Friday, January 4, 2008


A food blog. Been meaning to write this one for awhile. At the beginning of our year, I wrote about this faculty dining hall about 20 metres from our home where we could eat reasonably good Chinese food for unbelievably low prices. Well, we have not been there in a long time as they have a variety of chefs and you never know what awaits you. Been burned too many times. We also stopped going to a student dining hall which, at the beginning, seemed awesome. Cheap, lots of choices - a virtual food court of Xi'an local food, maybe 100 metres from our home. But Tal was the first one to get overwhelmed by the noise, smells, and some of the less appetizing dishes. I was next (one too many bowls of these cold soba-like noodles with lots of msg called mian piar), and now none of us will enter. So, I’ve begun cooking more, we have a few restaurants which we generally like, but we have learned that it is important to not eat too much Chinese food, as we sometimes grow tired of it. Also, the family just seems to do better as a unit when we’re seated in the peace of our own relatively clean, heated home. These restaurants are often very cold - you eat in your winter jacket. Just can’t seem to have that kind of family feeling at some of these joints that, quite frankly, wouldn’t pass even a basic health and safety inspection in the US or Canada.

So, I've asked some Chinese friends to teach me to cook and I bought some things that I vowed would never enter our apartment because we eat out so much: a wok and cooking oil. Actually, I broke with the cooking oil when I was frying potato latkes for Channukah, and the rest kind of happened naturally. Had too much leftover oil. I've made a few decent dishes but most have been only acceptable, at best. I attended a half-day cooking class with my friend Linda (visiting from Toronto with her guys) while traveling in Yangshuo (southern China) recently and learned some good basic Chinese cooking skills. Adjusting the temperature is key, and the concept of “measuring” is pretty much useless. Try adding 2/3 of a spatula of water to a dish and you’ll see what I mean.

My favourite part of cooking is shopping at our wonderful local outdoor market. By contrast, going into the supermarket here usually makes me nuts. It is overcrowded, hot, too many things I don’t recognize or wish I didn’t recognize, tons of salespeople but many of them not particularly helpful, and the lines to get out of there are not necessarily long but just move unbelievably slowly. Took me until very recently to find a decent kind of flour there – my first attempts at challah were just gross. Didn’t even taste good when I tried to make French toast out of them the next day. If you try to buy an item that doesn't have a bar code on it the check out person will tell you you can't buy it . . or you can wait 10 minutes (not an understatement) for somebody to try and get you another one but sometimes they never come back. Most of the products you pay for at the check-out counter but some items have to be bought from special registers throughout the store. Some big items are obvious but others are a surprise (like certain shampoos), and I'm told at the check-out counter that I have to go back up 2 flights and wait in another line before checking out. Grrrr. Probably doesn't help that my Chinese remains limited and I struggle to communicate at the best of times.

Yoni and I tried to return something today at this supermarket (a tea pot that cracked the first time I added hot water . . why do I still insist on buying the cheapest of everything?) and we had to go to 6 different individuals and get a variety of receipts and stamps before we got a refund. I suppose it might have been better just to forego the $3.

Anyway, as I mentioned earlier, the opposite of our local supermarket is the outdoor market across the street and a 10 minute walk from my apartment: a wonderful place, reminiscent of Mahane Yehuda to those of you who know Jerusalem, but dirtier and full of the sounds of people horking everywhere. They have these unbelievable tofu stalls with plain tofu, deep fried tofu balls (they open like a pita and you can stuff them or put them in soup), marinated tofu, long strips of textured tofu, and a variety of different tofu types that look interesting but I haven't tried yet - you just can’t imagine . . . .

And the mushrooms . . . . truly amazing! All different kinds - fresh or dried. Also, farm fresh eggs everywhere. And this wonderful round bread with a hint of spice (cumin, maybe, but definitely something else as well) made by the minority Muslim population here. I've included a picture of the market, and a picture of this round bread (like nan or laffa) with these 3 smiling guys who make the stuff. I keep meaning to show them this picture when I go there, but inevitably I'm at the market by the time I remember. Actually, much of Xi’an’s wonderful food is courtesy of the Muslim population - mostly Uighurs but also some other minorities as well. Anyway, now that I have started to cook more regularly I’ve been buying and experimenting and trying to learn the names of things from the market. It’s so much fun. I’m told that there’s dog meat at the market as well, but since I don’t cook meat here . . I generally avoid the meat area. Probably not a bad thing.

And around the food market is this amazing street with all these outdoor vendors. Hard to buy anything for over 25 cents. I've included a picture of me and Noam with Zev, Kobi and Gil Shapero buying some fresh sugar cane on this street, when the Rothman-Shapero clan was visiting from Toronto. No problem spitting out the sugar cane pulp on the street around here. And there’s this sticky, sweet deep fried rice/dough rolled into a ball, sprinkled with sesame seeds, and filled with sweet red bean paste. You might have eaten it at a dim sum place. Every time I ask the guy what it’s called he says something different so I still don’t know what to call it. There’s this kind of mini waffle dish that the boys love – we used to eat something like it in Taiwan but it was stuffed with either custard or sweet red bean paste. This one’s plain but delicious. And then there’s the fried dumplings in these huge containers and these little women lift them somehow. When I try to buy just one or two they don't really understand me and always give me too much.

I've discovered that the secret to enjoying this street is to just take a taste of everything and don't over-indulge. And there’s a kind of bread called “bing” (pronounced with a falling/rising tone) which is round like a pita, but doesn’t have a pocket and is a bit more crumbly and a touch sweet. Works great for mini pizzas and tuna melts, but you can also buy it stuffed with all kinds of pickled vegetables or have it shredded in soup with lots of vegetables and your choice of lamb, beef, or just plain vegetarian - the soup is called pa mou and one of my favourite local delicacies. And there’s a sweet or salty bread baked in these outdoor coal-burning kind of metal tandoor oven (garbage cans in other countries, maybe?). One of our favourite outdoor grabs is a plain roasted sweet potato. They have two kinds of sweet potatoes - one's white and less sweet, a bit dry, and the other is dark orange and perfectly creamy when baked correctly. Hard to go wrong unless you’re the person who has to sell it . . 7 days a week beside a coal-stoked fire, pushing your little cart around town.

Our favourite snack: seaweed. There’s regular Chinese seaweed and then there’s the Korean stuff – more textured. I prefer the Korean, as does Tal. Rice crackers – different than the ones we used to buy in NP. There’s seaweed flavour, sugar-sprinkled (yum), deep fried (less yum), and some others we don’t try. There’s lots of these dried tofu snacks as well, but we haven’t explored them yet. Once I thought I was trying dried tofu but it was dried, pickled bamboo. Not a big seller. And we've tried honey dried Chinese dates (yum) and a kind of popcorn; slightly sweet and salty at the same time, but it's more corn and less pop than we're used to. We try to avoid the potato chips: Italian meat flavoured, sweet prawn, savory prawn, Mexican chili . . I could go on.

And then there’s this amazing find: a fabulous Indian restaurant. We went there when we had had too much Chinese food, and I just couldn’t bring myself to cook more regularly: cramped kitchen, not the right utensils, couldn’t quite find the right ingredients, etc. Anyway, we went to this Indian restaurant that was recommended by a friend from India, and were amazed at how LONG we had to wait for food. Probably 10-15 minutes, but the Chinese restaurants are so fast this seemed like eternity. Then we started to eat . . the food was extraordinary. Probably among the best Indian restaurants I've ever frequented, and we all got kind of quiet. Towards the end of dinner Tal said, “hard to believe that I think what I’m going to miss most about China is this Indian restaurant.” Anyway, after that experience I got inspired to work to make food a bit more enjoyable.

One last funny story, as I wrote this blog in parts. Since starting this blog, and my praise of this wonderful local market, I need to tell you all that I was recently pickpocketed there. Xi'an is apparently the pickpocketing capital of China. What luck. Anyway, once I was shopping there and I had my wallet in my pocket and one of the stallers told me to put it in a breast pocket. I thought he was being overly cautious but did it nonetheless. However, the other day I went with my cell phone in my (zippered front) pocket and it was stolen. These guys are good. I was telling a friend when a kid (Noam's age) overheard and said that one time he was with his mother at the market and someone was hiding underneath one of the stalls (or behind some vegetables, I couldn't understand the exact details) and tried to grab his mother's cell. Of course this kid, being the right height, saw the man and kicked him. Next time I'll bring Noam with me. But I'll still shop there - can't help it. It's just part of the experience, and the best produce around.

And on that note, I'm going to post now. Meant to attach more pictures but I just never seem to get to it, so I may add to this blog later.