Moon Cakes Up to My Elbows!

This past week marked the Mid Autumn Festival. The festival is a time for family, friends, and lovers to reunite.

See, there was this hero in ancient times who shot down nine of the ten suns. Obviously in ancient in ancient times, there were nine too many suns. The local elder god gave a magic immortality potion to the hero as a token of his gratitude. After the hero did his heroic deeds, he became arrogant and tyrannical. He became so enamored with his heroism, that his wife stopped loving him and drank the potion to escape his asshole-ness- apparently she knew that the potion would cause her to fly up to the moon never to return to the earth (so far no one has been able to explain to me why the potion caused her to be sent to the moon). For the rest of his life, the hero looked up into the moon and wished he hadn’t been such a jerk as to make his wife stop loving him, he looked into the moon and wished for a reunion. And still to this day, when we look up into the moon we remember our loved ones who we cannot reunite with and reunite with the ones who we can.

We eat yue bing (moon cakes) which represent these reunions. Some are sweet, others savory, some spicy. The moon cakes are stuffed with a myriad of different things- these complex ingredient combinations represent the different people coming together in one cake. Well, in one family. Um, different people coming together under one roof. I could be peanuts and you could be sesame seeds, for example. Anyways. The bottom line is I’ve been eating a lot of moon cakes lately and here is a brief review:

Sweet Melon- Yummy and melony and very good all around. The melon was not too sweet, nor the filling too sticky or thick. One of the best.

Lotus Custard and Salty Egg- There’s something in this I just don’t like! I’ll give you a hint, it’s not the Lotus Custard. Who’s idea was it to put salty, gooey, egg goop inside of my delicious and refreshing lotus filled moon cake?! I hear they make whole cakes just filled with the salty egg!

Sausage and Salty Egg- I couldn’t even bring myself to try this one after my previous salty egg experience… plus, the filling looked like lint…

Icey “Sand”- bizarre name and the all-around, undisputed favorite. The shop where these little treasures originated actually sold out of these! The filling reminds one of wet sand, but the flavor is unidentifiable and delicious. A little like coffee, a little like French vanilla with hints of butterscotch. This one wins! 5 out of 5 gold stars! Scrumptious little mystery moon cake.

Orange Jam- we would call the ‘jam’ marmalade. Obviously this one made me smile.

Pepper and Sesame- This is one of the savory varieties of moon cake. The ‘pepper’ refers both to sweet green bell type peppers and to black pepper. Very good, salty and a little sneezy for obvious reasons…

Sweet Potato- this one sat squarely on the line between Sweet and Savory. I would have enjoyed a more powerful sweet potato flavor. I just don’t think the Chinese are ready for Sweet Potato Pie…

Chestnut- How can I describe this one?… very chestnutty? That’s really the only way. Most of the other cakes are filled with a combination of stuffing, this one is just Chestnut. Simple and very chestnutty.

Black Sesame- Also a winner in my book. I haven’t yet a seen “White Sesame”. Not too sweet, not too sticky.

Five Nut- Nutty. Pebbly. Seedy. Like birdseed in consistency. I gave mine away after one bite. I think the nuts were: Peanuts, Hazel Nuts, Walnuts, and Chestnuts.

Coconut- This had the potential to be awesome. But the texture was too similar to the previous flavor. I want my coconut to be smooth, not sandy. Good flavor though.

Fruit and Nuts- reminded me of a Christmas fruit cake. Good but very filling. Very filling.

Jujube- Another one I just don’t like. My palette just isn’t ready for the more exotic Chinese fruits yet.

Date- This is another winner. A little on the sticky side, but I guess date jam should be a little sticky. Smooth and sweet.

I wish I could mail these moon cakes to you! And if I find a way to mail them without moon cake destruction, these moon cakes are available year round!

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Dragons Meet You at the Airport

The Beijing airport is always an adventure. This would be my third time visiting PEK. My flight over from Canada was lovely. Most of the Canadians I met were displaying the stereotypical Canadian politeness. (This seemed even more pronounced because the country where I was headed is not known for its politeness. The Chinese are known for their warmth and friendliness, among other things, but never for their politeness.) On the plane, I sat next to two Chinese expatriates living in Canada full time. They warned me to: Be prepared for class- Chinese students smell weakness in professors like sharks smell blood in the water. Dress formally- Chinese students will not take your class seriously if they feel you don’t dress well. Make some money on the side by tutoring.

The Beijing airport was waiting for me with its arms crossed. After walking half a kilometer from the terminal to customs, there was a forty-five minute wait to cross the border. Which, in hindsight, was a rather short wait. And then to the train that shuttles passengers from customs to the rest of the airport. When the train the automated voice said, I thought rather rudely, “Get off the train.”

Arthur was waiting for me near the street level exit. I took me a while to locate my name in the forest of probably more than a hundred university and business representatives holding name signs. Arthur is short, about my height, with lean, stringy muscles and limited English. But he tries.

Beijing is a giant, dirty, monstrous city only comparable to LA in my experiences with giant, dirty, monstrous cities. The people there move faster than normal, looking like they needed to be somewhere else five minutes ago. The women dress fashionably. Well, most women in this country dress fashionably, but in Bejing it doesn’t look forced. The whole city rumbles and stretches, sprawling like a big cat over northern China.

The city is too much for Arthur. He was born and raised in Liaocheng, historically and culturally important, but small and poor. Beijing is almost as foreign to me as it is to him.

Arthur and I stopped in the station for dinner. He apologized that they only served Chinese food. At one point he actually said “We can’t eat here- they only have Chinese food.” This was my first interaction with the self-imposed cultural lack of self-esteem. Sometimes the local people assume the foreigners can’t stand the food, language, people. More on this later.

I was able to convince my new friend that I indeed loved Chinese food and that I wouldn’t choose to live in a place for a year if I didn’t like the food. We finally settled on a restaurant. I pointed to a delicious looking plate of something and asked what it was. He didn’t know. We ordered it anyway. It was stir-fried pig stomach. Arthur and I don’t really like pig stomach, especially when it is sitting in a pot of fiery hot chili peppers. Thankfully, we also ordered a comforting, bland cabbage soup. We downed two 40 oz. beers each, necessary to put out the heat from the peppers.

With our stomachs full of stomach, we headed down into the bowels of the train station. Along the way, we saw a homeless man carefully and diligently building a bed out of newspaper like a little subterranean dingy bird would. The man left momentarily, and during his brief absence, one of the station’s cleaning people carefully and diligently cleaned up the newspaper nest.

By the time Arthur and I schlepped my two 50 pound duffels, backpack, mini duffel and Arthur’s briefcase down the broken escalators and across the platform, our muscles felt as if they were melting off our bones. It was so face meltingly hot, Arthur overrode his Chinese upbringing of politeness and handed me a bag he was carrying.

The humidity under Bejing had a visceral quality to it. Imagine a giant vacuum cleaner bag exploding in a bathroom where someone is taking a hot shower. When we actually got on the train, I simultaneously felt that I needed to take a shower and that I had just taken one.

Thank Confucius! Arthur had the forethought to purchase a compartment. In the steerage section, people were standing in the aisle, heavy looking bags raised over their heads.

We shared the compartment with two heavy shirtless and snoring men who slept on the top bunk. After the four and a half train ride south-south-west, we arrived in the city I would be calling home for the next ten months.