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A Texan lost in China

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    A Texan lost in China

    Hi everyone! I'm originally from Houston, Texas and I live here in a nowhere city in China. I'm in sourcing but I find talking about my job incomparably dull, so if you need anything sourced please contact me privately. I've been here for a number of years and it treats me well. One of the few parts I don't like is that I can't barbecue properly! It's like 1950s America here: square box grills and that's about it. Even the term 'barbecue' has a totally different meaning here, making it even more difficult to get what I want. Allow me to explain.

    The English word 'barbecue' has no direct equivalent in Chinese, the closest translation is 烧烤, 'shaokao'. While this has the meaning of 'meat exposed before a burning fire', the execution is as different from the meaning of 'barbecue' as could be. There is no slow cooking that I know of. Shaokao means bamboo skewers, usually mutton, seasoned heavily with cumin and cooked over a long, narrow grill burning lump charcoal. These skewers, called 串 'chuan' (one of the few characters that's actually pictographic, it looks two squares of meat on a stick!) are made of stringy little chunks of meat, fat, and skin. The sellers usually stretch them out to make you buy more, so you need a lot of them to get full and ordering 10 or 20 per person is common. There are as many kinds of chuan as there are things you can think of to put on a stick: beef, fish balls, tofu, chicken livers, squid, cartilage, quail eggs, green beans, daikon radish, you name it.

    Shaokao has a reputation as drunk food. You know how Denny's is always open late in America? There are dozens of outdoor shaokao places where people congregate for an after-midnight meal and a few more beers. There are also enterprising individuals who set up box grills in the street outside bars, the better to conveniently reach their customers. It's a boisterous atmosphere with great clouds of smoke and dozens of chuan stacked up cooking on the grills.

    Many of these BBQ sellers are Uighurs from Xinjiang in far western China. They are Muslims, so no pork. China's BBQ culture comes from there, so it's an 'imported' thing, so to speak. This means people's idea of 'cooking' doesn't include the concept of 'barbecue' so nobody cooks out at home. There is no tradition of the backyard BBQ, having a few cold beers, and generally enjoying a pleasant afternoon while the food cooks. And here is where I get to the point of my longwinded exposition: it's a real struggle to barbecue here!

    Everything you can think of is missing. Let's start: buy a grill. You're lucky if the store has a round Weber ripoff, otherwise it's the box grill. Let's buy meat: nope, the butcher counter is totally different from the American style. There are no racks of ribs wrapped and ready to go. Chinese like their ribs 'pai gu' style, which means chopped into one-inch segments. It's enough to make a grown man cry. Steaks? Nope. Hamburger meat? There is a ground pork that is used for dumpling filling, and if you're lucky you can get them to make you some with beef. What about accessories, rubs, marinades, that sort of thing? Nope. Balsamic vinegar? Lime juice? Liquid smoke? You name it, they don't have it. You can imagine how frustrating it must be to read websites like amazingribs.com and not be able to make any of the dishes due to lack of ingredients. Even things like egg sizes can screw up your recipes. If you like roast duck or goose you're in luck though. And their spectacular seafood setup looks like a miniature Aquarium and Marine Science Center.

    I've struggled mightily against these challenges, finding a decent Weber knockoff cheap on Taobao (sold out the back door of the factory by one of their salesmen because it was rejected by the customer, I got it and the defect was a big scratch on the inside of the bowl, who cares), and cooking out as much as I can. I have made good ol' American hamburgers and rosemary and garlic chicken quarters. Also, just to show everyone what was up, I made American-style kebabs with big chunks of meat, cherry tomatoes, etc. But that's it! Only three different dishes. I'm trying to find pork ribs right now, and it's a real struggle. Country style vs. baby back? Don't make me laugh, I can't find any at all.

    OK that was longer than I expected. I had a lot to get off my chest. I don't have anyone to talk with about BBQ, I'm the only one here who cares. The only other person I ever met here who cooked out was a Frenchman who made paella on his grill. Sometimes people don't even bother to show up for my cookouts. It's more difficult when there are no masters to learn from, nobody to bounce ideas off of, nobody to show you how it's done. I'm doing it all the hard way, in a situation where I fight just to get proper ingredients.

    However, it's all worth it. I find it rewarding to throw my BBQ parties here. It is especially fun to introduce my Chinese friends to American style cookouts, both for the food and the afternoon spent outdoors. They've never had anything like my cooking, and if you know anything about mainland Chinese you know they don't like anything that's not Chinese food. But they love my cookouts, and it's nice to convince them that foreigners might know something about cooking after all. There are also all the other-country foreigners from Sweden, Germany, England, various African and Middle East countries, the whole world really, and it's always a blast to give them something they've never had before. Although the guy from Tunisia thought my kebabs were really weird!

    #2
    Nice write up. ONLY way I could learn Chinese would be if it was ALL PICTOGRAPHS HAHAHA

    Meathead has that chinese recipe, whereby he mentions the ribs are normally SLC cut into little chunks.

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      #3
      It's funny, I've never seen any of that Chinatown food like char siu ribs here. Those are all from Singapore or some such. The first rule of Chinese food is that everything is regional. Sort of like BBQ.

      Comment


      • Jerod Broussard
        Jerod Broussard commented
        Editing a comment
        How on earth you learn that language?? My dad speaks French, and that throws me for a loop, then they got Hispanic folks at the chicken plants.

      • Lost in China
        Lost in China commented
        Editing a comment
        It's hard. Real hard. It involves lots of rote memorization. I have an app on my phone that I use for 30-60 minutes per day that does nothing but help me with rote memorization. Fortunately, I'm good at recognizing patterns, and that's pretty much what Chinese characters are. There are just thousands of them, and a couple of pen strokes difference means a different word.

        As a spoken language, Chinese is not particularly difficult. There are just lots of words that sound the same, and you have to know what someone's talking about before you can understand what they're saying. But the characters...eh...it's a bear. At least we use the simplified characters...traditional characters look like chicken scratchings to me.

      #4
      I feel for you man. Hope they pay you enough to retire early and soon. Welcome to the Pit.

      Comment


        #5
        Welcome LiC! We're glad you're here. It'd be really cool to see some pics of these cookouts, especially the late night side of the street gigs.

        Comment


        • Lost in China
          Lost in China commented
          Editing a comment
          Ha, ha! I'll see what I can do. I'll try to snap some photos next time I go out on the town. They might be a bit wobbly by the time we get to the shaokao place at the end of the night, though.

        #6
        Welcome to the Pit!

        Comment


          #7
          Welcome aboard Lost in China

          Comment


            #8
            很高兴认识你. 我们都喜欢烧烤

            Comment


            • Lost in China
              Lost in China commented
              Editing a comment
              哈哈我不喜欢烧烤啊。只喜欢美式BBQ〠‚

            • fracmeister
              fracmeister commented
              Editing a comment
              美式的BBQ比烧烤非常好

            #9
            Sorry. Cut and paste. I have been studying Chinese for a couple years.

            Comment


              #10
              Welcome. An enjoyable intro post. I guess Mongolian BBQ is probably really neither Chinese nor BBQ (certainly not low & slow), but I like it all the same :-)

              Comment


                #11
                This is fantastic! Great thoughts of yours to introduce a different form of cooking to the Chinese. I would think you could get anything you wanted in the markets? At least that is what my friends that have been there tell me?

                Comment


                • chudzikb
                  chudzikb commented
                  Editing a comment
                  Ouch...sounds as if you truly are suffering!

                • Lost in China
                  Lost in China commented
                  Editing a comment
                  But when I win, it is all the sweeter.

                • chudzikb
                  chudzikb commented
                  Editing a comment
                  Hummm...there are all those empty containers going back to China, maybe we could pack one with some good food for you?

                #12
                Welcome. Given the brain power on this site, you may find some answers to these persistent questions.

                Comment

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