Week 6: A Daily Grind

During my sixth week, a lot of the initial excitement of coming to China started to fade, though that’s not to say that I’m not enjoying myself. I am certainly following a routine, since I go to class most of the week. The grind is definitely back, though I don’t hate it. I have a lot less to talk about in this post, but fear not, I have non-China(-ish) related news! I started learning Farsi last week because I was reading more about the grammar and it’s actually very structurally similar to Hindi-Urdu. The language doesn’t have noun gender, grammatical case, or tons of irregular verbs, so it’s easy to start learning, especially if you already know Hindi-Urdu (or another Indo-Aryan language), and even a Romance language, to some extent.

Anyway, I still managed to check out a few new places near my school, including the only mosque in Pudong! It’s a really interesting place, since every Friday, there’s a Muslim market where people from Xinjiang and other Muslim merchants sell their delicious wares. Since I’m vegetarian, I couldn’t actually eat that much food there, but I was very pleased with what I could eat.

Muslims in China actually have a long history, and the state of Xinjiang is Muslim majority. There are two main Muslim communities, the Uyghurs and the Hui. The Uyghurs are of Turkic ancestry, and have their own language, which is related to Turkish. The Uyghur language has many loanwords from Persian and Arabic, since most speakers are Muslim, though in recent years more loans have come from Russian and Mandarin. The Hui Muslims are said to be descendants of Persian traders who settled in Northwestern China, as well as converts during the Ming Dynasty.

There aren’t a lot of Muslims in China, but in Shanghai, there are people from all over, including from countries that are majority Muslim. My school has many Pakistani students, some Bosnians, and there are Muslim Malays, among many other nationalities who come to this mosque every Friday. It’s one of the only reliable places to get halal food, along with the small number of halal eateries scattered throughout Shanghai. Fortunately, they’re easy to spot since they’ll have the word حلال (halal in Arabic) written somewhere, usually in green. I’m not Muslim, but I’ve had a lot of interest in Sufi philosophy and the history of Islam in general. A lot of people, unless I tell them I’m Hindu, assume that I’m Muslim because if I start talking about it, I get really into it. It’s really fascinating stuff, but I won’t get into the specifics here.

It was pretty cool walking around, though there was an elderly man who was trying to usher me and two of my roommates (one who’s Indian and the other is Chinese) into the mosque for prayer, assuming that we were Muslim. It was somewhat awkward explaining (in Mandarin) that we weren’t Muslim and we were just looking around. It didn’t help that none of us knew the word for “Muslim” in Mandarin offhand. He didn’t seem pleased with me taking pictures of the inside of the mosque while the Jummah prayer was taking place, so I will not post those photos out of respect for the space.

The market is right outside the gate of the mosque, and there’s a line of vendors selling all sorts of items, including lamb kebabs, freshly baked naan (a different kind from the Indian naan I’m used to), noodle dishes, and even cake! The noodles I had were a simple preparation of knife-pared noodles with cucumbers, peanuts, chili oil, and vinegar. It’s a nice snack, though not especially substantial. That said, it was only 5 kuai, so it’s more than a good deal.

I believe the naan was about 15 kuai; I thought it was quite nice, though it doesn’t taste as good once it cools off. They bake it in these special ovens that are very similar to tandoors used in India to make naan!

But what takes the proverbial cake was the cake! It wasn’t fancy or anything, but it was a substantial slab of sweet, creamy goodness. The pictures really don’t do it justice, but it was really good considering that it wasn’t refrigerated.

It looks like a tiramisù mille-feuille, but it’s difficult to describe the flavor as anything other than milk cream and chocolate. The funny thing is that I essentially ended up eating cake for lunch since the box (when it was full) was 55 kuai. I had actually wanted only about half the amount, but because of some confusion, I actually paid the vendor more, so she gave me enough extra cake to compensate.

For about a 2×2 inch block of cake (please don’t quote me on measurements, I’m really horrible at eyeballing dimensions), it would have been 30 kuai, so, again, a quite good deal. I intend to come back here (especially for the cake), so you’ll likely see these pictures again!

My roommates and I also went to a nearby Mexican restaurant on Saturday night, which was an interesting experience, to say the least. It was kind of a mix between a Tex-Mex place and authentic Mexican in terms of what it was trying to offer, both in terms of food and also aesthetically. I ordered enmoladas, or enchiladas with mole sauce, a type of Oaxacan sauce that is often made with cacao and various chiles. The serving size was actually pretty decent, seeing as most of the type, Chinese serving sizes are pretty small in my opinion.

 

The restaurant’s name was Pistolera, and isn’t far from Jinqiao Road by bike. If you head down Biyun Road between Yunshan Road and Hongfeng Road, it’ll be there near some other Western restaurants. The food itself was not bad, but quite overpriced at 95 kuai. Foreigners beware: you will pay a premium for any kind of Western food in China, even if it’s not authentic or good. This dish should have been no more than 50-60 kuai, especially since the mole sauce just kind of tasted like a generic bean sauce. I don’t think I’ll come here that often if at all seeing as I’m not exactly craving Mexican food in Shanghai that often.

I hope you enjoyed this post, and that you look forward to next week’s post!

Week 2 in China: Seeing the Sights

Hello everyone! Here’s my post on my second week in China, and this time, I went exploring with my friends to different restaurants and new parts of the city that I hadn’t seen before.

Exploring Puxi

This week, my friends and I took to Puxi (浦西 – Pŭxī), which is the area located to the west of the 黃浦江 (Huángpŭ Jiāng), the Huangpu River. You can either take Line 2 on the metro for about 6-10 RMB each way, or take a taxi for 40-60 RMB, depending on how far you’re going.

We first visited the fake market at AP Xinyang Market, also known as AP Plaza, which is located inside the train station underneath the Shanghai Science and Technology Museum. A “fake market” is a massive marketplace of imitation goods of popular brands like Gucci and Louis Vuitton, as well as silk items and various souvenirs. A lot of the items here are of potentially dubious quality, such as leather goods not being real leather, but you do find very good imitations of luxury brands, which are often more durable than the real thing. If you’re OK with not having the genuine article, this is the place for you.

AP Plaza Fake Market

If you’re not into clothing, there’s plenty of other items to buy, like mahjong sets (~200 RMB), calligraphy items, decorative chopsticks, tea sets, and even jewelry. The Yada Pearl Market does boast genuine pearls, but they may not be of the best quality, especially considering that you can haggle with the shopkeepers. Tip from my friends: never settle for more than 30-40% of the original price. That said, there is at least one stall that sells calligraphy display pieces, which are mass produced ink prints made by a real artist, and the shopkeeper will write a name in Chinese for you. This is probably the only “real” shop in the entire market!

Beware that the calligraphy items like name stamps are not durable, and will scuff and break fairly easily (I was forced to buy one because the edge of my raincoat knocked it off the shelf)! They’re often made from low-quality stones, unlike the genuine carved stamps, which are often made of jade or marble. That said, they work just as well, so long as you take care not to damage them.

We then moved on to the People’s Square, and then Nanjing Walking Street, which is just beyond the square (which is pretty small, and is essentially just the entrance to the metro station).

人民广场/人民廣場 (Rénmín Guăngchăng) – People’s Square (during the day)

There’s a lot to see here, since it’s lined with all sorts of shops, ranging from Chinese sweets shops that sell 蛋挞/蛋撻 (dàn tă), or egg tarts, which are flaky pastries with egg custard brought by the Portuguese to Macau and Hong Kong, and now popular all over China, especially in southern China. I didn’t get an egg tart there yet, but I did buy a yogurt drink called 酸奶 (suān năi), which is essentially just yogurt. It comes cold, but apparently can be heated on request. I personally didn’t think it was anything special; it’s tart and a little sweet, and if I wasn’t told, I would have said it’s just sweet lassi, a similar drink made from buttermilk from the Punjab in India.

Visiting Lujiazui

On Thursday, my friend and I went to 陆家嘴/陸家嘴 (Lùjiāzuĭ – Lujiazui), a part of  town just near the river, and across from the Bund. I saw the Pearl Tower from up close during the day, which is pretty cool. 

Lujiazui is on Line 2 as well, and very accessible via the Century Avenue station. The IFC Mall is also located near the Lujiazui Station, a massive luxury mall with brands such as Dior, Chanel, Salvatore Ferragamo, and many more (it’s a ridiculously huge mall). I didn’t think to take pictures, mostly because my friend and I needed to go to the Muji that’s also in the mall to get some stationery, which seems to not be the focus of this particular location. The Muji in New York, just off Astor Place, is primarily stocked with stationery, and I didn’t know there was a significant home goods and clothing line until I went here.

A temple amidst consumerism

On Saturday, my friends and I continued to explore Puxi, going to 静安寺/靜安寺 (Jīng Ān Sì – Jing’an Temple), the most famous Buddhist temple in Shanghai. It’s difficult to miss, with golden roofs and massive lions at its doors. There is a train station (named Jing’an Temple) located right next to the temple, also on Line 2!  Entry is 50 RMB per person, so keep that in mind when you go.

静安寺/靜安寺 (Jīng Ān Sì) – Temple of Peace and Tranquility

The temple is beautiful, and there’s incense you can light for free (although they ask that you donate 5 yuan to the temple). There are four shrines, one with the Golden Buddha and another with a camphor wood statue of saint-goddess Guanyin, a unique feature of Chinese Buddhism. She is revered as a deity of mercy, and she is said to have guided Xuanzang, the monk who recovered copies of the Buddhist scripture to translate into Chinese, to India. Being a fairly observant Hindu, I made my own obeisances and many people do come from all over to offer their prayers to the Buddha.

It was nice to see that there were still monuments and places dedicated to Buddhism in Shanghai, and in such pristine condition. The temple was turned into a plastic factory during the Cultural Revolution, but now is a tourist attraction and a holy place for Chinese Buddhists. The temple, truthfully, is nestled in an odd place, being surrounded by high-end restaurants and clothing brands (there’s an Armani Exchange next door!). It seems to be a symbol of the cultural institutions that survived the Cultural Revolution. China changed thereafter, and continues to be in a state of flux with its current period of economic prosperity and booming consumer class. The temple truly is a space of tranquility in the middle the chaos of markets and consumer culture.

This week’s tips on food

This time on my travels as a vegetarian, I found Indian and Thai food! Along with Indian food, Thai food is one of the most reliable cuisines for vegetarians traveling in Asia, with a rich tradition of Buddhist cooking that continues today. I ordered a yellow curry, papaya salad (not pictured), and a dish called “crispy ear silk”. I know that this doesn’t sound vegetarian, and I didn’t think it was until I asked the waiter. He checked with the kitchen, and it is indeed a vegetable (if I go back at some point, I will update this article with the Chinese name).

Crispy “ear silk” and yellow vegetable curry at Hantai Restaurant on 4F 8座 (Block 8) of Jinqiao LifeHub

I also visited a very popular Indian restaurant in Shanghai, known as Bollywood, which has an interior decorated with many pictures of Bollywood stars. The restaurant is big, has performances every so often, and plays classic Bollywood music videos on a screen on the side of the restaurant. Indian food is literally a godsend for me, since it’s reliably vegetarian, and reminds me of home. Unfortunately, I forgot to take pictures of the food, so you’ll have to settle for a picture of the entrance. The restaurant is located on Hongfeng Road, just past Biyun Road. The food is flavorful, but I suggest asking for the food to be spicy if you want it, since they may have toned down the food for my non-Indian suite mates. The vegetarian dishes I ordered were the Veg Jalfrezi, Kadhai Paneer, and Daal Makhani. The vegetarian dishes were very popular with my non-vegetarian suite mates, so that should say something about the quality of the restaurant! It was also quite nice when they told us that NYU students get 15% off, so I will definitely be back again while I’m here.

A little bit of home so far away from it

A tip for vegetarians (particularly those learning Mandarin) when perusing a Chinese menu (even if there’s English), you should look for the character for “meat”, 肉 (ròu) so as to avoid it.

However, this is more true of Chinese, Korean, and Japanese dishes, since there are foreign dishes, such as spaghetti bolognese, that have meat, but may not necessarily include the character for “meat” in its Chinese name. The best thing to do is to determine what kind of dish it is based on pictures, look it up on a dictionary (such as Pleco, my preferred choice), or if your Mandarin is good enough, ask. Asking is quick and the waiter or waitress almost always knows. It’s not like the US where the waiters don’t know what it’s the food, and keep you waiting an extra 10-15 minutes while they go ask.

Handy tip: If it does have meat, the answer is often 有(肉)的 (yŏu [ròu] de), and if not, the answer is 沒有(肉) (méi yŏu [ròu]). The sounds very obvious, but it wasn’t when I first came to China, and I couldn’t understand what the answer was until I listened closely.

I also had Vietnamese food at Saigon Mama, a small Vietnamese cafe near the Portman Ritz Carlton, not far from Jing’an Temple. There are exactly two vegetarian things here, one of which is an appetizer (a tofu vegetable roll), and the other is a vegetarian bún (pictured below). At 55 RMB, this is a little pricier than usual, but given the size of the meal, I thought it was worth it. I also got a pretty little drink, called the Orange Ocean, at a bar near my dorm. My friends really wanted to get alcohol, but since I don’t drink, I was pretty pleased to see that this place made tasty non-alcoholic drinks. They’re technically for brunch and breakfast, but the staff (who are all very nice) were willing to make it for me.

I know that this post was really long, but they probably will be this long, given that I’m covering a whole week. I hope that you all enjoy these updates, and I look forward to writing next week’s post!