What Chinese Want: A Book Review

ref=sib_dp_pt

Doctoroff, Tom. 2012. What Chinese Want: Culture, Communism, and China’s Modern Consumer. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Tom Doctoroff has opinions and he isn’t afraid to express them. There is no beating around the bush here. I appreciated his direct style and getting right to the point, though he has a tendency to oversimplify things. There is nothing worse than dancing around the issue to the point that you’re not sure where the author stands. Not so with Doctoroff. He also tends to overgeneralize, saying things such as :

“Chinese fear chaos; they are unable to imagine social order without autocratic control.”(p. 26)
“In China, no one invests in status brands unless everyone recognizes them.”(p. 76)
“. . . the imitation and piracy of brands–has become a national point of pride.”(p. 79)
“. . . there are few Chinese labels actually preferred by mainland consumers.”(p. 86)

This may be true for the emerging middle class, but what about the millions who are happy to have consumer goods, period. For them, the cheapest brand will do.

Of the Chinese education system, he says, “It’s primary role is to advance the interests of the nation, as defined by the Communist Party.”(p. 126)

I know many faculty members at Chinese universities that would strongly disagree with this, especially those in the humanities. Again, he is overgeneralizing.

“Surgeons will still be bribed by patient’s relatives to ensure adequate care. Medical equipment will still be manned by inadequately trained and poorly compensated staff. Local banks, while dependable for low-end transactions, will offer no investment alternatives beyond basic savings and high-risk, opaque mutual funds.”(p. 152)

A rather pessimistic viewpoint. China has progressed in practically every area of society in the past 30 years. I see no reason to believe that things won’t continue to change and improve.

“On a personal level, the Chinese admire–are even intoxicated by–US-style individualism. At the same time, they regard it as dangerous, both personally and as a national competitive advantage.”(p. 195)

Again, this is debatable. I have not met too many Chinese that are enamored by Western individualism. Most find it rather odd.

Despite Doctoroff’s tendency to overgeneralize, and his frequent repetition, he is not afraid to challenge the reader; he makes you think, ask questions. Some of what he says may even anger you, especially if you are native Chinese. All of this is okay. I like someone with an opinion even if I don’t agree with it. The best books are those that challenge you.

In sum, this book provides a nice look into Chinese consumer culture. The reader comes away with a better understanding of the dramatic changes in society in China today. I recommend it, especially for those interested in advertising and marketing and want to understand what’s going on in China.

Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Book Review

ref=dp_image_0Dunlop, Fuchsia. 2008. Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China. New York & London: W.W. Norton & Company.

First off I should say that I love eating in China. In fact, that is what I most look forward to when I am heading to China. The variety and quality of the various cuisines in China is truly extraordinary. I really related to this book, not only for the eating adventures, but also because I also was once a young student in China trying to figure things out around me. Dunlop was a young girl studying Chinese in Chengdu when she became distracted by the heady smells and tastes that surrounded her. She enrolled in the local cooking school and dove headfirst into the wonderful world of Chinese cuisine, specifically 川菜 chuāncài, or Sichuan cooking, in her case.

What makes this book so readable, and persuasive, is Dunlop’s ability to engage the reader with personal and intimate stories of regular people and homestyle cooking.  As a speaker of Chinese she is able to share experiences with ordinary Chinese that would not be possible without a knowledge of the language. For example, she befriends the cook at the local noodle shop and eventually persuades him to give her the recipe for his famous dandan noodles, which she shares with the reader. I know I have said this before in other book reviews, but knowing Chinese really opens up all kinds of doors and allows one to experience a China that would not be possible if you did not know the language.

She correctly states on page 206, “Food has always been of exceptional importance in Chinese culture. It is not only the currency of medicine, but of religion and sacrifice, love and kinship, business relationships, bribery, and even, on occasion, espionage. ‘To the people, food is heaven,’ goes the oft-repeated saying.” Though the book focusses on Sichuan cuisine, she does give insight into China’s other culinary traditions as well.

The book is engaging, entertaining, and very informative. It is obvious that she has done her homework and knows her stuff. She gets added credibility because she experiences all this first hand while she lived in China and on subsequent trips back after returning to the UK.

The reader comes away from this book fascinated with Chinese food, and really hungry. The food she describes is the real thing. This is a well written memoir and I highly recommend it.

Fuchsia Dunlop is an active food writer and blogger and is the author of at least three Chinese cookbooks Her blog can be found here:

http://www.fuchsiadunlop.com/

China Street Photography 2

This is a series of street photos taken in Nanjing, Yangzhou, and Huai’an (Northern Jiangsu Province) in February of 2012.

Night market

Night market

Breakfast

Cantonese style breakfast

Nighttime snacks

Nighttime snacks

Water chestnuts

Water chestnuts

Noodles

Noodles

Lining up for breakfast

Lining up for breakfast

Rainy day in Huai'an

Rainy day in Huai’an

Yangzhou alleyway

Yangzhou alleyway

Kebobs

Kebobs

煎饼 jiānbing

煎饼 jiānbing

Yangzhou street food

Yangzhou street food

Yangshou 酥饼 sūbǐng

Yangzhou 酥饼 sūbǐng

Fresh noodles

Fresh noodles

Mushrooms

Mushrooms

Bottles

Bottles

Yangzhou night

Yangzhou night

Behind the Scenes in a Chinese Restaurant

20120225-DSC_7023

As much as I love to eat Chinese food, I had never really been into the kitchen of a big restaurant. Small restaurants, sure, you can hardly not see the kitchen. I joke with my students (with a serious undertone), to not look back into the kitchen at a Chinese restaurant. Just enjoy the food and don’t worry about where it came from. Chinese kitchens may not be the model of sanitary practices.

Last year I was visiting with an old friend in Nanjing, and as usual he and his wife invited me out to eat. He is a 23rd generation Chinese Muslim and is very well connected with the Muslim community in Nanjing. He knows all the best Muslim restaurants and has a personal relationship with all the owners. On this occasion we ate at the excellent 奇芳阁 qífānggé restaurant at Fuzi Miao fūzi miào in the southern part of the city. This restaurant has a long history and offers excellent Muslim Chinese food. (More on Muslim food in China in another post).

Knowing my interest in Chinese food and culinary culture, my friend introduced me to the head manager of the restaurant as well as the head chef. They then gave me a tour of the kitchen and graciously allowed me to take photos. The lighting was not good, and I struggled to get good exposures, so the photos are not great. But I think they are interesting. I suppose the kitchen was not too different from any restaurant kitchen—busy, loud, and a bit chaotic at times with waiters and waitresses coming and going.

A line of woks

A line of woks

From wok to platter

From wok to platter

The prep and assembly area

The prep and assembly area

Fish

Fish

 

Soup

Soup

Ingredients

Ingredients

The steaming station

The steaming station

Dishes ready to go

Dishes ready to go

More fish

More fish

Quail

Quail

With the head chef

With the head chef

Our delicious dinner

Our delicious dinner

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

China Street Photography

You have probably noticed by now that I enjoy photography. Whenever I am in China (or just about anywhere) I have a camera with me. The following are a few shots I took on my last trip in October/November 2013, on the streets of Nanjing, Beijing, and Tianjin. To see more of my photography, visit my Flickr site using the link on the right side of the page.

Not that into you.

Not that into you.

Street snacks

Street snacks

Nanjing specialty

Nanjing specialty

Taiwan food on the Mainland

Taiwan food on the Mainland

Bunnies anyone?

Bunnies anyone?

Delivery bike

Delivery bike

Yellow hoods

Orange hoods

Hard boiled eggs, Chinese style

Hard boiled eggs, Chinese style

Beijing breakfast

Beijing breakfast

Hutong

Hutong

Hutong grandma

Hutong grandma

Hutong life

Hutong life

Big celery

Big celery

Leeks

Leeks

For Rent

For Rent

Catholic church in Tianjin

Catholic church in Tianjin

Decoding China

9780804842679_p0_v2_s260x420

Back in 1998 I was leading a study abroad group to China, Nanjing University to be specific. We had been in the country for only two or three days. I was eating lunch in a small restaurant just off campus when I noticed three of my students enter. They didn’t see me, so I just observed what happened. They entered the restaurant and stood just inside the door. I knew what they were thinking—they were waiting for someone to greet them and show them to a table, just like in an American restaurant. They waited, and waited, and waited some more. I could see they were getting impatient and maybe a bit frustrated. I also observed the two waitresses working in the restaurant. They seemed equally perplexed. One said to the other, “What are they doing just standing there?” The other replied, “I don’t know, maybe waiting for someone.” What my students did not understand is that in small, informal restaurants like this you simply find an empty table without waiting for someone to show you. In other words, there is no host or hostess. They assumed that eating in China was the same as eating in the U.S. These students had pretty good Chinese having studied at the University for 4 to 5 semesters. I knew they had the linguistic capacity to order a meal and do whatever else they needed in a restaurant. But they still didn’t know the “rules” or “codes” involved in eating at a restaurant in China. It’s not as simple as it may seem, even if you know some Chinese.

This experience impressed upon me the importance of cultural knowledge. To get things done in China requires a whole set of knowledge that goes far beyond linguistics. In fact, one could argue pretty persuasively that cultural knowledge will get you farther in China than linguistic knowledge alone. This book is the result of several years of research on how to get things done in China; how to make sense of the Chinese world; how to decode China so it makes sense for a foreigner.

With that rather lengthy introduction, I am happy to announce that my book, Decoding China: A Handbook or Traveling, Studying, and Working in Today’s China is now available for pre-order. It is available through Amazon and Barnes and Noble and there are links on the right side of the main page of this blog under Books. It will be available in April.

Who is this book for?

I think this book would be a great benefit to students going to China to study, students doing internships in China, people going to China to live and work, independent travelers in China, and even armchair travelers. It contains all the information I wish I had when I first started traveling to China. I think it will even be valuable for those who have been living in China, even for several years. Basically, this is a book for those that want to go beyond the tourist or typical expat level of understanding. This is a book for those who want to live, work, or study independently among the Chinese. It is for those who want to blend in, not stand out.

Here are just a few topics covered in this book:

Which train should I take? Deciphering the train class numbering system.

Characteristics of hotels in China.

How to make sense of a Chinese menu.

How to buy and make sense of cell phone plans in China.

How to use the Chinese versions of Facebook and Twitter.

How to open a bank account in China.

How to barter like a native.

Self study learning strategies.

How to select a Chines study program.

Making sense of Chinese “face” relations.

The concept of guanxi explained.

What kinds of gifts should you give.

How to deal with culture shock.

Strategies for staying healthy in China.

Send me a message if you have any questions.

The Story Behind Tianjin’s 狗不理包 gǒubùlǐ bāo

狗不理大酒店 in Tianjin

狗不理大酒店 in Tianjin

In my last post I posted a photo of Tianjin’s famous 狗不理包 gǒubùlǐ bāo. I then received a comment about this very unusual name for this steamed dumpling. As the commenter noted, it sounds like these 包子bāozi are not even fit for dogs. For the non-Chinese speaking readers, let me explain. 狗 gǒu simple means ‘dog’ and to 不理 bùlǐ means to ‘pay no attention to,’ so a literal translation would be something like ‘the dumpling that dogs won’t pay attention to.” This would imply that they are not too tasty.

狗不理包 gǒubùlǐ bāo

狗不理包 gǒubùlǐ bāo

Before going to Tianjin last Autumn I had never tasted them, though I had heard of them as they are considered a famous Tianjin snack. Here is the story about these very tasty dumplings. It comes from the book 旅游城市美食指南:便走便吃 edited by 周国宝. (Tourist City Guide to Gourmet Food: Eating While Traveling).

According to tradition, the story begins in 1858 when a 14 year old boy named Gao Guiyou arrived in Tianjin. His nickname was Gouzi (狗子 gǒuzi) or ‘dog.’ He had come to Tianjin to study to be a craftsman. He was very clever, good with his hands, and a quick learner. He apprenticed at a shop run by the Liu Family that made steamed dumplings (包子 bāozi). He learned very quickly how to make beautiful and delicious dumplings. After three years he had served out his apprenticeship and opened his own shop selling his own dumplings. He soon gained a reputation for making the best dumplings in town and people came from all over to eat them. He became so busy that he had no time to talk to his customers, thus the phrase, 狗子卖包子,不理人, gǒuzi mài bāozi, bùlǐ rén, ‘Gouzi sells dumplings and doesn’t pay attention to people (meaning his customers). After awhile people began calling him 狗不理 gǒubùlǐ, and his famous dumplings became known as 狗不理包 gǒubùlǐ bāo. Now it is said that if you travel to Tianjin and don’t try 狗不理包子 gǒubùlǐ bāozi, then you’ve never been to Tianjin.

Me and a couple friends/colleagues traveled to Tianjin to visit the parents of a former graduate student I worked with. It was also a good excuse to visit Tianjin. We took the new bullet train from Beijing and it only too 28 minutes to get to Tianjin. They took us out to eat at the famous 狗不理大酒店. Whether this was the original location of the shop in the story, I don’t know.

Inside the restaurant

Inside the restaurant

We had an excellent meal which of course included gǒubùlǐ bāo. I am happy to report that they are delicious. We had a chef come into our private room and demonstrate how to wrap them. She then taught us how to do it. Though it may look easy, it surely is not and takes a great deal of practice to wrap them properly.

Rolling out the dough

Rolling out the dough

Wrapping the bāozi

Wrapping the bāozi

Michael and I feebly trying to wrap our own

Michael and I feebly trying to wrap our own

Can you tell which one the lǎowài (foreigner) wrapped?

Can you tell which one the lǎowài (foreigner) wrapped?

Finally, here is a short video I shot of the chef wrapping a 狗不理包. She makes it look so easy and effortless, but I assure you it is not. As I said, they are truly delicious. Next time you are in Tianjin, make sure to eat some 狗不理包.

New Year’s Update

Fabric store in Nanjing

Fabric store in Nanjing

It has been quite some time since I posted anything. I had a very busy semester teaching and traveling, then was swamped with finals and the holidays. I am now on sabbatical so I intend to post regularly for the next few months.

For the past several years I have been working on a cultural guidebook to China. It is due to the hit the bookstores in April. The title is: Decoding China: A Handbook for Traveling, Studying, and Working in Today’s China. I will post more details of the book and how to get a copy soon.

I have two new projects I am working on this year. The first is a culinary guidebook to China. This will cover the various regional cuisines in China and some very practical information such as how to make sense of a Chinese menu, how to find a good restaurant, street food, and so on. My interest in food and eating is evident to those who read this blog. The second project is a book on Chinese popular culture and cultural literacy. My goal with this book is to cover those basic things about Chinese culture that everyone in China grows up knowing. I will be posting regularly on these two topics as I continue my research. I have at least two research trips to China planned this year for these projects.

I also have more photos and stories about my trip to Tibet last year that I plan to post about. And finally, I will continue to post on topics related to communication and Chinese culture.

Here are a few photos from my last trip to China, October/November 2012.

Beijing Train Station, early morning.

Beijing Train Station, early morning.

Breakfast in a hutong near the Beijing South Train Station.

Breakfast in a hutong near the Beijing South Train Station.

Tianjin's famous gǒubùlǐ bāo 狗不理包

Tianjin’s famous gǒubùlǐ bāo 狗不理包

Tianjin, old and new

Tianjin, old and new

Dumplings: China’s Traditional Fast Food

Dumplings have been around for a long time in China. They are perhaps China’s original fast food. Dumplings come in a variety of different styles. 饺子 jiǎozi is generic name for dumplings. Traditionally they are eaten in the North of China, but really can be found all over as well. In fact, there are chain restaurants all over China that serve nothing but shuǐjiǎo, such as the popular Chain 大娘水饺 dàniǎng shuǐjiǎo (http://www.cnddr.com/eng/index.htm). They are also traditionally eaten during Chinese New Year. Boiled  jiǎozi, how they are typically eaten in the North and very popular in Beijing, are called 水饺 shuǐjiǎo. They are usually sold by weight, the 两 liǎng, which is 50 grams. The plate above has 2 liǎng.

Earlier this year I was wondering around north of the Forbidden City in Beijing, near the old Drum Tower, and found a wonderful small restaurant that served dozens of varieties of shuǐjiǎo. At this particular restaurant they had pork, beef, lamb, and egg shuǐjiǎo with dozens of varieties of each. Below is a shot from the pork shuǐjiǎo page of the menu. You can choose from pork with chives, cabbage, fennel, carrots, turnips, mushrooms, onions, peppers, to name a few.

shuǐjiǎo menu in Beijing

The skins are homemade (of course) are sometimes thick and chewy, and sometimes thin and almost transparent. They are usually dipped in a dark, rich vinegar. In some parts of China, usually farther south, the vinegar is mixed with a little soy sauce. In some areas they add chili oil as well. Jiǎozi can be a meal all by themselves, and are also often served at the end of a banquet.

Pot stickers 锅贴 guōtiē

Another wonderful variety of jiǎozi are pot stickers 锅贴 guōtiē. These dumplings are fried in a flat wok with oil until they are crispy on the bottom, then water or broth is added and a lid put on and steamed until done. When I was in China for the first time as a student at Nanjing University in 1985, pot stickers were about the only food we could find outside of large state-run restaurants and the school cafeteria. I loved them back then and I still love them and eat them every time I go to China. The potstickers below were ordered at a Muslim restaurant last month in Nanjing as part of a larger lunch.

Delicious guōtiē

The bottoms are fried crispy in oil.

Any traveler to China must eat a good plate of dumplings. The good news is that you should be able to find them all over China. You can order them in fancy, expensive restaurants, small nondescript restaurants, chain restaurants that specialize in dumplings, and and even on the street.

 

 

Dining in Yangzhou

wànjiā měishí Restaurant in Yangzhou

The city of Yangzhou sits on the Northern banks of the Yangtze River (长江 chángjiāng) a short distance down river from Nanjing and a couple hours upriver from Shanghai. The city has approximately 4.5 million people and is often described as a quaint Chinese town or city. And guess what? It does feel smallish and quaint compared to China’s other massive, sprawling cities.

Yangzhou is a culinary hotspot. If you like to eat, you will love Yangzhou. It is a foodie’s paradise. In an earlier post I talked about Yangzhou’s famous and fabulous dimsum. (https://intothemiddlekingdom.com/2012/06/29/yangzhou-dimsum/). Yangzhou is one of the culinary centers of Huaiyang cuisine (淮扬菜 huáiyáng cài), one of the Eight major cuisines in China (八大菜系 bādàcàixī). The name comes from the Huai and Yangtze Rivers that cut through this fertile region. The Yangtze River is also called in Chinese the 扬子江 yángzi jiāng. Huaiyang Cuisine is characterized by super fresh ingredients with delicate seasoning. It is felt that you don’t want to overpower the freshness of the ingredients with heavy sauces or spices. Along with Cantonese (粤菜 yuècài), Sichuan (川菜 chuāncài), and Northern (鲁菜 lǔcài) cuisines, Huaiyang Cuisine is highly celebrated in China and for good reason.

As I have mentioned in previous posts, I was in Yangzhou for a couple days in February of this year and sampled some of the famous dishes of the city. It was truly a memorable culinary experience. Fortunately, I have my friend, and colleague from Nanjing University, and fellow foodie along with me. He knows the city well as he spent much time there as a child visting his grandmother.

One night we selected a small restaurant down an alley off a main street. It is pictured above and was called 万家美食 wànjiā měishí and specialized in Yangzhou’s specialties which is what the smaller characters on the sign say, 扬州特色菜 yángzhōu tèsè cài. It was a cold rainy night, and as many of you know, there is seldom central heat in buildings in this part of China so you get used to eating with your coat and hat on.

Yangzhou cuisine is famous for its “three heads” dishes. This includes fish head (鱼头 yǔtóu), lion’s head (狮子头 shīzitóu), and pig’s head (猪头 zhùtóu). I tried the first of the two, which were exceptional. The pig’s head is basically a braised pig face, which I decided to pass on.

Delicious fish head steamed with a slightly sweet sauce

I know what many of you are thinking, fish head??? Trust me, it is delicious. The most tender and delicious meat from a fish comes from the cheek area, and the area just below the gills. Have you ever had halibut cheeks? I ate them once at a seafood restaurant in Seattle and they were to die for. This fish dish was exceptionally fresh, with a delicate sweet and slightly sour sauce with a few chopped scallions sprinkled on top. It was really good.

清蒸狮子头 qīngzhēng shīzitóu “fresh steamed lion’s head”

This dish contains no part of any lion. The Chinese have many creative names for dishes that have nothing to do with the ingredients. This dish is actually made with beef. However, it is not cheap ground beef. Prime cuts of beef are actually chopped with two large cleavers until the meat is minced into teeny tiny pieces. It is then seasoned with ginger and some onion, then steamed to perfection. The meat is so tender and succulent it can only be described as velvet-like. It was fantastic. The flavors were delicate, subtle, perfect. I really enjoyed this dish. It was ever better than the similar beef balls you get on Cantonese dimsum menus. I am not a big beef eater, but this dish was outstanding and I would order it again, and again.

大煮干丝 dàzhǔ gānsī “boiled shredded tofu”

This is another famous Yangzhou dish. The noodle-looking things are actually a type of dried tofu called 豆腐干 dòufugān, which literally means “dry tofu.” It has a firm, chewy texture similar to noodles. Like all tofu dishes the tofu soaks up all the flavors it is mixed with. This dish contains some greens and bamboo shoots all cooked in a delicious, light chicken based stock. It is a wonderful dish and can be found all over Yangzhou.

扬州炒饭 yángzhōu chǎofàn “Yangzhou fried rice”

This is not the greasy slop that you get at Chinese-American restaurants in the U.S. The first time I encountered Yangzhou style fried rice I had just arrived in Guangzhou after many hours on a plane. I finally got to my hotel around midnight and I was ravenous, but way too tired to go out and find a restaurant still open. So I ordered a plate of Yangzhou fried rice from room service. It was delicious!

Yangzhou fried rice is famous all over China. As with most Huaiyang cuisine it is lightly and delicately flavored, and is neither greasy nor smothered in salty soy sauce. It is seasoned with little bits of very fresh vegetables such as carrots, greens, maybe a bit of garlic. It almost always has freshly scrambled eggs and ham. I very seldom order fried rice; actually I never order fried rice, much preferring steamed rice. But Yangzhou style fried rice is the exception. It really is outstanding and the pinnacle of fried rice dishes in China.

After this wonderful meal I was feeling very sleeping, and very chubby. In fact, on this trip I had been eating way too much as I was doing research (i.e. eating) on Huaiyang cuisine. Several of my friends and colleagues knew this so they were very eager to take me to their favorite restaurants and order way more food than we could possibly eat.

Feeling a bit chubby after an excellent meal in Yangzhou

In the future I’ll be posting more about Huaiyang cuisine as well as China’s other cuisines as I continue my research on China’s famous regional cuisines. Let’s just say that authentic Chinese food is more varied, more delicious, and much more exciting than anything you can find here in the U.S.