I will Survive…after a Fashion – – Xin Nian Kuai Le

Happy Year of the snake!  Xin Nian Kuai Le (pronounced Shin Neeyen Kwai La) The New Year is officially underway as the fifteenth (our 24th) passed on Sunday. For a description of the lunar calendar, see the previous post.  Good luck and prosperity to all!

As I have mentioned in a previous post, my poison, my drug of choice is booze. I am what I heard Janis Joplin called a “juicer.” There are many reasons for it, and I can drink a lot, but I can quit too, so I am not too concerned. It adds a little to the middle, but hey, at my age a six pack abdomen would be aggressive. Chinese New Year is a time for festivities and serious partying. Fireworks deafen everyone and light up the sky. You can buy these large immigrant suitcase-sized boxes of fireworks and they are pro-quality. Every car alarm and dog howls for miles. The family (my brother, wife and children) are not drinkers. This bothers the neighbors because they cannot get them to be silly. I was touted as the drinker and they have all lain in wait.  The goal? get older brother or gege (pronounced gugu like gum) drunk. They succeeded in spectacular fashion. Everyone invites me in for a quick snort of the not so strong, yeah right, alcohol they ferment, distill, do I don’t know what with. If I never have Baijiu again, that will be fine. It is a wicked white lightening distilled from sorghum. The base percentage alcohol of baijiu is 55% or 110 proof. The good stuff is 65% or 130 proof. The good stuff is gross.

Round one came at the hands of the family’s landlord and dinner at his house. We sat in an unattractive apartment with a bare bulb hanging from the ceiling. All of us around a table as food began to appear cooked by the mother in law. The food was simple and good, I think. The landlord and I were the only ones drinking biajiu. It was a special brew from his home village in a thirty liter punch jar with a glass stopper. Marinating in the white alcohol was a long thin brown thing. It was a deer whip from the red musk deer, and quite prized. Deer whip is the penis FYI. It is supposed to impart flavor and or course virility. He poured us two six ounce Dixie cups full and said cheers. There are a couple of different kinds of cheers here: Sui Ni (pronounced sway nee) translates as you wish, and gambei (gambay) which means dry glass. The first one was an as you wish, and then half way through the cup, a refill naturally, to keep the cup full. I felt like a hot chick at a bar looking at her glass of chardonnay and seeing it is always full. DANGER WILL ROBINSON DANGER!!! The second cup was an initial sui ni, and then half way through that it was gambei. It was only 5:20 in the afternoon. We drank four cups with little refills by 6:30. We both went from fine to buzzed to incoherent in an hour and fifteen minutes. I sort of remember the meal. The landlord apparently fell into the dining room table and all the food. We also head butted each other and I awoke at three in the morning with teeth marks on my forehead and no memory of the said events.  We became best friends and were going to travel the world together singing Karaoke. I took three aspirin and went back to bed. He was much worse off than I was. It has been a neighborhood story for a week. End round one: USA vs. China 1 – 0. He did not resurface for three days.

Round two was at a bar with three Chinese guys who like to play pool. They decided they would drink me under the table; beer and tequila. They had no chance. Tequila is my Mexican mother’s milk. They tried to gang up on me with gambei shots, but the secret according to my brother and he is right, is not to do shots with each of them, but to lay each one to waste individually. It is true that I was doing three to the individual’s one, but I was okay with that. One passed out at the table, the second went to be sick and returned green at the gills, and the third waved a white flag in surrender. USA vs. China 1 – 0, now 2 – 0 – 0. I felt like a college kid. Silly at my age, but every once in a while who cares? And it was for my country, so I had to hold up the flag, and stand proud. USA! USA! USA! <grin>

Round three: landlord dinner, we were seven total, and began at three pm. I had not had lunch. I am not sure how or why, but I caught a good wave. Three of us drank a bottle of baiju. Another three could not drink the baiju and drank rice wine and beer. The landlord can drink; he is my equal if not superior. The others were his cannon fodder. After dinner we went out to Karaoke TV (KTV). They take this very seriously in Asia. People go to private rooms and practice. All inhibitions fall by the wayside. If the KTV people were smart they would put poles in the rooms. Fruit plates and snacks appeared: dried squid, weird dried spicy tofu (pronounced dofu), beef, pork, and cuttlefish jerky. Peanuts, pistachios, sunflower seeds, strange gelatin fruit flavored cups, Bugles for God sakes, and four cases of beer.  Beer isn’t really considered a drink. It was gambei all the way. The landlord and I shifted from being adversaries to allies and laid the room to waste. Some other people arrived and tried to gambie me to death. I looked at them and said…NO WAY. I have had fifteen beers glasses, you have had none. You must gambei eight right now to play. To be fair, and the Chinese are fair if you call them on it, there is a sense of honor. They fell for the challenge and were killed in the field of battle.

The only way to survive this is to walk to the bathroom while you still can and get rid of all that you are holding in your stomach. If you do not, you will die. I had two such trips. Given the state of the lavatories, I assume it is a fairly common practice. I was thankful to be rid of the devil baijiu. Then it was smooth sailing from there on out. YUCK!

Round three: senior drunks vs. all comers 1 – 0. We are no longer drinking for our countries and face. We were brothers. They dropped me off at the bottom of the road and I tottered home, feeling a little more Chinese.

Round four: Reggae Bar, downtown Hangzhou beer and tequila. No problems and all well. USA beat China and the UK handily. Three Brits had bought three steamer trunk sized firework boxes and at 23:50 went out into the street to set them off and welcome the New Year with a bang. The bar emptied to watch the show. It was impressive. So much so that the roof of the Reggae Bar caught fire and the firemen had to come and douse the flames. Nothing serious, just a lot of stored cardboard boxes and laundry; there was no structural damage according to the firemen. We returned inside and kept drinking.

Thank goodness it was the last night of the New Year’s festivities..

I QUIT!

P.S. No pictures that I have seen so far.

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Knock Knock…Who is there?

An entire goat arrived today by post. It is a little strange, but stranger still is that it arrived from Western China over the New Year celebration. Everything stops dead here during this holiday season.  Web sites say they will not ship until the 14th. But, it is the 18th you say, so you mean in March? No, the 14th of the month. Huh? When Chinese New Year (CNY) comes around the solar calendar goes out the window and everyone refers to the lunar dates…it is confusing…here try this:

CNY: A year in the Chinese calendar begins on the second new moon after the winter solstice, unless an intercalary month moves it to the third new moon.

Correspondence between solar terms and lunar months

The month is a lunar term, and the Chinese calendar is a lunisolar term. So the month name is corresponding to the solar term.

Generally, the midpoint of the solar term decides the month name.

Winter solstice decides Dongyue. Great cold decides Layue. Rain water decides Zhengyue. Vernal equinox decides Eryue. Grain rain decides Sanyue.

Grain full decides Siyue. Summer solstice decides Wuyue. Great heat decides Liuyue. Limit of heat decides Qiyue. Autumnal equinox decides Bayue.

Frost’s descentdecides Jiuyue. Light snow decides Shiyue. And a month without a midpoint of solar term is an intercalary month.

But, the nodes and midpoints of the solar terms are decided by true sun position after 1645, and the dys between the midpoints near to the perihelion may be 29 days. But, the month length may be 30 days.

It means that there’re possibly 2 midpoints in a month. If one of the two midpoints is winter solstice, the month should be defined as Dongyue compulsorily. The month before/after Dongyue may be not corresponding to the solar term. for example:

The ligth snow and winter solstice in 2033 is occuring in the same month. The month should be Dongyue. But, the months before/after the Dongyue may be not corresponding to the solar term.

1. There’s no midpoint in the month before the Autumn equinox, is Bayue aginst Intercalary month.

2. The month with autumn equinox is Jiuyue against Bayue

3. The month with frost’s descent is Shiyue against Jiuyue

4. There’s no midpoint in the month before Vernal equinox is Zhengyue against Intercalary month.

It’s an exception. Certainly, the exceptions are rare. In the 600 years from 1810 to 2409, there’re 7421 months. only 11 months meet the wrong midpoint of the solar term, and 19 months(except the intercalary month) miss the midpoint of the solar term.

Got it? I didn’t think so, neither do I.  It doesn’t really matter.  We will all get it in fifty or so years when China runs everything.  The mighty J decided we needed a real lamb from his driver’s village in Western Mongolia. He was told it would be impossible because everything was closed and no one was shipping. So, he browbeat the shipping company to send it anyway cost be damned. He and China are surreal. Can you imagine a UPS customer service representative getting a call from a customer saying they want a package delivered on such and such a date and the agent trying to tell the customer that they are closed for some holiday and being browbeaten and asked what it will take to get it done? Let me speak to your manager…and so on and so forth until it happens. I would like to have been a fly on that wall.

We opened the Styrofoam coffin and there was the most beautiful lamb, dead thank God (you never know with J.), and frozen.  We laughed and shook our heads. Morning plans scuttled, I had to deal with it. It had been gutted and emptied and skinned. The fat was beautiful and there was a wild gamy smell we don’t find much in lamb anymore.  I miss that.  I took the little guy apart (sorry no pictures) and tonight for dinner we will have the entire rib cage and chops grilled over an oak wood  fire. They are marinating in olive oil and fresh garlic, rosemary and thyme. Polenta and stir-fry greens will accompany it. I would kill for a great glass of red wine, a Pauillac, an ’82?  Oh well…I should find out what awful white lightening they serve out in Western Mongolia and get some. I had a New Year’s experience last week with a grain alcohol with deer whip soaking in it. I don’t remember a thing and my brother’s landlord who hosted the event was in worse shape than I was.  I went from sober to comatose in about an hour and ten minutes. Scary!

Marinade for lamb:

Zest of a half lemon chopped into a bruniose
2 Racks of ribs from shoulder to butt (ribs untrimmed shouldbe 26 ribs including floating one)
5 sprigs fresh rosemary (stems removed)
10 sprigs fresh thyme (stems removed)
Fresh black pepper
One head of garlic smashed
1 cup good olive oil
Kosher salt for after grilling

Split the racks into double chops leaving the entire rib for gnawing. Trim any excess fat you don’t want to eat.  They will look like long little lamb-sicles. Place on a non-reactive container, stainless steel, or plastic. Add all ingredients except the salt and let it sit for a half day.

Get a good fire going and wait until coals are red with a coat of ash. The fire is a 4 second fire, which means that you should not be able to hold your hand over it two inches away from the gill for more than four seconds. Grill the chops turning only once to the desired doneness. I like them rare to medium rare…so about 3 to five minutes a side. Serve immediately and let the cave person come out. EAT WITH YOUR HANDS and GNAW…drink whatever you will.

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Don’t Take that Tone with Me, and the Sight of One Hand Counting

I have chopped off a part of my left index finger with a hand scythe splitting kindling for the wood burning stove. Ouch! is all I can say. No guitar for a while or a lot of other things. I wonder if it will grow back normally or will I have a permanent sharp angled finger? Frustrated and bored, I have been playing with other things – although even typing this sucks.

I have been trying to master/learn/hear the four tones in Mandarin, not easy. Thank goodness it is not Taiwanese with eleven, or Cantonese with seven. My brother made a short video for me with anchor-point instructions, see here. Additionally I have discovered The Dude System or suprasegmental phoneme mastery by Kaiser Kuo  (originally printed in Insiders Guide to Beijing 2010 p. 487 excerpted here):

 Tone the first: Dude, the disapproving tone, as to the clumsy roommate who has just knocked over your Graphix, and gotten bong water all over your Poli Sci 142 Reader “Dude, I can’t believe you spilled my bong again.”

 Tone the second: Dude?, in the concerned but creeped-out way you might address the roommate you discover sitting naked and cross-legged in the dark, chanting “Nam myoho-renge-kyo” and sounding a little brass bell.

 Tone the third: Duuude (slight uptick) scornfully as if your roommate has asked to borrow 50 dollars so his sensei can align his chakras: Yeah right, dude.”

 Tone the fourth: Dude! As if exclaiming in triumph to your roommate when coming home from class having gotten a date with mega-babe Elena from Macroeconomics.

 It works.

The other thing I have learned is how to count to ten on one hand. I learned from my little nephew.  Apparently everyone here knows this.  I had never heard of it…it probably is common knowledge but see the photos for demonstration. Who knew? I like little tricks in life: how to tie a shoe properly, the governess knot, the eleven times table trick…I am now addicted to counting to ten.

Try it. You’ll like it! (The slideshow is a little slow, but I cannot change the settings).

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On Pigs, Goats and Tu Mian (Earth Noodles)

Our day began at 04:00. It was dark and cold; destination the little village where the Ai (Chinese nanny) is from, four hours into the mountains. Mission: slaughter a pig and two goats to take home, butcher, and freeze for winter and spring. We got lost; it was no surprise as the countryside had changed and roads are changing and shifting as China grows and grows and grows. The road we were supposed too take was under construction; it did not look passable at first glance. It had only been six months since the last visit.  We lost a couple of hours and so we were not there for the slaughter which was supposed to be my job. I will have to do it in March/April. No problem.

The village sits at the top of a little mountainside where they cultivate shitake mushrooms in the lower fields, in vast long thatch huts. Most live hand-to-mouth, a farmer’s existence, picking tea in season, getting work where it comes, bee keeping, and making these special noodles that only come from this region: Tu Mian (Earth Noodles). The noodles are six feet long and hang to dry everywhere. This is the time of year for making them.  We took home 40 kilos.  Normally, a middleman comes and buys it all up — cheap. He then puts them in these fancy boxes and sells them to retailers for a hefty profit. Once again, the maker is screwed.  It seems a perfect opportunity for a fair trade template.  Anyone?

The Ai is the only person in her village and all the surrounding area to have worked for foreigners. She got great face by having us there.  When we arrived in the lower village, they all knew who we were and why we were there.  I felt like a Panda bear in a zoo; gawkers everywhere and cameras clicking, children running after the car screaming and smiling. When we finally arrived the pig was cut in half, headless and shaved. The two goats, a nanny and her kid were white and emptied. I wondered how we were going to get all this down to the car a half mile away over treacherous walls and ramparts with steep drops on either side.  I was winded just walking up the hill empty-handed.  It was a trip  with each goat in a basket secured with ropes balanced on a pole over my shoulders coolie style. I wish I had gotten a picture.  The sides of pig were no easier. I cannot imagine the rainy season and getting into the village.

We were fed a delicious lunch of the pig’s liver sliced thinly with ginger and garlic chives. I have not had power food in a long time. I could feel the life and energy of the animal; it was that fresh. We were given a small bowl of rice some sautéed cabbage and a tomato and tofu stew with egg in it, and some fresh greens. The kitchen set up is a great tiled counter with a wok inset. It is an oven/furnace fed by a fire. The great-grandmother, 96 and stone deaf sat behind the thing and kept it stoked feeding sticks and wood into the fire. It is a great setup. It also keeps the kitchen warm.

We returned home well after dark, the car full: pig, goat, noodles, honey, tea, drying sweet potato chips, the Ai, and a live rooster.  I worked until midnight breaking down the carcasses into family portions for the freezer, and making sausages. I slept well.

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Circular Musings (out of touch and out of time)

And if he left off dreaming about you, where do you suppose you’d be?

     I have been here since the second of December. I left on the thirtieth of November. Somewhere a day was lost, and it really does not matter. The days just keep rolling by. I was plagued by jet lag; we are thirteen hours ahead of New York City. It is a strange jet lag, almost easier than the three hours to CA, or the various hours to Europe. Everything is just flip-flopped. What makes it weird is the rhythm of the household. Dinner is at 5:45 or 6:00 pm and it is dark and cold. The houses south of Yangtze River have no heat or insulation so the cold wraps around you and penetrates into the bones; thank you oh great and wise Communist powers that be. I am wearing a hat and three or four layers inside which are keeping me just warm enough. At 8:00 pm it is hard to stay awake. I crawl into bed with the intention of reading one of the 100 or so books I downloaded on my new little tablet (all of which are in the public domain), and last about five minutes. My little brain thought it would like to reread the classics, and I have gotten through the two Jungle Books by Rudyard Kipling.  I had forgotten how delightful they are.  I have an electric mattress pad that creates a toasty base, although some coils are hotter than others and weird dreams ensue. Universes collide and people come and go. Of course I am awake at 2:45 am.  Like Linus, I have brought a Mexican blanket woven for me by the family in Teotitlán del Valle for whom I put together a little website (see www.arteseda.com). It is a reminder of home and keeps me warm. I force myself to fall asleep again with varying degrees of success. Last night was okay and I awoke at 5:45 am and made breakfast for the house. Breakfast here is JO pronounced JOE with some sort of tone/inflection I cannot get my head around; patience grasshopper, patience. It has only been a short while, and you are not young anymore.  It means leftover things. JO consists of a gruel substance with last night’s proteins and veggies mixed in. Put a poached egg on top and voila! Breakfast is served. It can be rice or anything at all. Today was millet. I enhanced the leftovers with carrot, cabbage, garlic, ginger, and some salt pork. I made breakfast today because the Ai or nanny/caretaker left for her village for some time off. She has a husband and a six year old daughter.  She will see them for a week and prepare for my arrival and the killing of the pig and two goats.

The food in general is fantastic. My brother and the family love food and the Ai (Chinese Nanny) is a marvelous cook. It is simple home food. Yesterday for lunch she made fat soup noodles by hand, cooked with winter squash, bamboo shoot and green pickled vegetable soup/stew with little bits of pork in it. The broth was a salt pork base which made it whitish, cloudy and rich. The Ai seems to think I need fattening up, so my portions are immense: fat happy Buddha in the making.

Today for lunch we had sticky rice wrapped in some sort of palm/banana/bamboo (no one seems to know) leaf with peanuts, soy sauce pork belly, and whole chestnuts; it is a traditional southern Chinese food called Zong Zi [zɒŋ zʌ]. It is what they eat for New Year festivities instead of the Northern staple of dumplings. She spent hours making the packages; each one perfect little pyramids. They are boiled in water with a green leaf herb that turns the water and rice purple. The rice is special round rice. They are crazy good. Certainly stuffing and good for traveling; I ate four. (https://www.vimeo.com/58420588)

We have persimmons, mangosteens, and pomelos and so many other exotic fruits. All of Asia is at my fingertips.  The persimmons are so fragile that you cannot handle them too much or they tear open and fall apart into your hands. You eat them with a spoon. I made marmalade from persimmons, pomelo, lemons and oranges. It is liquid and will glaze ham and ducks beautifully.  The mangosteens are rich, juicy and tart yet sweet. I am working on my hand skills in splitting them. Everything that must be opened has a hand skill technique.  I mastered the hazelnut opening technique when I was five.  Soon the mangosteens like the four tones of Mandarin will be mastered, or at least not butchered.  I killed and cleaned two chickens today; they are chilling for tomorrow.  It is a good feeling to get back to where one’s food comes from and respect the life given. Letting meat rest for a day is always a good idea, unless it is freshly killed organ meat.

I think the idea of this whole China File is to meander through food and traditions of food in China and wherever else I end up. I think many of the traditions will disappear soon as the great globalizing homognefication (my word thank you very much – like nounification.  I take credit for both) expands its plastic and processed tentacles deeper into the globe. I am reminded of a Calvin and Hobbes cartoon, where Calvin is talking to Hobbes or vice-versa. He is reading out loud: “It says that religion is the opiate of the masses. I wonder what that means.” The TV next to him has a thought bubble “Marx ain’t seen nothing yet.”  As it spreads and tells us to buy and consume we are changed by the images we see. I am trying to be very careful what goes in nowadays. There is a commercial here that drives me crazy; it aired constantly in my time in Beijing. It is for some god-awful bottled sugared tea in two liter jugs. The gist: modern and successful young parents, attired in western garb, go visit their elderly parents who are more traditionally dressed. They bring along the grandson who is decked out like the “little emperor.” They explain to the parents through the yapping mouth of grandson that this new tea is the best thing since, well, old tea? I don’t understand the language, but the imagery is clear. Come into the modern processed world and forget about the 4,000 years of tea you have been making. Even little kiddo here knows. The grandparents ooh and ah. Last shot: little emperor talking to the camera.  Blah Blah Tea Blah Blah Best!  It infuriates me. I continue the sequel in my mind after the modern kids go home, with little whatever his name might be. The grandparents look at the bottle and grandpa says “Get that shit out of the house, and where did they get that ridiculous costume?  This is progress?

Can China be able to leap forward and avoid poisoning itself and us? Maybe,  but I don’t believe it. Meanwhile, I will eat my way to oblivion…as it slides continues to slide into the decadence of the west. Dear Santa: please give me an editor for Christmas…

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The Capital (One)

My eyeballs are burning. Even the saline rinse does nothing to alleviate the stinging. The black particulate that appears on my handkerchief along with the mucus of a long-lingering on and off seven-week cold feels as though evil has settled into my body. The only star I have seen in four days is the sun, and it is a diffused orb that shines wanly with no warmth or promise. Beijing…shit!

The pollution count is “Crazy Bad” according to the US Embassy tweets. Schools were closed for two days but are open again. Schools should remain closed but they don’t and images of little children at recess haunt me.  We are warned to stay inside, wear a mask but the acceptable index to the Chinese government and other indices are different by a couple of particulates to say the least. Los Angeles and Mexico City are clean and clear compared to what we are dealing with here.  I have gotten emails from friends around the world telling me to take care. Thank you for the concern.  And, no, don’t drink the water from the tap. You can, but you wouldn’t want to.  I don’t want to read about the ground water statistics; I shower in the stuff.

It is indeed intense pollution. A grey mist that I that I would have taken for fog or mist has appeared; it settles everywhere leaving a film layer of black dust as fine as the playa dust in Black Rock City. We drive and advance through the grey-black mist. It is a permanent dust storm with no wind. Imagine the PLAYA in dust with no wind (for those of you who have been home)…deadly stuff.  The traffic, the endless traffic continues: Los Angeles or Mexico City with everything written in Chinese.  It feels otherworldly. I don’t want to breathe it in. I don’t want to breathe at all.

What do you do with such adversity? Get in your car and drive to a great restaurant of course!  Day or night, sit in the car and go to find great food or go shopping.  I can imagine my doctors shaking their heads…living on smog, eating four meals a day of the most delicious and food I have ever eaten, resembling a beached orca. Hell, I might as well take up smoking again (kidding) and drink Baijo the wicked white lightning made from sorghum, or rice or whatever. Hi mom.  At night it is a fog, a dry curtain that reflects back against the high-beams; better to set them to low and pray. I cannot see 150 meters ahead, seat belts optional. Our driver takes risks, and swerves to pass people in the emergency lanes. What should one expect from a man who has a Lamborghini as his phone screen picture?

I had not noticed it before but an expat whom I met at a bar went hiking to the Great Wall. As he was returning to the city limits with his companion, he coughed twice.  “Ah,” the companion said.  “You have the Beijing cough now.”  I listen around me and there is indeed a reflexive two cough clearing of the lungs.  It is a constant.  I have it too after only a couple of weeks.  It is why my brother and his family moved away.

To be fair the first three days were blue sunny and clear; everyone marveled at the weather. I figured it was just some exaggeration until the latest round of death came in.  I am not a scientist, or doctor but it doesn’t take much brains to see that the health problems in the future will be unimaginable. Sitting in a bar, talking with a manager, young Kate from the Netherlands, after performing an open-mic at LUSH in the Wudaokuo (WU), the conversation was the pollution. She has been here four years. She had a year abroad in Beijing as a junior, returned to finish her Bachelor’s degree, told her parents she needed another year in China, and never plans to return. “How do you deal with the smog and the grit and the noise?” I ask. She shrugs and like all citizens bitten by a city, says this is her home. Life is good, cheap, and a constant party. Oh to be twenty again – no thanks! If the pollution weren’t so bad I would consider living here.  I haven’t seen Shanghai yet, so no rush. Vietnam and Southeast Asia seem far away for now.

We got some snow, four inches or so, and traffic crawled along even slower than usual…but the air was cleaner as the pollution bonded to the snow flakes and coated the ground; it was white for about three minutes. Don’t stick your tongue out here.

On the music side of life, I have been offered two paying gigs. It looks like I will try to come to the capital once a month. Bossa Nova is a hit, and they seem to like my style and voice. I have to keep working the guitar which remains my struggle.  Wake up NYC musicians! Come East!  Forget Nashville!  I have been playing the open-mic scene and played a full gig (an hour and twenty minutes) at a wonderful little place – 4 Corners – in the famous Hutongs or alleys of Beijing. After the set, it was late and the mighty J and Dr. Yu, my hosts here, (more on them later) took me to a “cab driver special restaurant” otherwise known as a Beijing Slap, for a “pig everything” soup with tofu. The place was gritty, quick and intense. I am pretty sure it would have gotten a “D” from a sanitation inspector in the states, or closed immediately, but I have survived intact and solid not to be too graphic.  The place consisted of lines of people, formica tables, chopsticks, Kleenex (what the Chinese use for napkins), taxi drivers and drunk patrons.  There was a sink in the corner and when we arrived a few good friends were holding a compadre’s head as he was sick with too much drink. It sort of turned my stomach, but I too was drunk and hungry, and they shielded him from view…almost.  This isn’t the third world. It is the dark side of the first world, a magnificent soft white underbelly they are trying to eradicate in the States but not yet in China. The soup was fabulous, the broth rich and intense, and it was indeed a pig everything soup: offal, tripe, and all the good bits. We had pickled vegetables to accompany the feast and I had another bottle of beer.  As we left the restaurant (the Mighty J paid 24 RMB or four dollars for the soups and the beer) there was a little yakitori style stand just outside. We had a couple of skewers of hot and sputtering meat: chicken hearts and lamb something or other; a fine cap to a lovely evening.  In case you are wondering if they would serve dog, I have been informed that even in dog restaurants you are sometimes not served little Fido, or Fifi because it is too expensive, and you cannot tell the difference anyway.

Pig Everything Soup

Don’t try to make it, just get in line and say yes to everything. Have a beer or Baijo and enjoy. Have another beer or Baijo too…

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A Month Ago from the Future

02 December 2012

Motel 168 Pudong Airport Shanghai CN

December 1 has vanished with the international dateline; twenty plus hours of flying with lots of water, lots of sleep, no booze. I have arrived.  Pudong Airport is huge, clean, and new; it feels like the future. It has always been strange to me arriving at an airport late at night. It seems a space odyssey, a lonely fluorescent and cement city with plastic people modeling watches and clothes and whatever else they think we weary travelers might be susceptible to buying.  Larger than life, more beautiful than real, and with eyes that follow you on the interminable moving carpets. What is funny is number of celebrities hawking the bling.  One never sees them in the States doing this because they need to keep their star images up.  They are, after all, our royalty.  Brad Pitt, savior of children, wants you to buy a _________; flash “Lost in translation.”

The long-distance busses from the airport to Hangzhou have long since stopped running so my first night in China is the classy Motel 168. I am in a sparse Blade Runner room with a no view but a spectacular shower. The floor is a smoking floor; it is gross. One forgets how pervasive the stench of tobacco is. I think briefly of the lone brick they have left blackened after the second restoration in Grand Central Terminal; a reminder of the good old days of smoking.

Hungry, I hustled to hotel’s restaurant which was on the verge of closing. I was the last and obviously unwanted customer.  I had a beautiful light soup in a very large bowl: gingered chicken broth with rice, thinly sliced Chinese broccoli cooked perfectly (although I have since learned they call it broccoli and what we call broccoli they call yellow cauliflower), and five different kinds of mushrooms.  Some I recognized and others not. I had no luck in getting an explanation of the various mushrooms. The conversation with the hovering waitress went something like:

“Excuse me, what kind of mushrooms are these?” Silence. “Um, do you speak English?”

No — she nodded yes and another server arrived.

“Yes? Help you?”

“Yes, what kind of mushrooms are these?” I pointed to two unfamiliar ones. “They are very good.”

“Mushrooms very good for health”

Yes, I am sure, but what kind are they?” More blank looks and a third waitress arrived.

“Pay now, we close”

“Of course, here is my credit card”

“Must be wait, bill not here yet.”

“Okay, bring the bill please.”

Smiling, she said “Yes yes.”

The bill arrived fifteen minutes later.  I looked it over, soup and a beer; reasonable for airport hotel stuff. She hovered. I went add a tip and she pushed my hand away.

“No, no name sign only.”

“Why?”

“No, no good.”

Fine…I signed the bill and went to the “Top Bar” for a nightcap. I walked in and immediately heard three westerners talking loudly. Actually it was one man yapping to a couple looking miserable at being trapped in the conversation.

“Yup, we are building a 1,000,000 square foot factory. And when we are done we got another one in the works. I tell you, these people don’t ever quit. HAHAHAHA!

I avoided them and had my drink at the opposite end of the room and left quickly. I have always been able to blend in wherever I go, but I know I will never be Chinese and will always be an outsider. I wanted to disappear from the loud westerners and not be associated. NOT HERE or the rest of Asia.

I took a really long shower trying to drain all the hot water from the hotel or Shanghai, and then slipped in and out of sleep as the time zones played tricks in my head and on my body; time to get up, time to eat, time to sleep, time to who knows what all in a few hours. The dreams were crazy, influenced buy the voices coming through the wall. At three, I banged on the wall and they quieted down. More dreams and confusion. I woke early to get the first bus.  The hotel breakfast was awesome: Congee (rice gruel) with all kinds of weird tidbits through and through: preserved eggs, wood ear mushrooms with loofa and marrow, pickled vegetable greens, peanuts, little fishes, ground meat, sticky buns.  Those who know me  won’t be surprised. I eat everything with legs except tables and chairs, everything with wings except for airplanes, and all that swims except for submarines.  I had thirds.

The bus to Hangzhou was uneventful; it was gray and rainy. Is it grey or gray? I was greeted by family, my brother and little nephew Roran – two-and-three-quarters who looked at me with huge suspicion. It was forty minutes to home. The views are beautiful; we are at the end of a little cul-de-sac in the new old village of the famous Longjing tea fields. The terracing of the tea bushes are pruned and shaped, a topiary all the way up the mountain. I have three instant best friends, the family dogs Pong a dumb husky Golden Retriever, Wong a yellow wild dog, and KuaKua a mix between a Collie (Lassie) and German shepherd. We go for a walk my new best friends and me. We have been on many walks together. I am adopted as a fourth member of the tribe.

Rice Soup with Mushrooms and Greens

Start with a light and clear chicken broth and add leftover rice and a few large pieces of ginger for flavor. Simmer gently. Meanwhile clean the greens and slice thinly on a bias separating the stems and the leaves. Steam the stems first then add the leaves so that all are just cooked. Sautee five different kinds of mushrooms and add to the broth. Serve in a large bowl and add the greens at the very end. Pay the bill quickly and don’t leave a tip. Apparently they are illegal in China.

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Libidinous Libation…San Jiao or the Triple Heater

Come on…

…you like a drink now and then…if you are like me more now than then.  On my epitaph I think it could read, “He Made a Damn Good Bloody Mary.   It sounds shallow, but in some way, I want to leave my mark on the world.  Maybe because 50 is looming, or maybe the creative juices that I stifled for so long, out of insecurity, cannot be bottled up any longer.  Does is matter?  My Bloody Mary while excellent is not really mine.  It is my father’s.  I have made a change or two, but it is his.  We don’t really call it a Bloody Mary.  When drinking time comes along, say 10:30 am on a gray day, we look at each other and at the kitchen clock and a little knowing smile comes across his face.

“It’s mixture time, isn’t it?” I ask.
“It is somewhere,” he responds.
“Shall I?”
“Of course.”

I am well trained.  We are drinkers in my family.  Some have drunk in excess, and to their death, others percolated merrily along with a scotch at 6 PM.  As a child, I was tucked into bed with the goodnight kisses of inebriated adults, the sweet smell of alcohol on their breath.  At four, I remember going into the living room after the adults moved into the dining room for dinner and finishing the remnants of all the drinks.  That was the first time I was ill from drinking, and boy was I ever.  They laughed at my foolishness; I don’t think I was punished. They entertained a fair amount, and my father was/is a good barman.  I wanted to spend time with him and learn anything.  It was a way to bond; we didn’t have too many bonding times; at least that is how I remember it.  At six, I could make a good martini, anything and tonic or soda, a Manhattan, I knew the difference between a Gimlet, a Gibson, Bourbon and Bitters, and when someone asked for a martini without specifying the spirit, it meant gin and olives dry.  Often, new guests (strangers to me) would arrive for dinner, and my parents would still be upstairs dressing.  It was my job to greet the them, take their coats, and offer a drink, explaining that my parents would be right down.  I was always just out of a bath, squeaky clean, hair parted to one side, with killer pajamas – tiger stripes, leopard spots – a neat little bathrobe knotted tightly, and slippers from the Indian Walk courtesy of my grandmother.  I would ask again if they wanted a cocktail, and the man, semi-sarcastically would say: “sure kid, make me a martini.”  I would ask the lady what she wanted, and they thought it was a cute little game so she ordered a vodka tonic.  I would lead them into the living room and a roaring fire if the weather warranted it, where there were snacks: peanuts, Greber Olives, carrot sticks and aged Parmesan cheese, maybe smoked oysters, and always crackers with cheese.  I then excused myself to go to the bar between the living room and the den.  The bar was a great wooden chest covered in leather decorated with coats of arms of families long dead or forgotten, perhaps even invented. It had latches and the front opened down creating a table. It smelled of old wood, oil, and spirits.  I had a little foot stool so I could reach everything easily.  The mise-en-place was there; my father and I always saw to it together, and I would make the cocktails.  I was intent on doing a good job, because even then I craved approval. It always raised an eyebrow, but the implications of a six year old making drinks then is not the same as it would be now.  We had a great silver ice bucket that sweated condensation; it contained big square ice cubes. I delivered the vodka tonic in a highball, the lime squeezed into the drink and a run around the lip of the glass for some added tang; then back to the bar returning with the martini.  I would always get a look: I’ll have to humor the child and drink this.  After the first sip, an appreciative smile would follow.  “This is a good martini kid.” I say this not to toot my horn, but to underscore, what may be a blinding glimpse of the obvious, I needed to make a perfect cocktail or perfect anything to have my father’s approval and love.  The point of this post isn’t to talk about myself or my father, but a cocktail I want to create. Oh well…Santa didn’t send me an editor again this year..

In some ways the rise of the mixologist, like the star/celebrity chef is annoying.  Forget in some ways: it is just plain annoying! In the 1950’s and before, a bartender, Rene at the Ritz in Paris for example, did not refer himself as a mixologist.  He was a barman; it was his profession.  He could make any drink, maybe had a following, or at least people who trusted him to make it right.  He was an artisan.  At least that is how my grandmother referred to him.  Now you have these consultant specialists who create themed cocktail menus…plumbing the depths of frufru and exotica.  Lichee, cinnamon apple-tinis with an Acai berry garnish?  Oh, wait, I need to add the yuzu rind, and two drops of the Malaga blood orange.  Really?  Give me a break.  Some friends opened a bar in New York City, a great place, and I will say it is novel to go in and tell the bartender…sorry…mixologist what you feel like, and have them invent something on the spot. A cocktail inspiration. If you like it, or if they do, you have a little index card with your name on it in a drawer for “next” time.  But every time?  Make me a proper martini…don’t f*#k around.  It needs to be big, cold, and the varying degree of dryness I request.  A little dividend is nice too; you know the extra splash they make that gives you a cocktail and just a bit more.

I want nothing to do with the furfru. I want an honest drink with a few ingredients that pack a punch, satisfy a craving, and make you wary of a second, knowing that if you go down that rabbit hole, you are committed, and hold on tight.  But, as a bit of a showoff, I want it to be different, and not easy to duplicate because of one ingredient.   Not that the ingredient should be rare, but just that it be something I make and if you want to make it, you need to put in the time. I have worked on this concoction for a couple of years.

My brother, a doctor in Oriental medicine, talks a lot about the San Jiao or Triple Burner. This from Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/San_Jiao):

San Jiao has been translated as “triple heater,” triple warmer (or three warmers),” and “triple burner,” the latter of which is probably favored because of the involvement of the San Jiao in metabolism. The current WHO standard term is “Triple Energizer” (TE), but many authors still prefer to use San Jiao.

I liked the idea of a drink that hits the head, the heart, and the pelvic bowl, so my cocktail is either to be called San Jiao or The Triple Heater. Please feel free to weigh in.

Ingredients

-1 measure (or jigger*) Over Proof Rum** (Ideally Sunset Very Strong Rum from St. Vincent and the Grenadines, but Jamaican Over Proof Rum will do as well 150 proof and above)
– 1 measure (or jigger) of dark rum like Mt. Gay (NOT Captain Morgan or spiced rum)
– A tsp. of home made ginger syrup (use the syrup from making the candied ginger)
– A dash of bitters
– A few drops of lemon juice
– A candied cube of dark crystallized ginger on a toothpick as a garnish (I make this myself; it takes about 12 hours and 3 days to dry. It is a special texture, almost like a confit recipe coming soon – maybe)
– A splash of club soda or seltzer floating on top to cut the sweetness

Pour the first five ingredients into a shaker. Do not add the ice yet. Stir until the alcohols have dissolved or liquefied the ginger syrup. Add ice, shake well, and strain into a cold frosted martini glass. Add the garnish and float the club soda on top. Serve immediately with a smile.

*  a jigger measures 1.5 US fluid ounces (44 ml)

** Here is the thing: a few of these and unfortunate misunderstandings can occur between the sexes. For whatever reason the effect of strong cane rum on women is to increase the libido…really increase the libido. For men however it is the opposite. Too much strong rum and the little soldier is not eager to stand at attention. So be aware and drink responsibly…or not. Happy New Year all!

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I am Sorry

“I am sorry.”
“NEVER APOLOGIZE!”
“I am sorry, wait, I mean okay…why?”
“Because they will never know, and who cares?”
“Who cares? I do. I mean shouldn’t I care?”
“About what people think?”
“Yeah, I guess that’s what I mean.”
“People don’t give a s*#t; people are busy living their own lives. They don’t need the interior self pitying monologue. Get on with it.”
“But, I haven’t written anything in forever. What if it’s bad? I wanted to apologize ahead of time and tell them I haven’t exercised the muscle in a while and that I hope to get better and to stick with me. I want them to like me. I have always wanted that. It is my problem. It is why I over compensate, interrupt, have to be right, try to fix everything. You know that.”
“You are pathetic.”
“I cannot help that. I just want to be free.”
“You should have thought of that long ago. You know you need to let go and stop worrying about others.”
“You are right, I am sorry.”
“Dude, you did again.”
“I did what?”
“Said sorry. WTF?”
“Oh. I didn’t even realize. It’s like the kids today and “like”; it drives me crazy. Like is like cockroaches.” Even I am infested.
“It will be okay you know whatever happens.”
“I am afraid. You won’t leave me will you?”
“No such luck. Wait, are you crying?”
“Yes.”
“F*&k off, you are really pathetic.”
“Sorry.”

 Sorry Soup

  • Get 20 chicken feet (any local Chinatown will do)
  • 1 Chicken carcass from a roasted chicken
  • 20 chicken gizzards (optional)
  • 2 Onions
  • 1 medium carrot
  • 1 stalk celery
  • ½ cup good rice wine
  • 3 pieces of ginger coarsely sliced
  • 5 cloves garlic (peeled and cut in half)
  • 1 star anise
  • 3 TBS neutral vegetable oil (safflower; grape seed; etc.)

 Blanch the chicken feet (and gizzards if you decided to use them) in cold water; once the water boils remove from heat and rinse under cold water. Scrub them and chop off the toenails with a knife, scissors or cleaver. Chop up the chicken carcass. Rinse vegetables.  Coarsely chop the vegetables in a large brunoise (big squares/cubes).  Heat a heavy bottomed pot and add the vegetable oil AFTER the pot is hot. Add vegetables ginger and spices and sweat for 5 minutes over a medium heat. DO NOT LET THEM COLOR. Add chicken feet and carcass. Sautee for 3 minutes more. Cover with cold water. A half gallon or so should do it. Bring to a boil and then turn the flame down to simmer for 2 hours. Do not stir, but skim the surface for impurities and fats often. After 2 hours you can then strain the stock into another pot through a cheese cloth. Press the solids to get all the juices out. You can even let it sit for a few hours while gravity helps you out. You will get an extra ¾ to 1 cup by doing this. Once you have gotten all of the juices out, remove the chicken feet and set aside for another recipe (salted black bean and honey glaze for example). You can refrigerate and let it cool overnight. The broth will become gelatin and the fats will rise to the top. Skim the fat with a spoon or some of it if you choose. Fat holds a lt of flavor, and of course, fat.

Add the rice wine and gently simmer the broth and reduce by half; salt and pepper to taste. If you really need to say you are sorry or are feeling very sorry for yourself, then reduce by two thirds and drink in little demitasse cups. A salted and toasted Triscuit ® will go very nicely or if you are feeling adventurous, poach an egg and put it in.

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Eggzactly…and nothing else

30 November 04:30 am

As I rode in the cab, which smelled like a NYC nightclub changing booth, to JFK for the first leg my twenty plus hours of flying to China I could only think: what is the maxim in airports and airplanes? Don’t eat the food! Or at least don’t expect too much except gas afterwards. I had no time for breakfast so I arrived hungry and slightly nauseated. I figured that I would make do with some sort of bad breakfast croissant egg like concoction. I was pleasantly surprised. Terminal 8, American Airlines has a Bobby Vans. My immediate instinct was to order a Bull shot. The bartender in Bridgehampton NY makes an excellent one.  For those who do not know, Bobby Vans is a steak house. It isn’t a great steak house, but it is a good one. They have restaurants all over now, and someone in their marketing/sales department had the idea to tackle airports. The first one, I was informed by a slightly solicitous and eager waiter, was in Boston. It went well he said, so New York was next and more to come. They had a solid breakfast menu; I chose bacon and eggs with home fries. The coffee not good, but hey, any caffeine is better than none in preparation for twenty hours of the incessant drone of the plane. Besides, I am not a coffee connoisseur but it should have been better at four dollars a cup. The bacon was crispy, thick, four slices, eggs over easy were perfectly cooked, and very tasty home fries and a multi-grain toast with butter and orange marmalade.

Eggs are funny things. They are misunderstood, often taken for granted, but treated with respect they can, if fresh, be a gift. Take the over easy proposition. It seems simple enough and it is…BUT to make it right takes a little care and love. I grew up cooking and thought I had it down pat, but I was beaten in France one morning for how I prepared them.  In a past life I worked in some of the greatest restaurants in France for about five years. I was very lucky to see true masters at the peak of their careers and passion. I miss those days in some romantic ideal, but it was the hardest I have ever worked in my life.

The general idea is to start with a good pan that will not stick.  A well seasoned cast iron pan is best. Heat the pan over a medium flame. If you are cursed with an electric stove I cannot help you, sorry. Take a nice pat of good butter for each egg and get it sizzling but do not let it brown. Salt the butter and let it dissolve. This is the key. We do not want salt crystals on our eggs. That was reason one for my beating.  I had seasoned the eggs and not the butter. Note: the eggs should be room temperature, or they have a tendency to break on contact with the heat.  Once the salt has dissolved crack the eggs gently on a flat surface, never a sharp one – the edge of a bowl is considered sharp – and then into the pan. You can crack them onto a plate and slide it in if it helps. Let the eggs cook on one side, a minute or two, then, with a flat flexible spatula flip them over. The thing about flipping eggs is that almost everyone does it incorrectly. We tend to hold our spatula with the palm on the underside and then flip towards the body in pronation (palm up — turn palm face down). The proper way, according to the chef who meted out my punishment was to have the top of the hand, or palm on top of the spatula and flip it away from your body in supination (palm down — turn face up). He of course was right; it is more efficient. It takes some getting used to like anything you’ve been doing wrong your whole life (don’t get me started on shoe tying), but when you have a lot of things to flip especially delicate things you will be thankful. Pancakes and French Toast are great practice. When the eggs are cooked to your desired hardness, use the same flexible spatula, and one at a time put the eggs onto the plate.  Of course, the third reason for my beating and having to sweep the back stairs for a day was even crazier. In this establishment, which shall remain nameless, the specifications were more exact. First you separate the white from the yolk. Then you proceed with the same butter and salt technique. Next, place a small pastry ring about four inches in diameter onto the pan, and inside that, perfectly centered, a second pastry ring an inch in diameter. The goal, you guessed it, was have the yolk perfectly centered in a perfectly round egg white. I kid you not.  You also need to tamp the eggs gently after removing the eggs from the pan with a paper towel before plating to remove any extra butter fat eyes. They are unattractive.  The reasoning was that the only difference between the two starred Michelin restaurant and the bistro around the corner, I was told or rather yelled at as I was hit on the back of the head repeatedly, was that we cared more and made the extra effort for culinary perfection. Everything matters! I won’t go into the scrambled egg ordeal. You wouldn’t believe it.

FYI: The Bull Shot is a drink for acquired tastes, one that you will either love or hate.

Ingredients:

  • 1 1/2 oz vodka (I prefer white rum)
  • 3 oz chilled beef bouillon (Use Campbell’s double strength and NOT consommé)
  • dash of Worchestershire, Tabasco, salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 squirt of fresh lemon juice
  • celery salt (optional)

Preparation:

  1. Pour the ingredients into a cocktail shaker filled with ice.
  2. Shake well.
  3. Strain into a highball glass filled with ice.
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