Adventures of Life in Beijing

My husband knows about the other man in my life and he’s OK with it. As a matter of fact, he encourages the early morning rendezvous. So I lace up my shoes, take a lap around the park and then make a detour on the way home.

I turn left on Dongdaqiao Street, pass the only magazine stand  nearby that carries English newspapers (all propaganda) and look for the door with the red signs. My heart beats faster as I get closer, like a silly school girl hoping to catch a glimpse of her latest crush.

 

Here’s the newsstand – just prior to opening

I haven’t seen the other man  since the virus hit, and for the last three months I’ve come home disappointed. I continue my daily routine, hoping one day the strong, silent man will come back into my life.

We call the object of my affection the “Baozi Guy.” I don’t know his real name, but this street-food chef  with the ruddy cheeks and heavy apron has been satisfying our comfort food craving with fluffy, pork-filled steamed buns since we arrived in Beijing nine months ago.

 

This place has the best steamed buns

 

I really wish you could taste them. I miss them so much!

 

He stood outside the mom-and-pop shop even on the coldest winter days, surrounded by woven baskets stacked high as commuters rushed by to grab their morning meal. I joined the crowd, picking up an order or two of bite-sized buns for breakfast. Fresh out of the steamer, the baozi were hot, juicy and irresistible. I would eat one or two on the way home and bring the rest to my family.

But it wasn’t just the food that brought comfort. In a city of 20 million people, I’d found a place where I was a regular. The Baozi Guy recognized me, greeting me with a friendly Ni Hao and charging me the local price when other foreign friends (even my husband) paid more. If my WeChat payment on my phone didn’t work (which happened occasionally), he’d wave me away saying “tomorrow, tomorrow.” If there was a crowd, he made sure to take my order in turn.

Unsure if the Baozi Guy would ever return, I’ve been looking for a replacement, which leaves me feeling a little unfaithful.

My morning walks have taken on new purpose. I head in different directions each day looking for baozi, along with other signs of hope that Beijing is coming back to life after after being shut down for weeks by the virus. One day I see the city awakening in the blooming trees; other days I notice the buzz of traffic is just a notch louder.

 

Beijing is reawakening from winter and the virus.

 

I found a Halal restaurant by the park, and waited hopefully in line at the takeout window, heeding the social distancing stripes marked on the pavement.

 

Here’s a new place I tried

 

I stumbled over my order in Chinese, and slunk away feeling embarrassed, which made me miss the Baozi Guy even more. Maybe it was bruised pride that made the buns hard to swallow, but the flavorless beef and dense dough sat heavily in my mouth.

 

These beef-filled buns just can’t compare.

 

I found another place near the Russian district that had potential, but it’s just too far to walk on a daily basis, and the baozi just weren’t quite as good. I had a stomachache after I ate one, which is never a good sign.

 

 

Every few days I walk past the door with the red sign, checking to see if the Baozi Guy has returned. Recently, I saw lights on inside. Had they always been on and I just didn’t notice? It felt too good to be true. The door was locked, but I saw keys on the table. Maybe there’s hope.

But hope is fleeting these days, slipping away quickly like noodles through my chopsticks.

Noodles, like hope, can be hard to hold onto.

 

I woke up feeling depressed the next day when I thought about the rising death toll  and crashing economy. Getting out of bed is challenging sometimes.

“Did the world come to an end last night?” I asked my husband.

“Let me see,” he said, pulling open the curtains. “Nope. Doesn’t look like it.”

“I just want normal again,” I complained. “I want the Baozi Guy to come back.”  Ten weeks of severe restrictions and constantly changing rules were starting to wear me down.

“That would be nice, whatever normal means,” he agreed.

The smell of coffee persuaded me to get out of bed and I remembered the lights I had seen yesterday at the restaurant.

“Just maybe today will be the day,” I thought.

I made my usual loop around the park and headed toward the Baozi Guy’s shop on the way back.

There, in front of the restaurant, was a sack of flour and bags of carrots, onions, chili peppers and sweet potatoes. Tears came to my eyes.

 

 

That sack of flour and pile of vegetables brought me more hope than I’ve felt in weeks. Maybe normal will return soon.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Comments (24):

  1. Jeannie

    April 26, 2020 at 3:19 am

    Thank you for this post. I sure hope your friend re-opens soon. We here in the US can now relate to what you have been through for months. It has only been 6-7 weeks and already feels way too long since we have had normal. I think the whole world just wants to have a healthy, safe “normal” again. Praying for you, your friend to re-open and for the world to go back to “normal.”

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      April 27, 2020 at 6:57 am

      Thanks Jeannie. It’s been a long haul but I know we are all in the same boat now. Hope you are well.

      Reply
  2. Jill

    April 26, 2020 at 3:45 am

    Can’t wait to see your next post eating the steam buns!

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      April 27, 2020 at 6:55 am

      I’ll let you know as soon as it happens. Thanks for following along.

      Reply
  3. Paula Kasnitz

    April 26, 2020 at 4:02 am

    Kirsten , This is beautiful. By the time you read this he will be back. This is hard on everyone.
    I just wonder what the new normal will be.

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      April 27, 2020 at 6:54 am

      Thanks Paula. I’m trying hard to embrace the new normal. I love seeing pictures of you and Paul enjoying the simple pleasures in life.

      Reply
  4. Angelika Sorrow

    April 26, 2020 at 1:42 pm

    ❤️

    Reply
  5. Heather Winters

    April 26, 2020 at 2:08 pm

    I really enjoy reading your blog! You’ll be eating those little steamed buns before you know it!

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      April 27, 2020 at 6:47 am

      Thanks Heather, so happy to have you following along. Love seeing pictures of your girls on FB.

      Reply
  6. Tina

    April 26, 2020 at 2:55 pm

    I don’t know why but reading this post made me tear up! Your Baozi Guy will be back soon; keep using those chopsticks and don’t give up. I can totally see your husband looking out the window and reporting the world did not come to an end…LOL.

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      April 27, 2020 at 6:49 am

      Yeah, I think we all feel sad over lost opportunities. I’m thankful for my husband the optimist 😊

      Reply
  7. Vera

    April 26, 2020 at 8:32 pm

    I absolutely loved this entry! I can completely understand just wanting the little things back to add that pep back in our days. Just getting food from Chick Fil A was such a huge win for us! But I love the flowers blooming and the idea that each day, we need that hope in our hearts. So excited and can’t wait to hear how they taste again! Love you!

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      April 27, 2020 at 6:50 am

      Yes! What we wouldn’t give for Chick-fil-A right now. Miss you!

      Reply
  8. Frankie

    April 27, 2020 at 12:19 am

    Dear one – PLEASE do NOT keep us waiting. ALL of us want to know about this kind man.

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      April 27, 2020 at 6:51 am

      I promise to update as soon I have news!

      Reply
  9. Ainslie Lewis

    April 27, 2020 at 1:19 am

    Seeing your posts is like returning to normal in a way! Thanks for sharing. I pray your guy returns soon!

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      April 27, 2020 at 6:52 am

      Thanks Ainslie, I hope you guys are hanging in there.

      Reply
  10. Susie

    April 27, 2020 at 3:23 pm

    Kirsten when you started posting all about the Corona Virus and it’s effect on China and specifically Beijing, I thought it was such an interesting thing and in many ways I believed that Could never happen in the US…. this kind of lock down…. well it has! And it is harder then I ever thought! Thankfully we do not have the virus in our home yet… and we are following all stay at home orders, social distancing etc…
    I love your post on craving normal… we do to! I am so hopeful to see what happens with your favorite shop! 🙂

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      April 28, 2020 at 4:54 am

      Hi Susie,
      I’m so glad you guys are remaining healthy. It’s a challenging time for sure. I feel less alone now, but sad that very one else has to go through this too. Thanks for reading along – I love to hear from you❤️

      Reply
  11. Kara Lewis

    April 28, 2020 at 12:16 am

    Love this post, Kirsten. It is a cliff-hanger for sure. Please tell us when you see the Baozi Guy! Keeping fingers crossed. Virtual hugs across the miles to you!

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      April 28, 2020 at 4:52 am

      Thanks – I hope to have an update soon!

      Reply
  12. Shari

    April 28, 2020 at 5:02 pm

    Oh man. So hope he’s healthy and well. I can’t wait to hear!! And oh man would I love some of those steamed buns!!!

    Reply
    • Kirsten Harrington

      April 29, 2020 at 7:22 am

      Hi Shari,
      Keep an eye out for an update soon. Miss you guys!

      Reply

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Pick up Sticks

Who Says You’re too Old to Play with Your food?

From meaty, cumin-scented lamb skewers to sweet, candied hawthorns, Beijing is filled with food on a stick. These fork-free dishes are perfect for strolling, sharing, dipping or indulging. If you’ve ever cooked over a campfire or savored a popsicle, then you remember that hand-held food is fun for all ages.

Local Flavors

Head to Qianmen or Nanluoguxiang to start, and grab some lamb skewers, “whirlwind” potatoes, squid or sausages on a stick.

 

Cumin-rubbed lamb skewers are a must try.

 

Called “whirlwind” or “cyclone” potatoes, think of them like fresh potato chips on a stick, seasoned with salt and pepper.

 

Choose your squid and have it cooked to order.

 

For the truly adventurous, there are scorpions, silkworm larvae and tarantulas, perhaps best left for capturing with your camera and not your taste buds.

 

They’re mostly a gimmick, but you’ll find scorpions and tarantulas too. See the starfish in the back?

 

For an experience that’s a little more off the beaten path, head to Xinmin market (subway stop Guloudajie) and spend the morning exploring the produce, spices and wet market. When hunger strikes, look for the ma la tang stand selling a variety of skewers including mushroom bundles, quail eggs, meatballs, broccoli, lettuce, noodles and much more. Don’t worry – there’s no menu to decipher; just point to a skewer that looks good and give it a try. For just a few kuai a skewer, it’s a fun, affordable outing.

 

Tofu, potatoes and broccoli are my favorites. Choose “spicy” or ”non-spicy.”


Travel the Globe

Don’t limit yourself to Chinese food. Beijing has a whole world of flavors just waiting for you to try. Grab a map and start checking off your destinations. At Athena Greek restaurant the Chicken Souvlaki comes on a suspended skewer.

Nearby Alameen offers a platter of mixed Lebanese kebabs, and a taste of Turkey is just a hop, skip and a jump away at Turkish Feast.

Branch out from curries at your favorite Indian restaurant with a skewer of cheese-like paneer or head to NomNom in Haidian District for Indonesian mutton or beef Satay with a side of Sambal Kecap, sweet soy sauce mixed with chilies and shallots. And of course, don’t forget to stop in Thailand for some peanut-y Chicken Satay.

If you’d rather take cooking into your own hands, Café Zarah offers Cheese Fondue every evening after 6pm. Each bowl of melted cheese-y goodness comes with crunchy cubes of bread, vegetables, cornichons and a bowl of pineapple.

 

A cozy evening at Cafe Zarah.

 

Cheese fondue.


Sweet Endings

Winter is the season for tanghulu, those shiny, sugary fruit sticks decorating the city like ornaments.

Round red hawthorns are the most popular, but you’ll also find grapes, kiwi slices and Chinese yams. There are even some Santa-themed ones with marshmallows and strawberries.

 

Freshly dipped in molten sugar water gives fruit a crackly, sweet finish.

 

Santa-themed fruit skewers.

Keep an eye out for purple sticky rice dipped in sugar or waffles on a stick that spell “I Love Beijing” in Chinese characters.

 

Warm glutinous rice dipped in sugar makes a filling snack.

 

Waffles on a stick make it easy to snack and stroll.

 

Find your zodiac sign fashioned in sugar candy or grab a stick full of sweet-and-sour shan zha (dried Hawthorn).

 

Floral scented gui hua cake drizzled with syrup beckons with its golden yellow hue, derived from Osmanthus flowers.

 

 

For a more interactive experience, head to Qianmen Kitchen restaurant  to make some S’mores. Roast American marshmallows over your own charcoal brazier, add some Lindt Chocolate and sandwich it all between Biscoff cookies and digestive biscuits.

 

Lastly, don’t rule out ice cream just because it’s winter. Beautiful rose-shaped ice cream and vibrant fruity popsicles (at Nanluoguxiang) will make you forget how cold it is outside, even if just for a moment.

 

Chinese Medicine

When my brother and I were little, we spent summers with our grandparents in Denmark. My grandmother didn’t have a drier, so she hung all of the clothes on the line. They smelled like sunshine, but were so stiff and sharp that we pretended to sword fight with pointy wash cloths.

My body feels like one of my grandmother’s line-dried wrinkled wash cloths. We are less than two months into Beijing’s winter but the extreme dryness and cold temperatures have wrung every once of moisture out of my hair, my skin and my lungs. The level of static electricity means I look a bit like Einstein when I return from shopping and take my hat off.

If it were possible to bottle some warmth and humidity from Florida, I’d ask you to send it to me. Add a pinch of salty ocean air too please.

I’m in a Chinese Medicine chat group and I saw a post recently for “Moistening Yam Tea.”  The recipe promised to “benefit my Qi, nourish my Yin and promote fluid production.” I have no idea what that means, but since slathering my skin with gallons of lotion only goes so far, I’m willing to try anything that promises moisture. Maybe it will work like a Bounce dryer sheet, softening my skin, reducing stiffness and eliminating my static cling.

Out of the five ingredients listed, I recognize two: Chinese yams and licorice root. I like licorice (my roots are Danish after all), so how bad can it be? (Chinese medicine concoctions in general aren’t designed to taste good).

 

I took a tour of a market recently about 30 minutes away, and I know they have a Chinese medicine shop. (It’s called a wet market, really, but I don’t want to scare you into thinking they sell snakes and bats. The most exotic things I saw on my visit were  eels, frogs and turtles.

 

I think he’s trying to escape.

 

 

Do they kill them for me or do I have to do it myself?

 

Turtle soup anyone?

 

So I hopped on the Subway to Xinmin market and found the Chinese Medicine shop. I had a photo of the recipe with Chinese characters, which I’m hoping the doctor understands because I can’t tell astralagus root from licorice root.

 

The red board contains combinations of ingredients for a variety of ailments.

 

There are a variety of dried teas, flowers and herbs for sale.

 

“How much is this going cost?” I asked the doctor. I’m not sure what maidong is, but if it’s as pricey as ground dragon bones, I’ll just rub my hair with a Bounce sheet instead.

She takes a little note pad and adds some figures, and shows me: 150 kuai, a little over $20 bucks. I give her a thumbs up, and she measures the ingredients.

 

 

I wanted to take a picture with her, but felt a little embarrassed to ask. Just as I’m practicing the words in my head, she hands me my purchase with a smile and comes out from behind the counter and starts taking a video of the two of us. I’m guessing I’m the first foreign customer she’s had, and she wants to brag about it on social media. I wonder how many followers I have on TikTok now?

A lifetime supply of moistening tea.

 

She was quite excited to capture me on video. I’ve been filmed in restaurants, hiking, in the elevator, shopping…..I always wonder what they do with the videos. No one ever asks permission.

 

“How much of this stuff should I be drinking?” I asked in the Chinese Medicine chat group.

“It depends on your constitution,” came the reply. “Just brew a big pot and drink it as you need it.” How will I know when my constitution has had enough ?

I measure out the ingredients and brew a pot.

 

Getting the potion ready for brewing.

 

The doctor was kind enough to number the ingredients according to the recipe so I know which ingredient is which.

 

It’s not bad. It’s earthy, with hints of licorice, spice and leather. Oh, wait, that was my wine from last night. Wrong glass.

I add a few more pieces of licorice root (at least I think I did), close my eyes, and think of chocolate as I take another swig. It doesn’t taste like chocolate, but I can pretend.

Honestly, it’s not bad and I manage to down a pot a day. It’s only been a few days so I don’t have any data to report. I’m hoping in a few weeks I’ll feel less like a wrung out wash cloth and more like a rehydrated sponge. But you can go ahead and mail that package with the tropical, Florida humidity. Throw in a few Bounce sheets while you’re at it; they cost almost as much here as ground dragon bones.