Posted by: fireweaver | December 16, 2009

novel fruits

as i’m sure you’ve noticed, i blogged about food a lot this trip.    while our hosts were wonderfully accommodating about offering to take us to western restaurants (they must be use to hanging out with our less adventurous colleagues), we didn’t feel the need to take them up on the offer.  thankfully, the crew i’m with are just as gung-ho as i am on the subject of what’s for dinner, and my consistent answer of, “whatever we can’t get at home is best,” was met with nothing but agreement.

the prepared meals, though, weren’t the only times we met new and strange things: the plethora of fruit here is amazing.  the breakfast buffet every morning has an impressive spread of sliced dragonfruit alongside more mundane melons and apples, and a variety of whole fruit too.  women at the ming tombs tried to push bags of bright orange squat persimmons into our hands as we left.  a street vendor on a bicycle had a cart full of kumquats, oranges, and strange reddish dried pruney objects.

my new favorite thing is an odd tiny spherical object of mottled olive green, about 3-4 cm in diameter.  i’d seen them on the breakfast assortment the first day, but rejected them thinking they were hard little not-quite-ripe plums of some sort.   while out at the mansion restaurant the first night, some of them arrived on the after-dinner fruit tray.  our host said he was unsure of the english name but thought it was some type of date.  i tried one and absolutely loved it – very crisp and crunchy, with a thin edible  skin like an apple, and a flavor at some intersection of pear, apple, and banana.  they’ve consistently been on the breakfast buffet every morning, and after getting the taste for them, i chomped down a handful of these wee treats every morning.

turns out that those reddish pruney items the street vendor had were these same fruits, only dried & preserved, hence the confusion with dates.  after showing her the above picture, another of our hosts said that this fruit is only grown in the local area around Beijing.  tentatively, i’ve id’ed them as chinese jujubes, and yet another thing i’ll miss about here.

my plane heads out in about 5 hours – see you on the other side of the world.

Posted by: fireweaver | December 16, 2009

the art of bargaining

since we both had more chinese money burning holes in our wallets, and we just hadn’t gotten enough of it, Jacques and i headed out (with another patient and wonderful guide!) for round 2 with the silk market.

i spent most of my time on the floor of jewelry sellers.  yes, there is an entire floor dedicated to jewelry in a building where the square footage of each floor is about the size of your average walmart.  my goal was to acquire a particular strand of pearls i had seen last time.  the color was magnificent, but bargaining last round had gone all to hell when another american couple walked up just as the opening salvos of the game had been fired.  the seller wanted 350, i came back with a “meh” look on my face and a hand wave of  30, in the way these things are done.  the american woman threw back her head and laughed, “oh, you’re crazy, you’ll never get them for that little!”  negotiations having been screwed, i ventured on to the innumerable other pearl sellers, but nobody else had strands of this particular color combination.    today, there was no extraneous bozo queering the game, and we settled on what i think was a fair price.  i wanted the strands knotted in between each pearl (that’s the traditional way of stringing them, pearls being precious enough that if the strand breaks, you won’t loose all of them.  cinematic mugger moments in back alleys of ‘batman’ movies notwithstanding), so they made up the strand while i waited.

it’s amazing how quickly their fingers blur through the piles of gems and twisted thread.  it was easy to burn off a good chunk of my RMB in the jewelry stalls, so i called a halt to that and moved on to other realms.  it’s more than a little overwhelming to just walk through the market, and pretending to be deaf or completely oblivious helps:  every seller in every stall tries to catch you in (“hey lady!  you want watch?  you want pearls, lady?”), with some even grabbing at coat sleeves to physically drag you to their wares.  eventually, i managed to pick up gifts for my family, but a handbag and a pair of bronze uggs i had my eye on were each shot down.  it’s odd how differently some merchants responded to the bargaining process.  most sellers would toss out a crazy high price, then wail with mock injury when you came back with a crazy low one.  there’s a lot of “oh, come on, what’s the no joking price?!” and “no, i have to make some profit!” but eventually you can come to an agreement.  other sellers acted more than mock injured –  the one took the handbag right out of my hands, replaced it on the shelf, and told me to leave when i lowballed her.  the uggs i can live without, but i do regret that purse.

we met up by the door afterwards and regrouped before heading out to catch a taxi.  Jacques and i looked up from our quick purchase recap to a pair of young women inches from his face.  the nearest one said, in a tremulously fascinated voice, “Obama?”  clearly, he’s not just the only black man in china, but a VIP to boot.

Posted by: fireweaver | December 15, 2009

aquarium + lunch

seafood in china, as far as i can tell, is always served extremely fresh.  there’s a story around the office that the first time our boss came out here, he leapt out of his chair screaming like a schoolgirl when presented with a bucket containing a live thrashing eel.  at various restaurants, buckets of fish or frogs have indeed been presented to the head of the table before arriving quite swiftly steamed & sauced.  Danny was flying home today, and Jacques and i are out later in the week, so we went out to a very nice seafood restaurant for lunch today.  these guys take it one step further than a single eel in a bucket.

the long boat restaurant had a half of a wooden fishing boat attached out front, and an assortment of fish tanks more extensive than any market i’ve ever been in.  arranged around a central space where workers were netting out various creatures were 2 tiers of tanks in a long rectangle.  everything was swimming in these tanks, from fish to lobsters to crabs and innumerable varieties of shellfish.  i’d never seen one of these creatures before, so that was of course what i wanted.

Jacques identified them as a type of mantis shrimp.  others in the species are known to invade aquariums as hitchhikers on coral, and have the ability to crack the tank glass with snaps of their powerful tails.  they were tricky to peel due to some sharp corners where the curving dorsal shell met the thinner ventral legs, and after we all attempted one, the waitstaff took them away and peeled them all for us.  hooray!  they are quite tasty, like very tender lobsters.  i would have preferred butter to the vinegary dipping sauce, but they were delightful plain.

probably my favorite dish of the afternoon was a small pot of very tiny long-necked clams (body and siphon each 1.5cm or so) that were cooked with ginger.  there were also some really excellent fried frog legs; a slightly sweet taste made me think they were done in coconut oil.  Jacques managed to find the one eel in the place (eel being his supreme favorite), and it arrived grilled  cut into 2-3 cm segments arranged spirally in a dish of savory sauce.

(this was just the end of him – no way i could keep Jacques from diving in before i’d snapped a pic of the whole presentation.)

another novel gastronomic experience was my first shot at bitter melon.  it’s tenderly crunchy and quite good until the end, when the sharp bitterness rears up.

a half a day later, i’m not yet super hungy for dinner.  while there was yet another embarrassingly full table today, all of the food is prepared in a very light, fresh manner (yes, even the fried frog) –  no heavy cream sauces, and all that seafood was lean.  i’m not yet missing burgers or fries.

Posted by: fireweaver | December 14, 2009

hanging with the mall kids

tonight, since there were no fancy endeavors planned for dinner, Jacques and i headed out to the mall. the taxi dropped us off at what appeared to be a supermarket at the far end of the big new japanese shopping complex. the market was actually rather familiar after my usual grocery trips to the asian markets at home: same stuff, just more of it and a better variety. most of the produce was recognizable as the same as at home, with the addition of my favorite little appley things and the legendarily heinous durian.  there were 2 whole aisles of sweet snacks, with a pretty extensive gum selection, including a canister labeled with a rose.  having found (and loved) floral gum only only once in any store at home, i snapped up 2 of them and am hoping for the best.  little did i know, but china apparently has a fairly active wine industry.

no, i didn’t get any (though the price only translates to about $6), since i figured the last thing i needed was bad red wine sloshing all over my other souvenirs on the plane home.  we left the market to roam the rest of the mall and shortly spotted the chinese version of a best buy.  like the grocery store, it was mostly familiar (tvs, cameras) with some additions.  Jacques’ fascination with the remote controlled $1000 toilets:

caused a sales clerk to hurry on over, though of course that won’t go too well in his suitcase either.

the rest of the mall was exactly what you’d expect a mall to be: clothes, toys, home goods.  the only surprise was that the 2nd floor of the grocery store was a moderately upscale department store, so sort of a combo safeway + macy’s all in one.  at a home furnishing place i picked up a lovely silver business card case on super discount, and then we headed off to the food court to pick up some dinner.  we passed by the kfc (grinning colonels next to pics of not-quite-homestyle kfc were kinda surreal), though Jacques contemplated taking home some fries afterwards.  we haven’t yet felt the need to get some american style food, but we’ve branched out from solely chinese by hitting the hotel’s japanese restaurant last night, and the korean bbq tonight.

there’s a quite good korean restaurant near home, where the burners are built into the table and there are huge viking vents above.  this one had a small pit sunk down into the marble table top and a tiny steel vent in an arm nearby.  they brought out a large black iron box and pulled out a cast-iron bucket full of glowing red ceramic coals which fit down into the table.  grill covers were traded out in between courses, with a more solid one for the chicken and a wire mesh one for the beef.  it was just as good (if not better than) the one at home, but with a far more extensive menu.  and about 1/4 the price.

hmm, now that i think about it, maybe i should have gotten that sketchy wine…

Posted by: fireweaver | December 13, 2009

Beijing must-sees, day 2

this morning saw us headed off to the forbidden city, an UNESCO world heritage site and the supreme origin of all of the images the western world conjures when they think of chinese style.  we started off at the north end, rather than the more popular huge south gate, so our wanderings started off in the labyrinth of smaller buildings in the rear of the palace complex.  by “smaller,” i mean that they ranged in size from a large western house to a mansion – these were still grand in scale.

these smaller buildings, homes of concubines-to-be and empresses dowager, really illustrated  how this was in fact a city’s worth of buildings within the walled off enclave, not solely the huge courtyards that cinematographers are so fond of.  what makes the site so impressive (other than it’s venerable age and sheer size, of course) is how intricately handmade everything is.  each ridge of each rooftop is tipped in a ceramic finial of imperial yellow.

each corner of each rooftop has its own collection of guardian beasts – more beasts for more venerable structures.

after we were thoroughly impressed at the minutiae of detail on a smaller scale, we wandered through those epically huge courtyards, too.

after another massive lunch, we headed out to Beijing’s other super tourist destination, the silk market.  slightly shady dealings within innumerable stalls go on for 8 stories or so, selling everything from tea to clothes to toys.  bargaining is the modus operandi, a skill i am sorely lacking in (Chris tried to coach me before i left, and our guides were immensely helpful, but still).  apparently, the rule for tourists goes that when quoted a price, you should counter-offer only about 10% of it, and stick to your guns.  agreeing at less than 1/3 the start price is good, less if you can swing it.  amidst the whirlwind of haggling and the overwhelming selections available, we sat down on some tiny stools for a while to sample some tea.

the tea shop had a variety of things available loose in large bulk canisters.  you selected what you were interested in and sat down at a wooden table with the vendor.  the table itself was a marvelous object carved out of a huge single tree knot, with smooth curvy shelves that sloped gently down towards each other.  the final destination for these broad channels carved into the wood was a drain located near the seller, so you could apparently dump it out if you weren’t interested, like as in a wine spittoon.  she had a pot bubbling away at the highest point of the table, which contained a bunch of tiny teacups kept hot.  she made a sample of each kind of tea and poured it out for everyone in these piping little cups, then repeated for each different one.  the tea was probably the stuff i spent most on today, since there was no way to pick just one.

it’s been a super weekend…back to work tomorrow.

Posted by: fireweaver | December 12, 2009

Beijing must-sees, day 1

since this is the one weekend that all of my fellow co-workers are in the country, it’s our big time for sighseeing.  this morning, after a late & liesurely breakfast, the gang met up with our host for the day to see the great wall.  there are apparently several places in the Beijing area to choose from; we ended up at the Badaling site, no doubt due to the fantastic mountain views.  a little 4-seater cable car took us up to the bottom of the site, and from there we had to climb.

the hike up was all kinds of steep.  some parts of it were long ramps, while other sections were worn and uneven stone steps.

given that the wall terminated into a mountain side, i’m guessing that the ramps actually used to be horizontal ramparts, and that there has simply been some quantity of geologic activity and/or major settling of the stones.  much like the grand canyon i visited with my sister a few months ago, the great wall is an overwhelmingly huge experience that you could either hike for days or just take a few small sips at.

the vast majority of the stones capping the wall were marked up in some fashion.  some of the graffiti was standard ink, some of it was carved in the style most often seen on tabletops in dive bars.

on our way up, my coworker Jacques was stopped by a few people and dragged into pictures.  “not only am i the tallest person here by at least a foot,” he said, “but also, i’m apparently the only black man in china.”  the two of us were pulled into pictures by a exuberantly happy woman somewhere mid-hike, and again at the top.  her husband took both my and their cameras and snapped pictures of us like we were old friends, all while she was laughing and chattering a mile a minute.

we stopped in a nearby smaller town for lunch, and had another wonderful traditionally-served (i.e., communal dishes) meal.  our host seemed to worry that the atmosphere wasn’t fancy enough,

but we all thought it was fabulously real.  somehow, an insane quantity of delicious food got ordered, which we were completely unable to finish.

once again, the very fresh veggies were outstanding.  the lamb and beef ribs (in theory we’d only ordered the lamb, but both showed up on our groaning table) were both coated in a dry spice rub that was heavy on the comino – i associate that with mexican food, and had no idea it was used in chinese cooking.  my 2 colleagues who’d each been in the city once before have been insisting we try the donkey.  no, i’m not convinced it’s not actually horse, so i’m going to now knock that off my omnivore’s list (i saw what was clearly a mule and neither a donkey nor a horse pulling a cart on the street later, so there we go).  no, there’s nothing special about it, and i actually wouldn’t have been able to differentiate it from a stewed cut of beef.  i think they were just intrigued by the exoticism, and well, i’ve eaten something crazy now, so that’s alright.

we finished out the day at the tombs of the ming emperors, which were not all that impressive after the enormous scope of the great wall.  here and there, the site had some lovely carvings d0ne in marble and native stone.

the story goes that the forbidden city (tomorrow’s destination) is the real showstopper for decorative architecture on a grand scale.  my inner 3 year old is having a ball.

Posted by: fireweaver | December 11, 2009

chinese dinner theater

i had my first day at work today, which was mainly comprised of a facility inspection.  the place looks pretty good here, it’s fascinating to see what people do differently (but still very much within the standards), and the vet here got me the holy grail of all anatomy textbooks at my request.  i am beyond giddy about the last, and everything else will have a very tough trick to beat this book as my prized acquisition in China.  but that stuff isn’t as exciting as chinese dinner theater.

our hosts made reservations for us at the mansion restaurant, a neon-splashed, be-foo-dog’d block on a busy street corner.  the food was all really good –  highlights included a whole broiled mandarinfish in ginger soy, some baked lightly breaded scallops served on the shell with rice noodles,

a delicious but viciously spicy frog leg dish, some vinegary little wood ear mushrooms, and (possibly my favorite) these little dense sweet rice balls wrapped in slivers of date.  yum!

the meal was served in the traditional chinese style, where dishes are ordered for the group as a whole, and everyone dips in.  while the food arrived in waves, different performers took to the stage up front.  it was an incredibly diverse mix of traditional chinese performing arts, with each person’s gig lasting about 15 minutes or so.  some of the shows were very quiet and formal (the woman singing chinese opera, the pair of women playing stringed instruments), while others were fast-paced feats set to techno beats.  a girl laid back on a slanted bench and juggled a vase with her feet before moving up to a huge flowerpot, and finally tossing the flowerpot filled with a restaurant guest:

a trio did a leaping kung-fu demo with swords & spears, then passed a sqare pane of glass around the audience to prove its solidity before having one of the troop throw a straight pin through it to pop a baloon on the other side.  only the smallest and most precise of bullet holes marred the glass afterward.  the funnest act of the night was an exuberantly happy guy in a chef hat & apron juggling bottles & pots, and spinning plates on sticks.  at one point, he went out into the audience to give them a shot at plate-spinning, which all the amateurs failed to do without sending the plate tumbling to the floor.  my steady-handed surgery tech, though, could twirl a plate like a pro:

Posted by: fireweaver | December 10, 2009

first impressions from a first time world traveler

just a bit over a month ago, my boss told me, “get your passport, you’re going to China.”  our company has a branch in Beijing, and we send people over every so often when they need to borrow some of our know-how.  i’ve been hoping something would come up when they needed a vet rather than, say, a surgical tech or an administrator, and woohoo! i’m off!

thusfar, the travel has been a whole lot smoother than i expected it to be.  i didn’t expedite my passport application, but it still showed up in 2 short weeks.  customs & immigration involved me handing them a form and walking on through.  the 13+ hour flight over here was not the torture i’d assumed, either.

i thought i’d be doing the same thing i usually do on the airplane, reading a lot and napping uncomfortably for about 30 minutes, so there were 5 novels in my flight bag + another dozen and a half in pdf format on babycomputer.  while i did finish one of each, i was treated to the magic of personal on-demand entertainment.  every seat had a tilt-out touch screen about the size of a netbook embedded in the back that would play movies, tv shows, games, and a super-ingenious “are we there yet” map.  i watched some silly tv shows (“super spoiled hollywood pooches!”) and a couple of movies that Chris didn’t want to watch (‘julie & julia’ way cute, ‘500 days of summer’ gimmicky and awful).  while i certainly loved it, it was genius for little kids especially – all of the harry potter movies were available, and those have more than enough hours in them to last the longest of flights.
yesterday afternoon, i arrived to a foggy (smoggy?) overcast city that didn’t look much different than any other big city.  i dozed off in the car, and then arrived to the massive loong palace hotel.  we’re all amused (we = me + the other 2 people from my office who arrived a couple of days ago for a different project) at how the whole hotel is tricked out for christmas:  the female employees are wearing red & white santa dresses, and everyone answers the phone “merry christmas!”  the rooms are large and very nice, and the cocktails in the bar last night were expertly layered (i love stripey drinks), so things are super so far.

we love the huge xmas trees everywhere

pics to come!

Posted by: fireweaver | November 17, 2009

tasty tuesday: spain + pink = yum

though the warm weather is past, along with the associated time to sip cool beverages while the grill is flaming, i’m still enjoying the occasional bottle of pink wine.  though france and spain have areas that have traditionally made lovely dry pink wines, rosès are probably the last thing in wine to “make it big” in the US.  after the most profitable wine accident ever has tinted our perception of pink bottles for so long, it’s often hard to convince even fellow winos to partake in something that looks similar but is far from crap.

this past week, i had a bottle of Nostrada’s rosè, from the Tarragona region of Spain.






though the pic doesn’t make it clear, this one is a deep ruby rather than pale blush.  made from grenache, it’s dry (but not mouth-puckeringly so) and just a little spicy.  very food friendly, which in non-wino language means that it’s not so strong as to overwhelm the food.  it’d be great with a traditional thanksgiving spread of turkey or ham, and at less than $10/bottle, it doesn’t hurt to pick up a few to try out.

Posted by: fireweaver | November 16, 2009

simple birthday gifts

i called Chris on my way home today to see what he’d been up to on his day off with the kids.  he told me all about the lovely nap they had in a dogpile on the couch, which caused them to not get around to the park.


with the winter hours making daylight nonexistent by the time i get home, it’s more important for Chris to co-parent on the days where he doesn’t to to work early in the day (which is most of them).  the kitchen rugs and chairs take a heavy toll  if the dogs don’t get to run around pretty seriously, so the help is most emphatically requested.  “oh, well, i’ll get them ready now,” he says, “and we’ll go to the park as soon as you get here.”  it was of course full dark by the time we got there, but you could see one big-ish golden mix running around solo, so we decided to give it a go anyway.  the three of them had a nice time sprinting around – Xyla gets nervous and tends to ‘check in with mom’ way more often when there’s a bigger group around – but sighthounds only chase what they see, so that was going to wind down pretty quickly.  one other guy showed up with a big fluffy shepherd mix just as i was bemoaning the sighthound chase phenomenon with, “oh, if only we’d brought the laser pointer.”

“does your dog like those?” he asked.  “mine will chase them sometimes,” he added as he took one out of his pocket right there.  a brief flicker of red on the ground, and Xyla leapt in one of her killing pounces to snuff out the light’s light.  “oh!  i see she does like them!”  he proceeded to wave the pointer up and down the full length of the park while Xyla (and Saxon in the rear) put on wonderfully impressive bursts of speed.  the dogs are usually just jogging along when people at the park remark on how fast they are, but this actually got them nearly up to the same delirious velocities as lure coursing.

and since that’s her fave thing to do, i think she had a pretty happy birthday.

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