Thursday, September 28, 2006

Vikram's thoughts on Balti cuisine (since we're still talking food!)

Balti cuisine comes from Baltistan, a region of northern Kashmir spanning both Indian and Pakistani territory. It uses similar spices and ingredients as other northern Indian cuisines, such as Punjabi, Mughlai, and Tandoori. There is often a base of garlic, ginger, and onion. The spices include coriander and cumin, but northern Indian cuisine makes frequent use of some fragrant spices, like star anise, cardamom, clove, and saffron. Since Baltistan lies near the Silk Route, it’s easy to see why it would use spices originating in China and Persia. South Indian food also is fragrant, but emphasizes plants that grow better in the south, such as mustard, black pepper, asafetida, and kari leaf (which some say is the source of the Indo-British word, curry—more about that in a moment).

While Balti cuisine employs similar flavors as other Indian and Central Asian cuisines, it is distinct in its method and its unique fusion of influences from the surrounding cultures of Persia, China, Kashmir, Tibet, and Afghanistan. By what I believe is a coincidence, it is cooked in a wok-like vessel sometimes called a Khadai (another speculated source of the word curry) but also known as a Balti. Balti is a term which in Hindi means “bucket” but which is used by many cultures in the Himalayan regions to refer to that wok-like cast-iron or steel vessel. The techniques resemble Chinese wok-cooking, involving fast stir-fries of pre-cut ingredients, though there are also slow-cooked dishes. In this it resembles its next-door neighbor, Tibet, which also fuses Indian and Chinese influences in cuisine and other respects. In fact, Baltistan was sometimes called “Little Tibet.” It may be that the term Balti, for the pot, came from the Balti people’s use of this particular pot in their cooking—thus, a Balti pot.

While most Balti dishes are drier, some do have sauces similar to Indian food. Traditionally, pieces of naan or other flatbread are used to scoop up food directly from the pot, while it is still sizzling from the fast, high-heat cooking. One can speculate that this would be a good method in a cold, mountainous terrain. The concave pot concentrates the heat, same as a wok does, allowing fast cooking without using a lot of wood. Then, rather than let it get cold by serving onto plates, it is eaten piping hot from a shared pot. Mountain peoples often use such techniques (think fondue). Traditionally, lamb, goat, or prawns were the main ingredient. Now, outside Baltistan, chicken and other ingredients are popular. The fragrant spices are also a high-altitude feature—in the thin air, the more you can stimulate the nose, the richer the experience. Thus, any meal from anywhere along the silk route will include things like basmati rice, star anise, and even camphor. Hold your face over the plate (or sizzling Balti pot) and inhale to get the fullness of the cook’s message.

One place that loves Balti is Birmingham, England. The UK is currently experiencing a new surge of interest in Indian food other than the typical curries they are used to, especially in London. Balti, Goan, and South Indian foods are becoming more popular alternatives. Before and after Indian Independence, a large number of Bangladeshi and Kashmiri Muslims emigrated to the UK, leading to the ubiquitous curry houses which receive a lot of patrons after pubs close at 11. In fact, many of those who started “curry houses” back in the mid-20th century were not cooks, but they managed to fake it and learn quickly, serving a mishmash that was not exactly authentic to any region, but was popular. In some cases, they adapted to British tastes. For example, the most popular take-out food in Britain is chicken tikka masala—chicken in a cream and tomato sauce. This dish was invented in the UK, much as chop suey was invented in San Francisco. Another Indo-British invention: Worcestershire sauce, brought to Britain by an officer whose Indian cook concocted a tamarind sauce that sahib loved.

Curry, in fact, is a term used mostly by non-Indians to describe a huge range of cuisines. In my native language, Tamil, the word kari means cooked vegetable. I believe that’s the root of the word. But now you find a certain blend of spices, usually including coriander, cumin, turmeric, and chili powder, used with regional variations as a base for Jamaican jerk chicken and curries from SE Asia, Japan, Zanzibar, Fiji, and the Caribbean. In the UK, curry sauce is an alternative to ketchup and mayonnaise to put on French fries. Because of that feedback from the British and the world, the word curry is now used by Indians themselves for all sorts of dishes besides Tamil cooked vegetables. To show how global it is, the chili pepper was brought to India by Portuguese traders in the 1600s from Central and South America. Before that, the heat in Indian cuisine came from the black peppercorn. So the heat in the curry, it turns out, is American.

On a serious note: as I write this, Pres. Bush and Pres. Musharraf of Pakistan are giving a press conference on C-SPAN. Part of Baltistan is the region of Kargil, over which India and Pakistan fought a war a few years ago after Al-Qaeda backed militants attacked Indian territory. It was the latest in a series of battles over Kashmir since 1947 and the region still suffers from unrest and terrorism. Many of the ethnic cuisines you find around the world may well be served to you by people escaping a difficult situation in their home countries, whether Cuban, Jamaican, or even Chinese a century ago. In Paris, I often eat at a Tunisian restaurant, Le Jasmin de Sousse, that used many of the same spices I grew up with. After I finished my tajine, the owner, Mustafa, poured me a glass of boukha, a strong fig liquor brewed in Islamic, supposedly teatotalling Tunisia, and talked for a long time about the oppressive dictatorship (which had replaced the oppressive French colonial government of his childhood), which he escaped to come to Paris, cook French cuisine for 25 years, put his four beautiful daughters through college, then open a restaurant where he could serve the food of his home. If you ever eat Balti or another cuisine from a faraway land, which delights you with its exotic spices, see if you don’t detect as well the secret ingredient: love, and a longing for home and peace.

Bringing Fred's food factory to Beibei

A view down the student ghetto strip in Beibei on Sunday morning. Our favorite restaurant is in the center with black barrels in front of it. Street vendors buy used cooking oil from restaurants which is placed in these barrels for reprocessing.

Food fun in Beibei!

Well, we have been in Beibei for four weeks now, so I guess that makes me an expert of sorts. One topic that seems to interest most folks—a reflection of biological necessity no doubt—is “what do you eat?” So, today’s topic is food. To whet your appetite, I heartily recommend the recent addendum written by Honor’s own Vickrama Rangala concerning Indian cuisine and Balti traditions in particular.

My wife and I have spent a good deal of time living in other countries (mostly in Latin America), so we consider ourselves rather resourceful when it comes to the essence of human survival—eating. Nonetheless, a common warning that we received from friends and colleagues who had visited China was that it was going to be difficult dealing with food. One colleague who had visited China reported that he had lost ten pounds in ten days. At least two people specifically recommended putting several packages of crackers in our luggage so we would have something to tide us over between sparse meals.

With the perspective of fours weeks on the ground, I am happy to report that we are eating well and that the prospect of either of us returning in December weighing slightly more than our baggage is, so to speak, slim. We sure aren’t eating what we normally eat in Gainesville, but we are eating well and have no problem finding adequate refreshment.

We mainly eat at small shops in the student ghetto which is adjacent to Southwest University (photo). As with any university, this small area is filled with small shops catering to the needs of the 50,000 students at SWU. Along our little strip of stores, there are two bicycle repair shops, two office supply stores, one water store (everyone buys drinking water in 5 gallon containers), numerous unisex barber/beauty shops, and lots of small sit-down restaurants. Most of these restaurants serve 15-30 patrons from a small mom and pop kitchen in the back.

These restaurants are not terribly attractive by American standards. Most are crowded, with poor ventilation, lots of flies, and some trash on the floor. If you are not too hungry, you can peek in the back to see dishes being washed by hand in used, cold water. Stated another way, if you want to eat, there are some things you learn to ignore. These restaurants come in two varieties depending on the cooking/eating method. The regional specialty is what are known as “hot pot “restaurants. The rest are more like a typical American café with sit-down service and a varied menu from which the patron selects his or her meal. There will be more on “hot pots” next week.

Most restaurants have similar fare, but each has its own specialties and unique characteristics. In general, your meal will come from one of two sources—either the broth pot or the wok. The broth pot is a large pot of beef or chicken stock that is kept hot at all times. Typically you get broth with noodles cooked to order (usually a very thin noodles) along with some veggies and/or a little bit of meat thrown in. The meat, veggies, and noodles are captured with your chopsticks. Then you pick up the bowl and drink the remaining broth. It is a good, satisfying meal and my wife is delighted that I am eating more veggies than I would ever consume in Gainesville. Most of these meals will run you well under $1.00 per bowl. Many locals will supplement a bowl of noodles with a bowl of rice.

The wok produces a little more variety. One favorite restaurant cooks up noodles (the flat kind) with chopped veggies, meat, oil, and spices. It all goes in the wok and is cooked at a very high temperature for a short period of time. It is really quite good and nutritious. The alternative is more like what you would normally get at a “Chinese” restaurant in the States. This is a dish of meat and/or veggies that has been cooked in the wok with plenty of oil. It is served with a large bowl of sticky (steamed) rice on the side. The amount of rice served is way more than you will ever eat; but don’t worry, the leftovers get recycled into the fare of the next customer. Last night we had a very nice chicken with peanuts dish cooked in an oily sauce with spices that give Sichaun food its reputation for being hot and spicy fare. These dishes usually run in the $1.00 to $1.50 range per plate, depending on how much meat is included.

There are two other peculiarities about restaurants that require some adjustment. First, there is no tipping. In fact, tips are considered an insult. Second, with the exception of beer at some restaurants, drinks are on your own. It is perfectly accepted to bring in your own bottle of water or soda for your meal. I think the reason most restaurants don’t bother with drinks is that they don’t want to deal with inventory and refrigeration issues.

Back to the original advice we received before we left: crackers are very plentiful. At our little store where we buy snacks and accessories, there is about ten feet of shelf space, from top to bottom, filled with crackers and cookies. And, the crackers are tasty, fresh, and cheap. In hindsight, I am very glad we did not bring a lot of crackers to China. Now, how about a pizza?

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Freshman Orientation

Each freshman is issued a uniform and assigned to a training group. For the first week the freshmen practice marching drills in “boot camp”. Each freshman is admitted to a specific major that can not be changed. For the next four years, students in each major will be housed together and take most of the same courses together.

Australia, New Zealand, and Hong Kong travels

On the way to China my wife and I spent several weeks in New Zealand and Australia. Then we went through Hong Kong on our way to Beibei. One of the fun things about travel is the unexpected things you bump into. Two left an impression on me.

Australia and New Zealand

My prior image of Australia and New Zealand (or ANZ as they call the region) was one of ethnic homogeneity. As a young student many years ago I learned that in order to migrate to ANZ one must be a white, Anglo-Saxon. Potential immigrants from other ethnic backgrounds were not welcome. For instance, at the same time the U.S. was importing Chinese laborers to build our railroads, the ANZ countries were using Irish and Italian laborers. Today, as a result, you find many good Italian restaurants and Irish pubs throughout the ANZ region; while in San Francisco one of the major tourist attractions is Chinatown.

Well, the policy of limited immigration has certainly changed in the past thirty years. In recognition of a labor shortage, ANZ has opened its gates to immigrants from any ethnic background. The impact of this new wave of immigrants is most evident in Sydney and Auckland, but new migrants are found throughout the region.

Our first exposure was in Auckland where there is an absolute flood of Japanese immigrants. As we walked the streets of Auckland, I did a totally unscientific and ethno-centric survey of who was walking on the sidewalk. My count was about 60% non-Anglo-Saxon. I was amazed. Granted, some, like us, were tourists; but, most were either long- or short-term immigrants. Most were young which has very significant implications for their social security system (lots of young immigrants paying taxes to support retired Anglo-Saxons).

As we chatted with Anglo-Saxons of our age group, there was a strong feeling of tolerance towards the new immigrants. But there was also a subtle, sentimental feeling that the countries have lost something of their unique identities. The only unsolicited, direct reference I heard came from a nice gentleman of about 70 who spoke about unnamed changes since the “policy of diversification”.

What are the implications? The labor shortage is no longer limiting economic growth although unemployment in Auckland is at 3.5%--well below what we currently have in the U.S. In over two weeks, every cab driver we had was an immigrant. Only one, an immigrant from Scotland, was a native English speaker. His family left Scotland and settled in south Florida for several years before leaving for ANZ because of concerns about raising his kids in a “culture of violence”. His family is now very happy in Perth, Australia. Every restaurant where we ate was ethnic. Each night the question was the same: what will it be tonight—Thai, Indian, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, etc. In Wellington we had a memorable meal at “the first Balti restaurant in New Zealand”. [I leave it up to our food critic, Vickrama Rangala, to explain what Balti cuisine is like.]

In Auckland, many of the immigrants are Japanese students. Most are high school students who are learning English in the hopes of getting into universities in New Zealand or elsewhere. For the most part, these are the children of very rich Japanese families who most likely would not make it into the very competitive system of higher education in Japan. At the present time, these students are enjoying the free, universal secondary education that New Zealand offers. This is not a bad deal for the Japanese students, but the local taxpayers are beginning to raise doubts about the policy of universal education.

Hong Kong

One of the tourist highlights of Hong Kong is a harbor ride on the famous Star Ferry from Kowloon to Hong Kong. Sunday we boarded the ferry early in the morning so we could enjoy the view before the inevitable pollution settled in for the day. The sun was shinning and the trip was spectacular.

On the Hong Kong side, as we walked along the docks we were surprised to see hoards of people sitting on cardboard flats with what appeared to be picnic lunches. We figured they must be waiting for a ferry to the outer territories. As we walked into downtown we found more of the same in city parks or any open space—people sitting on cardboard flats or stools with picnic lunches. Further examination showed that about 99% of these people were female and that there were no children. They all seemed to be having a good time—many were playing cards or just talking.

Later we learned that these were Filipino maids. Many families in Hong Kong have Filipino maids who earn about $50 per month. During the week the maids live-in with their employers. On Sundays, the universal day off, extended families of mothers and daughters get together in the parks, piers, or any other open space they can find to socialize. The rest of the week they are isolated from one another, hidden in the maze of high-rise apartment buildings that house most affluent Hong Kong residents. The men are at home in the Philippines.

Some Reflections

Waves of human migration are sweeping across Asia today. The melting pot of Asia is certainly boiling more furiously than that of the United States. Aside from Hong Kong, China has been immune from this mass international migration. Instead, in China the migration has been internal—from the rural western provinces to the industrialized eastern provinces. If China were to open its borders to international migration it would be interesting to see what would happen. Don’t forget, we are talking about one-fifth of the world’s population.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Hypothesis: The people in Beibei are very nice.

Example #1
Local buses in Beibei come in two varieties: a school bus size that is usually older and more crowded and costs $0.06 per ride; and, a mini-bus that seats about 15 (and can hold up to 25) and costs $0.12 per ride. Usually there is a price induced difference in the typical clientele of the two types of buses. (If you harbor any thoughts that China is a classless society, forget it).

Monday evening we boarded one of the mini-buses and to our amazement the driver was a woman. I bet you would not have seen that a generation ago. She acted like we were long lost friends (don’t forget that all Americans look alike). There are five gates into the University with a stop at each gate. Our stop is the fifth and last gate. At the second gate she stopped for a long time and signaled to me that we should get off. I told her no and we went on. This routine was repeated at the next stop. As we approached the fifth gate I went to the front of the bus and motioned that we wanted to get off at the next stop. As she pulled over she looked at me and with great effort said “this one?” I replied “yes”. As we stepped down we both thanked her in our limited Chinese.

Example #2
Before leaving Gainesville, we sent several boxes of books ahead by mail. It was a pleasant surprise to find that books (as opposed to personal effects) could be sent at a very low rate if we were willing to accept delivery in an estimated six to ten weeks. Since we expected to arrive in Beibei in late August, I figured ten weeks delivery would require sending a shipment in mid-June. So, I put the books I had set aside for pleasure reading into three boxes and took them to the Post Office. In mid-July we sent another three boxes of texts and other teaching materials that we needed.

Upon our arrival in Beibei my most helpful faculty sponsor presented us with one box that had been delivered to the University and five claim slips that would have to be taken to the main post office to claim the other boxes. Getting to the post office is another story, but just let me say that there are some very kind, helpful people in Beibei.

At the post office we finally found the right window and presented our five slips. In short time the clerk returned with two boxes. As best we could, we tried to explain that we were expecting five boxes corresponding to the five delivery receipts. After about ten minutes of poor communication, the clerk made a phone call and in a few minutes another most kind and helpful clerk appeared who had some English capabilities. She explained that they only had the two boxes and someone who could find the other boxes would be in later in the afternoon and that they would call when they had further information. As a contact, I gave them the “foreign experts” office at SWU, but not my residential address.

About four hours later, two very nice ladies from the post office showed up at our apartment door. Through a translator we were able to determine that the five receipts included one for the package that was delivered to SWU before we arrived and the other four were first and second notices for the two packages we had picked up in the morning. The fate of the other three packages was unknown. They were extremely relieved when we told them how much we appreciated their visit to our apartment and that we did not hold them responsible for the missing packages—it was just one of those things that happens when you try to ship internationally.

The moral of this story is not about boxes of books received or lost; nor is it about an international postal service that seems to be more efficient than the clerks in Gainesville imagined. Rather it is an insight into the character of the people in Beibei. When was the last time you had a public servant (or two) come to your residence concerned that you had not received the service you expected? The day before we had a similar experience in the private sector as we went from place to place in an effort to buy a printer for our computer ($50 for an HP color inkjet).

Again and again, in small and frequently insignificant ways, we have been shown sincere kindness by a variety of local people with whom we can barely communicate. First impressions are lasting, and we like the people of Beibei.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Where is Beibei?

Beibei is located at the junction of the Yangtze River and a small tributary. SWU is located on the ridge between the two river valleys. This is taken from the ridge looking up the valley of the small tributary. The haze is smoke from nearby wildfires.

Week 1 September 3

It is hard to believe that a first week is about to pass us by. As with any venture, you win a few and you lose a few, but we have been fortunate to be on the winning side most of the time. This morning we will venture out to explore the weekly local market and to get some cash at the Bank of China ATM. The latter activity is a repeat effort to confirm that we actually have a secure access to money (i.e., cash), because a credit card is useless in this community.

One of the things that appealed to us about a sabbatical in Beibei is that Beibei is most certainly off the beaten path. There is little to distinguish Shanghai from New York City—both are big, cosmopolitan, international cities where an expat (ex-patriot) can lead a comfortable life within a compound of transplanted domestic amenities. To learn about China in such locales is about as useful as going to Disney World to learn about life in the U.S. Rest assured, for the foreign visitor to the U.S. there is more to be learned in Gainesville than at Disney. In a similar fashion, there is more to be learned about China in Beibei than in Shanghai.

Beibei is a city about the size of Gainesville with a university about the size of UF. It is located at exactly the same latitude as UF with a climate of hot summers and mild winters. Unless you use Google Earth, you will not find Beibei on a map. Instead look for the nearby provincial capital of Chongqing (sometimes spelled Chungking and pronounced as chong-ching with emphasis on neither syllable). Chongqing and the province of Schezuan are located in the southwestern part of China. This is a relatively poor part of China with per capital incomes equal to about one-fourth of the incomes along the highly developed eastern coast of China. The city of Chongqing itself has about 17 million inhabitants and what we would call the metropolitan area has about 32 million residents. Beibei is about 35 miles northwest of Chongqing.

Because southwest China is relatively impoverished, the central government is putting a lot of development effort into this part of the country. The most significant public investment is the controversial construction of the Three Gorges dam on the Yangtze River. This is the largest hydroelectric project in the world and will provide plenty of cheap, non-fossil fuel, energy to the area by 2010. It is a flood control and hydroelectric project not unlike the Tennessee Valley Authority in the 1930’s (history buffs should review the economic impact of the TVA).

We have arrived in Beibei at a most auspicious time. Unlike Gainesville with its hot-wet, cool-dry climate, Beibei has a hot-dry, cool-wet climate. This summer, however, the weather in the region has been hotter and drier than any summer on record since modern scientific records began in the 1880’s. The last rain here was in May. Temperatures have been above 100o much of the summer and everyday since we arrived. The week before we arrived, Chongqing set an all time record of 44.5oC (this is a good applied math problem for the curious). Normal summer crops which is going to be a serious problem for many of the small and self-sufficient farmers in the region

It is so hot that the SWU (Southwest University) administration decided to postpone the beginning of the Fall semester from September 4 to September 11. Most of the buildings on campus are not air-conditioned, so it pretty brutal in the dorms and the classrooms. Hopefully, relief in the form of some cooling rains will come this week. Fortunately, our apartment has A/C and we are quite comfortable.

The main water supply for Chongqing is provided by some 300 earthen reservoirs, many of which are empty. The dry dams have cracked and it is reported that many of the earthen dams have gaps as large as a meter. There is great fear that if rains come rapidly, many of the dams will fail and there will be widespread flooding. Dry wildfires are also common in the forested areas nearby. Yesterday the sky in Beibei was filled with smoke from a nearby wildfire.

In spite of the weather, we have not had a single brownout in the electric system or loss of pressure in the water system. After living in Brazil where we had neither electric nor water from 7am to 7pm during normal conditions, we feel that we are currently living a life of relative luxury here in Beibei. It is all a matter of perspective.

Friday, September 01, 2006

We've arrived!

After five weeks on the road we have arrived at Beibei, home of Southwest University—a regional university of 40-50,000 students. It is a recent combination of what used to be adjacent campuses of an agricultural college and a normal school.

Vancouver was great. Honolulu is for Japanese and California tourists—we were glad we had virtually no time scheduled there. A week on the “big island” of Hawaii was a real pleasure—lots to do and really wonderful, laid-back people. New Zealand was beautiful—particularly the south island. Australia was lots of fun. Sydney is a beautiful city, greatly enhanced by the famous opera hall where we actually saw an opera. The train trip from Perth to Sydney (four days and three nights) was an adventure not to be forgotten for both the scenery and the people. Hong Kong is a busy, big city with to recommend.

Every flight and every hotel reservation went as planned. We did not have our bags opened at a single customs entry point including Chongqing where we entered the People’s Republic of China. In spite of “one country, two systems” one must pass through immigration and customs at both Hong Kong and Chongqing as if they were two countries.

We are housed in the Foreign Guest House of SWU in a one-bed apartment. We have a living room and a bedroom each of which has a room A/C unit. In addition we have a nice bathroom, small kitchen, and enclosed porch. The kitchen comes equipped with a gas burner, microwave and a fridge. We have a space heater and TV in the living room and a washing machine on the porch which serves as a drying room. We are a short walk away from sellers of water and beer and a small up-scale restaurant. We have explored and found some other places to eat. We have independently made a trip to downtown and back by local bus. That was a fun adventure.

The weather here at this time of year is hot and dry. This year as been unusually hot and dry. They are calling it a drought and the temp has hit 114 which is a 55 year record. The three days we have been here have been 100 or above with nice sunshine. People are out and about in the morning but then disappear for an afternoon siesta. Life seems to begin about 6:00pm with dinner in the 8-10pm range. Food is an adventure, particularly when you can’t read one word of the menu. In Beibei, unlike Hong Kong, street signs, bus signs, and menus come in one language only and that is not English. Many signs on campus are in both Chinese and English.