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February 22, 2004

eating in China

On balance, Terry and I are enjoying the adventure of new a new eating experience.

We really like several foods that are not readily (or at all) available in the U.S. One is the liquefied yogurt that Terry already mentioned. We have a glass every morning. In the U.S., this is mainly available in health food stores under the name kefir milk. The Chinese name is “suannai,” which literally means sour milk. We have also become avid fans of “cai baozi,” which I’ve mentioned before - steamed bread balls stuffed with chopped green leafy vegetables, mushrooms, and sometimes bits of “doufu” (tofu). Terry loves the wide variety of green leafy vegetables, but except for qing cai, or tong hao without the stems, I like them only when they are chopped - otherwise, I end up with too many long fibers stuck in my teeth. Another thing we like are jianbing - various kinds of thin fried breads, usually with some kind of spice added and sometimes egg. Jianbing are not as widely available from street vendors in Nantong as in Shanghai, but we now have a reliable vendor near my office. Another food that I (but not Terry) love is dried yams. These come in French-fry-shaped strands. At first, I thought they were dried papayas, but I think I like the dried yams even better. (In Shanghai, but not in Nantong, there are street vendors selling freshly baked yams, which are also good.) Another popular snack in China - and with the Wheelers - is honey-coated walnuts.

Terry is getting quite good at cooking with a wok and is bold about experimenting with new dishes. We eat at home almost every evening. We eat a little more rice than we did in the States, and to facilitate preparation we bought a rice cooker yesterday. We eat about the same amount of doufu (several times week), and have started having vegetable noodle soup occasionally. As we did in the U.S., we have oatmeal nearly every morning - sweet for Terry, salty for me. Terry, especially, was pleased to discover oats are popular and available in China. ( I have never seen them at a Chinese-style breakfast buffet, though.) Until today, we have been cooking the instant type that are widely available. Yesterday, we made the happy discovery of lightly milled oats - even chewier than American-style “old-fashioned” oatmeal - and this morning’s breakfast tasted great.

So, what are we missing? Not much. If we don’t find olive oil the next time we go to Shanghai, we will bring some back from the U.S. Another thing we have already brought back from Shanghai is a couple loaves of European-style bread (a little firm and a little dark) - most of the baked breads in China are white, soft, and slightly sweet. (We have yet to explore a local service in Nantong that brings specialty foods from Shanghai, on a special order basis. When we do, we will undoubtedly make some interesting discoveries.) We found something similar to split peas, but no sign of lentils or garbanzo beans. There is no problem buying salt, but it is scarce in restaurants and we have yet to find a salt shaker for sale. There is no convenient supply of bagels, but we can buy them at the synagogue in Shanghai during our monthly outing there; the rabbi apparently acts as a distributor for a local guy who likes to make them. Possibly the biggest change in our eating habits is serving fewer fresh vegetables. It is not safe to eat the vegetables here without either cooking them or soaking them for several minutes in a solution that is basically diluted bleach. As for our eating style, we have pretty much acculturated - using “kuaizi” (chopsticks), ceramic spoons, small plates and bowls, and communal serving dishes.

The biggest challenge for vegetarians in China is dining in restaurants. In Shanghai and Beijing (and maybe elsewhere) there are Buddhist restaurants that serve only vegetarian dishes - even though they all have carnivorous names and appearance. Even some second-tier cities like Nanjing have Indian and other non-Chinese restaurants that serve some vegetarian dishes. In typical Chinese restaurants, though, the challenge is to ask ALL the right questions to establish that a particular dish is truly vegetarian. One common expression - “mei you rou” (no meat) - doesn’t quite do the job, because “rou” encompasses chicken, beef, and pork, but not fish and shrimp. So, on to “mei you hun,” which does include fish and shrimp within its scope. The next challenge is the “yi dian dian” phenomenon. “Yi dian dian” means “a little bit”. I recently ordered some cai (vegetable) baozi from a neighborhood vendor and asked while they were cooking whether they were without meat, and the vendor told me yes. But when I sought to reconfirm as she was bagging them for me, she said “yi dian dian,” in a tone that said “not enough to worry about.” Next is the problem of “ji you” (chicken oil) in soup and other dishes. I take my office staff to lunch every Monday, and last week they confirmed the absence of “ji you” in our soup, but at the last minute learned from the waitress that it had been cooked with “gu tou” (bone).

Fortunately, Terry and I like to eat at home most of the time; it’s much easier that way! Having said that, though, I have found a great restaurant - the one that sells jianbing - close to my office where I can get reliably vegetarian dishes, and I eat lunch there most of the time. For 2 rmb (about $.25) I can get either two cai baozi, one baozi and one jianbing, or a heaping bowl of vegetarian noodle soup. The staff know me and are delighted that I can fumble through the process of ordering my meal in Chinese. At the other end of the culinary - and price - spectrum, last night Terry and I took our first outing to the Captain’s Grill, a self-styled “American Cafe.” The menu is mostly Americanized Mexican food, with some Americanized Italian options, as well as a few steak and seafood dishes. For 200 rmb (about $25), we had a great Mexican dinner, including a couple bottles of Corona beer. After dinner, we stretched two games of pool for 8 rmb into about an hour of fun. We had heard that this restaurant is the first choice for Western food of American and some European expatriates in Nantong. We saw several other Westerners there, but didn’t meet any of them. We will probably go back at least once a month. We both like spicy Chinese food, and during a previous visit I had a good meal at a Sichuan-style restaurant in Nantong. So, after I get a little more practice at avoiding all the meat loopholes when ordering, Terry and I will try that one on our own. - Norty
Terry's addendum: I think I'm going to write a book called the "Nantong Diet" - it would be about losing weight by moving to China. As Norty said, we do like Chinese food, but, speaking only for myself, I don't like it enough to be tempted to eat way too much of it. Then add in that ice cream isn't available, I don't really like most Chinese sweets (oddly enough, they are TOO sweet) AND the fact that we walk nearly everywhere we go, and the net result is that I've lost 5 or 6 pounds since we got here. Norty, on the other hand, has gained a little weight! Go figure!

Posted by now at 01:29 AM

February 08, 2004

hard at work

I did not expect the first few weeks on the job to be easy.

Afterall, I was coming to a county where I lacked cultural sophistication and (even after a month of study) had the language proficiency of a grade schooler. Things turned out to be even more difficult than I anticipated, though. Immediately upon my arrival it was clear that I need to fire my local manager for incompetence and at least small-scale corruption. Doing that and changing the lock were easy. Wading through adminstrative paper work was harder. Fortunately, a friend introduced me to a couple of local government officials who are smoothing path toward issuing a new "chop," changing bank accounts, revised the registration of our Representative Office, etc. Getting control our our supply chain for the maching castings and other vehicle components we buy in China is still more challenging. In the first phase, I spent the past week bouncing around country roads in buses with worn-out shock absorbers, explaining our reorganization to our vendors. The coming week will entail further discussions and manuvers. My good friend and colleague Liu Sheng left his post as manager of our Nanjing Office to help me during the past two weeks. His sense of humor buoyed my spirits, and I couldn't have acoomplished what I did without his help. The coming week will entail further discussions and manuvers. The feeling is a lot like playing xiangqi -- making one's best move, based on resources available and in anticipate of potential moves by other players. -- Norty

Posted by now at 02:59 AM