Category Archives: Food

The Kindness of Strangers

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As rough a day as I had on Friday – my Turkish completely failed me, my bank account got closed out, and my internet ceased to function (compounding the other two problems) – Saturday was the exact opposite.

There is a type of a mini-bus/taxi hybrid, that functions like a subway, in Turkey called a dolmuş. These buses always look extremely sketchy – small white vans, sliding side doors, tinted windows and clusters of people huddled in the back – and stop when someone waves them down on their route. As Danielle, Fabio and myself were on the way to the univerity’s main gate to ask whether any buses were going into the city center on Saturday’s, we saw a dolmuş and hailed it.

Yeni Camii
A cool mosque in the center of the city… It really has nothing to do with what I’m writing, it just looks nice.

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The Best Dive Bar In the World

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There is something about dive bars that just seems so friendly and inviting and warm – a sense of camaraderie, almost. As opposed to clubs or more swanky drinking establishments, dive bars – and the people inside them – seem especially honest about their intentions. Most often the people frequenting a dive bar are just looking to relax with friends or forget, however briefly, about whatever weight they have hanging around their shoulders. In short, I love dive bars and I am always on the lookout for a new favorite. This was how, by complete chance, I found the best dive bar in the world with Jen last weekend in Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania.

Flood's Beers
Heaven…and just a small sample of it too.

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Great Food, Good Company, and Strong Alcohol

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In Northern China, it is customary to drink baijiu – extremely hard Chinese alcohol made from rice – as a sign of respect during banquets and other official functions. Unlike hard liquor in the West, though, this is not taken in shot form. Instead, you fill small glasses up which you then chug, after selecting a drinking buddy, screaming “gan bei!” – meaning, empty glass. To show you didn’t pussy foot around, you then hold the glass upside down showing that it is truly empty.

If it looks like gasoline, and tastes like gasoline, it’s probably baijiu.
Photo credit

Apparently in traditional settings, it is not uncommon for all guests at a banquet to have two glasses of baijiu at the start; you know, to really kick things off. After this, the rest of the night is spent eating from dozens of small dishes brought out while simultaneously toasting – and being toasted – by everyone else at the function. Whoever said Asians can’t drink has never met someone from Northern China.

drunken shrimp
Even the shrimp were drunk

Unfortunately – or maybe luckily – I did not attend any baijiu enhanced meals while I was in China, mostly we stuck to wine. I did, however, manage to partake in some delicacies. The most interesting of which was by far the “drunken shrimp” pictured above. The shrimp, like most Chinese banqueters, are placed alive into a pot full of baijiu and spices where they are left to sit and become progressively drunker. Once they cease struggling, you eat them alive. They taste like a sort of sweetly spicy alcoholic shrimp cocktail – delicious!

What I particularly enjoyed about Chinese dining was both the variety, as well as the order. The meal began with a schmorgesborg of various dishes and entrees – some sweet, some spicy, some alive and soaked in alcohol. Variety is the spice of life, after all. This sort of eating could be best compared to tapas.

drunken shrimp
A very drunken shrimp

After everyone is good and full from the appetizers – as well as nicely drunk – a main course is brought out. In my experiences, this is usually some sort of noodley soup, that goes down easily enough after having gorged yourself already during the past hour and a half. Of course, you make room – both out of politness and due to how amazingly tasty everything is anyway.

Personally, I love this style of eating – even though I am aware it is only reserved for special occassions. As a friend of my brother’s in China said: “Western dining can be so tiring with just one dish. At first you may think you love it, but after eating a whole plateful you’re not too sure anymore. With Chinese dining, you eat something, you don’t like it, you can move on.”

I like this mentality. After all, with enough great food, good company, and strong alcohol, how could you not have a great night?

Fine Chinese Dining

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“Are you excited to be returning home?” I asked the man sitting next to me on my flight to China. He was a recent college graduate – my age – and we had struck up a friendly conversation during the take off of the plane.

“Very,” he said. “This is the first time in two years I’m going home. I can’t wait for the food. In my hometown, people know how to eat – not like in America. In America, people eat very fast and can barely enjoy it. In China, my father takes a few hours to eat dinner and enjoys every part of the fine Chinese dining.”

“Americans eat just to eat,” I agreed, thinking of all the times I rushed through a meal to get to class, or work, or a movie on time.

“You’ll see. In China, you will eat very well.” He had no idea how correct he would be.

I can safely say that the majority of my time in the Middle Kingdom was spent gorging myself on some delicacy at some banquet my brother’s friends, colleagues or clients were treating us to.

On my second night in Nanjing, an old professor – Mrs. Wang – of my brother from Nanjing University took us all out to a fancy and delicious Cantonese style dinner. In general, Cantonese food tends to be sweet and savory, compared to the saltier styles of cooking in Northern China. Whereas this meal may have lasted an hour or so in America, in China it carried on at its own leisurely pace. In waves all small the dishes were brought replacing ones that had been finished earlier.

Eventually a local Chinese wine was ordered to, to help supplement the tea, and then desert was added to the mix. Interestingly, desert in China does not seem to be served after the rest of the meal is finished – rather, the dishes can be served at whatever time they are ready. So, we continued to gorge on an assortment of fried pumpkin bread rolls, danta (egg custard tarts), as well as finishing up the sweetly roasted pork and the enoki mushrooms and beef.

In all the meal took about two and a half hours to complete. With a mixture of jet lag, wine, and a slight food coma setting in I felt perfectly content. Conversation picked up again, until my brother realized the time and had to end the meal so we could get back to his apartment to help his wife give his son a bath. We said our goodbyes and thanks to Mrs. Wang and headed out.

On the way back to the apartment, after we had parted from Mrs. Wang Laotzu, my brother comically noted how it was Chinese custom to order more food than your guests could possibly eat. Unfortunately, Mrs. Wang severely underestimated how much we could tuck away.

There was nothing left.

Note: I just wanted to mention how cool the enoki mushrooms and beef were cooked. The food was brought out, wrapped in silver foil. It was then placed in a bowl of baijio – Chinese hard alcohol – which was set alight. A waitress then moved the silver foil bundle around, ensuring that the contents inside were cooked thoroughly.