Adventures of Life in Beijing

 

“They must sit up straight and not be lazy,” our instructor commanded as she surveyed the room.

I looked around at my fellow classmates, a German grandpa and his son-in-law, and a father-daughter duo from Singapore.

I’m here to learn how to make dumplings, China’s iconic snack. Thankfully our teacher Sophia is chastising the dumplings, not us, for their lackadaisical attitude.

“If they are lazy and fall over you will lose all of your money,” she warns. Sophia explains that “jiaozi” or dumplings to us foreigners, are shaped a little bit like the ingots that were used as currency during the Ming dynasty. If your “money purse” falls over, it’s a bad omen for your finances. Similarly, the filling might spill out from toppled dumplings. Shaping the dumplings correctly therefore is important.

The history of jiaozi goes back almost two thousand years, Sophia explains, when a famous Chinese medicine doctor was faced with a village full of patients with frostbitten ears. Seeking a cure for the malnourished, suffering villagers, he combined mutton with chopped medicinal herbs and warming spices and steamed it into ear-shaped soothing dough packages.

The villagers ate the dumplings and recovered, crediting their renewed health to the jiaozi prepared by the doctor. Thus began the tradition of eating dumplings at the beginning of the new year to bring health and prosperity.

 

Dumplings originated in the colder regions of northern China.

 

But thankfully we don’t have to wait until they new year to enjoy them. I can’t walk more than a few blocks or so without finding a place to stop for dumplings. Even the frozen ones make a pretty good afterschool snack that can be prepared in a hurry. That’s important when you have two teenagers who can down a dozen or two in one sitting,

We started from scratch, making a simple dough from flour and water. Vegetable juice, like carrot, spinach or beet, can be used instead to color the dough.

 

Vegetable juice adds color to dumplings

 

“The texture should be like playdough,” Sophia tells us, as she walks around to inspect. Do Chinese kids play with playdough I wonder?

Satisfied with our efforts, she instructs us to let the dough rest while we start making the filling. If we don’t let the gluten rest, the dough will be too bouncy to work with.

 

The flour and liquid is kneaded until smooth. So easy.

 

There are probably as many recipes for dumpling fillings as there are cooks in China. Eggs, tofu, pork, beef, mushrooms, lotus root, cabbage, leeks, vermicelli, carrots — can all be incorporated. The key is the fillings must be dry, not soggy. Eggs and tofu must be cooked first for that reason, and water must be squeezed out of other vegetables.

 

A variety of fillings can be used in jiaozi

 

The workhorse in every Chinese kitchen is a big cleaver, called a cai dao.  It’s sharp, big, heavy and a little bit intimidating . I can understand why they require permits to buy these things.

“Hold it like a ping pong paddle,” Sophia suggests. “Like Westerners do, not Chinese,” she says, clarifying the type of grip we should have on our cai dao.

 

This is what a cai dao looks like.

We chop vegetables, mince ginger and cilantro, add in five spice powder, salt, pepper,  vinegar, cooking wine and mix our fillings. Thankfully no one loses a finger.

“Don’t forget to add a pinch of sugar. It’s the magic seasoning that brings all of the flavors together,” Sophia tells us.

 

Vegetarian filling with mushrooms, tofu, carrots, lotus root, rice noodles and spices.

 

Next we wake the dough up from its nap and start making the wrappers. We poke a hole in the dough ball and end up with a doughnut. We cut the doughnut into a snake, and then cut the snake into pieces  which are supposed to be evenly sized. Where is my engineer husband when I need him?

 

Preparing dumpling wrappers is a little bit like making gnocchi.

 

Next Sophia demonstrates how to roll out the dough into circles.

 

Sophia makes it look easy.

Next comes the hard part: filling the wrappers. There is a lot of pressure here because  remember how I told you the dumplings are supposed to sit up straight and not be lazy? It has to do with how you pinch the edges closed after filling the wrapper.

We don’t want the filling to fall out or the dumplings to tip over or we will be poor and sick in the new year.

 

Mine didn’t turn out too badly.

 

The filled dumplings can be boiled (the original method of cooking), steamed or fried (also delicious). It takes a lot of work to roll, fill and cook the dumplings, so it’s often a family affair.

Dumplings can be eaten as a snack (allow 20 or so per teenager) or paired with smashed cucumber salad and fruit for a meal.

They are usually served with a combination of dark vinegar and soy sauce for dipping, and sometimes ginger or chili pepper is added.

 

Enjoying our lunch  of dumplings and cucumber salad.

 

Comments (11):

  1. Jeannie

    August 30, 2019 at 12:44 pm

    Looks yummy!!

    Reply
  2. Terri Buzzard

    August 30, 2019 at 2:10 pm

    Beautiful food! Looks yummy. Maybe you can find a class for soup dumplings..

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      September 9, 2019 at 8:09 am

      Yes, they do have a class for soup dumplings. I would love to be able to make them.

      Reply
  3. Paula Kasnitz

    August 30, 2019 at 3:07 pm

    I don’t know what I enjoyed more, the prose or the photographs.
    Think Paul and Iwill go to Din Ta Fong tonight.

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      September 9, 2019 at 8:15 am

      Thanks Paula. I love DTF! Hope you enjoyed it. It tastes pretty much the same in Beijing as in Seattle, but it’s cheaper here and less crowded. Oh, and they deliver but I haven’t tried that yet.

      Reply
  4. Kellie Harrington

    August 30, 2019 at 4:41 pm

    That looks delicious, and I totally want to take that cooking class! 🤩

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      September 9, 2019 at 8:16 am

      Come visit and I’ll sign you up:)

      Reply
  5. Shari Johnson

    August 30, 2019 at 5:06 pm

    Awesome!!! Now the real question…is it worth the hassle or is it just as easy, cheap and good to buy them prepared?:)

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      September 9, 2019 at 8:19 am

      Good question. I think it’s worth it as a family or social activity for fun. I wouldn’t spend hours in the kitchen making them by myself just to have the boys scarf them down in 5 minutes:)

      Reply
  6. Ainslie Lewis

    August 30, 2019 at 9:36 pm

    I agree with Paula. I enjoy your writing and photos ! You are a great blogger! Did you figure out how to open the washing machine?

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      September 9, 2019 at 8:13 am

      The washing machine is giving me grief again, and I’m pretty sure it’s not just a communication problem😂 I have contacted the landlord to see if they can take a look.

      Reply

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Strange but True

We’re not in Kansas anymore. Just about everyday I see something in Beijing that surprises or shocks me. Some things make me laugh; others just make me shake my head in disbelief. Here’s just a sample of a few of the strange things I’ve noticed around town.

 

Dogs Wear Shoes.

 

And cute little t-shirts.

Sometimes they get really decked out.

And if there’s a special event coming up, they can even take their owners to a  shop that sells haute couture for pooches.

 

Don’t forget the jewelry. Yes, these outfits are for the dogs. I didn’t check the price.


Hot is Cool.

From drinking hot water to layering on sweaters in mid-summer, Beijingers like things steamy.

 

At first I thought I was just suffering through hot flashes, but my expat friends are constantly fanning themselves as well. Maybe my internal thermometer speaks a different language, because I can feel perfectly comfortable in short sleeves and get tskd by a jacket-wearing local for being under dressed. I’ve had people in the elevator comment on my capris when it dipped below 60 degrees.

Last winter we didn’t have to turn on our heat because our neighbors kept their places toasty enough to permeate ours. There’s even a Chinese word –  pa leng – that means “fear of the cold.”


Gloves aren’t just for winter.

If you can’t pick it up with chopsticks, you’d better put on your gloves.

 

Bring on the tacos!

Pizza, wings and other hand-held food come with disposable plastic gloves so you don’t have to gasp touch the food with your naked hands. With the shortage of soap (and sometimes water) in public restrooms, it’s probably not such a bad idea.


Skin care is a big deal.

From whitening creams to foot masks, there’s a poultice or potion to firm, lighten or moisture just about any body part. Porcelain white, smooth skin is the goal here, and it’s a multi-billion dollar industry.

 

One of dozens of skin whitening products on display at the drug store.

Beijingers hide from the sun under parasols, arm sleeves or whatever item they might be carrying (I’ve seen laptops, jackets and squares of cardboard) as they hurry down the street to reach the shade.

You can even whiten your skin at the beach!

Traditionally, dark skin was a sign of an outdoor laborer’s heavy toil and lifestyle of poverty; thus fair skin reflected wealth and status.

There’s so much more I could tell you so stay tuned for another “strange but true” post in the future.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Return to Jellyfish Lake


DAY TWO 

If you missed my last post on the obstacles we faced yesterday on the way to scuba lessons, you can catch up here: Jellyfish Lake

Hoping to avoid being detained by police again, I printed out a copy of the paperwork we filled out yesterday. On the train to Zhuozhou, I silently rehearse my lines in Chinese. “We came here yesterday and registered. We’re back again today.”

“Maybe we’ll get the same guy as yesterday and he’ll let us through,” Daniel says as we get off the train.

Walking toward the exit, we are confronted with three security guards and four guys wearing neon Traffic Control vests. We’re outnumbered and get immediately pulled over to the side.

“Who are you meeting? What’s her name What’s her phone number?  Where are you going?” Officer #232 asks. This takes about 45 minutes. So much for a faster exit today.

“Can we go now? What else do you need?

“Please wait, another officer will come soon.”

“How much longer?”

“Twenty minutes.”

“Twenty minutes? It’s been almost an hour!”

“He’s eating his breakfast first and then he’ll come.”

Unbelievable.

Officer #232 paces in circles and wipes his brow. He really wants to be done with us but doesn’t want the responsibility of letting us go. He looks so uncomfortable we almost feel sorry for him.

“Can we go? Our friends are waiting,” we try again.

Officer #232 hands me the papers and points to the locked exit door.

“Show it to him,” he says.

We knock to get the guard’s attention, pressing our faces to the glass like puppies at the pet store pleading for freedom.

“Mom don’t stop – keep going!” Daniel urges when the door opens.

“Aren’t we supposed to show him our papers?” I ask the boys.

“I’m pretty sure they aren’t going to come after us and tackle us. Just go,” Timothy says.

Our instructors Chris and Lexie meet us in the parking lot. The good news is Chris isn’t hungover today.

“Maybe next time you should try driving. There’s so much traffic they don’t stop everyone,” Lexie says. “It should be much faster.”

She tells us that the police grilled her on the phone while we were waiting in the station. Her relationship with three foreigners was causing suspicion from the authorities.

We agree to arrange a car for tomorrow, hoping to avoid another  encounter with the police.

The boys master their scuba skills successfully, and Chris and Lexie drive us to the train station. We’re hungry, but the pork bun shop is closed. We pass a vendor selling chicken feet from a roadside cart and produce vendors displaying their goods on the ground. It’s grittier than Beijing.

“Do you eat lu rou huo shao?” Lexie asks. Donkey Meat? We love it.

“It’s amazing we’ve never gotten food poisoning here,” Timothy says, digging into a hot flaky roll stuffed with donkey meat. The car smells like peppers and cumin.

There’s a local idiom here that “in Heaven there is dragon meat, on earth there is donkey meat.” Finally, something likable about Zhuozhou.

 

Grilled donkey meat and peppers stuffed in a bun, sometimes called a Chinese burger.

 

We pass security quickly after pointing to the clock and speaking urgently about our train departing soon.

At dinner time, Mike asks about our day.

“There was really nothing fun about swimming in a trash filled lake. I just want to get certified,” Timothy says in a voice that conveys truth, not complaint.

Being grilled by the police over the last two days takes an emotional toll. No one wants to go back, but we need to finish before school starts. We take a week off and then schedule the last two classes.

DAY THREE

We’ve arranged for our driver Chen to take us, hoping driving across the provincial border will be easier than travelling by train. Success! We didn’t get stopped at all.

That was such a good decision, I thought, as we wrapped up the scuba lesson and hit the road by 2:30. So far, the trip was uneventful. No police checks, paparazzi or dead fish floating in the lake.

Then we hit the first police check point. We get pulled over, Chen hands over our passports and gets out of the car to talk with the guards. A few minutes later an officer gets into our car (without Chen) and starts driving. We’re on a road trip with no passports and a Chinese cop behind the wheel. Before my heart rate hits dangerously high, the officer pulls into a parking lot behind the police station.

After about 20 minutes of questioning, we’re on our way. We pass checkpoint number two, leaving Zhuozhou without incident. We cross the bridge to checkpoint three, which is the border into Beijing.

We roll up to the guard and as soon as he sees us in the car he motions for us to park and get out. We hand over the passports and the questions start again.

“Where are you from? When did you arrive in China? Where’s your virus test? Where’s your proof of quarantine? Who is your community leader?” The officer asks in Chinese, thumbing through our passports.

Chen patiently answers for us as we stand on the side of the road. The officer isn’t satisfied and disappears inside the building with our passports. We wait as a steady stream of traffic rolls by. From tattooed truckers to old ladies hauling peanuts to market, their eyes rest heavily on us. If we were still in Florida I’d wish for a sinkhole to swallow us up.

Chen brings us some water from the car. If I’m going to be an object of shame at a Chinese border crossing, I can’t think of anyone better to have at my side. With a fuzzy brush cut and a face like a teddy bear, Chen is kind and gentle, providing the comfort we need.

“How much longer?” Timothy asks.

“I think I heard someone say 20 minutes, or maybe he said he’s been working here 20 years, or that we’ll be waiting 20 years, I’m not sure,” I answer.

It’s been almost an hour when we see a police car pull up, lights flashing.

“Maybe they’re just starting their shift,” Daniel says. “Or they’re coming to take us away.”

I take a mental inventory of the snacks and toilet paper in my purse as three soldiers walk up behind the police car and toward us.

“Maybe they requested back up,” Daniel say. We laugh a little, but there’s tension, realizing the situation is completely out of our control.  The police car and soldiers continue past and we relax a little bit.

“What can they possibly be doing inside?” I wonder out loud.

“Maybe he’s waiting for his boss to finish his plate of dumplings before he approves our paperwork,” Timothy says.

After about an hour and a half an officer comes out and unceremoniously hands back our passports.

What we had hoped would be an easier trip than going by train had turned into a 4-hour car journey that tested the depths of our patience and strength of my bladder.

DAY FOUR

I get up early and bake blueberry muffins. If we spend hours at the border or get thrown in jail at least we won’t be hungry.

We set off with Chen and arrive quickly in Zhuozhou. The only obstacle in our path this time was a herd of sheep.

 

Traffic jam on the way to scuba class.

 

We arrive a little early, hoping we can finish and head home before Friday traffic gets too bad.

“Maybe we can hide in the back of the van,” Daniel says. “Except they probably have infrared sensors and they’d find us.”

The boys grab their wet suits from the equipment room head down to the lake.

It rained last night, raising the water level and gathering more debris into the lake.

“Well. There’s a couch to sit on with your feet in the water, kind of like New Symrna,” Mike says, when I text him a picture.

 

The only thing missing is a fruity drink with a little umbrella.

 

I find a patch of shade and watch the boys disappear into the lake, leaving a trail of air bubbles. Local kids  play in the water, eating watermelon and tossing the rinds. A toddler comes with his dad, looking to catch some fish in his small net.

The boys finish their skills and make their way to the beach, greeted by a golden retriever who’s gone for a dip to escape the summer heat.

“Congratulations to our open water divers,” Lexie says, snapping photos of the boys she will use to make their official PADI certificates.

“Don’t worry,” she says. “I will beautify the pictures first – make your eyes bigger, make your skin whiter.”

I think of the rows of skin whitening products for sale in the grocery store. Maybe everything here would be easier if our skin were just a little bit whiter and we didn’t look so foreign. I look at my handsome blond boys with a hint of color on their skin from a day at the lake and think they look perfect.