27 November 2007

Saying Goodbye

Summertime treats in ChinaAfter 10 weeks in Shenzhen, it was finally time to go home. I arrived in China thinking it would take 8 weeks to finish the project, but even after extending my stay by two weeks, the client wanted me to stay another four…

In the end, I convinced everyone that I needed to go home for the Thanksgiving holiday, and I promised to support them virtually for a couple of weeks and then come back to Shenzhen for two weeks to finish up.

Dinner PartyThe client decided to throw me a farewell dinner party to ensure I left China knowing how much they appreciated me and how much they wanted me to come back.

Although I didn’t realize it at first, as the guest of honor, it was my duty to share a bottoms-up toast with all 30+ people at the party. When the client made a point to ask me whether I wanted “pure wine” or red wine mixed with Sprite, it seemed like an easy decision. However, after a couple of toasts with full glasses of pure wine, I got their point and switched to small glasses of wine spritzer for the rest.

Click here for more pictures from the dinner party.

Singing KaraokeAfter the dinner party, a few of my colleagues and clients took me out for karaoke, which is extremely popular in China. The song choices in English were generally limited to cheesy old love songs, so I opted for the only two songs from this decade—Sexy Back by Justin Timberlake and Hollaback Girl by Gwen Stefani.

I have to admit, in hindsight, these are not the best songs to sing to your clients and colleagues, especially the uncensored versions available in Chinese karaoke machines. Fortunately, I couldn’t keep up with most of the words anyway so I was only singing profanities and/or suggestive content about half the time.

Click here for more pictures from karaoke.

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19 November 2007

Chinese Food - The Ugly

Organs & intestines at a street vendor in Hong KongContrary to popular stereotypes, most Chinese people don't like weird foods. Shenzhen is known as a town that pushes the limits, where you can find poisonous snakes and dogs and turtles available for dinner. However, most Chinese people have been afraid to eat anything wild or exotic since the mysterious SARS outbreaks a few years ago...

I think when uninformed Americans think about what they might eat in China, their biggest fear is that they will unknowingly eat a dog or cat that someone is trying to pass off as beef. What they don't realize is that such a thing is much more likely to happen in the United States than in China.

DogChinese people have too sensitive of a palate to ever mistake dog for beef. When they taste a dish, they not only know what animal they're eating, but which part of which animal. They eat more different kinds of green leaf vegetables in China than I have ever seen in my life, yet they can tell which vegetable they are eating, too. Can you tell whether the cooked "greens" you are eating are collard greens, kale, turnip greens, or mustard leaves? I know I can't.

It would be silly for a restaurant in China to serve the wrong meat intentionally, since it would undoubtedly be sent back to the kitchen. The customer would demand to get what they ordered, and would probably negotiate a discount on the price of the correct dish because they had to wait for it (the Chinese are unbelievably good negotiators). Even if the customer agreed to eat the wrong dish to avoid sending it back to the kitchen to be thrown away, they certainly wouldn't pay for it.

Half of a DogNo, in China you get what you order. You may just have more things on the menu than you're used to. For a Chinese person, criticizing a restaurant for serving dog is like complaining about a restaurant that serves pork in America. Not everyone likes pork, and certain religions forbid consumption of pork, but Muslims in America count themselves lucky if a restaurant will honor their request to leave the bacon out of their salad. They don't typically complain about the pork chop on the menu, they just don't order it.

I am apparently less reasonable than the average Muslim in America. As soon as my favorite local seafood restaurant hung a dog up in the glass box usually reserved for roasted ducks and chickens, I had to stop going there because it gave me the creeps.

In the end, even though weird things are available, it's actually hard to get Chinese people to eat them. A French colleague who was in Shenzhen for a short time went to dinner one night with one of our Chinese colleagues who ordered head of rabbit. The rabbit apparently looked very strange (to the Frenchman), sitting on the plate with its little rabbit teeth and no ears. It must have looked even stranger as its face was being chewed off by our Chinese colleague.

Head of LambHowever, for two weeks after that, I tried to get someone to take me to the same place and order the rabbit so I could take a picture. Apparently that one Chinese colleague was the only one who would eat it, and several other Chinese colleagues didn't even want to witness it, so it was hard to convince the group to go there for dinner.

Although the Chinese don't typically eat entire animal heads, they do tend to eat more of the animal than we eat in America--especially ears, internal organs, and feet. They don't seem adverse to eating brains either, because they say it makes you smarter. However, I've never witnessed the eating of brains.

Chicken FeetI actually like pig's ears and most chicken organs, although I wouldn't go out of my way to find them and I wouldn't want to eat them often. I don't care for pig feet (which the Chinese call hands) or chicken feet, although I think it's more about difficulty than taste. The small amount of meat in a pig's foot is so tightly attached to the bone that I haven't figured out how to get enough meat to make it worth the trouble. Chicken feet are even more difficult, since you have to take a bite and then sift through bone and cartilage in your mouth to find the edible parts. Unfortunately, without more practice, I can't really tell which parts are edible.

I can understand and actually admire the practice of eating the whole animal, since it's less wasteful, even if some of the parts seem strange or difficult to eat. I can even try to become more tolerant of people eating what I would consider pets, as long as I don't have to eat them, and as long as there are no monkeys involved (too close to cannibalism for me). However, the one thing that Chinese people love to eat, which really bothers me, is shark fin.

Shark Fin and Chicken SoupShark fin is very expensive, and so if you are able to serve it at a business dinner or wedding it is a sign of wealth and high status. It is also supposed to be good for you--something about how sharks never get cancer. However, unlike the Chinese approach to every other animal they consume, only the shark fin is eaten and the rest of the shark is thrown away.

I actually ate shark fin once. It was part of a set menu at a very nice restaurant in Shenzhen, and the colleague who ordered it wasn't aware of my moral objection to the Chinese cruelty to sharks. It wasn't impressive. It had an interesting texture but no real flavor of its own. It was served in chicken soup, so it just tasted like chicken.

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18 November 2007

A Taste of Guangzhou

Something delicous at Lei GardenGuangzhou (pronounced Gwan-Jo) is about an hour by train from Shenzhen and is reputed to have the best Cantonese food in China. It's also reputed to be one of the most dangerous cities in China, where you're advised not to answer your mobile phone in public, lest it be grabbed out of your hand by a passing hooligan...

Waiting for the train to GuangzhouI only wish I had made it to Guangzhou sooner. I would have happily braved the dangers of the city and made the 2 hour round-trip commute at least once per week to experience the bliss of dining at Lei Garden Restaurant.

Layered pork dishThe Cantonese are known for their delicious soups, which they cook for hours. I tried a duck soup and a corn soup. Both were exquisite. I also had a pork dish with alternating crispy and succulent layers of perfectly cooked meat, with a side of wasabi mustard dipping sauce.

Roasted DuckThen there was the Cantonese version of roasted duck wrapped in thin crepes (a little different from Peking Duck), which was absolutely delicious. The servers even sliced the duck and rolled the crepes for us, making it very easy to enjoy.

Carrot pastry & Mango cream desertOne of the best parts was dessert. Sweet desserts are almost as difficult to find in traditional Chinese restaurants as dishes containing raw lettuce. At Lei Garden, we enjoyed three different deserts. We started with a pastry filled with grated white carrot which was surprisingly good and not too sweet, then moved to a slightly sweeter mango desert with a light cream sauce and ended with a refreshing custard-like desert with mango and grapefruit.

Mango Grapefruit CustardAlthough the food in Shenzhen is never boring and is often quite good, it's nothing like the really great food I discovered in Guangzhou. Admittedly, the best restaurants in Shenzhen are only a fraction of the cost of the one in Guangzhou. But who can really put a price on the happiness one feels after indulging in a truly great meal?

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03 November 2007

Chinese Food - The Bad

Soup with hacked up pork ribs- tastes better than it looksNow that you've heard about the good stuff, you might be thinking you’d like to visit China, to try all of this wonderful food for yourself. Before you come, there are a few things I should warn you about…

To start with, eating in China can be quite difficult. Being able to pick up a piece of food with chopsticks and get it into your mouth without dropping it is an important skill, but that’s only the beginning. Although meats are usually cut into bite-sized pieces before they are served, they aren’t carved up in the way you might expect.

Soup with hacked up chicken parts and mushrooms - this one is actually quite deliciousImagine a chicken, for example. You might think of cutting it into parts like breast, thigh, wing, or leg, or you might take out the bones and cut the meat into small pieces to use in something like chicken noodle soup.

Now forget all of that and assume the whole chicken has been laid on a cutting board and hacked into random pieces with a large butcher knife. Then, imagine those random pieces have been put into a bowl of ramen noodle soup with vegetables. How might you eat such a thing?

Keep in mind, your only tools are your teeth, a pair of chopsticks, and a ceramic spoon. Chinese people never touch their food with their hands, unless of course they are trying to make a bungling foreigner feel better by pretending they sometimes need to use their hands, too.

Szechwan Fish in PotNow imagine you are trying to eat a whole fish with lots of little bones. It’s not your own personal fish on a dry plate, mind you. This is a large fish swimming in a pot of soup, sauce, or broth that is being shared by the entire table. Each morsel you are able to fish out of the pot comes with 2-3 bones, so you have to chew very carefully and then try to remove the small bones from your mouth with slippery plastic chopsticks.

Crab (very high difficulty)Now imagine you need to eat a whole cooked prawn with the shell-on, or a bite-sized chunk of beef still firmly attached to the bone. Chinese people would put the whole prawn or meat-with-bone in their mouth, and then do some sort of magic in there and spit out all of the inedible parts.

I think the only Americans who have a chance of mastering this technique are the ones who once learned to remove the stem from a cherry and tie it into a knot inside their mouth to impress their friends at college parties.

TissuesAs you were imagining some of the above scenarios, you might have guessed things could get a little messy and require extra napkins. Unfortunately, they don’t use napkins in China. In 10 weeks, I’ve been to maybe 5 restaurants that offered napkins. Most restaurants, upon request, will provide facial tissues or toilet tissue to use as a napkin.

Typically, these are scented tissues. So every time you wipe your mouth, your nose will be filled with some strong fragrance that clashes with whatever tasty Tissuesmorsel you happen to be chewing.

One additional problem with the tissues, pointed out by a French colleague who was in Shenzhen for 2 weeks, is that if you have a rough beard, the tissues are virtually useless.

Another problem with the food is that it’s all mixed up. The traditional way of eating is to order lots of dishes that everyone shares, which I really like. Unfortunately, you only get one bowl and one small plate of your own, so it’s very hard to keep different dishes from mixing together (especially soups). It’s especially bad if you take too much of something you don’t like and have to figure out a place to put it so it doesn’t get mixed up with the good stuff.

Shrimp in shell that has been sliced in halfSoups might be eaten before, during, or after other dishes. Sweet dishes are just as likely to be eaten at the beginning or middle of a meal as at the end. In a hot pot, they wouldn’t think twice about putting a whole fish and some boneless beef together in the pot, so you might have to sift through the fish bones to find a small slice of beef.

Beef ribs and Tofu - dishes that taste much better than they lookA colleague of mine once started off drinking some sort of thick yogurt drink with dinner and switched to beer halfway through, using the same glass. To be fair, this was the same colleague involved in the head of rabbit story I will tell in a future post, so the yogurt/beer example is probably a little extreme.

Trying to explain what you want to eat, to a Chinese person interpreting an all-Chinese menu for you, is harder than you might think. I’m pretty flexible, so I started off by asking for any dish with regular meat that is easy to eat. However, when a Chinese person doesn’t understand what makes things difficult or strange, it’s hard for them to suggest “easy” or "regular" foods.

Typical lunch at Chinese fast food - sliced duck with bonesRequesting boneless meat might get you preserved meat or scary-looking sausages. Requesting pork that is boneless and not preserved or smoked might get you a pork cheek or pork belly, which may be a little different from what you had in mind.

In the end, I finally learned the “Lio” trick. When the meat ends with the Chinese word Lio (pronounced Lee-yo), it always comes from a regular part of the animal and is cut into little strips with no fat, skin, or bones included. Lio actually means leaf, and only describes the shape of the cut. However, it just so happens the only meat that gets cut into a Lio is the good stuff.

Within my first 8-9 weeks here, I was able to adjust to the local eating habits and overcome the majority of food-related challenges. Here's how you can shorten the adjustment period if you ever find yourself in China:

Lunch at a Chinese Muslim place that only serves water to drinkTip # 1 - use your hands to peel a shrimp, or to pick fish or small chicken bones out of your teeth. Chinese people couldn’t care less how you eat your food, even if it’s not the way they do it.

Tip #2 - no matter how odd it feels, you sometimes need to just spit the bad parts out onto your plate, even if the bad parts are big chunks of beef bone. Everyone else is doing it. You would miss out on some really tasty experiences if you avoided all difficult foods, and there's definitely no napkin to spit it into.

Tip #3 - memorize the Chinese words for "regular" Beef (Niu-Lio), Pork (Jew-Lio), and Chicken (Gee-Lio). It comes in very handy when you want something easy to explain and easy to eat.

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02 November 2007

Chinese Food - The Good

My new favorite shellfishSome of you may be wondering how I made it through more than two months in China without telling any stories about food. The problem is that there are so many stories, I hardly know where to start. I suppose I should start with the good stuff…

I never would have imagined how much variety exists in Chinese food. They have more vegetables here than I’ve ever seen anywhere, most of which can’t be directly translated into English because they don’t exist in the Western world. They also have more delicious animals from the sea, some local but many imported from all around this part of the world.

Morning Tea aka Dim SumUnlike American Chinese restaurants which all have the same list of popular Chinese dishes on the menu including Beef with Broccoli, Orange Chicken, Szechwan Beef, Hunan Chicken, and Sweet & Sour Pork, every restaurant here is from a different region of China, specializing in a different kind of food.

Szechwan food is very spicy, and it’s important to watch out for the tiny dried flower spice that completely numbs your tongue when it touches it. At good Szechwan restaurants, the flower spice has been used during cooking, to add a really interesting flavor dimension, but then it’s removed before the food is served so you don’t get a mouthful of tiny flower buds and completely lose your ability to taste.

Team dinner at Cantonese RestaurantHunan food is also quite spicy, but with really great flavors which are generally less painful than Szechwan. Cantonese food from Hong Kong is generally not spicy at all and has some interesting flavors and lots of variety, but tends to have a high degree of difficulty because of all the bones you have to sort through, using only your teeth and a pair of chopsticks (more about that later). It is possible to find low-difficulty Cantonese food if you know what to order, and they have lots of tasty soups. In Beijing, the roasted duck is really delicious—and boneless.

Chinese FoodNorthern China is known for its dumplings, which are sort of like little misshapen raviolis filled with mushrooms, or pork and vegetables, or dozens of other options. Taiwanese food also has dumplings, but they are completely different—very thin skin with soup and other little delicious surprises inside.

Aside from authentic Shanghainese food, which you can't find in Shenzhen, the only major cuisine I haven't tried yet is from Guangzhou, the third largest city in China, which is only an hour from Shenzhen and is reputed to have the best food in all of China. I'm having dinner there tomorrow night.

Seafood RestaurantThe seafood here in Shenzhen is really fresh. Even small seafood restaurants have enough tanks of live fish and other sea creatures that they could be mistaken for pet shops. In the States, you might be able to pick a live lobster from a tank. In China, you can select live fish, shrimp, scallops, and oysters from the tanks, along with dozens of other sea creatures, and have them prepared any way you like. I’ve even discovered a new shellfish that has become my new favorite. It comes in a long narrow shell and tastes a bit like a cross between a clam and a mussel.

Bad attempt at Western spaghettiThe most amazing part is how cheap all of this great food is. You can have a delicious feast with your friends for 20-40 RMB (less than US $5) per person, and if you really want to splurge you could spend up to 80 RMB (less than US $10). For lunch, you can get an individual meal for 10-15 RMB (less than US $2). Of course, you can always find bad western food at significantly higher prices.

Seafood restaurantThe Chinese can appreciate a wider range of subtle flavors than almost any group of people I know. They are obsessed with freshness and are actually quite difficult to impress. I’ve seen them detect stale vegetables in a bowl of soup and send it back to the kitchen, or complain about something that I thought was quite delicious, because it was only 50-75% as delicious as it could have been if it had been prepared properly.

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