Friday, March 24, 2006

Off to Singapore, but leaving my chewing gum at home

A few months back Michael injured his wrist in a really spectacular fall in a treacherous local parking lot.
Recently a few doctors examined his wrist.
The result? We're leaving for Singapore on Sunday and will be there about a week for arthroscopic surgery*.

Why Singapore? Because the weather is lovely of course. That and apparently it is best to leave mainland China for this kind of surgery. Apparently Singapore is the place most of the wealthy Chinese folks go for technologically advanced procedures, and since both Michael and Cara are all about fitting in, that's where we're going to go also. In addition, it's a lot easier getting to Singapore than to, let's pick somewhere random, say, the United States for example. And don't forget the lovely weather.

Another exciting item is that this is the first trip to Singapore for either of us so we are hoping to get at least some chance to look around and try things out.

We are not sure what our computer access will be like, so there may not be another post for a while.

In summary - We're going to Singapore! Yay!
Michael will likely be getting surgery. Booooo!
There should be some really fantastic Indian ingredients available for kitchen restocking. Yay!
(The Yays! have it and we are excited to be going.)

You'll probably hear from us in a little over a week. Take care everyone.

*The word "arthroscopy" comes from two Greek words: 'arthro,' meaning "joint," and 'scope,' meaning "look." Simply, arthroscopic surgery is a means to look inside a joint. - Just in case you were curious.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

DaTong Photos

We are trying out something new (again). There is a service which is allowing us to load up a whole bunch of pictures and add comments. We're still planning on putting the best of the best right here, but if you would like to just see a whole bunch of photos, go to

Since this was our first time using it the photo order on the main page is off. If you want to them in the correct order, check out the "DaTong" set on the left hand side of the screen and try the "slide show" view. Otherwise you can just stick with the main page and see all of our comments.

Its an experiment so we'd like to hear what you think.

And speaking of putting some good photos right here...
The lady in the red jacket is one of Michael's teachers.

Cara and Ann. Ann is one of Michael's fellow students.

How sturdy do those stilts look to you?
A cool looking staircase.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Baozi Lessons

Today Cara attended a baozi cooking course at a local restaurant renown for their lovely baozi. Baozi is the name for filled buns that are cooked by steaming. Here is what Cara has to say about the experience:

We made (I think) daushabao baozi, which means they had a sweet bean paste filling (very yummy!) The class was organized by the Chinese school that I am attending. About 16 students went all told, though there was only one other person from my specific class.
The picture on the left shows our initial ingredients. These were all prepared by the restaurant chefs before we got there. Each rice dough circle is rolled out individually by hand. We got to watch them make some - no automated mass production here! The dark little balls are the prepared amounts of sweet bean paste. Most baozi have meat fillings (which in China means pork), but meat is harder to work with because it is so soft. The bean pastes are much firmer, so that's what we used. (I was very excited about this since the finished products were going home with each student and Michael and I don't eat pork. But dessert? That we can handle.)

These were a few baozi made by the restaurant's chefs to show us what to aim for. Notice that there are at least 16 creases in each little bun. This is suppose to show a lot of skill. You might also notice the nice smooth round shape of the little guys. This also shows the chefs' skill.

These are my baozi! Notice the lack of uniformity :) Still - I was able to get lots of little creases in the things and actually close them up at the top thereby preventing them from leaking all over the place. For those who don't remember, Michael and I made baozi at home a few months ago - they looked nothing like this. Of course, the restaurant did not allow us to form our own dough shells which Michael and I had to do at home. Also Michael and I used AP flour instead of rice flour. We will try out this new way next time.

This was the chef who was showing me how to form baozi. He can make one in approximately 4.2 seconds. I needed about 4.2 minutes. He was very patient. The restaurant provided at least one chef for every two students. Very helpful. It was pretty funny though since he spoke no English and I knew of no Chinese words that were useful in this situation.
There were my lovely little baozi after they were steamed. Notice how the skin becomes translucent. The rice dough should be thin enough that you can see the meat (or in this case the bean paste) inside. The restaurant packed them up for each student to bring home. mmmmm

After the class all the students were also given portions of a few other desserts to try. First were some baozi just like the ones we made. (I think this was to prevent us from eating our own before taking them home to share.)
We were also tried a pear soup that is suppose to be good and strengthening for people during the winter.

And this is a rice cake with maybe nut like things inside of it and filled with bean paste. It was a little chewy, but it is hard to go wrong with bean paste.

Monday, March 20, 2006

DaTong official info

Where is this place? Well, it took us about 6 hours by train to get there. DaTong is due west of Beijing. We are becoming quite the train fans. (having now used them for TWO whole trips!)

Check out this link to find out more about the Hanging Monastery (Xuankong Si).

Please note: when reading text written by Chinese concerning their country, the use of lots of adjectives and overblown statements is a given. For example, while it is pretty amazing to see the hanging monasteries haphazardly sticking to the side of a cliff, the only "unique mechanical theory" we noticed was a lack of certain safety concerns. It still represents an incredible amount of labor and a fair bit of thought, but does it set the engineering standard for constructing buildings on the sides of cliffs? We don't think so.

Two Pictures

This is one of the Buddhist sculptures.
And this is a picture of the hanging monasteries, so-called because they are perched precariously into the cliff face..

These are the first of many pictures to come. We are experiencing some technical difficulties, but once we get over them - Wow! Will you see some great photos!

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Hiking today

Went for another glorious hike today north of the city. Saw and walked on some old sections of the Great Wall and had some amazing views of the country side. Traffic in and out of the city was not so much fun but the clear skies were more than worth it. Now we just need to check out our photos.

Saturday, March 18, 2006


We just returned home from a great 2 day trip to Da Tong. We went with six of Michael's classmates and one of his teachers. Chinese was the predominantly-used language, luckily many of the students were willing to translate.

DaTong is about a 6 hour train ride west of Beijing (and maybe 4 hours by car according to one of the signs we saw. We have reason to believe the sign may have been in error.)
The main tourist attractions (were actually outside of the city) were a hanging monastery and a series of Buddhist sculptures carved within a series of man-made caves.

We'll down load pictures soon and give everyone more details.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

The Quest for the Perfect Peanut Butter

Our quest for acceptable peanut butter has led to us inextricably towards making our own from (relatively) fresh ingredients.

Here are the peanuts with which we've had the most success.
We tried peanuts out of the 'bulk' bins but they turned out to be too stale and produced poor tasting and dry peanut butter. One of these packages will produce about 1 small jar. It turns out though that we can only find vacuum packed peanuts in anything above a single size serving at one store - sometimes. Product stocking is spotty at best. (But that is a topic for a different blog entry.)

These are what the peanuts look like in a food processor. (Fascinating, we know.)

The next step is to turn on the food processor and let it process... and process... and process...

After about 3 minutes the peanuts start to break up and look a lot like this. (You may notice a strong resemblance to a bowl full of broken peanut bits cause this is what they are.)
Letting it go for another 5 minutes or so turns it into finer pieces of broken peanuts and a little bit of peanut oil. This is the start of the thick paste stage.

If you let it keep going for another 2ish minutes (which you really want to do because it is not so nice to eat at the previous stage) the new thickness of this stuff caused by the release of the oils causes the goop to stick together and start rolling around the bowl in a ball. Its very fun to watch. See the ball?

Now we are getting close to the end.
Let the thing keep on going (by this point the motor should be getting so hot you are worried about its health) and the ball of peanut gooeyness will break down into something that finally resembles peanut butter. Mmmm.

At this point we have started adding a little bit of cinnamon and brown sugar. We're not sure we can taste the difference, but they seem like the right stuff to add.

After a little more mixing it is time to pour the warm (gotta love the heat transfer from the motor) peanut butter into our glass peanut butter jars. Then, because Michael prefers crunchy style, we add the last ingredient - partially crushed peanuts! The whole thing then gets stirred up together and after a measly 20 minutes of effort we have enough peanut butter to last us... um... well, maybe a week.

We've started making 2 or 3 batches at once in a effort to increase the time between peanut butter production times. The result, however, is that we seem to be eating more peanut butter, and still run out once a week.


While not exactly from China, this is a chocolate bar that we had never seen in the States and it has become one of Michael's favorites (right up there with many other dark chocolates). Toblerone dark chocolate - fun for the whole family.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Our First Sand Storm - Almost

On Friday, Michael came home with the news that a sandstorm was suppose to hit Beijing on Saturday. Apparently sandstorms are common in Beijing in the spring. Neither of us have been in a sandstorm before so we were (cautiously) excited about witnessing one. However Saturday started out quite warm and lovely with no storm in sight and we promptly forgot all about that silly 'storm'. The day was so warm in fact that when we went to the grocery store in the morning Cara wore her sandals.

Then at 1:30pm things started to get more exciting. We noticed a shadow advancing towards us from the west side of the city. (The views below are from our living room window which faces almost directly west.) In this first picture you can see the storm shadow at the edge of the embassy area.

We continued to watch the cloud slowly advance. By 2:04pm it had gotten only a little closer.

Then at 2:37pm it suddenly became very dark.

That's snow out there. But it was glorious earlier! How on earth could there be a snowstorm? Sand and snow are two completely different words and clearly this was the wrong one. We actually checked that the white stuff whirling outside our window was melting on our deck before we believed it was snowing.

And then it was suddenly all over and the day was lovely again, if a bit colder. By 4:30 the skies were completely cleared and a beautiful sunset had commenced its nightly show.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Wee Little Fruits

We were at the store the other day and saw these little fruits. Mysterious but very cute. So we picked up a few to try out. Not knowing what they were, Cara started her first attempt at eating one by trying to bite through the skin.

That did not work so well. The skin was sort of tough and teeth did not readily punch through.

The next try involved a knife. (Yay tools!) This worked very well and the fruit was successfully laid open. It tasted quite good and even smelled familiar. "But what is it?" we hear you ask. Turns out it is a wee little tiny mango. It even comes with its own little baby pit which is very thin and flexible (as seen in the second photo).

Having now done some research into the matter, it turns out that mangos come in all sorts of sizes and not just the 6 inch long kidney shaped one found in the grocery stores back home. Cara thinks this particular size was designed specifically as a single-serve snack and our fridge now has 5 new ones all set for the upcoming week.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Oh Brother Where Art Thou - Chinese Style

One of our friends picked up the sound track to "Oh Brother Where Art Thou?"

Now, living in Beijing can make it rather difficult to find music and movies that are actually, physically created by the companies that originally published them. If that was too subtle, what we mean is that plagiarism and un-lawful reproductions are EVERYWHERE. So much so that finding a legit copy of a given piece of intellectual property is almost impossible. Even the large department-like stores are in on this deal. One of the reasons it is so hard to tell if you are getting a 'real' copy is because the mass production of black-market copies are so good. Once you watch the movie it often becomes clear though - especially when you try to view the 'special features' and discover that they were somehow not loaded onto your particular copy....

But getting back to our original story, our friend bought the sound track and upon reading the song titles noticed a small discrepancy. Check out #13 from above.
"I am a Mao? of Constant Sorrow"
We think this is sort of appropriate though. Mao, man, whatever. It even sort of reminds us of Team America's song "I'm So Ronery" sung by the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-il.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Restaurant etiquette

Last night we went out to dinner with a few friends. Part way through the dinner we needed some more soup so one member of our party raised his arm and yelled across the room, "Server! More soup!" (Though it sounded more like "FooWooYuan! Jee-ah tong!")
Here's the funny part - this is utterly proper etiquette when eating in a Chinese restaurant in China. In fact, it is pretty much the only way to get a server's attention.

It is equally amusing how odd American's feel while using this particular restaurant technique. When someone's 'service call' is commented on, invariably the individual in question will first defensively remind the other diners that "this is how the Chinese do it" and then bashfully explain that it took them about 6 months to become comfortable doing it themselves.

We are thinking that even taking into account the efficiency of the yelling-orders-across-the-room method, giving it a try in the US will not endear us to our hometown wait staff.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Hospital Anyone?

We don't think we would want to go here - but we love the sign. That's right - it is the "Dongda Hospital for Anus and Intestine Disease Beijing".

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Back to Cooking

Tonight's food experiment: Spicy Chicken Coconut Curry with Cool Cucumber Raita and Gingered Rice brought to you by Food 911 on the food network.

This was particularly fun because we tried making 'hung' yogurt for the first time in our kitchen. Never heard of hung yogurt? Well you take plain yogurt and pour it into a cheese cloth and let the liquid seep through leaving behind a thicker yogurt. If you are looking for more info check this out from Good Eats, also on the food network. We were all excited about trying this out, especially after Michael found something similar to cheesecloth at the grocery store. Or at least we thought it was similar...

The paper thin items he found seem to be designed to hold baozi (meat buns) while cooking. They sort of resemble very thin Bounce dryer sheets except they are circular. We thought these would work as a lovely substitute for cheesecloth, which we don't have. As it turned out, we were not quite right.
After we had lined a colander with the baozi sheets and poured about half the yogurt in, it then occurred to us that we really ought to check just how porous these sheets are. So Michael separated a new sacrificial sheet and, making a sort of balloon out of by holding the edge, he filled the sheet with water... and we watched as all that water stayed safely within the sheet. This was not going to be so useful as a sieve. Uh.. oops.

But not all was lost because a regular old (clean) dish towel was substituted for those silly sheets and the yogurt was hung. Ta-dah!

While the chicken was not very special on its own, when the raita was added this turned into quite a nice dinner. And we have enough leftovers to probably last us the week.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Paypal and China - not so good

We were trying to pay a bill via paypal this week. Being the sophisticated program that it is, paypal noticed that our web connection was coming from China. They were not so thrilled with this, so we received an automated questionaire that, among other things, required a phone number at which paypal could call us immediately. While we were allowed to fill in 'oversea' post as our location, entering an overseas phone number was simply unacceptable.
Please note that they did withdraw our money from our bank account, but now, since we may not be the people we are claiming to be, they will not let us touch it or pay any bills with it.
Very very tricky.
Word to the wise: paypal's customer service - isn't.