Saturday, March 29, 2008

This is where I live

Qingdao is famous for a couple of things: 1) Beer in a bag (only a few short weeks, I'm told, till I can wander around the city sipping on Tsingtao through a straw) and 2) It's beautiful coastline. Here's a video from Sexy Beijing about the latter, and the brides-to-be who come to Qingdao to pose on its shores.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Qingdao University Jiaozi

Vivian and Miggie Chopping Cabbage

Saturday morning was lazy and gray. I woke up slowly, and spent an hour eating breakfast, re-reading the photo-copied pages of this month's ex-pat book club book, Reading Lolita in Tehran, and chatting with Ethan's parents on Skype, rather than lesson planning. When Ariel, a teacher who lives two floors down, knocked on the door with an invitation to make dumplings, I happily accepted, eager to escape the silent censure of my unopened course books. For the next couple of hours Ariel and I played sous-chef to three students from the university with the English names Vivian, Amanda and Miggie (maybe a British name?). Miggie is the class monitor in one of the large speaking classes that I teach twice a week. Teaching a class of 35 it's difficult to get to know my students individually so it was a nice surprise to spend time with her outside of class and especially fun, for a few hours, to play the student for a change. For all three girls this was their first time making dumplings, or jiaozi in Chinese, on their own, and certainly their first time teaching foreigners how to make them. Miggie, coming from a long line of dumpling making women, rolled up her sleeves and took charge of the operation with gusto. But every now and then, hands covered in pork juice, she held her mobile between her elbows for brief consultations with the master, her mother, reminding me of my own frantic calls to mom for advice on Christmas cookies, Lemon Cake, or Butternut Squash Lasagna.

For the better part of an hour we made the kitchen hum banging against its surfaces with our chopping knives, eviscerating each ingredient one by one. Miggie kept a watchful eye on our progress. Nope, not quite there yet. Keep chopping. From the empty stairwell it sounded like Stomp had invaded our echoing apartment building.

When all of the ingredients were ready we squished together the pork, spicy ginger, green onions, soy sauce and egg. Then we squeezed dry handfuls of chopped cabbage and threw that in too. Working with especially fine, wheat flour, Amanda stretched out the dough in beautiful coils, and sliced it in half every now and then to examine its consistency; after conferring with the others, she would chop and reform the blob, until it felt and looked a lot like plasticine. Hunking off chunks the size of gumballs, Vivian and Amanda, kept the dough pinched between two fingers as they twirled and rolled each little mound into a thin palm-shaped coin. Then, handing them off to Miggie and me, we heaped the pork mixture into the middle, pinched the sides together, and scalloped the edges, setting it upright on the floured tray like a fan, or a swan. We fell into the rhythm of our work quickly, and must have made a hundred dumplings as we chatted and listened to music. From Miggie, Vivian and Amanda I learned that jiaozi is the most traditional northern Chinese food, and for all three, a favorite. They explained that it is a food that they closely associate with time spent with their families. During Spring Festival in February families get together and spend most of their time in the kitchen making and devouring jiaozi. Because their shape is similar to ancient Chinese money, they are thought to be very lucky and symbolize wealth. Some families hide a small silver coin in one of the dumplings during a jiaozi-making session. The lucky winner who eventually bites down on the coin, it is believed, will have a fortunate new year. This time we kept the RMB's out of the mix.

After the first batch was boiled, we invited Ethan down to go to town, and although we tried one or two while they were hot, we returned without a beat to the satisfying repetition of our work rolling out the dough and filling the soft bundles, one by one. When we had exhausted most of our ingredients we finally called it quits and sat down to feast, chopsticks poised, not caring that the table was still littered with the afternoon's mess. The girls whipped out the other dishes they had been hiding: spicy cabbage salad, egg drop soup, and a plate of quivering, brown poached duck eggs. Miggie held a sliver of duck egg to my mouth. "Eat it!" she commanded sweetly. "Really?" I meekly replied. "Yes, it's delicious. It smells bad, but it's delicious." Held under my nose, it smelled faintly like a mixture of vinegar and old cheesy socks; without thinking too much about it, I ate the duck egg for Miggie, my teacher, and it tasted a lot like it smelled. But the dumplings, bathed in a bit of vinegar, were perfect - the best I've ever had - and they did what I'm told they're supposed to do; they kept me warm all day.

Qingdao University Jiaozi

The filling:

1/2 pound of ground pork

Two green onions chopped, and chopped some more

One Tablespoon of fresh, minced ginger

The better part of one head of cabbage, chopped and drained of all water

One egg

Soy sauce to taste

The dough:

Flour & Water

Dressing: Vinegar