This week, I have been mostly eating.. tubes

One of the things I’m loving so far is the food here. I tended to avoid Chinese restaurants in Britain; invariably they would have the same menu where ever you went, and I’m a typical Brit in that I love variety in my diet.

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Understandably, the ‘Chinese’ cuisine we see in the UK isn’t really a true reflection of the real thing. Since my last post on cuisine I’ve eaten a whole series of different regional food variations. Hunanese again, Yunnanese, Taiwanese, Vietnamese, Thai, a burger. Then, I bought some elasticated trousers and tried Shanghainese, Cantonese, Szechuan, Xin Jiang, Japanese, Hot Pot and so on. You get the picture.

The diversity of food doesn’t just apply to regional types but also extends to ingredients. When I know more about the different types and the heritage I’ll write about them (or you could just research it on the interweb). At the moment I can talk a bit about the different ingredients; because I’ve been eating some fun stuff….

Chef mess and jellyfish

Emma has done brilliantly trying new foods while we’ve been here, things that i’m sure she’d never have tried at home. There have been a few times where we’ve probably got close to her level of tolerance though, so I’ve been unable to eat at certain “restaurants” (to use the term loosely!). One night last week she went out for dinner with a new friend. “When the cat’s away the mouse can play”, I thought. In this scenario the cat is Emma, I am the mouse, and ‘playing’ is finding somewhere and something to eat that would probably void my health insurance…

The place I went to was great fun! A bit like a greasy spoon, no English spoken, some local old men playing cards and shouting. Some of the English translations in the menu were pretty funny. Treats in this menu included ‘acid bean chicken Miscellaneous’, ‘Crystal elbow flowers’ and ‘Chef mess’.

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Crystal elbow flowers. A bargain at 28 RMB

I couldn’t see something on a menu called ‘Chef mess’ and not order it. I also ordered ‘Sesame Jellyfish’, and (so that I didn’t leave hungry if my risk didn’t pay off, ‘Beef with chilli peppers’).

I was actually somewhat disappointed when ‘Chef mess’ turned out to be a delicious Chinese-style chopped salad. The beef was really good too (I find beef and pork here delicious, but chicken a bit fussy to eat due to the bones and gristle).

 

 

 

Talking to people later on, they were surprised this was my

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Jellyfish. Not at all like Jelly, or fish.

first time eating it (with the not-unreasonable assumption that because Britain is an island we’d eat it all the time). I’d assumed Jellyfish would be a similar texture to a poached egg, or maybe a wine gum but fishy flavoured; but it wasn’t anything like that. It was served very cold and had a very firm texture, but wasn’t at all fishy. The texture is unlike anything I’ve had before. I’ve been trying to think of a description for ages and the closest I can come up with is….

Imagine you were a child in the mid 90s who absolutely adored cabbage. Inspired one day having just seen the film Jurassic Park, you decide that you want to capture some morsels of this glorious vegetable for future generations. You preserve it in the only chemical you are aware of at that age, PVA glue, and  bury it in a time capsule in the garden. Years later, as an adult, you are digging a hole to install an attractive water feature when your spade makes contact with the time capsule. You open it and, driven by nostalgia and a love of simple garden produce, you carve up the cabbage into small pieces and pop them in your mouth. Over the years, bits of it have become quite glutinous and soft, other bits are all hard and chewy. Do I like it? No, not really. At least not cold. I imagine warmed up or maybe fried it could take on a different format. Chilled, it feels too much like chewing on a polar bear’s nose.

Chinese Finanzieri

There’s an Italian peasant food called finanzieri that I had once on holiday that is a clay pot filled with all kinds of offal; Rooster crests, chicken heart, lung and gizzard; cooked in a kind of thick broth and then some peas added so you can get one of your 5 a day. I believe I had the chinese equivalent this week.

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This bit of food hovering above the rice is goose web, or the bit of foot in between a goose’s toes.

In the clay pot, we have crab meat, sea cucumber, some enormous slices of mushrooms, some large white slices of what are probably part of a fish, fish lips and broccoli. All cooked in a spicy creamy sauce.

I know some of you are thinking:

“Urrgghghgh……. Broccoli”

But, I really enjoyed it. Like finanzieri, if you think too hard about what you’re eating it can become a little difficult to eat. But if you just enjoy the flavours and textures it’s really quite nice (and if you’re a sustainability hipster like I am, then using every little bit of an animal is a good thing). In this kind of cooked dish, everything tastes like mushrooms anyway. I’d urge you to try both (this and the italian version)

 

Hashima in papaya

My first night staying at a hotel in Changshu, my main dish of conch meat (shellfish, tastes a bit like snails and scallops) hadn’t quite filled me up. There was definitely room for a pudding. Of the items on the menu none of them were recognisable (I think all were Japanese) so I took a punt on a mid-range priced dessert, “Braised Hashima in papaya” – the picture of which looked like a kind of risotto in a papaya. As soon as I started eating it I realised it wasn’t. It was sweet, and not at all unpleasantly textured, but it had a faint fishy smell. But what was it? Dare I check before I finished?

So, I thought i’d create a mini quiz for you: View the picture below and guess what it is. Then scroll down for the answer. For those of you with excitable imaginations, the white liquid is coconut cream.

Hashima is:

A – A kind of tiny prawns, similar to Brown Shrimp in the UK.

B – The fatty tissue surrounding the fallopian tubes of frogs.

C – Cauliflower ‘rice’ cooked in fish stock

D – Polar bear nose tissue

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Keep scrolling…

 

 

 

For those of you who guessed:

B – The fatty tissue surrounding the fallopian tubes of frogs.

Well done!

This is probably the strangest thing I’ve ever eaten (and I wasn’t even trying). When I told my team at work they all laughed at me.

“What’s so funny about that? Frog tubes for dessert is a bit weird”

“No, it’s more that it’s traditionally a girls dessert. For girls who want bigger breasts and smoother skin”

Desperate times must call for desperate measures!

Matt’s anatomy

I’ve lost track of which permits and visas we have and don’t have as part of our move. You’d have to be a bit crazy to assume it’d be paperwork-free, but let’s just say there’s a sizeable amount of admin – most of which needs to be completed before we receive our shipments . I can cope without all my suits and toiletries for a while longer, but the 80 RMB (about £9) kettle I bought to tide us over for a couple of weeks is really beginning to crack at the seams (Literally. Water comes out the gaps in the sides when it boils).

One permit requires us to undergo a medical… the experience of which was a bit of a microcosm of some of the things we’ve seen and heard, so I’m going to write about it in the same way we went through it.

Our appointment was at 13:30 and we were asked to bring with us a few forms, 4 passport photos and our passports. When we got there, we had to present our passports to the receptionist who asked for photocopies. I didn’t have these, but they had a copy room, so problem solved. Having proven who we were, we were asked to wait in room 101, a waiting room, to complete some paperwork and await our number being called. The paperwork needed details of our passport, residence and prior medical history. Once our numbers were called, we were invited to room 102 to have our forms and passports checked, and (i think) to decide which tests we were due as part of the medical.

You might be thinking “I feel like I’ve read the word ‘passport’ a lot in this post”. Well, yes, you have. But I have shown my passport to a lot of people in the past couple of weeks. This was very much in line with that theme.

From room 102 we went to 103 where we showed our passports to the attendant who in return measured our height, weight, BMI and gave us a locker for our stuff and a form of gown to wear. We made our way to 105, where following a passport check, we were laid on a bed and had clamps attached to ankles, wrists and our sides – apparently this was an EKG reading (which I always thought was the something from the movie Ghostbusters)

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“His EKG readings are off the chart. We’ll have to cross the beams”

Anyway, then it was to #108 where our vision and passports were inspected, followed by #106 for an upper body X-ray. Oh and a passport check. Then…

#111 – where a masked man in a darkened room poked me in the belly with a rubber instrument and asked if i’d eaten any lunch. I told him I was in a long-term relationship but thanked him for his interest. Then I gave him my passport.

#104 for a blood pressure test, #107 for more belly poking in another room. Passport.

#113 blood test. I don’t know if they needed to see my passport in this test but it was now habit, so I showed it to the nurse who seemed to be expecting it.

That was it. Back to get our stuff from the locker in 103 and we were done.

During the process and shortly afterwards it was hard not to think: “What is going on with this? This is ridiculous. Why does everyone need to see my passport all the time? Is it just because there is so much available labour in China?”

Afterwards, on reflection, we realised that perhaps we shouldn’t be quick to judge… we still ploughed through a dozen or so tests in around an hour and I’d be amazed to get that kind of response from the NHS! The passport thing, we also discovered, is driven from people sending impostors to medical assessments so attempts to prevent it are fair enough in the circumstances. I’ve had similar moments in our first week here, but usually the learning is the same: ‘Don’t judge a book by it’s cover’.  Although, you literally do have to judge books by their covers here. If all the writing on the cover is in mandarin characters, it’s probably going to be difficult to read.

 

Starting Work

Today was my first day in the JLR Shanghai office. After hearing numerous horror stories about the metro in rush hour, I got up extra early to try and avoid the bulk of the crowds… I think I might have been over-eager, as when I arrived at 7.35 the platform looked like this:

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My office is a 45min metro ride from our apartment in the Former French Concession. The metro is really easy to navigate, and is modern, clean and air-conditioned.*

* I may have a less glowing view after I’ve witnessed a true rush hour, I’ll let you know!

My team sit on the 25th floor of the Mitre Asset Tower (MAT), which is on the East side of the Huangpu River opposite ‘The Bund’ in an area called ‘Lujiazui’. Lujiazui sits in the Pudong district (‘dong’ means ‘East’ in Mandarin) – we live in the Puxi district (‘xi’ means ‘West’).

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Mirae Asset Tower (MAT)

Lujiazui is the area that almost always appears on postcards of Shanghai…..

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Lujiazui – and the MAT building

It’s hard to believe that until relatively recently (a generation or so) this place was not much more than farmland. No shiny glass windows in sight.

In addition to the other office towers, there are two malls within a stone’s throw of where I now work; the Super Brand Mall and the ITC. The latter is crammed full of designer shops that are mouth-wateringly tempting, but eye-wateringly expensive. The malls here tend to have great foodhalls, and today my new team took me for a welcome meal in a Japanese sushi restaurant on the top floor of ITC. It was packed, and was obviously popular with the locals!

As my mandarin is a little…. basic…. I asked my colleagues to order for me, and we ended up with an absolute feast!; different types of sushi & sashimi, raw slices of white and pink fish, ‘hot-pot’ (raw food which cooks over a flame on the table) with tofu, ‘golden needle’ mushrooms, pork & veg. Given I’d not chosen, I thought it best to adopt an “ask what it is after you’ve eaten it” strategy. After I’d eaten one of the more unusual dishes, I asked what it was. “Thick cow tongue” came the answer. Hmmm. The team did reassure me that “Thin cow tongue” is much nicer!

It was a great experience and I really enjoyed the social aspect. In the UK i’d ordinarily bring in a salad and eat it at my desk while reading an article or a few e-mails. The lunch breaks here typically last an hour, and – while that means you work later in the afternoon – it was refreshing to take some time out in the middle of the day.

As it was my first day, my afternoon involved meeting a lot of new people, all of whom made me feel really welcome. I got the impression that the passion that our China colleagues have for our brands is just as strong, if not stronger, than in the UK. While the area of work I will be doing here is the same, the culture and working practices are very different; I got a glimpse into that today and will talk more about it in this blog.

After work I came home to Matt, a Cantonese take-away and a drop of peaty familiarity  – we might be in China, but there is no changing some things!!!

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Fake duck and fish heads

When we were last in Shanghai, one of the locals we talked to said that when the Shanghainese go abroad the thing they miss the most is the food. It’s estimated that there are over 20,000 restaurants in Shanghai, which means that you could eat at a different restaurant for around 55 years without needing to go back to the same place twice! Doing review posts would get really tedious and repetitive quickly – so I thought we could focus on some of the more adventurous things we’re eating and drinking as and when.

Fake Duck

Emma loves vegetarian food. Emma loves the food I make for her. Emma should love tofu. Emma did love tofu until I cooked it for her. I made a massive error with it when I tried to make a ramen with mushrooms and tofu. I just dropped the tofu in straight from the packet and it broke up into a horrible sludgy mess, the texture of which instantly made her vomit violently. Hitherto the mere mention of tofu would make her cheeks go green and puff up, looking a bit like a Buddha made of jade.

China is well known for being pretty good at faking things. A place we’ve found called ‘Godly’ lives up to that reputation by  copying the taste and texture of meat dishes, using tofu. This includes meals such as shredded ‘beef’, ‘eel’, ‘pork’, ‘sea cucumber’ and ‘duck’. It’s amazing, and even though the Jade Buddha made an appearance when I said we were ordering tofu, Emma’s a huge fan.

Check out the ‘duck’…. the ‘meat’ part was firm but soft; it absorbed the dipping sauce really well and contrasted really well with the crispy duck ‘skin’ coating.

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This is crispy fried duck. Made out of beans. BEANS!!!!!

Fish heads

Whenever I hear the words ‘fish heads’ I think of this….

So when I saw that fish heads was a special delicacy of the Hunan province of China there wasn’t a chance I wasn’t going to order them as soon as we found a Hunanese restaurant. (although I somehow manages to resist ordering the stir fried goose bowels…)

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Fish heads, they can’t play baseball and don’t wear sweaters.

This is a fish head split down the middle and butterflied out. It’s then covered in chilli and chives, and lots of oil, garlic and ginger. Hunan food is very spicy, in that most (if not all) of the dishes will have chilli in them. Compared to a standard Indian restaurant, you’re talking about everything being somewhere between a Jalfrezi and a Madras/Vindaloo – but not much outside of that spectrum.

The fish heads were actually very very tasty. If you’ve ever had cod cheeks or pig cheeks, you’ll know that cheek meat is really delicious – firm but not dry or chewy – and while you could taste the fish through the chilli it wasn’t over-powering. The appearance of the dish might put some off, but if you can cope with that it’s definitely worth a go. I even ate the eye – which wasn’t bad either.

I’ve never had Hunan food before yesterday, but i’ve got a soft spot for it. Maybe it’s because I love chilli and they serve it with gusto; or maybe it’s because a Hunanese restaurant is the first place I managed to say something in mandarin without them looking at me like I was standing naked in the middle of the street doing the macarena.

“Zhen hao chi” (This tastes delicious)

“Xiexie” (Thank you)

“Bu ke qi. Mei dan” (You’re welcome. Can I have the bill)

Seasoned coffee drinker

This is a latte with Agave nectar and topped with a healthy grind of black pepper. Made by a small chain of cafes called Coffee Architects, it’s one of the most interesting coffees i’ve had in ages – I loved the tingly spice from the pepper. At over £5 a pop you’d probably keep to less than 8 or 9 a day. In Italy they give you a shot glass of water to wash down your coffee (stops your teeth staining); Here that water is hot (most of the water you get served is hot – we think that is either because you’re not meant to drink tap water so heating it up might purify it, or something to do with keeping your internal systems balanced)

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Burns your tongue, then your top lip, then your tongue again when you wash it down. Tasty though!