The Perfect Lunch

Well, I didn’t travel around much this academic year.  And in a couple  days I’ll be back in North America.

With flower tea for dessert
With flower tea for dessert

I didn’t go anywhere at all for the first semester last fall.

For the second semester, I only went as far as Beijing, and that only twice.

My first Beijing trip took me to the zoo with my friend Liao Chuan. I wrote about that already.  My second visit took me to the perfect lunch with my friend Audine.  Yes, home cooking. There’s just no substitute.

The culinary centerpiece of this extravaganza was one of my favorite Chinese dishes — ganbian doujiao, a typical dish from the Chile-crazed heart of China.  Yes, the upper Yangtze River, China’s culinary counterpart to North America’s Frontera.

Ganbian doujiao is familiar all over China, even up here in the salt-and-oil-saturated north, but I’ve never seen it in any restaurant, Chinese or otherwise, in North America.

Cooking Ganbian Doujiao
More than a flash in the pan.

Doujiao are green beans. You dry them out overnight, and then stir-fry them twice.  Why twice? Hey, I’m not a cook.

I did get to watch the whole process though. The first fry seemed pretty straightforward, but the second one added all those secret spices, including the dried chiles, and the famous Szechuan pepper-corns, which aren’t actually pepper at all, but do tend to numb the lips.

We also had chicken wings, cola-fried.  My hostess prefers Pepsi to Coke, but China extensively employs colas of all kinds in a wide variety of foods.  It’s hard to imagine cola as a typical or traditional element of Chinese cuisine, but there you are.  And the chicken wings were delicious. They appear in the top picture flanked by cherry tomatoes.

Next to the chicken wings in the top picture is a bowl of jaiozi, the staple food of the north.  They’re basically a meat-and-veggie filling wrapped completely in a small pancake and boiled.  You generally eat them by dipping them in vinegar.

Again, vinegars suitable for dipping jiaozi are found everywhere here.  The kind I like is called “Chen Cu,” which is traditionally aged into a powerful flavor somewhere in the nearby province of Shanxi.   It’s somehow not easy to find in California.  Even the fabulous Ranch 99 Asian extravaganza market only had one brand, and it wasn’t the best.  So I’ll bring some home with me on Monday.

Rounding out the lunch fare was a salad based on some sort of arugula or endive.  Salads are not traditional in China, even though China grows more lettuce than any other country on earth (triple the harvest of the United States).  This particular salad, of course was delicious. Tea rounded out the meal, including a flower tea for dessert.

Audine, by the way, is a truly talented artist, talented enough to actually make a living from it. I told her, though, that if she ever gets tired of art, there’s a cooking career just waiting for her in the wings (so to speak).

And in addition to the skilled cooking, the plenteous helpings, and the happy  conversation, I was surprised to discover  just how wonderful it was to truly get away from everything, to a quiet Beijing backwater (and yes, it actually was quiet).  I’m thinking maybe I need to find something equally serene to get away from it all this summer.  We’ll see if that works out.

The continuing Doujiao saga

As long as we’re on the subject of green beans, I’ll also share some pictures I took at the local market two or three months ago which spotlight a couple reasons why I’ve not lost so much weight this semester.  And one of them is the pot sticker.

Cart in front, prep room behind.
Cart in front, prep room behind.

In America pot stickers are generally fried jiaozi.  And in fact, frozen jiaozi have long been available in American supermarkets under that name. Chinese in America from this part of China probably buy them and boil them like they would here.

The picture at right shows a small serving cart on the outdoor path at our local market.  The words “Pot Sticker” are clearly written with duct tape on the side of it.  Actually, a more normal translation would be “wok-stickers.”

You many notice that “wok stickers” has only two written characters instead of the more normal  锅贴儿 (guōtiēr), which makes me think that these people might have come from south of here.

Pot sticker pantheon
Pot sticker pantheon

Anyway, you can also see this cart at the end of the video of the same market that I posted on YouTube a while back. The Headline over its front proudly displays the words “Old Town Pot Stickers,” and with a name like that, they’ve got to be authentic.

And how much are they? For seven yuan, just over a dollar at the current exchange rate, you get seventeen of those babies, including a pair of disposable chopsticks. And like jiaozi, you can take them home and dip them in that flavorful Shanxi ChenCu vinegar.  Or just eat them as they are.

Here’s a closer look at the cart’s main serving area. Each small tray holds one particular flavor. The kind I prefer lurks just behind the server’s hand in the picture – doujiao, green beans, of course.

Open-ended deep-fried green goodness
Open-ended fried green goodness

Now, just because it says “green beans” doesn’t mean it lacks pork, because everything ever cooked in this part of the world always seems to have pork in it. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen chicken jiaozi or chicken potstickers.  But pork – you almost breathe it if you live around here.  Anyway, I took a closeup of the green bean potstickers and you can see that they are open on the ends. Obviously they aren’t just fried jiaozi, then.

However, they are otherwise put together much like jiaozi. There’s a simple room behind the cart where this all happens. It’s one of those boxy-type rooms like you normally see in storage facilities, the kind of box that’s anathema to organic architecture.

pot sticker wrappers
The Sticker Squad

Anyway, you can see here a couple of middle-aged ladies sitting quietly making one  锅贴儿 after another — the “sticker squad.” A mound of filler material sits in a bowl at the left side of the little table.  The 锅贴儿 themselves are stacked like logs in front of it.

When they fill up a tray, they hand it over to a younger man, who sticks the stickers in the pot.

The covered Wok
The Wokman

As you can see, the pot is covered, which means that, even though they’re cooking in a wok, they’re not exactly stir-frying.  In fact, whereas stir-frying aims to minimize the frying fat in foods, this arrangement seems to soak it in ever more thoroughly. What you end up with is something at least as artery-hardening McDonald’s fries.  But oh, is it ever tasty.

I’ve never seen these in America, but the cooking technique is so straightforward, it’s hard to imagine that they don’t exist somewhere.

The final fry

Potatoes and Toufu
That’s a spicy potoufu

Not every “fast food” here is salty and fat-infested, but a lot of it sure is. The week’s final food feature is the original – the potato fry.

The picture shows how they fry it on the heated surface of another little cart.  The cooks get normal crinkle-cut frozen fries in bulk and load them onto the frying surface. Oil in this case is minimized, and I think that they actually do contain less than a McDonald’s fry.  But they’re also drenched in spices, as are the squares of toufu frying next to them.

Potatos and Toufu
Serving up the fries

Here’s a closeup. For the equivalent of fifty cents, she fills the little foam plastic container with either one, or a mixture of both, and then asks you if you want any spice on it.

I sometimes have asked for a little spice, but actually there’s so much spice on it already, that you’re not going to taste much difference unless you add a lot more.

When I first saw these potatoes, I thought it was a new neighborhood invention. After all, crinkle-cut fries are hardly traditional in any Chinese cuisine.  But then I discovered the same items cooking in other markets throughout the city, and I realized that they were at least as traditional as the many cola-based foods and drinks.

Anyway, all these foods are really popular with the students.  They fill the path at lunch time, and since everyone has lunch at about the same time, that’s quite a wave.  Here’s a picture I took of the scene a few months ago when I took the other pictures.  Thankfully it’s not so crowded outside the normal meal-commute times.  Gee, I just noticed the words “green bean” on the left side of the picture. I’ve got to go back and see what that is.

You can tell that it's noon.
You can tell that it’s noon.

Today’s experiment

I’ve been warned against streaming video from this website, but nobody said anything about audio, which is a smaller file.  So I’ll try embedding some of my recent piano playing. The piano I use, by the way, is the Casio Privia PX-330, the best piano for the money that I’ve ever played. It cost me about $650, has 88 weighted keys, and a traditional set of three pedals, plus a piano bench.   It feels like a real piano.  It’s sometimes the only thing that stands between me and insanity.  Luckily I’ve got tolerant neighbors.

Anyway, here are three recent samples. If they don’t come across in the email, I’ll just add links to the files so they can be downloaded.

A medium  swing – Skylark

A slow one – Lush Life

A quick pace – How High the Moon

 The Final Word

I’m not going to attach anything more today, but I have been spending a lot of time these last couple weeks writing about language and language teaching. My goal is to get all the lessons I’ve learned over these past five years straight in my mind.

If anybody would like to offer me feedback on one of my recent incomplete drafts, let me know. I’ll email it to you.

And for now, that’s all folks.  I sure hope I can see a lot of people when I’m home.  But I also hope I can get some serene getaway outside of Castro Valley or Portland.

Please write me a short message, if you have the opportunity!