A Canadian in Beijing: The Great Baozi, A Tribute

I have put on weight in the past month, partly due to almost zero working out (too hot, too polluted, too much else to distract me) and partly due to my discovery of the amazing food known as “baozi” ????.


Now, I’m generally not a big person and I was honestly worried about dying for hunger the first three weeks that I was here. I lost a bit too much weight, I’d say, and I really didn’t have much to lose. My body has recovered, however, and then some… which is not a bad thing in the least. I got curves now! I’m not complaining.

So this is a small tribute to the glorious “su baozi” ????? (vegetarian baozi) and how they have joined forces with my language study to help me, bit by bit, find food to eat in this city that isn’t imported from overseas or grossly overpriced in western restaurants. (See my next post for a Vegetarian Language Surivival Guide!)

What makes baozi great? Let me tell you. . .

Baozi are steamed breads with various fillings. Usually, they are filled with meats of various kinds, but “su baozi” are vegetable-filled and they are delicious. Think of a dumpling but imagine that the outside is soft bread instead of the dumpling skin which is usually boiled or fried. This steamed bread is delicious and even more delicious when the inside is all vegetarian. (Or, so I’m assuming since I have not tried the meat ones!)

In fact, I discovered these treats here at the school outdoor canteen. Many “su baozi” are filled with chopped green vegetables that are also combined with “ji dan” (eggs.) Here at the canteen they make their “su baozi” that way and so, being the vegan that I am, I developed a system of methodically picking out the bits of egg every morning before eating them. It was easy and the resulting egg-free (reasonably small) baozi were delicious. I would eat four to six of them every morning (two for 1 kuai) and sometimes pick up more for lunch. Okay, I’ll admit it: sometimes I lived on baozi all day. (I have truly been a bachelor in the food department.)

Then I discovered the baozi at the market.

The same market that I wrote about last week has the most amazing baozi vendor and the women who work there have come to recognize me. They have all different kinds of vegetarian baozi including egg-free options (mushroom and greens) and “mala dofu” (spicy tofu) options. They are incredible, not to mention the fact that they’re fresh from the steamers when you buy them (i.e. still steaming) and are twice the size of the ones at the canteen. What’s more (and there is more!), they are the same price as the ones at the school and you get twice as much for your money.

This is my kind of food.

So, of course I go there and buy them by the steaming bag full. That doesn’t sound delicious… unless you know about baozi. <wink> I even asked these women to pose for a photo with me the last time I went there, fearing it would be my last trip to this oasis. They obliged my request with a smile.

Aw, even writing this post is making me crave more, more, more! (Is that my new-found wheat addiction?)

When I came to China, I was also wheat-free. In fact, I’ve been mostly wheat-free for the past couple of years. I’m not allergic, but one of my band members is (Lyndell) and I’ve also read terrible things about how wheat is produced these days and what it does to one’s body. So, my first period of time here in China was also wheat-free.

That, however, went right about the window when I discovered baozi. Perhaps I’m now not only addicted to the taste of the baozi in general, but I’m also addicted to the gluten in the wheat? It’s possible!

Now, I know this doesn’t constitute a complete diet and so I have to admit that I have done a bit more exploring in the world of food here. Most of this exploring has come through friends’ suggestions or through my own risk-taking in restaurants. So far, just a few stomach aches later, I’m feeling great and confident about the food here.

What I’m getting at is that this post is only meant to offer a singular suggestion in a world where there are many options. My next post will offer some assistance when seeking those options. Mainly, it’s a language issue and so I’m hoping that some key phrases will keep fellow vegans from starvation in Beijing!

But, if all else fails, then there are always “su baozi” (pronounced: sue bao zeuh).

They help put meat on your bones. . .

Without eating meat!

A Canadian in Beijing: Fine Dining at Din Tai Fung

Sometimes you have to see what all the fuss is about. This restaurant, “Din Tai Fung,” is touted as being one of the “top ten restaurants in the world” and if people are saying that about it then I figure it had better be good. Of course, it could just have a good reputation or good “guanxi” with the New York Times (where the quote is from, 1993). Either way, there was only one way to find out.

When my school mates told me they were heading down to have dinner there and invited me along, I figured it would be the only chance I’d have to check it out. Quite honestly, I don’t really do “fine dining” here in Beijing… or, should I say ever. In fact, I’m more the type that likes to buy bits and pieces at markets and cobble it together to form a delicious meal for pennies a plate. I like cheap and back alley restaurants. I don’t mind the broken down interior if the taste is superb. In fact, the seedier the environment, often the better the food. At least, that’s what I’ve found.

So, when I arrived at this restaurant with my friends and stepped onto the plush carpeting of the gorgeous lobby, was greeted in English and then ushered upstairs into the dining room like it was a theatre event, I knew it was going to be expensive. I just hoped the taste would match the price.

The place was truly beautiful. Pristine, in fact. The bathrooms were all automated and the walls were lined with full length mirrors at all angles. My friend Daisy pointed out that “women like to see what they look like” and I laughed. I suppose everyone likes the option to see themselves from all angles once in awhile (regardless of gender).

There was also a kid’s playroom equipped with brightly coloured toys, comfy couches and activities for them to busy themselves with while parents enjoy their meal. No supervision in there, however, so I suppose it was only for slightly older kids who could be checked in on once in awhile.

The dining room was brightly lit and was more than half-filled with foreign (non-Chinese) faces. My friend Dave had been here before and so he was assigned the job of ordering food. That’s always a little dangerous with Dave as he tends to order too much – way too much – and in this restaurant, everything was priced so high that I couldn’t imagine both the food and the money waste if he ordered more than we could eat. By the look on the face of the waiter as he left our table with order in hand, I could only assume that we were going to have a feast.

And, I was right.

Dishes kept coming. This places specializes in steamed bread dumplings, or baozi. I eat them everyday for breakfast – 4 for 2 kuai – and these came in steam baskets at about 4 for 30 kuai, or fifteen times what I am familiar with paying here. They were tasty, however, and I promised myself I would stop calculating the cost of my meal and just enjoy the flavours. After all, if you think in Canadian dollars, those four baozi were about a dollar a piece, which is hardly much back home.

Eventually, we couldn’t eat anymore and Dave was able to head off the waiter and cancel the remaining three dishes that were on their way. Thankfully! We were all ready to roll away. We had eaten so much that we were starting to look like baozi!

I went downstairs and got some pictures of the open kitchen as well. They’ve positioned the windows so that people can peer in and watch these boazi (and jiaozi etc.) being made fresh by the chefs there. The windows were, of course, steamed up by the steam and so the only place you could actually see inside was through the open window at one end. I found this ironic and I smiled to myself. The chef looking out the window smiled back and motioned that I could get closer if I wanted. I practically leaned into the kitchen to get this shot, much to the amusement of the other chefs.

The lobby was also glittering with awards. This restaurant is all over the world and it has been honoured everywhere, it seems. Beijing is no exception.

In the end, I enjoyed my meal (lots of vegetarian options were available) and just handed over the $130 kuai which represented my portion of a bill that came to over $700 kuai. In Canadian dollars, that’s an average night out (and currently converts to only $18). In Beijing, that was extravagant.

I prefer the streaming baozi fresh from the dusty marketplace down the road from my school, but the experience was worth the expense. I recommend it to anyone breezing through Beijing without the time to seek out the perfect market stall for the perfect snack.

Besides, the menu was in both Chinese and perfect English.

We could easily have been in New York.

(But don’t even get me started about eating in U.S. dollars!)

A Canadian In Beijing: A Shu-in for Language Training

School is… school. It’s hard, but it’s helpful. It’s work, but it’s bringing pleasure. It’s a commitment, but it’s enabling a freedom that I couldn’t have predicted.

I am a part-time student at the “Beijing Yuyan Daxue,” or Beijing Language and Culture University in Wudaokou, a suburb of Beijing. Above is a picture of the southern campus gates.

Every day, I wake up at about 7:15 in the morning, shower, get dressed, make tea and then take my bag and leave my dorm. I have to walk about ten minutes from my building to the classroom and I grab my breakfast en route. There are kiosks between here and there. One sells fresh fruits and I buy two bananas everyday, which costs me 3 kuai. The other sells hot buns and various other non-vegan items. I buy “su baozi” or vegetable dumplings, which are more like thin rolls filled with vegetables and the occasional chunk of egg that I pick out and leave for the birds. They cost me 5 mao each but I usually get two, which amounts to 1 kuai. All in all, my breakfast costs me 4 kuai, or just under $0.60 Canadian.

With my bananas in my bag, my tea in my travel cup in one hand and my warm “su baozi” in the other, I enter the classroom building and mount four flights to my classroom. Everyday, we greet each other with “ni hao” and smiles and we’re all getting to know one another as we move forward with this language.

I haven’t been a student for nine years. I mean, an “officially enrolled” student. Of course, I’ve been learning constantly and that includes lots of reading and research and discussion about lots of different topics. I’d consider myself a student by nature even without an official student card. Our student cards actually look more like mini passports. They have photos and covers and are very formal-looking.

In some ways, being enrolled somewhere is an experience that has been hard to get re-accustomed to. Having to wake up early, for example, has been tough for my nocturnal self. I have taken to afternoon naps to recover from late-nights and I have been a slave to the caffeine in my morning green tea. I’d also say that the studying outside of class has been hard to be disciplined about, too. After I’ve gone to school and napped, I always want to explore this city and not sit over my books for a few more hours. I’m having to push myself to get the homework done and I haven’t always been successful.

My classes begin at 8:00 am everyday, five days a week, and they go until noon. They consist of two hours of grammar and textual understanding and then two hours of conversation classes, which rotate between a listening and pronunciation class that happens twice a week. We have breaks every hour for about ten minutes and then a longer break at ten a.m. for about twenty minutes.

Everything is in Chinese. All instructions and all descriptions of meaning and all definitions of words are in Chinese. Everyone in the class comes with their dictionaries in case a word is introduced and the definition makes no more sense than the word itself. Sometimes looking up a word and finding the translation in one’s native language is the easiest way to understand it and I am often flipping through my dictionary to catch up with the teacher.

There are about eight levels here and I am in about the fifth level — pretty much right in the middle. I have been slotted in an intermediate class as a result of my previous foundation for this language. I share a class with nineteen other students who also have prior background of varying degrees. Some have studied Mandarin before in their home countries (like I have) and others have taken lower level courses here at this university or at privately owned smaller schools here in Beijing.

One student is a Chinese woman who was raised in Switzerland and whose main language is French. She spoke Mandarin with her parents at home but never learned to read or write. As a result, she is quick to understand what’s going on verbally but slow to understand what has been written in the texts or on the blackboard. It is this student who I regularly access if I have questions about something the teacher has said. She and I speak French together in those moments. My second language has truly come in handy here.

Otherwise, I am the only student in the class whose mother tongue is English. If I need help understanding something, the best I can do is speak with that one student in French. Otherwise, I have to resort to speaking in Chinese with everyone else. Sometimes we have lunch together and it is a lunch of choppy, remedial Chinese but a chance to help one another be understood.

Here are the cultures represented by my class: Nine students are from Korea, three are from Indonesia, two are from Japan, two are from Italy, two are from Thailand, one is from Switzerland and one is from Canada – me! (Not all of the students were present when the above picture was taken.)

For the most part, I’m really enjoying it. I have already started using the new vocabulary in my non-school life. For instance, I had to look into some train tickets for the upcoming May holiday (hoping to get to Shanghai!) and I utilized most of the words we were taught in a previous chapter about “holidays.” It was fun to put those words to use and to know that they were the right expressions before I launched into guessing and gestures – a dangerous miming game that often leads to more confusion in Chinese. (This is the kind of language where guessing at words is often a dismal failure. Trust me, I’ve tried it.)

I’ve also had a good time with my fellow students and teachers. After class, I helped one of my teachers with some of her writing in English, for instance, which was rewarding because it had felt like forever since I was considered an “expert” in a language! We are also doing a big class meal this week that is being prepared by the Korean students at one of their apartments. They are excited to introduce me to Korean vegetarian food.

Finally, I think I’m learning how to be funny in Chinese.

Many of the words in this language are the same sound, just different tones. For instance, the word “brother-in-law” is “shu(1) shu(1)” (tones are marked in parentheses); the verb “to count” is “shu(3)”; a way of saying “several” or “a few” is “shu(4)”; and “book” is “shu(1)” (again, another first tone but a different character than the one for “brother-in-law.”) Side note: In English, the words “shoo” and “shoe” sound the same but are very different, so context is everything in both languages!

So a few days ago, I asked the pronunciation teacher (in Chinese, of course) if the following was a grammatically correct sentence: “the brother-in-law counted up the books.” In Chinese, the sentence sounds like: “shu shu shu shu shu” (but I did pronounce the tones!) There was a pause in the classroom and then everyone laughed. When the laughter trailed off, the teacher told me that it technically did work as a sentence but was not exactly a common one! And then she smiled.

Well, I guess not. Otherwise, things could get confusing very quickly!