Laowai vs Food: Coca Cola Chicken and Tofu-Egg

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 Seven

Contender: Coca Cola chicken wings, and fried egg with tofu.

Level of Difficulty: Non-existent.

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 go ahead anyway and of course, share my damage reports along the way. This time, it’s an already-been tested recipe for coca cola chicken wings, and a new recipe with fried egg and tofu.

Step One: Materials

“So, I have a confession,” my friend said. I had invited her to my apartment to cook food, and had noticed that she was bringing milk tea, which she knew was my favorite drink, along with…

“Is that sushi?” I asked.

“Yeah. See, I actually am really bad at cooking and so thought it would be a good idea to bring some…just in case.”

I had no complaints.

We drank our milk tea and ate the sushi while plotting our next move. I explained the star-ratings, and we both agreed that we should stick with single-star recipes.

“But we also want something delicious,” she conceded, which became more and more difficult with each bland and easy recipe we saw. Then I remembered something stupidly easy I’d already made: coca cola chicken wings.

“Seriously. If I can make it, you definitely can,” I said.

She found a recipe that called for fried egg and tofu, we went to the corner market to grab our ingredients, and then returned to get started.

Step Two: Preparation

Here’s how stupidly easy coca cola chicken wings are: boil water, stick frozen chicken wings in, and then when they’re cooked, pour out water, replace it with coca cola and some soy sauce (the kind for meat, not the kind for vegetables) and poke poke until it’s more or less congealed or evaporated or something like that. Basically no prep whatsoever, aside from opening the coca cola can.

My friend, who insisted on making the tofu and fried egg, had more prep in store for her. She had to chop up the tofu, and then crack open the eggs and then chop some carrots “because they look pretty.”

All things considered, though, that’s pretty painless.

Step Three: The Cooking

I cooked my dish first, which involved, as previously mentioned, a series of heating up liquids and poking the chicken. As I was poking the congealed combination of coca cola and soy sauce, it was this alarming color of dark sludge-brown, which I chose to ignore and pretend was normal. In fact, I had forgotten what had happened the last time I had made this, but assumed that it was fine, since I had decided to make it again. Every so often, I would add a little bit of salt, which I’d read online was good to counteract the assault of sugar from the coca cola.

My friend poked her head in. “Wow, smells so good!”

“Does it? Well, that’s good.”

Poke poke…and then I sifted out the chicken from the sauce and put it on a plate.

“If someone were to look at this, they might not know it was meat,” my friend said with a laugh. “But I’m sure it will taste fine.”

Then she gave me a pitiful look before taking her tofu and egg combo into the kitchen. I’d washed the pan, and from what I could tell, all she had to do was fry everything together. She gingerly added some soy sauce to the very-white dish in the pan in tiny increments. And then she took it out and put it on the table.

It was time to own up to our creations.

Step Four: Collateral Damage

“Mmm!” she said, eating the chicken. I thought she was flattering me, but took a bite and was pleased. Sweet and salty, and a little saucy, too. To anyone reading this: you should make this dish. It is stupidly easy to make, and delicious, too.

Then we tried the tofu.

“It just…it needs something, but I don’t know what,” my friend said. She put her chopsticks down. “It was a good thing I brought the sushi.”

Step Five: Clean-up

“You’re not really going to save that, are you?” my friend asked as I picked up the tofu dish and put it in the fridge. “You really shouldn’t. I know Americans don’t like to waste food but…are you really going to save this?”

I really was.

“Oh, Hannah,” she said. “I am such a bad cook!”

I told her that it was the recipe’s fault, which to be fair, she had followed exactly.

I decided I could find a use for it.

Of course, the next day, when I tried to add that “something” that my friend said was missing, I ended up with nothing more than a weird distraction from the noodles I’d try coupling it with. In the end, it was the trash can that enjoyed it the most.

Result: Good, if it tastes like chicken.

The Winner: I call it a draw.

 

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A big fat bluegrass wedding

Now, I’ve tried all kinds of strange combos: whipped cream and potato chips (don’t judge), Grecian statue poses with fake mustaches, and even waltzing to Bon Jovi.  But I never thought of trying the combination of bluegrass and a Chinese wedding.

“I hope the bride knows what bluegrass is,” the guitar player in our as-yet nameless bluegrass band said while tuning his strings.  We were skulking outside of the Starbucks by the Culture Center because it was raining and we needed to practice.  Our banjo player was filling us in on the details of the wedding to come.  Us, playing bluegrass, after a Chinese wedding ceremony. 

Standard stuff, right?

Here’s the kind of wedding I’m accustomed to: a string quartet made up of two violins, a viola and a cello arrive, set up the instruments, adjust some stands, and then hack away at Pachelbel and Handel’s Water Music just well enough to be ignored.  The general goal of wedding music: sound good enough, but not so flashy or good that guests can pick out any one specific song.  The person in charge of the money sort of goes AWOL as we pack up, and we end up playing some random Baroque stuff.  Sometimes, we just play the service: a standard prelude, processional, recessional, postlude.  Though one time, we played for a reception, and in fact, we all vowed never to do it again because it translated to an hour and a half of playing while in full eyesight of a delectable chocolate fondue fountain.  We had our standards, our music that amounted to nothing more than the word “nice,” which is usually all people are looking for in wedding music.

So, a bluegrass wedding?

For starters, we were put on a stage (right next to a precariously-stacked tower of champagne glasses, go figure) and were given mics to diddle around with.  We actually had no idea when we were supposed to play since everything was really laid back.  We wandered about the coffee bar that the wedding was taking place in.  We edged closer to the food (and I had no expectation that I would be fed, but later would be digging into delicious food) and generally schmoozed until the bridesmaid/interpreter came and said ‘Hey, the bride is running a little late.  Can you play something…lively?” 

But of course!

The wedding was supposed to begin at 6:18, and the three of us speculated the significance of this time in our respective corner of stools, chairs and stands.  The guitarist maintained that, since 8 was a special number, having one in the time was lucky.  I thought it had something to do with the combination of 9’s, since the Chinese pronunciation of two 9’s and the word for “forever” is the same.  At any rate, we started playing at 6:21, so symbolism be damned. 

I looked out over the smartly-dressed guessed seated at coffee tables, at the pictures of the bride and groom in traditional Chinese wedding outfits, and then at our instruments.

And then: why not?

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Enter the bluegrass band, Chinese style.  Photo courtesy of Chad Allen, banjo extraordinaire.

We began with “Cripple Creek,” which is just about as bluegrass-y as you can get.  The banjo plucked out an ambling tune, and then suddenly, children were up dancing and flopping around.  Some adults joined them, and the atmosphere was one of celebration.  I think that’s the universal thing about weddings: everyone is there to celebrate with the enthusiasm of a firecracker.  We transitioned into a Chinese song 《我的姑娘在哪里》 which translates to “Where is my girl?” because the bride was still running late.  We kept playing, and no one was running around in hysterics.  In fact, it was time for more dancing.  The Chinese guests cheered and sang with us, the foreign guests snapped photos and laughed at the dancing kids.  We played faster and faster, and then when the bridesmaid came back to say we could stop, we slunk away into a different corner to watch the proceedings.

Of course, Chinese weddings are different in many ways than Western weddings.  For one, the couple is usually already married (having gone to the officials and gotten the papers signed).  So the “wedding” is really just a formality.  The officiant is more like an emcee cracking jokes and introducing the couple and interviewing them in the process.  (“Who do you want to see most?”  “My bride!”)  There’s a series of bows to family, to the attendants, to each other.  There is a tea-serving ceremony in which the bride and groom offer tea to their new parents.  The bride also changes into a red dress come reception time. And also: receptions usually only last as long as the dinner, with activities in the middle.  So when dessert is served, that’s usually the signal for everyone to leave, whereas in America, the party is just getting started.

This wedding defied all traditions: Chinese at its core, with enough foreign elements to make it fusion.  Half of the guests were foreigners who had studied with her, and the other half Chinese people who I think had a good grasp of Western culture.  She was in a big poofy white dress.  They cut cake, poured the champagne, and the emcee made them play games before they could kiss each other.

Then it was reception time, and so we were back on stage.  Despite of how random it seemed to be there, we fit right in.  Right in, with our jeans, our American instruments, and our songs.  We played “Turkey in the Straw,” and even got a folksy “Canon in D” going (because it wouldn’t be a wedding without it).

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The bride performing her song “Ready for Love” with us. Photo courtesy of Chad Allen.

The bride came up to sing a song she requested called “Ready for Love” which was in Chinese.  We plucked and played with her, and I sang along with, more as a prompter for when she got lost.  Then, when she ran to hug her new husband, we played and played, watching the gaggle of dancers hoedown in qipao.

The night swept by, and I wished that our set list was longer.  The bridesmaid handed us our envelope (and we didn’t even need to hunt her down!) and thanked us profusely for playing.  They said they were so lucky to know us, but I felt like the lucky one: a gig, a good dinner, good company, and a lot of fun.

Just goes to show: some of the strangest flavor combinations have the best taste, hmm?

Late-night options for Xiasha

Getting from downtown Hangzhou to Xiasha is always a bit of a headache.  The district is about 45 minutes from the city, and the later it gets in the evening, the longer the trip back is. 

Here are the options for those of you who are tired of chasing taxi drivers and watching the RMB notes flutter out of your hands:

Until 9:00 PM–The B1 bus, which has a stop right by my apartment and is the cheapest option.

Until about 10:30-11–The subway, which is the fastest option.

Until midnight–Bus 210, found at the City Train station.

Between midnight-4AM–taxi ride (about 60-80 RMB, which is just gross)

4AM-6AM–Dodgy late-night clanker bus, found near Wulin Square.

After that, normal transportation applies.

Of course, whatever transport option you choose has everything to do with a) how much money you’re willing to spend, b) how quickly you want to get home, and c) how late it is.  I’m just saying that, despite what belligerent taxi drivers may insist, there are other options to get back to Xiasha. 

Good luck!

Midnight Bus to Xiasha

Picture it: I’m waiting at the terminal station, the guardrails by where the 210 bus will alight a thin barricade between me and the straggler taxi-drivers cajoling me to get in.  “It’s cheap, beautiful lady!” they say.  Of course, what might be a cheap price for them (50 RMB) is much more expensive than the 4 RMB bus I’m about to catch.  There’s a light breeze, and the pavement shimmers from recent rain.  It’s like the colors are stretched somehow in the watery-light.  I keep craning my neck to see if the clanker bus will come, but I see no phantom traces of the red lights displaying the bus number.  “It’s not coming!” the taxi drivers insist.  “You missed it!”  And I wait there, listening to their plaintive cries in the night, their final song under the stars. 

What if I’m wrong?  There’s always that moment, when I’m at the terminal station at the city train station, when the clock strikes midnight–the last time listed for this bus–and the bus is not there.  Before, I was laughing and pushing away taxi drivers and swaying from foot to foot to keep the lingering puddles from seeping into the soles of my shoes.  Now, I’m laughing, but more to fill the silence.  I’ve ridden this bus before.  I know it’s here.

Why do I keep checking?

It’s midnight.  The latest that the bus will come.  It’s still not there.  I’m staring down the alley of an empty street, willing the red lights to appear and for the rev of an engine to indicate that I’m not alone in the dark.

Then, hope against hope, this bus rounds the corner and in a triumphant display of transportation, it sweeps up to gather the waiting passengers, to sneer at the taxi drivers, and to take us all home.  

I cannot fully express the sensation: the gnawing doubt and the release of it when the flickering lights come on and the “210” comes into view.  An impenetrable gloom of what if’s and impossibilities, and then all of it torn asunder in moments as headlights appear. 

This is the boon of those that persevere.  We wait in the darkness of uncertainty and then, when all hope seems lost, when the way seems weary and unending, a light appears and we know our ways back.  A bus, a walk, another word on a page.  At the very deepest point in the gloom, a bus rounds the corner, lights blazing, hope restored. 

I wait for this moment every time I take this midnight bus back to Xiasha.  I wait for the agony of uncertainty, and then for the wash of relief when it’s set aside.  This dramatic entrance for the bus is essential–for the false taxi driver hope, for the flickering hope of those that wait, and for the dark that doesn’t last as long as it seems when the clock strikes midnight.  It’s cathartic, and when my transportation card beeps against the pad charging my fare, I know I’m on my way home.

Teach the Teacher

I walked into the school today without a single lesson planned.  I plodded through shallow May puddles in thin black flats thinking What if What if What if with every step.  Every class was supposed to prepare something to present to me, and if things went according to plan–that is, if I could trust them to do it–then my lack of lesson plan would be a jumping-off point for my students to take the floor.  

In my first semester of teaching, this would have been unthinkable.  I’m a doer.  If there is a problem or something that needs to be done, I will take care of it.  I will turn myself inside-out to make sure it is done to the best of my ability, and will settle for nothing less.  Because, in my mind, doing anything less than your best is just a waste of your time and potential.  

So it was with more than a little trepidation as I pushed open the door to my class this morning.  Class began.  I took roll.  And then I said “So, for today, you were supposed to prepare a skill to teach the class…”

And you know what?  They did.

As I stood there, with students doing magic tricks with tea bags, separating an egg yolk with a plastic bottle, braiding hair, presenting on a specific type of dumpling, and teaching origami, I was struck by something:

Putting your trust in someone else is a scary thing. There is no guarantee that they will follow through, and there’s a huge risk of being utterly disappointed in the result. Doing something with your own hands is rewarding and insurance that you will get exactly what you set out to get. But trusting that others will not automatically let you down is a beautiful thing. And when it works, it works in unexpected and delightful ways. You end up perhaps not with what you had in mind, but something unique and sometimes better.

Thank you for teaching me this, China.

Laowai vs Food: Fried Noodles

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 Six

Contender: Udon noodles, 茄子, onions, and Mystery Sauce

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 go ahead anyway and of course, share my damage reports along the way. This time, it’s a smattering of vegetables and a sauce from a teacher that just left.

Step One: Materials

“I feel sort of like a burglar,” my co-worker said. We were in a former teacher’s apartment, cleaning out the things that he wanted looked after, and scavenging whatever leftovers we could find. He had asked me to grab his guitar, and I had some DVDs that I’d lent him before he had to return to his country.

But then, of course, we ended up by the fridge.

“I mean, it’s going to go bad if we don’t take it,” I said, really more to myself than anyone else. Obviously, there was nothing wrong with grabbing the onion and noodles from his fridge, given that if I left it there, our landlord Mr. Yang would just toss it in the trash.

“Yeah, yeah, just take it,” my coworker said. “Hey, here’s some chocolate.”

“What?!”

“Just kidding.”

“Oh.”

And so, I left the former teacher’s apartment with three packets of udon noodles, some spices for Shepherd’s Pie, and then a big bag of something that looked saucy, but also had chunks of beef in it. I’d also found some frozen peas and corn.

In my own apartment, I was painfully aware of 1) how impossible it would be to up and leave very suddenly, and 2) how his packets of udon noodles and spices actually utilized my fridge space, which is usually home only to random vegetables.

“I wonder how I might cook these udon noodles…” I thought. I turned over a packet and saw that there were instructions in both English and Chinese.

Well then.

Step Two: Preparation

Of the vegetables I had in the fridge, there was: cauliflower, rather phallic-looking eggplant, and the onion I’d gotten from my former coworker’s fridge. I took out the eggplant and onion, the bag with the Mystery Sauce in it, and a packet of udon noodles. The Mystery Sauce was in a large packet, and so I had no idea what would happen when I opened it. Would a sudden torrent of sauce smother me in my tiny kitchen? Would I make the same mistake I usually do and put an inordinate amount of flavoring in my noodles?

I opened it, and was relieved to see a collection of smaller packets inside. I took out one, and then brought it with me to the kitchen. On the dining room table (I say dining room table as if it can actually host people–it’s more of a “here’s where I can dump my keys” table), I ripped up some eggplant and then chopped the onion.

Managing somehow not to cry from the onion or snicker at the funny eggplant, I was ready.

Step Three: The Cooking

The last time I cooked for myself, I managed to make a mockery of meat by burning it. From the good advice of my friends, I went and bought a new pan.

Here’s the old one. It’s fine, right?

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Let me just say this: I love cooking with a pan that doesn’t automatically cremate food.  I do not love the smell of burnt veggies in the morning, thank you.

Anyway.  The food.

I wasn’t 100% sure how to deal with the vegetables. I’ve had Chinese friends tell me that I have to suck all of the moisture out of vegetables before adding oil so that they absorb it better. I’ve had Chinese friends tell me to add water to make the veggies plumper. I never know which vegetables need to be bereft of their moisture, and which ones need to drown in it. So I usually start without oil and see what happens.

The eggplant looked shriveled and sad, so I assumed it was one of the vegetables I was meant to drown. I added some water and watched it turn brighter purple. Then, as I rejoiced in my great skills, the purple became a brown color, and I realized that it had been drowning for too long. Dumping some water into the sink, I muttered “close enough” and added the onions. The onions were more cooperative. Thank god for that.

Then it was time for the Mystery Sauce. I honestly had no idea if it was going to be salty, spicy, sweet, or some horrible bitter thing that was allegedly good for your health but bad for your general state of happiness. It was a dark, gloopy brown as I squeezed it on top of the vegetables. I mixed it around with my new spatula (chopsticks can only go so far) and then added the udon noodles, which I had already boiled before.

In a matter of minutes, it was done.

Step Four: Collateral Damage

As it turned out, the sauce was mildly spicy, but in a good way. The eggplant was a little sad, and not as flavorful as the rest. So, I ate all of the eggplant first to get that flavor out of the way, and then it was just the onions and noodles.

It was delicious.

What the hell did I do right?

Step Five: Clean-up

New pan or no, I did leave a mess and a bit of charred eggplant remains on the bottom, so my new weapon is currently taking a bath. All this time, I thought that my former coworker was a great cook, when really, he just had the right ingredients.

Is that the secret? Good sauce, a happy pan and a recipe in your first language?

That’s easy. Too easy…

Result: One fluke of a success.

The Winner: Mystery Sauce. Ingredients unknown, delicious-ness not.

 

Worm’s Eye View

“It’s called: bird’s-eye view,” I said that morning. We were outside on a porch with small potted plants at our ankles. On the table, the previous night’s bagels (including the wand and the turtle) and some porridge.

“Bird’s eye view?” he asked. I nodded.

I suppose it’s a somewhat redundant saying. The bird is viewing, so there’s no need to also reference the eye itself, but I guess we English speakers like our messages to be extra clear. I wasn’t prepared for what the dictionary had to say.

“So,” he asked, coming back outside. “What is ‘worm’s eye view?’”

“Uh…” I pictured a lot of dirt.

“Or a ‘fish eye view?’”

Water.

He showed me the entries online, which were there, just as he said. Fish-eye. Worm-eye. I had to confess that I didn’t know.

I mean, what could we gain from the viewpoint of worms?

We see the world at door-height, the metal walkways and paths that we’ve built to follow, cars we’ve built to carry us along them faster. We live in our own galaxy of apartment lights flickering on and off, and from where we stand, orbit them. What could we gain from the viewpoint of stars? How to burn brightly, immortal, cold: trillions of miles away from the first person to know when we’ve faded.

But worms?

Think of the fossilized walkways—or at least the fossils that might represent us in the future. Future archaeologists will have fun guessing the function. Though, often, I hope those same archaeologists won’t be disappointed in what we were able to produce. Should we leave a note? “This is not our best work; this is just a parking lot.” Or will it even matter? What will this world be in the eyes of our translators?

China is full of empty apartment buildings. Some builders got too ambitious and made too many rooms. Then again, I’ve been told that some of the wealthy buy several apartments just to have them, hollow and all. It’s eerie, looking out over the undecorated patios outside of what I know to be uninhabited spaces. There are millions of fossils in the making. But walking around at night, no one would know. At night, it’s like constellations drifting out of the rows and rows of apartment complexes. Or gap-toothed grins emblazoned with light. The human-eye view oscillates between admiring delicious progress and deploring its eventual fall.

The worm-eye view: They all come tumbling down.

I don’t know what future archaeologists will make of China thousands of years from now. They will see ancient artifacts from long ago, but they will also see remnants of a fake Eiffel Tower, concrete blocks that used to be noodle shops, signs with thick Chinese characters painted on them, the rubble from towering shopping centers.

Should we leave a note? “This is China, where people live in the sky. Keep digging: you will find more.”

If those imaginary archaeologists keep digging, they certainly will find more. And, above all, they’ll find worms and figure out their point of view.  And I hope they tell me, because I really want to know.