Thursday, June 30, 2011

That Pot is HOT!

 "So, how is the food?  What are you eating over
there?  Are you sick of Chinese Food, yet?" 

"As the Tummy Churns"
Chapter One

Being raised in the Depression, when food was a luxury, my mother told me that she suspected that her mother (my Grandmother) would feed her three growing children, but not herself some nights. Food was expensive and money was tight.  My Dad once said that his father (my Grandfather) was critically ill for much of his adult life. Therefore, he could not be the bread-winner for his family of five. Dad recalls that catsup soup was considered a meal and my Grandmother and Dad's older sister worked as domestics to keep even that on the table.  I'm guessing you've heard or even experienced your own family's hunger stories. 

Fast forward to mid-century when every night of the week in a suburban bungalow on a tree-lined street there was a plateful of food, a glass of milk and a dish of canned fruit happily awaiting our family of four.

"One Bite Rule" -  In that house on Vassar Street
 there was a fully enforced "One Bite Rule."  This meant that if it was put on your plate you had to have at least one bite of it in spite of your crossed arms and pouting lower lip. (my parents often cautioned me that I might trip on that lip.)  Brian and I learned that we had to try everything...once. Mixed results, of course, but we sampled everything or you couldn't be excused from the table. (Yes, we had to say, "May I please be excused?" before getting up from the table.)   My memory recalls trying just one bite of minced meat pie, acorn squash, asparagus, cottage cheese, calves liver and even deep-fried smelt. Pinching one's nose closed during the sample tasting was allowed since Mom knew that the olfactory sense was a large factor in how things tasted.
It did make it hard to swallow though...go ahead and try it.  :o)

Fast forward 50 years to the other side of the world in Nanjing, China and that is where my food story begins...

This past Sunday we were invited to experience a very different type of cuisine known as Sichuan Henan or authentic "hot pot."  We were invited by Julia, the Big Guy's co-worker.  She wanted to be the first to introduce us to this slice of Chinese culture and food.  We waited for Julia to pick us up in her FORD Focus (blatant product placement reference) and whisk us through the wall of Nanjing to

Hao Di Lao Huo Guo
 <A rough translation is: To scoop up from a vast trench>

Located in an office building we converged on the fourth floor, the doors opened and "POW" we were overcome. Hao di Lao Huo Guo hit us smack in the forehead with lights,color, rooms, tables and people.  Wait staff darted down slim hallways with high arches.  Everyone said "Hello!" to us.  (This does not happen in China like it does in the USA.) These folks were determined to take customer service to the 'nth degree. If you wanted to, you could have your nails done or play a game at your table while you waited.  I secretly wished it wouldn't be that long. Seated at a tiny game table we were offered plum juice, herbal tea and a salty popcorn-like snack.  Julia perused a carbon copy menu that was all in Chinese.  Checking off several boxes she politely explained what she would order for us and why..."Nothing with eyes today!" she grinned. 

Shortly we were escorted to a dining booth fitted with a sunken stainless steel vat/pot/trench. A young smiling waitress filled the two sections with a translucent white broth and a red peppery one and turned up the heat. She invited us to the "sauce bar" where we concocted our own dipping sauce as back at our table the pots began to brew and gurgle.  Dipping sauce choices included; hot peppers, coriander, cilantro, green onions, ginger, chopped garlic, peanut paste, fish paste, several soy sauces and many more spices and toppings. She explained that coming back and trying again was an option if we determined our first choices didn't quite make the grade. Great to know, as we were novices in the Chinese dipping sauce game, that's for sure.   The waitress brought beautifully presented food that Julia had earlier selected. We nodded with wide-eyed curiosity as she added shrimp balls, mushrooms, a squid smash, tofu, lamb, beef and green leaf lettuce.   One at a time they plopped into the broth and Julia explained "When they pop to the top they are done."   We scooped out what was added with a ladle and placed it in our individual bowls, dipping and chatting away.  Darn tasty and each bite delightful.

This was quite the dining experience and like so many Chinese dinners became a social event based on aromatic food and conversation. 

We occupied our table for about 3 hours of a lovely Chinese Sunday evening. Being the only Westerners in the place (I wonder how they knew?) we were invited to see their immaculate kitchen and the entire operation.  They were quite proud of their restaurant and with good reason - very efficient, very clean and well-run.  The waitress touring us asked if we had any suggestions to improve their restaurant. "A picture menu of choices, or even a symbol indicating, fish,fowl, beef, might help." I said.  She nodded approvingly and smiled as if it were the first time she heard that one. 

I'm told that one can find hot pot restaurants in Michigan, but we've never been to one, so it was a superb introduction by an informed host in the country of it's origin. We ate way too much...but with nearly 3 hours of good food and conversation the result was 3 satiated happy people. Stoking steam had the added benefit of a facial, I'm sure - Sichuan style! 

The "One Bite Rule" of my youth proved advantageous to both of us that evening. We tried food that was different than anything we had ever tasted. Needless to say we had more than one bite of everything.  Julia's choices proved delicious to our palates and customizing our sauces to our personal spicy barometer provided a happy outcome for all.

With a new experience 'round every bend in the lu (road) I'm happy to say, I grew that day, dipping deeper into Chinese culture and food and making a new friend in the process. 
Julia ~ May Bride

Xie xie, Julia!  

Thanks for Reading,


Look for Future Chapters of
"As the Tummy Churns."

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Purple Mountain's Majesty

 ~ Far, Far Away,
in the Middle Kingdom...

 "He Came...He Lead...
He got Lambasted with Laser Lights  on the
Peak of Purple Mountain."  
"Team Big Guy" - Nanjing, China

 Team Building in China!~


Thanks for Reading,

Friday, June 17, 2011

Pond Scum

If you read a few posts back you’ll come across my entry about the water feature. [1] 
 I drone on and on about how deserving I am to have such a luxury and how unfair it has been to have one withheld for longer than I can remember.   I even ran a contest to “name that fish,” because there was one left in the pond.   Let me give you an update:

Our landlord and his wife “Rebecca” came out to fix the water feature.  Cheng Feng put on some galoshes and cemented some obvious cracks that were causing the leak.  Watching concrete cure is  just plain time consuming-ly BORING, as any Paesano concrete contractor will tell you.  So for several awkward minutes the four of us stared into an empty rock pit.   Rebecca and Cheng Feng exchanged words we couldn't understand and then motioned to us.  Shaking their car keys gave us another clue; they wanted to take us somewhere. Ah!  Once again the language barrier had us all in the dark on this bright and blue-skied Saturday in Nanjing, China.  But we left the safety of our lush green courtyard and climbed into the landlord's BIG BLACK car and sped off.  Abduction did cross my mind and a childlike chant of “Stranger Danger, never go with Strangers” played in my brain, as did a scene from The Lovely Bones. [2]  Their smiles broadened with each mile.  I drifted off into recalling   a smiling witch in the tale of Hansel and Gretel- another twosome who were clueless in the habitat in which they found themselves...

We pulled into… a landscape market.  A mega-market with booth after booth of locals selling annuals and indoor plants. It seriously went on for a half-mile of aisles.  Rebecca helped me negotiate for four substantial pots of wave petunias, each costing about $1.50 USD. I was so happy I started to grin my own witchy grin.
The Big Guy and Cheng Feng went off to look for fish for our now repaired water feature & after some major fish-monger barking and bartering in Mandarin returned. A giant clear plastic bag slung over the landlord's shoulder and was then gingerly placed in the trunk alongside my 'catch of the day-' petunia pots. The bag sloshed away as we sped home. (Note: We weren't abducted or anything!) Soon our fresh catch was added to the newly-filled pond.  More grinning and pure happiness, too!

The next several days were spent reading up on koi, their happy habitats and nutritional needs.
                          We learned that koi eat mosquito larvae and pupae that may be hidden under water plants. Having a 'bubbler' would increase the oxygen necessary to have healthy koi and decrease the mosquito probability because the surface water would not be stagnant.   This sounded better and better; a water feature and LESS mosquitoes! 
                          Win-Win!  Subsequent mornings before work the Big Guy went out to the pond  to “check on the fish” before a day at the office.  (He’s so dang adorable sometimes!)

All was going along quite swimmingly.  We purchased a 'bubbler,' counted fish daily & observed the water lily growth until... the level on the pond began to drop by two inches every day.   Oh my…the crevices and cracks were not sealed and the pond needed draining AND repair.  Oy! Koi!  I was out of town when this occurred so I missed the drama, but it didn’t end there.  

Draining the pond required a place to put our 16 fish.  Carefully placed water-filled big blue buckets sat under the wisteria and grape-vined pergola.  Our babies were out of the direct sunlight while a repair was planned.   Upon checking on the fish buckets one morning before work, the Big Guy discovered that all 16 fish DISAPPEARED!!!   This is not what was supposed to happen…even the shiny bright orange original koi that sprung all of this into action in the first place was GONE!  Drats!

How could I continue with my blog? Will my credibility be dashed by this atrocity? What about my loyal readership and the contestants who spent time coming up with names for our first born fish? [3]
 After those questions wafted through my noggin unanswered, I decided the predicament was probably not about ME and MY blog but about the fish, MY fish!   ><>

   Where they went is anybody’s guess.  A heron?  A feral cat? Highly unlikely because there was no physical evidence at the scene of the big blue bucket.  Doubtful that a bird or a cat would make 16 trips back and forth over the courtyard wall or under the gate with its lucky find.  Furthermore, if devoured at the scene of the crime one would expect some remnant of our gilled pets. ( Sometimes my CSI-crime scene investigative skills amaze me!)

 The only answer was that someone came into our gated yard and took them.  Sad.  What should we do?    Doing a  mother bear-like stomp  from villa to villa accusing people (in English) of capturing our 16 unnamed koi  in an accusatory tone would backfire miserably.  Proving that the fish in THEIR pond were definitely OUR fish, because we’d “recognize them anywhere,” was also ludicrous.  Silly Westerners. 

A week later the pond was drained and decaying leaves mucked out since they likely harbor mosquito larvae, as we learned.  Next steps?  A silicone repair over the cement and an all-out search & destroy mission for all cracks and crevices.  Hopefully the leaks will be repaired,  then “To market, to market, to buy some more koi.”  This time without our landlord’s help.  The Big Guy is a persistent one and will surely see this through, although his grin isn't quite as bright as when he started the project... Oy! Koi!

[Take note that “yours truly,” has not lifted a delicate pinkie on her lily-white hand to help in this whole undertaking…except for whining and writing “You’all” about it twice now.   Fiddle-dee-dee!
I will mumble this to you…and don’t tell the Big Guy…but I’m starting to see why a ‘water feature’ was withheld from my grasp for decades.   Pssssssssst… lean in – “cos it’s a LOT of work, and a pain in the NECK, that’s why!"  That’s between you and me…right?]

Thanks for Reading,

[3] Submissions were:  Peng Yu, Icthus, Figment, Dolly, Gordon, Nemo, The Incredible Mr. Limpet, Dale, Aquaman, Teddy, Pisces & Noen.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Mandarin Clutch

We embarked into learning the Mandarin language while in the USA. Our instructor, Eva Cole, was very patient with us and we learned some words and phrases over several hours of instruction.   
But as the pressure of moving increased, our dedication to our lessons decreased.  It was a good introduction to the sounds and the culture and has served us well. It's time to get more serious. We begin phase two of our Mandarin lessons this week.   An instructor will come to our home twice a week for a two-hour combined lesson.  The two of us and our new instructor, Stefanie, will sit at our dining room table and we will immerse ourselves in more Mandarin.  My stomach does a flip everytime I think about it. I know it won't be "easy-peasy" as the kids say, of course, but my concern is over having my husband alongside of me while I try to learn something new and difficult.

 HISTORY:  The Spring after I turned 40 we leased a cute little white FORD Escort GT sporting a spoiler and a manual transmission. I definitely did not want a manual transmission as I had never operated a car with one but my dh* said, "No problem, I've taught several people how to drive a stick-shift, you CAN do this, Carol, and I will teach you.  Besides, we can save $15 per month on the lease."   The Big Guy is a very patient man and an excellent instructor. He had been a graduate assistant at the University of Michigan. Heck, he taught eight squirrely 8-year old cub scouts all sorts of things as they ran around the house bopping each other with whatever pointy objects they could find. So he'd earned his credentials.  He had a long list of those he successfully taught this same skill. However, I am very impatient with myself when learning something new....childlike almost.  But I was determined to conquer that clutch and  have a more affordable car payment, and a moon roof!  Add to that the need to prove that a bright 40-year old wasn't "over the hill" as all the black balloons and birthday cards had so eagerly pointed out a few months prior.  Off we went to Madonna University's empty parking lot with our 8-year old son "chatting it up" in the back seat.  Now I am not Roman Catholic but that day it didn't hurt to have "Hail Mary, Mother of God..." with me, believe me.

Instruction from a good teacher begins with the understanding of where the pupil "is at," so they know where to begin teaching. The Big Guy began likening a manual transmission to the gears on a 3-speed bicycle and explained  what a clutch would do to get from gear to gear,blah...blah...blah.  I shook my head up and down. Our tow-headed future driver leaned forward to increase his own background knowledge. He reminded us that in only 8 years he would be behind the wheel. Oy. So, a switch from passenger to driver's seat had me fully determined and focused. And then the fun began! 

 "One foot on the clutch, one foot on the brake...ease off ever so slightly...and accelerate," he
 "Ka-Booonk!," and the car stalled. 
 Try again. 
 "Ka-Blam!" and so forth and so on ad nauseum.
 My left calf was not used to this work out at all.  
 Sadly,I'd not gotten very far in the expansive empty lot.
The security guard stopped his vehicle to watch the show. I swear he was eating a balogna sandwich and sipping a Mountain Dew.

My face-reddened, my frustration increased, I wanted to cry and bolt and die all at the same time.  Our son who giggled the first few times I stalled the car suddenly became as quiet as a mouse. The tension was that thick.  He moved from a leaning-in center position to near-cowering behind my seat, watching his very patient father in action.  (Smart move, kiddo.)

My progress was S L O W and at one of my worst parenting moments I screamed "Why in the #%^&* would ANYONE want to DRIVE like THIS - What's the POINT?"  After an hour of tremendous trials and torture, lesson one was over. Thank Goodness! - (this is when I thanked the Mother of Jesus, by the way.)   Lesson two was better and each morning I'd wake up, look out at the gleaming oxford white car and take on the challenge to get from point A to point B with less stalling and more forwarding.  I schemed ahead to avoid traffic lights and any semi-uphill terrain. Center Street at Main Street was the worst. But I did learn to drive my little FORD Escort GT with its manual transmission and moon roof. Thank-you, Big Guy...

 These lessons we will conquer together, albeit at differing speeds. We will be similarly perplexed but just as challenged.  We'll learn "Survival Mandarin" with Stefanie - Jiao You!  Undeniably, I've matured since age 40 and we have oh so many subsequent years of connubial bliss under our expanding waistbands, so this should be "easy-peasy," right?  But just in case I'll take a heavy dose of Good Fortune and down shift  into Good Luck and Happiness as I ascend this Mandarin mountain.  I'll keep you posted.

Thanks for reading,

Cricket                                  *dh - dear husband

Monday, June 6, 2011

Cultural Calendar Clash

Imagine taking a calendar and a small bottle of old-fashioned “white-out” and erasing every holiday.  And I mean EVERY holiday.  Now, take a red permanent marker and place some random holidays here and there throughout January through December.  You may not put any traditional USA holiday back on the calendar, nor place a holiday in its traditional USA month, eg: Should you choose to put Thanksgiving on your new calendar, it could not be placed in the month of November. 
Well, that about sums up what we are up against here, I’ll deem it Cultural Calendar Clash.

Some of you already live in a country other than the USA so this will just sound like whining, I’m sure, but for us others it’s mind-blogging.  (that’s a new word….did you catch it?)

Last Monday was Memorial Day weekend in the US.   A day set aside to honor veterans and service people who serve and have served our country.  A way to hold their sacrifices high and be grateful.  It marks the beginning of summer. Being female & my age there is even more significance revolving around Memorial Day.  It's our first opportunity to “crack out” those bright white sandals, high heels or straw bags- but just until Labor Day-the first Monday in September.   On that day they MUST  be kicked into the back of your shoe closet for nine months of R&R. 

Dragon Boats

This Monday, China celebrated Dragon Boat Festival Day (Duen Ng.) This occurs on the 5th day of the 5th lunar month.  There were Dragon Boat races on Mochou Lake and we were hosted downtown at Matthew’s apartment, number #202. His balcony overlooks the lake and all its merriment. Matthew is a member of what I call the “Nanjing Normals” – 9 of us who have arrived here within the past 2 months.  We are all “Embracing the New Normal in Nanjing”….together.

It seems that people the world over come up with ALL sorts of reasons to get together and eat. Afterall, sharing a meal & conversation builds relationships. Like holidays everywhere, particular holidays conjure up certain cuisine and Dragon Boat Festival Day does too.  This is the time to celebrate the summer rice planting  , so there is rice-a-plenty.   Some of it is wrapped and steamed in a leaf with some red bean curd. It resembles a three-cornered pyramid and is tied with string.  Unwrap and eat! They are called zongzi (pronounced ZONG-zeh.) Yummy carbohydrates!
The rice "tie-in" doesn't end there. A political figure, Qu Yuan, in 278 BC was unhappy with the way the emperor ruled and protested the decisions made.  He sacrificially put a stone on his back and waded into the water to drown himself.  Legend says that people threw rice into the water to feed the fish so they would leave Qu Yuan’s body alone and beat drums to frighten the fish away and ward off the evil dragon.  Qu Yuan is the hero of the 5th day in the 5th lunar month.

The tradition has evolved into racing colorful boats that depict dragons. Within each boat a drummer, a tiller and crew (who have trained heartily for this event) take their spots and run several heats in the heat.   We cheered them all on with shouts of the Mandarin phrase "Jia Yo!" -which is pretty close to "Let's Go!"  It was quite fun!

Here are some photos of our excursion after a delightful meal at
 Matthew's on Mochou Lake.

Cricket and the Big Guy

Team Yellow on Mochou Lake - Drum Roll, Please!

Experiencing our first Dragon Boat Festival Day with new friends was awesome!   I’ll mark a red circle around next year, the 5th day of the 5th lunar month. A peek at the the 2011 Chinese calendar shows this September 12, as the Mid-Autumn Festival. I  wonder what’s on the menu that day? Tell you what... I won't wear white shoes or carry a white purse since it's after Labor Day in the good old USA; some habits are just way too hard to break...
Thanks for Reading,

Sign says "No Speeling" - Matthew and I couldn't help ourselves!   Don't Miss This Fun!  Jia Yo!