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Archive for April 10th, 2008

I say Part I, because I suspect that there will be many opportunities to write about my experiences here with Chinese cuisine: there are so many restaurants and fierce competition which keeps the prices down and the quality high. Don’t mistake me: there are as many places to squander your hard earn yuan on overpriced tarted up so called fusion or euro cuisine as in any other metropolis with many tourists and as many business men with generous expense accounts and a need to impress by spending large. But if you focus on regional specialities, it is very likely that you will have a good to great meal, while spending less than for an equivalent meal at home. In fact, equivalency is a difficult thing: we had Sichuan cuisine a few nights ago, a style of cooking with ingredients and approach I thought myself familiar with. In fact, I don’t think I have had anything comparable: silken tofu braised in an earthy pork sauce, dry cooked green beans with garlic, stir fry pork with garlic and black fungus with chili all were different nuances on the basic theme of spicy heat. In fact, the delicate fungus, tossed with Sichuan peppercorns, dried red pepper, and red Thai bird chili in a light oil dressing tasted to me, of all things, like butterscotch! It was meant to be the cooling agent to the rest of the spicy food – just eat around the 3 different sources of heat in the dish! The strips of pork were tossed with julienned ginger in about a 1:2 ratio, which was surprisingly pleasant rather than bitingly hot. In fact, I was told that each Chinese meal should have ideally a full bulb of garlic and a good 6 to 8 inches of ginger root to be deemed healthy. Oh, that’s per person! All of this goodness, with 3 rice bowls and a large beers (500ml) was about 30$ Cdn. Oh, fair warning – food prices have gone up here, due partially to a virus that affected the pig population in 2006 and a very harsh winter in the south this year. Restaurateurs have tried to hold the line, by reducing the portions or the amount of protein in a dish, for example, but there is a general consensus that prices will have to rise. In fact, they have risen sharply over the past year, and will continue to leading up to the Olympics. And as we all know, once prices rise, they seldom go down again. But good news – there is no tipping in China. It is a sign of serious disrespect, that you consider yourself superior to your servers. In fact, if you try or forget, they have been known to run down the street after you, waving the offending bills and pressing them into your hand. Respect is a serious business in China, and as visitors, we obviously try not to offend. On the other hand, the business of shopping is full of behaviour that we would find incredibly offensive: deliberately overcharging you, aggressive right in your face negotiations, lots of raised voices and waving of hands. And reneging on deals, which I witnessed yesterday in the telephone market. I think it’s fun for most initially, and then the expatriates eventually prefer to go a regular shopping mall and pay regular prices than deal with the exhausting process to save a few dollars. It can be difficult to reconcile 2 seemingly opposing behaviors – they are extremely conscious of giving and receiving respectful behaviour and at the same time, attempting to rip foreigners off is just a given. Perhaps the thinking is that if we are gullible enough to accept the first price, then, well, we deserve our fate. Or perhaps a different definition or perspective on respect, which is also likely. There are clearly cultural differences which go deep and that I am never going to comprehend in the short time I am here. Like why when you ask for plain water in a restaurant, it comes to you very warm to scalding hot. With lemon on occasion. I suspect that I could spend allot of time asking why here without getting answers, or ones that made sense to a foreigner. But why travel half way around the world if you just want what you already know? No fun there. Tomorrow, a guided cycle ride through the ancient hutongs – I don’t mind getting lost in the narrow winding alleyways- but I already bought that T-shirt!

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