Monday, March 30, 2009


One of the oddities of life in China is the fact that the government decides whether or not you need heat. On one end of the spectrum is the fact that the powers that be have decreed that southern China does not need any form of heating at all, so houses south of the Yangtze River (which divides the country into north and south) are not heated. That's fine if you're in a place like Guangzhou (quite a bit south of the river) but another thing if you live in Nanjing (on the southern shore of the river).

Luckily, Beijing is to the north of the river, so we get heat, but they decree when the heat is turned on. In general, the heat only comes on on November 15, which is usually a few weeks after you'd like to have it on, and then it goes off on March 15, which often is before you'd like it gone. Luckily this year the weather had warmed up by March 15, so we did not mind that we had no heat, but all of a sudden this past weekend the temperature took a big downturn and we found ourselves shivering in our living room.

Luckily for us, though, our apartment has air conditioners in all the rooms that can also act as heaters; the only problem of course is that they use a lot of electricity, so it gets expensive to use. But we were cold enough to go for it, so I turned the big unit in the living room on on Sunday morning. After a minute or two, though, the thing had shut off, so I had to reset the circuit breaker, but then it went off again. After resetting the circuit breaker a few times I realized there was something serious the matter so I summoned the repair guys over. Turns out that the electrical outlet had melted where the a/c plugs in, and when the guy checked the wires he realized that the wire is not continuous between the fuse box and the outlet, so clearly there is a bad connection in the wall somewhere. This means we'll have to tear up the walls, apparently, which was more of a job than we could do on a Sunday, so we had to grimace and bear the cold without the help of modern appliances.

Today is cold once again, but the weather is supposed to warm up later in the week, so now we have to hope that the a/c is fixed in time for the hot weather to descend once again.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Another Chaîne Dinner

Tonight was the first dinner of the Chaîne des Rôtisseurs, the gourmet club that I joined several years ago, of 2009 here in Beijing. The venue this time around was the Swisôtel, which is conveniently located just a short walk away from our apartment. The theme of the dinner was "Swiss Passion" (something I might have considered an oxymoron previously). In fact the meal was really very good, though I'm not sure that it was really particularly Swiss (nor especially passionate).

Now that we have been to a good number of these dinners, we know a lot more people who attend them than we used to, and are greeted with enthusiasm by our fellow members, most of whom, though by no means all, are in the hotel business. A very large number of them have become patients of our hospital as a result of having met J2, so in fact it's quite a good marketing venture. And the fact that we get to eat great food and drink great wine (and wear our fancy black tie outfits while doing so) is just icing on the cake.

The meal is not really particularly worth describing, really, since the words are not up to the task of describing the meal. But the courses were interesting, and in particular two of them--a course of lobster bisque early in the meal, and a dessert course that comprised a dome of chocolate onto which they poured a small amount of hot chocolate sauce, melting the dome and causing it to break, revealing a tuile, some ice cream, and a raspberry-laden sauce underneath--were standouts.

The wines at the dinner were all Swiss, other than a champagne at the beginning and a rosé champagne at the end, and it's safe to say that there's a reason why there is no Swiss wine section in any wine shop outside of Switzerland, though the first wine, a sweet wine that they served with a course comprising three takes on the theme of foie gras, was excellent.

But the best part of the meal was not actually part of the food or wine. The best part was a surprise that they kept quiet about until the very end. Prior to the dinner, we were all asked to submit our Chinese names to the hosts, for reasons that they said would become clear at the dinner. I expected to see some sort of an engraved place setting or something, since they often give door prizes at these dinners, but there was nothing there when we arrived. But when they served the coffee at the end, the servers came round with lovely boxes, each containing an engrossed version of the night's menu, along with a Chinese name chop bearing the seal of the Chaîne and with our Chinese names. It was easily the nicest gift of any Chaîne dinner I have attended.

The dinner proceeded at a very leisurely pace, so even though it began at 7pm we were not done until 12:30am (and even then the meal was not quite finished, as they were just putting out the little sweets to accompany the coffee course when we decided we could not take anymore). But it was a very fun evening, and we'll look forward to the next one, at a location to be determined in June.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

New Airport Rankings Released

Prague's Franz Kafka International Named World's Most Alienating Airport

The Roads of Beijing Just Got a Little Bit Less Safe

A few weeks ago I reported that I was going to take the Chinese driving test. Well, today was the big day, and I had a 2pm appointment at the Foreign Affairs division of the Beijing Road Safety division of the Public Security Bureau to take the exam. Luckily, there is no need for foreigners to take a road test; all we have to do is take the written exam, which is administered on a computer.

The BRS of the PSB is in the middle of nowhere on the Southern Fourth Ring Road, so not knowing how long the process would take, nor how long it would take to get back to work, I just took half a day's annual leave to cover the time. As it turns out, I got there rather quickly, and once I got to the testing room the whole exam took me less than 20 minutes.

I was far from the only person taking the test; aside from me there were several other North Americans, some Europeans, a few Middle Easterners, and a smattering of Asians, including some overseas Chinese. I was initially wondering what a foreigner whose command of English or Chinese is poor would do, but it turns out that the computer gives you a choice of several languages to take the exam in, including Russian, German, French, Arabic, Korean, Japanese and Chinese (in both simplified and traditional forms). I opted to take the exam in Chinglish, which is the same language that the book I studied from was written in.

The course comprises 100 questions, and you must get a score of 90 or better to pass. In the cab on the way to the test I boned up on the questions that I found the most difficult--those having to do with what the fine is for various infractions, what length of time a license can be revoked for, and what speed is considered the maximum in certain situations. Thank goodness I did that, since several of those questions appeared on the test, along with numerous questions along the lines of "While driving on a high-speed motorway, which of the following is true: a) you can make U-turns, reverse, and stop at any place you like, b) you may drive at any speed you like, or c) you must follow the speed limit, and may not make U-turns, reverse or stop except in designated places".

The only problem with the test is that the questions are worded so awkwardly that you really have to think what were they trying to say when they came up with the question. One question (which I got wrong) showed a blue circular sign that had a white image of an adult walking with a child. The question was: "Ture (sic) or False: This sign is a warning that there are pedestrians in the area". I selected "ture", but that was wrong; this is not a warning sign but rather an information sign. I really don't see how not knowing the distinction between a warning sign and an information sign would make any practical difference, but that's the test for you.

I had one question to answer about what the correct procedure is in the event that you do hit a pedestrian and you find that the pedestrian is not breathing (the choices were, I believe: a) ignore it and continue on your way; b) clean up the scene so that there is no evidence of your being involved and then continue on your way; or c) loosen the victim's collar and belt and hope for the best").

I ended up with a score of 91, so good enough for Beijing's roads. I now have to go through the agency that arranged everything to pick up the document some time next week. On the way back from the test to civilization I observed countless examples of people not following the rules that I had spent so much time memorizing, and then when I stopped at a friend's shop and mentioned that I had just taken my driver's test TWO of the Chinese staff there said that they just bought their licenses without ever having taken the test (much less a driving lesson). Ah, China....

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Spring at Last

Generally in the winter here in Beijing I start to get tired of the cold weather, and having to tell every cab driver who takes me anywhere to close their windows, and the frigid buildings that would be warm if they would just keep the front doors closed (not to mention the windows), and start counting how long it'll be before the weather will finally warm up. Usually I figure that sometime in March that seasonal change will take place, and I'm very happy to report that it has arrived! This past week has been much warmer than Beijing has been since October or so, warm enough even to go without a jacked on Wednesday (though that was also the day of a sand storm, so not the nicest of days, really).

Now all we have to worry about is whether there will be more sand storms (a probability, given the serious drought Beijing has been experiencing) and when will the heat and humidity of summer arrive.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

"Pole" Dancing

A few weeks ago, one of my colleagues told me that she had been to a wine tasting on the weekend with a bunch of friends and tried a wine that she particularly liked. We got to talking, and she ended up letting me know that they were having another wine tasting, featuring Southern Hemisphere wines, on the 14th, and invited J2 and me to attend. They structure the wine tasting rather informally, and each participant brings a dish, so she asked me to bring a dessert (not a surprise, since she's familiar with my baking from the things I bring to work regularly).

The venue was the home of two of my colleague's friends not far from our place, a lovely Polish couple, of whom the wife turned out to be a phenomenal cook. As the other guests started to arrive, we noticed that the majority of other guests were all Polish, though with a smattering of French and Spanish thrown in for good measure. The oenologist who leads the wine tasting is an Israeli guy who studied wines in France, so we really had quite a range of nationalities present.

When the tasting began, the wine guy asked for someone at the table to brief the newcomers on how to taste, but people were a bit reticent. That quickly disappeared as the wine started to flow, and indeed people got pretty wild with a LOT of laughter breaking out regularly (in particular, the wine guy's attempt to explain the concept of maceration without touching skin led to a long bout of hilarity, wholly due to the funny sound of the word "maceration").

We ate through the tasting, and had really good dishes, among which were homemade Polish pickles, excellent hummus and other dips, fantastic (and spicy!) salads, and an outstanding moussaka. When eventually we had got through the wines (which included one corked bottle, FYI) we were finally up for dessert, which fortunately turned out pretty well (I made a croissant-walnut-raisin bread pudding that was featured in this past Wednesday's San Francisco Chronicle). We also had servings of zubrowka mixed with apple juice, which was pretty tasty.

At the end of the evening people started to dance and one of the guests, a particularly outgoing woman named Kasha, insisted that I dance with her despite my protestations (and J2's confirmations) that I cannot dance. Well, she would not be deterred, and I ended up dancing with her to "Son of a Preacher Man" which turned out not to be quite as bad as I thought. We arranged to meet up with one of the other guests next week, and we look forward to the next tasting, sometime in April. Fun evening.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Fuchsia Dunlop Talk

Whenever I would go to London I would make a practice of visiting the city's bookstores, and usually managed to find some interesting things at Waterstone's on Oxford Street. Many years ago during one such visit, they had a new book on Sichuan cookery called, mysteriously, "Sichuan Cookery", by a writer with the name Fuchsia Dunlop. I would not normally have put much store in a book on Chinese cuisine by someone with a non-Chinese name, but for whatever reason I picked up the book and started leafing through it. Perhaps it was the fact that the book starts out with about 60 pages of introduction about the different cooking methods and ingredients used in Sichuan cooking, or the fact that it had recipes for many of my favorite Sichuan dishes, or maybe it was the fact that the recipes seemed to be extremely authentic, but whatever prompted me to do it, I bought the book. This book quickly became one my favorite cookbooks, and it has become extremely stained and dogeared over the years. I have given copies of it as gifts to some of my foodie friends, and several other friends (including Chinese friends) have asked for copies of the recipes from the book. The mapo tofu from this book has proved to be the best I have ever had, and in fact nothing I have made from the book has disappointed.

Having become a huge fan of this book, I started to look for other things that Fuchsia had worked on, and found that she is a contributor to the Financial Times and other British publications. I even wrote to her about some Chinese cuisine question that I had, and was surprised that a friendly correspondence with her ensued, during which she told me that she was soon to come out with a book on another of my favorite Chinese cuisines, that of Hunan province. I dutifully pre-ordered that book, and while it has not turned into as much of a go-to book for me (largely due to the fact that I'm not as familiar with Hunan cuisine as I am with Sichuan), it is a great read. I also bought and read her memoir on her unlikely journey from the UK to the Sichuan Culinary Academy ("Sharks Fin and Sichuan Pepper" is its title), which was also a great book.

So it was with a great deal of excitement that I learned that Fuchsia would be giving a talk about her memoir and other books at the Beijing International Literary Festival held at the Bookworm bookstore. The talk was held on Friday at noon, and was remarkably well attended. It appeared that a good portion of the audience were already fans of Fuchsia's books, and had copies in hand for her to autograph, while others were new to her work. The talk was very interesting and funny, and when it was over I queued up for her to sign my copy of SIchuan Cookery, which she noted looked very well used. My friend, meanwhile, bought her memoir, from which Fuchsia read some especially amusing excerpts.

Now I find myself craving a dish of her mapo tofu and Zhong dumplings. Guess I'll have to whip up a batch.