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Spring Festival Pilgrimage

Chinese New Year, like Christmas, is a time to be with family, to return to your home village to celebrate. Every Spring Festival, the millions of rural migrants who live in Shanghai, many working as labourers and domestic workers, make their way to the four corners of China to be re-united with their families, often after a year or even years apart. They may have been working in Shanghai without a chance for a break, fathers away from children, mothers away from babies, husbands and wives separated. Back home the grandparents and older extended family are caring for the children – sending them to school, cooking their meals and tending to them while their parents work in the city, far away. 

The point of departure for many is Shanghai Railway Station, in the city’s North, so I visited there on Friday morning to get a glimpse of this very busy annual pilgrimage. It’s only 9am, still early, but the homeward-bound arrive, on foot, by bus and by subway, in their thousands, spilling out onto the station’s immense stone forecourt with a year’s-worth of luggage, and gifts for family back home – wine, fruit, clothes, and shoes. 
Suitcases are few and far between, an unnecessary expense – instead luggage is stuffed into rice sacks, hessian bags, buckets and those ubiquitous red, white and blue checked bags; slung over shoulders, carried on bamboo poles, or dragged along as best as possible.
Train tickets can be almost impossible to get at this, the busiest travel time of the year, and those waiting for the few scant cancelled seats sit patiently on boxes, bags and buckets and wait it out.
This couple are returning home to Fujian Province, in the south, but their train doesn’t leave for another ten hours. They seem to have already exhausted all their small talk, and all they want now is to be home again to see their grown-up children. 

Some just while away the hours as best they can. These four friends, all from the same village, have been working together on the same building site in Shanghai. They left work and came straight to the station, still in their workclothes and covered in concrete dust, but again, their departure is hours away with little hope of a cancellation on an earlier train. So they’ve set up a temporary card table on someone’s bag.
Those with tickets struggle through the turntiles under the weight of their luggage. I just don’t know how it all jams onto the trains….

There is another class of traveller too – those who want to show off their big city success, so the hicks back in the village know that they’ve really made it, Shanghai style. Fake sports cap – check. Fake Ugg boots – check. Fake Samsonite suitcase – check. Fluffy black ear muffs bigger than your head – check. Just don’t try and tell them that your migraine-inducing coat is on-trend, because no-one’s gonna swallow that lie.

And the male version – fake Nike satchel, fake Pierre Cardin jacket, freshly coloured and permed hair, Hello Kitty bag – check, check, check.

But really, when you’re going home, all you need is a bucket or two. Especially if it’s a souvenir bucket with the Pudong skyline on it.  

Yī lù píng ān!  Safe travels!

Red Underwear for Rabbits

All the internet buzz this week about Ophiucus, the ‘new star sign’ of the Western zodiac, has had everyone’s astrological knickers in a major knot. (you can read this simple explanation of why you don’t need to change your star sign, followed by pages of entertaining loony comments)

And speaking of knickers, did you know that Chinese New Year is coming in less than a week, and 2011 will be the Year of the Rabbit?   How is that related to knickers??
Well, if you are born in a rabbit year, tradition dictates that this year, your year (which rolls around once every 12 years), you should wear red knickers. Every day for a whole year. For luck and auspiciousness, of course, and to turn all your whites pink.

Never able to let a good sales opportunity go begging, the Commodities Market today was a sea of red lanterns, red hong baos, and red knickers. Ladies, mens, kids, all in standard issue China red, one size fits all. You can have red knickers with fireworks on the front, cartoon characters, or a map of China with a loveheart. All tasteful, and colourfast guaranteed.

In case you have never heard of the Chinese Zodiac (中国十二生肖 Zhōngguó shí èr Shēngxiào), you can look at this table to see what zodiac animal you are, what your characeristics are, and when you’ll be wearing red undies next.

2011, 1999, 1987, 1975, 1963, 1951, 1939  
Gracious, good friend, kind, sensitive, soft-spoken, amiable, elegant, reserved, cautious, artistic, thorough, tender, self-assured, shy, astute, compassionate, lucky, flexible. Can be moody, detached, self-indulgent.

2012, 2000, 1988, 1976, 1964, 1952, 1940   
Strong, self-assured, proud, noble, direct, dignified, intellectual, fiery, passionate, decisive, artistic, generous, loyal. Can be tactless, arrogant, demanding.

2001, 1989, 1977, 1965, 1953, 1941  
Deep thinker, wise, mystic, graceful, sensual, creative, elegant, calm, strong, constant, purposeful. Can be loner, possessive, self-doubting, distrustful, cold.

2002, 1990, 1978, 1966, 1954, 1942, 1930  
Cheerful, popular, quick-witted, earthy, perceptive, talkative, agile—mentally and physically, intelligent, astute, flexible, open-minded. Can be fickle, arrogant, stubborn.

2003, 1991, 1979, 1967, 1955, 1943, 1931   
Sincere, sympathetic, mild-mannered, shy, artistic, creative, gentle, compassionate, understanding, mothering, peaceful, generous, seeks security. Can be moody, indecisive, pessimistic

2004, 1992, 1980, 1968, 1956, 1944, 1932    
Inventive, quick-witted, inquisitive, flexible, innovative, problem solver, self-assured, sociable, artistic, competitive, objective, factual, intellectual. Can be egotistical, arrogant, selfish, deceptive, manipulative, cunning, jealous, suspicious.

2005, 1993, 1981, 1969, 1957, 1945, 1933    
Neat, meticulous, organized, self-assured, decisive, conservative, critical, perfectionist, practical, scientific, responsible. Can be over zealous and critical, egotistical, abrasive, proud, opinionated.

2006, 1994, 1982, 1970, 1958, 1946, 1934    
Honest, intelligent, straightforward, loyal, sense of justice and fair play, amicable, unpretentious, sociable, open-minded, idealistic, moralistic, practical, affectionate, sensitive, easy going. Can be cynical, lazy, cold, judgmental, pessimistic, worrier, stubborn.

2007, 1995, 1983, 1971, 1959, 1947, 1935   
Honest, sturdy, sociable, peace-loving, patient, loyal, hard-working, trusting, sincere, calm, understanding, thoughtful, passionate, intelligent. Can be naïve, over-reliant, self-indulgent, gullible, fatalistic, materialistic.

2008, 1996, 1984, 1972, 1960, 1948, 1936    
Forthright, intense, meticulous, charismatic, sensitive, intellectual, industrious, charming, eloquent, sociable, artistic, and shrewd. Can be manipulative, vindictive, self-destructive, critical, scheming.

2009, 1997, 1985, 1973, 1961, 1949, 1937   
Dependable, calm, methodical, born leader, patient, hardworking, conventional, steady, modest, tenacious. Can be stubborn, hot-tempered, narrow-minded, materialistic, rigid, demanding.

2010, 1998, 1986, 1974, 1962, 1950, 1938   
Unpredictable, rebellious, powerful, passionate, daring, impulsive, vigorous, sincere, affectionate, humanitarian, generous. Can be restless, reckless, impatient, quick-tempered, obstinate, selfish, aggressive, moody.

(adapted from Wikipedia)

Happy Australia Day from Shanghai! A Recipe for Macadamia Anzac Biscuits

Happy Australia Day to all my friends and family at home, and a really happy Australia Day to all those expat Aussies living and working away from home, us included!

Because I won’t have a chance here in Shanghai to do the usual thing – that is, have a day off work, drive to the beach and have a barbecue – I’ve cooked up an Aussie treat to make me and the rest of the household feel less homesick. And lately, I’ve been feeling very homesick, what with the floods in Queensland and Victoria, and the long cold winter. 

So this recipe is for a twist on the traditional Anzac biscuit – a golden-syrupy oaty crunchy treat, usually associated with Anzac Day (April 25 – commemorating the landing of Australia and New Zealand troops at Gallipoli). I’ve added macadamia nuts – Australia’s own native nut – to make them even more delicious,  but you could use peanuts or almonds too. Thanks to kind friends back home (D and A) I got two big bags of macadamias in the post before Christmas, so here’s the result:

Macadamia Anzac Biscuits

Recipe adapted from Matthew Evans 
Makes approx. 30 biscuits

  • 200g soft brown sugar
  • 200g butter
  • 4 tablespoons of golden syrup
  • 200g macadamia nuts, coarsely chopped
  • 200g self-raising flour
  • 150g rolled oats
  • 50g dessicated coconut

  • preheat oven to 170C
  • melt butter, brown sugar and golden syrup together in a saucepan over low heat
  • mix the flour, macadamia nuts, rolled oats and coconut together in a mixing bowl
  • add the melted butter mixture to the dry ingredients and mix well
  • using baking paper-lined trays, form small balls of mixture and place on tray, flattening slightly
  • bake for 15 minutes or until just golden brown 
  • take care to remove from the oven as soon as they start to brown, otherwise they will become overly crisp (read: hard!)

Flat-out Pigs’ Heads, Yongkang Lu

Need a flattened out pig’s head to help with your Chinese New Year celebrations? Or how about a compressed dried chicken, feet’n’all? Just two of the many intriguing items available at the Year of the Rabbit market on Yongkang Lu this week! Festive markets like this one spring up all over Shanghai in preparation for the upcoming Spring Festival, and whole streets are taken over by long rows of red-tented stalls. The stalls are open all day, every day, and into the night, and after close of business the stall holders, who may have come from far afield, put up a drape and sleep on the floor of the stall to keep their goods safe from would-be thieves. Tough going when it’s minus four outside. 
Everyone loves to buy special foods to take home for the holidays, just like we do, although at these markets you won’t spot a single box of chocolates or marzipan fruit, and there certainly aren’t any neat packets of assorted nuts. There is dried dog but I didn’t want to put you off, so no photos, sorry. Luckily there are plenty of other slightly more palatable options to choose from!

You could try the red dates or dried lychees……

Special harvest rice……

Various dried seaweeds, or Chinese pork sausages and other assorted bits of dried meats, geese, ducks, dogs….
Or you could just hang out in your warm quilted PJs and sample all the pickles on offer…including pickled jellyfish….

In amongst all the odder foods I was dragged over to take the photo of this super-apple-salesman, along with the sign that says he is a certified apple seller, best quality. There was a really great camaraderie between the sellers as they joked and gave him a hard time about having the poses he was happily adopting for the picture. Apples are popular Chinese New Year gifts because they’re red. And the redder they are, the more expensive they are. Of course!
And by the way, does anybody know what you do with those pig’s heads? I tried googling ‘how to cook a Chinese flat dried pig’s head’ and got this fascinating account of Imperial Foods of the Ming Dynasty:
 How to pickle a pig’s head and trotters. Cook the pig’s head and trotters until they are very soft, then remove the bones. Spread the meat on a cloth and press it flat overnight with a large stone. It is very delicious when pickled in grains. (Eight Commentaries on How to Live )

Love that google.

The French Concession Tree Preservation Crew

This year, I’ll remember not to walk underneath the plane trees in the French Concession while the annual work crews are busy, unlike last year when I copped a branch to the head. Shanghai is pretty much a Workplace Health and Safety-free zone. 
The elegant plane trees of downtown Shanghai are one of the city’s most recognizable features, planted over a hundred years ago to line the streets of the massive French Concession. Other than a few dark years of over-zealous development in the 1990s when a number were ripped up (and later replanted after a huge public outcry), they have been carefully preserved. Every winter, from December to February, after the last leaves have fallen, crews of orange-suited workmen sweep through like a locust plague, trimming the trees back to winter bareness. 

The climbers come first, scaling the trunk in four steps of a bamboo ladder, then scrambling along the branches to cut back to the start of last year’s growth. They wear safety harnesses around their waists which aren’t actually attached to anything, because they can work much faster without having to hitch and unhitch all the time, but their green-sneakered feet are agile and grip the branches and I’m yet to see one lose his balance. Underneath the tree lies a growing tangle of large and small branches. When their work on that tree is done, the climbers jump down and move on to the next, from one end of the street to the other. The careful attention given to the trees doesn’t extend to passersby walking below, or passing cars or cyclists – they just have to swerve to avoid the branches being tossed to the ground left, right and centre. 
Now come the rope guys, on their bicycles, with coils of thick, hand-made hessian rope. They sort the branches into two sizes, then bundle them up ready for the pick-up truck. 
Last are the repairmen. They paste any holes in the trunk or branches with a hard-setting concrete paste, to prevent rot setting in. 
The trees look naked but now the winter sunshine is streaming in to the upper floor windows of lane houses on both sides of the street. In six months the windows will be invisible again behind the dense green canopy of the summer foliage, and the crews will be back to trim and thin out the lush summer growth. It makes me feel good that these trees are so well taken care of, a small sign that Shanghai is recognising the value of preservation, the value of old over new. It’s a start. 

Saving Tail, Losing Face

I‘ve often wondered if there could be some other possible use for those ridiculous skinny plastic bags you get given at department store entrances, to put your wet umbrellas in. They lie all over the footpath outside the store, discarded, crumpled and unwanted. I was walking down Wulumuqi Lu yesterday when I noticed this large orange-covered dog in front of me attracting quite a lot of attention. He was wearing his owner’s raincoat, sleeves and all, but given what dogs wear around here it was hardly the raincoat that was raising eyebrows. 

It was what he had on his tail. Yep, she had saved one of those bags from her last trip to Zara, and now here it was slid onto his tail. A long tail it was, and it looked quite the business swishing from side to side encased in a skinny plastic sleeve. You may be a giant majestic wolfhound, but if you put a plastic bag on your tail, everyone’s gonna laugh at you.

Shanghai Street Food #15 Chòu Dòufu 臭豆腐 Stinky Tofu

Here I am, in the throes of a bad head cold, can’t smell anything, and can barely taste anything, so I figure that now is the exactly ideal time to try that inexplicably popular Shanghai street food snack, chòu dòufu 臭豆腐, also known as stinky tofu. 
‘Is that your name for it?’ my friend asks. ‘No’, I say, ‘that’s a direct translation of what it’s called in Chinese. Honestly.’

My Chinese dictionary gives this example of the use of the word chòu (stinky):
Ta de jiao ai chuhan, yi tuo xie jiu ewendao chou wei.
He has sweaty feet – the moment he takes off his shoes one scents the foul smell.
Charmless, but that should give you a clue to the kind of stinky stink we’re talking about. So stinky, the reek of it can be smelled at the other end of the street from where it’s being cooked. With a retch-inducing scent of ammonia, dead possum, and blocked sewerage pipes, I still can’t work out whether Chinese people really love to eat this, or they just love the thought of eating something the rest of the world finds so overwhelmingly revolting. Please, readers, fill me in.
So how do you make perfectly good tofu stink? First, you need something like a hermetically-sealed aircraft hangar in which to make the fermented brine, from rotten soy milk, vegetables, herbs and sometimes shrimp or meat. A good brine takes months to mature, and during this time you better keep that hangar door closed. Once the brine is ready, you can add your tofu to it for anything from two days to two weeks. This process gives the tofu an unusual honeycomb texture and that indescribable stinky tofu smell. This is obviously not a job for home-brew enthusiasts, unless you’re trying to evacuate all the other residents from your building, and recipes are not readily available for public health reasons. For the same reason, stinky tofu is more likely to be sold as a street food, in the open air, than in the enclosed confines of a restaurant.
Back on the street, the chòu dòufu is usually cut into bite-sized squares and deep-fried in a wok full of boiling oil. The squares are threaded onto a stick, then pasted with a sweet or spicy sauce of your choice.
Now for the tasting. I figure without my sense of smell or taste working, I’m well-protected, but what I don’t figure on is my own active imagination, conjuring up visions of the tofu pieces I’m about to put in my mouth having been dragged out of a vat full of excrement and rotting shrimp heads. Plus or minus maggots. The pungency is working its way through my nose regardless, and I feel like I might back down, or gag, or both. Only now there is a small crowd of onlookers and I just have to take the plunge, or risk losing face, so I take a big bite of the first square.  Actually, not bad. The outside is crispy and salted, the inside creamy, with a texture like a set custard. The chili sauce helps. But the second bite is harder than the first, and the third harder still. That smell. I work my way through three pieces before I lose my nerve. The stinky tofu stays down but for the next two days I can recall the smell with nauseating intensity, despite the head cold. 
Why do I do these things? Because. Because I’d hate to say I’d been to China and never even tried it. And does it taste like blue cheese, like some people say? Not a bit like it. Does the taste make up for the smell? No. No. No. The only relief is that the taste is nothing like the smell. Perhaps that’s the attraction.

In Shanghai stinky tofu can be tried at the street food market at Sipailou Lu, at Qibao old town, and occasionally at Yu Gardens, particularly at times like Chinese New Year.   Good luck, and go bravely forward, you adventurous foodie. 
You will no doubt(!) find the other street foods in this series a bit more appetising:

Number 1   Roast Sweet Potatoes
Number 2   Snack-on-a-stick 
Number 3   Liangpi – a spicy cold noodle dish
Number 4   Langzhou Lamian – hand-pulled noodles
Number 5   Cong You Bing – fried shallot pancakes
Number 6   Baozi – steamed buns, Shanghai style
Number 7   Jian Bing – the famous egg pancake
Number 8   Dan Gao – street cakes
Number 9   Shao mai – sticky rice treats
Number 10  Summer on a Stick – fresh fruits

Number 11  You Tiao – deep-fried breadsticks
Number 12  Dan Juan – egg rolls
Number 13  Shao Kao – street barbecue
Number 14  Bao Mi Hua – exploding rice flowers
Number 15  Chou Doufu – stinky tofu
Number 16  Bing Tang Shan Zha – crystal sugar hawthorns
Number 17  Mutton Polo
Number 18  Yumi Bang – puffed corn sticks
Number 19  Mian Hua Tang – cotton candy
Number 20  You Dunzi – fried radish cakes

Number 21  Suzhou Shi Yue Bing – homestyle mooncakes 
Number 22  Gui Hua Lian’ou – honeyed lotus root stuffed with sticky rice
Number 23  Cong You Ban Mian – scallion oil noodles
Number 24  Guotie – potsticker dumplings
Number 25  Nuomi Cai Tou – fried clover pancakes
Number 26  Da Bing, Shao Bing – sesame breakfast pastries
Number 27  Ci Fan – sticky rice breakfast balls
Number 28  Gui Hua Gao – steamed osmanthus cake
Number 29  Zongzi – bamboo leaf wrapped sticky rice
Number 30  Shengjianbao – pan-fried dumplings

Number 31  Mala Tang – DIY spicy soup

Shanghai Hot Pot Primer

Back in Shanghai (at last!), it’s cold, grey and blustery and a horrible flu seems about to take grip. Under these circumstances, the best comfort food I can think of is hotpot, a big steaming pot of Chinese soup with all kinds of delicious things to cook in it. I love to come in from the cold street to a room full of steaming pots, one for each table, with diners huddled over their pots selecting a choice item from their plates and dipping it in. The room is full of chatter and good humour, and everyone looks warm and happy.
The waitress brings us an enormous menu, practically bigger than a chair and running to twenty pages. It looks dauntingly confusing but the first choice to make is your soup base. Choose from a fragrant mushroom-based clear broth, a thick-with-chillies blow-your-head-off spicy version, a creamy marrow soup, or a yin-yang – a pot with a clever central divider so you can have two different soups. The waitress brings the broad pot of warm soup and places it carefully in the ready made hole in our table, with a gas burner below it. Pretty soon, it’s bubbling away and our column of steam rises up from our table to join all the other steam plumes in the restaurant.
Then choose the plates of items to dip in your soup – meats, mushrooms, meatballs, vegetables, tofu, dumplings, noodles and even offal, if that’s your thing. I’m passing on the tripe and congealed duck’s blood thanks! We start instead with paper thin rolls of sliced raw beef,  and some crescent shaped dumplings filled with pork and vegetables and wrapped in the thinnest covering of egg, and black agaric (cloud ear fungus). These all add to the flavour as the night goes on, and the simple soup you began with develops a wonderful richness and complexity as you chat, and dip, and chat some more.

Whilst those are cooking we sidle off to the sauce buffet to mix our own dipping sauce, Here’s where hotpot really gets fun. Take a dish, and mix away – sesame paste, sichuan chili black bean paste, peanut sauce, soy suace, chili sauce, vinegar,  sesame oil, chopped coriander, chopped garlic, ginger, scallions, pickles and more. You can have a single sauce or mix as many as you like together for a custom blend. Should you need it you can also add salt, sugar, pepper or even MSG to taste. 

Back at the table and it’s time for some extras to go into the pot. Bean noodles, hearty potato slices, bok choy and shitake mushrooms go in, a few at a time. When they’re cooked, fish them out with your chopsticks and dip them in your sauce. Delicious! Even green vegetables taste good this way! 
I remember our first hotpot foray in Shanghai, where all eleven of us were put into a private room. We had absolutely no idea what to do, so when the plates of food arrived we chucked them all in at once, resulting in a big mess of meat, greens and noodles that all cooked at different rates. The chaos and splashing seemed fun but the overcooked greens sank limply to the bottom of the pot and the noodles got tangled up in everything. We didn’t even know there were sauces to be had. 
We were finally seated the next time adjacent to a table of locals, and we could see their slow and considered hotpot cooking style in action. Just one or two items at a time, lots of chatting, and a social  meal that lasted for several hours. So that’s how you do it! 

Devastation – Brisbane Floods

I know today I promised to write about Shanghai, but I’ve come back to Shanghai to find that my hometown of Brisbane, in Australia, is experiencing its worst ever natural disaster – a severe flood of enormous magnitude. Experts are saying the damage done is four times greater than that wreaked by hurricane Katrina in the USA. Australia, despite its beauty, is a harsh country, and in addition to recent severe droughts, Brisbane has been flooded badly twice before – the river that lies at the city’s heart overflowed its banks in 1893 and again in 1974. I was five years old then, and all I remember of it is the endless, endless rain, but my parents memories and warnings of that time have punctuated my life ever since.
 ‘Oh, you wouldn’t want to live there, it went under in ’74’ were the often repeated words from my mother whenever I looked at a house to rent, or later to buy. As a result, my house sits on a hill, far from the river’s side where I would love to live. Today, as the river reached its flooding peak, I’m extremely grateful for her advice.  
For the last month, it has done little else in Brisbane but rain. Tropical downpours are common enough in the summer months of December, January and February, but this rain was more relentless and persistent until gradually the ground all over Queensland became completely saturated, and all the dams filled to overflowing. The thin blue river, winding through every part of the city, has become a bloated fast-flowing brown torrent. Large parts of the state of Queensland, of which Brisbane is the capital, have been under flood in the last two weeks, with an area involved larger than France and Germany combined. Now that massive body of water has moved, and in combination with fresh heavy rain new areas have flooded, some devastatingly so. The little town of Grantham, not far from Brisbane, was literally swept away when an inland tidal wave of water, a flash flood, picked up houses and cars and washed them downstream. Fifteen people are dead and another sixty are still missing, in a flood area that now surpasses that of Texas and California combined. The scope of the devastation is terrifying, and the rebuilding and clean-up will take months, if not years.
House and car in Grantham, washed away.
At a time like this it’s terrible to be away from home, and to know that your friends are going through such a frightening event. I wish I was there to lend a hand, lend a bed, lend a shoulder. You are all constantly in my thoughts, and I wish for all of you to be safe.

These are my local shops back home, normally about 1.5km from the river.
Photos from the Brisbane Times
Information available at The Courier Mail, where donations to the Queensland Flood Appeal can also be given.

Leaving Scotland

Today I leave Scotland behind, with its snow, and head back to Shanghai, in fact by the time you read this I’ll already be there.  Scotland is truly magnificent, with its wild countryside, clean waters and pure air, and the country has become acutely aware of just how valuable and precious their local food culture is, with so many more restaurants and shops stocking locally sourced produce than the last time I visited. My imaginary food suitcase would be full of Scottish salmon, smoked mackerel, Orkney cheeses, oatcakes, rich Scottish cream, a MacSween’s haggis, Edinburgh tablet (a type of fudge) and litres of pure, fresh water straight from Highland springs. (Actually, don’t tell Chinese customs but my suitcase contans almost all these things, except for the cream and the mackerel.) 
Edinburgh in winter is in full gothic splendor, with the dark stone spire of the Scot monument rising up in front of the ancient castle, perched above the town on a craggy outcrop at the top of the Royal Mile with its cobbled streets and narrow closes. The short winter days, with their lovely soft light, begin well into the day, and by mid-afternoon the twilight has already begun, with soft pink shadows stretching over the snow.  I’ll leave you with some photographs, and see you back in the East tomorrow.