Posts Tagged ‘Food’

New Years Pt. 3: Religion For Sale

February 22, 2012

I’m far too behind schedule to get away with still blogging about Chinese New

Incense for sale on the way to the temple

Year, but the rest of my New Year’s Eve was pretty fascinating too. We last left our heroes shortly before midnight, having just set off probably several thousand RMB worth of fireworks while at a questionable level of sobriety. Leaving a wasteland of smoking and discarded packages strewn across the pavement (this is China, after all), we set off for a temple, where it is tradition to burn incense and make a prayer for good fortune at the start of the New Year.

The main road up to the temple was lined with stalls selling incense of all sizes,

Lining up to burn incense

from small conventional sticks to massive columns at least six feet high. Our hosts bought a half dozen three-packs of large, four-foot sticks of incense, which we lugged up the road with us to the temple. Reaching the temple and climbing a set of stone steps up to the first main altar, we found it already packed with people lugging bundles of incense. I had seen people make offerings of incense before at Chinese temples. Given a less crowded day at a temple, people will generally take the time to light the sticks and hold them up as they bow three times before placing the incense at the altar to burn or placing them to burn in a nearby small stone tower housing a fire. But this evening, crushed by the growing throng of “worshippers,” people showed little interest in attaching even the most basic sense of ritual to the act. One by one, people approached the pyre and unceremoniously lobbed their package of (expensive) incense into the flame. The environmentalist inside me winced as I watched plastic packaging, unremoved, curl up in the flames. Many people tossed in entire plastic shopping bags of incense. By the time we had arrived, the stone tower held a massive, roaring fire and belched thick clouds of black smoke into the air.

Burning incense

This type of folk religion was, of course, forbidden for much of the last century in China, and has only re-emerged as a consequence of opening up in the last two decades. I find the role that it plays in contemporary society puzzling. From what I can tell, many families do still pay respects to ancestors, and give offerings during visits home and on important holidays. However, out of everyone I’ve spoken to, no one seems to attend rituals like the midnight New Years prayer out of any real religious feeling. Most go just because it’s the thing to do, or, as a cousin told me that evening, to 感受气氛—just to take in the atmosphere, and enjoy the novelty of it.

The pervasive commercialism seems to have become inseparable from the ritual itself. I remembered seeing the same thing when I visited Wutaishan 五台山, a famous Buddhist pilgrimage site, with 博哥 a couple of years ago. The amount of incense and other Buddhist paraphernalia for sale, which rose exponentially in price the closer one got to the actual holy sites, was staggering. It must have cost several hundred RMB just for each member of the family to toss in a sizeable ream of incense as part of the New Year’s prayer. The temple in Yiyang, 博哥’s dad informed us later, had held an auction for the right to be the person to give the first auspicious offering in the temple right after the stroke of midnight. The winner had spent 40,000 RMB (6,330 USD) for the privelege.

The worshipers thronging around me had spent quite a bit on their bundles of incense, too. And yet, though people line up to throw their money at these rituals, they often take no time to savor the actual ritual of it. They just the incense in the fire and move on, as if the simple act of having purchased the incense is all the spiritual credit you need.

We climbed another level of the temple, reaching its highest point shortly

We were waiting by another incense pyre just as the fireworks began to go off

before midnight. As the official start of the New Year approached, I realized that we had deliberately set off our fireworks prematurely. Most families waited until midnight, and before long, the air was filled with rumbling and cracking from all directions. Looking out over the edge of the temple platform, I saw that the entire skyline was ablaze, looking (and sounding) as if the town was experiencing an air raid. It was an incredible sight, and I tried to get photos of fireworks going off all along the river, but smoke from the incense fires below blocked a lot of them out.

A couple of the aunts were determined to make the rounds to all of the different

View of the street below

altars. Families who must have been waiting to set off their fireworks continued to stream in, and by the time we started the climb down, the temple was absolutely teeming with people. Rather than go straight to bed, we returned to the second relative’s home for a family tradition of eating 夜宵, a late-night meal (the Chinese equivalent of post-partying drunk food). Here we finally got the famous Chunjie dumplings, though I learned that the tradition of eating dumplings on Chunjie is in general a tradition confined to northeastern China. However, because several relatives had worked in Shenyang, Liaoning province for several years, they had brought the tradition back with them. Another meal of course brought more beers. Though this now marked their third attempt of the day to get us drunk, we held on as best as our endurance would let us, before we all staggered back home and crashed around 3am.

New Years in Middle of Nowhere, Hunan pt. 1

January 26, 2012

Cousin Katie and I spent Spring Festival 春节this year with 博哥’s family in Hunan. While this was the second Chunjie I’d spent in Asia, I

Picturesque Yi Yang

had spent the holiday during my year at Beida travelling outside China, and was thus excited for my first chance to have an authentic Chinese New Year experience. We flew into Changsha Hunan, early on Saturday morning, and 博哥’s mom (who I’ll call 李妈妈 for the purposes of the blog) and dad (李爸爸) met us at the airport for the drive to Yiyang 益阳, where 李妈妈’s family is from. Yiyang,a tiny (by Chinese standards) city of about half a million people, lies about an hour and a half northwest of Changsha. It’s got the rather drab uniform look of most middling Chinese cities: most of the buildings share a similar beige color and few are over eight stories high. We stayed in an apartment just off of the wide shop-lined pedestrian street (perhaps modeled after Shanghai’s Nanjing East Street) that is also a mainstay of all mid-level Chinese cities. It snowed most of the afternoon and evening of our first day there, such that the whole city was blanketed in snow by the second day. Covered in snow, the city resembled a less picturesque version of the homely town where the blockbuster Pepsi commercial I wrote about earlier this month is set.

We arrived in Yiyang mid-day on Saturday, in time for a massive meal with several aunts, uncles, and cousins, including a mid-sized bottle of baijiu split between the five men (including me) at the table. Unsurprisingly, non-stop eating and drinking were the dominant theme of the entire trip to Hunan, to the point of exhaustion. Every lunch and dinner became a big production,

All the meals were this awesome. Only thing missing from this photo is the boozeHanging out around the fire after a meal. It was too cold to do much else

with plenty of relatives crowded around a table piled high with food. The homemade food was, also unsurprisingly, amazing, although I was surprised that this Hunan crowd ate very little spicy food. Most meals consisted of a couple of large stews which boiled throughout the meal in electric kettles, flanked by an assortment of stir-fried dishes. As the meals wore on and the stir-fried dishes cooled, the remainders were dumped into the boiling electric pots, presumably to re-heat them and to soak up the flavor of the stew. Several family members live on farms, giving us ample access to amazing home-raised free-range chicken, and incredibly fresh home-grown vegetables, including some I’d never seen before.

Even this amazing food took a back seat to the single-mindedness with which a Chinese family at New Years pursues its alcohol. The level of drinking was

View from on top of a temple on a hill overlooking the city

exhausting. It felt like an act of physical exertion to drink heavily over a big lunch and then, just in time for the buzz from lunch to wear off, to start all over again. Luckily, this family was willing to spare us from drinking baijiu most of the time, leaving us to choose between beer and wine. The downside of drinking one of these, though, is that an appropriate toast often requires draining a full 5 ounce glass—whether it was full of beer or wine. According to custom, one is expected to toast everyone at the table, as well as be toasted back by the other drinkers. On several occasions, thus resulted in me finishing off more than a full bottle of wine to myself, to say nothing of the beer. A couple of times, 李爸爸 brought bottles of wine with him to toast us with when we went to visit other relatives. However, as the wine was mostly for our benefit (had it been up to them, they would have drunk just baijiu), few people had an opener handy. We watched instead as an uncle, showing remarkable ingenuity, drove an ordinary screw through the cork and used that as leverage to remove it.

While Chunjie festivities often last a whole week, the official start of the new

Burning "money" for ancestors to use in the afterlife

year was Sunday night. We gathered in an aunt’s apartment for the meal, but before we could eat, the family had to make a New Year’s offering to their ancestors. We gathered in the small apartment’s dining room, where several Mao posters overlook a round wooden table. We watched as Grandma laid out two plates of meat and a full stewed chicken in a bowl on the table, as well as a couple of plastic cups of rice, and two glasses each of water and baijiu. She placed a sprig of green onion over each of the dishes of meat, and lit a couple of sticks of incense. Each member of the family took turns bowing over the table, following which she burned a small handful of rough yellow paper, which I’d seen before to represent money. The little dish

Also from a temple overlooking the city. The low buildings in the background are a cement factory.

of incense was transferred to a small altar inset in the dining room wall.

I’ve decided to split this into a couple of entries since it’s too long for one blog post, but stay tuned next week for drunken fireworks.

Hunting down the food of rural Sichuan

December 17, 2010

Check out my interview with Chinese food blogger Stephen Jack. I discuss my favorite meals, some cooking tips, and the truth of Sichuan’s reputation as the spice capital of China!

Empowering Entrepreneurs through Microfinance

December 9, 2010

I paid a visit a couple of weeks ago to Zhang Rong, the hot pot entrepreneur and microfinance borrower whose photo has long graced the Wokai website. Mrs. Zhang operates her hot pot stand across the street from the ARDY branch office in the town of Yong Le, while her husband works up the street at the local power station. Her older son, who is 21 years old, works as a car mechanic in Chengdu, while younger son, 18, is currently a senior at Yongle High School.

Mrs. Zhang and her husband moved to Yongle from the countryside in 2001. When they first came here, Mrs. Zhang worked as a cook at the power station where her husband still works. In 2005 they started construction on the building which currently houses the hot pot shop on the ground floor and the family’s residence on the second floor. The concrete building was completed at a total cost of around 20,000 RMB and paid for in part by a micro loan from ARDY.

 

With her husband away at work all day Mrs. Zhang runs the entire shop by herself, even during the evening rush.

Mrs. Zhang’s stand is famous for its Ma La Tang 麻辣烫, a type of hot pot consisting of vegetables and some meat which is sold by the skewer (at 0.5 RMB apiece) and then boiled in a spicy broth. Mrs. Zhang makes her own broth from chili peppers, Sichuan peppers, and various other seasonings; I tried to get the exact recipe from her but was unsuccessful. Many people who sell food for a living here are protective of the secrets of their business, for fear of inspiring more competition.

 

In the years since first opening her own shop Mrs. Zhang’s business has increased significantly. In addition to the classic hot pot she now sells fried hot dogs on skewers for 1RMB each and bubble tea for 1 RMB a cup. The profit margin on all of her products is quite slim; the hot dogs cost her 0.8 RMB a piece to purchase, leaving her with only 0.2 RMB profit. She caters mainly to students from the three middle and high schools in the town, which swarm her stand during break time, especially after their evening classes end at 9pm.

On the Saturday afternoon during which I spoke with Mrs. Zhang, two regular customers, students at the local middle school, had just showed up for a snack before going shopping. The two girls lingered at the shop, sipping on bubble tea and munching on sausage skewers as they chatted with Mrs. Zhang before sitting down to a bowl of hot pot. Mrs. Zhang mothered over them, urging them to eat more vegetables.

With their own home and a stable business, the Zhang family has a fairly comfortable life in Yongle. Through their own relentless hard work was doubtlessly the most important factor, microfinance also played a role in helping them to become successful rural entrepreneurs.

Fishing in a Tie

October 23, 2010

I spent yesterday learning how to fish with Yang Taigang, who is an old army buddy of one of the local volunteers at the Association for the Rural Development of Yilong County. As I learned how to thread a worm on a hook and cast a line, lessons which had been missing from my boyscout-less childhood, Yang told me about his life. He joined the paratroopers in 1993, in a period when there were few other economically viable options for someone from a family as poor as his. The military salary of less than 100 RMB a month was enough at least to relieve his parents of the economic burden of supporting himself. Today, after over a decade of economic growth in China, a Chinese soldier earns several hundred RMB a month. Jumping out of airplanes, he explained, is something one picks up quickly by necessity, but “the first time was scary. The first time my instructor just pushed me out of the plane.”

In 1999, after six years in the military, Yang left to seek work as a migrant laborer in Beijing. After two years of manual construction labor he was able to gain promotion into a construction management position. Much of the money that he saved by working in the city went to building a new house for his wife and children, which was recently completed. In 2008 he invested some of his own money in his own hot pot restaurant. Unfortunately, the restaurant failed to take off, and since closing it he has been back in Yilong since, planning his next business move. I was quite surprised when Yang showed up to our fishing trip this morning in a sport coat, a tie, and leather dress shoes. The land surrounding the lake where we fished was taken up mostly by rice paddies currently out of season, and after an afternoon of stomping around in the mid his leather dress shoes and dress pants were completely caked with dirt. When I asked him about his choice of attire, he replied, “my family was always poor growing up, we didn’t have much choice of what to wear.” Now, that he is able to afford to Yang always tries his best to look professional.

 

Our first catch of the day.

 

I should note, though, that not every peasant in Yilong shows up to the fishing pond dressed to the nines. When I told this story to the ARDY volunteer through whom I met Yang, he laughed. “Yang has always had peculiar dressing habits, even in the army,” he replied. In any case, the story seemed to me to be an interesting example of what China’s recent economic explosion meant for one individual. For Yang, looking the part is only the beginning. While his first private venture, the hot pot restaurant, failed, he has spent his time back home talking to neighbors and learning more about the different types of businesses currently being run in Yilong. He explained to me that in the China of his childhood, in the years before and the first years of the Open and Reform movement, one’s economic options were so limited that the amount of effort that one put into self-improvement was irrelevant. Now, in contemporary China, “if you work hard, if you struggle, then you can make a better life.”

While Yang landed around 20 small fish by himself, I was proud enough to manage to reel in 4 or 5. We took them back to his home that night, where his wife cleaned and gutted them, then boiled them with pork fat, pickled vegetables and chili peppers to make a delicious sour soup. I asked her if the time Yang spent as a migrant laborer, during which he could only return home once a year to spent Chinese New Year with the family, had been difficult on them. “That’s just the way it is,” she replied, resigned, “when he had time he would call home. It’s the same for most families around here.”\

 

De-scaling the fish

 

 

Sour fish and pickled vegetables soup 酸菜鱼汤. Unfortunately, I was called into the dining room to drink with the host as she was making the soup, and so I couldn't get the whole recipe.

 

Rural Recipes: Spicy Dry-Braised Rabbit with Tofu

October 20, 2010

 

For some reason there was an issue when I posted this yesterday, so here it is again:

On my blog for the Wokai website I have started writing a number of posts featuring the food that I have been eating here and discussing what cooking in a rural Chinese setting is like. Anyone who knows me in the real world knows that Chinese food played a bigger part in my decision to start learning the language than I should readily admit. Besides learning about life and culture in rural China, my second biggest priority for the time that I’ve spent here may be to come back to the US with at least a bare minimum of cooking skills. Most of my posts about food haven’t made it onto this blog yet, something which I will try to rectify in the next week.  Besides, I know all of you who made it through my post the other day about killing the rabbit are dying to know what they did with it afterwards.

They braised the rabbit in a style

commonly referred to as 干锅, or “dry pot.”

The combination of douban 豆瓣, or spicy bean paste, and hotpot seasoning mix made this dish quite spicy, but in my opinion, tolerable. This was my first time eating rabbit, which had a consistency that resembled chicken even more than I expected. Rabbit is actually not traditionally a common food in Yilong County, in large part because the meat is so lean. Chinese peasants prefer fatty meat, a fact which goes a long way toward explaining why pork is by far the most consumed meat here. In any case, I’m sure that anyone aspiring to re-create this dish in the United States would, facing a lack of reliable rabbit sources, probably get much the same result using chicken.

Ingredients (as always, amounts are estimated):

1 packet of spicy hotpot seasoning mix (this can be found at any supermarket in China, and I imagine at Chinese supermarkets in the United States as well)

½ cup of vegetable oil 菜籽油

1 cup tofu cubes 豆腐

1 Rabbit 兔子

Douban 豆瓣, the spicy paste made with crushed chili peppers and salted fermented beans which is a staple in many Sichuanese dishes

½ large white onion 洋葱

~10 peeled garlic cloves 大蒜

1 tbsp. Chicken bouillon 鸡精

1 tbsp. Salt 盐

1 large green chili pepper 尖椒

Cilantro 香菜(for garnish, if desired)

1. Cut the rabbit (bones and all) into bite-sized chunks. My friend needed to slam the butcher’s knife down into the rabbit in order to sever the bones, spraying droplets of water from the cutting board on me as he cut.

2. Fill the wok with hot water and pour the chunks of meat in. Stir the meat for 30 seconds to wash it and then drain the water. Fill with new water and repeat, draining the water again.

Rinsing the meat

 

 

Draining the meat

3. Add a ½ cup of vegetable oil and heat in the bottom of the wok.

4. Add a liberal helping of Douban 豆瓣—my friend added a whole ladle—and allow to heat.

 

 

5. Pour in the packet of spicy hotpot seasoning mix.

6. Chop the cloves of garlic in half and add them to the sauce.

7. Add the rabbit meat, as well as a half-cup of water, and stir.

8. Continue to stir the mixture, periodically adding water to the mixture to keep it moist. Because so many guests had come for dinner, they ended up cooking two rabbits, resulting in a very large dish that my friend had to sauté for a long time.

 

 

9. Add a tablespoon each of chicken bouillon and of salt.

10. Wait until the meat is mostly cooked through before adding the tofu. The tofu needs to be cooked long enough to get the taste of the sauce, but not for too long or it will get too soft.

11. Cut the half onion into slices. Add half of the slices into the pot and continue to stir.

12. Allow the remaining water to boil off from the dish before removing from heat.

13. Cut green chili pepper into rings, chop the cilantro, and add with the rest of the onion slices on top as garnish.

14. Serve!

 

 

Killing a Rabbit–WARNING: Graphic. I mean it.

October 20, 2010

This weekend a friend I had made whose family runs a rabbit farm in the town of Dingziqiao (see previous post, “How to Raise Rabbits”) invited me to his father’s birthday dinner. The food was amazing, and the family really friendly, though the whole experience turned out to me more intense than I thought when I got the chance to watch the father kill the rabbit that would be the main course for the evening’s meal.  I really wanted to write about the experience, though I’m warning in advance that this was really gruesome. I’m serious. Anyone who would feel any discomfort reading about little animals suffering should skip this one, suffice to say that it was a more intense experience than your standard animal killing.  If you’re not dissuaded yet, the full post below can be accessed with the password “rabbit”