Monday, December 29, 2008

Only in China: Teacher Appreciation Fortune Cookie

Fortune cookies in China? It's not unthinkable. I once hauled a big bag of freshly-made fortune cookies to Shanghai, and passed them out after a big meal with my extended family. They were a big hit with the inlaws, with a lot of guffawing over the appropriateness of the fortunes (thanks to some creative translations on the part of my wife).

Thanks to Jennifer 8. Lee, whose intrepid pursuit of fortune cookie lore tracked down the only person making fortune cookies in China, I found the website of Beijinger Nana Shi. She seems to have a flair for the high end possibilities of the fortune cookie, and her website's description of her "Teacher Appreciation Fortune Cookie" is probably bookmarked in many a student's browser (not to mention the browser of his or her teacher):
"This delicious cookie is an example of the best of both worlds! This Giant Gourmet Fortune Cookie is hand-dipped in your favorite Belgian Chocolates and decorated with M&M®s candies! This confectionary colossus is an incredible combination of gourmet cookie, chocolates or caramel and melt-in-your-mouth candy! It's almost the size of a football and weighs in at just under 1lb. Your personalized message goes on the foot-long fortune inside! Confectionary Artisans hand wrap each cookie in a crisp, clear cellophane bag and tie it with a matching water-color Ombre Wire-Edged Ribbon. Fortune Message: The best teachers teach from the heart, not from the book."

Remember the simple days when a shiny apple would do?

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Go for the education, stay for the beef noodles: On-campus eats in Shanghai

Fudan University cafeteria photo by Mimi Yang, member

In Googling around in search of whatever it was in preparation for my last Shanghai trip, I stumbled across an informational website for Shanghai with something different to offer a foodie. While websites abound listing or recommending all manner of eating places in Shanghai, it wasn’t until I discovered shanghaitown, a website rich in information for overseas students, that I ever saw a guide to on-campus dining in Shanghai. This is a topic of particular interest to me, since I sometimes stay at an apartment conveniently located to both Fudan University (scrumptious beef noodles) and Tongji University (terrific T-bone steak). The full rundown, school by school, begins here; the website’s recommended list is summarized here:

Shanghai University Baoshan Campus: Xinjiang mixed Long noodle with vegetable in the Islamic Restaurant, Boiled Beef in Hot Sauce, Rice Cake with T Bone Steak, Pan Fried Beef Bun, Sandwich and Coffee in No.5 Street Restaurant.

Tongji University: T Bone Steak, Fried Egg with Tomato, Beef Noodles.

Shanghai Normal University: Saute Rice Noodles with Green Bean Sprouts on the second floor of West Restaurant, Korean Well-Done Rice by Stone Pot.

Shanghai Jiao Tong University: Beef Ramen Noodles,

Northeastern University, China: good snack bars

Shanghai Medical College Fudan University: Savoury and Crisp Chicken, Pork in Soy Sauce

East China Normal University: Earthenware Casserole, Malatang.

Fudan University: Beef Ramen Noodles

Foreign Trade College in Songjiang University-Town: Breakfast

Shanghai International Studies University: Steamed Bun

Lixin University in Songjiang University-Town: Barbecued pork, Steamed Bun

East China University of Politics and Law in Songjiang University-Town: Pan Fried Pot Sticker, Fried Egg with Tomatoes

Northeastern University in Songjiang University-Town: Spicy Chicken

The full skinny is worth reading for the pithy comments by students. One noted that there are many restaurants at Tongji University and offered these words of wisdom:

"Newly-opened restaurants are not as good as previous-opened ones in taste; restaurants with good environment are not as good as restaurants with bad environment in taste".

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Happy Dumpling Day!

Children make dumplings to celebrate the upcoming winter solstice day at a kindergarten in Hami, northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, Dec. 19, 2008. As the Chinese tradition, people eat dumplings to celebrate the winter solstice day. (Xinhua/ Cai Zengle)
It's the Winter Solstice, a traditional day for eating dumplings. In most of China, this means ear-shaped jiaozi, though in the south of China and in the diaspora stuffed sweet rice dumplings (tang yuan) are substituted. I'm off to to enjoy a dumpling lunch with friends, but there are some mouth-watering dumpling photo essays from the Chinese media here, here, and here. A nice overview of Chinese winter lore can be found in the Black Dragon Press Journal.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Going out for Chinese in Shanghai, Circa 1935

Whether you were a westerner living in the International Settlement or the French Concession or a well-heeled local, if you went out for a big Chinese dinner in 1930s Shanghai, you probably headed for Sun Ya. Sun Ya, now known as Xinya, is a mammoth four-floor establishment which served the best in Cantonese cuisine. Although the quality of the food has suffered in the intervening years, Xinya remains a popular establishment for large gatherings, especially wedding parties. The seafood "hot pot" meals and the "dim sum" are still worth a visit, as is the fact that Sun Ya/Xinya is somewhat of a culinary shrine. Because Shanghai had for so long been the primary point of contact with China for resident and visiting Westerners, and because Sun Ya was the restaurant they were most likely to know, it played a large part in establishing expectations for Cantonese food throughout the Western world.

A prized possession of mione is a copy of a 28-page English-language Bill of Fare for Sun Ya, circa 1935. I don't know the exact date of the menu, though it's apparently from shortly after the restaurant moved from 579 Nanjing Rd. to its current location. It is more than a menu, but a tutorial in dining at a Chinese Restaurant. Its glosses provide an inside look Chinese Restaurants of the time, including an explanation of the strange goings-on that might have been encountered by the unaware diner. A scanned version of it is available for perusal on the website.

I'm fond of the "Miscellaneous Dishes" section of the menu on page 8. Item number 100, footnoted, is "Sweet and Sour Pork*." The footnote identifies this dish a "a very popular Cantonese dish among foreigners." That, of course was before General Tso's Chicken.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Cinema Stir-Fry: A Symphony of Cooking Utensils

This is the second post in a series I've decided to call "Cinema Stir-Fry" (Celeste Heiter's wonderul blog has bragging rights to "Chopstick Cinema"), the first being about a move called Xian Doujiang.

A Symphony of Cooking Utensils (that's a literal translation, which hopefully sounds less cumbersome in Chinese) was made in 1983 by Teng Wenji, but somewhat prophetically points to the economic reforms of the 1990's. The protagonist, Niu Hong (played by Sun Chun) is a young cooking school graduate who is made manager of the dysfunctional Chun Zheng Restaurant. The restaurant is rundown and simply drifting (it's a State Owned Enterprise) and the idealistic Niu takes it upon himeslf to shape it up. He performs miracles with apparent ease, getting bank loans for remodeling, upgrading the menu and generally gussying up the place and the employees' attitudes. Soon the place is turning a handsome profit, which he re-invests in his employees as well as catering and other related activities. Along the way he deals with petty frictions between employees, truculent customers, and ultimately Communist Party apparatchiks, who are appalled by his personal initiative and insubordination (which includes sending a representative to Party meetings he considers useless instead of attending himself). Most of all, they are miffed at his failure to turn over all his profits to the Party, and Niu's refusal to bend on the issue gets him fired.

Intertwined with the restaurant reform saga are several love interests, including a couple of triangles in which Niu is the odd man out. One of these triangles includes Liu Junying (played by Yin Tingru), who is supporting herself through art school by working at the restaurant. Niu becomes infatuated with her, but finds out she is engaged to a famous young writer (who plays a key role in saving Niu's bacon by the end of the movie).

The movie has a thin but well paced plot, with excellent cinematography, and the enigma of Niu's capacity for mismanaging love even when it's thrown in his lap keeps it from being utterly banal. Although Niu's love life doesn't pan out (so to speak), the movie ends with Communist ideology and the free enterprise spirit walking off hand in hand.

Although a majority of the movie was filmed in the restaurant, there are disappointlngly few scenes of food and food being prepared, with the highlights here being a watermelon feast that Niu treats the employees to, and a scene of Niu cooking in the busy kitchen.

Friday, December 12, 2008

The Man Who Would Not Eat Chinese Food

Stephen Conroy, Australia's Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, is from Melbourne but might as well be from Mars, according to his peers: he does not eat Chinese food!

Phillip Hudson reports on this rara avis in the Sydney Morning Herald:

Robert Ray famously called him a dalek, but the faction warlords from Labor's NSW Right thought they had encountered a genuine alien in Stephen Conroy. They identified with his confidence and ferocious determination to win. They even begrudgingly tolerated his lifelong abstinence from alcohol. But how could they do business with a man who did not eat Chinese?

"One of the first right wing factional dinners I ever went to in Sydney was of course Chinese," Conroy says. Insisting he did not indulge the cuisine, his co-diners stared "at me as though I was from another planet, not just from Melbourne". That's because the real deals in the NSW Right are sealed over a good Chinatown meal, often within stumbling distance of the ALP's Sussex St headquarters.

"If you can't eat Chinese food you starve," says the former Labor leader Kim Beazley. "But I think Steve lives on adrenalin. He could quite cheerfully turn up at a Chinese restaurant for three hours on a glass of water while he pursues politics. For those who are his enemies, they always ought to be aware this bloke would rather a fight than a feed."

Fortunately, Conroy is not Minister for Dining, Catering and Carryout.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Potstickers, Pilsener Urquell and Puccini

My onetime favorite restaurant in Shanghai was a State Owned Enterprise, Yu You (越友), which roughly translates to "Yu [Shaoxing] Opera Friends." It actually started life as a gathering place for fans and performers of this musical form, and I could imagine the strains of "Dream of Red Mansions" filling the air in the main dining room, which was alway full of good cheer due in part to the tall bottles of Shanghai Beer which seemed to adorn every table. Yu You has been gone for years, progress and profit having replaced it with an upscale Japanese restaurant called Ambrosia. According to an article in The Prague Post by Wendy Leung, however, the combination of Chinese food, opera (both Western and Chinese) and beer lives on in the Czech Rebublic at a little restaurant in Vinohrady called "Dobrý den."
Have you ever been at a pub and thought, “If only I could nosh on Chinese food and listen to live opera while enjoying my beer?” Well, someone has. The Dobrý den, a little neighborhood Chinese restaurant in Vinohrady, launched its first “opera pub” night in late November, and will host another Jan. 12.Restaurateur Patty Zhu was an opera singer for four years in Beijing and Hong Kong, before finding her way into the import business in Prague and eventually opening Dobrý den last year. The restaurant soon became a hangout for professional Czech singers in the area, and the idea of pooling their talents germinated.While a pianist accompanies on a portable electric keyboard, Zhu and her friends belt out French, Italian and Chinese opera favorites in front of a jam-packed dining room, while guests drink beer and snack on tapas-style Chinese plates.If you’re looking for a surreal evening, you’ll find one here. For more information, check
According to Dobrý den's website, the musical offerings at the first "opera pub night" was:

Mozart: duet Don Giovanni
Puccini : Kalaf
Samson and Dalila
G. Verdi: Libiano
Dvorak: Rusalka
Dvorak: Princ
Why are the roses red
Weber: Memory (Cats)
Con te partino (Bruschelli)

There's no mention of what "tapas" were served, but the restaurant's website lists the lunch menu. Did you know Sweet and Sour Pork is "Vepřové ve sladkokyselé omáčce" in Czech?

Monday, December 08, 2008

Northern Chinese food

I recently stumbled across an article about a man named Sun Jiantao, who opened a restaurant called "Chinese Dragon" in Murmansk, Russia. The article was in Chinese, but according to an automatic translation, I think it claims to be the first Chinese restaurant north of the Arctic Circle (66° N. Latitude), though you can't trust those machine translations. I knew it wasn't the only Chinese restaurant north of the Arctic Circle; my favorite Chinese restaurant that I've never been to, Misigisaq Restaurant, is in Sisimiut, Greenland, (latitude 66.93). I also knew that my daughter can claim to have been to northernmost McDonald's in the world, in Rovaniemi, Finland (lat. 66.48), and if there's a McDonald's there, there has to be a Chinese restaurant or two in the vicinity. [Edit: I recently found photographic evidence of one Chinese Restaurant in Rovaniemi, Xiang Long.}

But was the Chinese Dragon in Murmansk (lat. 68.59) the northernmost Chinese restuarant in the world? I had to know, but it didn't take long to debunk that notion. As a fan of Cheuk Kwan's Chinese Restaurants series of movies, I knew all about Michael Wong's "Lille Buddha" in Tromsø, Norway, and its competitors. A quick check revealed Tromsø's latitude to be 69.65, esily besting Murmansk. Not only that, but Tromsø may have as many as six Chinese restaurants; I can't be sure that they all are still open, but in addition to Lille Buddha, I found references to Tang's restaurant, Choi's Kjøkken, Lotus, Shanghai, and Il Mare (which doubles as a Latino dance hall on weekends), all in Tromsø.

Tromsø be bested? I soon found what must be the real Heavyweight Champion of Northern Chinese food, Ny-Ålesund, Norway. At 78.93, it is so far north that it's mostly populated by staff at climate research stations, and a flickr photo displays what appears to be a nameless Chinese restaurant. Search attempts to find a name for this restaurant pricked that bubble, however. According to the account of Ship's Captain Philip Rentell of the Saga Rose
"As I walked around, tourist style, I was surprised to come across what appeared to be a Chinese restaurant. On closer observation it was, of course, the Chinese research station from Shanghai, but the large stone Chinese dragons outside were both impressive and deceiving."
The real winner? Until someone furnishes evidence of a Chinese restaurant in Longyearbyen, Norway (lat. 78.22), the northernmost place to get a Chinese restaurant meal appears to be in a town right here in the U. S. of A. (and with no funny letters in its name), Barrow AK, Latitude 71.29. That place would be Sam and Lee's Chinese Restaurant, at 1204 Agvik, next to Pepe's North of the Border, which might be the northernmost Mexican restaurant in the world.

What kind of welcome will you find at Sam & Lee's? Take it from local Floyd Davison's advice to a visitor:
"Whatever, when you get here... get settled in and then drop by Sam & Lee's Chinese Restaurant. It is possible to miss me in the evening. These days between 9 and 11 in the morning is almost a guaranteed thing though. Just look for one big fat old guy and one short fat (older) guy (me) sitting in the middle of the room downstairs acting like they own the joint. (You won't have to find us actually, as we usually latch onto every tourist who walks in, just for entertainment."

And give me a report on the Mongolian Beef, willya?

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Crime-fighting fortune cookies

Imagine opening a fortune cookie and getting a message that says "Watch out for pickpockets – mind your valuables." This might happen to you if you are dining at the Crown Buffet Chinese restaurant in Leeds, England, reports the Yorkshire Evening News. It seems that inserting anti-crime messages in fortune cookies was the bright idea of the West Yorkshire Police and Leeds City Council, and supported whole-heartedly by the restaurant owner (we don't know if there was an "or else" involved). The cookies will also be handed out in car parks. I don't know if Jennifer 8. Lee has checked in with an opinion on this, but to me it would take all the fun out of fortune cookies if you opened one and it said "Lock valuables out of sight or take them with you" -- even if you added "between the sheets."

Trading Chinese food for sex with prisoners -- Since we're on the subject of crime, I found in The Watertown Daily Times, a newspaper I grew up reading (and the long winters in its watershed area can make anyone go goofy), this article on bizarre goings-on at a "correctional facility" in Gouverneur, N.Y. It seems that a frisky female commissary worker had a few sexual favors on the menu for male inmates. Not only that, but "She also provided inmates working in the commissary with food from the outside — including McDonald's fare, Chinese food and brownies," according to the article.

I don't know about you, but if I were a male inmate, I think gettin' a little from a person of the opposite sex would be treat enough; getting some Chinese food -- even takeout Chinese -- as well would be like eating your tofu and having it too.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Children on the sauce in Shaoxing

When you think of Shaoxing, you usually think of the yellow rice wine they are famous for. Not to worry, the children in the picture aren't waiting for a new batch of Shaoxing jiu to be drinkable, they are watching the manufacturing of another kind of sauce. They're at the new National Sauce Culture Museum in Shaoxing, and according to that institution's website, the museum "digs up the profound sauce culture of Shaoxing which has famous“ three urns culture“( wine urn, sauce urn, dye urn) and extensive Chinese sauce culture." With admirable candor, the museum goes on to add "It is rooted in the background of Zhejiang province with great culture and adjust to the domestic active market economy and also the trends of building museums by big enterprises abroad .At the same time we are glad to get the support of local tourism department ." The local "big enterprise" behind it is the Shaoxing Zhewei Foods Company, but the website hastens to addthat Prof. Zhao Rongguang of Zhejiang University is in charge of designing and maintaining the museum.

I was tipped off to the existience of the National Sauce Culture Muzeum by an article in the Fall 2008 issue of Flavor & Fortune Magazine, which delivered a little more clarity than the English language component of the museum's website:

This museum tells the history of sauces beginning with the first person known in the sauce industry, Cai Yung (133 - 192 CE). His statue graces the entrance as does a wall telling about sauce culture in China. These and the museum tell, in Chinese and English, how soy sauces were taken to Japan by Monk Jianzhen in 755 CE, and lots more.

The Flavor & Fortune article was written by the magazine's founder/publisher Jacqueline M. Newman, professor and Chinese cookbook collector, who gave a plenary lecture at the 2007 China 1st Sauce Culture International Forum, which dedicated the museum. In her account she reports that "On the way home [the speakers] stopped at a Shaoxing wine factory and tasted and viewed specifics to that local fantastic fermented product."

We have no pictures of the adults on the sauce in Shaoxing.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Youdunzi, you done me good!

I was late coming to Youdunzi, long a popular Shanghai street food, but I have an excuse. Youdunzi are usually made by the same street vendors (most often women) who make chou doufu (stinky tofu) and I find it hard to pass up another rendition of stinky tofu when I come across it. After repeatedly hearing Shanghainese (including my sister-in-law, Daisy) wax rhapsodic about youdunzi, I finally got into them near the end of my Shanghai stay in October, and regretted my tardiness in doing so.

A glance at the picture above is enought to tell you that youdunzi are tasty; after all, anything coming out of a deep fryer looking golden brown and crunchy like that have got to be tasty, right? But just what are youdunzi?

Youdunzi (油墩子), if you auto-translate it will come out as "oil block." "You" means oil, and often, as in this case, signifies deep fried, and "dun" means "block." But why "block"? I don't know, but some older Shanghainese pronounce it youdengzi and insist the name should be rendered "油凳子" where the "deng" character means "stool," as in the type of stool you sit on, and the food in question does resemble a shallow stool in shape. I'd tend to agree with that theory, except searching on "油凳子" doesn't yield many results, whereas "油墩子"does.

To make our deep fried "blocks" or "stools," a flour, water and egg batter is pressed into a special long-handled mold (shown in the picture on the right), and this "skin" is stuffed with a mixture of shredded luobo (daikon) and minced green onion, then covered with more batter and lowered into boiling oil. The process is illustrated in this photo tutorial (in Chinese). What emerges from the oil is a marvel of delicate crunchiness surrounding a tangy soft inner melange of savory daikon and green onion. Some versions add white pepper for additional spiciness, and some also add shreds of carrot. There are even recollections of sweet versions, in which red bean paste is used as the stuffing.

If you are averse to street food, you'd better hope you know someone whose grandmother makes youdunzi, because you are unlikely to come across these in restaurants.