Sunday, December 31, 2006

Eating Chinese food straight from the carton?

A quote in Dennis Hamill's column in today's New York Daily News, in which he recalls memorable celebrity interviews from the past, caught my notice:
TOM HANKS answered the door to his trailer on W. 43rd St. on the set of "You've Got Mail" wearing a soiled undershirt and eating Chinese food out of a carton.
The notion of eating Chinese food straight from the carton is obviously one of great import to some; there was a recent long discussion thread on about the practice. Some opined that it was it was something that only happened in the movies; some thought it was just a New York thing; and still others, not New Yorkers, claimed to have done it themselves. In support of the movie-thing theory, there is a whole web page devoted to the subject of eating Chinese food (and ice cream) from the container in movies. I'm not calling those Chowhounds who claimed to do it themselves liars; we are impressionable creatures, after all, and sometimes life imitates art. One of the featured movie occurrences of the practice on the above-referenced web site involved... Tom Hanks.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

The Wal-Martization of Chinese fast food?

This may be from the drug-induced nightmare of a bored wire service employee, or perhaps December 26 is South Africa's April Fool's day, but the African News Dimension (whozat?) is reporting that the 3400 Wal-Marts in the US will start offering Chinese fast food (no, Chinese "Dining"). In the article, Yeshua Yosef writes:

Wal-Mart to add Chinese Dining to its 3400 stores nationwide.

The biggest retailer in America is ending the fast food reign of McD’s and even its submarine vendors; in favor of a new Chinese Restaurant Chain. This food chain will serve Chinese food fast, but not of the McD’s Quality. We will serve food fast, but not fast food, is the claim of the Wal-Mart source who disclosed the story. Wal-Mart has reportedly been looking for an alternative to just subs and burgers; because of the anti-fast food sentiment created by the movie “Super Size Me,” which showed the hazards of eating just fast food. According to the source, “We are already 90% Chinese, so we might as well go all the way, to 110%”, some say, this move may change the face of America, and it’s pant size. Wal-Mart supposedly will save money by shipping smaller sizes to America, as there are claims the 60 % profit they make by buying Chinese is cut into by shipping costs. In this case, smaller waists equal larger profits for the company, at least in shipping costs. Once again the giant retailer is putting America first in its quest to be the best. During the after-Katrina mess, Wal-Mart put America first by halting gun sales in its Louisiana stores, some 40 of them at least. Some say the anger toward government scared many, and so Wal-Mart put its halt in, to help quell the anti-government sentiment. With American families owing somewhere in the neighborhood of $140,000 per family in debts including those to foreign countries, including Japan, Germany and China, these moves by the chain will help, we hope. Now Americans will learn to cook Chinese, at least those employed by Wal-Mart. As one official put it, “We borrow money from the Chinese, so we can buy their products.” India is said to be talking to Target about a similar Chain. Vindaloo and Nan Bread anyone? Unfortunately, the submarine vendor is left scratching it’s head. Our subs are not fast food, but good food fast too, they claim. No doubt, at least one of their patrons has backed that claim up. Maybe they can merge with the Chinese Chain, and create a new sub, maybe the Beijing Cheese Steak, …’s a wrap.

I'm highly skeptical about this eventuality, but if true, I can guarantee that if Wal-Mart has its way with Chinese cuisine, the resulting product will be one of the few things sold by Wal-Mart that wasn't made in China.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

The ABD's of doujiang

Shanghainese love doujiang (soy milk/soy milk soup) at breakfast. There's a sweet version which is served either hot or cold. The cold version is ubiquitous in its grab-and-go transparent plastic cups; you usually have the hot version at sit-down places, but it's still just plain soy milk with some sugar added. Who likes that? (Well, a lot of people, apparently.)

The savory version is something else; properly done, it's a masterpiece and food for the gods, IMHO. It's hot soy milk to which has been added vinegar or some other sour matter to curdle it (surprisingly, soybean milk curdles much like cow's milk) and salt and/or a salty agent (the best versions will have brine shrimp in it). Chili oil is usually also present, so with the salty, sour, and spicy combination you'd need only have to add a little sugar to make "Strange Taste Doujiang" but I don't think I would like that. Beyond the above ingredients, other vegetable matter such as scallion tops may be added, and it's sometimes served with a bit of Nori-type seaweed on top. The other indispensable ingredient is slices or broken pieces of you tiao, the Chinese cruller, floating on top. (It's a good thing the do with stale you tiao.)

When I'm in Shanghai I crave savory doujiang for breakfast, and my wife's experience and intuition is`usually successful at tracking down a good version. On my last trip , however, I did a lot of early morning foraging by myeslf, and found it difficult to communicate that I wanted savory doujiang. My attempted Mandarin or Shanghainese request usually resulted in shrugged shoulders or in my getting sweet doujiang (yuck!)

Finally I asked my wife for help. "Simple," she said. "Just ask for 'A-jiang'" (with an "A" as if speaking the name of the English letter "A"). The next time out I found it worked like a charm. My wife then pointed out that if you order "B-jiang" in Shanghai you'll get plain soy milk, and if you ask for "D-jiang" you'll get the sweet version. There apparently is no "C-jiang", not even a "Gentleman's C-jiang" but apart from that I approve of this grading system; I'd give a good version of savory doujiang an "A" any day, and a sweet version a "D" (if not an "F").

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

A funny thing happened on the way to the Forums

By now I should have posted an impressive collection of accounts of the best small eats venues from far-flung areas of Shanghai in the eatingchinese forums. But my already stressed old body was overtaxed by my zeal and I spent a week of mandatory chilling out in the cardiac care unit of People's Hospital Number 6 on Yishan Lu. Thanks to the ministrations of Nurse Jin, who was infatuated with my beard, as well as the chou doufu* carried in for lunch by my wife, who hurried to Shanghai to be with me (and perhaps to save Nurse Jin from me), I left the hospital feeling better than I had in months and with a new outlook on life. Henceforth I will always stop to smell the roses, or at least the *stinky tofu. Leisurely pace or not, I still managed to sample every bao, jiao, tiao, mantou and bing in sight of the Hang Hui Hotel (not in your guidebook) as well as dine in some fancier sit-downers like Shanghai Uncle and some destination xiao chi havens like Xiao Yang's for shenjiang baozi and Wan Shou Zhai for the "da huntun." Expect photos and accounts of these to appear here in the Forums.