Tag Archives: China expat tips

On torture (or: What to expect from your bed in China.)

On torture (or: What to expect from your bed in China.)

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.20130515-P1240351

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: Read the rest of this entry

Homemade granola

Homemade granola

Breakfast is a bit of a challenge in China if you’re not near a shop that sells expat goods. You can get the odd cereal, but they’re more into congee and noodles with their morning cuppa. Lucky for you, you’re a thrifty little homemaker, and all the ingredients to make your own granola are readily available. And you don’t need to be Martha Stewart to make this either. It takes all of 5 minutes to prepare, and then just let the oven do the rest!


Makes 3 cups



2 1/2 cups raw oats

pinch of salt

1 teaspoon cinnamon (or to taste)

1/2 cup of nuts (I used almonds)

2 tablespoons butter

1 tablespoon sunflower oil

5 tablespoons honey



1) Preheat the oven to 100ºC. (If you’re using a little toaster oven, which if you’re a temporary citizen you probably are, make it 120. Don’t be impatient and set it too high or you’ll burn the nuts. You don’t want burnt nuts). Scatter the oats in a baking tray. Sprinkle with the salt, cinnamon and nuts and stir through.

2) In a little bowl, melt the butter and add the oil and honey. Pour over the oats.

3) Stir the honey mixture into the oats. This is about the minimum amount of mixture you would need to get good coverage without it getting to fatty or sweet. Yes, I realise there is no such thing as “TOO fatty or sweet”, but it’s breakfast, so let’s try to start the day right, okay?  It won’t look like enough in the beginning, but just keep stirring till it’s all coated and trust that it is enough. If you want more butter and honey, add as much as you like.

4) Place in the oven and toast until golden brown and crunchy, about 90 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Chinese dinner table etiquette: A novel in one part.

Chinese dinner table etiquette: A novel in one part.

The seat of honour.

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 Read the rest of this entry

Homemade hamburger buns

Homemade hamburger buns

You know how sometimes you need a hug from that one person? Not just any person. A specific person. It seems in that moment like it’s the only thing that will make you feel better. You might get a hundred hugs from other people, but it just isn’t the comfort and snugglyness you are looking for and it just feels a bit, well, flat really. Well I feel the same way about hamburger buns. I’m very particular, and when I’m craving a soft, squishy, yeasty bun nothing else will do. Now as any red-blooded bread-o-phile will know, indulging our particular passion in China is easier said than done. The Chinese like their bread on the sweet and cakey side and even though a growing number of patisseries are now starting to cater for those who like a more chewy, yeasty bread, they normally take the form of baguettes or ciabattas. Hamburger and hot dog buns are still a rarity. Fortunately, you can find everything you need for baking your own rolls at most supermarkets. If, like me, you have given up on finding yeast, fear not! I found it in the aisle next to the peanut butter and mayo. Go figure.

This recipe makes the perfect hamburger bun. To my taste anyway. Like that essential hug they are firm with just the right amount of give to make them squishy, they smell wonderful and they aren’t crusty. Erm. Okay, the similarity probably ended with smelling lovely. This recipe was shamelessly copied from Serious Eats, without changing a thing (other than replacing the dry milk with 4 heaped tablespoons of Cremora as I did not have milk powder on hand). For these burgers I made a few pure beef patties, a creamy basil pesto sauce and some mixed root vegetable fries. Who says money can’t buy happiness?

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Creamy chicken pasta with basil pesto and (homemade) sundried tomatoes

Creamy chicken pasta with basil pesto and (homemade) sundried tomatoes

Necessity is most definitely the mother of invention. And when you live in China, but steadfastly insist on eating like you’re still back home, you have to get inventive pretty damn quick. Shanghai is an amazing city to live in. You can immerse yourself in Chinese culture, customs, life and food or you can go for days here without living in China. If you know where to look, you can get your hands on pretty much every comfort from home. But as Qingpu is the Western most district in Shanghai, getting a sudden craving for one of my favourite Verdicchio’s pastas could easily result in a three hour round trip to track down the ingredients. Take sun-dried tomatoes. They may be soooo 1990, but when no one is watching, we all still love them. But when I wanted to whip up this sun-dried tomato containing pasta a little while ago, I quickly realised that the Chinese are very à la mode, because I couldn’t find them anywhere. What to do? Even if I had a lovely, sunny patio, the searing temperatures and high humidity meant I’d be left with a scene more resembling a week old DB on CSI than anything you’d want to chop up with some chicken. So I settled for the next best thing – tomatoes completely untouched by the sun, but still oh so good. Possibly better, actually. Read the rest of this entry

Fusion Fajitas

Fusion Fajitas

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.

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Shanghai’s greatest shengjianbao

Shanghai’s greatest shengjianbao

When we first visited Shanghai a few years ago, I (needless to say) consulted all the books, forums and websites out there to plan our gastronomic excursions. Top of many people’s list was Yang’s Dumplings – a bit of an institution in Shanghai and apparently one of the best places to get your shengjianbao. That’s quite an impressive accolade in a sheng jian crazy city! So we took our place in the queue and half an hour later were rewarded for our patience: Soft on top and fried on a cast iron pan to a perfect crunch below, these dumplings contain a delicious, scaldingly hot broth and juicy pork filling perfectly flavoured with sage and spices. They are, in a word, sublime. Don’t just bite into them without a little planning first though, or you’ll blister your lips, your chin and possibly your thighs as the soup explodes from its casing and dribbles down your front – a sure sign that you are new at this and a rite of passage for anyone living in this city (yeah, been there.) Pierce the dumpling with a chopstick and allow some of the heat to escape before biting into it. The hole will also help to release a bit of pressure so that it does not go bang in your face. You can also just slurp out the soup first, but I like to try and get as much of it into a bite with everything else!









There are many street vendors that sell these morsels all over the city and I’m sure if you keep looking you’ll find ones even better than Yang’s (if you’re serious about this whole business, then follow CNN Go’s Great Shengjianbao Food Tour of Shanghai), but you’ll probably have to go a long way. At only US$0.90 for 4 hearty dumplings, you’ll be hard pressed to find a cheaper, tastier meal anywhere. And the good news is you no longer have to queue at one of only a few restaurants in the city – Yang’s now has over 40 locations, including (oh the joy!) one right opposite our hotel all the way out in Qingpu.