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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The Beer-Drinking Orchid Lady

 

“Let’s ask her the price, then wait til she finishes her beer and ask again,” my friend Josie said.

“Yeah, I remember last time. First she said they were 25 kuai, then she went down to 20 and we didn’t even bargain,” I said.

I press the button in the elevator to go down to the basement of the office building where my favorite orchid vendor has set up shop. The flower vendors used to be across the street in the Lai Tai Flower Market, not far from the U.S. Embassy. For some reason last spring the Beijing government decided to close the place down, and now the vendors are scattered across the city.

Orchids are my guilty pleasure. I don’t smoke, I’m not hooked on chips or donuts and I prefer strong coffee to strong liquor.

But lead me to a display of orchids? I can’t help myself. I’m like an addict.

Buttery yellow, deep lusty purple, pale pink, warm tangerine – I just go weak in the knees when I see all of the choices.

 

In the U.S. I kept my orchid habit in check because they were kinda pricey. But at $3-5 a pop in China, I can afford to treat myself once a week if I want to. It’s cheaper than Starbucks, and they last longer than a latte and have fewer calories.

We step out of the elevator and head down the hall, following the tropical smell.

 

The cut flowers are beautiful, but I’m here for the orchids.

 

We breeze pass the cut flowers and head to main attraction, the orchids. They’re right next to the frog, turtle and fish vendor (the kind for aquariums, not the dinner table).

For some reason, in Beijing it’s common for aquatic pet purveyors and flower vendors to share space. I guess both living creatures  bring color and happiness to their owners, and require the same finicky degree of care.

“Eh, Ni hao,” says the orchid seller, turning to say hello as we approach.

 

The Orchid Lady at work

 

So many choices

 

Her easygoing greeting can either be interpreted as friendly recognition (I come here often), or a result of her morning beverage: the tall can of beer that’s sitting on her desk between a watermelon and a bag of peanuts.

 

 

She has a tea kettle,  but I think it’s mostly for decoration. Every time I visit – sometimes as early as 9 a.m. – she has a can or bottle of suds open. It’s 11 a.m. and there are more than a few empties beneath the counter.

“Women keyi kan kan ma?” I ask. I want to look at all of my choices before deciding on which ones to take home. I’ve bought orchids from other places, but these just seem to thrive. Maybe she feeds them the same liquid diet she enjoys.

“Keyi, kan ba.” She nods her approval and takes a long swig of Harbin, China’s oldest beer. She goes back to snacking on peanuts between sips while we admire her flowers.

“What do you think of this one?” Josie asks me, picking up a deep burgundy orchid accented with white and yellow in the center. It’s darker than all the others, almost inky.

“I like it. It looks like it has a little face in the middle.”

 

Black Cat Orchid

 

“Zhe ge shi  hei mao,” the orchid lady tells us.

Josie and I process what she’s telling us for a second, then we both smile.

Hei Mao. It’s called Black cat,” Josie says.

“Dui, hei mao,” the orchid lady confirms, prancing around softly like a cat, as her jet black braids swing back and forth.

Hei mao. Hei mao,” she laughs as she dances, garnering a few smirks from the neighboring vendors.

I notice that she has a stem of orchids clipped to her blouse.

“Ni chuan zhe hua. Piaoliang,” I say, trying out some newly acquired Chinese vocabulary.

I think I told her she was wearing beautiful flowers, but I might have called her a lamb skewer by mistake. That’s the problem with Chinese, so many words sound the same.

I guess I said it right, because she took the flowers off and pinned them on me. What an unexpected gift.

Thankfully, we really do speak the same language: a love of orchids.

 

Do you like my new corsage?

 

With their intricate patterns, heart-shaped faces and lush colors, orchids transport me to another world. They make me feel like I’m on a tropical vacation even when I’m living on the 15th floor looking out my window at a concrete jungle. I don’t actually talk to them, but I jokingly refer to them as my “Friends.”

After about 30 minutes of basking in the sea of orchids, I choose three lovely flowers to take home.

 

 

“Yigong 75 kuai, dui?” I check the price with the Orchid Lady, doing the quick math in my head. That’s just over 10 bucks for all three.

She takes a sip of beer, pulls out her calculator, and takes a quick look around, as if we’re making a black market transaction.

She punches the numbers in the display and shows us the total: 70 Kuai.  We lingered long enough to receive the “I’m on beer number two and feeling happy” discount.

We settle the bill with our unasked for discount and leave with our new friends, touched by the Orchid Lady’s kindness.

 

“If you are in the company of good people, it’s like entering a room full of orchids. After awhile,  you become soaked in the fragrance and you don’t even notice.”       —Confucius

 

 

 

 

Back to School

In early February when the virus flared up in China forcing schools to close, I held my breath and wondered how long online school would last. How long would I last?

What would my new role be? Cheerleader? Truant officer? Hall monitor? Janitor? Lunch lady? Would I have to wear a hairnet? I tried not to panic.

Eighteen weeks later, as I vacuum up crumbs from under the breakfast counter, a wave of sadness sneaks over me. Western Academy Beijing (WAB) opened to high school students again on Monday.

Entering campus under the “new normal”

 

Entering campus when school started last August

Instead of feeling relief, I’m replaying the 90 weekdays my sons and I shared without the harried early mornings and traffic-snarled evenings slicing into our days.

I can’t say this loudly enough: I’m so proud of how they’ve handled this challenge. They got up, got to work and never complained. From math assignments to indoor P.E. classes to filming art and cooking projects, they’ve completed everything asked of them.

No one ended up in detention and as far as I can tell we’re all still speaking to each other (at least as much as we were before this whole mess. Some days, more).

 

Taking a break from school. I love these guys.

 

I’m not saying it was easy for any of us. For me, these were some of the loneliest days of our time in China, as I tried to figure out how to support two teenagers who spent the better part of the day behind their bedroom doors doing school work alone.

And for them? They left their friends behind, moved to a strange land where they were just starting to make new friends and then their lives were up ended by a deadly virus. Many of their classmates won’t be returning. I can’t even imagine.

These past four months haven’t been what any of us expected, but like I mentioned in my last post, every cloud has a silver lining (You can read about it here Silver Linings)

Instead of nervously watching the clock every morning, I made blueberry pancakes or breakfast sandwiches.

 

We even grew our own micro greens.

 

Often the boys cooked for themselves and actually had time to eat.

Who knew having them home would increase our food consumption so drastically? I found a grocery store that delivered American-style bagels, milk, avocados, orange juice and bananas within an hour with free delivery. I ordered so often they started bringing me free gifts, like a dozen eggs or a frozen fish.

 

We are spoiled with fast, free delivery.

 

What mom can say she had lunch with her teenagers everyday for 90 days? Some days it was lunch at home, with fried rice and dumplings or barbecue pork sandwiches.

Other days, when restaurants opened again, we took advantage of the extra time to treat ourselves to Red Lobster (sadly, the cheddar biscuits just aren’t the same), or kebabs from the Turkish restaurant near the park.

 

Lunch anyone ?

 

As the days turned into weeks, I pressed the boys into kitchen duty at dinnertime. Unhindered by the usual “get dinner on the table as quickly as possible” time constraints, we discovered that homemade enchilada sauce is so much better than canned, a proper roux is worth the effort for a satisfying gumbo, and that shepherd’s pie is one of our new favorites, even without Worcestershire sauce which we can’t find here.

Online school meant freedom to travel (we made a trip to Seattle to see family and friends before the virus hit the US), go to the gym or take a Starbucks break for a Black Tea Latte.

Laptops were propped up on bedroom pillows instead school desks, eliminating the hour-long commute. I’m happy to say that showering and getting dressed remained part of the routine.

Returning to school after the pandemic requires almost as much paper work as enrolling in the first place. The Beijing Education Committee has a strict protocol in place for returning to campus, and inspects every aspect of the school, from air flow in the class rooms to social distancing markers.

 

Directional arrows on campus.

 

New hand washing stations

Students are required to keep a daily temperature log for 14 days prior to returning, and complete a survey listing the date and flight number of any trips made outside of China since January 23rd. We have to sign a “Letter of Commitment” verifying that we haven’t been to Wuhan recently or left Beijing in the last three weeks (there goes the impromptu trip to Shanghai Disney). Failure to comply would require proof of a negative virus test.

 

Lots of paper work to return to school.

 

Then there’s proof we have the “Health Kit App” which records our travel history and health status by tracking information on our cell phones (yes, Big Brother is watching) just in case we decided to sneak off for a quick meet-and-greet with Mickey Mouse or paid a visit to the fever clinic without reporting it.

 

This app tracks our travels, health status and ID. It’s required for entry into most public spaces.

I turned in the paperwork, prepared a supply of masks (mandatory for students and teachers), verified funds in the lunch account, checked the revised bus schedule, re-read the six pages of “back to school” instructions and laid down for a nap. I’ll have two weeks to recover before school is out for the summer.

“How was school today?” I asked my soon-to-be junior when he came home after Day 1.

“It was OK,” Daniel said. “But I don’t think I really want to go back tomorrow. We didn’t really do anything except work on our online assessments.”

Going back to school isn’t all it’s cracked up to be when you’re met by a guy in a hazmat suit, have your temperature taken three times and spend an hour commuting to do what you could do at home in your pajamas. Except you’re not in your pajamas.

To avoid crowding students stay in the same classroom all day and have to sign up for a designated lunch spot and choose free-time activities in advance.

“They’re really strict about enforcing the social distancing and making us keep our masks on,” my son told me. “Apparently the government can show up anytime to check and they can also ask to see the security tapes.”

With the high-surveillance atmosphere and the fact that over half of the students and teachers are still outside China, it’s easy to understand why some kids are less than enthusiastic about returning.

While the opportunities at school are still limited, we’re grateful that the campus re-opened. It’s a sign of hope, that at least for the time being, the virus is under control in Beijing.