Saturday, April 26, 2014

Taiwan Nice

We've just spent four days in Taiwan, two in Taipei and two exploring the northern part of the island.

I'm going to have to quote others when I come up with a description. Ryan Ha, my Beijing son, calls Taiwan "China's well-behaved older sister." That's pretty close to a perfect description. And my actual son Daniel said to us today, "Hong Kong is China with nicer things. Taiwan is China with nicer people."

To clarify, it's not that mainland Chinese are not nice. But they don't always go out of their way to help strangers. In Taiwan, opening up a map or even pausing on a street corner was reason enough for Taiwanese to rush up and offer help.

Even a cab driver we took to see the outdoor museum of sculptor Ju Ming on the northern tip of the island stopped his cab and bought a steaming bag of zongzi, the special food of the dragon boat festival, which he offered to us.  After all, it was noon, and for Chinese people of all nations, 12 means you stop what you're doing and eat. Same for 6 pm.

In any event, it was a fun respite, even with the usual hassles of spontaneous travel, such as the two-hour bus ride careening down a mountainside, hands gripping the seats because we had to stand the whole way. We rewarded ourselves after that with a heavy Italian meal and a bottle of Pinot noir, which in return rewarded us with a sleepless night of indigestion.

Ugh. Another line.
Only you can prevent gold mining.

Friday, April 18, 2014

China's Best

I had an opportunity to visit the school for the China National Acrobatic Troupe this week. It's a place that trains and schools more than 1,000 youngsters, starting from the age of 8, in acrobatics, martial arts, classical dance, theater, and just about every form of performance art. The vast majority are Chinese kids, but we also saw some young people from Russia and one guy from Brazil.

It was hard to say whether the youngsters loved being there -- some were smiling, some had deep circles under their eyes -- but it was a fascinating place, with a level of ability that was stunning. And of course, when they asked if anyone wanted to try something, I raised my hand. No, I didn't flip through the air or juggle nine balls (although we saw one kid who could do that), but I did attempt something that it turns out I couldn't manage. In English, it's called the diabolo. In Chinese, it's kongzhu, or hollow bamboo, named for the sticks you hold. Anyway, I could barely get the thing rolling on the string. Do you think the girls are laughing at me?

Afterwards, we walked around the school, seeing dancers and martial arts performers.

These girls kept a smile on their faces.
Ballet dancers, very serious.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Why Is This Night....

An update on the seder:
All turned out okay, although the process of getting the brisket to the table was maddening. After the fiasco of the frozen bricks of brisket, I discovered that my pricey purchase (about 400 RMB for 6-7 pounds, which works out to almost $10 a pound) was more fat than meat.

Fat gives flavor, but too much fat is just...fat. So I dutifully seared the fat and then slow roasted the brisket for three hours. At the end, I went into my kitchen and opened the oven door. Smoke poured out. The fat had dripped over the sides and was burning.

Now I really had a dilemma. The air outside was hazardous, so opening the windows would be a tradeoff that didn't seem like a good option. At the same time, my kitchen was full of smoke.

I ran the vent fan over the stove and opened two small windows in the back of the apartment, enough to "clear" the air. Then after closing the windows again, I set up our fancy air purifier in the dining room and ran that at high speed for the rest of the day.

"Good thing we don't have smoke detectors," I said to Bob.

Meanwhile, the process of moving the very full pan of brisket out of the stove caused me to spill some -- okay, spill a lot -- on the kitchen floor. I did this not once but three times. The amount of swearing that came from the kitchen was not in keeping with Passover, Holy Week, or any religious festival for that matter.

The kitchen floor was now an oil slick that looked more like the Texas Chain Saw Massacre than a white-tiled floor.

So the real miracle of Passover this year was that no one took a pratfall on the oil slick. Next year in Washington.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

The Passover of the Frozen Brisket

I’m sure you’ve all followed my Passover preparation as reported in the Wall Street Journal, but if not, here it is:

And then there was Bob’s funny blog post where he talks about the word “mafan,” which means hassle. I’ve been a bit too busy to decide whether any of the obstacles I’ve encountered would qualify as full-fledged mafan, but I’ve certainly had a few mini-mafan moments. (To get on his In Lieu of Blog email list, send him an email at

All big feasts in Beijing begin with a trip to Sanyuanli, the treif-intensive center for lots and lots of food: fruit, veggies, carcasses that seem to be the remains of pigs, cows, goats, chickens, tofu, imported products like chocolate and breakfast cereal, tea, nuts, dried fruits, and even a shop selling pet food. Oh, and yummy 1-RMB baozi, which, if they are fresh, are the best 1 RMB purchase you can make, as long as you don’t try eating one while you head into the meat section, which has this whole bloody, stockyard aroma.

We loaded up on veggies and fruit, bypassed the meats except for some chicken wings for making chicken stock, and headed back home.

I began with a walnut-date torte. The issue, which I learned after I had looked up “dates” on my TrainChinese app and purchased “hong zao,” is that dates in China are not like dates in the Middle East or America. They’re closer to dried apples, little brick-red balls with all the moisture sucked out of them. Add in some toasted walnuts and you’ve got a substance that could have been used to build the Great Wall. But the torte is done. We can’t even improve it with whipped cream, since that would make the whole thing not kosher for Passover.

(I just deleted an entire rant about editors who don’t know from kosher. Just because I’m Reb Deb doesn’t mean that the whole world knows how to kosher a microwave. And I’m more self-actualized now. As in today, not Friday.)

I moved on to matzo balls, having made my chicken stock on Saturday. Now my matzo ball recipe this year came from a link I found from the Second Avenue Deli, the New York mecca (so to speak) for all good things to eat, Jewish-style. This recipe called for baking powder. I googled, “Is baking powder kosher for Passover?” and came up with a list of ambiguous answers that tended to lean in the direction of “yes.” (To be perfectly accurate, I think I would have needed to buy special kosher-for-Passover baking powder, but that’s splitting hairs. Who will know? I mean, except any guests who happen to read this…)

The whole argument for this recipe is that the matzo balls were supposed to be nice and light. I formed them. They dropped into the boiling water like little wheat-colored turds, sinking straight to the bottom of the pot. Hmmmmm. They did eventually rise and bobble on the top of the water. I tried one. “Light” was not the word that came to mind. Maybe the awesomeness of my chicken stock will outweigh the leaden nature of the balls. I’m beginning to see a theme here.

Next up is the brisket, which I wanted to start the day before, using the philosophy that all brisket is better the second day. After some back and forth by email, I ordered a half a cow’s worth of brisket from Schindler’s a German butcher in town. One of our guests offered to pick it up for me.

He called me from Schindler’s. No record of my order. No unfrozen brisket. We punted and purchased instead three large slabs of very frozen brisket instead. These slabs, which could be used to knock out a German butcher who loses your order, are now floating in hot water in my bathtub, a suggestion from another Passover guest who came by to drop off chairs.

I did make a chocolate-almond torte, using Hershey’s semi-sweet chocolate chips I brought from my last trip home. It looks and smells promising, less brick-like than the other items on the menu.

I still have to make kugel, tsimmes, and to figure out the table arrangements for tomorrow. If I have time, there will be an update.  I’m hoping that it will all prove entertaining. But not so entertaining that I tell myself, "well, at least there's a blog post."

Sunday, April 6, 2014

A Taste of Portugal

We just spent a weekend in Macau, where Bob and I were far more interested in the city's Portuguese roots than in the gambling culture that draws so many tours. We did visit the casinos, but never found the right place to gamble: baccarat too confusing, the buy-in for poker too high ($300 HK dollars at a minimum, which is too much for someone who doesn't know what he's doing), and the scene at the tables just too dull. No alcohol is served at the gambling tables, no food is available unless you want to go to a sit down restaurant (the American habit of constant snacking hasn't really caught on), and most gamblers are sitting rather quietly at the tables, puffing away at cigarettes, the one vice that's allowed.

We tried a couple of slots which took our money in less than three minutes.
And we saw one show, the House of Dancing Waters, which was a Cirque du Soleil sort of extravaganza with spectacular diving (is this where Olympic divers go?), stunning acrobatics, and some seriously nightmare-inducing motorcycle stunts. So while that was fun we soon tired of the crowds, clearly the hoards from the mainland over to gape at the gaudiness of the Venetian, take pictures of themselves in front of fountains, and yell at their husbands inside churches. I love my Zhongguo ren, with their bling-studded platform shoes, nylon dresses, and general cheerfulness, but we can see these folks on the streets of Beijing every day.

So we took a little tour to Portugal.
In fact, outside of the casinos, Macau is thoroughly Portuguese. Even the faces of the natives show their roots, and since the Portuguese have been in Macau since the 1600s, there has been plenty of time for the civilizations to blend. We stumbled upon one cemetery, St. Michael's, where grave stones showed families by the name of Luz and de Silva, but with pictures on the grave showing solemn Asian faces. Most native Macanese have beautiful bronze faces with dark almond shaped eyes.

It was also Qingming, or Tomb Sweeping, which meant that family members were in this Catholic cemetery to clean off the graves of their ancestors, burn incense, and even pray before some offerings that in one spot included apples and a roasted suckling pig.  This was a fascinating blend of religions, something I think Matteo Ricci would have approved.

Of course anyone who knows us knows that when we try to expand our cultural repertoire, what we really mean is that we try to expand our food repertoire (and our waistbands in the process). I mean, looking at colonial architecture, reading about history in a museum: all that goes just so far and then your stomach is growling.

So fortified with one of Macau's signature desserts -- the egg tart, so warm and fresh, not too sweet -- we headed off to Fernando's on the southern tip of Macau's other island. (Here's the recommendation from a friend who lived in Hong Kong: "Fernando's is a daytime thing. Lunch either early or late cuz it gets crowded. If late, order a bottle of vinho verde and watch the breeze roll in from the sea. Then order a second bottle, then a third. Nap.")

It was a $100 cab ride ( in HK dollars), but we finally got to a scrubby place where you put in your name and sat at the bar with a Super Bock beer and waited. We didn't have to wait long and ordered grilled sardines and a portion of roast suckling pig, both delicious.

On Sunday, after watching the end of a heartbreaking Wisconsin game in which the live streaming froze up at crucial moments, adding to our agony, we consoled ourselves at another hole in the wall Portuguese place, A Petisqueira. This place felt like Sunday dinner at Nana's, with red and white checked plastic tablecloths, and an old country feel that let us order green soup, seafood paella and grilled octopus, and two half bottles of vinho verde, and watch the Macau rain drizzle down on a lazy Sunday afternoon.

"I'd come back to Macau just for this restaurant," Bob said as we struggled to digest.

There are worse ways to spend a weekend.