I don’t think people quite comprehend what I mean when I say that beds in China (or at least all the beds I’ve had the misfortune of sleeping in) are hard. We’ll be making small talk, somehow the conversation will come round to beds (as it does) and I’d casually mention that beds in China are really, really hard. They’ll give me that raised eyebrow, skeptical, “uh huh” look and I can actually see them thinking “Bitch, please. I had to carry my 10mm thick mattress 10km every day when I was in the army and there was nothing but it between me and the ground at night. The ground!”. Okay, yes, but on the ground you probably had a thin layer of scuffed up dust to provide a bit of cushioning. If you haven’t slept on a Chinese bed then you do not know what a hard bed is. I’m not being a princess here people. A pea under a hundred mattresses would not bruise my well padded exterior. I am not a softy. But I’m talking about beds that are essentially a bit of soft filling, sandwiched between two wooden planks and held together with a thin layer of fabric. I don’t even really know what the padding is supposed to achieve, other than to sag a bit when you sit on the edge of the bed to tie your shoelaces. Jade pillows might have been lucky and a sign of wealth in days gone by, and hard beds touted as being good for your spine, but this is the 21st century and we have sports cars and chiropractors here for that.
So what can you do about this dilemma if you’re planning a long term trip to China? Here are a few things you can try:
1) Sleep on the floor for a few weeks before your arrival to prepare yourself for the onslaught on your body. Not a carpeted floor. Not a wood laminated floor with that spongy bit underneath that gives it a bit of spring. Those are too soft. Do you want to be a wussy or do you want to get your spine used to a Chinese bed?! Find a bit of concrete or some nice terracotta tiles and toughen the hell up.
2) Get a large person or a St. Bernhard to sit on your left arm and left leg until they go numb (your arm and leg, not the person or dog). Now remove them and then try to fall asleep with the resulting burning sensation as your blood flow returns to your extremities. The St. Bernhard in particular is a good choice if you can get a nice smelly one, because then you can start preparing your olfactory senses for the special onslaught they’ll be enduring on the city streets.
3) Get out a Twister board and put your right hand on green and your left foot on red. Now twist your spine around 180 degrees and put your left hand on blue and your right foot on yellow. Now hold this position for two hours. Attempt to unfurl yourself, and note how your body feels. Can you handle that? If yes, then welcome to China. If not, read on.
Memory foam mattress toppers are a worthwhile investment if you’re going to be in the country for an extended period. But starting at upwards of US$350 a piece (and too heavy to take back home with you), this is not really an option for medium term stays for those of us on a budget. Your best bet then is to do a bit of online shopping on sites such as www.jd.com or www.taobao.com. Visit the sites using Chrome with translation enabled, and you will be able to navigate your way around easily. The great thing about these sites is that you can pay COD (using either cash or a credit card), so there is no risk, even if you get it totally wrong and order a tea tray for delivery to a temple in Tibet. (There would be a risk to the store though, and probably a few confused monks, so try and get it right.) Items are delivered free of charge, to your door, within 24 hours. We found this padded mattress cover on jd.com for only US$25. Combined with an extra duvet or two under us (and a few sniggers and oi-those-crazy-white-people head shakes from housekeeping), our bed went from a torture device to downright almost comfortable with just a few clicks. Stick blender aside, it’s the best money we have spent in China!
“Duōshǎo qián?” I say with a raised voice, stabbing a finger at my open purse, not quite believing that this is actually happening again. I am back in Shanghai and totally incapable of being understood when I try even the most simple of phrases in Mandarin. How am I failing so dismally at this? Ten years after living there I can still order 500 grams of pork sausage or two first class train tickets to Warsaw in Polish, but I cannot remember how to ask for something in Mandarin for longer than it takes me to switch off the AC and find my room key on my way out to test the new phrase.
Mandarin is notoriously tricky to learn. Besides the obvious difficulty of having to deal with hanzi characters instead of the Latin alphabet – rendering the use of a well thumbed dictionary effectively useless – Mandarin has four tones, creating a mine field of possible mispronunciations and embarrassing situations. It also has a large number of homophones. The sound “shì”, for example, is associated with over thirty distinct morphemes. I have also discovered that learning a language completely on your own, without a bilingual person to help you out, makes things considerably harder. No matter how wrong you’re getting it, the electronic voice on your learning program of choice will assure you that you’re doing a stellar job even if you’re mangling the language. But even so. You’d think I could get the basics right, right? At least to enable me to do some simple shopping, right? Wrong.
Once I realised that I would not be fluent in Mandarin in the three months I’d set as my goal, I decided to focus on a phrase a day. Bite sized chunks that I could perfect before moving on to the next thing. Today’s phrase was to be “How much is it?”. A second attempt at a simple sentence which – in a country where just about every price is open to negotiation – I would be sure to need at some point during the day, and therefore a good choice if I wanted to practice it a bit in a real life situation. I listen to the phrase on Jibbigo, try to visualise the pinyin characters and repeat it over and over again like a slow Chinese Rain Man with a speech impediment. I check myself by testing it on my translator and it ensures me that I am, indeed, saying “How much is it?” in Mandarin that is at least passable enough for my iPhone to understand. I leave the room, walk to the elevator, stop and turn back. I let myself back into the room, check the phrase book again just to be sure and repeat it three more times. Having satisfied the linguistic obsessive compulsive in me, I make my way down to the establishment on the corner. One of those Chinese shops (although here it’s just a shop) where you can buy everything from a packet of crayons to a yellow g-string with a chicken beak attached to the front where your willy goes, should you be that way inclined. I grab a set of earphones (the packaging ensures me they’ll “make exquisite sound for excellent life”) and head for the counter. Now at this point, as the shopkeeper rings up my purchase and everyone knows what is expected of them, I should just look at the amount indicated on the till, pay and leave. But no. I open my purse, tilt my head to indicate I am in questioning mode while holding it open, and say “Duōshǎo qián?”. He freezes, looking at me like I’m speaking Greek. I’m not, am I? I’m pretty sure this is Mandarin. My phone told me so. I can’t have gotten it that wrong surely? And to help him put my question into some context and better understand what I’m trying to ask, there are visual clues. I’m in a shop. I have handed over an item I wish to purchase. I am holding open my purse, nodding to the yuan lying in there and deploying the international hand signal for money by rubbing my thumb and fingers together. If I were playing a game of charades, even a dim witted Labrador with bad vision would get “Lady asking for price” by now. He has not. He shouts for his mom in the back and she joins him. A short conversation and some nervous glances between them follows and they turn back to me, staring at my purse like a paper snake will pop out of it at any second. Determined not to give up until I either get it right, or someone puts two and two together and helps me with the correct pronunciation, I repeat “Duōshǎo qián?”. The mother throws her hands up and walks to the back of the shop shouting “Ting bu dong” as she goes. I have lost count of the amount of shopkeepers who have just shouted “I don’t understand!” at me and walked away, leaving me alone with their tills and wares, presumably so I can help myself to some sort of Laowain protection money, with the promise of not coming back till next month. They don’t try to help, they don’t try to understand and they are not interested in my amateur mime attempts. They just forgo the sale and leave. “Duōshǎo qián? Duōshǎo qián?” I try one last time, aware now that if I was drawn as an anime character, I’d be the chick with the crazy eyes and frothy mouth who sprays spittle everywhere when she talks. As a last, desperate attempt to get the mad lady out of his shop, the man slowly picks up a beaded Hello Kitty purse from the shelf behind him and drops it in front of me, snatching his hand away quickly. Apparently what he has gleaned from my communication efforts is that my red leather Busby purse isn’t blingy enough around these parts and could he possibly be so kind as to suggest an upgrade? I stare at the shopkeeper for a few more seconds, slump my shoulders, hand over what I assume is a sufficient amount, wait for my change and walk out of the shop feeling defeated.
And that is why I am giving up on Mandarin. No man is an island until he tries to learn Chinese in China.
If you’re from a small town, or have lived in the same city for a good number of years, then you’ve probably dealt with that claustrophobia that sets in on occasion. You know the one where you wake every morning feeling like the walls have moved slowly, but perceptibly and inexorably closer during the night? It normally occurs after spending weekend after weekend doing nothing but watching Top Gear reruns and eating Friday night’s leftover pizza so that, by Sunday night, you’re lying awake, staring at the ceiling and wondering “Is this really it?”. The solution? Make a new year’s resolution to get excited, wide-eyed and curious about your own town and surrounds again.
A new look at old treasures.
1. Do what you love to do: Seems a bit obvious doesn’t it? It would be a terrible bit of advice if I said “Now, go out there and do what you hate! And have fun, dammit!”. But it’s not really such a silly thing to suggest, because how many of us actually do what we love most of the time? Why wait for those two precious weeks you have off at Christmas when it can feel a little like a holiday all year round? Do those things you love doing on holiday even when you’re not on holiday.
2. Plan, plan, plan: If, like me, you can’t really see why drooling the weekend away in front of the TV as mentioned under point 1 is a problem, then you’ll probably need a bit of encouragement to get out there and explore. Vow to never spend two weekends in a row at home. Gather a group of reluctantly adventurous friends and take turns planning your next outing. Choose somewhere in or near your hometown to explore and get cracking. There’s a wealth of information out there:
a. Surf the web: Tripadvisor is always useful and will give you a new perspective on your town when viewed through the eyes of a fresh-off-the-plane tourist.
b. Pick up some brochures, road maps or a local guide book: You could probably get all the info you need online, but just imagine how happy you’ll make the ladies at your local tourist information centre if you grab a few of their dusty (and mostly free) paraphernalia. Every town has one – just look for the “i”.
c. Phone a friend: Or a family member, or a stranger or anyone else who has visited your area. They’ve often done their homework and will, embarrassingly, know more about what’s happening around your area than you do. You know it’s true. We’ve all had someone ask what we suggest they do in our town only to have “The mall! The mall!” flash through our heads in neon colours to the exclusion of all other ideas.
d. Read a travel magazine: Nothing will get you as excited about the same old sites as seeing them draped in beautiful people on the pages of a glossy magazine.
3. Check out an organised tour: Bus tours, bicycle tours, boat tours, foefie slide tours, walking tours, history-, gastronomic-, architecture-, or wild flower tours – there is sure to be something in your area that interests you and where all the work has been done by a red faced tour operator slowly developing carpal tunnel syndrome from flicking around a logo’d flag to keep his flock in check. You’d be surprised how much fun these touristy things can be. Check out City Sightseeing for a schedule of Cape Town’s Hop On / Hop Off bus tours – a great way to see the city and responsible to boot if you’re planning on sampling the myriad exceptional wines the region has to offer. Most big cities around the world have their own version.
4. Snap away: Happy snapping is not just for holidays. Take photos of your outing so that you’ll have memories to look back on. Look at the old and familiar through a camera lens and try and imagine seeing it for the first time. Snap the same old water tower you drive past every day from a fresh new angle.
5. Try a new restaurant: For the love of God, just forget about McDonalds or the Spur for one damn day and try something new! They’ll still be there next week, I swear. Support those people who are really passionate about food and fresh, seasonal ingredients. At The Old Townhouse in George on the Garden Route for example, you not only get fantastic, seasonal, ever changing fare, but you get to eat it in the tiny, quaint, original Town Hall built in 1848 – two touristy birds with one stone. Or try a new ethnic cuisine that you’ve never had before.
6. Pretend you’re from Lonely Planet: The next time you’re walking the beaten-into-submission track, ignoring the same old shops you pass every day of your life without going in, pretend you’re writing an article for a travel company. What is there to see? What makes each shop special? Is the best milktart you’ve eaten since sitting under a quilted blanket on Grandma’s lap when you were eight served from a hole-in-the-wall establishment behind the Caltex garage? There’s only one way to find out. Alternatively, create a walking or driving tour of the area based on a theme. If you like shopping for example, find all the best markets in your area, plot them on a map and work your way through them, stopping off at any interesting places in between.
7. Don’t ignore the historical sites: Even the tiniest town normally has a heritage council. Sure, they may just be two retirees who meet for tea and cucumber sandwiches every second Thursday and decry the state of the nation, our youth and how the teenagers keep making out behind the old library, but besides the griping they’ve probably stuck up a few bronze plaques on noteworthy historical sites. Besides the usual museums, churches and battle grounds, you’ll often find some beautiful old buildings masquerading as restaurants, cafés, bike shops or something in vile pink. Look past the peeling paint and you could find some beautiful original architecture.
8. People watch: It’s so many of us’ favourite pastime, but how many of us do this in our own home towns? You’d be surprised what you can learn about yourself, your community and your country by grabbing a grande tall and watching the world go by. I remember sitting in a Mugg & Bean at OR Thambo last year after returning from an overseas visit and thinking there is more vibrant energy in that one airport coffee shop than in the entire city we had just returned from. Sit, watch, learn, absorb and be grateful for every quirky personality that walks by and enriches your world a little one crazy eye-twitch at a time.
9. Take the scenic route: If you’ve chosen to visit a nearby town, take different routes there and back and smell the roses (or boutique vineyard, or yak butter or mohair blankets) on the way.
It has been a weekend of firsts for me. My first taste of century egg, first chicken foot, first frog, first panda pig (although I didn’t realise it at the time, despite the meat being so tender it virtually dissolved in my mouth), first jellyfish and first hairy crab (which I didn’t have to kill myself!). More importantly, I got to experience three distinctly different dinners with the generous people of this country. As the current project nears its end in Shanghai, we had the obligatory celebration parties. Friday with the client and top management (it’s a great industry to be in when the client pays for dinner!), Saturday with the rest of the staff – everyone from the laundry lady to the mechanic and finally, last night, with the client, his family and friends. What a fantastic experience! Even though this was not my first night out with the locals, it was the first time I made a point of observing the similarities and differences in traditions, manners and customs between these three very different groups of people. Dinner in China can be a bit daunting. It is often held in a private dining room in a restaurant, which really puts you in the spotlight a bit. There are no crying babies or waitresses dropping things to distract other people when the pork you just tried to pick up goes skidding across the table like a little soy sauce covered bobsledder. And when you are there with the “important” people, it gets even more nerve wracking. Where do you sit? Where will the boss sit? What rituals should you follow? Will you be expected to bow without falling over or catch a fly with your chopsticks to prove your worth or spit on the floor to fit in? What if you comment that you’re a fan of Toyota and single-handedly bring an end to all future business dealings? But I realised very quickly that none of this is important. Food is a great equiliser and our hosts (and by hosts I mean of the country and not necessarily of the meal) were more concerned that we were having a good time and enjoying what they had ordered for us than whether we could handle our chopsticks like a boss. That said, learning a little bit about what to expect and what is expected of you when attending a dinner is just good manners. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery after all.
For the most part all the general rules of polite behaviour apply and where you are and who you are eating with will determine to a great extend which customs you should honour. The more formal the occasion, the stricter the protocol. On Friday night when the client was entertaining business associates, most of the procedures below were followed. On Saturday night… well… if people are falling off their chairs drunk then you can be sure no one gives a crap whether you took the last crab for yourself and on Sunday with the family and friends, it really was just like your average family dinner at home. You’d have Aunt Marge who would glare down her nose at you if you put your elbows on the table, but you’d also have loud Uncle Al who spits his bones out straight into his plate and chews with his mouth open. When in doubt, take your cue from the people around you and err on the side of propriety. Here are (quite) a few things to remember:
Meeting and greeting:
– As with any dinner, show up on time and dress well. You will feel more comfortable delicately spitting out that piece of pickled jellyfish into your napkin when no one is watching if you’re wearing heels and something pretty when everyone else is in jeans than if you’ve got your favourite T-shirt on and everyone else is in cuffs and collars. (Obviously if you’re a guy then don’t do the heels and something pretty, unless your host is a lady boy.) As a rule of thumb, if you’ll feel comfortable wearing it to the NG church, you’re probably okay.
– When you enter a room, greet the oldest person first. Remain standing when you are being introduced to someone and don’t take it personally if they don’t look particularly impressed with you as many Chinese are taught not to show too much emotion. Conversely, if you are greeted with applause, don’t assume it’s cause you’re awesome. Just applaud back.
– A good old fashioned handshake is completely okay – no bowing needed. Despite having zero personal space the Chinese are not physical people. Do not hug them or pat them on the back. But as with all good parties, this becomes a moot point when the baijiu starts flowing and the “I love you man” hugs are initiated by your Chinese friends.
– Use the person’s title before their name when addressing them, unless specifically told not to. Even if they’re just introduced as John, you call them Mr. John. Keep in mind that when being introduced to someone, the family name will be mentioned first. So Cheng Gordon becomes Mr. Cheng unless he tells you to call him Gordon. This applies everywhere, no matter how informal the event or what rank the person occupies in the company.
The seating arrangements:
– Wait to be told where to sit by the host and wait for the guest of honour to either sit down first, or to be told by the host to sit down.
– The guest of honour will be given the seat facing the door. This is known as the seat of honour. At more formal occasions that seat’s napkin might also be folded differently to the rest. At a round table the seats on the left hand side of the seat of honour are second, fourth, sixth, etc in importance, while those on the right are third, fifth, seventh and so on in importance, until they join together. At a square table, the right seat facing the door (or East if there is no clear main entrance) is considered the seat of honour.
Utensils and crockery
– Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you can probably use chopsticks to some extent. (They’d also make useful utensils for digging yourself out from under a rock, come to think of it). Even though your host will probably organise knives and forks to make Westerners feel more comfortable, it will be appreciated if you make an effort to fit in with the Chinese way of doing things.
– Never use your chopsticks to pierce food as you would with a fork, but you can use them to break up bigger pieces of food as you would with the side of a spoon. When you aren’t using them, place them on the rests provided (if none are provided, you are probably in a place that supplies disposable chopsticks so you can use the wrapper they came in to make a makeshift rest). Never stick them standing up in a dish (it is a harbinger of death) and never lick them (unless you are trying on purpose to be suggestive, in which case you better know your audience). Don’t pretend you’re Travis Barker and use them as drumsticks. Don’t use them to make walrus teeth. Don’t use them as sharp poking devices. Just eat with them. Of course, if you’re at the type of party where someone is already dancing on the table, then feel free to play a tune on the table top to provide the beat.
– When you have finished eating, place the chopsticks across the lowest part of your plate, facing left. I found that, as with Westerners who seem to have forgotten how to use their knives and forks to indicate that their meal is done, this doesn’t really happen here either. But it’s the polite thing to do and it makes the server’s job easier, so listen to your mother.
– It is completely acceptable to lift bowls to your mouth when eating rice, noodles, soup or anything else that is messy and can be slurped or shovelled into your mouth. You should hold your bowl with your thumb on the mouth of the bowl with the first finger, middle finger and third finger supporting the bottom of the bowl. Don’t slurp from plates.
– When food is placed in the centre of the table (usually on a revolving tray), it is intended to be shared by everyone at the table. Do not start dishing up until the host or guest of honour has started, or until you have been told to do so by one of them. It is an honour to have someone dish up food for you (especially if it is the host), so be sure to thank them with the necessary respect when they do (also, be sure to come hungry because this tends to happen a lot!). If you are full, leave a little food in your plate otherwise more will be served to you. It is considered an honour to the host to declare that you are full as it indicates that you have been fed well. It is good manners to serve food and tea to those around you before serving yourself. An extra set of chopsticks will usually be placed with the dish to be used for dishing up. Never use your own chopsticks to dish up from a communal dish unless a spare set has not been provided. If you are serving for someone else, use their chopsticks to do so.
– More expensive dishes such as veal, abalone, and rare fish (please forgive me creatures of the Earth!) will be portioned by the servers and served individually to ensure that every person gets a piece. And while on this subject, be prepared for topics of conversation that are generally considered off limits in polite Western circles, such as the cost of the meal. Guests as well as the host will go on about how expensive some of the dishes are. I suppose this could aid in helping you understand how much you are being honoured and appreciate what you’re eating more, but hearing that the 500ml bottle of rice wine opened especially for us cost in excess of RMB5000 (US$800) made it taste no less like rocket fuel. (I don’t actually know what rocket fuel tastes like, but this stuff would power one.)
– You should try everything that is offered to you and you should do it without pulling a face. This is easier said than done. YOU try not pulling a face the first time you have to put century egg in your mouth! Fortunately the guests also tend to get more of a kick out of watching you trying what they know will be weird to you at the less formal dinners and will probably take photos when they think you’re not looking. At a posh dinner, if you really can’t stomach that fish eye, accept it graciously, try and cover it with a bit of bok choy or something and just leave it on your plate. I firmly believe in trying everything at least twice, but even then the left side of my plate is eventually a graveyard of uneaten weirdness. Fortunately, in a good restaurant your plate will be changed for a clean one fairly often.
– Rice or a large pot of noodles is normally served at the end of the meal only, the idea being that you fill up on that should you still be a bit peckish. If you are I suggest a deworming tablet because you are certainly not eating for one then! At most dinners they will order at least the same amount of dishes as the number of guests, plus one. Unless the plus one will result in an uneven number of dishes as that is considered bad luck. Serve the rice or noodles into the little bowl provided, so that it’s easier to eat.
– Do not put bones in your bowl or plate. Place them on the table or in a special bowl for that purpose. Ditto with shells. A typical Chinese table looks like a tiny pet cemetery after a meal with bones and shells everywhere. Last night, bones were being spat straight into plates, so take your cue from fellow diners on this one or just avoid anything with bones (which is virtually impossible).
– You will never find salt and pepper on the table and asking for it is considered rude. Small bowls of soy sauce will most likely be provided and is either used as a sauce dribbled over your food or as a dipping sauce.
– Don’t take the last piece of food from a communal platter. Even though Emsie Schoeman would tell you to leave it as a sign that there was enough food, when in China serve it to someone else. If someone is attempting to give you the last of something, they are trying to honour you.
– Dessert is not really eaten, but you may be served mooncakes or fresh fruit at the end of the meal. Sweet dishes such as lotus root with glutinous rice are served with the rest of the dishes.
– The host begins eating and drinking first, but tea will be served to you the moment you sit down and you can quench your thirst on that so long, so step away from the wine until the boss has his first sip. The host will also be the first to make a toast. Chinese women are not expected to consume alcoholic beverages, but the times they are a’ changing. And even if they haven’t, I tried the damn century egg, so I’m having my wine. Tea cups will never be allowed to run dry so if you don’t want yours refilled leave a little in the bottom. Tapping your teacup is a way of saying thanks.
An evening of toasting.
– Drinking is an important part of Chinese entertaining and is a universal ice breaker. The drinking officially begins after the host offers a short toast to the group. Thereafter, the rest of the evening is spent “honouring” each guest by toasting them. Individuals, couples or groups will spend the entire evening moving around the table to drink with everyone else at the table and you are expected to return the favour. So do the math. You will drink at least twice with each person. In fact, you should honour the same person twice in one evening as it is considered good luck for that person. So that’s four times per person. When you are toasting with 56%vol baijiu this is bad, bad news indeed. If you can’t move around the table, simply making eye contact and raising your glass is sufficient. When toasting with the whole table, glasses are tapped on the table top before drinking as a substitute for clinking glasses. When toasting with an individual, touching glasses with your rim lower than theirs is a sign of respect.
– If the toaster says “gan bei” then it’s bottoms up, so try and keep your glass on the empty side. Yeah right. Good luck with that.
– Do not pour your own drink and feel free to tell the host when you feel you have had enough. Expect such pleas to fall on deaf ears at the more informal parties (it’s sort of like a Friday night braai back home really). If you are not a drinker, claim that it is so for health reasons rather than moral ones. While it is not advisable to get drunk at a posh party, inebriation is encouraged at the informal ones and the booze will typically not stop flowing until at least one important guest has fallen over (I have not been able to verify the veracity of this statement, but after witnessing this for three years running, my husband guarantees me it is so. And as we had to carry one of our party up to his room on Friday night, I have to believe it is true).
– Respect rank and seniority. Serve food to the more important guests first. Again, this falls apart at an informal dinner. There, just about the only rule is to not be stingy when filling the guy you’re clinking with’s glass.
– If you are going to smoke, offer a cigarette to others. It is not customary in China for smokers to first ask whether smoking is okay before lighting up. Just smile and hope your asthma inhaler still has a few pumps in it for when you get home.
– Use an open hand instead of a finger to point and gesture.
– Burping, spitting and other yucky bodily functions: This is one thing that I will never get used to here. Dainty little ladies burp like troopers and just about everyone spits wherever they please. You are not likely to encounter spitting at a posh dinner, but don’t be surprised if someone hucks one back and spits right there on the dining room floor at a more informal evening. Burping and slurping are not considered rude and will even be used as an indication that someone is enjoying their food with gusto. I’m not sure what our char’s excuse is for letting them off every two minutes while she’s cleaning.
As for the rest, eat with your mouth closed, don’t stuff your mouth too full and generally follow the usual etiquette for polite eating. Remember that your hosts are also quite aware that you have different customs, so they’re probably far less concerned about your getting it right than you are. What matters to them most is that you enjoy the evening, show your appreciation and honour your fellow guests.
Flick through the gallery for images of some of the stranger dishes you might encounter at a Chinese dinner party. Rest assured that the good old standby’s such as prawns, ribs, stir fries and recognisable vegetables will also be in plentiful supply. I have not necessarily used the names off menus (you probably won’t even get to see one anyway, as the host will order), but with names like “Impregnable chicken wings”, “The wild germ hates soup with crisp skin” and “The chicken has no sexual experience” (petit poussin to you), the menu won’t help you much anyway. Hosts are sensitive to our different eating habits, but you should still expect to encounter a few doozies, especially when eating with the average guy on the street.
Tofu dumplings stuffed with minced pork.
Braised beef tongue.
Century eggs with soy sauce and sesame oil.
Chicken feet with chillies.
Crispy cucumber pickled in sugar and vinegar.
Deep fried fish. Eaten whole.
Frog and edamame (green soy beans).
Green beans with garlic. One of the best Shanghai dishes, but beware the Szechuan peppercorns!
Hairy crab roe.
Hairy crab. Eaten for the rich, buttery roe.
Jellyfish – normally served cold and tossed with coriander, spring onions and sesame oil.
Sweet lotus root stuffed with glutinous rice.
“Multicoloured crystal meat”. Similar to pork and aspic, with Chinese 5 spice flavours.
The things we do in the name of investigative eating! Last night I finally bit the bullet. And the chòu dòufu, so to speak. It probably seems crazy that it has taken me three months to pluck up the courage to actually do something as simple as sampling tofu. But the assault inflicted on your olfactory senses by this very popular Shanghainese street snack is not something you can adequately explain to anyone. At least not without a dead pig and some poop to use as a scratch-and-sniff prop. Like walking behind a sweet old lady in a shop when she lets off a silent-but-deadly fart, the smell accosts you when you least expect it. You’ll be innocently crossing a street or rounding a corner when BAM! Is someone… frying human excrement?? If you could somehow solidify the breath of a halitosis sufferer who has just licked the sweaty butt crack of a hydrophobic garbage truck driver coming off the end of a hot summer’s day shift, you would have some idea of what these fried cubes of fermented tofu smell like. But when in Rome right? At least it’s plant related and didn’t wag its tail at some point. Fresh tofu is fermented in a brine containing fermented milk, vegetables, dried shrimp (in non-vegetarian versions), amaranth and mustard greens and herbs. Fermentation can take up to 3 months and the tofu is then cubed and fried on a cast iron plate with herbs and spices. The smell is so rancid that stories claiming that rotten meat and dead flies and even actual human faeces is used in the fermentation process are easy to believe! Apparently when it comes to chòu dòufu, the smellier the better. But I was assured that, like with durian fruit, once I get past the first bite, I would love it. “It doesn’t smell once you eat it!”, they said. “Just think blue cheese and you’ll love it!”, they said. Well, they lied. I managed four bites and I still thought it was vile. Yes, it’s cheap. Yes, it’s silky, but crispy and warm and salty. But it still smells like poop going down. I think I will have to change the tagline of this blog to “I make the mistakes so that you don’t have to”. But there are those who absolutely love it and swear you are only a true Shanghainese when you start craving stinky tofu. For now, I am happy to stay a boeremeisie and crave biltong.
That said, Shanghai street food (and street food in Asia in general) is fresh and tasty and very, very good. And it’s incredibly cheap. For around 20元 (US$3), two adults with healthy appetites can eat till they want to pop. Above all, it is safe. We have eaten our fill in China, Thailand and Vietnam and have yet to get sick. And as I have mentioned before, you might not always know what you’re eating, but I can guarantee you that you won’t unwittingly eat dog – beside it being far too expensive for the average street vendor, these days most of them prefer petting their domestic animals to seasoning them and then roasting till just done. So tuck in with abandon and don’t be scared to make mistakes. Street food is how the masses eat, whether it’s from a food cart attached to a bicycle, a basket hanging from a biǎndan across a little old lady’s shoulders, or sitting on undersized plastic chairs outside a store front. Amenities are limited to the essentials. There might be a scale, a propane tank or little coal fire if they need heat and a naked light bulb if they’re really fancy, but don’t expect refrigeration. The concrete cuisine you will find when you hit the streets will of course depend on where you are. Specialities differ from region to region, city to city and even from district to district. In Shanghai, shengjianbao is ubiquitous, but there is so much more nosh on offer, some of it surprising. Who would think that one of the tastiest naan breads I’ve ever had could be found in a little alley in Qingpu Town. The thin, crisp and chewy loaves are kneaded on the spot by the mom, sprinkled with sesame seeds (a little nod to where in the world we are) and then baked in an oven made from an old oil drum by the son. A little further down a small shop sells Chinese style fried chicken so crispy the colonel would return from his grave to get the secret recipe if he could. If you’re counting calories (and yes, you can stick to a diet quite easily here), you can tuck into subtly spiced, tender chicken drumsticks grilled over a coal fire. For the more adventurous, there is all manner of meat on a stick – from tender lamb kebabs and whole, tiny birds to skewered sausage and squid with a spice that packs a tremendous punch. Friendly vendors with smoking woks will whip up a mean chow mein for you – just nod your head when they point at the ingredients you want and shake your head at those you don’t. And if you like things only a little spicy, I suggest you shake your head vehemently when it comes to the chilli!
And when you’re almost (but not quite) stuffed, save a spot for a piece or three of warm, prepared-on-the-spot peanut and black sesame brittle. The smell of roasting peanuts and sesame seeds and slowly caramelising sugar that hits you just when you think it is, sadly, all done is enough to make you start your street food adventure all over again.
The few things I mentioned here were eaten in just one night, after a stroll down just one street (muffin top explained). But there is so much more to taste and experience when you hit the streets in China. Some of it will be really, really bad, but for the most part it will be very, very good. Vendors often move to where the crowds are and you won’t necessarily find the same person in the same spot twice. So my suggestion? When the opportunity presents itself, grab it. And if you’re not sure where to go, just follow your nose. If you smell stinky tofu, drop everything and run.
Every now and then I experience a truly miraculous foodie moment. An instant when I know my culinary world has shifted and life will never be the same again. Making our own corn tortillas last night was such a moment. It was a first attempt and by no means perfect, but oh my word! They are SO much better than the store bought variety! And infinitely better than making them with wheat flour. We eat a lot of wraps back home, but tortillas are hard to find in Shanghai and therefore, I would imagine, in the rest of China. The only place I have seen them is at City Shop (there’s one in the Shanghai Center in West Nanjing Road) and then it’s the packaged variety that comes with it’s own stay-fresh sachet and a long shelf life – never a good sign in a product that should only last a few days. They’re okay in a pinch, but not great. So we decided that if you can’t buy them, make them. To make corn tortillas you need a special type of corn flour called masa harina or harina de maiz and a Mexican friend. Okay, the Mexican friend is not, technically, required but it helps. When our rounds kept splitting on the edges our friend Tom recommended we add a bit of wheat flour to the mixture and it worked a treat! The process by which masa harina is made is very different from normal corn flour or maize meal which is why, if you have ever tried to make corn tortillas from normal maize meal, you’ll know it’s like trying to shape a bowl full of cheap playschool glue mixed with ground up bits of old rubber boots. Unlike normal maize meal that just gets sticky and gritty, masa harina makes a soft, pliable dough when mixed with water. We found a 2kg bag at City Shop for US$14.00.
Making the tortillas is dead easy. (Or at least, it would be with the right tools which, of course, we don’t have*). All you need is a heavy based cast iron pan, two sheets of wax paper and a rolling pin. We used cling film, the roll the cling film is wrapped around, a breadboard (for whacking) and a stainless steel pot.
– Mix together 1.5 cups of masa harina, 0.5 cup of wheat flour and one and a third cups of water.
– Once you’ve kneaded the flour and water into a soft, pliable dough, leave to rest for 30 minutes.
– Divide the dough into 12 pieces and roll into balls.
– Place each ball between two sheets of wax paper (*cling film) and roll it into a 2mm thick round with a rolling pin (*whack it with the bread board till more or less flat and then finish off with the cling film roll).
– Cook in a hot pan for about 45 seconds per side et voila!
With a bit of practice they’ll be perfect and you’ll never buy tortillas again. It is also a fantastically social bit of cooking – each person trying to roll a better tortilla or come up with a better filling – and who couldn’t do with a little more of that? We started off with prawns, Ranch dressing and basil pesto, but as the evening progressed and we had more impromptu dinner guests, we added some beef and onions from Ajisen Ramen, peppers that Tom whipped up and a few pieces of processed cheese wedges. Fusion cooking at its “what do we have left in the fridge?” finest.
While it’s important to embrace your new surroundings when moving to a new country, what’s really helped keep me sane (okay, maybe not SANE, but it’s at least kept me from rocking myself to sleep in a corner while I click my heels and whimper “There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home.”) is being able to enjoy little bits of said home as often as is practically possible. Food makes me very happy, so how much better is food that also triggers fond memories and temporarily creates the illusion that if you yanked back your curtains you’d be staring at your own front yard, even if just for a few minutes?
I’m not big on Debonairs pizza (sorry tuxedo’d dudes!). I like my pizza like I like my catwalk models – thin, flaky and smelling faintly of smoke. But if there’s one menu item of theirs I crave on a regular basis it’s their Club Sub. It hits all the right spots and here, in particular, it reminds me of happy times back home with good company. This easy dinner is whipped up in a quarter of an hour. Just save a bit of Marinara sauce the next time you make and freeze it in portions (ice cube trays work great!) or buy a bottle of ready-made.
1 large or 2 medium sized baguettes
2 chicken breasts, cooked, cooled and diced into 1cm cubes
150g ham*, diced into 1cm cubes
4 tablespoons of mayo (or to taste), lightly seasoned
125ml Marinara sauce (if you don’t have, just use 2 tablespoons of tomato paste)
1 cup grated cheese (mozzarella is best, but not always easy to find here)
Preheat your grill. Combine the chicken, ham and mayo in a bowl. Slice the baguette in half lengthways and toast lightly under the grill. Divide the Marinara equally between the two slices and smear evenly over each half. Top with the meat mixture, sprinkle cheese over the top and grill until bubbly.
* Eating meat products in China is a bit of a culinary Russian roulette. Not so much because you’re not always sure whether the animal you’re eating died in a sustainable and humane way (probably not) , but because the Chinese tend to eat a lot of sickeningly sweet meat. Few people can forget their first time biting into a piece of bakkwa when they were expecting biltong. It’s akin to finding your dad putting presents under the Christmas tree in his sleep shorts when you were expecting Santa. But the Yurun range of pork products is actually pretty good. Their barbequed pork is slightly sweet, but only in a general BBQ sauce kind of way and can be substituted for ham and they even make a passable banger!
If you’re keen to get out on the golf course a bit and practice your swing, then Glenwood Short Golf Course is the perfect place to do it without looking like a total Koos. Mainly because you’ll be surrounded with so many other hackers that you’ll almost sort of look like you know what you’re doing. Popular amongst scratch golfers and newbies alike, this course is really exceptionally well maintained for a mashie. Sure, it’s not The Links, but then you’re not paying Links prices either. At R45.00 for 9 holes and R60.00 for 18, it’s an affordable way to get your kids away from the Xbox for an afternoon. There are clubs, golf carts and pull carts for hire as well if the Wii has atrophied your muscles. It’s also a great place for a small corporate or private function, with braai facilities and a friendly bar. They have always been very accommodating when, once a year, friends of ours have a birthday bash there with, let’s say, flexible rules on the course. It really is a great place to get into the swing of things if you want to enter the big, scary world of golf.
Knysna Road, George Next door to The Pro Shop at The George Golf Academy.