Thursday, January 28, 2010

Cooking Class and Indian Provisions

Last year I discovered a new culinary love-Indian food. This obsession began with a delicious dinner of Bengan Bhurtha (roasted eggplant and garlicky spiced tomatoes and vegetables) at Sitar in Knoxville about a year ago. That first dinner was followed by countless Indian lunch buffets (FYI for Knoxville residents-Sitar's buffet has more variety, but Taj's is less runny, more spicy!). Anyways, from the moment I set foot in China, I have pursued Indian dishes with even greater fervor as the cuisine is plentiful, cheap and most importantly, very vegetarian. Now I am not a typical proponent of eating out-more expensive, more calories and no joy or relaxation of cooking for me. Whenever I have considered cooking Indian food for myself, however, I have always come up short on both ingredients and dependable recipes. So last week when I had the chance to join some international women in Shekou for an Indian cooking class, I jumped in with enthusiasm!

The class was held at a British friend's home down the street and was taught by her friend from India. In attendance were a variety of lovely ladies: the places represented included England, Scotland, Hong Kong, Japan and the Seychelles. As you may imagine this made for quite interesting small talk while we waited for the onions to become translucent and the tomatoes to reduce. I found myself smiling and savoring the moment as I realized what a rookie I still am at cooking (and life) as I listened to the chatterings of such a worldly bunch. We made two dishes-Rajma Curry and Jeera Rice. Rajma means red beans, and the curry was a tomato and onion based pan of deliciousness, seasoned perfectly with a long list of spices. Jeera is the Indian word for cumin, and the simple, fragrant basmati Jeera Rice we cooked paired perfectly with the Rajma Curry. All in all, I left the class with a new respect for Indian cuisine and a better understanding of the spices and the basic techniques such recipes entail. More than that, though, I walked away feeling as though I'd had a privileged glimpse of these women's lives, from their favorite spices to their bizarre Asian adventures. I made two resolutions as I made my way back from cooking class. One, I will someday start a recipe/cooking class exchange with friends, and two, I will someday travel to Bhutan, which is apparently one of the most lovely, unique destinations in the Orient.

As I mentioned before, the Rajma curry recipe did have a long list of ingredients, a few of which my family's spice drawer has never seen. To find these ingredients, our instructor had warned us, we would have the best luck ordering from an Indian foods store on the other side of Shenzhen. Although she suggested we have the supplies delivered, my Mom and her friend and I decided it would be more fun to go to the "Indian Provisions Store" and check it out for ourselves. Armed with a business card we set out with our driver this morning. After 45 minutes, one stop for directions and two phone calls to the store owner, we were finally met in the street by the two men who run the store. They guided us past stalls selling dried fruit and clothes and into an apartment-like building. We took the elevator to the 18th floor and walked to Room C. The door swung open to a rather empty living room, and we followed our guides inside past a bedroom and a bathroom to the store [room]. We exchanged "this is a new experience!" glances and set to work finding the spices and rice we needed. As we checked out (in the traditional calculator and exchange of yuan manner), we struck up a little conversation. The two men were from Calcutta but had been here in Shenzhen for 5 years. Once our transactions were complete one man helped us back downstairs and politely waited with us for our driver. Mission buy Indian food ingredients accomplished!

Pictured above:
Amchoor Powder-ground dried mango for the sour kick to balance your curry
Garam masala-aka five spices powder
Green cardamom pods-what the ground cardamom in you pantry is made from, a key component of spiced milk tea and many sweet Indian dishes
Black cardamom pods-stronger, distinctive cardamom used in savory Indian dishes

...I'd just like to note that I didn't include the 2 kg of very authentic looking bags of Basmati rice we purchased in the picture because they are currently in the freezer. Mary's China rule is to freeze all flour, rice, pasta, etc. for 24 hours before we use kill whatever may or may not be hanging out in it. I'd like to say it's strictly a precaution, but then again I did find a bug (thankfully frozen dead) yesterday in the flour when I was making beer bread...Oh China.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Snapshots of Hong Kong

When I exited the Star Ferry from Kowloon, Hong Kong to "the island" Hong Kong, this is the site I was greeted with. Leave it to China to move the ferry out further into the bay so the big city may grow bigger.

A view of the Island of Hong Kong from the ferry.

From the top of Victoria's Peak, Hong Kong

And now that you have the "big picture" of Hong Kong...take a look at her up close and personal:

No, not all streets are like this. Actually, Hong Kong must house an extraordinary number of Louis Vuitton's and Gucci stores per capita...but that is not the least bit interesting. Although the fact that people line up outside Louis Vuitton to wait for their turn to go in and have a personal sales rep as though they were waiting for entrance to some hip club...that is pretty interesting to see, in a hmm, who are these people?? kind of way.

Because you never know when you're going to need to buy some pipes...

You'll notice the big blue truck coming at me behind these men as I was taking a picture. It got pretty close before I jumped out of the way, but as I was telling my sister, I've quickly lost my personal bubble with vehicles after a few weeks here. Trucks and buses barrelling down the road straight at you just kind of becomes part of the daily routine.

Bean sprouts anyone?? I happen to love bean sprouts myself, and the funny thing is this love began in China nine years ago when my Mom and I were in Guangzhou adopting my sister Elly. I was an obnoxiously picky eater back then, and one of the three dishes I enjoyed over the 11 days we spent in mainland China was noodles with garlic and bean sprouts. Very comforting and delicious.

This is a nice little tame picture of Mom checking out the fresh fish at a street market in Central, Hong Kong. You can let your imagination run wild about what was on the other side of the stairs...this vegetarian chose to divert the lense from that one :)

I am happy to announce that my little trip to Hong Kong resulted in more than fun pictures...I am now the proud owner of a multi-entry Chinese Visa, so I can come and go from Hong Kong to China as I please. The U.S. Consulate would not, however, add more visa pages to my FULL emergency passport, but after a little polite demanding on my part the secretary let me speak with the officer and we worked out something even better! I'm going to get a new, permanent passport. Apparently they'll ship it right to the Hong Kong embassy for me to pick up in a week...Too bad the U.S. Consulates around the world don't give out matching info, or I would have applied for that baby the day my feet hit the ground in Asia. Happily, this should all be resolved soon!

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Letting the lamp be enough

Everyone has those days when you wake up feeling satisfied with where you're at, positive at the prospect of another sunrise, excited at the promise that a new day brings. In short, you have no reason to think that anything will go wrong. But alas, sometimes things just take a turn for the worse. Today I woke up with a very cheerful spirit. I had a free morning to read and lounge, lunch plans at an Indian restaurant (a fave!), and a manicure with the sisters. I'd have time to work out, plenty of time to pack for my trip to Hong Kong tomorrow. Things were looking up.

And most of the day did go as planned. I had a blissfully vegetarian lunch, enjoyed my sisters' company, and went about my business happily.

Do you ever have those moments where you feel like you're just getting too happy and life is too easy and suddenly you wonder if you're teetering on the edge of at least some minor disaster in order that equilibrium may be reinstated? Well, I feel that way often enough. In a way, I guess I should be grateful that I have those times when life just feels so perfect. That's a nice feeling to have.

Anyways, as I was packing for Hong Kong, I realized another hurdle would soon have to be tackled due once again to my passport losing. I'm almost out of visa pages-and that means I may not be able to get the new China Visa that tomorrow's Hong Kong trip was for. With the hotel already paid for and all plans in place, however, my parents said we are going to HK tomorrow! So, I've quickly scrambled and researched and made an appointment for the first available (Friday...) appointment at the US Embassy in Hong Kong. The rules say you can't add passport pages to a passport that will expire in less than a year (which mine will...), but I don't really have too many options left at this point, so hopefully the embassy will cooperate.

Needless to say, I feel rather queasy about my passport and documentation once again, and simultaneously purely bitter about the fact that this lost/stolen passport situation will continue to haunt me until I am back in the U.S. in August.

This would be a pretty awful post if all I did was complain, so no worries, I do have something worthwhile to report! In these moments of frustration, I've found comfort in words shared with me by a dear friend, and I hope they bring some perspective to your day too.

God isn't going to let you see the distant you might as well quit looking for it. He promises a lamp unto our feet not a crystal ball into the future. We do not need to know what will happen tomorrow. We only need to know he leads us and "we will find grace to help us when we need it" (Hebrews 4:16) Max Lucado, Everyday Blessings

Right now, I really want to know how tomorrow and the next day are going to go. They could hold some interesting obstacles due to my compromised citizenship. The reality is, though, that I am just not in control. (Obviously, or I would've straightened this out weeks ago!) Now is the time for me to hand over the control that I pretend to have, pray, breathe and hope for the best! Whew...not easy, but I'm going to try :)

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Cab Sickness

In China, the lanes on streets and highways are suggestions. Sometimes drivers respect them. Often times, they do not.

On a typical day, my family and I may walk to many of the places we wish to go. Elly's school, the fitness club, church (which is in the gym), many restaurants, shops and grocery stores are all within reasonable walking distance. When my Dad goes to work, our driver Mr. Tian takes him 25 minutes or so east of our house to his office. After Tian takes Dad to work, he is at the disposal of my Mom (and for now, I) to drive us to whatever exciting destination in Shenzhen we want to go to until he returns to the office at 5:30. On the weekends, however, this convenient situation changes. If we want to go somewhere we can't walk, we have to hail a cab. Okay, and I know this doesn't sound that bad, but you have to realize that in China your relationship with the person driving you around involves a great deal of trust. You can't read the signs, you don't know where you're going amidst the complex network of highways and dusty streets, you can't speak the language and you just have to trust. And one more startling fact about cabs in China-if you do get in a wreck while in a cab, if your driver is at fault, the liability is on you! You have to pay. And there is no court that really gets involved. You call the police and duke it out in the street and decide whose fault it was and somebody has to agree to pay up. My instincts tell me that as a person without Mandarin language skills, I would lose that battle.

That being said, I'll share a little bit about my transportation experiences today. After church, my family and I decided to go to a popular mall on the other side of Shenzhen for lunch at a nice Chinese restaurant. Driver-less as we are on Sundays, we went to the front of our neighborhood and hailed a cab. With four of us in the backseat we obviously couldn't use seatbelts, so it was already feeling a bit risky from the moment we peeled away from the curb. Less than five minutes into the ride, there were gasps from the backseat as a silver car moved into our lane and our driver swerved out of the way, honking his horn for way too long as he drove on. Rather than keeping our distance from this idiot car, our cab driver of course felt it necessary to accelerate and cut off this car, almost swiping it. All for the sake of even-ness I suppose. Glad we're mature... We did make it safely to our destination though and had a delicious lunch (photo above), complete with pointing at pictures and receiving of mystery dishes. One dish we ordered was called "Apple," in addition to a description in Chinese characters. When we received it, however, "Apple" was a platter full of sliced pork encased in golden fried shells. It did look like apples from the outside...but there was no actual apple in the dish. As the lone vegetarian in the crew I've found its best to let my sister eat everything first, glance at her for the go-ahead, and then serve myself. You never know when pork will jump out of your apple here.

After our authentic lunch, we made our way back outside to find a cab home. Dad selected one, pulled out his Jing Shan Villa card that says our neighborhood address in Chinese, and watched for his response. He pondered as Elly said our neighborhood name in Chinese and he nodded, motioning that he understood. We all piled in. We were met with the melodious-not! notes of a Chinese songstress. Emily yelled forward to Dad that he had her permission to turn off the radio. He didn't. As we continued down the road the smell of gasoline permeated the interior of the vehicle. It smelled exactly like riding the bumper boats at Celebration Station when there's just been a gas spill. Except it continued for 28 minutes straight. We rolled down the windows and tried to suck in fresh air with little success. The cab driver picked up his brick-sized cell phone and began yelling in Mandarin. After a couple minutes Elly managed to make out that he was talking about our neighborhood, apparently asking for help finding it. Awesome. We exited the highway and came up on a dusty patch of road. The driver rolled up all the windows, and I looked towards my Mom who was also turning green with the now stagnant smell of gasoline that continued to thicken the air. Desperate to get out, Emily yelled at the next street corner for the driver to stop, stop in Mandarin. She has learned at least one useful word in Chinese class...We all stumbled out with relief, happy to walk the last 20 minutes and gulp in that fresh China air...Safe to say we all lost a few brain cells to the fumes today. After washing all of our clothes and showering, I think we've all recovered. Just another day in Shenzhen...

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Birth Rights

During 2009 we all witnessed a host of messy debates over healthcare reform. Throughout the news coverage of various overhaul proposals, other countries' systems were sometimes discussed and their particular pros and cons weighed. I spent time reading about health insurance policies and health outcomes in other western, developed nations. I never, however, looked into the system here in China. Always interested in health matters, I asked a family friend here yesterday (American, but has lived in Shenzhen 3 years and is now married to a native Chinese man) what she knew about the healthcare system in China. She said that the concept of having a primary care physician is quite new, but she knows of people working to promote the concept of general, family medicine and community health. Instead, she shared, people tend to go to the hospital for all medical care. Need glasses? Hospital. Need dental care? Hospital. Need a little medicine for an infection? Hospital. You go to the main floor and describe your problem and then go on to whichever floor has the "equipment and specialists" for solving your particular medical concern. I say "equipment and specialists" facetiously here because the one Chinese hospital visit that has been described to me in the past was riddled with unsettling descriptions of long lines, sloppy procedures and sore oversights in safety and sanitation measures.

With my curiousity peaked about the healthcare system here in China, I took note of an article that appeared in the Shenzhen Daily yesterday. Entitled "Hong Kong hospitals reopen for Shenzhen moms," the article highlighted that mothers living in mainland China could once again pay to give birth in Hong Kong. There was apparently a temporary ban on this practice from October until the January 1 to open up beds for Hong Kong women on the maternity floors. What is the advantage of having your baby in Hong Kong? The obvious answer is that for mainland Chinese mothers, the hospitals in Hong Kong are more westernized, that is, provide cleaner facilities with higher standards of care. What the article also shared however, is that a child born in Hong Kong is automatically granted permanent residence there, which translates to free healthcare and 12 years' compulsory education. What's more, Hong Kong residents have visiting visa fees waived for 100 plus countries. What does this service cost? According to the article, about US $5000 is the minimum, but that includes the hospital stay and pre-labor checkup as well. If free healthcare and education is thrown in too, it's easy to see why this trend has become so popular. In fact, I looked a little more into this "pregnancy tourism" phenomenom and learned that 600 babies were born to mainland Chinese mothers in 2001, but that number grew to over 25,000 by 2008. In my internet searches I found a Washington Post article on the topic from last month. It brought up another major perk of having a child in Hong Kong-this practice acts as a loophole in the one child cap enforced under China's family planning policy because the Hong Kong born baby doesn't count. While the practice seems to annoy or anger some Hong Kong locals, the private hospitals there enjoy the extra revenue brought in by their busy maternity wards. I asked my Mom what she knew about this concept, and she attested to the fact that thousands of children cross the border every single day for school, wearing their passports around their neck in little lanyards. The free, high quality education provided by Hong Kong to its residents gives precious opportunity and promise of a brighter future that is worth many sacrifices on the part of parent and child. One thing I do not understand is the sustainability of these practices...Hong Kong is a wealthy city but how long can it provide free education for its own children as well as residents of bordering neighborhoods in mainland China? Interesting topic, and today I feel particularly grateful to be an American.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Happy One Year Anniversary

To my vegetarianism! haha yes one year ago today I made the switch and haven't regretted it once. In interest of full disclosure I can't actually go inside Chik-fil-A anymore, but other than that becoming a vegetarian has been an easy switch for me. My dietary restrictions have forced me to get creative in the kitchen with new ingredients, and I have discovered a love for cooking with healthy, fresh produce and alternative grains. Over the last month, of course, my diet saw some dark days as I traveled in the land of sausage and cheese (aka Germany), but even amidst the rows of bratwurst stalls and schnitzle huts, I managed to find a few veggie-filled meals. I ate the above arugula eggplant pizza in Munich one night. I wish I could say I was at a fancy Italian restaurant that would've knocked your socks off, but in reality I was at the train station, standing up, like I was for many of my meals. Ohh Europe on a budget...

I must give credit where credit is due though, and Germany does deserve credit for a couple classics. The first of course, is the pretzel ("brezel" in german), which has been appearing in bakeries in Southern Germany since 1111. Why have a sandwich on bread when you can have it on a pretzel? Mmm. I definitely enjoyed a couple delicious pretzels as chilly afternoon snacks.

My favorite classic German cuisine, however, had to be the delectable flammkuchen found in Christmas markets throughout Bavaria. This peculiarly named item resembles an extremely thin crust pizza, but in place of sauce and cheese has a thin creme-fraiche layer. The toppings typically include sausage, but Haley and I returned for a second meal to the stall in Karlsruhe which offered a veg version-just a wispy thin layer of creme-fraiche and a generous amount of sliced onions. Yum!
I apologize if the food talk bored you-I have a peculiar habit of taking pictures of my meals so I warn you now that I may do this often. That may be bad news or good news depending on your personal foodie inclinations...

Monday, January 4, 2010

You'll always find your way back home

Although I am quite certain you know this story, I will tell it once more to ensure we're all on the same page. On April 24, 2009, my life changed forever (that may sound extreme but please bear with me). My father walked into the cozy bonus room where my sister Emily and I were watching TV and said he had something to tell us. "How would you all feel about moving the family to China?" Nervous laughter, shock, exchange of glances with my sister, hyperventilation, jaw-dropping speechlessness- looking back I struggle to convey the weight of those moments. The following weeks were filled with questions, contracts, and lists. Within a month my parents and two younger sisters were on a plane to Shenzhen, China to look for a house and to tour schools. I stayed behind in Knoxville to watch over our house (which was up for sale). Apparently I did a decent job with the constant vacuuming, dusting and stuffing junk under furniture for showings because an acceptable offer was soon made on our house. SOLD! From there my life was reduced to boxes. Our furniture was quickly packed up and put in a container to be shipped via container ship to China. Since that takes 40-60 days, the furniture had to leave long before my family. So, we moved into a furnished apartment. On the third floor. A few days later a larger apartment opened up. So, we moved into a new apartment. On the third floor. Most of my belongings went into a storage facility as I shuffled around. When my family left in early August for Shenzhen, I spent a couple weeks in a nomadic state, house-sitting for friends as I waited to move into my apartment (on the third floor!) for the fall semester.

Fall semester flew by. Between classes, my job at Target pharmacy, clubs, preparations for spring semester study abroad in Chile, and my new job as the Groh family liaison in the USA, I really had little time to breathe, reflect or make sense of what was going on. I feel that constant state of activity was a blessing, however, because anytime I did slow down I began to miss my family and to resent the thousands of miles that separated us. But all that is history now. 827 to-do lists later, I have made it to the other side of one heck of a year. I am (finally!) sitting in the lovely living room of my family's home in China. My laptop is plugged into the floor (yep, the outlet is on the floor-weird right?), and I am ready to give this blogging thing a trg in an effort to not completely fall of the face of the earth for the next seven months.

Did I mention I lost my passport? Yes, good story. I had the privilege to travel to Europe after finals with a few friends. I spent time in Germany, Austria, and France and was scheduled to fly out of Paris on December 22 to Hong Kong to reach my family by Christmas. I wish I could capture the glow I must have had as I rode the shuttle from the train station in Paris to Charles de Gaulle Airport. After four and a half months I was going to see my family! Sooo you can imagine my epic disappointment when I checked my purse as I stood in line at the Air China ticket counter and found my passport missing. Deep breath!! I stepped out of line, searched my carry-on and large suitcase, emptied out the contents of my purse, and ran to the information desk. I soon found myself sitting in the office of the French border police. After several phone calls and a few tears, I managed to pull myself together long enough to make my way back to the hostel where friends were staying for one more night. My amazing friends helped me sort out my options as I came to terms with the fact that I would not be spending Christmas with my family. I returned to Germany with the group and made arrangements to obtain an emergency passport from the consulate in Frankfurt. The solo journey to Frankfurt beginning at 2:45 AM on Christmas Eve proved to be quite the interesting trip, but I came out on the other side unscathed with a shiny, new temporary passport. Although this baby looks the same from the outside as your passport, the inside looks a little more homemade, which the Chinese government did take note of one week later when I crossed the border from Hong Kong to China. As the consulate in Frankfurt told me, I can expect "suspicion and special consideration" whenever I cross a border with my new temp passport. Lovely. Next task:obtain a new Chilean student visa-ughhhhhhh.

I have been in China for 8 days now. I have many stories (and pictures!) to share already, but for now I'll wrap this one up. Happy New Year everyone!