Chinese pears poached in spiced red wine

Pears which have been poached in red wine are a popular dessert in Britain, the original recipe must go back hundreds of years and is lost in the mists of time.                                    It is a dish that can be made a couple of days in advance which is always useful, and is simplicity itself to produce.

Last Friday I was having people for dinner and decided to make poached pears, but because I am in Beijing I tweeked the recipe to give it a Chinese flavour.  In the UK I would normally use Conference or Comice pears, but here I used what I call ‘Nashi pears’,  as we had been given a box of them as a gift .They are native to China and are also popular in Japan and South Korea.

Nashi pears

They look like a large firm pale yellow apple rather than having a traditional pear shape, and keep well in a cool dry place.  Some people in the west think they are a pear/apple cross but that is not so, they are a true pear. Often given as gifts, they are usually quite expensive.  They are frequently sold with each fruit wrapped in tissue paper and then covered with a little string-vest of polystyrene to prevent them from being bruised or damaged.

Chinese nashi pears

 

CHINESE POACHED PEARS IN SPICED RED WINE

Serves 6

3 large Nashi pears                                                                                                                                 2 cups of red wine                                                                                                                                    70g granulated or caster sugar                                                                                                            3 star anise

Peel, core and quarter the pears.  Put the red wine, sugar and star anise Star aniseinto a saucepan large enough to hold the pears. Heat gently, stirring all the time until the sugar has dissolved.

Add the pear quarters.  Bring up to the boil, then turn the heat down so that the wine is simmering.  Simmer for about 1 hour, checking from time-to-time and turning the pears over if necessary so that they are evenly coloured.

After an hour they should be a lovely wine colour, still firm and holding their shape but a wooden toothpick can be easily inserted.   Use a slotted spoon to remove the pears from the liquid, and place them in a serving dish.

Bring the wine liquid up to the boil, and boil fiercely until it has reduced to a third of its volume, and seems slightly thicker.  Strain the wine over the pears, cover the dish with clingfilm and when cooled, place in the fridge until needed.

Poached pears 1

 

I served them with a dollop of Mascarpone Vanilla Cream.

This consisted of 250g of Mascarpone, 2 heaped tablespoons of icing sugar, 1 teaspoon vanilla extract, beaten together with an electric mixer until creamy. Pile it into a small serving bowl, cover and chill in the fridge until you are serving the pears.

AMM pears 2

Though I say it myself they were delicious, and the Star Anise gave it a really unusual oriental flavour.  I should have made double the quantity as everyone would have liked second helpings, but alas it was all gone.

 

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Expedition to the Watermelon Museum

Beijing, being the capital city of China, has no shortage of museums from the sublime to the unusual, and some which seem downright weird.

A fortnight ago I persuaded a friend to come with me to visit a fairly new museum – the Beijing Watermelon Museum 西瓜博物馆 .                                                                                A whole museum dedicated to watermelons! who could resist?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAGetting there turned into something of an expedition.  I had found an address for the museum but when I looked it up, it was outside the municipal area covered by the Beijing City Map Guide .  It seemed to be quite some distance south of the city, in a village just off an expressway.

Blow the expense I thought, I’ll get a car with driver to take us there and bring us back.  Phoning Charlie, the driver I use from time to time, I outlined my plan. Charlie was sceptical. He assured me that he really knew everywhere of interest and he’d never heard of it – wouldn’t we rather go on a nice afternoon outing to the Great Wall instead?  No we would not! – been there, done that, got the T-shirt.  So after much grumbling he agreed to drive us.

Accordingly we set off just after lunch on a very hot Sunday afternoon. We drove south on the 4th ring road, crossed over to the 5th Ring Road, still driving south we came to the 6th Ring Road and drove on, and on, and on.  Phalanxes of grim tower blocks marched across the horizon on either side of the motorway – this is where many of Beijing’s workers live.    The roads were chock-a-block with traffic heading into the city – at least we were going in the opposite direction.

After an hour and a half we left the motorway and asked the toll-booth attendent if he knew where the museum was. Of course not – why would he?  But suddenly as we drove on there it was,  in all its watermelony glory!  Watermelon museum 1Most museums are heaving with people on Sundays so I was concerned it might be rather over crowded, but it was the only time Charlie was available. To my surprise, when we swung into the enormous car-parking area there were only three cars…. we had the pick of the shady spots to park.

As you can see from the picture, it is a modern building , a central domed entrance hall and two wings.  The entrance fee was 20RMB and the two lassies manning the ticket desk looked absolutely amazed to see two hot, red-faced, laowai intending to visit. In fact they seemed surprised that ANYONE would visit the museum.  Watermelon man 1

As my BFBJ and I strolled into the first section of the museum we were stunned by the shiny black marble floor, flashing disco-lights and faux bronze statues of men and women carrying watermelons.

It was as though we were in an episode of  Monty Python and we both became overwhelmed with the giggles and slightly hysterical trying to supress our snorts of laughter.

Charlie and the big watermelon

Charlie and the big watermelon

Charlie was most disapproving, he thought we were not taking the exhibits seriously and insisted I took his photo beside a whopping 88kg watermelon which he excitely informed us had grown in his own home town in Zhejiang province. Of course it wasn’t a real watermelon – none of the 400 varieties on display were real – they were all resin replicas! There were several examples of the specially grown square watermelons which are very popular as gifts.

Watermelons - square

 

 

The second section of the museum was all about the history of the watermelon, how it came to China along the Silk Routes, how it is cultivated etc.  The word for watermelon in Mandarin is xi gua  which means ‘western melon’.  This section also provided us with a stunning moment as we rounded a display board and discovered a large model of a space capsule apparently spinning through thWatermelon space capsulee heavens with a watermelon carved to look like the earth down below it!  As far as we could tell from the captions (all being in Chinese) this was to interest children in the fact that on one of the first of China’s space programmes watermelon seeds had been taken into space to see if weightlessness would enhance or hinder germination.  But there didn’t seem to be any conclusion so I can’t enlighten you.

Outside, in the grounds of the museum there are a variety of sculptures of people eating watermelons dotted about in a grassy area grandly called a ‘Sculpture Park’.

Watermelon sculpture 1

What I am curious about is who decided that what Daxing district needed was a museum, and a museum all about watermelons at that?  Who funds it?  It is not widely known about, and there are hardly hoards of visitors clamouring to get in,  so it cannot be making any money.  You’d need a helluva lot of school trips to justify keeping such an obviously expensive building open all year round, and there seemed no evidence that such trips feature regularly. Its a mystery to me.

So if you are living in Beijing or coming on a tour of China, my advice is to eat some cool slices of watermelon at the end of a Chinese banquet, and don’t waste your time trekking out to visit this museum – I’ve done it for you, and it really isn’t worth the hassle.

Watermelon eaters painting 1

 

STOP PRESS:   While I’m on the subject of watermelons, here is a piece of useless information!

Ali Mihan 128 yr old watermelon farmer

Ali Mihan 128 yr old watermelon farmer

The oldest woman in China (if not the world) is 128 year old Ali Mihan who was born on 25th June 1886. She has been growing watermelons all her life.  She lives in Xinjiang (in the far west of China) where she has a 1.3 hectare smallholding on which she produces 16,000 watermelons each year. She has now decided to move with the times and  sell her melons online!

 

 

 

 

 

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Jianzi – the ancient Chinese game copied by hacky sack

There is nothing new under the sun’ as the old biblical saying goes. Someone comes up with what they think is a great new concept and then they discover that it has all been done before.  That doesn’t always stop them from cashing in.

jianzi illustrationIn the early 1970s two Americans came up with a ‘new’ game which they called Hacky-Sack; they formed a company, trademarked the game and the little sacks/balls they manufactured with which to play it.  They subsequently sold ‘their’ game for a shed-load of money.

But truth to tell, Hacky-Sack is no more, no less, than the ancient game that has been played here in China for millenia – Jianzi (sometimes called Ti Jianzi).

KickaShuttleCock The only difference being that the Jianzi which gives its name to the game is a feathered, weighted shuttlecock, whereas a Hacky-Sack is a small weighted pouchy bag.  I am irritated by articles in the US media which refer to ‘Jianzi – The Chinese Hacky-Sack’ when what they should say is ‘Hacky-Sack – the American Jianzi’.jianzi illustration 2

Jianzi originated in China at least 2000 years ago during the Han Dynasty and was, and still is, played by young and old alike.  By the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD) Jianzi shops had become commonplace in China, you no longer had to make your own shuttlecock, mind Jianzi 1you they are not exactly difficult to produce and there are lots of websites which will tell you how to do just that.

Here is a picture of my very own one which cost all of 35p! Since my strokes in 2010 I have difficulty standing/walking on two legs, let-alone balancing on one leg whilst the other kicks the feathery jianzi, so it is destined to just be another thing on my bookshelf gathering dust – alas!

Jianzi is played by kicking the shuttlecock to keep it from touching the ground, a player must only touch it with their feet or legs – hands are not involved.

It can be played by a single person, two, three or more people.  There are many variations of play.

jianzi3Much of the time it is just a knock-about with friends but in recent years a more formal, structured game with a governing body, fixed rules, competions, local teams, tournaments etc has emerged,  and this is gaining popularity too. Needless to say, money is involved in this development!

We live in a tower block of apartments, however the tower blocks on either side all contain offices so I often look down at the communal gardens and see groups of young white-collar jianziworkers jackets off, sleeves rolled-up, having a game of Jianzi during their lunch break.

In the early mornings here in China you see many elderly and middle-aged people in the public parks; they do Tai Chi, sword play, or fan dancing and ball-room dancing,  but many of them just play Jianzi on their own as it is excellent aerobic exercise.

It is well known that the Chinese invented gunpowder, fireworks, compasses, paper, umbrellas, moveable type for printing etc etc – but the pundits writing about Chinese inventions never mention Jianzi/hacky sack – so I decided I should redress the balance!

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Zuo yuezi – Sitting the Month – the 30 days after giving birth.

11-Taylor-111To our great joy we have a new addition to our family, our second grandson was born in the USA 12 days ago. Needless to say we are all absolutely delighted.  As you can see he is an absolute poppet, and I can’t wait to give him a cuddle.

When I have told Chinese friends about AMT’s arrival and how my DD and the baby are getting on, they are aghast. If my DD knew how she would be expected to behave in China during the postpartum period, I think she would be flabbergasted.

Here in China (as well as in Taiwan and Hong Kong) the ancient established custom of   Zuo yuezi  坐月子 still holds sway.   Zuo yuezi means ‘Sitting the Month’ and applies to the 30 days immediately after giving birth, and more-or-less means exactly that. The new mum (whether it is her first child or not) is expected to stay indoors at home and rest – with feet up.  There are many rules as to what she can or cannot do.

Zhou Chunzhi (R) lies on a bed in a tent

  • She must stay indoors for the whole time with few if any visitors apart from her mother-in-law (who is in charge) and her own mother.
  • She should spend most of the time lying in bed.
  • She should do no work, no housework, no lifting, cooking or anything like that.
  • She should keep warm at all times, and this means wearing pyjamas or long-sleeved t-shirts and long trousers, thick socks(essential), and in winter a warm hat and gloves are advisable.
  • Because she should keep warm, no air-conditioning or fans are permitted – even in the height of summer.
  • She is not permitted to take baths or showers for the full 30 days.       no showers
  • She is not permitted to wash her hair for the full 30 days.    [Some die-hard practitioners say she should not even clean her teeth!]
  • She should not read, watch TV or DVDs, send or receive text messages, take calls on her cell/mobile phone or a landline, play on her iPad.   Listening to the radio or music is ok.
  • Crying is not advisable during this time.
  • She should only eat ‘warm’* foods such as chicken, mutton, pork, ginger, garlic, oats, walnuts, leeks, and pumpkin to counteract the ‘coldness’ of the postpartum month.
  • She should not eat ‘cold’* foods such as fruit, raw vegetables, wheat, millet, crab, celery, cucumber, asparagus or seaweed.   No spicy foods, no salt.
  • She should drink plenty of lactation-stimulating soups made with ingredients such as pork trotters and peanuts, or fish with sesame oil, green papaya and goji berries.
  • She should not drink cold fluids of any kind, warm liquids are best but tepid are tolerated.
  • She must not take alcohol, caffeine or nicotine.
  • Needless to say, no sex.
  • She is advised to wear a post-natal girdle (which usually consists of about 10m of cotton fabric wound tightly round the belly area) in order to flatten the stomach.
  • She should not cuddle the baby too much as that will encourage dependency, and the baby’s soft bones may not become as straight as they should be. (!)
  • If she insists on breastfeeding the baby, she should do so lying down, with the baby placed beside her, rather than sitting up and cradling the baby on her lap.

During this period of time she will be instructed on how to care for the infant by her M-i-L and her mother.

These practices, which have been slightly amended for today’s world, go back to about the 1st century BC – apparently they are mentioned in the I Ching – and yet they are still observed by millions of  women here and in the wider Chinese diaspora, though not all of them stick to all the rules listed above.   I was curious as to why a modern young woman would decide to follow even part of such a very prescriptive regime in this day and age.  After talking to as many Chinese women as I could and asking lots of questions I came to the following conclusions:

1.   There may be a lot of pressure from the woman’s mother and/or mother-in-law to do so, and she wishes to please her husband’s family and her parents by doing the ‘correct’ thing.                                                                                                                                                      2.   She believes that, as TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) says, it will help her replace lost nutrients and regain her physiological balance after the birth.                                         3.   Having been told repeatedly that if she does not do so, she will suffer health problems in later years, she doesn’t want to take a chance.  This particular belief is widely held, I was told by one woman (now in her 50s)  that her current foot problem was all because she had not bothered to wear socks during her Zuo yuezi 30 years previously.

Here in Beijing, as well as in Shanghai and Hong Kong, luxurious post-natal facilities have sprung up to serve the well-to-do mums who want to spend their Sitting the Month in what is akin to a 5* hotel, with qualified nurses to attend the new-borns, doctors on 24hr call, appropriate meals prepared and served and every whim catered for (as long as it doesn’t break the rules).  These establishments charge up to US$ 500 per day, and for 30 days that amounts to quite a substantial sum to ensure that mum does nothing.

Having a new baby can be immensely tiring, and I would agree that in an ideal world (where you have someone to pick up the housekeeping chores ) having a week or two of quiet resting time after the birth allows both mother and baby to spend peaceful uninterrupted hours bonding and getting feeding well established – but no hair washing?  no showers, no phone calls, no air-con in the heat of summer?

If I tried to suggest such a regime, I can imagine what my DD would say to me!

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** To explain ‘warm’ and ‘cold’ foods is difficult; in Chinese food culture these terms do not refer to the temperature of the food. Every food is catagorised as being either ‘warm’ or ‘cold’ and depending on one’s age, stage and health, one should be eating the appropriate type of food.  For example, foods that are considered ‘warm’ include: mutton, anchovies, chicken, ham, oats, pumpkin/squash, garlic, ginger, leeks, walnuts, cinnamon, soybean oil…   so a slice of cold roast lamb is a ‘warm’ food, if you see what I mean.  It’s a minefield.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Chinese Proverb of the Week: 11

Chū lín sŭnzi xiàn dăduàn

出 林 笋子 先 打断

The bamboo shoots which grow outside the edge of the grove will be the first to be broken off.

Bamboo grove

 

This is a warning proverb – if you stick your neck out, you will be the first to be attacked!  Very Chinese attitude really –  stay with the majority view, don’t act or speak as a single individual; and I think it is true for Koreans and Japanese as well.

So presumably you should ‘keep your head below the parapet’ as we would say.

 

 

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Hustle and bustle – its hot and noisy!

In every nation/language there are words and phrases that defy exact translation making it is hard for foreigners to grasp the real meaning.

In China one such word is  rènao  热闹   .

Everyone who comes to China will experience rènao, even if they don’t realise it.  The word is composed of two characters: rè (hot) + nao (noise) , but it means much more than just that.  When we first came here I had no understanding of rènao, though a few Chinese friends would use the word when recommending a restaurant we should try.

Renao

Invariably we would find that such restaurants were chock-a-block with people; every table crammed with diners talking at the tops of their voices, summoning waiting staff who would be shouting the orders out whilst rushing about with trays of food balanced precariously as they dodged small children, or people who were just milling about.          The Chinese (on the whole) LOVE busy places with many people having a good time and lots of chat and laughter.   Restaurants with rènao – hustle and bustle, hot and noisy with an edge of excitement.

But rènao isn’t just used in the context of restaurants – it can be found everywhere. One Saturday afternoon soon after we came to live in Beijing I went to the nearby branch of the supermarket Jialefu  家乐福  - aka Carrefour.

The volume of noise and the crowds of shoppers nearly overwhelmed me.  In practically every aisle there was at least one salesgirl in a cute uniform complete with a tray of product samples and a head-mike, shouting about what they had to offer, and trying to out-shout the salesgirl nearest them, the noise was deafening! This video clip will give you some idea of what I mean:    https://www.youtube.co/watch?v=Sd9VtEeXSLA                     The Chinese have taken to the idea of shopping as a leisure activity in a BIG way, so whole families were there – the grannies tut-tutting over prices, the husband trying to edge his way over to the beer and baijiu section, the wife examining beauty products and the children clamouring for toys.

Not unlike in the west you might think, but quadruple the numbers you would see in Safeways/Sainsburys/ Trader Joe’s  in the UK or USA  in the 24 hours before Xmas and you will get some idea of how many people were shopping there on a normal everyday Saturday.  As far as I was concerned it was a ghastly experience, but nobody else seemed to mind.  It was rènao – a desirable level of hustle and bustle, heat and noise.

Renao 4

In the west, people who form a crowd to watch some incident or gawp at an accident are said to be rubbernecking – the phrase for that  in Chinese is kàn rènao , ie: see + hot/noisy.   It is ‘exciting’ to witness something dramatic in the company of lots of others all giving their opinions on the situation.                                                                                 When talking about the Cultural Revolution with some Chinese friends, one of them said  – “In the countryside at that time, where life was very poor, dull and routine, the people enjoyed the struggle sessions because they were rènao – it was entertainment”.  Hmm, there’s a potential PhD thesis in that statement methinks!

But WHY is it that the Chinese like places/situations that are rènao?  Maybe it is because they do not care about privacy quite so much.  They live in close quarters with very little friction, despite a lack of space and privacy that would drive most Westeners mad.   What seems unbearable to us seems cozy and neighbourly to them.  The Chinese are rarely alone, and that goes back hundreds of years. They like crowds and street life, and enjoy travelling in groups, going where everyone else is going.

Renao 3

Many years ago my (then) 15 yr old daughter and I spent a day at the Yihe Yuan  颐和园 on the north western outskirts of modern Beijing.  We wandered around and eventually settled down to eat our picnic lunch and read our books under a shady tree.                      Ha! it was not to be. Within moments we had attracted a crowd of Chinese  – mostly young adults – who were fascinated by every move we made.  I was asked where our ‘tour or work group’ was, when I explained that we were on our own they were aghast – Alone??? how horrible, they would now accompany us which they assured us would make us happy and comfortable again!  The idea of doing anything as an individual was completely weird to them.  Trying to explain that we liked it on our own  was like trying to communicate with Martians, they heard the words but didn’t understand the meaning.

Now I’ve lived here long enough for the hubbub, whether it be in a supermarket, at a beauty spot in the park, or elsewhere,  wash over me…and though I  would always prefer to dine in a quiet, intimate little restaurant,  I have to admit I am begining to quite enjoy rènao!

 

 

 

 

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Chinese proverb of the week: 10

Yù bàng xiāng zhēng, yú rén dé lì.

蚌 相 争 人 得 利

When a snipe and clam quarrel, the fisherman benefits.

Snipe and clam 2This is a very old proverb dating back in Chinese history to The Warring States Period (approx 476 – 203 BCE).   The State of Zhou planned to attack the State of Yan. Su Dai, an envoy from Yan, went to see the King of Zhou and told him the following parable:

One day a snipe was flying over the beach when he saw a clam lying open in the sunshine. ‘That will make a good morsel to eat’ he thought and flew down and snatched at the clam’s flesh with his beak. Feeling a sharp pain, the clam immediately clamped his shell tight catching the snipe’s beak.  The snipe kept trying to shake the clam off his beak but failed.  Furious by now the snipe said  ‘It won’t rain today or tomorrow so if you don’t open your shell and release me you won’t get any water and you will die of thirst!’ The clam replied ‘Do you think you can eat me you stupid snipe? if I keep hold of your beak like this, you will die of hunger!’    Whilst they were arguing in this way, a fisherman came along, and before they had noticed him he grabbed them both and took them back home for his supper.                                                                                             Needless to say, the King of Zhou understood the tale, and called off the attack on the State of Yan, thus preventing other states from taking advantage of their dispute.

This little story with its message that a third party will take the advantage when two others are fighting about their own interests, is very, very well known, and the proverb is frequently used.Snipe and clam 3  It  is told to children when they are quite young.  There are many picture books, animated films, and even apps for smart phones and ipads all recounting the tale of the snipe and the clam.

The Taiwanese  postal service has even put the proverb on one of their postage stamps.

Snipe and clam

 

 

 

 

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