Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Food and Fun in China

Food is a big deal in China. And since at one point Mom asked us "how is the food", I'm making this newsletter about our food (and fun) in China.

The company we work for here (called "the House of I") offers us meals as part of our compensation. They originally only gave us 2 options of where we can eat (a bit further down I'll get to the third option): Wayne Castle and Chopsticks. These are 2 restaurants that are nearby.

Wayne Castle: This restaurant is about 200 meters up the hill from our house. Following in the wild west theme it is named after John Wayne. They serve only Chinese food and the menu is entirely in Chinese. We do though have a photocopy of the menu that someone has written an English approximation of each item on it. We have since found out this is last year's menu and we don't have a translation of this year's menu. We can order anything on last years menu (and if it is available they'll serve it but some things they just say not available) then we sign for it when we leave and I guess they send the bill to House of I. We don't eat in the dining room with paying customers. Instead they guide us into the room where staff hangs out, here it is:

We have eaten there a few times and it is quite tasty authentic Chinese food. But most of it is cooked in so much oil of a type that Carole's digestive system reacts to it rather violently. By trial and error we have found 2 items on the menu not cooked in oil, but there has been such discomfort after eating some of the other trials that we try to not go there anymore. So that leaves just one more choice that is at no expense to us

Chopsticks: While the above restaurant with the American name only serves Chinese food, "Chopsticks" only serves western food - with a knife and fork (no chopsticks). Conveniently this restaurant is directly across the road from our house:

The food here is excellent and although we enjoy authentic Chinese food and want to experience it while in China, this place is very convenient to us and it is completely compatible with our digestive systems. The downside is that it is quite expensive and although we don't pay, the House of I also does not want to pay the full price. So the arrangement is that each month the chef creates 3 or four dishes that fit the budget and for that whole month we have only those 3 or 4 menu choices from which to choose. This month our choices are:

Even for me who usually does not require a lot of variety in my menu, I get tired of the same thing over and over again. And the next month, probably only one or 2 of the 4 dishes will be changed to something different as there are a limited number of choices available.

So, on to our third option - the staff canteen. This was not originally offered to us I think because they thought it was not good enough for us. Chinese companies are required to provide meals for their staff so how it works here is the House of I purchases meal cards for each of their staff and when we enter the canteen they check off the day and meal on our card. This is not fine dining and the service costs the company about $70/month for each card (about the same as 5 meals at Chopsticks or Wayne Castle). As you can see, we are not waited on at our tables:

And we even supply our own eating bowls (You can see in the back wall little cubicles where we each keep our bowls and chopsticks). We even do our own washing up when finished:

We generally like the taste and our digestive systems also get along nicely with this food. Sure its an assembly line and isn't beautiful, but we can see what we are getting and can choose how much of each dish we want:

This has become our favourite place to eat and its nice sometimes to eat with the staff rather than hobnobbing at the restaurants.  One of the disadvantages to the canteen is that it is has very restrictive hours: 7:00-8:00, 12:00-13:00 and 18:00-19:00. Officially that is the time, but in reality, if we don't get there within the first 15 minutes of opening, we usually find just rice and a few remains of just one or 2 dishes. So, when it is not convenient to go there at exactly service time we eat at chopsticks.

There are a few other eating establishments in this development but most of them are reserved for homeowners only (and of course they are expensive). There is though an option, if we arrange in advance to eat at the Teton Hotel. Since yesterday was our wedding anniversary we arranged to eat at the hotel. We were told it was a wonderful buffet for $300 RMB ($60) each. Well when we arrived there was no buffet. So after getting one of our translators on the phone and passing the phone back an forth with the restaurant manager we figured out that tonight is not a buffet, but rather a multi course full service meal (also known as a Chinese Banquet), so we just pay our $300 RMB each, sit down and they start bringing us food - plate after plate after plate ... So in reality it was like a buffet because they brought such a variety of food to our table. I thought I'd have a photo of a wonderful buffet spread but instead I shot this of what came to our table at the beginning:

This was after a small bowl of yougurt and then soup. So we thought this was it but in fact this was still just the beginning, it just kept on coming. What we have here as best we can tell is (front to back) Stomach lining of some animal, thinly sliced slightly pickled green stuff, seaweed with a few fish eggs for garnish, duck (real duck this time, not the white geese that I said were ducks in my last letter), and finally Chinese greens. All very delicious. Finally, once we where completely stuffed and still had food left on the table they brought us a big bowl of noodles. I saw that another table beyond us got their leftovers boxed up to take home so I asked (in sign language) for ours to go too - another full meal's worth.

Breakfasts: We don't go out for breakfast but stay in our house and eat fruit, then eggs or bread and peanut butter. So we have to go shopping for fresh fruit. Last week you saw the outdoor market in Yanqing which has lots of produce but is not at all convenient to get to. Now we have learned of a local market, just a 15 minute bicycle ride away which has as much produce as Yanqing plus some other market type stuff. This is a rotating market. The vendors set up in a different village each day so it ends up in this village every 5 days. OK, so how to know when is market day? Easy, its every date that ends with a 4 or a 9 of the lunar calendar. I knew that Chinese new year was determined by the moon but I didn't know before how much daily life (in the countryside) is regulated by the lunar calendar. Anyway, here's a shot of the village market:

and while we are here, a shot of a typical street corner in this village just a couple of blocks past the market:

We went together last Tuesday on our day off to check it out but we had already stocked up in Yanqing the day before. But this last Sunday I rushed in to the market at 7:40 and made it back home by 8:30 with the following bounty:

The final entry in this food edition is the meal we had the day we went to Beijing. So one day we went in to the city for a business meeting. While waiting for the meeting we sat and chatted with the president of the company in his office. Of course being in China is great for a tea lover like me, and I was quite excited to see that here a feature of an executive desk, rather than a cigar box and mini bar is a tea service. This one is so cool, he just opens the lid of the kettle, turns on the water tap to fill it and switches on the heating element. Old tea can be poured into the wooden grill where it flows out the drain:

After the meeting and presentation they took us on a tour of their facility and then out for dinner. This is the dinner, it is called "Hot Pot" which is a Beijing specialty. In the bottom of pot is a charcoal fire coming up through the chimney in the middle which heats the spicy boiling water around the outside. We then take food from around the table (vegetables and thinly sliced meet) and drop it in the water for a minute or 2 before then take it out to our bowls to eat. The staff keeps on bringing more food, and beer, and tea to make sure the table is always full.

Finally now, for the fun. I put "and fun" in the title for an excuse to show one more thing that isn't food related. On the weekends here we are sometimes asked to do something to entertain kids, so we came up with the idea of kite-making and flying. We went to town (Yanqing) and bought bamboo sticks, string, sheet plastic, tape, etc so of course we had to do a trial run at kite making and flying before pretending to be the experts and helping the kids do it. Here, is our first diamond kite in the wind. Not a very windy afternoon so we didn't really get it flying much higher than what you see in the picture:

Not a scenic location here as it is actually the garbage dump. But is is the only open spot nearby  with no trees blocking the wind. We also wanted to try a couple of other types of kite so we made a delta kite which never did fly properly and also a "barn door" kite. We made the barn door because it is something a bit fancier than your basic diamond kite plus the website said this is a "uniquely American" kite - so perfect for Jackson Hole. Here it is just getting up in the breeze:

And here is where the fun really shows. Look at Carole's face once she had her hand on the string:

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Domestic Life in China

This was originally sent as a letter to Family on  May 7, 2015:

Well we are settling in to our life here. So this letter is not exciting adventures, it is about our day to day living. So in this letter, we have many pictures of our house. This is especially for Gudrun who in our last three houses has asked us for pictures and we never got around to sending any. Well here they are of our home for the next year.

The company has provided us with a nice house all to our selves. So here is the front view of Villa #3:

Not very Chinese as It looks much like a typical small house in the western US - but that's the whole idea here. The view from the back makes it look much bigger but the downstairs/basement is mostly empty space and storage.

The shaded deck will be great in the heat of summer as it can get up to 40 degrees here. But I don't know if we'll have the deck to ourselves. The Chinese don't have the same concept of personal space and private property as we do and they feel free to walk on and use any deck that is nearby. There was a construction project going on across the road from us and some of the workers would take their tea breaks up on our deck, making use of the outdoor chairs and table we have set up out there. We soon got used to that, but yesterday we where surprised when a whole Chinese family came up on our deck, looking about (including looking in through the windows). The big surprise was when the 5 year old boy opened up our front door and walked right in. Of course we couldn't communicate very well and the family started to leave. Then they came back, opened the door again and took pictures of the 5 year old boy with me. Probably we were the first Caucasians he had ever seen.

So, what they saw inside our house was the living room:


 And the Kitchen:

In the past week we were involved in some workshops and in helping to host the opening of a new "family house" in the "Western Town" of Jackson Hole. It was the May Day national holiday which is the second biggest holiday of the year. Since this year May 1 was a Friday, it became a long weekend and Jackson Hole was full of weekend residents and visitors. The big empty street in Western town that I showed last letter was full of hundreds of people milling about the events and booths that were set up for the festivities. Unfortunately I had a camera glitch and lost all photos from that weekend.

Now we have a day off and are doing Laundry. This time of year drying clothes outside is pretty quick - winter will not be so easy.

Fortunately we have a little washing machine that we wheel into the bathroom and connect to the water tap so we don't have to hand wash as we had to do everywhere else when visiting China before. 

Here is our bedroom, complete with cowboy theme on the bed:

On the other side of the bedroom is a surprisingly large closet

And for the final house picture. Downstairs is mostly empty space where the company stores spare materials. But there is a spare bedroom:

So if you come to visit we have a place for you. Also there is lots of floor space downstairs where we could put a foam mattress for another visitor to sleep.

From our front window we can see these ducks (edit: geese actually) which are usually in the water, but this day they are walking about on the shore:

One day we went for a walk up "Hollywood Road" to "Beverly Hills" a new subdivision that is mostly still under construction. just to the right of the hills in the background are the famous caves we visited when we fist got here. We hear that there are more caves up at the end of Hollywood road - one day we'll  take our bicycles further up the road to take have a look:

Yesterday was errand day so we took a 1/2 hour taxi drive into Yanqing to get supplies. Here is the market street where we stock up on fresh fruit:

The next stop was Walmart. Yes that's right there's even a Walmart. It seems crazy to shop at Walmart in China but the fact is, its the easiest place to find almost everything we need to start setting up our house. Since it is almost impossible to find someone who speaks English, one big store with everything is a big help.