taigu

We're Making Dumplings Tonight

This past Thursday, some students came over to Veronica and Amelea’s house and we made dumplings.  Despite all of my years stuffing egg rolls with my grandma and family, I’ve found that pinching dumplings is a completely different art form I have yet to master.  Here is the step-by-step process as far as I can see:

1. Make the dough, it’s just normal dough consisting of flour and water that’s used in any other aspect of cooking in Shanxi Province

(read: 各种各样的饼,刀削面,饺子包子,什么的 any kind of Chinese pancakes, knife-cut-noodles, potstickers, dumplings, etc.)

2. Knead dat dough! But not too hard, otherwise it’ll fall apart.

3. Cut dat dough! First cut into a long, fat noodle form, then cut into petite, lopsided squares as demonstrated below (also check out that knife.  Yeah, that’s standard issue to all “foreign experts” at Shanxi Agriculture University).

4. Press the cut dough into flat circles.  This can be done in a variety of ways.  One student flattened the pieces of dough using a rolling pin, another simply used her hands.  It’s important that the edges of the dough are flatterer than the middle, which should be left slightly thick to ensure durability.

5. Bao and pinch those dumps!**

As luck would have it, I did not record the best part of the process, which is stuffing the dumplings with various vegetables and meat if desired.  My hands were too floury too hold the camera.

**Since moving to Shanxi province, I have gotten into the lazy habit of speaking Chinglish.  ”Bao” means to fill or stuff, and dumps are short for dumplings

6. Boil ‘em Once they start to float, they’re pretty much done

7. Eat with Vinegar, duh

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Taigu Reflection

We got to tour some of the greenhouses managed by Shanxi Agriculture University students and they were very impressive. The strawberries were some of the sweetest I have ever tasted, everything seemed to be flourishing and green, and the greenhouses themselves were structurally SO cool— carved out of the ground, you had to go through a little dirt tunnel to enter. One of my first thoughts were “Wow! These are so awesome and look so productive and ecological, why doesn’t Oberlin have something like this??” (I have heard rumors that students are actually trying to build a greenhouse on campus, but are running into a lot of red tape.) 

But, without knowing a lot about greenhouses or their impacts, there seem to be some potential problems with them both ecological and economical. Ecologically, there is the destruction of natural ecosystems, the carbon footprint of actually building the structures, using the land to grow produce that does not naturally grow there or growing out of season fruit, etc. Economically there is the cost of the structure, and as I have seen greenhouses normally used for growing more luxury/non-essential produce rather than staples I see potential for a gap in who will be able to afford them? BUT are the ecological and economic considerations better or worse than shipping these out of season, non-essential fruits and vegetables from warmer climates?

I am sure I have probably left out other issues that greenhouses raise, and I might have even exaggerated some, but I think part of the reason why I am a little confused by greenhouses and agriculture in general, is that we really didn’t get the chance to talk to people about it. We talked about the water crises, water/soil/air pollution, but we didn’t really get the chance to focus on food apart from quality. I think it would be really cool to get to talk to people about food quantity, distribution, and access. In Chengdu we got to talk to some individual farmers and it was really cool to learn about their farms, day to day lives, problems with pollution, finding the right customers, and the logistics of getting produce to their customers. And I think it would be really interesting, since we got to look at agriculture on a local level, to see it on a national scale as well. 

Another interesting thing I learned that day, that out of all the students at the Agriculture University, only a few of them from each class will actually use their major in their career. Others will find a job in a different field, but because of the way the college system works in China, a lot of students get stuck in this major because they might not have scores high enough to major in a more competitive concentration. This perhaps highlights a flaw in the Chinese education system when students have less choice in what they are allowed to study.

Taigu

So, I’ve now been in China for well over a week and I have to say that this has been the most amazing experience. I have an odd relationship with traveling: I love seeing new places and exploring things, but I like my own food, my own bed, and plenty of alone time. Trips like this offer the former, but generally withhold the latter. Normally, this proves a bit of a problem and leads to either homesickness or just a general crabbiness, but for this trip, I’ve had no real problems at all. I feel like a good part of the reason for this has been the amazing food. As a rather picky vegetarian, I tend to like, in order of preference, having my mom make my food, making my own food, or going to a restaurant I know well. Again, these generally aren’t options while traveling, and there have been several trips in the past where I survived almost entirely off of Starbucks frappachinos and McDonalds french fries due to a combination of my own pickiness and a lack of options. Whereas, on this trip, not only has the food been plentiful, but my questions regarding it have gone from a litany of “What is it?” “Is there meat in that?” “Is it spicy?” etc. to simply “Can I eat it?” since everything has been absolutely amazingly tasty, or at the very worst, quite palatable, though I have relatively little idea of what precisely I’ve been eating. There have been quite a lot of noodles (my favorite are the medium sized clear ones), oodles of vegetables (some of which I recognized, like broccoli, cucumbers and zucchini, others of which I have no idea what they were), tofu in every shape and sauce imaginable, various delicious little things filled with red bean paste or covered in sesame seeds, and an assortment of tasty broths made with rice, or tomato, or millet, or corn, or occasionally a chicken or beef broth that I’ve just pretend doesn’t have meat in it. There’s even the occasional food that I normally dislike, such as mushrooms, that I have ended up thoroughly enjoying due to the way it was prepared here.

Not only is the food incredibly tasty and simply bursting with vegetarian delights, but particularly here in Taigu, there is just so much of it. I do not walk away from the table full: I stagger away from it positively bursting with food, dizzy with deliciousness (or perhaps that’s the fenjo) absolutely sated, and often slightly regretful that I didn’t have room for that last little delicacy left to languish forlornly on a plate. And not only do I leave the table stuffed with food, but with conversation, or simply a very strong sense of community. The way that dining is so group oriented- with the rotating platters, the take a little of this, a little of that, hold the lazy susan for your neighbor, let your neighbor help you fish the last stubborn sliced vegetable onto your own plate- is wonderful. It’s just nice to be a part of something, to eat as a group and not each person alone with their individual plates. More than anything, I have felt very welcome in Taigu, by the members of the Shanxi University and also by my fellow travelers. I’ll take the bit of “tease the vegetarian” that comes along with that any day. 

On the other hand, all this communal eating seems to come with a price: excess and magnificence mean waste, and there seems to be a great deal of all three generated from these meals of ours. Those rotating platters, of which I am so fond, are constantly being filled and refilled, and so by the end of the meal a great deal of food, quite easily enough to feed several more people, remains on the table. I don’t really know what happens to it, but even assuming the best, that all of it is composted properly, the excessive amounts of food waste are hardly healthy for the environment, or an efficient means of feeding a large group of people. Particularly in a nation where there are shortages of food and water in many regions, I’ve felt a bit guilty about the way in which we have been hosted, and the amount of food that has gone to waste. In addition, the persistence of the hosting here has meant that not only do I generate far more food waste here than I do at home, but I also eat far more. It feels wrong and rude not to try the things presented to me, particularly when someone takes the trouble to assure me that they have provided this vegetarian dish particularly for my benefit, and even spoons some of it onto my plate for me. And to make matters worse, I have proved woefully inept at figuring out when a meal is likely to end, therefore eating far more than I intended as more and more dishes appear on the table, that, of course, I really should try. 

I’ve wondered, as I’ve been feasting, how my experiences with food here compare to the experiences of those who live here. I’m sure that, particularly in Taigu, the way we were hosted is not representative of the general dining experience. And that feels wrong too. Because while I certainly appreciate the generosity that has been shown to us, I don’t really feel that I deserve this much special treatment. When all is said and done, I’m just another student. I’d like to think that I’ll be able to take the experiences I have on this trip and do something worthwhile with them, but it’s not as if I’m going to be able to have any sort of significant impact on the world just on the basis of this trip. Just feeding me at the dining hall, though less fun and likely less tasty, would have been more than enough, given that I am in the end just a temporary guest, only earning special treatment because I happen to be from another country. It puzzles me a little, the degree of importance we seemed to be accorded. And not just with this feasting and these banquets, but among random people. I’ve been asked twice by strangers to take photos with them and stared at a great deal, and it’s weird, frankly. I don’t really understand this, and I can’t quite imagine why, in a world so full of imported American and European culture (from the language, to certain foods, to advertising and the types of products being sold) that I’m seen as remarkable enough that people I’ve never met ask for my picture. Its this sense of undeserved importance, that, almost more than anything, including not knowing the language, has made me feel foreign here. It’s a not entirely comfortable feeling, and has been sitting oddly in my stomach alongside all that wonderful food I’ve been consuming so eagerly.