We’re Back

The official portion of our trip ended on June 30th. Some of us left for home while others started new adventures in China. I spent a week exploring Xi’An – more about that in future posts.

Once back, folks asked me why this blog had gone silent. It, like many others blogs, is blocked by the Golden Shield Project aka the Great Firewall of China. Posting while in China simply wasn’t practical.

Now that we’re back, you should start seeing posts and pictures from our trip.

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A Culinary Adventure – Hotpots

Hotpots, as I have been told are a very popular form of cooking at restaurants.  We attended two over our trip and loved each one.  The first one was more community based.  Our team was split into two tables as we could not all fit into one, so one table had spicy foods, and another without pork.   I went to the spicy table.  Our Chinese friends asked us for some suggestions for things we haven’t tried yet.  We suggested fish balls, lamb, and pork meatballs.  Soon after ordering, a big bowl with a divider was brought out to the center of the table where a broiler was sitting.  The bowl had two soups in either side.  We were told that one was a mild soup and the other was very spicy.  As we allowed the soup to come to a boil, various plates were brought out and placed around the bowl.  Oddly enough, all the plates consisted of raw or live foods.  We started with thinly cut slabs of lamb, beef, and pork that were rolled up.  How a hotpot works is you pick the food you want and drop it into the boiling soup.  The food then is cooked while picking up the flavor of your soup.  As our first round of food was cooking, we were also presented with small bowls with sauces in them.  Our Chinese graduates said that you also get to mix these bowls to create a sauce to your liking.   For my sauce, I mixed about 1/3 of a pepper salsa, ¼ of some oil which I think was cayenne oil, and the rest with cayenne extract.  I really enjoy spicy foods, but this sauce may have been a bit too much for me in the long run.  As your food finishes cooking you are supposed to dip it in your sauce and then eat it.  The food was extremely tasty.  The fresh food with the mixture of spicy soup was great and when the spiciness was getting too overpowering, one could switch over to the mild soup for a while until cooled down.  The first dinner proved to be quite the banquet.  My friends at home call me “the human garbage disposal” because after I’m done eating, I usually finish whatever else is on everyone else’s plates.  I regret to say that I lost my title that night as I was the first one done.  The spicy food proved too much for me in combination with my usual grueling eating pace.  Food items we had this night included soy skins, live baby shrimp, wheat protein balls, rice sticks, nichu (a herring like fish), some unidentified white fish, tofu (this one was rather spongy and soaked up the soup very well), potatoes, little dumplings, bok choy, and mushrooms.  I tried to dissect the soup as best I could and came to the conclusion of the following ingredients: garlic cloves, dried red chilies, leeks, cardamom pods, and one whole nutmeg just floating on top.  I plan to experiment and replicate this soup sometime soon.  Although we all loved it, the community pot is also slightly dangerous  to use if you don’t have practice.  One could easily undercook their food and have food illnesses.  There were also issues of foods being put in at different times.  I could have had a dumpling boiling for 15 minutes and accidently pick one up that someone else put in about 5 minutes ago.  Everyone had to keep a very careful eye on what and when everything was being put in.

The second night we had hotpots was slightly different.  This one was more to accommodate the individual.  We all received our own bowl over a flame and were given the choice of what soup we wanted.  The majority asked for fish, but I wanted to try duck.  Other options were beef, pork, and chicken.  This time the soup consisted of: sliced ginger, garlic, parsley, and of course duck.  I thoroughly enjoyed my dinner except when we got to the surimi.  Fish analogs with duck soup are not a great combination.  The food items we received were very similar to that of the first night with the exceptional addition of rice noodles, tripe (cow stomach), and we also opted for duck blood, but the restaurant was out.

In conclusion, you can see that a hotpot is more like a fondue type of set up but not just for cheese and chocolate sauces.  Even though the community pot was more fun, at a food safety stand point, I have to say the individual pots would make things safer.

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A Culinary Adventure – Presentation Style

In America, we have one verb that we continue to utilize on a regular basis at restaurants: sharing.  Everyone gets their own dish, their own beverage, and you sit down and eat your own dish.  However, 10,000 miles away, that is not the common.  Everyone eats and shares the foods that are ordered.

Here’s how a normal meal would work.  Let’s say you have 6 people joining you for dinner.  You all sit down and are handed one menu.  Your guests and you then pick on various dishes that you like.  Common plates were soups, noodles, vegetables, rice, fish, pork, watermelon, etc.  So you would select about 8 plates for 6 people or so.  You then also order a coke.  Moments later, a 1.5L bottle of coke is set in front of you for all of your friends to share.  Normally, we had a bottle of coke, orange juice, and/or sprite.  So after everyone has passed the bottle around, the food starts coming out.  The Chinese were very quick on their food.  Within 5 minutes of ordering, a dish would come out.  The plate is set on a turntable in the center of the table.  Everyone takes turns grabbing a few pieces of the dish from the plate.  Oddly enough, as soon as everyone had just gotten that piece, the next food item comes out.  This one happens to be fish soup.  Again, everyone takes a turn spooning in their soup and spinning the turntable for the next person to get their bit.

As mentioned in a previous blog, the plates are garnished with beautiful decorations that liven up the dish.  Sometimes, the serving plate/bowl could be the eye catcher.  For example, we had braised pork chunks on soy skins in a huge clay pot.  Besides being one of my favorite dishes, the pot was really cool to look at.  I wouldn’t mind owning one myself. Dumplings are a very popular dish in China which are usually presented in what I would call a “steamer bowl.”  It’s a short wooden cylinder with a wicker center which holds the dumplings as steam rises under them and cooks them.

The Chinese also have another presentation method called the “hot pot” which is similar to fondue; but that is a whole ‘nother blog for later…

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A Culinary Adventure – Introduction

As our trip has continued, I have been paying a lot of attention to the food which we have been eating.  I have to admit that it is far more different than our version of “Chinese” food.  I will actually admit our version is quite insulting to the culture!  When I went out for diner in the states, I adored Chinese foods.  Now, I’m not so sure I could ever enjoy sweet and sour chicken again as much after having real Chinese.  It was so good that the bar has been raised substantially.  Their food was indeed different and although some dishes were a bit hard to accept, such as chicken feet and jelly fish, I realized their food was still continuously phenomenal!  Although I had my favorites and least favorites, I was very satisfied with the dishes we were presented with.  Most of the time the food was beautifully plated with gorgeous garnishes that made the food stand out more.  One such example was a hard boiled quail egg with baby lavender and some other little flowers I was unfamiliar with.  This small garnish was simple yet extravagant and has inspired me to try various other methods in my work with food garnishes.

Overall, the food here has not only been enjoyable, but inspiring.  Since I plan on attending culinary school after completing my thesis, I will better understand and appreciate Chinese cuisine.  I have already gone out to get a wok, a popular Chinese cooking pan, and a respectable Chinese cookbook to begin practicing.  I have not been this excited about cooking again for a long time.  I almost feel like Julia Child, except learning Chinese rather than French food.

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This morning marks our third full day in China. Since arriving, we’ve toured the Jiangnan University Food Science department, attended a joint symposium on food safety and quality control, had dinner with Dr. Chen, president of JU and visited the Lianshan Buddha.

Since it’s early in the day, let’s consider breakfast. Each day from 7 to 8 am, the hotel dining hall opens. The food is arranged along one wall in streamers but that’s where the similarity to an American breakfast bar ends: no heaps of bacon, eggs or sausage. Instead you’ll find a noodle dish, steamed squash (plain), spinach rolls (spinach wrapped in wonton skins — the only fried item I recall seeing since arriving), steamed buns with and without filling and a cabbage dish to mention a few. Rice is available steamed or as a porridge. There are also a few sweets though nothing like an iced jelly roll. I understand better now why Asian friends say American food is too sweet.

After breakfast we’ll take a bus to Shanghai for tours of the Suntory Beer Company and The Yakult Company. The latter makes probiotic dairy drinks. This should be a fun day!

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Our Journey Begins

Our trip begins as MoX carries us into the breaking dawn. Shortly we’ll be on a plane to Chicago and then another to Shanghai. We’re all looking forward to new experiences and meeting new people. Our next blog entry will be from Jiangnan University in Wuxi once we figure out how to get connected.

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Some Photos of Wuxi and Jiangnan University

Nowadays it’s really easy to find photos of virtually anywhere in the world. There are a few photos of Wuxi and Jiangnan Univeristy on Panoramio. It seems a nice place. During our trip, we will upload our photos onto this blog.

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