Wednesday, January 14, 2009


Adventures in Food and Drink

I've actually liked most of the food I've tried here, (even some strange stuff that initially looked less than appetizing has tasted pretty good) but yesterday.... ummm.... it was a mixed bag.

The first food-based discovery of the day was all my own fault. At Carrefours with Dina the night before, I picked up a 1.5 liter bottle of Kirin orange juice. They had Tropicana and Minute Maid, but I wanted something more "authentic." Every day, the breakfast bar at the hotel has several juices, but none of them are orange, and Floridian and citrus lover that I am, I was missing my daily OJ. Note to self: just drink the grapefruit juice and move on. Lisha has confirmed that OJ here is not even remotely like OJ in the States. Kirin OJ? Think watered down Sunny Delight.

Breakfast at the hotel is great. I've discovered that I really like hot, steamed soy milk and all these cool little steamed dumpling things filled with meat or vegetables, and there was a bread and egg custard stuff that is similar to an unsweet bread pudding that I thought might be the ideal way to start a day. Not too eggy, not too sweet, not brick-like or grossly runny and gelatinous. (I'd think it would be completely perfect in a savory version with herbs or a just slightly sweeter version with no more sweetener, but using currants or leftover raisin bread). I'm also a fan of the Chinese take on yogurt, which is drinkable and unflavored and unsweet.

I've been opting for the Chinese breakfast dishes, because a lot of the Western stuff that the hotel does for the business and tourist crowd is amusingly "just about one bubble off plumb"- Sometimes really good, sometimes so-so, never awful, but never quite what you are expecting when you bite into it. Take breakfast sausage links. They look like the stuff at the local Bob Evans or Waffle House, and they're not bad, but whoever made them has obviously never had breakfast in the States. The seasoning is entirely too subtle for someone conditioned to being bludgeoned with pepper and sage. :-) Imagine biting into what looks like an apple and finding out it tastes like a plum. Not bad- sometimes really yummy- just disconcerting. That's what eating some of the Western food here is like. Since I have no preconceptions about the local dishes, I can take them at face value.

For dinner, I convinced Lisha to take me someplace that had real food that a real local would eat. So the responsibility for what transpired is entirely mine.

It was...interesting. Local color, off the radar of the western-influenced businesses that circle the business park and expat hotels and apartments. Families dining in what was clearly a neighborhood joint. Everywhere I go, I seek out places like this, but in China, it really helps to have someone who speaks the language in joints like this. Bad enough I'm big and blonde and ever-so-Western, being illiterate wasn't going to be a plus. I felt it was important to my understanding of Shanghai and folks who live and work here to get out there in the real world.

So it was an adventure . What it wasn't was yummy. The only reason I don't feel like a wuss is because Lisha's typically low key comment at the end of the meal was, "I don't think I'd rush back here."

The fish with sweet and sour sauce and topped with pine nuts sounded good in theory. I like sweet and sour sauce, I love pine nuts, and I'm determined to learn to eat more fish because of the health benefits. But when this fish arrived, it was grimacing at me as though it was pissed off to be dipped in pink sauce. Creeped out by the intact head and tail, it took me a while to get up the courage to taste it. I eventually got a piece into my mouth. It didn't taste bad, but the texture was very strange. Choking it down, I moved on. Not since college and Liane's mother's scary Vietnamese food or the marathon dinners with Steve-the-Jerk-From-Mitsubishi (the pretentious bozo I dated in Atlanta for a while) have I relied on my will to remain polite at the dinner table in quite the same way.

The vegetable dish was actually quite good. I like vegetables, and nothing about them can creep me out. There was some sort of dark green leafy stuff mixed with what I believe were rice-based noodles. Tasted like kale or mustard greens, something I rarely need to be compelled to eat. Unfortunately, I was a complete klutz with the slick red plastic chopsticks, so unless I wanted to wear it, I was in trouble. (Note to self. Suck it up and put a fork in your purse. It will save on dry cleaning)

The boiled chicken in skin, served cold with a soy-based dipping sauce was innocuous enough, but I'd had a similar dish, much more attractively and tastily prepared, the night before, so the best I can say for it is that it was inoffensive protein. When hacked into strips with a cleaver, they'd shattered all the bones, so there was no particularly elegant way to eat it. Bite, chew, spit out bone fragments. Lather, rinse, repeat.

I'd ordered hot and sour soup-- which is something I very much like. Hey, tofu, vegetables and spicy broth. How could I go wrong? (The other soup on the menu was chicken blood soup, and I couldn't go there.) I like all those things. It was OK-- neither the best nor worst I've ever had. Unfortunately, it was about 2 degrees above room temperature, so it was a little like eating hot and sour aspic.

Figuring that, since I was freezing, a cup of tea sounded good, I ordered one. The presentation in a clear 4-ounce glass reminded me of the Russian restaurant in Little Odessa in MN that I stumbled into one day, but the comparison ended there. The fact that the glass was nearly half full of tea leaves was a surprise. Not awful, not warming, and not what I was expecting.

So yesterday was a food fiasco day, but if that's the worse thing I can say, I'm doing pretty well.

I am from the Odessa area and I would not consider the cafe in Odessa to be a Russian restaurant. Sorry.
Thanks, the food at the place in Little Odessa was probably more Polish or Ukranian than Russian....I never really wrote about it because, other than the doorway to the amber and lacquerware shop next door, I found it rather unremarkable.

I have eaten at some marvelous Russian restaurants elsewhere in the US-- (when I lived in Atlanta, there were several good ones, and there are excellent ones in NYC and SF) but this place was this was, IMO, not one of them. But the presentation of the tea in clear glasses took me back to my childhood, and I remembered it.
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