“That’s a spicy meatbowl”

“Matt, we have ordered”, my team said as I arrived at the table.

“Great, what are we having?” I replied (I was feeling a little nutrient-depleted having been out for a few drinks the night before, and looking forward to lunch)

“Well we have ordered traditional sweet rice dumplings, a sour spicy beef dish and a healthy dish that is also a bit spicy. We hope you like spicy food”

“Mmm. I love spicy food, that will sort me out. What’s the healthy dish?”

“It’s not the outside meat of a pig”

“It’s not? What is it then?”

As this dish arrived, the team started to use translation apps to describe the food.

“This bit is “Guts”. This bit is “Lung”, this “Stomach”. We think this bit is from in here (pointing somewhere around the lower part of their rib cage). This is some kind of eel. This is pigs blood.”

I was about to politely decline, when a little voice in my head said: “Go on, eat it. At least you can blog about it”

And here we are. And the dish  is called Mao Xie Wang

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MaoXieWang

It’s fair to say that other than ‘Spicy pig brains’ this is probably one of the most testing dishes on the menu at this restaurant, primarily because of the ingredients*, but also because it’s madras hot. I love spicy food and find that if you can get over the idea of what you’re eating, it’s not bad at all. Being a Sichuan dish, it has both a burning heat and a kind of sour lingering spice from the sichuan pepper which I love. The offal and eel was all perfectly edible (nice even) and after a while you do forget what it is. The bit I wasn’t so sure about was the blood. It’s that dark brown stuff that looks a lot like liver in the picture above and it had a consistency of soft tofu (or somewhere in between set-yoghurt and feta cheese).

It’s not what i’d call an easy eat. The Chinese people love spicy food because it warms them up on a cool day, and on a hot day it makes them sweat which cools them down. So not only are you having a Guts Vindaloo in the middle of the day- with all of the associated consequences- but you get all sweaty and with the sheer numbers of spices in it (including garlic) your breath smells like a thousand year-old onion.

Would I eat it every day? No. Would I eat it again? Yes. In moderation. And not before a job interview.

*it’s worth remembering that in the UK you will often see challenging food given euphemistic names to make it seem more palatable; “Sweetbreads”, “Tripe”, “Rocky Mountain Oysters”, “Chicken McNuggets”. Here, you will just get the dictionary translation of a thing, so ‘guts’, ‘colon’, ‘uterus’ are not uncommon things to see on a menu.

Honeycomb tripe

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Honeycomb Tripe. Don’t know why it’s called ‘Honeycomb tripe’. ‘Flappy tripe’ might be a better name.

I’d only ever heard of tripe as an advertised ingredient in dog food. I knew it was basically stomach lining, but other than that I never expected to eat it myself. The above picture is of tripe in perhaps it’s most tripe-like state or appearance.

This dish was cooked in a semi-spicy, sour sauce. Taste-wise, the tripe is really inoffensive. It’s slightly meaty, but not so much as to make you certain it was meat. Consistency-wise it’s slightly chewy and about as tough as a firm mushroom or al dente pasta. It seems to be low fat/high protein, so I imagine (without doing even the most basic of research) that it’s reasonably good for you.

However, there are probably three main things that are difficult about tripe.

First, the name. Tripe, or Stomach lining, is about as unappetising a name as you can get. To me, the word just has ‘dog treat’ written all over it. Although I once read an anecdote that at Mars (who own Pedigree Chum), the employees eat the dog food on occasion because it is more than fit for human consumption, kind of like a meat stew. I’m not sure if that helps build the case for tripe, but it might for some of you.

Secondly, the appearance. Let’s not kid ourselves, no-one is looking at that picture thinking “Mmm! look at that! I’d quite happily tuck into that while i’m watching Coronation Street”. Most people are thinking “Good god, is that food? It looks like something out of that movie ‘The Fly’ where the scientist played by Jeff Goldblum tried to test his teleportation device out on a pig or a rabbit or something but got his maths wrong and ended up turning the pig or rabbit or something inside out. It was horrible. Matt, you could have warned us, I’m trying to watch Coronation Street”

And finally, the mouth-feel – especially in the above form. It’s nowhere near as unpleasant as cold jellyfish, but all those little sticky-out bits do sometimes make it feel like you’re chomping away on one of those chewable toothbrushes you can get in motorway service station toilets (I had the feeling that I was eating food and having some plaque removed at the same time).

So in summary, it’s probably not going to be most peoples’ first choice; though if you’re the sort of person who can cope with the name and appearance, and are already comfortable getting your tootbrush from a vending machine in a toilet; you might want to consider some tripe next time you see it on the menu. It’s, er, ok.

Matt

 

A wander down Wulumuqi Lu

Two months before our move to Shanghai, Matt and I came on a pre-trip to discover a bit more about our prospective home. On a chilly February afternoon, jet-lagged and a little hung-over (having succumbed to the welcoming hospitality of some colleagues the night before), we took a whirlwind tour around a few of the common expat settlements.

As a general rule, expats with kids live on the Pudong side of the Huangpu river as that’s where the International schools are. Last time I checked we don’t have kids, so Matt and I chose to live downtown (the other side of the river).

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I wanted to give a glimpse into the area we now call home – the Former French Concession in Xuhui – by sharing some photos of my favourite street: Wulumuqi Lu.

A few feet from our apartment block on the lukou (intersection) between Wulumuqi Lu and HuaiHai Zhong Lu (our street), locals gather in a small communal area. Come rain, shine or smog you will find them playing cards, dancing to music, chatting or just reading the daily paper.

The sense of community is tangible, perhaps unsurprising for a culture which still give more weight to the community than the individual. Often I will walk past here and see older people in wheelchairs, sometimes still in their pajamas, who have been brought out by their friends to socialise and participate.

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I love this photo – dappled autumn sunlight through the trees, a cluster of bikes and mopeds, clothes hung out unashamedly to dry in the sun. It has a sense of stillness which belies the chaotic reality.

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I mentioned in a previous blog the ubiquitous transformation of Shanghai streetscapes, with new bars, restaurants and coffee shops – especially coffee shops – opening on a daily basis. Wulumuqi Lu is no exception, actually it is a perfect example. In a couple of days I bet I will be able to order a artisanal single-origin organic drip-brewed cup of caffine at this place. Meanwhile, that guy will still be pedaling empty cardboard boxes on his rusty 3-wheeled push-bike.

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Whatever you need – chances are these guys will have one. And it will cost you about a quid.

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This photo (above) is typical of Wulumuqi Lu: guy sat in a shady alleyway selling fruits out of a crate next to Western-style butchers-come-coffee-shop. More scooters; more washing; a melting pot of faces.

Pretty much everywhere I go in Shanghai I find myself in prime people-watching territory. This is one of my favourite past-times wherever I am in the world, but there is something about the Chinese people – young and old- that I find transfixing.

The millennial generation are achingly fashion-savvy, carving their own identity with passion and determination, then documenting each decision on WeChat (a social media platform that is a cross between Facebook and Whatsapp). For the young appearance is paramount, but equally anything seems to go which is quite liberating!

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I dare you not to fall in love with this place – seriously, I dare you.

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The photo above is of ‘The Avocado Lady’, a grocery shop which is famous among laowai (foreigners) as the owner and shop assistants can speak English. The store was apparently the first vendor in Shanghai to sell avocados… and I guess also owned by a lady. Constantly buzzing with French, Germans, Americans and Brits – artisanal coffee in hand (theme emerging).

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I’m not sure what this shop is actually called, but Matt and I refer to it as ‘the pancake lady’. I took this photo around midday so she will have been winding down (by night the same hole-in-the-wall is used by a guy who sells BBQ kebabs), but if you go in the morning you will find a queue at least 10-deep.

pancakeShe cracks 2 or 3 eggs onto a circular hotplate, spreads them thin as paper over a ladle of batter and then scatters, herbs, chilli and some reddy-brown paste (better not to ask) on top. The end product looks like this (and tastes delicious!):

Like many areas of downtown Shanghai, Wulumuqi Road is a clash of ‘old’ and ‘new’; for now it strikes an intoxicating balance but you’d be naive to think this will last forever. The deep gravelly buzz of power-drills which accompany the constant and pervasive construction is impossible to ignore.

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I’ve wandered off Wulumuqi Lu now, onto an adjacent street. The tree-lined pavements are like crack cocaine for the young and beautiful, looking for the perfect backdrop to their selfies (what did I tell you… people-watching gold!)

It’s not unusual to see couples don their wedding attire and come to these streets for a professional shoot… These two were happy for me to join their professional photographer for a quick snap! 🙂

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But don’t be fooled into thinking the place is picture-perfect -you do have to side-step the odd pile of rubbish, and pinch your nose every now and again – but having got to know Shanghai a bit better over the last 6 months, I wouldn’t choose to live anywhere else.

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Emma

Market Day

My recent painting of a Shanghai alleyway was a quick dip back into painting after a long absence. After this I wanted to go back to my normal style; and to do a portrait. We’d seen some great imagery in the markets we’d visited so I decided to take inspiration from there.

Below are some pics from the traditional markets we visited on holiday in Dali and Kunming – we’ve seen several markets on our travels and these are representative – crowded, characterful places, with sellers almost outnumbering buyers.

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There’s often a defined central structure with tables covered in produce which is surrounded by a undefined hotch-potch of other vendors offering a miscellany of items for sale; cages of ‘behead to order’ chickens; potatoes loose in flatbread trucks. Nearby two grubby men fed large green machines with sunflower seeds, which were crushed to fill great flagons of oil.

There were whole tables dedicated to eggs; fresh eggs (duck and chicken), preserved eggs which are kind of black and jellified, tea eggs and soy eggs, which are brown – also eggs which were stored in some kind of ashy crust – which looked a bit like a scotch egg but you wouldn’t want to eat the outer layer!.

Some tables were piled high with meat (unclear which animal and which bit of it you’re looking at) and fish, usually uncovered with a cloud of flies taking a close look. We walked around one market specifically for pets and flowers and saw boxes of fish, turtles, tortoises, puppies, rabbits, snakes, spiders, stag beetles (and sometimes huge open buckets of their feed – smaller insects writhing about).

Walking around your senses are pleasantly assaulted with plenty of smells and sights and the gentle push of the other shoppers. The ground crunches underfoot as you tread on discarded seeds, vegetables, egg shells – thrown into the walkways by stall-owners or spat out by people tasting the goods.

The thing that amazes about these markets is the sheer abundance of food – almost everything is stacked up in much greater quantities than you’d see in a busy UK supermarket. It can’t last all that long in the heat, so either the supply is great (at the moment) or the demand is great and the stuff shifts. It may well be a bit of both in Yunnan as it’s the agricultural hub of China and I saw plenty of people walking around with large wicker baskets on their backs full of corn, spring onions and massive courgette/marrows.

We get markets in Shanghai too, but they’re often indoors (called ‘Wet Markets’), aren’t quite as chaotic and usually somewhat cleaner than their countryside counterparts. I’d love to be able to shop there, but my Chinese isn’t good enough yet so I’m not yet able to guarantee I wouldn’t end up with several kilos of pig shins, a live hamster or a duck penis.

Anyway, back to the painting. I reverted back to my usual style. It’s largely a portrait of a smoking man, but I also tried to capture some of the character of the market around him.

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I was keen not to distract too much from the central figure so tried to make the composition drive the viewer back to his face; on the left the lines that bring you down towards the watermelons stop by the man’s face, and on the right side most of the diagonals take you to something ‘off canvas’ to the right, which presumably the guy is looking at while he smokes his cigarette. This takes you back to his face again.

The background has a huge amount going on, so it was a challenge for me to keep it interesting without it becoming a distraction – this was made harder by the fact that I painted the background before the central figure and so wanted to put some interest in it. Initially there were more people in the background, but I decided to  take them out. I also dulled down the watermelons and dragonfruit in the centre as some of the bright colours dominated the veggies at the front a little too much. Another technique I tried – which i’ve not done before – was to blur the background using layers of washes (colours that you thin down with white spirit or oil and apply over another colour) – this worked quite well for the fabric netting in the top right.

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For me the most fun bit was painting the guys face and I also enjoyed painting the surface of the trestle table behind him (meant to be blood soaked – I was going to put some pigs heads in but Em didn’t like the idea of raw meat being stored so close to fruit). The hardest parts were the sweetcorn and chillies; because of the slightly translucent, shiny coating, the light reacts differently on them so you get a kind of orange shadow, but I’m pleased with the end result.

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– Matt

Six Months in Shanghai

As of the end of October, Matt and I are now 1/6 of the way into our Three years in Shanghai!

In the weeks leading up to the day that we left home trailing 6 suitcases,  we spent a lot of time wandering around Warwick saying ‘I wonder…’ and ‘what if…’ but were unable to answer most of our own questions. This uncertainty was part of the motivation for writing this blog, so that anyone else considering a move to Asia or abroad could get some insight into what it’s really like.

To date, we’ve written mostly about travel and food and some of the cultural traditions we’ve come across, but I thought that the 6 month milestone was a good opportunity to reflect and summarise my experiences. Here goes!

The ‘Highs’…

Travel- If you’ve been following the blog then you will have probably turned a lovely shade of green. Green with illness reading about what Matt has voluntarily digested, but also green with envy reading about our Yunnan and Guilin holidays. Our Shanghai base means that we can explore Asia without the gruelling and super-expensive long haul flights and jet-lag that would have been necessary if we’d departed from the UK. We are also seeing places that you wouldn’t fly long haul to see, but are incredible short trips.

City Life- When I graduated from university I watched pretty much everyone I knew migrate from cobble-paved Durham to gold-paved London. I lived in Liverpool for a couple of years so experienced a bit of city life. However, since I’d often prefer to stay in with a good book and glass of red wine rather than hitting the tiles, I did wonder if Shanghai would be wasted on me… But I needn’t have worried; there is something about this city which makes me feel like I’m welcome to participate in whatever is going on. I haven’t worked out an elegant way to express this yet, but I think it has something to do with the authenticity that lingers here; elements of the city without ego which somehow manage to survive alongside the Big Brand Malls, Celebrity Chef Restaurants and Expat Hangouts. Like how you see people queuing up to buy noodles cooked in the street by a guy in pyjamas, 50 metres away from a 5 story Prada superstore. Or seeing a guy in the bohemian French concession area walking down the street with a pair of guitars, then stop calmly to assault a lamppost with the instruments – without a flicker of surprise from passers by. It’s cool and diverse and I love it.

Food- The food. Where to start?! Eating is something that the Chinese take very seriously. Whereas small-talk in the UK revolves around the weather, in China people will open a conversation by asking what you ate for lunch. Unsurprisingly, this is one part of the culture that Matt and I have loved ‘like a fat kid love cake’ (50cent, 2003). Matt has written about some of the more unusual and funny things we have come across at mealtimes (BBQ pig uterus anyone?), but most of the time we tend to eat fairly non-bizarre and very delicious food.

In the first 3 months we developed a habit of dining out every evening; too-easily blamed on the fact that our kitchen supplies were still in a shipping container in the middle of the ocean. When you live in the heart of the former French Concession within walking distance of about 2000 restaurants spanning every cuisine you can imagine, why would you buy a chopping board?

The fierce competition in the Food&Booze industry means that restaurants appear, disappear and are replaced overnight (literally), so there is always somewhere new to try out – although I’m sure guidebook-publishers find this to be quite irritating.

Lunch breaks- Perhaps a less obvious ‘high’, but one that has completely transformed my work day for the better. From the hours of 12.00-13.00 you won’t find anyone at their desk as everyone – without exception – is out enjoying lunch. If you’re reading this in the UK, you’re probably thinking: “What! you mean there is an alternative to scoffing a sandwich while hunched over your laptop?!”. I know, I found this odd too, but I’m now a complete convert.

The ‘Lows’…

Getting sick- Given that I’m here to work, I probably shouldn’t be taking about how sick I’ve been, but I think it’s an important thing to talk about as it’s one of the things that’s taken me by surprise. On reflection it shouldn’t have been so surprising, as I catch the metro each day along with millions of people and their germs (most of which I have never built up immunity to); but it was. Speaking to other expats I realised that this is a completely normal side-effect of moving to Shanghai which made me feel better. And looking on the bright side, I probably have an impressive immune system now.

The pollution- Ahead of the recent G20 Summit held in nearby Hangzhou the government ordered 255 Shanghai-based industrial facilities to shut down for 2 weeks. Soon after, social media was flooded with photos of the sky and the hashtag #G20blue. Blue sky is big news here.

The surprise…

I love my commute! Yes, the Shanghai metro in rush hour is like a proverbial sardine tin. Yes, it’s sweaty, pushy, impossible to sit down and a breeding ground for the flu virus. Sometimes it actually does smell of sardines and tins. But for 45 minutes, twice a day, I can pop my earbuds in and zone out to a podcast and (most) discomfort fades into the background. Even better, the metro stop closest to work is in the basement of IFC mall so I get to wander past Hermes, Tiffany, Chanel, Dolce & Gabbana and MiuMiu on my way to the office: Heaven.

The thing I miss most…

I realise that a good daughter would write ‘my family’ under this category, but to be honest I see my parents more now than I ever did living in England, as we have switched our weekly phone calls for FaceTime.

What I actually miss – I can’t believe I’m admitting this – is Sainsbury’s (sorry mum). Before we moved to China, Matt and I would spend Sunday morning writing a menu and doing a food shop, able to tick everything off our shopping list under one roof. It doesn’t exactly work like that in China and while the supermarkets are very good, not being able to read the labels and the difficulty in finding that one ingredient you need (turmeric, Worcestershire sauce, jellied eels) can make it tricky.

The thing I don’t miss at all (that I thought I would)…

Easy. TV.

We do have a TV and are able to stream a limited list of English-Language channels (BBC1, ITV, ITVextra, HBO, the channel that shows back-to-back CSI), but they are not on-demand so the shows that we receive during the evening are 8 hours behind. No-one likes to settle down on Friday night with a glass of wine only to watch Bargain Hunt. The upshot is that Matt has almost finished his second painting, I’ve read 5 books and we actually talk to each other over dinner. That said, it is nice to to have a DVD shop round the corner so I haven’t had to give up on Grey’s Anatomy (yes, it is still going).

The things that have been pretty tough…

The language- I’ve purposefully not put this in ‘The Lows’ category, because the language is part of what makes China so unique to a Foreigner. The writing is beyond beautiful even in its simplified form and there is an intelligent simplicity to the sentence structure which makes me smile. But I would describe my relationship with the Mandarin as Love/Hate. Matt has found it a bit easier than me; my brain is so far refusing to combine individual words into practical phrases which means that my attempts at speaking Mandarin are met with mixed success (sometimes I get milk in my coffee, sometimes I don’t – although I swear I say the same thing!). 

For those unfamiliar with Mandarin (the standard form of Chinese), it’s a ‘tonal’ language which means that you can pronounce ‘ma’ in four different ways and it can mean four different things, ranging from mother to horse! This, combined with the absence of a roman alphabet, means that the methods you would use to translate French to English don’t exactly apply here – you can’t just look up a word in a phrase book.  Therefore it’s common to get a phrase 90% right but still have people look at you as though you just asked them if they ever hugged a horse’s entrance,  which you may have done as 10% is a lot in a tonal language. There are apps which are designed to scan and recognise Chinese characters, but some of the translations you get are nothing short of priceless – actually, this mis-translation is one of the more charming things about living in Shanghai, and if given a choice I don’t think I would change it.

Making friends- This links directly to the point above about language. The easy thing to do is to make friends with other native English speakers; however, the risk here is finding yourself in an expat bubble with a pre-determined set of friends. The harder thing to do is integrate with local people, which requires the other person to accommodate your inability to speak Chinese. Luckily I’ve found myself in a team with some amazing colleagues whom I now count as good friends, and who are an invaluable source of support for all the things that I don’t understand and can’t work out. I would say that this is one area of our new life that Matt and I are still working out.

The summer heat- Imagine opening the oven door to check on the Sunday Roast and being blasted with a wall of intense and humid heat. That’s kind of what it’s like walking out of your apartment every day during June through September. To say it was uncomfortable was an understatement; Matt has learned never to wear light blue shirts in July and August. Around five or six weeks ago it started to cool down (into the mid-20’s) and last weekend I packed my summer clothes away. Hello beautiful, wonderful, chilly November 🙂

This has turned into quite an epic piece of writing. I could easily go on but I’ll stop there! If you have any questions about life in Shanghai – for either Matt or myself – then leave a comment below; we love to hear from you!

– Emma