Sunday, May 25, 2008

Another Dinner Party

The mourning period ended on Thursday, so we were not forced to cancel a dinner party that we had scheduled for Saturday evening. This time, we invited a bunch of our younger friends, including our personal trainer, Alpha, and his wife Diana; an Italian colleague from work, Antonio; a Brazilian colleague from work, Digo, and his journalist partner, Gil; a friend of mine from college who now runs an international veterinary clinic here, Mary; new friends from the US embassy, Melinda and Jay; and another new friend, another Brazilian journalist friend of Digo and Gil. The theme this time was the cuisine of the Mediterranean, with all the recipes bar one coming from a book I bought recently called "From Artichoke to Za'atar", by an Australian chef of Lebanese descent. The menu ranged all over the place, as you can see below:

Cocktail Hour:
- Hummus
- Baba Ghanouj
- Sambusek (Egyptian pastries filled with spinach, feta, and hazelnuts, served with a lemony mayonnaise)

- Moroccan Harira (chickpea soup with lentils and garlic-sauteed prawns)
- Bisteeya (Moroccan chicken-sugar-and-cinnamon pie in phyllo; the one recipe not from the book)
- Squid stuffed with Pork and Pistachios (I called this Portuguese, not sure where it's from)
- Lamb Kifte in a Tomato-Egg sauce
- Spring Vegetable "Pae-otto" (it was served like paella, but cooked like risotto)

- Baklava (oh, this recipe was not from the book, either)
- Burnt Honey Ice Cream

Pretty much everything tasted good, though the standouts were the hummus and baba ghanouj, the bisteeya (always a favorite when I serve it) and the lamb. The squid was just a bit dull, even with a preserved-lemon aioli served with it. But best of all were the desserts--the ice cream was sensational, if I do say so myself!

The group, though eclectic, worked pretty well. Interestingly, Alpha and Diana were a bit surprised that there was no occasion being celebrated--they figured who'd go to the trouble to make such a big meal when it wasn't someone's birthday or something?

Monday, May 19, 2008

Mourning Period

This morning I noticed a small note on the top of someone's newspaper announcing that the central government had called for a three-day period of mourning starting today at 2:28pm (the time of the earthquake in Wenchuan last week), starting with a three-minute period of silence. We sent out a notice to the staff informing them of this plan, and just like clockwork, at 2:28, a siren was heard near our office. But instead of being silent, drivers, train conductors, and factory managers were told to sound their horns, sirens, whistles, etc. The result was an amazing cacophony of noise that made the annual Chinese New Year celebrations seem pallid.

I was particularly surprised by the outpouring of emotion that I saw among my colleagues. To my jaded American eyes, the whole thing seemed overly stage-managed, and not at all genuine, but nonetheless my Chinese colleagues were crying their eyes out, as though on cue, but then when the three minutes ended, they returned to normal. As a cynical New Yorker, I was put in mind of The Stepford Wives.

Also rather odd to me was the implementation of the mourning period, since within a few hours of the "silence" I got a note from our personal trainer with the news that the government had told his gym to close for three days as part of the mourning. I could not see the connection between a health club and the mourning, but he told me that the gym was considered an "entertainment venue" and so was to close. But later on, he said they relaxed that ruling, so they'd be open this evening (but maybe not tomorrow). When J2 went to work out after work, he reported that all the non-news channels were no longer accessible on the TVs, and that they were not allowed to listen to music. During my drive home, the radio in the cab was tuned to the only show available--a hectoring program about how the heroic Chinese people were working as one to help the poor victims of the earthquake under the noble leadership of Hu Jintao and company. It again all rang very hollow and forced to me, but I'm perhaps not the target audience.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Back to the Chaine

Until about a year and a half ago, we had been members of the Chaine des Rotisseurs, a gourmet club that was originally established as the French goose-roasting guild back in 1248. The Chaine organizes all-out dinners at which members generally wear black tie and a god-awful sash that denotes their rank in the organization (I'm a chevalier, so I have purple). We let the membership lapse for a couple of reasons, but by chance we ran into a member a few weeks ago and he tempted us into reactivating. Last night (May 17, coincidentally my sister's birthday--Happy Birthday, D!), was our first dinner back with the group, and it seems a fitting subject for a post.

The Beijing dinners are almost always held at a hotel, and tonight was no different, as the dinner was thrown by the new JW Marriott Hotel, which according to the general manager (who gave a speech at the beginning of the meal, in bold defiance of the Chaine's supposedly-strict "no speeches" policy) is the 3,000th hotel in the Marriott group. It seems that they wanted to show off the talents of the chefs from all the hotel's restaurants, and they came up with a relatively clever theme--since the chefs are from all over the world, they had a "Global Chef's Dinner" with each course bearing the signature of the country of origin of the relevant chef. Here's the menu:

Cocktail Hour (Chefs from China, Vietnam, Thailand and India)
-Mini Peking Duck
-Tuna Tartare
-Shrimp Mousse
-Beef Tikka
-Prawns on Sugarcane

Starter (Russian chef)
-Caviar and blini "Tsarskie" served with Stolichnaya Elite Vodka

Seafood Starter (French chef)
-Pan-Seared Scallop (huge) with Creamy Leek Saffron Sauce, served with 2005 Domaine du Moulin Granger Sancerre

Main Course (Round One, Austrian Chef)
-Roasted Venison Loin with Brussels Sprouts and Blackberry Sauce, served with 2004 Prieler Schuetzner Stein

Main Course (Round Two, US Chef)
-Grilled Angus Beef Tenderloin, Wild Mushrooms, Cauliflower Puree, Cabernet Reduction, served with 2004 Hess Allomi Cabernet Sauvignon

Dessert (German Chef)
-German Black Bread Souffle, Baumkuchen Creme Brulee, Candied Yogurt Sorbet, Rhubarb Pear Jam, served with 2000 Kirchheimer Roemerstrasse Scheurebe Eiswein

The meal was great, though the service was painfully slow (but they had 115 guests, so I imagine it was a logistical challenge). Our table included four other people, including three Chinese who coincidentally are responsible for a very upscale restaurant located across the street from our apartment, who invited us to come visit them sometime soon for a "special" dinner. We just may have to take them up on that offer!

(Oh, and by the way, despite the apparent relaxation of press strictures in connection with the recent and tragic earthquake, for which incidentally our hospital is sending doctors, supplies, money and clothing) I see that the Chinese net nanny has now chosen to block access to the site for posting blogs (used to be they only blocked access to read the blogs that were hosted by them). Of course, I know a way around this...

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

It was an earthquake

Well, it turns out I'm not crazy after all! That really was an earthquake I felt yesterday! According to the news reports, the epicenter was 60 miles from Chengdu, in Sichuan Province, way far away from Beijing, though the shocks were felt as far away as Shanghai, Hong Kong, Bangkok and, yes, Beijing. News reports also say that around 10,000 people are dead from the tremor, and that the government is doing all it can to help those affected.

So this year we've had massive snowstorms in the winter in parts of the country that don't usually get any snow, rain and cold in Beijing in May, huge protests in Tibet, and now a big earthquake. Is anyone else wondering whether the Olympics people are starting to wonder about their choice (and whether the Mandate of Heaven has perhaps been lost...)?

In any event, we're fine here in our little part of the Workers' Paradise, and today I'm off to Shanghai for a week. Thanks for all your concern, to those of you who wrote to see if we needed help digging out.

Monday, May 12, 2008


I'm not 100% sure, but it appears that Beijing just had a mini-earthquake. I was sitting in my fourth-floor office meeting with a colleague when all of a sudden I felt sort of like the room was spinning. Since I had not had any alcohol at lunch, I thought that maybe I was having the beginnings of a food poisoning attack or something, but the person I was meeting with asked if I felt the building was shaking. Others in our building felt it, too, and left for the outside just in case. I am braving the tremors and staying put. If you don't hear from me in the near future, you'll know I'm under a pile of rubble, so please send help.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Blame it on the Olympics!

The Olympics are only around 90ish days away, and the city is frantically trying to get ready for the Big Event. At the same time, every day or so, a new annoying rule comes into action or previously ignored annoying rules are announced to be about to be reinforced. As an example, the rule that foreigners must carry their passports at all times is now being enforced, with the result that police are stopping foreigners and asking to see their papers; if you cannot present them on the spot, they will take you to wherever you tell them your passport is to see it for themselves, and if there is something amiss, you will have to go to the police station. The requirement that guests register at the police station is also similarly being enforced again.

Now those rules can be argued to have some connection to the Olympics--they are designed to make sure that people are not in China illegally and so perhaps it can be seen as a security measure. But not all of the newly enforced rules have such a connection. For instance, we were recently told at the hospital that an iron gate between two of our buildings that traditionally is left unlocked must now be locked. And even more weirdly, the rule that a representative could handle an employee's application to the tax department to get a statement that their income tax was paid has been suspended, so now the applicant must go himself, which means that our employees who want to wire money to their overseas accounts must schlep to the tax bureau to get the paperwork they need. Very annoying.

There are countless similar rules going around, and more and more things are "blamed" on the Olympics. Did Athenians go through this, or Atlantans? What about the Barcelonians and the Seoulniks? Somehow I doubt it...

Sunday, May 04, 2008

No S**t

One of our favorite restaurants in Beijing is conveniently located right behind our apartment complex. We discovered it on our second night in Beijing, and we have found that it makes about the best Sichuan food of any place in town, though it is rather on the grungy side. One of our friends who recently moved to Beijing has also taken a liking to this restaurant, and will occasionally ask us to accompany her there for an order of one of their stand-out dishes, "water-boiled fish", which is actually fish that is poached in chili-laced oil. It's a great dish, and made particularly well there.

Anyway, during one of our recent visits to the restaurant we took a couple of other friends along and spent enough time there that I eventually wanted to visit the men's room, which I had never done before. When I went in there I was confronted by one of the oddest sights I have ever seen in a men's room anywhere, in China or elsewhere. In place of a normal toilet, or even a "squatty" there was a large sink on the floor. No sooner did I wonder how you would flush the sink after using it than I noticed the sign above that reads (my translation) "no pooping". Against another wall in the men's room was a plastic bag-lined trash bin that has a sign above it that reads "vomit pool". Luckily what I went there to do had nothing to do with either of those signs, but I found them very amusing, and had our friend, whose Chinese is far better than mine, check it out to make sure I had understood them right. She came back laughing and insisting that we bring a camera on our next visit to record these signs for posterity. So yesterday we went and here are the photos.

Friday, May 02, 2008

May Day

Yesterday was the May Day holiday in China. This year, for the first time in a while, this is only meant to be a one-day holiday instead of a three-day "Golden Holiday", though because it fell on a Thursday people are also getting today off, and in exchange they have to work on Sunday. Luckily, our hospital does not follow this practice, so we had to work on Friday.

We spent our May Day in the traditional Chinese way--shopping. A great new cooking supply store opened not far from our place in the Sanlitun district, so we popped in there for a visit, and we also went to the Friendship Store to pick up a linen tablecloth for our dining table. We even discovered a shop that makes custom made shoes, which I decided to give a shot (since getting good shoes that fit here is a big problem). Also, for the first time since last autumn we got around by bike instead of cab, so we even got a bit of exercise while doing this.

To cap the day off, we had dinner at Morel's, the city's landmark Belgian restaurant, with colleagues from work, for a great meal of beer, fresh white asparagus and mussels. How better to spend the workers' holiday?