And on the other hand...

Click here for The Yin Side where the other half of me holds forth!

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Inspired Cooking

Yummy dinner tonight.  First I have cooked since returning, jet lag/culture lag diminishing. Missing the simple braised cabbage and veggies in ginger and garlic of Wudang, I grabbed my favorite Chinese cleaver and chopped and sliced a lot of garlic, scallions and ginger and threw it into a cup of simmering vegetable stock. (The Wizard has a vegetable steamer and does mixed vegetables, sometimes with a hunk of pork-ish meat and it yields some tasty broth that is handy for later seasoning.)  Added some nice pieces of ahi (fresh tuna) to poach while also doing a quick separate stir-fry of asparagus with a bit of shredded cabbage and some of the aforementioned scallions, garlic and ginger and some of the veggie stock.  Really fast, really good.  I will never steam or boil asparagus again.  You shouldn't either.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Still Learning

Well, I want to edit my last post, being an editor, and I can't get in; only a previous version is editable.

SO here's notes from the editor:

I know it's Sppery Fioor.

And the airport bidet...if you can't read the instructions on the image: it's:
Equipment to cleansing the buttocks with warm water.
Stopping: Rear washing stopped.
Washing: Washing the rear.
Water pressuer adjustment:  "Pressuer" gives it a little French ambience.
Flushing sound:  Press to play back flushing sound to muffle toilet sound.  (Why?)
Extra deodrizing: Increased absorption strength for removing odors.

 I'm reposting this image here, hope it looks better...I think the international symbols for "buttocks washing" are beyond comment.  But come to think of it, this beats a Chinese squat toilet any day! Deodrized indeed!

Accommodations and Plumbing

After three days, I have conquered jet lag with the help of my marvelous memory foam mattress. The things we take for granted at home: soft beds, toilets that don't smell of sewers, showers that drain through exterior plumbing. If you travel in China out of the mainstream, so to speak,  you learn to expect strange plumbing and beds. The beds in my experience, based on the kang, never made sense to me. Why have these marvelous cuddly fluffy cozy warm quilts on top of a bed that is rock hard, like a box spring with no mattress? Then I had a Taoist revelation: the quilt is Heaven, soft and yielding, and the bed is Earth, firm and unyielding. Man is trapped between.

But that doesn't explain the toilets. At this point in my life, I can't squat on the ground to do much of anything, let alone relieve myself. Most public toilets are strange affairs and require precisely this gymnastic approach to excretion (do a Google image search on "Chinese Toilets"; I couldn't bring myself to photograph them). So you either train your bladder and gut to wait (not easy when you're drinking a lot of tea and eating a lot of cabbage), or learn to squat. Actually it's easier on the trains, because at least there is a handle to balance youself while the carriage rocks and rolls.  And there has been an improvement there. When I rode a hard seat train in Beijing 20 years ago, I noted that the toilet opened directly to the underside of the could watch the tracks going by as you did your business. Trains this time at least didn't give you a view of the ground going by, at least in our hard sleeper cars. As I recall, our soft sleeper last year had actual sit-on toilets. 

The train brought us to the toilets in our rooms at Camp Wudang. They had proper seats and flushed, but the whole bathroom reeked. I'm told there were no U pipes in the plumbing, so through four floors, the sewer gases just wafted up through the drains. (And we WERE eating a lot of cabbage.) The only solution was to flush frequently and keep the door to the bathroom closed at all times. One of our tour members took to burning incense in the bathroom, not for any spiritual purpose, but to combat the odor and burn off the methane.  

Then there are the showers. Both this year and last, I was puzzled at first by the funny drain stoppers in the shower stall. Why I even bothered to use them I don't know because the stall just emptied out onto a main drain into the middle of the floor.

And toilet paper. I won the favor of my housekeeper who left me increasingly generous fresh portions of tissue every day--not a whole new roll, but a portion which didn't always have perforations. You can buy tissue, if you can communicate sufficiently with the vendor. One of our group purchased some, but it came in huge tabloid sheets that you had to tear apart carefully (or maybe they were kitchen towels). I managed to buy a roll, avoiding the vendor I used last year. That time to suggest what I needed, lacking a phrase book, I did a pantomime, a talent that develops quickly when you can't speak the language. Aha, the vendor beamed, and brought me a pair of underpants. No, try again. This time she looked triumphant and compassionate and brought me sanitary napkins. Finally, third time, I got the TP. My act provided the rest of the village vendors much entertainment...they pointed and laughed whenever I came around and offered me toilet paper no matter what I was trying to buy. Amazing thing: she remembered me this year: I am the Mrs. Whipple of China.  I may have established a new martial art in Wudang. Wiping wu shu.

Going to the Middle Kingdom? Take lots of Wet Ones and maybe a roll of two of Charmin.
You'll be thrilled to get back to a real hotel in Beijing or Hong Kong...flush toilets! perforated toilet paper! (But watch out, you'll still have a rock-hard mattress.)  And curious warnings in the bathroom, like "Sperry fioor"...if you can't say the "L", just leave it out or use a capital "I".

And for true civilization?  Hats off -- or pants off--to the designers in Narita Airport where you can actually get a bidet bath.  I was so overwhelmed by the instructions I left a book bookmarked with my boarding pass in the stall. Fortunately I remembered it and dashed back to the bidet to retrieve it.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Curious Chinese Cuisine

Our 2008 Taoist retreat this year again featured very bland boring vegetarian food (and weight loss).  The diet is supposed to encourage meditation and mitigation of desire. And all that white rice. (Not a problem for me, I live in a rice culture, and a billion Chinese seem to do well on of the food sources that don't seem to be laced with melamine.) Soon however, everyone was sick of cabbage with the ubiquitous tofu soup and tomato-and-egg stir fry for protein sources. So when we came down the mountain to Xian, several of us enjoyed a fine meal in "Xian's Most Famous Restaurant" (XMFR). Alas, the menu was in Chinese and everyone wanted ME to interpret it. Like I can read characters. I had a phrase book, but I need Hanyu pinyin to figure things out. But wait, the menu had photographs. Usually I find it best to avoid restaurants with photographic menus (and plastic models of food in the window) but when you're pretty much totally illiterate, and hungry for flavor, photos look good. Except, what were these things? Even the photos were impossible to interpret without spectral image processing software. That thing that looks like sauce on baby fingers? (Sweet and sour fish.) Or is this curious item a vegetable? (As opposed to animal or mineral. Who knows? Melamine curry?) We threw ourselves on the mercy of the server and weren't even sure we had actually ordered when little dishes began to arrive. Was this all there was in the set menu? No way. They were just "Xian special appetizers."

It turned out to be a sumptuous feast, although I am hard pressed (like pressed duck?) to say what everything was, apart from the fish fingers and some delicate stir-fried asparagus. Oh, and the lamb.  I was determined to get lamb kebabs, a street delicacy I had enjoyed years ago in Beijing. Never made it to the Muslim quarter where they are on offer, but there was an excellent lamb barbecue included.  Satisfied my craving.  

The craving for meat was, I think, even stronger than a craving for sex among our group of many married-but-traveling-alone people out on personal spiritual quests.  
One day back in Wudang, some of our meat eaters, invariably Type O blood types, NEEDED chicken.  I helped again, to order a whole steamed chicken.  The Type O's became tooth-gritting vegetarians though when the chicken was proudly presented in a huge bowl of steaming broth, seasoned with big slices of ginger, scallions and garlic, naked and with head and feet still well attached.  (Did they expect KFC in Wudang? This was rural China.)  It was the best chicken I have had since I raised my own free-range broilers and I think we all needed the chicken broth for our colds, to say nothing of simple physical strength.

But back to Xian, after our little farewell banquet at XMFR which came to the extraordinary and extravagant $10 US per person (I missed the big formal free farewell vegetarian banquet later that night), we discovered the best ever Starbucks in the world, in the Bell Tower area in Xian. The waitress in XMFR couldn't understand us when we asked for "cha," but the cute Chinese barrista who looked like Jet Li was able to deliver a perfect "caramel macchiatto" without any questions or misunderstanding.

Then we closed the afternoon, my last before flying down to Hong Kong, with a stroll through an alley of fresh seafood and ...other things. A vendor grabbed up a handful of some...squirming...appetizers , grinning, saying "You eat!" "Bu yao, YOU eat," I said. I suppose thumb-sized larvae are a good protein source, but suddenly I had a desire for cabbage!  I guess a whole steamed chicken I can handle...I've dispatched and plucked the things.  Come to think of it, I've dispatched my share of big cockroaches too, but,"Bu yao...YOU can eat 'em."