a whole day lesson including pork and pineapple, crisp duck, chicken with more than 10 flavors, sweet honey pork trotter (is it a pig?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s foot?), garlic ribs and perch with pine cones (maybe it should be pine nuts?).

Our Chinese continues to improve as we now have three tutors and I am studying like crazy. If only I?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢d done this when I was in school! We even have a text book, and language tapes. The language tapes are very difficult, I have to listen three or four times before I can follow through the lesson, but I hope we are making progress.

We also attended our first Chinese party, arranged by one of Dean?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s work colleagues. After a very dramatic cab ride, we arrived at the location, I still have no idea how Dean knew which place it was. We got some food from a buffet by candle light. This was difficult since the serving pieces were all chopsticks. It is challenging to find things to eat in the dark, and especially to move them with chopsticks. My first bite was some type of raw garlic, I think my second was cold pork fat. Everything else was amazing, especially the special steak they served. I even saw someone eat steak with chop sticks, carefully identifying a weakness in the meat, then breaking off each bit with the chopsticks. It was very impressive. Unfortunately China lost the Asia Cup to Japan that evening. It was the most interesting soccer match I?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢ve watched, and I found myself strangely disappointed by the result. The Chinese like to beat the Japanese, given the difficult history of the two countries.

China is still good, some slight separation anxiety, mostly from my job and family, and getting internet still has not happened which is making me much crazier than the two television channels. And Shanghai was only lightly affected by the typhoon, in case any of you were worried. It is still H-O-T.

Week 3 will include my first trip within China ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú a coastal town called Xiamen, the Shanghai women?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s expatriate association I joined, and my continued internet challenges.

Cooking Lesson

Those big Chinese names basically mean fried tomato, hot and sour soup and twice fried onion ring. The class was all in Chinese, with some translating, but I think Chinese cooking will help my Chinese language skills. I already had an English description of the dish, and an ingredient list. Most interesting is that we cooked only in a big cast iron wok, over a very hot flame, and our teacher used only chop sticks or a ladle with one straight side. I?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢ve been practicing cooking with chop sticks in my home as well. Chop sticks can be a fork, a spoon, a whisk ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú we?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢ll see what else as I go along. And no measuring, you have to know how much of everything you need.

The first course was introduced with great fanfare, as one of the most famous and historic in Shanghai, named for a beautiful woman who cooked the dish etc. Chinese history is an important part of Chinese cooking, but I haven?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t found any books in English about it yet. Anyway, after ten minutes of description our teacher demonstrated the dish, which turned out to be slices of tomato, breaded in flour, then egg, then breadcrumbs. Next the tomatoes are deep friend in the wok. Then you serve the tomatoes with a sauce made of mayonnaise and ketchup (tastes just like Thousand Island dressing). I prefer fried green tomatoes to this dish, but think it has potential with more seasoning etc. It was a good way to develop precision and practice wok frying skills.

The second dish was very interesting ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú I like Hot & Sour soup, but this was a famous vegetarian one, developed for Buddhist Monks. It involved black fungus, bamboo, winter mushrooms and lily pods. All these ingredients are dried and you hydrate them with boiling water. You then slice carefully and precisely, add a gourd and tofu, and make the broth, which includes white pepper, soy vinegar, sesame oil, soy sauce and some starch to make it thick. Unfortunately Dean doesn?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t like Hot & Sour soup that much and I?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢m going to make it at least twenty more times until I get it perfect.

The process of hydrating was not one we learned in our class, so when I tried it on my own, it went well, but I hydrated enough black fungus to feed a family of ten.

The third course was one that the Chef made up himself, and suggested we all practice to learn better chopping and wok skills. You make a batter of flour, starch, egg, water, baking powder and custard powder. Carefully slice a purple onion and make rings. Finely chop a green pepper, a red pepper and the centers on the onion. Batter and fry the onions, with chop sticks as your tool and fry, basically on medium, in batches. Then heat the oil to high and fry again to brown them. Then melt some butter and stir fry the pepper & onion until fragrant and a bit cooked. Pour the butter over the onion rings. While this sounds odd, it was the most perfect onion ring I?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢ve ever had. My home effort came out okay, Dean preferred them to Hot & Sour soup. We?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢ll see.