Saturday, February 06, 2010

Tea Shopping, then a Long Walk in the Cold

 
This afternoon we decided to trek out to the Maliandao tea market to stock up on some pu'erh tea. Pu'erh tea has become our favorite kind of tea, and it is distinguished by the fact that, alone among the teas, it actually improves as it ages. It is sold in both loose leaf form and in pressed disks, with the disks preferred by those who plan to store the tea for a long time. The Maliandao market, located in the west of the city, is really nothing more than a several-block-long street lined with shops selling tea leaves, teapots, and tea paraphernalia of all kinds. It's a bit overwhelming to try to shop for tea in a place like this, since you really have no way of judging by external appearance whether one shop is any better than another.

We wandered through one of the multi-stall buildings looking to see if we found a shop that looked promising, and after making a few cursory stops in a few stalls to ask about their selection of pu'erh we found one large stall with a good-size crowd of Chinese customers tasting and buying the teas. The woman who was giving one group of customers samples of tea behind a traditional tea table addressed us, asking what we were looking for, and when she heard we were looking for pu'erh tea to age she gave us what seemed to be reasonable prices for a range of teas and had us sit down to sample some.

Pu'erh disk tea comes in two forms, raw and cooked. The raw tea makes a greenish brew, while the cooked tea comes out brown, almost like a Western black tea. We started off comparing two cooked teas, one that sells for RMB 150 ($22) per 375g disk, and one that sells for RMB 260 ($38). The first one was not a bad tea at all, though it took several brews before you could taste much in the cup. (When brewed the traditional way, in small teapots that hold only enough water for four small cups at a time, pu'erh can be brewed multiple times, in some cases as many as 15-20 times, with each subsequent brew showing different taste profiles.) The RMB 260 tea tasted good much sooner, and developed a much rounder and fuller flavor, so of course we decided to buy a few disks. We also tasted a raw tea, which we enjoyed a lot as well (the raw tea and the cooked tea bear little similarity to one another).

After we agreed to buy three disks of the raw tea in addition to the three RMB 260 cooked teas, the saleslady said she wanted us to try one of her super-high quality teas. From the very first cup, this tea had a very nice flavor and very 'round' taste (I don't know how better to describe it), but for RMB 3000 ($430) per disk, it seemed way too pricey to drink!

We must have gone through about 25 cups of tea by the time we left the store, and having had only a very light lunch our heads were swimming from the caffeine. We wandered around the market a bit longer, though, looking for some small teapots to use as single-serving pots for guests. This idea sprung from a dinner we had last weekend, where our hosts served each of their guests a small pot holding whatever tea they had chosen on a small tray. After stopping in several stalls we finally found one that had nice purple clay teapots from Yixing at very reasonable prices so we got a half dozen.

At this point we figured it was time to head home so we left the market and tried to find a cab. Unfortunately, it was just about 5pm, and it had begun to snow. We were thus facing not only the change of shifts for the cab drivers, but also a mad rush of people trying to get home for dinner and others who just wanted to avoid walking in the snow. It was therefore impossible to find a cab at the market, so we started to walk to where we might find a cab more easily. But we were not the only ones with this idea, and we wound up walking more than a mile, getting progressively colder and more miserable as we did so, until we finally found ourselves on a major east-west road where we decided we'd be best off taking a bus instead of waiting for a cab. As luck would have it, we landed on a bus that headed more or less in the direction of our apartment, though it proceeded at a glacial pace and was unheated, so were only marginally warmer inside the bus than we were on the street. Once we got past the Forbidden City we decided we stood a good chance of finding a cab and hopped off the bus. Luckily it wasn't long before we found a cab and we were soon in our toasty house.
 

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Beijing Hotel Equipment Company

 
For quite some time now, I have been meaning to visit the Beijing Hotel Equipment Company, also known as HEC, to check out this supposed Mecca for all cooking-related gadgetry. Up till now, whenever I had a need for any sort of cooking equipment, whether it be pots and pans, or little gizmos to decorate cakes with, or whatever, I would generally go either to the Dongjiao Market or Pantry Magic. The former is a large market on Xidawang Lu, not far south of Jian'guo Lu, that has huge warehouse-size buildings selling fruits, vegetables, meats, fish, etc, with a hotel and restaurant supply section toward the back. Dongjiao is definitely cheap, but it's also chaotic, and much of it involves walking around outdoors, and I find I really need to work myself up for a visit there. Pantry Magic is at the other end of the spectrum--it's right in Sanlitun, so not far from my apartment, and it's easy to get to. It is also pricey, but they often have things that Dongjiao won't have, especially things related exclusively to Western cooking.

HEC falls somewhere in between these two. It's a multi-storey store, with goods lined up in tall racks sort of like a Home Depot. On the ground floor there are dining utensils, including Western-style cutlery and chopsticks, crockery, glassware, and a bunch of serving utensils, from tea and coffee pots to chafing dishes, pressure cookers and platters of all kinds. Upstairs on the second floor they have baking supplies (the biggest selection I've seen outside of Paris and New York), appliances (including enormous planetary mixers and salamanders), and cleaning supplies, along with pots and pans, and on the third floor there are woks, steaming baskets, and all sorts of other goods. The prices are generally moderate, though imported goods naturally are a bit pricey. I bought a non-stick covered pullman loaf pan for RMB 79 (a bit more than $10) and a sifter for about RMB 30 (less than $5), and will almost surely go back to do some more damage before long.

HEC is located just south of the South 2nd Ring Road in You'anmen, at Kaiyangli. The actual address is Fengtai District, You'anmenwai, 1 Kaiyangli Yi Jie (丰台区右安门外大街开阳里一街一号). Here's a map (in Chinese), and their phone number is (010) 83559988. They even have a website: http://bj.heconline.com.cn (though it's only in Chinese).

 

Preparing for New Zealand

 
In just 12 days we will be winging our way to New Zealand for a long-planned and anticipated holiday down under. After our plans to buy a farm in South Africa fell apart (owing to some clear-eyed reflection on the crime situation in the country, as well as the political instability) we looked at the map and decided that NZ could be a good alternative place to plunk down some cash and buy a house. J2 got busy looking at NZ-based real estate agencies and before long came up with a long list of around 30 properties that fit our needs--priced within our budget, located in interesting areas, and suitable to function as a bed and breakfast or inn. We booked our tickets to leave Beijing on Feb 11, on the non-stop Air New Zealand flight to Auckland and from there on a quick hop to Christchurch on the South Island. After looking around a bit, we decided that we prefer the South Island to the North Island, since it has fewer people (population is less than 1 million on the entire island) and much more beautiful scenery.

We're leaving our itinerary fairly vague, only making plans for the first few days we're in the country. We'll stay overnight in Christchurch the first night and then the next morning we'll drive north along the east coast to the town of Kaikoura, which from the photos looks like the NZ version of Ocean City or some other beach resort. Kaikoura means "Feast of Crayfish" in Maori, and is well known as a place for great shellfish, including South Pacific crayfish, which look to me more like a lobster. We'll have to give them a try! In Kaikoura, we have booked tickets to go on a morning outing with Dolphin Encounter. They take you out on their boat offshore a ways, and there you put on wet suits and snorkel gear and go swimming with dolphins. (Fortunately we found that we brought with us to Beijing our snorkel gear and the underwater housing for my old Canon PowerShot S30 digital camera, so we should have photos to share.) From Kaikoura we have no specific plans, other than to wind up in Oamaru, also on the east coast, but this time 3 hours south of Christchurch, in time for its Food & Wine Festival. And then we're free again until it's time to return to Beijing on Feb 27.

Stay tuned for updates on the trip, and on what we find house-wise there!
 

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Chaine Dinner

 


Last night the Beijing baillage of the Chaîne des Rôtisseurs held its first dinner of 2010 at the Blu Lobster restaurant in the Shangri-La Hotel. Blu Lobster has been considered one of Beijing’s best restaurants since it opened a few years ago, but since the Shangri-La is way out in the western side of town, we have never managed to make it out there. As soon as we heard that the Chaîne would be there we knew we’d have to go, especially since Blu Lobster is one of the restaurants that I was supposed to have sampled as part of my restaurant reviewing responsibilities for the magazine.

Decked out in our dinner jackets and beautiful waistcoats that our tailor made us about a year ago (incidentally, thanks to Alpha, those waistcoats are now so tight that we could barely breathe while wearing them; we’ll have to have them remade) we headed out by cab to the wilds of western Beijing. The hotel had organized circus performers as entertainment during the cocktail hour, so there was a flame thrower outside the entrance and men on stilts parading through the lobby, giving the hotel a rather festive (though incongruous) air. Once we checked in and paid our fee, we were in the restaurant bar nibbling canapés and sipping champagne.

The room is really lovely, with a long crystal light fixture with specks of blue glass undulating through the space, giving it a somewhat marine ambience. They set up three tables--one very long one under the crystal light, and two other, less long ones, in a sort of niche. The tables were covered in black cloth with slabs of granite bearing a slice of brioche-like toast at each setting, along with six glasses and all the cutlery we’d need for the dinner. Once they got the induction of a few new members out of the way, the dinner began.

We started off with a wonderful house-made terrine to go with the slices of brioche that were at our places; the terrine had a great, peppery, flavor that was complemented by the flavor of the accompanying champagne (Jacquesson). After the terrines, the wait staff came around pouring our second wine of the evening, a rosé that had people muttering about the appropriateness of serving rosé at such a dinner. But those murmurs faded when they sampled the wine with the course it was accompanying--a beautiful bowl of oxtail consommé with a single foie gras raviolo floating on top. The consommé had tremendous depth of flavor, and was served at the perfect temperature, so that the foie gras in the raviolo was nearly melted but not quite, and the rosé did a great job of cutting the richness of the dish while also providing some nice accents. Excellent!

Following the consommé we had a dish that was evocative of the restaurant’s name--a lobster thermidor. Each diner was served a whole lobster (not too big, maybe a bit less than a pound each, maybe more), with the tail section separated from the front section (the latter standing up on the plate as though it was rearing up to defend the tail from the diner). The tail was slit down its length so that the meat could be removed while maintaining the shape of the tail, and then was refilled with the lobster thermidor, which was also perfect--superb flavor, with lots of meat and just delectable with the organic Chablis that it was served with.

There was a brief break after the lobster, with a palate-cleansing dish of granny smith apple granité served to the guests. Normally these palate cleansers, I find, are not very interesting in themselves, and while chefs often try to concoct interesting flavor combinations, these often fall flat. But not here. First of all, they served the dish in pyramids of ice into which a spherical alcove was hollowed out in which a scoop of granité was placed. Leading into this alcove was a small tube-shaped hollow into which the servers injected (using an ear syringe, it looked like to me) a small amount of Calvados, which poured over the granité. The granité had amazingly bright flavors, and, perhaps because of the Calvados, was neither too soft nor too hard, but just right. Everyone raved about it. Even the accompanying slices of dried apple were a big hit with the guests.



The main course followed the granité, a small serving of Beef Wellington, served with mashed potatoes and Brussels sprouts, and a Médoc to wash it down. Unlike most institutional beef wellington, this one was not too well done (though, for me, it could have been still rarer), and the puff pastry wrapping was not too soggy. The meat was extremely tender, and the duxelles had a lot of mushroomy flavor that stood up well to the sauce. J2 still believes mine is better (probably he’s right) but this was not at all bad. And the wine was a favorite of most of the people we were sitting with.

Before dessert they served us a cheese course comprising a long, thin slice of Brie de Meaux with a thin truffle layer running the length of each slice. Apparently they take the wheel of brie, slice it longitudinally and cover one half with the truffles before reassembling the cheese and letting it ‘marinate’ for a week (I know this because each diner was given a small book containing the night’s menu and recipes for each of the dishes). The truffles did not really add much flavor to the cheese, we found, but they did add an intoxicating aroma. And the little slice of toasted panforte that accompanied the cheese was just the right thing for it.

Finally, dessert was served--individual portions of Baked Alaska that had flaming sauce poured over at each setting. Frankly, this would not have been my choice of dessert for this dinner--I would have served something lemony to provide a bit of acid to put a coda to the very rich dishes that preceded, but the Alaska was very good (most people finished their portions, and the portions were pretty big). And the Sauternes that came with it was delicious, though I’d have preferred a Tokaji.

There was not a dud among the dishes served the entire evening, and we sat with some lovely people, our Danish friend Michael (whose wife was off skiing) and some of his friends, who made for a lively and fun conversation to go along with the meal. We got home at around 12:30, not too late really. But the dinner was not really over yet! As we left the hotel they gave all the guests a gift bag that I saw this morning contained a large Brioche Mousseline that was intended to be part of our breakfast the next day! I had noticed the brioche on the menu, and wondered when they would be able to fit it into the meal, never thinking that it would be for the next day. It made for an excellent French toast!
 

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Long Time, No Post

 
Sorry for the absence of posts lately! There's not been that much worth reporting about here, so I have been a bit remiss. Apologies! I will just write now to say that things are all well with us, though we are suffering through a lengthy cold snap here in Beijing that shows no signs of abating. Also, I had my first encounter with a "counterfeit cab" the other night. After waiting for a really long time for a cab after the gym, when one finally came I jumped right in, since I was just so cold. I told him where to go, and asked him (as always) to close his window, which was wide open. But when he did so, he first reached up to the roof and pulled in his taxi sign from the roof, which it seems was only stuck on by a magnet and wired to his dashboard somehow. That seemed odd, so I asked him if he was really a cab, which he answered in the affirmative. But all during the trip he kept peering at me in his rearview mirror, and when we got to my usual place to have cabs drop me off the fare was RMB 3 more than usual. Also, he did not take the extra RMB 1 that the city has imposed since late last year to compensate drivers for the high price of fuel. Lastly, when I got out and he drove off, I noticed that his license plate did not have the "B" that all other cabs have, instead it had a "P" like a regular car. So clearly he was a fake cab, though he had the meter, the sign and the other trappings of a cab, other than the inspection card inside, which was missing. I'm glad he did not try to kill me or anything (though maybe he was sizing me up while looking in the rearview mirror!).

We're off to a Chaine dinner tonight at Blu Lobster, at the Shangri-La Hotel way out in the western side of town, so I'll probably report about that tomorrow or soon thereafter. Till then!
 

Friday, December 25, 2009

Book Review: Born Round

 
Some months ago I bought a Kindle, the electronic book reader sold by Amazon. The Kindle makes reading (and buying) books so easy, that lately I have been plowing through a good number of books, especially since I have the Kindle app on my iPhone, which allows me to read my books when I'm stuck in traffic in Beijing (not a rare thing) or otherwise have a few moments to spare. In recent weeks I have read a bunch of food-related books, spurred by our having watched "Julie and Juia" on the flight from Beijing to the US in November. So first I read the book "Julie/Julia", and then Julia Child's memoir, "My Life in France", followed by David Lebovitz's "The Sweet Life in Paris", which is a combination memoir/cookbook, as was the next book I read, Molly Wizenberg's "A Homemade Life".

More or less keeping to the food theme, my latest book was the one that spoke to me most deeply. Frank Bruni, the former NY Times restaurant reviewer, came out with a memoir this year called "Born Round" that chronicles his life within his Italian-American family and his development as a leading light at the Times, while also covering his struggles with his weight that plagued him throughout his life. According to his book, Frank had a difficult time with food and controlling his urge to binge from a young age, toying with bulimia, amphetamines and diet pills, overdoses of laxatives and other extreme methods of controlling his tendency to gain weight, while also struggling with other demons in his life.

Without really realizing it, Frank went from being a champion swimmer in high school (a sport her pursued largely as a means of burning the extra calories that he could not help himself from consuming) to being a 268 pound fat guy who went to such extremes as having his book jacket photo Photoshopped beyond recognition in order not to let his old friends and family see how much he had let himself go to seed. The end of this cycle finally came when Maureen Dowd signed Frank up for two sessions with her personal trainer in DC, who forced Frank to exercise regularly and eat more sensibly, leading him to shed the excess weight surprisingly quickly and then providing the additional scrutiny he needed to keep from backsliding. Then, just in the middle of this major change, he got moved to Italy, a place where the food-obsessed could easily fall back into bad habits. Fortunately, Frank had reached the point where his fear of losing his new-won fitness (and the concomitant love life it opened up for him) outweighed his desire to eat all the things that were within easy reach. And then, as though to offer even more temptation, he won a job that would require him to eat out daily at the best restaurants that New York has to offer. However, his will power remained strong and he made through the stint as svelte as when he started.

As someone who also had struggles with weight (though I freely admit that my "problem" was nowhere near as bad as Frank's, though my own body image was probably just as bad as his) this spoke very loudly to me. Looking at old photos of myself now I can hardly believe I let myself get so out of shape, and I thank my friend here in Beijing who signed me up for my first personal trainer session, leading to the transformation that I am still in the middle of. Like Frank, though, my new gig as a restaurant reviewer came tinged with fear that I would revert to my old ways, so I am even more determined to keep to my rowing and training routine (with Pilates thrown in occasionally), and so far, it has been successful.

This was one of the better books I have read recently, and if you're at all interested in food criticism, body transformation or the lives of Italian-Americans, it is a book I would highly recommend.
 

Monday, December 21, 2009

A Restaurant Review--Capital M

 
This past Saturday night we went out to dinner with our friends Michael and Sandra (whom we know through the Chaine des Rotisseurs) at a new restaurant in town, the very fancy Capital M. Capital M is part of the same group that opened M on the Bund in Shanghai several years ago, which was one of the first fancy Western restaurants to open in Shanghai in recent years. I went to M on the Bund once many years ago when my old childhood friend, Debbie, came to Shanghai with her son on a study tour. It was a fantastic restaurant, with an interesting menu and a phenomenal view across the Huangpu River toward the still-under-construction Pudong skyline.

Capital M is very much in the same vein as M on the Bund. It has a very prominent and desirable location on the Qianmen pedestrian street just to the south of Tian'anmen Square. I can only imagine the negotiations that the restaurant had to go through to get such a prime spot, but they were worth it, since there is really nowhere else where you can get such a good view of Tiananmen and Qianmen, which, when all lit up at night, really make an impressive backdrop to your meal. The only downside of this location is that Beijing's byzantine traffic rules make getting there really difficult, since there is almost nowhere nearby where a cab can stop, and the one-way road system lobbies against anyone arriving from the east, where most of Beijing's expat population mostly lives.

But once you get to the restaurant, you forget all that nonsense and can just enjoy the ambience, the service and, of course, the meal. Typical of Chinese restaurants, or any business in China, really, the place is lousy with employees, and though they clearly went through extensive training, they have a ways to go in some respects. Since J2 and I arrived before our friends, we were asked if we wanted to wait at the bar or at the table. We chose to wait at the table, and were seated at a table in the middle of the room with a decent view out the windows toward the Square. However, after sitting for a while, with waiters passing by constantly from all directions, not one of them thought to ask if we wanted to see a menu. Finally the foreign maitre d' noticed our situation and brought us menus and the wine list, and a little bowl of chips to munch on while waiting. Also, someone came to pour us some water. Interestingly, they serve their non-bottled water out of an antique silver teapot, which was a nice touch, I thought, and in keeping with the overall decor of the place, which is heavy on art deco elements. As the waiter poured our water, ever so slowly and carefully, as though it was the first time he had ever done so, he still managed to knock things over on the table while pouring. Oh, well.

As part of our effort to get into the NZ frame of mind, we ordered glasses of Marlborough Pinot Noir, which were very good indeed, and sipped those while looking around at our surroundings. The floor of the restaurant has a nice mosaic pattern that is very Art Deco, and there are some interesting murals on the wall, though I don't think they really suit the room. But the ceiling! The ceiling is a horror! I don't know what they were thinking when they chose the ceiling for this place, but it was a non-descript, unattractive, sort of faux pressed-tin ceiling that did not relate to anything. And as for our fellow diners, most of them were, surprisingly, Chinese, including a table of four who sat in their coats for the entire evening (it was not cold in the room, though it was frigid outside).

Eventually our friends arrived and we got down to ordering. The menu is very long, and is printed in a font that is not all that easy to read, but once you get used to it, it's manageable. There were two starters that grabbed me--a roasted marrow bone with onion rings and a red wine reduction, or a twice-cooked crispy pigeon with boudin noir and harissa--but I chose the latter, while J2 chose a dish of tortelli filled with ricotta and spinach. (Our friends had shellfish bisque and a salad.) The pigeon was excellent, with a nicely spiced crispy skin served on a rich black pudding. The tortelli were also very good, though not as interesting. For main courses J2 had "couscous royale" made with three meats and seven vegetables, which I found lacking in flavor, while I had their famous crispy suckling pig, served with roasted root vegetables and baked apple. It was simply astounding--the skin was done perfectly, with a lot of flavor and wonderful contrast between the crispy skin and the juicy flesh. It was totally worth the additional session on the stationary rower that I will have to do to work it off. (Our friends had an Iranian duck stew that was also delicious, and a dish of gnocchi that I did not try.)

While we were waiting for our friends we perused the wine list and chose a bottle of Australian Terra Rossa 2003 Coonawarra cabernet sauvignon that seemed promising, but Michael is more knowledgeable about wine, so I suggested that he choose. He ended up choosing an Australian wine, too, the 2005 Dead Arm d'Arenberg shiraz, which was exceptional. When that was finished we ordered the bottle that I had picked out, which was very weak in comparison.

We could hardly pass up dessert (especially since, as part of my new gig as a panelist on the restaurant awards for one of the expat magazines in Beijing, I am supposed to try all courses that a restaurant offers), so we didn't. I had something that I normally would not have ordered, but that had been recommended by several people--their "famous" pavlova with fruit, while J2 had the soft chocolate pudding with ice cream and chocolate slivers. The pavlova was very, very big, though I took solace in the knowledge that meringue is pretty light, as desserts go, and it was also very good, much better than J2's dessert, I thought, which I might normally have gone for myself.

With our coffee and tea they served a little dish of petits fours that included one of the best chocolate things I have had in recent memory--dark chocolate surrounding a crispy center that had a sort of honey-ish flavor, but I could not really place it.

Overall, we really enjoyed our evening at Capital M, though it was not without its failings. The bill when it came, was within the realm of what I thought it would cost to eat here, though perhaps on the high end of that scale. I figured out why that was when I saw the breakdown on the bill, and noticed that the Dead Arm wine was RMB 2,145 a bottle ($320 or so). That's quite a bit more than we normally spend on a bottle of wine, though now that we know what such a pricey bottle can taste like, maybe we need to change that policy!

I would happily go back to Capital M anytime someone wants to treat me, or we have something to celebrate.
 

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

My New Sideline

 
A few months ago I went to a talk at Black Sesame Kitchen by Sandra Huang, a food blogger whose blog, Savourasia.com I read regularly for restaurant recommendations in Beijing. Her talk was attended mostly by friends of mine from work, so we got to chat with Sandra quite a lot, and she and I arranged to go to J2's and my little dumpy Sichuan restaurant a few weeks afterwards. Not long after that dinner (which went very well), Sandra arranged to introduce me to Lillian Chou, a former food editor with Gourmet magazine who moved to Beijing earlier in the year to learn Chinese (so she left the magazine before it closed down), since Lillian was looking for people to revitalize the food section of Time Out Beijing, a local events magazine catering to the expatriate population, of which she is also the food editor.

Lillian and I hit it off right away. She is a fast talking New Yorker like me, full of interesting stories (read: gossip) about the food industry, which she has been involved in for 20 years or so, both as a chef in places like Paris, Seoul, and New York and as a writer. After our conversation, I managed to angle myself into a role as a restaurant reviewer for the magazine! The very next night Lillian and I went to a newly opened restaurant near my apartment (I'm being vague since the review has not yet come out) so that she and I could experience the food together and then she could look at my review knowing what the food was actually like. I had to keep to within 400 words, which was a real challenge, but I managed to do it and stay within the magazine's style manual, which is a bit odd. She had a very quick deadline for this particular review, so we really churned it on through, but we did it. And I guess it was OK, since last night we went to another restaurant (this time with J2 tagging along) that I'll review for a later issue. Lucky for me, both restaurants were actually very good, too, though she assures me that this will not always be the case.

As it turns out Lillian also worked on Jim Lahey's book My Bread, from which I have been baking ever since I returned from my last US trip. The day we met I was actually in the midst of preparing a new recipe from that book, so I asked her for some pointers. In the course of this I learned that she has no oven in her apartment, so I shared my loaf with her (it turned out pretty well).

It's great to have a new friend in town, especially one who is as interested in food issues as I am. I have offered her the use of my oven and kitchen if she needs a larger place to prepare recipes in, and she has invited me to all sorts of culinary and social events around town. Seems like the beginning of a beautiful friendship!
 

Taxi Driver Doctor

 
I have surely mentioned before that one of my main complaints about taxi riding in Beijing in the winter is the need to ask drivers to close their windows all the time. Today as I left work the cab that picked me up, after I had waited in the cold on the street for several minutes, had its window open so I asked the driver to close it. He looked back at me through the mirror with a sort of querulous look, and I knew that he was thinking to himself "this guy has a runny nose, it is not safe to close the window", but I reiterated the request before he could say anything. He grudgingly closed the window, but it was still quite cold in the car, even with my LL Bean down coat zipped to my chin, a wool hat on my head and a scarf around my neck, so I asked him if the heater was on. Indeed it was not, and again he was reluctant to turn it on, but this time he said to me "ni gan mao le", which means "you have a cold". I answered by saying I do not have a cold, I have just been standing in the cold and it's cold in the car, and if he doesn't turn the heat on I will catch a cold. Well, this did not sit with him at all, so he sort of snorted at me. At this point I asked if he was a doctor. Of course he was not, so I said that I work in healthcare and think that I have a good handle on what's a cold and what's not, and what can and cannot cause a cold to worsen. He asked if I'm a doctor, and I figured the easiest way to shut him up was to say yes, but then he asked me what my specialty was. I told him I am a family practitioner, which again elicited a snort from him (there is no such thing in China, where instead every doctor is a specialist), and the question what my specialty is. I explained that I specialize in all general ailments, so he asked if I am a surgeon or not. I told him 'not', so he snorted again, disparaging my qualifications to make a prognosis based on my limited knowledge. He then asked if I trained overseas or in China, and was not at all impressed that I trained in the US.

Of course, I was very offended that he did not respect my medical degree or my qualification to make a medical diagnosis, but before long I remembered that in fact I have no medical degree at all. But then again, neither did he, nor any other taxi driver I have driven with, and yet they all seem to know that they are going to die of a cold if a passenger with a runny nose gets in a car with closed windows.