How To Eat Bolivian Street Food (Without Shame)

street foodThere’s a certain breed of traveler who will, often to their detriment, go to extreme lengths to avoid looking like a tourist. I know, because I’m one of them. Whatever spawned this phobia is anyone’s guess, but I really, really, really dislike standing out in a crowd, especially if that crowd is foreign, and I’m eating.

While I also sneak looks at maps and guidebooks on the DL when I’m lost, the thing that really troubles me is being clueless about local or national etiquette while dining, especially when it comes to street food (my raison d’être). I always research beforehand – learning, for example, that in Thailand the spoon is the primary eating utensil; it’s abhorrent to insert a fork into your mouth and chopsticks are only used for noodle dishes and primarily in the North. But it’s sometimes impossible to know local custom until you’re actually in the moment (above, Bolivian lustrabotas, or shoe shine men, eat on the street)

I’m pretty sure it was a long-ago trip to Vietnam that scarred me. I’d been in the country all of a couple of hours, and was eating my first meal. I was sitting at a miniscule table on the sidewalk in coastal Nha Trang, happily wolfing down báhn cuon. That is, until the young Vietnamese guy next to me, who unfortunately spoke some English, informed me that I was eating it the wrong way, and making something of an ass of myself (yet providing entertainment for our less vocal tablemates). I was mortified, and sure enough, I noticed the snickers and giggles due to how the silly round-eye was eating her rice noodle roll. To be honest, I can’t even remember how to eat bánh cuon, but at the time, it was clearly emotionally challenging.saltenaWhile I appreciated the advice, I didn’t particularly feel it was given so much to be helpful as it was to make me feel stupid. Or maybe that’s just how I interpreted it. But ever since, my policy regarding street food in vastly different cultures has been to adopt a watch-and-wait policy.

When I arrived in Bolivia two weeks ago, I leapt of out bed my first morning to head to the Mercado Lanza to try some salteñas and tucumanas– two Bolivian street specialties that are variations on the ubiquitous empanada. Empanadas are my Kryptonite, so I was ready to do some damage. Best of all, there’s no learning curve. Insert in mouth; enjoy. I naively assumed their Bolivian cousins are just as easy to gobble.

Salteñas (right) are baked pastries formed into domed half-moons. They’re usually filled with a spiced meat and egg mixture, but their essential purpose is to be full of juice. I knew this, but grossly underestimated just how much they’re the Shanghai soup dumplings of pastry. The proper way to eat them is not to simply purchase and take a huge bite (note to self), because that will result in a.) scalding, meaty juice exploding in your mouth and singing its way down your esophagus, and b.) greasy, aromatic, meaty juice squirting all over your clothes (like, say, your really expensive microlight down jacket that you use for backpacking). You’ll also attract the attention of passerby, who will smirk at the idiot gringa who just had a salteña explode in her face.

I later learned, from a menu photo at a salteñeria, that one is supposed to eat them with a spoon. I’m not sure how that applies to the street, but let’s just say my second go was much more successful, and less humiliating. That said, I’m not a big salteña fan, as it turns out.
Tucumanas are basically the same shape as empanadas, except they’re always fried. They’re often filled with a mixture of chicken and potato, and my first taste occurred about 15 minutes after my unfortunate salteña encounter.
street food
Determined not to be the same fool twice, I watched a crazy-busy street vendor (right) frying and serving tucumanas at warp speed. My street food credo is to only purchase from stalls or carts that are doing a rapid business, to ensure a fresh product (plus, it’s a sign that the food is good, if not great). I observed the various patrons eating their tucumanas, and when I felt ready, I ordered one.

It was rapturous – light as air, yet fragrant and savory. I stood hovering next to the cart, squirting a bit of mayonnaise-based salsa into the tucumana after each bite. I hunched, so as not to dribble any bits of filling. I shared the salsa squeeze bottle. I wiped my mouth with the square of paper it had been wrapped in. Then I ordered another. You know you’ve achieved street food nirvana when the vendor doesn’t demand money until you’ve eaten your fill. Bless you, Bolivia.

[Photo credits: Laurel Miller]

Band on the Run: The Gatineau Choo-Choo

I just got back from a weekend in Wakefield, Quebec. I’m at home for one day between tours and as I’m typing this, the train whistle is calling me from across the fields through my open windows. Whenever I hear it, and provided I’m not completely indisposed, I go to the window and watch the train pass. I love watching it flicker through the trees, emerge along the neighbouring fields and then disappear into the distance.

The country is beautiful out here.

Trains are also amazing pieces of machinery. In Wakefield, they have a century-old steam train – one of the few remaining working steam engines in Canada – that runs up and down the Gatineau Hills. It is a tourist attraction and I was right in there too, snapping pictures and smiling. I especially loved the sounds it makes. It really sounds just like a cartoon train with its “choo choo” and “chug-a-chug-a.” You can almost hear it whispering “I think I can, I think I can” as it gathers speed and rolls away.

Wakefield is its turning point (i.e. it actually turns around in Wakefield), which is a sight to behold.

The train gets turned around on what is called a train turntable. When the engine is pointing back the other way again, caboose taking up the rear, it chugs on back to whence it came.

The people working on the train helped to push it around, including the musicians. I couldn’t resist the punny jokes about musicians being turntablists on the side. Imagine being employed to strum your guitar on a train with the caveat that you had to be on the “train turning” crew at half time! Such a mixed list of workplace expectations! It made me smile.

My friend works at CN and talks regularly about the environmental impact of planes and automobiles versus the lighter footprint of rail travel. Trains use up to 70% less energy and cause up to 85% less air pollution when compared to a jet. They use 17 times less fuel versus a jet and 5 times less than a car per passenger kilometre. (source.) Think of how many tractor-trailers we could take off the road if we were to put more of our tax dollars into repairing rail lines and renewing efforts to promote rail transport! It boggles the mind.

I was walking alongside of this tourist train with my friend Virginia and her son, Rowan. Virginia is my drummer Cheryl’s partner and together they have this perfect three-year old whose little voice saying “choo choo” was enough to melt me into a puddle of goo right there. He was so excited about the train, (which he was correctly calling a “steam engine,”) that we had to walk its length so we could see it all as it was preparing to roll away. He kept saying “Look Mommy! It’s the conductor!” or “Look Mommy! Look at the steam!”

I followed them slowly, snapping photographs and feeling wistful. My friend’s father drove trains for a living and he passed away a few years ago now. She’s told me stories about getting to ride with him when she was a kid and I wondered if she was as excited as Rowan was right now, exclaiming the whole time to her “Papa” about what she was seeing around her. What a thrill it is for a kid to just see a train up close, let alone get to ride with the conductor! I made a mental note to ask her about those experiences the next time I see her.

When we got to the engine it was giving off shimmering rays of heat, so much so that I had to stand back a bit out of its aura. The conductor, wearing the requisite overalls, sat in his little area in the engine car equipped with a window opening large enough for him to lean out of, one summer-tanned arm dangling over the edge like the train were his personal roadster. He tipped his striped blue and a white cap for the tourists and pulled the whistle from a string above his head, just like in the cartoons, and the steam billowed upwards with a woosh. It was all so storybook-like that I just stood there gaping at the thing, captivated.

As it pulled away, we waved to all the strangers who smiled and waved back. Each face looked happy to be waved at, as though they were the only ones we were seeing and bidding farewell to. The illusion was perfect; everyone could feel special when we were waving from the platform because (separated by the tall seats) they couldn’t see their fellow passengers waving back as well. Though regardless, the smiles were genuine. I think the charm of the experience reflected in everyone’s eyes. How could it not?

When the caboose finally passed by us it was like the flop of a dragon’s tail before it disappeared into the ocean. The sound of the train moving into the distance bounced off the river water – the perfect reverb on the fade-out to a perfect evening scene. We watched it weave around the angles of the river and leave Wakefield behind. Rowan was sad to see it go and wanted to follow it, but his Mommy reminded him that there’d be another one the next day and we could see it again. He perked up quickly. Not much keeps that little voice from sounding sunny.

And now as I’m writing this, I’m wistful again. There’s something about having been around the new joy of a three-year old that can remind a grown-up exactly how beautiful everything really is. Well, that’s what it did for me.

As I leaned out my upstairs window today and watched the train, I thought about how every moment can be complete if we just give it the space to be filled. Watching the train pass by at my house takes about two or three minutes, but they were the best three minutes I have spent all day.

I’m glad I took the time.

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” ????.

Yum.

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: Steamy Bathhouse in Shanghai

One of the essential activities during my time here, according to Jeni, was for us to go to the “bathhouse.” For me, coming from Toronto, this word is associated with more than bathing, if you know what I mean. It is laced with pleasure, kinkiness, anonymity and play. Basically, a lot of steam… of multiple origins.

Shanghai’s bathhouse was an experience I will never forget and one that will forever redefine my understanding of the word. Perhaps this was more of a “spa,” but regardless of its accurate translation, it blew my mind.

We arrived to glitzy double doors and five different attendants whose roles were (in order) to open the doors for us, greet us in both Chinese and English, beckon us to the correct counter and take our shoes. We were given rubber thongs and wrist bracelets with numbers. (From here on in, we were tracked by these numbers, so at least they did have the anonymity factor covered.)

I stepped forth in my plastic shoes and my curiosity.

Standing in the lobby, I took in the bubbling fountain, marble counters, grand piano, huge chandelier, statues and plush carpeting. I could have been standing in a five-star hotel. The lobby was also like a courtyard as the building stretched upwards five stories with various “services” on all levels but balconies overlooking the lobby from each. I learned that we would first experience the baths and then make our way upstairs. Jeni had a plan.

Really? It was already 8:30pm and I couldn’t imagine having enough time to explore this whole facility. I learned, then, that the “services” end at two o’clock in the morning, but that the spa is open twenty-four hours. I was still unsure of what these “services” would be but I was along for the ride and I nodded my consent.

What was I getting into?

We were led into the women’s entrance, which led directly into a change room where we were assigned the locker that corresponded with our number. We were instructed to remove our clothes and jewelry before moving on to the shower area.

Now, there is always a moment of self-consciousness in these settings. We live in a world that doesn’t champion nakedness often enough. At least, not after puberty, unless of course we take in special festivals or nudist colonies or have an overwhelmingly strong ability to filter out socialization and just regularly take our clothes off in public.

I hesitated in that moment and had a flash of panic. Almost simultaneous to that flash, I was aware that all the women around (besides the staff) were naked except for me. I was the odd one still dressed and my hesitation seemed grossly out of place – colonial, in a way, as though my culture was trying to bully its repressed ways into a comfortable environment in which there was no need for self-consciousness.

I removed mine too.

Spaces like this normalize nakedness.

We were led into the shower area that consisted of both stand up showers, which are the ones I’m familiar with from back home, and sit-down showers, which are in front of mirrors with hand-held shower heads and stools. I chose the unfamiliar kind because I was curious about sitting and showering and I must say that I quite like it!

All of the soap, shampoo, conditioners were provided here and there is never a time limit. Showering is required before going into the baths, but after being led to the showers, the choices were ours and we could then decide to take in a variety of options.

Women were quietly enjoying their solitude or chatting quietly in various baths as the staff constantly hovered to remove stray towels, arrange the rubber shoes more neatly, offer water or razors for those showering who wanted to also shave, etc. This made me slightly uncomfortable, but I just tried to take in the relaxation and accept that this is yet another culture difference: lots of staff and constant surveillance.

There were about eight baths in total of varying temperatures, from very hot to cold. One was a tea bath that was green in colour and smelled wonderful and another was a milk bath, slightly murky but filled with a softening ingredient that felt wonderful on my skin. Some of the baths had jets and some did not. One was outdoors along with the access to the steam room. This outside bath was lined with beautiful smooth rocks in the spring air and it was not as well lit which made for a more intimate vibe, but the rest were indoors as was the sauna and the post-bath treatment area.

After over an hour of various temperatures, sauna, steam room, more showering and a frequent return to the green tea bath (my favourite), we all signed up for some post-bath treatment. They showed us “the menu” that was written in both English and Chinese offering a “scrub down” service, facials, skin softening, etc. All were separately priced but very reasonable and we settled on the scrub, a cucumber mask and a milk treatment post-scrub. (Not very vegan of me, I know, but hey… it’s all part of the experience.)

Three women worked in this room and clients lie on narrow beds while they put on their scrub gloves and rub down your skin with this gritty, textured, spongy fabric. It exfoliates and remove dirt and dead skin cells. They “cleaned” our entire bodies (from head to toe) with the exception of our faces that were covered in cucumber (real cucumber!). When the scrub was over, they removed the mask and showed us the huge piles of dirt and skin they had removed from our bodies. We were then doused in the milk treatment and sent on our way back to the showers.

My skin has never felt so soft and smooth.

Leaving the baths took us back into the structured passageway towards the locker room. First, we were brought into a towel room where we were given paper underwear and floral mumus, or pyjamas, which was the “female” uniform for all clients. They were terrible and we all laughed as we looked at each other wearing bright pink and yellow tent dresses.

We were then led out of the baths and set loose. I noticed that the men also had floral outfits, but theirs were shirts and shorts. Both men and women mingled together in the other areas of the complex.

Jeni took us upstairs where she showed us the games rooms (you can play MaJong or poker in small separate rooms and smoke with friends here), the restaurant, the bar and the entertainment area — a huge stage fully equipped with lighting and spotlights, but we had missed the acrobats that evening! I was particularly impressed with the seating in the entertainment room that comprised of more than hundred recliners with additional footstools, each with a separate towel draped perfectly over its back. The room was nearly empty, but I could picture it full and smiled at the thought of lounging, floral, peaced-out people all taking in some crazy entertainment after having been pampered to the point of pure passivity. That would be an easy gig!

Can you imagine getting an easy chair and a footstool at a live music show? Amazing.

Upstairs, we toured the massage rooms with one-hour foot massages (that go up the knee) and half-hour back massages that were available on massage chairs. We chose to do back massages and we were assigned three male masseurs who massaged us silently over our clothes and on top of additional towels. It also included a quick chiropractic neck adjustment that I wasn’t expecting. It was a shock but felt wonderful.

You could also choose to get your nails done – full pedicures and manicures – and the technicians would either come to you, (i.e. where you’re already getting a foot/leg massage), or you could go to them (specific nail rooms).

We didn’t make it up any more levels but I was told that these upper floors had rooms that could be rented as sleep spaces. My brain extended to imagine whether or not these rooms are used for other things as well. I didn’t voice my curiosity while Jeni explained that she had stayed overnight once before and it had just cost her a bit more money. She said that it “beats a hotel” and I can see why! And furthermore, I had already heard loud snoring in the foot/leg massage room. After all this pampering, I could have fallen asleep right then too.

Such luxury is exhausting!

It was just around one in the morning by this time and we went back down to the locker area. Here, there was also a “get ready” room where all hair products, hair dryers, combs (sanitized) and lotions were provided. You could also purchase a variety of products that lined the entranceway in glass displays. Everything from underwear to deodorants.

We got dressed and headed for the lobby. Here, they removed our bracelets and tallied up our various charges. For $175 kuai (around $25 Canadian), I had just experienced a sophisticated bathhouse in Asia and I will forever consider this to be the definition of the term.

I took some pictures in the lobby with much negotiating and surveillance by the staff. Cameras were rightfully regarded as interlopers in such a private space.