Dumplings

Dumplings

When I lay me down to sleep, visions of dumplings dance in my head.

No joke; images of these steamed pillows of joy have invaded my subconscious. I never thought it possible that my pizza obsession would meet such serious competition, but I could eat dumplings every day. (Some weeks, I do.) And my enthusiasm seems to be contagious. It’s clearly infected Little Dude already, who occasionally runs around at lunchtime shouting “Dumplings! Dumplings!”

Xiao Long Bao were the first to win my heart. These heavenly bundles of liquid love, known in English as soup dumplings, both mystify and amaze. (To answer the obvious question, the soup inside results from gelatin in the filling, which liquifies in heat.) I’ve never known anybody to sample these babies without falling head over heels – at least after learning how to eat them without burning one’s mouth or dripping scalding soup all over the place. It does take some real chopstick chops. 

But I’m surrounded by a sea of dumplings, and these days I find it hard to commit to just one variety. I’ve got it bad for Har Gao (shrimp dumplings), too. These sexy morsels are a Dim Sum staple, and they stole my affection before I even knew their name.

It doesn’t end there. I like to get down with Shumai as well. And while most lack the mystique of Xiao Long Bao, the Shumai at world renowned restaurant chain Din Tai Fung even contain a hidden pouch of broth at the bottom. It’s enough to get a fellow in trouble. 

As it turns out, I guess I’m just not a one dumpling kind of guy.

Groceries

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My heart is racing, nerves frayed before I even lay my clammy hands on a shopping cart. I can do it this time, I tell myself. I’m not leaving here until I have everything I need to make dinner tonight. I will NOT have a panic attack in the middle of this supermarket.

It’s tough to explain the anxiety that overcomes me each time I prepare to enter a Chinese grocery store. Yes, they are crowded, and yes, they contain a lot of products that I can only presume to be edible. But neither of these is what really intimidates me. To be honest, I think it’s the very familiarity of these places that I find most unsettling. I should feel at ease. After all, I even recognize many of the logos, and a lot of the unfamiliar items have delicious looking photos on the package. But the thing is, other than the branding, everything is in Chinese.

“Damn, those are some fine looking dumplings!” I might say. But then, I think, How the hell am I supposed to cook them??

Or, as occurred yesterday while shopping with the family, “that laundry detergent with a photo of a baby on it is hypoallergenic and good for washing the little guy’s clothes, right?” No, of course not. It’s just baby scented, or some shit. True story.

Then, there’s the dairy section, when I’m lucky enough to find one. Most milk here is of the non-refrigerated “shelf stable” variety, and while I’ve encountered this elsewhere in the world and my goal here isn’t exactly to discuss varying pasteurization methods, let’s just say that strikes most Americans as odd. When there are fridges, it’s hard to distinguish between milk, “milk products,” soy milk, drinkable yogurt, and other ambiguously labeled white liquids. God forbid one should want half and half for coffee. (Note to self: whipping cream doesn’t quite fit the bill.)

Last week, I spent a good 10 minutes totally bricked in front of one such display, near tears because I was below ground and couldn’t connect to the internet to determine which package, if any, contained cream. And this was WITHOUT Little Dude in tow, complicating things even further.

I used to love shopping for food. Even in San Diego, I managed to retain some of the habits that I picked up in Italy years ago: leisurely strolls to purchase dinner supplies, buying produce in one shop, meat in another, and then finally stopping to pick up wine or beer.  

Here in Shenzhen, even the online grocery store scares the shit out of me. When I do attempt to take advantage of it, I find myself purchasing the most random assortment of items – everything but what I actually need to assemble a proper meal. Hand soap? Check. Paper towels? Sure. Dried pasta? Indeed. And…. Nerds! Yes, of course! 

Each week I promise Wifey that I’ll cook more than once or twice. “I’ll get the hang of it,” I say. “Don’t worry, I’ll figure it out eventually.”

Good thing there’s a solid restaurant delivery service around here.

Mealtime

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I have a confession to make: in the two short weeks since our arrival in China, I’ve eaten more pizza than in two whole months back home. (If you don’t know me well, this is saying quite a bit). And while it’s tempting to use Little Dude as justification, I’ll admit that it’s my own comfort as well as his that draws us to the various pizzerias scattered around our area, which I’ve taken to calling “Epcot Center.”

It helps that the climate here makes it especially easy to burn off extra calories, and that we’re clearly not the only ones to behave in this way. Whatever an expat may crave, be it burgers or schnitzel, sushi or pad thai, it can be found in spades around here. And this isn’t exactly a vacation, so I find myself shamelessly balancing each unpronounceable dish that we try with something more recognizable.

That’s not to say that we aren’t also taking advantage of the local cuisine. I get my noodles on regularly, and Little Dude is quickly developing a penchant for spice (which is convenient as well as gratifying, as it allows me to share food with him without sacrificing my own fiery fix.) Hot pot has proven to be the family favorite so far, and I’m actively on the hunt for soup dumplings, which, being from further north, have proven to be more difficult than expected to track down.  

With some digging, I’ve even managed to sniff out a couple of bakeries with satisfactory gluten free bread for Wifey. Although she does seem to be jealous of our burgeoning pizza and pretzel habit, at least she now has some comfort food of her own.

Finding the right meals to keep a family happy, healthy, and well fed is undoubtedly one of expat life’s greatest challenges. But it’s also sure to be the most rewarding. And with a whole year to explore our surroundings here, I’m confident that we’ll eventually be able to have our cake and eat it, too.

Market

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The moment we exited the Dongjiaotou metro station, two subway stops and a world away from the expat enclave that we now call home, Wifey and I looked at each other and said, “OK. Now we’re in China.”

We had descended underground in the heart of “Sea World,” which rather than being a controversial home for marine mammals is the central meeting point for much of Shenzhen’s international community. Unlike the one back in San Diego, this Sea World is a pedestrian-only “international bar street.” It’s a bit like Chinatown in reverse; the area is a Western bubble surrounded by what I can only refer to as “real China.” Here, we eat pretzels and drink German beer. A couple of short blocks away, the narrow streets contain countless tiny shops, street food vendors, and constant sparks flying from people welding random metal objects on the sidewalk.

On this, our first real expedition outside of our immediate neighborhood, we were seeking the Shekou “wet market.” “Wet” presumably because of all the live seafood for sale, this market is where many locals shop. However, our fellow expats had given us conflicting reports. While a few said, “Watch out, it’s smelly and gross!” Others claimed, “it’s very cool, and a great way to get a feel for China. You have to check it out.” So, off we went with our stroller.

When we emerged at street level, our first challenge was finding the place. There’s English on many of the signs here, but that doesn’t mean the directions are always easy to follow. So, we rolled the dice and began walking down “Shekou Old Street.” Naturally, we soon realized that we were walking away from the market, but after thirty minutes of zigging, zagging, and sweating profusely – just as we were ready to throw in the towel and take the train back home – we stumbled upon our destination.

First, our attention was drawn to the colors. IMG_9525These technicolored bins full of shrimp, crayfish, and God knows what else marked the entrance to the market, which was indeed rather wet. Inside, along with the profusion of fish, was a dense mass of people, delicious looking produce that I’ve never seen before, and poultry hanging from hooks. There were also whole animals being butchered, and at one point, Wifey turned to me and asked, totally deadpan, “whose tail do you think that is?”

In the central part of the market, the fish were illuminated by red lights, which made the whole experience even more surreal.

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As we meandered, we seemed to be the only Westerners in attendance, although ours was not the only stroller to be blocked by scooters delivering fresh catches inside the market. At one point, when our narrow path was cut off, we had to dart outside to avoid the bottleneck, as our Mandarin is still limited to “hello” and “thank you.” But we witnessed a Chinese mother giving the driver a piece of her mind, much as I would have if I’d been able to. The New Yorker in me imagined that she said something along the lines of, “Hey, what’s a matter with you?! Can’t you seen I’m walkin’ here?”

Needless to say, all three of us had the time of our lives. This is only the beginning, and I plan to revisit the market on a regular basis. Hopefully, by the time we get back to California, I’ll actually know how to cook some of that stuff.

 

Grub

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We’re headed out of town tomorrow to celebrate my Dad’s birthday and give Little Dude some quality bonding time with his cousins, so I took a trip to the supermarket yesterday to stock up for the voyage. Along with airplane snacks for Mommy and Daddy I bought quite a supply of baby food; believe it or not, this is the first time I’ve done so. Although our little guy has been on solids for a couple of months now, I spend enough time in the kitchen preparing food for Wifey and myself that so far it’s been no skin off my back to steam and blend his meals as well.

As he and I are often out and about, three meals a day means often feeding him at least one of them in public. So there have been witnesses – several of whom have recently commented to me on his obvious enthusiasm for cuisine. Seriously, though – I’m talking about shaking and moaning over carrots and cauliflower.

When I smile thankfully and respond to folks that I prepared his meal myself, many are taken aback. “Funny, you don’t look like a hippie,” some of them say. (FYI, people: he wears cloth diapers, too!)

Notwithstanding for a moment how hard it is to pin a label on me – Wifey and I do our best to defy easy categorization – I’d like to take a moment to acknowledge how spectacularly easy, cheap, and fun it can be to make one’s own baby food.

I am not alone here – just this weekend there was an interesting article in the New York Times on the subject, although to be honest I was a bit peeved by the fact that most of the at-home baby food chefs quoted were women. It would seem that – drum roll please – the commercial baby food industry is suffering annually from falling sales due to “a silent, pernicious trend going on that no one was really paying much attention to… mothers [and fathers] making their own food at home.” 

{gasp!}

I confess, I am one of these evil doers. But we didn’t really feel like packing our Baby Bullet along for the trip, so we’ve gotta do what we’ve gotta do.

Ultimately, I have no doubt that our wee one will nom down on these pre-packaged packets of grub as happily as he does on the meals that I make for him. But then again, maybe not. At the end of the day, I like to think that love is more delicious than convenience.