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A fine Italian

Italian Restaurant

The best, most authentic Italian that has been discovered yet can be found at Angelo's Pizza place in Shekou. This was one of the very best meals I've had in a whole year of being in China, and one of the most satisfying non-Chinese places. We went with Kathleen after Church today. 

Kathleen, Andrew and I shared a salad consisting of lettuce, tomato and Gorgonzola cheese with an Italian dressing. I was a little suspicious about the blue cheese, especially in a salad, but it really worked. We also had a penne pasta with tomato base and Italian sausage that was likewise amazingly tasty.

The staff were obviously a close-knit bunch, because one very large Italian chef, who obviously enjoyed his food, at one staged companionably rubbed the shoulders of another Chinese chef, who we suspect had been cooking for a while. It was a lovely gesture.

The wind really picked up when we were just about to leave and became so gusty that all staff, bar one chef who had something cooking, sprinted outside to get the umbrellas down before they shattered the windows. 

We hesitated to leave just then, because we thought it might blow itself out, but the rain came shortly after. As we only had a single umbrella amongst the three of us, we sat for 15 mins, then went outside to see if we could make a dash between raindrops.

Alas, it was too late to leave, and we vainly stood outside while the rain pelted down. After about 5 minutes the owner, Angelo, came out to chat. Apparently he's been around the world and has opened about 5 Trattiora in various parts of the world. He was also personal chef for Steven Seagal who had to eat every 2 hours, and who couldn't stand his meal being ready more than 1 minute before he sat down to it. If it were 2 minutes before, then there was trouble. Angelo sometimes only had 5 mins' notice to prepare something. We found this vastly amusing, and he related the anecdote without ceremony. 

The rain continued unabated so Angelo invited us back in for a complementary drink. It was in a small glass and was the juice of about 1/2 a lemon, and a little vodka. I enjoyed it, but to Kathleen, who is a celebrated sweet-tooth, it was less palatable.  

This is quite simply one of the very best restaurants in Shenzhen.

Ode to MSG

To the tune of "Be our Guest" from Disney's Beauty and the Beast

How I despise you MSG.
You make me thirsty after lunch,
Even though I've drunk much tea!

How I abhor you MSG.
You are laced all through my food,
I am dizzy till past three!

How I detest you MSG.
You make food taste really good,
But that does not include me!

How I revile you MSG.
You're in most of China's food,
MSG, you're not for me!

A lot of the food here in China is laced with MSG. It's so common in the food that the after-effects are sometimes called 'Chinese Restaurant Syndrome'. Sometimes I'll get light-headed after eating a meal that's heavy in MSG, other times I'll get a mild headache. It takes a lot of effort to eat out at a restaurant and have MSG-free meals. 

Dumpling day

Sunday dawned and we readied ourselves to set out to spend the day making dumplings at the apartment of Diana, one of my Chinese colleagues. To make dumplings was quite a treat. We were privileged to be asked, as a Chinese person would usually only make them with their closest friends. It's common practice in the northern parts of China and it's a tradition to do so at the time of the New Year's Festival. 

We met up with some other expatriate friends (along with one of their visitors) outside a major shopping mall where we could catch the bus. All together we were 8 foreigners. I'm sure we caught the attention of the locals, having such a large cluster of Caucasian folk in one place at one time. The bus we needed was the number 300. Not the 300A, not the 300B but the 300. This was made slightly more difficult because the A and B designators weren't adjacent the bus numbers, rather they were on cards in the windscreens of the buses. Fortunately Diana had written down lots of useful info including the full bus title which showed 5 Chinese characters on one side of the '300' and three on the other. Hey, when you can't read the Chinese characters you can always at least count them ) .

After arriving at the right bus stop we were met by our very cordial hosts, Harry and Diana. Their apartment is fairly new and about 45 minutes to the north of the centre of town, outside the Special Economic Zone border. Diana and Harry had already done a lot of preparation work before we arrived however there was still lots to do. For the next hour or so we chopped, diced, washed, stirred, sliced, mixed, ground, cleaned, de-shelled, kneaded and rolled, all to prepare the ingredients.

Our first goal was to prepare the ingredients to make 4 different types of dumplings:

  • Carrot based pork dumplings
  • Standard pork dumplings
  • Shrimp dumplings
  • Tofu dumplings

Tab on shrimp duties

One job was to prepare the shrimp. Philip and Tab set to this task with gusto, Philip beheading the fresh shrimp and Tab de-veining and tailing them. Here you can see that Tab is getting right into the Chinese culture by adopting a very culturally-appropriate posture for the task at hand. While they were doing this Dave 1 and I set about tenderising the port mince (with chopsticks!) while Dave 2 reclined on the couch, feeling lethargic and achy whilst his body contended with foreign germs. 

Mixing the pork The result of our labours Making the dough

The next task was to assemble the dumplings. Here Diana rolled out a bit of dough, scooped up some mixture and formed a perfect dumpling in less time than it's taken you to read this sentence. So, it looked easy. Hmmm. For the next 1 - 2 hours we proceeded to fumble our way through making about 150 dumplings. Some were big, some were small, some were odd shapes and some were just plain weird-looking. Try as we might, nothing we ever made came even close to matching anything I've ever seen in a restaurant. Still, good fun was had by all.

There's a whole range of factors that need to be considered when making dumplings. The pastry needs to be circular and slightly thicker in the middle, the moisture level of the pastry must be just right, the amount of mixture needs to be measured precisely and the biggest challenge of all is folding them in the right way. Get it wrong and the dumpling may open up whilst it's being cooked, destroying the dumpling. Needless to say, we failed miserably at making good-looking dumplings, our only hope was that they'd taste better than they looked.

Everyone pitching in Can I hear something?

A Chinese tradition is to put a small coin inside a few dumplings. Those that find the coin, when eaten at Chinese New Year, will get extra good luck for that year. We'd brought along an Aussie 5c piece, Cyril brought along a small Swiss coin and Diana had a 2 Fen coin (0.3 Australian cents) that went out of circulation in China about 15 years ago. After a good clean they all went into the mixture. Diana also produced a much larger silver coin, which was over 50 years old. Apparently if you blow on the edge of it and hold it to your ear then a sound can be heard. Despite my attempts, I never heard a thing. It did look funny whilst I tried, though.

Group shot 1 Group shot 2

When the time came for eating we weren't disappointed. Despite our best efforts to destroy the dumplings they tasted really good. We couldn't take any credit for this, it was all down to the hard work of Diana and Henry. They were amazingly gracious hosts, putting up with a bunch of foreigners making a mess of a significant Chinese tradition. We couldn't thank them enough for allowing us to be involved in such an important piece of Chinese culture, as well as having a lot of fun!

Dinner at home

We returned home to Gail, who's ankle was still giving her trouble. Rather than go out for tea again we decided to stay in. After a quick sprint to the shops, where Tab stocked up on western goodies, we returned to the apartment armed with everything necessary for a night of fine lasagne and Australian wine. We splurged on a few extra imported items to make the meal complete. We even managed to find a Coopers beer! That night we had a veritable feast. It was a chance to eat, drink and talk like we were thousands of miles away… like we were back in Australia… like we were home.

No more rice, please

Bush biscuit

What you see here is an Australian Bush Biscuit, coated in Vegemite and margarine goodness. Today I had been feeling quite sick of China-food. Soy this, rice that, noodles with this, fatty pork those, oily vegetables, greasy dumplings. Bah! A string of days of China food has left me hanging out for a good chicken parmigiana. How to drag me out of this slump? A good Aussie Bush biscuit.  grin

Kudos to the top chick (my sister) who thoughtfully gave us a pack of Arnotts Bush Biscuits just before we returned to China.

Local Tucker

A couple of people have requested that I talk a little more about the food of the local area, so I will. Shenzhen is a real melting pot of cuisine because most of the residents have moved in from other parts of China. This means that they have brought their own food and culture with them. In Shenzhen it is possible to eat food originating from practically all over China. This is great for trying new things. The only downside is that, not being able to read Chinese, I have no idea where in China the food I’m eating is from. Come to think of it, I often don’t know what I’m eating in the first place!

Today we went out to a restaurant that specialises in food from the Shanghai and Beijing regions within China. I took particular note of the food, even asking questions so that I knew what I was having. For lunch today (6 people) we had:

  • Deep fried fish pieces with chilli
  • Peeled prawns with dark vinegar sauce
  • Diced vegetables on a sculpted lettuce leaf (carrot, cucumber, green bean and celery)
  • Steamed sen chai (similar to bok choi) in oil and diced garlic
  • Pork buns
  • Peking duck skin with sweet sauce, cucumber, spring onion and a rice wrap
  • Spicy frog stir fry with chilli
  • Steamed rice
  • Lots of green tea

It was all really nice, if somewhat oily. One of the guys at lunch was telling me how the food in the lower parts of China was of a very poor quality some years ago. Watermelons were being artificially coloured red with dye and they substituted some additives/chemicals in the baby milk powder to reduce the cost but it gave some infants brain damage and caused their heads and stomachs to swell. The Chinese have also developed a 100% synthetic egg. Fortunately things are better these days but I wonder if I’ve unknowingly sampled one of those eggs…

Fancy a drink?

Great Wall Cork

Since moving to China we’ve sampled a couple of locally produced wines. I have to say that they’ve left a lot to be desired. We’ve tried a couple of bottles of red from Great Wall and not really enjoyed either of them. One in particular was very poor. We kept it for cooking and we didn’t like it even then! In fairness both of the bottles we’ve sampled have been fairly inexpensive. Maybe we’ll have to try a dearer one to see if it’s any better.

Fortunately there are a range of imported wines from all over the world available in Hong Kong, at a price. We managed to find some Australian wines for sale in the Japanese Jusco supermarket here in Shenzhen too, at prices varying from 150 RMB to 800 RMB.

Australian Wines at Jusco

Cultural lesson: The Chinese are not wine makers.

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