Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Introduction: Literary allusions…. and delusions of grandeur

The title of this blog is a direct reference to John Steinbeck's book 'Travels with Charlie'. This book chronicles Steinbeck's travels throughout a largely unseen - at least publicly - America. Charlie, of course is his dog who apparently was a good enough companion to warrant a place in literary history.
I'm not pretending to have the literary capabilities that Steinbeck has shown in this book. Nor do I pretend to be a dog accompanying you or anyone else through this journey. I just hope to be as good of a companion as was Charlie. And I hope you will join me in my travels.
I am currently writing this from my dorm room in Haerbin, in the Northwest part of China. I have already spent over a week in India, and nearly a week in China so there is some catching up to do.

Monday, May 11, 2009

BenBang Cai - Shanghainese local food... sweet and sour

So my aunt Catherine - who has taken a youthful interest in China since visiting here just two months ago reminded me of what is called BenBang cai - or the shanghainese local food. It is typically a bit sweet, and usually not spicy. I've been to a few and I think, like everything in China (or everywhere) there is the authentic and the perverted version. One was a really dingy place with little to no seating. our friends booked a table for becca and i a week in advance and we ate up on the third floor. you had to climb up stairs that were more like a string of ladders and the ceiling, which was nearly touching our heads was covered in grime from stir-fry. the room we ate in had a large window looking down on the street, which was suprisingly quiet - except for two men that were fighting over the price of fruit. food was great - and we even found some decent veg dishes.
the other place i went to was called 'shanghai uncle', and it was much more upscale, very clean, and expensive. i thought the food was awful, and i'm willing to bet the first ingrediant in each dish was sugar. we had some pork ribs that were doused in what amounted to sweatened ketchup, and their specialty - a $10 plate of crunchy eal - tasted like cardboard covered in carmel. This is ironic because a running joke in china, especially among westerners, is that a lot of the low-cost eateries may try to pass off a mix of pork and cardboard as real food. This high-end restaurant, has a clientelle that is mostly western or high-income chinese, so reputation seems to be much more important than actual quality: I've never found the street food to be as disgusting as what we got at 'shangai uncle', and usually you can watch them prepare it.
I'll be posting more pictures from Becca's visit to picassa. We had a most wonderful time together.

Sunday, April 12, 2009


I'm going to say it : it's finally really spring. After a few weeks of stable 50 degree weather (which actually wasn't that enjoyable because it was so wet), and now 60 and 70 and even 80 degree weather, I'm finally feeling comfortable with the temperature. Unfortunately, in another month or two it will be nearing 100 degree weather, with 100% humidity. So I'll try to soak up the good weather while I can.
Flowers have been blooming here. Two weeks ago marked the opening up of cherry blossoms, which the Chinese say are here one week and gone the next - they're mostly gone now. And last week the peach trees were in bloom. Most of the magnolias bloomed 3 or 4 weeks ago, although it seems the purple ones are just finishing up. Also red-buds are in bloom or finishing up - this reminds me of home. Finally the great sycamore trees that line almost every street in Shanghai are finally budding out. To me this is most significant, as they have been a looming naked presence, reminding me that it was in fact still not quite spring. So since they're willing to open up I will too.
It's also tea season and the first crop of tea came out two weeks ago in SuZhou and HongZhou (the two cities near Shanghai). I have a small bit of what is called qingming tea - the cream of the crop - or the smallest leaves that have just shucked thier outer buds. On Sunday I got to witness and play a part in this whole process. Two friends an I traveled first by train to Suzhou, and then climbed onto a packed bus where we spent the next two hours jostling for space and some sort of handle to keep ourselves upright amid unannounced stops and sharp turns. We finally arrived on the third of three islands that skip out into Tai lake - which is an extremely large lake that a number of cities feed off of. We found the farmer that had been recommended to us by a local we met at the train station and then sat down for lunch at a large inn that hosted both men, women and animals. The chickens were mostly kept in a caged area. The food actually wasn't the best, even though it was extremely fresh and locally grown - he liked his oil and sugar just a bit too much.
Afterward we headed to the tea fields where we we're instructed on how to quickly pick with our forefinger and thumb. The owner came with us, and showed off his lightening fast picking style which he had cultivated over the last 30 years. He had what I call the 'black thumb' because of it - a blackening just below the face of the thumb that is caused by the natural dyes in the tea leaves. I imagine they probably have some sort of tea owner's guild and the black thumb is a prerequisite for entering.
After we labored, for an hour or so in the fields we went back to roast the tea in a huge wok especially made for the tea. There are three steps - the first is to just roast the tea in the pan while churning with your hands (wearing gloves), this step is actually called 'kill green' because it gets rid of the really fresh green look... as a side the green actually returns when you brew your tea and magically the tea leaves look almost the same as when you picked them!!! The second step is actually very similar to kneading of bread and it rolls the tea while also pushing our moisture. Finally the last step is more rolling between your two hands to give the tea a wirey look ... at this last stage the hair of the tea become apparent. The tea from Suzhou is know for its hair which is really just natural fibers in the tea which only become really visible when it dries to a certain degree.
so that's Suzhou tea..... Other tea's like LongJing or DragonWell in HongZhou require a different process and therefore taste completely different. Pretty amazing.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Family come and gone - but I am still here

So there has been a lot that has happened in the last month since I last wrote, but I don’t think I’m going to get to all of it…. First my parents and Aunt came to visit during the last week of February, which was pretty exciting. They brought lots of reminders and tastes of home with them – including three floyds beer, hafner wine, California cheese, coffee and chocolate. Somehow nothing lasted long though…. The wine was more or less finished in one day, and the beer took 2 days. But it provided immense pleasure. We tried to supplement the great western treats with equally satiating Chinese edibles… we weren’t always successful and I think sometimes I walked them to death before any sort of carrot was reached, but all in all we had a decent taste of Chinese food. Of course dad claims that the best meal he had in all of China was when we just cooked at home but a severe prejudice against anything not homemade…

We spent most of our time in Shanghai and Hangzhou, took pit-stops at cafes and tea houses to dry from the rain and visited the restaurant recently featured in the New Yorker. I personally thought the experience was one of the best culinary experiences I had, but very different from what you would expect in a western venue.

Finally we went to Beijing, saw the great wall and the forbidden palace, and met up with one of my former Chinese teachers. She treated us to one of the best meals we had while in China.

The day after everyone left I went to Hong Kong for a 4 day Fulbright conference. It went well and gave me a chance to meet all the other Fulbrighters, and see how their work was coming along. My only complaint was that they over-scheduled us with extremely boring lectures. Even the historians in the group found the content miserable. They also took us to Macao, which is now the world’s largest casino location, but what I found fascinating about Macao were the small communities that were far removed from the glamour of the casinos. We walked through areas where the shop owners all spoke Portuguese, and little else. Amazing considering more than 95% of the people that live in Macao are Chinese. We also enjoyed some really good sea food in small two story restaurants, tightly packed with tables.

Since then I’ve been finally getting some work done. On Monday I visited the company that we’re helping develop a TB diagnostic with. I was absolutely amazed by the sophistication of their technology, the positive attitudes of their employees and the willingness to collaborate of the company owners. We’ll be helping them design new methods for collecting sputum from patients and then process it (meaning clean it more or less) for diagnosis. This is actually one of the major hurdles for developing a diagnostic that can reach rural clinics or even patient's homes (point of care), because the collection and processing of sputum requires lab equipment and can negatively affect diagnosis. Hopefully we’ll have something working by the end of my time here.

I also started a small cooking class for my lab mates. It’s not only an opportunity to eat some good food but I also make them speak English so that they have an opportunity to improve a bit. Each week I usually prepare a dish and then ask one or two of my colleagues to prepare a dish as well and teach the rest of the group in English. This week I made a mix of Indian and Chinese stir-fry, one colleague made a meatball soup, and another made a certain dried fish that is a specialty of his home-town. It was a bit crowded but we made it informal enough that as dishes were prepared and finished we could begin having samples.

That’s the short story of what’s been going on the last month. I’ll hopefully get another post out this week that will fill in some details or at least give you a closer look at my week.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Routine... Kind of

I guess it's been a bit too long sense I last wrote, and a lot has probably transpired... but you wouldn't know because I didn't write it down. Well I guess I'll start with today then.
Life is slowly moving into a routine. I woke up arou 830, had a breakfast of zhou (which i think we call congee), which is a pretty rich meal of (in this case) rice (different kinds if you're feeling a bit crazy) and I through in some beans as well (small red beans). Then you cook it like you would rice, except you use a lot more water... I use chicken stock because it makes it so much more tasty. It's actually very similar to the Italian dish risotto, except a lot easier because you just let it simmer for an hour letting the stock slowly seep into the rice (and beans). Then you can top it with veggies or some meat. This morning I just added some pepper/salt and some spicy oil. But I had it again tonight for dinner and added some heated Duck confit (which also easy to make and good - duck cooked and stored in its own fat!!!). So it's a pretty easy but tasty and potentially diverse dish.
After breakfast I went into the lab where I'm working. Right now I dont really have any labwork but am helping write a few papers and doing some background research on potential projects that I may be initiating. We're working mainly on diagnnosing TB and because of my relatively amazing skills in English (actually everyone in the lab has pretty amazing reading and writing english skills), I get to be apart of a lot of different projects, helping to write up reviews and analysis of data. I personally want to work with a company that has been developing with potentially our help a new TB diagnostic for under-served populations. It looks pretty promising and I'm hoping to help them analyze it and redesign if necessary.

For lunch I had some small wontons (pasta wrapped meat, like dumplings, in a simple broth), and some steamed dumplings (which are basically like wontons without the soup). After that I took one of my lab friends to a cafe to give them a taste of my work ethic - which during my Northwestern years involved many hours at Peet's coffee. Although the coffee shop was not quite Peet's it had it's own flavor. In fact it's owned/run by a young Chinese man that I think just loves coffee and wanted to start something unique. It is American or European in coffee only but represents a Chinese spin on the small cafe that we see (although more seldomly) back home. It's in an old shanghai neighborhood of completely brick houses that were likely built by the british in the 1930s. Down one of the alleyways in thsi neighborhood there is a small sign that reads 162. It only differs slightly from anyother address indicating set of numbers and I'm not really certain that it has any other meaning than an address. But it distiguishes the shop from residences around it and that is the only way I find it evertime I swing by. Inside is just one room large enough to fit a small barista bar, a couch one large table and two small tables. The large table is usually occupied by a large group making cookies, which is the breilliant bit about this cafe. Because Chinese do not typically have an oven the cafe offers groups the chance to come in and make cookies using an oven that they placed in a retrofitted shack outside the cafe. Brilliant really. So that's where I like to go when I have a bit of computer related work to do.... Its a taste of home through the coffee but authentically china.
Dad, Mom and Aunt Catherine will be here on Friday!!!! Should be pretty fun!!!
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