Laowai vs Food: Korean Soup

Disclaimer: This is not a food blog. I am in no way fit to offer cooking advice, nor should you accept any if offered.

Round Three

Contender: Cream of Mushroom soup from an instant “just add water” packet

Level of Difficulty: Infantile.

In an effort to learn how to cook Chinese food, I’ve decided to try a recipe every so often from a cookbook given to me by a friend for my birthday. Even though the cookbook is completely in Chinese, I’ve decided to forge ahead anyway and of course, share my damage reports along the way. This time, though, it’s a Korean soup given to me by my neighbor. 

Step One: Materials I was on my way out of my apartment to meet a friend.  As per usual, I remembered that I’d forgotten something right as I’d locked the door, and so had to unlock it once again.  While I was fumbling with my key, my next-door Korean neighbor shuffled out of her apartment with a packet of something and a shy smile.

“It’s for you,” she said, handing me the packet.  “In case you…no want to prepare too much, or…it’s good for health.”

I looked at the parcel she’d delivered: a packet of Cream of Mushroom soup.  The easy variety—just add water, heat it up, and voila! 

“Thank you!”  I said.  I tried to think if there were any treats I could give her, but only came up with gummy bears that I preferred not to admit were my recent dinner companions.  We went our separate ways—I to drop off the gift before running amuck, her to probably get a decent night’s rest.

Step Two: Preparation When I decided to try and make the soup, I allotted precisely 5 minutes to make the meal.  I had my pot, my sink to get water, and my electric burner to heat it all up.  Boom.  Dinner.

Step Three: The Cooking This time, the instructions were not all in Chinese.  Instead, they were all in Korean.  I figured it wasn’t a big deal, considering that it was a powder that would be mixed with water.  I put the powder into the pot first, added the water from the sink, turned on the electric stove top, and put on the lid.  I turned down the heat to let it simmer and walked away for perhaps two minutes.

“What’s that burning smell?”  I thought.  “It can’t be the soup.  Seriously, that was two minutes.”

I guess two minutes was all it took.  I lifted the lid and smelled—yes, burnt Cream of Mushroom soup.  I turned off the stove top, poured in just enough soup for my lunch the following day and dumped the rest. 

Why save that bit for lunch?  Penance.  This was supposed to be idiot proof.

Step Four: Collateral Damage The following day at lunch, I grimaced my way through the soup, even though I tried to make it better by adding rice.  It really was pretty awful.

It wasn’t until I was about halfway through the soup that I thought to wonder: wait, did the water actually boil before I turned off the electric stove last night?

Now, if I was back in Minnesota, this wouldn’t matter.  But in China, if you drink the tap water, you will get sick.  I have been careful about this (to a certain extent; I mean I wash my dishes, fruit, vegetables and all that without problems), but considering how much soup I had just eaten…

I had class in 1 ½ hours.  If the water had not boiled, I would definitely know by then.  After all, it takes about 1-2 hours to get violently ill from water-borne diseases.  (The things we internalize as foreigners…)  Until then, I just had to play the waiting game. 

Step Five: Clean-up Lucky for me, it had boiled.  The rest was a fairly painless washing of Tupperware containers and then gathering things for class.  So I’d done my penance by eating the soup, but didn’t go for broke.  My cooking skills got their revenge on me.  That’s enough, right? 

Result: Embarrassing Failure.

The Winner: The Korean Soup.  Revenge certainly is a dish best served cold.


If a tree falls in the forest…

I’m not being modest when I say that my recently-acquired Chinese violin is little more than a shoebox with strings.  The sound is unnaturally tinny, and there isn’t even the name of the maker inscribed on the inside.  The point is: I can love it to death without worrying about collateral damage, which is exactly the truth: I love this Chinese violin.

So much, in fact, that I decided to take it with me to a park for a play-date.  There’s a park across the street from my university in Xiasha.  A great place to admire blossoms peaking out of buds, with the added bonus of being fireman-themed.  

I didn’t want to play in the middle of picnics or couples watching clouds, so I found a somewhat secluded forest of bamboo trees.  I sat amid green shadows, and cool green bamboo stalks lined like a ruler.  The path was out of the way enough to catch the random stragglers, but not to make me end up on the evening news.  I took out the violin, tuned, and played. 

Not long into playing, I saw some workers go by.  They climbed right into the bamboo trees and, from the corner of my eye, I watched their flat shoes pad softly over fallen leaves.  What were they doing? I wondered.  This time, I didn’t ask (though I usually do) because I wanted to be a part of the background.  If I stopped what I was doing, then it would be like breaking the spell. 

I wanted to play for the sake of ambiance.

That’s when I noticed the machetes.

I’ll skip ahead and tell you that they were not members of a local gang, or dangerous.  Actually, they were very good workers.  Because even though there was a strange foreigner sitting in the bamboo forest playing violin, they were not to be deterred from their task, which was to lop down bamboo trees.

Of course, I didn’t know this, and continued playing random fiddle tunes despite my creeping suspicions.  It wasn’t until they stood about 5 feet (that’s about 1.5-2 meters for the non-Americans out there) from me that I figured I was getting the final curtain.  I watched as they examined the bamboo trees, and then HACK! went the machete and CRASH! went the tree.  I went on playing, like those musicians on the sinking Titanic, and tried to muster the romance of a few moments ago.  It was no use.  My stage was disappearing and there was nothing for it.  I was just about to count it as a loss, when one of the workers turned toward me.

“HALLOOO!”  He said.  Then, he paused.  “That’s how foreigners say it, right?  Halllooo?”

“Yes,” I said.  “But you can also just say “你好, right?”

He nodded. 

“Where are you from?” his friend asked.

“Where do you think I’m from?” I asked.  (Guessing games are always much more fun).

“America,” he said without hesitation.

I had to wonder how he knew so quickly.  Was it a random guess?  Were Americans more likely than other Westerns to perform even when the stage was being torn apart?

It’s like that question: If a tree falls in a forest when no one’s around, will it make a sound? 

No one will know. 

Except, now I have an answer: it will sound like violin music.       





The City God

I read about the Chenhuang (City God) Pavilion in an expat magazine that had been my makeshift umbrella in a sudden downpour.  The pages were rumpled and somewhat brittle, but I could still make out the entry.

“There are no mythical tales surrounding the tower.  There’s not even an explanation about this “City God” that the place was built for.” 

My curiosity piqued.  It warranted exploration.

The City God Pavilion is no secret in Hangzhou.  It is not tucked away in some secret corner, nor does it disappear at night.  It’s on top of Wu Hill and festooned with lights, fit to rival even the most zealous Christmas decorations.  I’ve seen it lit up, of course, because it is made to be seen. 

But, who is the lonely, unknown god within?

I had to find out.

On a fine clear day, when the pollution was more at a normal (read: less stifling) level, when the sky was blue, and when the crooked branches were misting green with opening buds, I climbed up Wu Hill to get a closer look.  Much of the crowds remained in Hefang Street, a road kept to resemble ancient Chinese times, at the base of the hill.  I passed older white houses with black tiles on top, and got my ticket to enter, as the clatter of humanity below crackled.

I was greeted with a rather clean-looking pavilion, which signs said was like “a phoenix with wings outstretched.”

Fly, fly away, Phoenix!
Fly, fly away, Phoenix!

Inside, there were floors dedicated to explaining Hangzhou-the-city.  Local food, West Lake, the smattering of poets and artists that lounged about in their heydays.  I walked past unsettling wax figurines that crop up in every museum, past statues of Song-Dynasty Hangzhou, and past the machine that you put coins in to get stamped with pictures from around the city. 

No, these wax figurines aren't creepy at all...
No, these wax figurines aren’t creepy at all…

When I got to the top of the stairs and looked out, I did in fact see a great panorama of Hangzhou.  If not the entire city, at least a good representation of its essence.  The edges of the pavilion jutted out over a combination of green hills and inner-city high-rises.  On one side of the pavilion, I could hear car horns and distant music from stores advertising sales.  On the other, the distant tolling of a bell and orange-robed monks processing along in a line.  Tradition and modernity.  Old and new.  Hangzhou, in a nutshell.

This is Hangzhou
This is Hangzhou

This god gets quite a view, whoever he is, I thought.

I snapped some photos and admired the view, and by the time I reached the bottom again, my mind was adrift with thoughts about how small we humans are when seen from above.  But I was still no closer to knowing who the city god was. 

And that’s when I saw a small sign outside of the City God Temple.

Do you know who this “City God” is?  He is not anonymous, like the magazine would have readers believe.  In fact, the “City God” was a former official named Zhou Min, who had been loved by all Hangzhou-vians for his fairness, his sense of justice, and his sharp mind.  Because of a strange twist of fate, he got wrongly accused of a crime and was sentenced to death.  But because the people of Hangzhou loved him so much, (and because the city probably didn’t want a riot), he was promoted to the city god in the biggest temple of Hangzhou.

Yes, a human that became a god.

Amazing, isn’t it? 

More often than not, my visions overreach reality, and I leave truth with the taste of disappointment that it couldn’t be as grand as fiction.  But not this time.

The truth can be many things, but more often than not, it is surprising. 

Laowai vs Food: Tofu strips (One more time!)

Disclaimer: This is not a food blog. I am in no way fit to offer cooking advice, nor should you accept any if offered.

Round Two

Contender: 豆腐干 and 雪菜 (dried tofu strips and a vegetable I STILL don’t know how to translate)

Level of Difficulty: Easy, because I battled with it just last week!

In an effort to learn how to cook Chinese food, I’ve decided to try a recipe every so often from a cookbook given to me by a friend for my birthday. Even though the cookbook is completely in Chinese, I’ve decided to forge ahead anyway and of course, share my damage reports along the way. This time, it’s dried tofu strips (again).

Step One: Materials
I didn’t bring the cookbook with me this time when I re-entered the small vegetable market run by Sichuan vendors. This was the second time in two weeks that I was trying to make the dried tofu and, considering how the previous week had gone, I remembered quite well what I was dealing with.

I made a beeline for the cooking wine, did NOT get the packet of spices I over-used last time, bought some more tofu, more of the “snow vegetable,” and went over to the scale to have it weighed.

“How was the dish?” the worker asked me. “Was it delicious?” She was, of course, referring to the Creature from the Black Lagoon that I had tried to make the previous week.

“Last time…not good. Therefore,” I tried to think of the words. “Therefore, do it again.”

She laughed and slapped the stickers on the bags while I went over to ring up my purchase. This time, no victory chocolate. It would either taste good or it wouldn’t.

Step Two: Preparation

I cracked open the cookbook, amazed that in all the time that had passed since the previous round with the exact same recipe, I had not learned my lesson and gotten the thing translated. What did I do?

“Close enough,” I said, chopping up the tofu into strips. The snow vegetable did not need to be chopped up, and so I boiled some water and dropped the tofu strips into it. I did not sprinkle flour over it, and instead swished it around a bit, occasionally poking it with my chopsticks. After that was done, I put the soppy tofu strips into a strainer, chopped up some green onion and ginger, and then turned to face my foe: the pan!

Step Three: The Cooking

This was the part in which knowing exact measurements would have been helpful. I knew from experience that adding salt or really any form of flavor was unneccessary, but it would have been nice to know the proportion of snow vegetable to tofu.

As it was, I turned on the electric burner, put the oil in the pan until it sizzled (mmm sizzle) and then plopped the ginger and green onion in. I poked it several times with my chopsticks until they seemed diminished somehow, and then added the snow vegetable. Then then I plopped the tofu strips in.

All was well and fine until I just realized that the cooking wine I needed was in the other room! Indiana Jones-style, I leapt to the table, opened the packet the wine was in, and poured it into the pan before the vegetables and tofu burned together in the hell of Hannah’s cooking. Then, for good measure, I put the lid on the pan and bided my time.

Close enough, right?

Step Four: Collateral Damage

After all of the thought that went into doing exactly the opposite of what I’d done the previous week, the tofu was still salty. I might just have to admit that this “snow vegetable” isn’t one of my favorites. I ate a couple of bites, and then stuffed it in the fridge for “later.”

Step Five: Clean-up

Painless. Or, as painless as boiling water and waiting for it to cool can be…my pipes don’t have warm water in the kitchen, and so this is my method for dish-washing. Once you get used to it, it’s not bad, and it certainly beats the first version of dish-washing I had, back when I Was paranoid about Chinese water (THINK: two basins, lots of boiled water, and a strainer to dip in dishes when the water was too hot).

Result: Tentative success.

The Winner: The Fridge. (When I returned to the tofu 2 days later, it was a little hard, and a lot less appetizing than the pictures said it would be).

Laowai vs Food: Tofu strips

Disclaimer: This is not a food blog. I am in no way fit to offer cooking advice, nor should you accept any if offered.</p>

Round One

Contender: 豆腐干 and 雪菜 (dried tofu strips and a vegetable I don’t really know how to translate)

Level of Difficulty: Minimal

In an effort to learn how to cook Chinese food, I’ve decided to try a recipe every so often from a cookbook given to me by a friend for my birthday. Even though the cookbook is completely in Chinese, I’ve decided to forge ahead anyway and of course, share my damage reports along the way. This time, it’s dried tofu strips.

Step One: Materials

Cookbook in hand, I walked over to the nearby market around the corner. The owners are from Sichuan and like it when I imitate their accent. They also have a lot of patience for foreigners, which was why I chose their shop as my supply station.

I needed dried tofu, the mysterious vegetable that I at least knew was green, and a rather impressive list of spices and oils. I walked over to the tofu.

“I’m looking for dried tofu.”

The owner pointed to several bags of different-looking tofu and said “This is it!”

I was confused (Already. Confidence in successful meal, falling.) “No, I mean dried tofu. Which one?”

He gestured wildly at all of the bags. I poked one and he didn’t correct me. Inside were thin pancake-like disks made of tofu. I then took out the cookbook and looked at the vegetable “雪菜” which literally translates to “snow vegetable.” A customer at the shop saw me looking and helped me find the bin full of chopped up snow vegetable, which looked basically like pickled lettuce, but wasn’t.

Then I slunk over to the corner where spices and what-have-you’s were. I needed something that had a character that sort of looked like “soup” and then other mysterious ingredients, which ended up being green onion and ginger. Eventually, I rang up the ingredients, slipped in a small chocolate bar for the inevitable victory feast, and then went back to my apartment.

Step Two: Preparation

I had all of the food I needed, and so I cracked open the cookbook again and stared at the impregnable Chinese. I had to cut up the tofu into long strips. Well, easy enough. I took out a cutting board and sliced. While I was at it, I also sliced the ginger and green onion. Then, the book said that I needed to cut up the snow vegetable. Easy! It was already cut up for me. Cooking was already going so well. Then came the next step, which had the characters for tofu, the characters for boiled water, and then something about flour. I took out my Chinese dictionary and looked up one of the verbs, which meant something like “sprinkle.” Well, then, sprinkle flour on top of the tofu strips while it’s in boiled water. Strange. But then, I wasn’t the one who wrote the recipe.

Moments later, as I sprinkled flour over the tofu, I realized what the recipe was actually saying: put the tofu into the boiled water to remove the flour. I kept prodding the murky water with a pair of chopsticks and then dumped it into a strainer. Close enough, right?

I also needed to prepare a certain amount of salt, and the cooking wine. Of course, I didn’t know how in the hell to measure the ingredients because 1) I didn’t fully understand Chinese measurements and 2) I was also not in possession of measuring cups. I estimated. Which is an excellent cooking method for those who actually know what they’re doing.

I them moved on to prepare the…wait. Were the characters for that “soup” spice and the cooking wine combined? That seemed odd. I scoured the rest of the recipe, which was pointless, since I only understood half of it. I “estimated” that combined characters meant combined ingredients, and so dumped the packet of spices into the cooking wine. The recipe called for 100 (something) of spices, but the packet contained 160 (something) of it. I dumped the whole thing in. Close enough, right?

And then I was ready.

Step Three: The Cooking

I had to put the pan on the electric burner I own and turn it to “level 6” which meant the highest level. I was to add the vegetable oil first, let it sizzle a bit, and then add the green onion and ginger. After that had been given ample time to sizzle (I also like the sound, so let it drag on a bit too long), I added the snow vegetable. So far, so good.

But when I looked at the recipe again, I got confused. Were there supposed to be two different pans happening at once? That was too bad, I only had one burner in possession. And what was that about the cooking wine? Why did it look different from the spiced-up-vaguely-fermented-atrocity I had waiting in a bowl? The veggies were still sizzling. There was no time to question it. In went the tofu strips, and in went the cooking wine, and poke poke went my chopsticks as I prodded it all around in the pan.

I knew that something was rotten in the state of Tofu as soon as the cooking wine monstrosity got gloopy and the whole mess began to resemble what one might find in the Black Lagoon. Not to be put off, I kept poking it until it seemed time to put it out of its misery and into a bowl to eat.

Step Four: Collateral Damage

Yeah, I couldn’t even stomach three bites.

Waaaaay too much salt. I mean, to the point where I actually gagged when I tried to eat it. I realized of course that I was not supposed to stuff all of the spices into the cooking wine and that the snow vegetable was already salty by nature. And also that it wouldn’t hurt to get proper translations of measurements before dumping it all into a pot.

What to do? I was hungry. And I was expecting someone in my apartment to tutor in about an hour.

I did what any sane person would do: I destroyed the evidence. Stuffed it into the fridge, washed the dishes and pretended that nothing horrible was hiding in the fridge when they came. Salt clung to the air, and my stomach growled, but they were (hopefully) none the wiser as I turned on Disney songs and said “Everything is normal!”

Step Five: Clean-up

After they left, I got an idea. I went to the kitchen and boiled a pot of water. When it was all nice and boiled (at least I don’t fail at this skill) I plopped some of the Gloopy Mess into the water and let it marinate (Read: detox) for a while. Then I fished out the tofu strips and poured a tiny bit of broth over them and sat down to enjoy (Read: tolerate).

Result: Crisis Averted. Barely.

The Winner: Snow Vegetable and his Salty Soldiers.


Outside in the light sprinkling rain, we stood under umbrellas to admire the plum blossoms.  They clung to the branches like pink mist.  Water beaded from the branches like pearls and no matter how many times I exhaled, I swore that I wasn’t breathing. 

“These blossoms are the best in our town,” she told me.  “There are others, but they are not as good.”

The only thing I know about plum blossoms is how they are supposed to represent the Chinese spirit: the flower that blooms despite winter chill and other hardship.  How someone singled out this detail and made it publicly known, I’m not sure.  But then again, poets have that right.  And so they exercised it–creating a living poem, a thing that never needed to be analyzed or explained. 

So we went inside to a warm room where her son was examining plum blossom petals under a microscope.  He’d already looked at pieces of leaves and other unlabeled samples that were tucked into glass slides in the microscope case.  The rain pitter-pattered outside on the pavement.  And a part of me wondered how long I would last through snow and rain. 

“Hannah,” he said, gesturing me to look under the microscope.  The plum blossom petal was the item on display.  “It’s amazing!”

I swished my hair over my shoulder (I have too much hair–a side effect of not getting it cut for almost two years) and bent closer to the eyepiece. 

Amid the red-pink of the blossom’s petal, round deep-red beads were embedded in rows.  Fallen beads from a pearl necklace, scattered within skin.   

As I leaned over the microscope, I felt my skin prickle.  I let the chill of it shiver along, the cool mist of petals fluttering.  “I am, I am not…” the very question of it falling into the wet grass as others held firm to the branch.  And I thought about what others have said about being brave, and how it means doing something difficult and letting the journey have its way.  Pushing your body to its limits, going farther and faster than before, and oh, the places you could go to do that.  Biking around the world.  A solo hike in the mountains.  I thought about the blossoms on the branch–the small but fierce grip of stem upon wood.  How it doesn’t take much in the vast scheme of ambition to accomplish this.  How more impressive flowers with colors I haven’t even seen before exist in the wild.  And yet it is this one, this stalwart bloom, that made me forget I was breathing out there in the pink mist.  Maybe this is the real story of bravery.  Maybe it is not a single act of courage, but a combination: little moments of strength adding up along the way.  Managing to hold on and keep holding on.

Plum blossoms don’t just bloom in China.  No, I see them everywhere I go, and I admire them not under a microscope but out in the world.       

They have pearls in their skin, all of them out in the snow and rain.