Shanghai Cheese

Our first few days in Shanghai have largely revolved around food. The pursuit of cheese to be more precise. L had done our homework and sourced a couple of tempting restaurants and cafes in the FFC (Former French Concession, where we are staying). We have not eaten any cheese to speak of for the last seven months, and those who know us might remember that cheese in all its forms has always been a big passion of ours.

When we realized that we would not be returning home, but instead be spending some steamy weeks in Shanghai we went out of our way to find the things we would miss by not going home.

Turns out we did not need to go out of our way but could keep to the cool Plane tree planted (apparently by the French over 100 years ago – what a good idea!) streets of the FFC.

On our first night, we walked a fair distance in the early evening to find Cheese.co. We found it down a small street and chose to sit out on the veranda, where we could catch a little cool breeze, as it rustled through the green cicada sounding leaves above us. We ordered cold beers and struggled to choose our toasties from the wide selection on the menu. Eventually, we choose a duck and mozzarella and onion marmalade toasted between sourdough bread as well as a salami and tomato pesto and a few other cheeses melted together in a sandwich.

We waited for our order with anticipation and sat back on our bar stools to watch the street in front of us as we sipped our beers. It was a busy and yet very quiet street, filled as it was with great moving streams of electric scooters. I envied them as they passed. All scooter riders ride without helmets in China and so they pass sedately by, with their hair flowing back in the breeze. Young couples, him often with his shirt open and billowing, her often side saddle hands loosely linked on her lap, or sitting with her cool milky limbs astride her boy and clinging. There were families too, a little one sometimes standing in front, little hands holding onto the side mirrors with another child squished between their fathers back and their mother behind. I noted many foreigners amongst the cool passing throng. Young men with pretty girls riding pillion, and other older grey fox men, some of whom had lived in Shanghai for over 20 years. Some talked to each other as they meandered past, some peddling sedately on bicycles.

Around us at other tables sat mostly young Americans. They were drinking beer and fussing over a Staffie called Buster. I could not shake some images from movies in my mind, mainly about GI’s and Vietnam I suppose, and pavement cafes and endless clouds of scooters going by. But this is no war zone. Instead, this is Shanghai, the City of Dreams.

The toasted sandwiches were a revelation. We shared them half and half, savouring every mouthful and then we strolled home in the dark, under the now silent trees, so safe and happy.

The still hot evening streets were flanked with Shanghai skyscrapers in part, lit up by great glowing neon billboards, filling the night with dazzling and blazing colour above the trees and the warm tarmac.

The next day we embarked on part two of our cheese quest.

In Lanzhou, we have eaten a so-called pizza once or twice and have been severely disappointed, and unfortunately made ill by them. Let’s not go into that now…

Palatino Roman Restaurant was a place sourced by L. It featured stunning reviews and real Italian, or as the ad said, “Roman cuisine.” We found it, small and stuck away, through a cluttered garden of vines and verandas. Inside were a couple of older Italian men speaking in rapid Italian to the owner, an elegant Chinese woman who switched from Italian to flawless English to greet us as we entered. We were led upstairs to the dimly lit and very cool intimate space and shown to a table. The menu was exciting, not cheap, but affordable for us. It was pure Italian bliss. The Italian men joined us upstairs and so our entire meal was eaten to a soundtrack of an Italian conversation, for which we were grateful. L and I took our first mouthful and as the very thin crust crunched and crumbled between our fingers our eyes met and I think it was me who said it first “I feel so happy right now.”

Ah! The power of food!

We ate pizzas topped with thin slivers of Parma ham, piled with crispy rocket leaves, oozing with stringy mozzarella, shiny with salami, and we plunged into a shared salad of green and black olives, capers, artichokes, chunks of mozzarella, and juicy sliced tomatoes. We sloshed all with fragrant extra virgin olive oil and a drizzle of black balsamic vinegar. And so ended our cheese odyssey.

But no doubt there will probably be a second journey before we finally head home.

 

 

Lamb shanks and beef noodles

Beef Noodles are the Lanzhou national dish.

A Muslim friend took us out one day to experience them at a Muslim Restaurant, assuring us that this was the restaurant that provided the best beef.
We followed him around the Restaurant, moving from counter to counter, being handed a platter of thinly sliced beef, then a couple of dishes of vegetables (chunky chopped cucumber, pink crunchy radishes and bright orange cabbage in a vinegary dressing), and finally large bowls of soupy noodles ( L chose the spicy one – great spoonfuls of red chillies were ladled into it).
We found a place at the communal tables and sat down. We picked up slivers of succulent beef with our chopsticks and dropped them into our bowls of noodles. The beef softened and we shovelled them into our mouths along with the long strands of noodles which we bit off. It was all pretty delicious. In between mouthfuls, we ate the fresh cold vegetables.

A young lady waitress came and befriended us. She was a student she told us and this was her family’s restaurant. She communicated with us in a mixture of English, Chinese and German. We sort of figured it out. Sweet girl!

L and I appreciate being shown around but there came a day when we ventured into a Chinese restaurant on our own.

We could have gone to 26”pizza. But where would have been the fun in that?
We chose the Restaurant for it’s Union Jack seats which we could see in the window. It seemed popular and the photos of dishes in the window looked good, reasonably priced, and so we went inside.
The menu did not feature a word of English. We tried to use our Chinese translation app. It wasn’t very helpful. No one in the Restaurant could help us, but I liked the traditional Chinese pictures painted all around the walls. I liked the big front doors painted brightly, featuring fearsome Chinese warriors and gentle watercolour scenes of the countryside.
We pointed out two dishes and they arrived. They turned out to be two HUGE platters, one with lamb ribs, very crisp and juicy but covered in red chillies. The other was what had looked like chicken in the photograph but turned out to be something… which we never figured out…but there were also peanuts and such an immense amount of chillies that even L could not manage it.
Oh well, we called for COKE, which we assumed was an international word. It isn’t.
We got a coke in the end, and we were gratefully able to wash away some of the burn.


A week or so later we visited another Muslim Restaurant with the same friend and our Chinese speaking Romanian, who could translate!
The food, delicious roasted lamb shanks and a platter of sweet and sour chicken, a fresh salad and some spicy potatoes was wonderful.
The whole meal was washed down with a tea consisting of dried dates, dried litchis, dried flowers (not sure which), lots of green tea leaves and a lump of sugar crystals. Our large glass mugs were continuously topped up with warm water. The tea improved with time.

We don’t go to Restaurants that often, perhaps once a week. The Chinese food Restaurants are very, very cheap. The lamb shank meal was expensive and cost us each about R45,00 (under $4)!

Normally, over the holidays, we have been eating our daily meal at the canteen in the Wanhua building next door. They invited us to join them for lunch over the holiday season, and so we do. We are the only teachers there.
We pay a small amount with WeChat and sit down with the workers there, some in blue jackets, some in red, some in suits, some in designer coats. By the vast majority of them, we are now hardly noticed.
The lady in charge is helpful and friendly. Her English is a whole lot better than just about anyone else we have met.
Most days a trip to the canteen is enough for us, or sometimes we buy a few containers of food and take it back to the flat to be heated up and eaten later.
We sit around our table with our bowls and red chopsticks and dip into the containers of tofu, or noodles, rice or beef with lots of red peppers.
It feels as good as any restaurant, with the sun streaming into the room, our favourite photos turning around on the flat screen and some soft blues playing.

lounge

Food

Charlies Burger

Food plays a big part in our lives here.

Everything about it is so foreign – buying it, preparing it and eating it, both at home and in restaurants.

I have started to call our lives in Lanzhou – FULL IMMERSION – as life here is so totally different, so very intensely Chinese.

An English teacher friend just returned from a long weekend in Shanghai. She said she loved it. There is a lot of English there – she said. She also mentioned the beauty of the city, the buildings and the architecture. She mentioned hearing the English language being spoken everywhere. She even mentioned that she had found a bookshop that sold a wide variety of English books!

L and I are glad to be in Lanzhou. We like the fact that life is very unplugged from the West here. As a result,  we are being driven to learn to speak a little more Chinese, and we are learning a lot, both about China and about ourselves.

But we have pencilled Shanghai in on our calendars…

Curry night Last Friday night a couple of the other foreign teachers cooked for us. We lapped up South African curry and rice (with tomato and onion, banana and cucumber sambals on the side.)

A young Indian teacher also contributed to the meal, making us delicious Basmati rice with spices. He also made us  ‘Chicken 65’, which, we found out, is a type of spicy chicken nugget dish, served with a coriander dip. A wonderful multi-cultural meal!

Meals like that one do a lot to assist with the reality of FULL IMMERSION!

The other thing to do, we discussed, with our friends, who have been here a lot longer than us, is to find a way to lift your face up from under the water every now and then – so as to breathe a little familiar air occasionally.

With this idea in mind, we travelled out with them on Sunday morning. Firstly, we met some friends of theirs, gathered at a meeting in downtown Lanzhou.

Lanzhou, I am told, contains about 7 universities. This means that a large percentage of the population here are students and lecturers. And it is within these communities that one encounters more foreigners.

We have already met a couple of foreign students.  I think that they are impressive, because, although most are postgraduate, in order to study here, they have all spent a year studying to read and write Chinese, before they launched into their further studies! As a result, there are a bunch of Americans, Romanians, Indians and Africans who I have now met, who can speak, and write pretty good Chinese!

Meeting with them to make friends and to chat about life in Lanzhou ( a couple of  American doctors have been here for over 11 years already!) was like a breath of fresh air.

After the meeting we ventured further into Lanzhou, catching a No 118 bus, which we had never done before.

Our destination was ‘Charlie’s Burgers’.

Charlies BurgerThe exterior gave a hint of what awaited us inside. It was bright and fun! The interior downstairs was cluttered with huge lollipops which hung from the ceiling (and a Christmas tree with lights on – still in the corner – the Christmas decorations are kept up for months…)

Charlies Burger - interior

We were warmly greeted by a young Chinese waitress, in a checked red shirt and Stetson, who spoke to us in rapid Chinese.

Charlies BurgerWe followed her up the yellow pumpkin lantern lit stairs (décor left over from the Halloween festival…)

We were shown to a table and given four very large, very English menus. I felt a strange sense of relief begin to flow over me. All was so familiar, there was even American music playing!

Held within the large menu were large glossy pictures of an assortment of burgers. Most of the hamburgers were quite normal, some had a distinctly Chinese flavour, but all came with fries, and we even ordered cokes!

Charlies BurgerWe were issued silver knives and forks to eat with! Our orders were taken by a waitress who continued to speak to us in fluent Chinese, even when it became very apparent that we could not understand a word. Never mind – pointing to the pictures made our orders clear enough!

As I waited I glanced around the room and was entertained by some of the signs around the room.

Charlies Burger

‘Charlie’s burger join us for happy’

‘We want you smiling’

As we waited we were incessantly served hot water from a waitress, who circled around all the tables with a jug.

In China cups of hot water are given to you everywhere – even in the queue at the bank!

The meal arrived and it was as yummy a burger as I have ever had. The cokes were good too, only recognisable by their distinctive red and white colours.

Lanzhou shopping mallWe moved on from there to a very posh mall – think Sandton or Cavendish – filled with designer shops spread over 4 or more floors. We were in search of coffee!

Cafe BeneWe found Caffé Bene and walked into its dim interior. The tables and chairs were filled with Chinese people, who were just about all on cell phones. Not much conversation was happening, and in many ways, it all felt very familiar as well. Apart, that is, from the menu blackboards, which were covered in pretty and intricate chalky Chinese letters.

Lex in queue to order cappuccinoThere were a variety of cheesecakes behind the glass in neon-lit counters. There were perfect cappuccinos, with delicate hearts drawn in the foam. We sat on comfy chairs covered in Union Jacks. There were design references to steampunk here and there. There was a picture of the New York skyline on one wall. There was a repetitive Calvin Klein advert being shown on a large flat screen. The models were Western and sulky and far too skinny. Perhaps I could have been anywhere.

Perhaps.

Mall entertainment for kidsBut then I would have had to drown out the loud voice behind the microphone outside – directing operations and activities that were taking place in the very large children’s play area, down on the ground floor of the mall. I would have had to ignore all the people stopping in their tracks to look at our strange group of tall South Africans…

Later, at home, I lay down to rest and shut my eyes. Scenes from the day played themselves out behind my eyelids, to a very loud Chinese soundtrack.

It’s a con really, I decided, to think that one can find any place within China that is anything but Chinese.

China is everywhere.

It is strange and other, and I doubt very much whether anything about it (pretend American or not), will ever be anything even remotely near familiar.

Chinese shopping mall

Out on the town

We received an invitation from the South Africans who work with us and their visiting children, and so we headed out, each with one yuan clutched in our hand.

This time we both paid, all 7 of us finding a seat on the bus. The mood was light and fun. We got off the bus a little later, following the two experienced South Africans, who have lived here for a year. They led us through the Lanzhou streets.

IMG_4524The city was busy, not quieting down after five, but instead seeming to come alive. We passed along streets, passing shops, some of which were a little familiar as we had seen them on our previous excursions.

The air was nippy and people were out, wrapped up in their puffy coats, some emblazoned with English words, not always spelt correctly and often inappropriate, for example – ‘screw you’…

The bare trees and pillars along the arcade which we walked down were strung with strings of lilac lights.

Outside the door to ‘Big Foot Ancestor’ stood a Mongolian looking man playing a large drum which was hanging over his shoulder. We all passed him by and moved into the massage parlour (Big Foot Ancestor) beyond.

It was a plush room, elegantly decorated, with a Buddha lamp (he appeared truly enlightened) and a cluster of small Chinese men and women, dressed in the traditional, button across the chest cotton shirts and trousers. Each person wore a name tag (actually a number tag) pinned to their shirt.

Our South African friends, who had been to ‘Big Foot Ancestor’ a few times before, assured us that a ‘99’ was the massage that we wanted. They organised that all 7 of us would be ‘done’ together in one room.

L looked a little uncertain, but, after a stop at the Chinese loos, which were immaculate and fragrant, we were all led into one big room, with 7 chairs (rather like Lay-z-boys) standing around the room.

IMG_4578We were all shown to a seat. The room was warm. We all took off our jackets, boots and socks and sat down. The women in our group were assigned men (I got no. 022) and the men were assigned, women.

022 was a young man, who seemed almost shy, but for almost an hour he worked on my feet, soaking them in hot water and massaging them with his very strong, very firm hands.  Glass mugs were constantly filled with hot water and we were urged to drink it. I struggled to understand but I tried to do everything that I was told to do.

There was much laughter, both from us foreigners and amongst the masseurs. As we were a rather tall, and, well, not a small group of South Africans, I felt for the very dainty group of Chinese youngsters working on us. Together we probably constituted more square centimetres of flesh than they had ever worked on before.

They were sweet, and, as the time passed the group of us lapsed into silence, the masseurs’ hands working their soporific effect on us.

Some details stand out – the extreme heat of the water into which we had to place our feet, the Chinese TV on the large flat screen facing us (we insisted that the sound be switched off) and the little glass bowls which the masseurs stuck to the soles of our feet. The air had first been removed from the little bowls by a large flame, skilfully applied and swirled around by each masseur. The little bowls remained stuck to our feet – by means of a type of suction – until the masseurs removed them.

When 022 removed both my little glass cups he turned the open mouths towards me to show me their contents. I think I saw something floating like a little ghostly fish in each little fishbowl, but I couldn’t be sure…

It was hard to rouse ourselves after 2 hours of feet, back and shoulder pummelling. We put on our coats and boots and headed back out into the cold. I felt very relaxed and would have liked to have been carried through the streets. The freezing air soon woke me up.

IMG_4581Next stop was ‘ Miracle Pizza’ a restaurant that caters to both Western and Eastern pallets. The sign outside said ‘Miracle Pizza – Love and Joy’.

Inside we were seated around a large table and L and I chose to eat pizza (for old times sake). I chose a curried chicken pizza. We ate it with mango flavoured and coloured fruit tea, served in a glass teapot on a warmed stand. It was delicious, sipped from very small glass bowls.

On the opposite wall was the word LOVE, set out in large silver letters.

We left the restaurant, having had both our massages and our meal paid for by our new friends. We walked through the busy night streets and nearly missed the last bus home.

The head of our party sprinted up some stairs and over a bridge and succeeded in persuading the bus driver to wait for us. We all moved as fast as we dared over the icy bridge, climbed aboard the bus and the bus driver took us safely home.