trainspotting in China

mahjong, mahjong and other food-related news

ChinaMoiLotus (Just realized I hadn't posted this yet).

So yesterday, Mike, Mary, Peter and I were taken across campus to learn how to play mahjong, something I've been wanting to learn for years. It's a complex game and a fast moving one, a little like poker, a little like dominoes and absolutely killer in terms of competitiveness and addiction. We got a quick summary of the rules and played several rounds with our teachers looking over our shoulders and coaching us. By the third round, I was getting the patterns but was still hampered by the fact that I don't know know the Chinese numerals—which is my own damn fault since I have a watch that counts the seconds digitally in Chinese. I happened to have a truly excellent teacher who was quick as lightning at snapping up the tiles we needed to complete our series (two of a kind, three of a kind, or ascending sets of three, one set or pair including either a one or nine), though I'm happy to say by the last round I was only a little behind him in recognizing them—except for the numeral suit. Since Elliott went out today to buy both Marcy and me Mahjong sets, I've made an investment in this (to the tune of less than $20, granted, but still an investment; I still have to haul it home and the things are heavy!), so I need to get cracking.

The best part was not only did we have a great time, but we had a lot of cultural exchange, which is the whole point of this exercise. Our teachers learned some new phrases ("keep the change," "drinks are on me" "winning streak"), and we learned a new game. As usually happens when you're having fun, people opened up, too, and I think we got to know one another a little better. It was a genuinely fun afternoon, with some genuine camaraderie.

Afterwards, we were taken for Korean hot pot to what was supposedly a "cheap student restaurant." Their cheap student restaurants look a heck of a lot different from the ones I've eaten in in the States. My grad school pals will remember (fondly, I'm sure) El Azteco in East Lansing, whose ceiling was regularly falling in, or "Eat and Puke" in Pittsburgh (also known as Eat and Park, a local 24-hour chain). Almost every restaurant we've been in here seems to have a number of private rooms for families or groups, and this was no exception.  The hotpot was interesting, though not my favorite meal by a long shot. We had beef, mutton, fish and shrimp to go in it, all cooked at the table, along with kelp (which is not my favorite seaweed), and a variety of mushrooms and vegetables. It's odd to see lettuce cooked. Probably as odd as it is for the Chinese to see us eat raw cabbage in coleslaw. But more on that later. The dipping sauce, coincidentally, was also called mahjong, pronounced exactly the same way as the game, with the same tones and everything. It's a sesame paste not at all like tahini, into which you mix a variety of condiments. I'm not fond of Chinese sesame paste either, so this wasn't my favorite meal, but it was fun and interesting too.

Afterwards, we headed back down the middle of the completely dug-up street where the restaurant was, something you'd never be allowed to do in the US. It was cool, in a weird way that I can't really explain. We were hurrying to beat a spectacular storm that was coming, with some serious lightning and thunder. We just made it, though I think our poor guide got soaked on the way home, especially since he wouldn't take an umbrella from one of us.

We were also rushing to get to our weekly staff meeting (such as it is) so Marcy and I could start cooking for her class. She's doing a class on ordering in restaurants and wanted food (the reason for our trip to the Metro Store on Saturday). We commandeered two hotplates and used her toaster oven, and ended up making tomato risotto, salsa (with packaged tortilla chips), mac and cheese, brownies, coleslaw, and potato salad. In the morning, I went up to fry up bacon (giving myself a couple of second degree spatter burns in the process since the bacon was packed in water--thanks, Hormel), and failed miserably at making pancakes because the pans weren't really flat, the heat was too high, and they stuck to the pan. I tried out my new cleaver, which is not a fantastic one, since it's stainless steel, but which did the job. We both felt a little like we were on Iron Chef after a while, but the two classes today went great and were very popular. Next year, it would be fun to plan the menu a little farther ahead of time and bring some ingredients and implements. It reminded me just a little too much of trying to cook in my Brooklyn apartment with no counter space: we wound up cooking in the living room, the bedroom, and the kitchen all at once with various hotplates and such. My hands still smell like onion.

Around noon, my previous night's dinner decided it had spent enough time brewing in my digestion and wanted out. NOW. I think this is a little bug going around, rather than the food though. Jan has been stricken since Saturday, and I've been absolutely fine up until now. I don't see how anything really dangerous could have survived boiling in that hotpot, so I'm pretty sure it wasn't the food. So I actually had to abandon Peter with the undergraduate Scrabble game today and come home. I've had a coke and the equivalent of some ramen, but Jan left me some of her Chinese herbal medicine tea and capsules and those are on the menu tonight too.

I also have a mosquito in my room who's decided I'm rather tasty, the little bastard. He's taken a nip at my ear, my knee, and between my pinkie and ring finger (!). Add this to the gigantic zits I've suddenly acquired (which my Chinese zit medicine is doing a great job of taking caring of, and I'm kind of a sorry mess right now.

But hey, I'm in CHINA! And I know how to play mahjong now!


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