Decoding China Now Available!

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My new book Decoding China: A Handbook for Traveling, Studying, and Living in Today’s China is now available. You can find it on Amazon or Barnes and Noble. There are links on the right.

I started this book back in 2002, put it away for a few years (busy with other projects), then began writing in earnest again and updating the research in 2010. If you get a chance I would appreciate any feedback you might have. I would also appreciate it if you would o a review on Amazon or Barnes and Noble.

I have just returned from another trip to China; this time to the Southwest—Sichuan, Guizhou, and Yunnan Provinces. I’ll be posting about that and my trip two months ago to Guangdong and Taiwan.

 

Breakfast in Beijing

I love Chinese breakfast food, especially what you get on the streets, such as 煎饼 jiānbing. A few months ago I was in Beijing with some good friends and they took me to a simple little restaurant for breakfast. Nothing special, but nonetheless delicious. This is pretty typical fare for breakfast in the North of China.

That morning we had 素包子 sù bāozi (vegetarian teamed dumplings), 油条 yóutiáo (fried bread sticks), 蒸饺 zhēngjiǎo (steamed meat dumplings), and hot 豆浆 dòujiāng (soybean milk).

素包子 Vegetarian steamed dumpling

素包子 Vegetarian steamed dumpling

包子 bāozi is a generic term for steamed bread. They can be simply steamed bread with no filling or they can come with a variety of fillings. Vegetarian ones usually have spinach, mushrooms, and a number of other kinds of vegetables. Meat fillings are usually pork and seasoned with ginger, garlic, and will often have scallions, or mushrooms. They differ by region as well.

油条 fried break sticks

油条 fried break sticks

You can find 油条 yóutiáo all over China. They are commonly eaten for breakfast, either alone, or as part of another dish. For example, 煎饼 jiānbing will often have a 油条 inside. It is often eaten with 粥 zhōu in the south. Sometimes it is cut up into chunks and tossed into the 粥 zhōu sort of like croutons.

蒸饺 steamed dumplings

蒸饺 steamed dumplings

蒸饺 zhēngjiǎo are a variety of 饺子 jiǎozi that are steamed instead of boiled or fried. They usually have a meat filling. These also vary by region but are all pretty similar. are a variety of 饺子 that are steamed instead of boiled or fried. They usually have a meat filling. These also vary by region but are all pretty similar.

豆浆 soybean milk

豆浆 soybean milk

豆浆 dòujiāng is simply soy milk, but is often very fresh. In the Winter it is usually served hot in a bowl, like in the photo. It is a great way to warm up in the morning.

Below are a couple photos of 油条 yóutiáo in 煎饼  jiānbing. In the first photo you can see it just under the 煎饼 and in the second photo it is rolled up in it.

Making 煎饼

Making 煎饼

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Pop Culture China!: A Book Review

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Latham, Kevin. 2007. Pop Culture China!: Media, Arts, and Lifestyle. Santa Barbara, Denver, Oxford: ABC Clio.

I’m doing some research on Chinese pop culture, so this seemed like a good book to read. When I received it, I immediately noticed the heavy, textbook feel to it.EVen the layout seems very textbook-ish. It really is a reference work for libraries and maybe specialists. The author is a lecturer in anthropology and sociology at the University of London. The book is thorough, and as one might expect from this kind of book, the writing is academic in nature. It is best used as a reference work, and would be a bit heavy to read through from cover to cover. However, I did read it all the way through and found it to be well written and well organized.

Anyone who is interested in such things as the development of rock music in China, the evolution of film, the role of newspapers in Chinese society, how Chinese spend their leisure time, and so on, will find this book a valuable resource. Each chapter ends with a section called “A to Z” which serves as a kind of review of the major names, terms, and events discussed in the chapter. I found this useful. It is obvious that the book is well researched and a valuable contribution to our understanding of pop culture in an ever changing China. It’s a welcome addition to my library, but for most people I would recommend you check it out at your local library.

What Chinese Want: A Book Review

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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.

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

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.