China, Cultural Differences, Food, Social Customs

How Sweet

I’ve been stewing over this post for a good while now and have done a great deal of self-reflection on my motives for writing it and what I’m trying to say exactly. I think everyone can relate to feeling a little misunderstood and I suppose that’s the underlying emotion. So as you read, please forgive me for my moments of soapbox-ing. (Removing plank from eye)

One of the very fun parts of my job is organizing cultural activities for students at our host university in Xi’an. Cooking class is one such activity and a very popular one too. However, cooking and therefore food have recently become a source of constant bristly behavior on my part. I’ve developed this bizarre inability to be a completely impartial, objective philosopher on issues of food and cultural differences. How strange of me.

Following a recent cooking class I had this (summarized) conversation with a student:
Me: Did you enjoy the cooking class?
Him: Oh yes! It was great! I really liked the banana bread.
Me: Good. It was very nice, wasn’t it?
Him: Yes. And to be honest I liked it even more than the cookies that X made a few weeks ago.
Me: Oh? Why?
Him: Well the cookies were not to my taste. They were too sweet.
Me: Too sweet? They’re cookies. They’re supposed to be sweet!
Him: Yes, but you’re an American. You like sweet things. Chinese people don’t like sweet things.

I’ll leave off my spluttering. The conversation from there took a familiar path with the Chinese student solemnly intoning about Chinese people’s dislike for sugar. A statement to which I everywhere see evidence against. The number of bread stores in China? Milk tea shops? The explosion of coffee culture? Ice cream? Soda? I think Chinese people like sugar. They like it very much. I had coffee with that student and watched him empty four sugar packets into his latte. Hmmm.

I repeated the conversation to the teacher who led the most recent cooking activity with a roll of my eyes and told him to take this into consideration when planning future cooking classes. For the next class, they prepared a rice pudding and left out about half the sugar. The students enjoyed the class and like the pudding. Another foreign teacher wandered in, sampled the pudding and with a crease in his forehead asked where the sugar was. I laughed out loud. (A question is this: if we alter recipes to suit Chinese tastes, are we really teaching “American cooking?”)

I’m not going to deny that Americans like sweet desserts, but after four years of “American ______ (insert a noun here) is/are too ______ (insert negative adjective here) I guess what I’m looking for is a little more open mindedness and a moment when my “culture” (such as it is) isn’t being constantly criticized.* I mean, can I get like one positive aspect about American food, puh-lease?!?

At the heart of the matter is—IMHO—sensitivity to other people’s culture, specifically food culture. As a temporary resident in the Dominican Republic, Georgia (Republic of), and China I’ve had the chance to sample plenty of strange dishes. I firmly believe that the best policy is to sample a little of everything because a) you never know what you’ll like, and b) it’s only polite. If there’s something you don’t like you don’t exclaim in horror and push your plate away. Approach every new dish with an open attitude and neutral facial expressions, because believe me your hosts are watching for your reaction!

Also on the subject of food manners, another best policy is not to tell a person from X country what the food of X country is like, especially when you’ve never visited the country of X! Avoiding mass generalizations is essential.

I gave a little end-of-the-year and bon voyage speech to my USA-bound students a few weeks ago. Along with other advice, I said a few words on this very topic. Food is culture. A very real, tangible, edible part of local culture. I relayed to them my experiences in China and one of the top three questions I get asked: do you like Chinese food? Now, I asked them, if I wrinkled my nose, grimaced and said that I didn’t like Chinese food how would that make you—as a native Chinese—feel? Frowns all around. Exactly, I said. Food IS culture and everyone likes a little respect. So when you are in the States, if someone asks you for your opinion on American food, please—in the interests of building cross-cultural relationships and not starting wars—go for a diplomatic answer!

I’d like to believe that it’s all my American training in multiculturalism and political correctness at work here, making me twitch uncomfortably at every blanket statement and stereotype. That in combination with my genuine desire to educate my students about the diversity of the USA, in terms of population as well as local culture. Otherwise I’m simply lacking a thick skin and the only solution is to drink more beer and become as loudly and gloriously bellicose as American stereotypes would have me be.

*This is one of the lightest comments I’ve received about American food, but it appears it was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.

China, Cultural Differences, Food

Eating with the Seasons

Living in Georgia (Republic of) gave me a much greater appreciation for the changing of the seasons. A coastal Californian gal, the changing of seasons is much less showy at home. (It’s there, just much more subtle and requiring a much greater sensitivity to appreciate it! Defensive? Not much.)

In Georgia, the seasons were distinct and it wasn’t just the weather than changed, but more importantly the food! Wow, yes. Winter was a misery of bread and potatoes. You’re grateful for them, but you’d sure like some variety! Unfortunately in the village of Korbouli there was not much else to be had. It’s winter—deal with it! Easter is something to celebrate on more than one level when there are garden fresh veggies to gorge on. And that first summer melon? Heavenly.

China is much the same, though there are hothouse fruits and veggies available for sky-high prices for those with no interest in the actual flavor of the food. In China the true changing of the seasons is announced not only with vegetation, but with street peddlers. Spring is announced with strawberries, cherries and mulberries, Summer with watermelons and peaches, fall with gorgeous apples from within the province. A sight for the eyes and also good for the heart!

Fruit is widely available everywhere, partly due to the industriousness of the fruit sellers. Looking for a healthy snack? Walk outside the school gate and you’ll have your pick. Simply on the basis of my observations, I think Chinese students must eat more fruits than their American counterparts because on campus a bag of fruit swinging from an arm is so common it’s hardly worth mentioning. (Perhaps American students are drinking their fruit in the form of smoothies? Unknown.) The student market in Zhuhai keeps pre-sliced fruit in little containers right in front of the store and students buy them the way we buy soda and Snicker bars. And in the airport you see travelers simply loaded down with boxes of fresh fruit to take home to family and friends. These are people who value fruit! The end of most formal dinners is signaled with the arrival of the fruit plate.

On the subject of fruit, allow me to introduce you to an interesting fruit curiosity in China. Tomatoes—recognized technically as a fruit in the States, but treated as a vegetable—are most definitely a fruit in China. If you order a fruit salad in China, an American will be surprised to find tomatoes mixed in with other more common fruits. (We won’t go into the use of mayonnaise with fruit salads here!) And a cake from a bakery, decorating with cherries, strawberries, peaches, etc. might also have some brightly colored tomatoes nestled in the whipped cream. It puts me in mind of the Hidden Valley Ranch advertisements that had kids licking ice cream cones of raw broccoli with ranch on top. We can only hope that in America in the future kids will be fighting for the tomato piece of cake and not the one with the oh-so-important flower. We’re getting off topic here. I apologize.

Seasons, yes. Fruit, yes. There’s something to be said for China where every street corner has someone selling fruit. And if you’re in a need of a more filling snack, there’s also corn and potatoes! Steamed corn and roasted sweet potatoes are also widely available and a much healthier snack than anything from a fast food joint. These industries seem to provide the pocket money of a whole range of locals. It’s another one of these things where a less tightly controlled environment allows for some good small business opportunities. This relates to the question of relative “freedom” across countries which often comes up in discussion with students. Perhaps a topic for another post.

I’m riding a train back from Beijing right now and as I type the people in front of me just pulled out a huge box of lytchees and have been happily eating those for the last hour or so. They’ve since moved on to fresh peaches. Sometimes it’s a very nice life in China.

China, Food

Food, Glorious Food! – Part II

Let’s talk about food some more.

Soup. Many Chinese love soup. It’s an essential part of a meal. Now I like soup when the soup I is something like what we have in the States. Soups with many ingredients: vegetables, rice, potatoes, pasta and meat. And also different consistencies: stew-like, chowder-like, broth-based, etc. Minestrone. Chicken Noodle. Bean and Bacon. Beef Stew. That kind of thing.

However, that is not soup in the Chinese lexicon. Soup here, in my experience, is what we would call broth. Very clear soup with maybe a bone or two at the bottom. It really doesn’t have much flavor and I get very little enjoyment from eating it. My feelings on soup have been made clear to one Chinese teacher with whom I’ve occasionally had lunch. She is aghast that I don’t like soup. I have maintained my position. We’ve agreed to disagree. She can order soup for herself, but knows not to order any for me.

Dim sum. It’s a big deal here, especially as this is Guangdong—the home of dim sum. For the uninitiated, dim sum is like tapas for Chinese, but it’s eaten in the morning or afternoon. It’s many small items, such as dumplings or small buns, that are eaten together with tea. From my experience here, dim sum is ordered off a menu; there are no carts circulating as might be common in America.

Hot Pot. This is an interesting phenomenon whereby you go to a restaurant to have the pleasure of cooking your own food. Genius. In a serious hot pot restaurant every table will have a built-in pot. Other restaurants can offer hot pot, but it will simply be a pan and a hot plate. A specific type of broth is ordered and heated. Raw meat and fresh vegetables will be brought. Then you cook it all in the broth. Hot pot is an art. There are rules about what goes in the pot when and how long it stays in. If you do the wrong order, the flavors will get mixed. Disaster. I’ve honestly had very little hot pot, but it is such a big deal here that I couldn’t not mention it.

Dumplings. Delicious. I’m convinced that I love dumplings almost more for the vinegar than for the actual dumplings. Dumplings here are quite small, bite-sized, though there are of course many varieties throughout China. Usually they have a meat filling, combined with some other ingredients. Submersion/dipping in vinegar is customary, at least for me!

Wontons also fall under the category of dumplings. Wontons are a southern Chinese type of dumpling, usually meatier, using a different type of dough and wrapping. Here is Guangdong if you order wontons that usually means that you are getting wontons in a bowl of broth. This was a source of confusion to me until I figured out that all these terms really do matter. A dumpling is not the same thing as a wonton here. The terms are not interchangeable. You can order fried wontons sometimes, but it is nothing like wontons that we have in America. Aren’t wontons in America just like fried dough? It’s not something I usually order in the States.

In case you were wondering, a potsticker is also a type of dumpling, but it is fried whereas a standard dumpling—jiaozi—is not. Look at how much we are learning!

Chicken Feet. Yes, you read that correctly. Chicken feet are a yummy snack here! (Oo! Oo! Can I have the feet, mum? Can I?) Chicken feet are widely used in Chinese cuisine from what I’ve seen. You can also buy little snacky-type chicken feet in shrink-wrapped packages in the market in case you need something to gnaw on while you’re studying! Yay! No, I have not eaten any chicken feet.

(The Chinese teacher mentioned earlier ordered a special soup that featured black chicken feet. Apparently a real delicacy! They were very black.)

Tofu. I’ve been aware of tofu for a long time, but have never really eaten much of it. It used to occasionally appear in my house when I was a kid. My mom would decide that she wanted to cook with tofu and would buy a box of it, but it would inevitably end up getting thrown out after a week or two. So we never really ate it, just admired its strange consistency. In China there’s plenty of tofu and so many different kinds of it. Not just the box kind, but shredded tofu, fried tofu, strips of tofu, puffy cubes of tofu. I’ve found that I generally like tofu, but find the traditional tofu of my childhood—the jiggly kind—has almost zero flavor and is the very devil to pick up with chopsticks!

Now in the last edition of Food, Glorious Food, I mentioned the obsession with milk. Another use of milk, other than merely drinking it, is yogurt. There’s a yogurt section that’s not quite as extensive as the milk section, but still quite large in any grocery store of note. Overall the yogurt is quite similar to what’s available in America except for one important thing: the consistency. The yogurt in China is incredibly thin. As a result they are usually packaged with straws and not spoons. You puncture your yogurt like a Capri Sun and slurp away. I personally prefer a thicker yogurt and have identified a brand that is to my taste. That’s where my vast collection of collapsible spoons came from.

Having described in some detail Chinese food as I know it, I would now like to tell you a few things that real Chinese cuisine does not have. First off, there is no orange chicken. Really. Props to the people who invented it, but I’ve yet to see it here. In general I’ve seen very little deep-fried meat here. Secondly, egg rolls as they are known in America do not exist. There are spring rolls which are much lighter and less heavily fried. As I’ve mentioned, fried rice and chow mien are available, but they really aren’t the norm. That would be steamed rice. And there is just much less frying of anything in general. Last but not least, there are no fortune cookies here. Not a one. That’s pure America there.

On a related note, the scuttlebutt on the Internet is that Panda Express is considering opening branches in China. There was plenty of mocking in the comments sections of every article I read. (I was trying to verify whether this was actually happening or not.) You may scoff, but to be honest Panda Express would be an improvement on some of the “fast food” Chinese that is available here. Sarah and I have a particular horror of a very popular Chinese fast food chain called Kung Fu. We’ve eaten there only once. “Oh my god” punctuated the entire meal as we, disbelief on our faces, picked through our food for edible bits.

Panda Express, I think you’d be more welcome than you might expect!

China, Cultural Differences, Food, Uncategorized

Food, Glorious Food!

I haven’t really talked about food at all since I’ve been here other than maybe things I’ve cooked for myself. But I haven’t really talked about local cuisine and what I do when I am not eating my own cooking. I was jotting down notes to myself about things that are blog-worthy and found that I apparently have a lot I would like to share with you about food here!

Before diving in, as it were, I must provide a disclaimer. I feel it is my duty to remind you that I am talking about food in my city, which is in one province, and at my university, as universities can be not entirely representative of the true local culture and customs. I don’t want you to think of this as CHINA: THE COMPLETE GASTRONIMICAL EXPERIENCE. China is huge, in case that fact hasn’t quite truly registered. I am constantly astounded at how little I knew about China before coming here. And how little I still know. Again, China is huge and the food can vary a great deal depending on where you are. My experiences are very limited. So take it all with a grain of salt. Okay? Okay. Mostly I don’t want some outraged local coming down on me for misrepresenting their cuisine. Food is very important here. It’s traditional; it’s mythic. Don’t mess with the food. And don’t challenge the sanctity of each province’s food fame.

Where to begin? I will start off by declaring simply that I really like the food. I am completely satisfied at a gastronomical level, generally speaking.

What I most enjoy is the vegetables. Vegetables, vegetables, vegetables. Especially eggplant. Eggplant is a staple here. It is generally either stewed or stir-fried and it is delicious either way. I eat eggplant as often as I can. I frequent a school cafeteria just because I can generally depend on them for eggplant.

Eggplant is new in my life. Prior to Georgia eggplant was only ever seen on menus, followed immediately after by ‘parmigiana’ or possibly in combination with lasagna. A mysterious vegetable with a luridly purple pelt, it rarely impinged on my consciousness. Now it is on the forefront of my mind. At all times. Eggplant, eggplant, aubergine.

The other strangely marvelous thing in China is the deliciousness of cabbage and lettuce. Raw vegetables are a no-no in China, or at least that is what everyone tells us. I’ve eaten plenty of raw vegetables here and not had any problems, but to the Chinese the only safe way to eat vegetables is to cook them. So green salads are non-existent here, except in places that cater to foreigners. Instead, anything you think should be eaten raw is cooked. Lettuce, tomato, carrots, celery, even cucumber. And it’s really good. The cooked lettuce and cabbage doesn’t really have a strong flavor. It’s cooked simply with some oil and salt, I believe, and it’s amazing. Thinking about cooked lettuce is one of those “why don’t we do this?” moments. I’ve never even conceived of cooking lettuce. We cook spinach. We cook cabbage. But we don’t cook lettuce.

On cabbage, it is equally delicious as cooked lettuce. The Chinese ask about cabbage in America and I sort confusedly through my memories. We use red cabbage in salads as an essentially edible decoration. There’s cabbage in Chinese chicken salad. There’s cabbage and corned beef if you’re Irish. But at least in my family it is not a widely used vegetable. It’s so interesting to me to think about the different ways that different cultures use the same ingredients and have never even conceived of using them any differently.

Rice is, of course, a very important part of Chinese food and I am learning to be a rice connoisseur. I have rice preferences. Shocking. And of course this is steamed rice, not fried rice. Yes, you can order fried rice off menus, but it’s not like Panda Express where your side entrée items are fried rice or chow mien. The Chinese are very curious about whether Westerners eat rice. Do you eat rice every day? Do you have a rice cooker? Do you eat rice in America? No, no, sometimes.

As you might expect, there are also a lot of noodles in China, land of the Cup-o-Noodles. The on campus market features like 3-4 aisles of different varieties and brands of instant noodles. Of course, the average student does not have a kitchen so instant noodles are a cornerstone of their diet. In the canteen you can get noodles in broth with your choice of sauces and added veggies or dumplings. I personally despise noodles. They are very difficult and messy to eat with chopsticks and generally it’s hot enough without leaning over a bowl of steaming noodles. The steam inevitably makes my nose run and then I’m just a soggy, sniffly mess. And of course if you didn’t bring your own pocket tissues you are S.O.L., my friend. Plus they just don’t have that much flavor in my opinion. End of story.

Let’s talk breakfast. I’m not an expert here as I’ve never entered the canteen in the morning, but I’ll tell you what I do know. Milk is big here. Very big. And milk is an essential part of breakfast. There are all kinds of milk: red bean milk, strawberry milk, green tea milk, chocolate milk, soy milk, sweet milk, etc. And all this milk is in little juice box-type containers with straws. Students buy big sets of milk and haul them away to their dormitories. And this is the milk that doesn’t need to be refrigerated, like I encountered in the Dominican Republic. So mysterious. I had to go research that when I got here as I cannot wrap my mind around unrefrigerated milk products. It’s like that synthetic dairy creamer used in diners. So, so wrong!

And with that milk goes bread. Western civilization has seemingly infected the Chinese with a lust for sweet bread products. All manner of sweetened rolls, buns and little loaves of bread are stacked in the market and in the evening the students come and buy milk and bread for their breakfast the next morning. They also will buy sliced bread and eat it just as it is, sitting in class, eating a plain slice of bread or maybe one with raisins. And to be clear it is not good bread. It’s not even like bad American breakfast pastries, like Swiss Danishes, it is far inferior. I’m mystified.

Of course there are traditional Chinese breakfast foods. One thing that can be eaten for breakfast, though it is not eaten exclusively at breakfast, is a rice porridge called either congee or zhou, pronounced “joe”. It is rice cooked for a long time in broth until it turns soft and soupy. Things can be added to the zhou, mostly meat or veggies. So in that way it’s not like oatmeal which we usually sweeten. I personally don’t care for zhou, to the distress of a Chinese teacher I know. “It’s not delicious for you? Oh no!” No “oh no” needed. I’m fine without it.

As I’m writing this post I’m noticing that I am frequently complaining about food being bland. In some ways that is very characteristic of the food in my region. Cantonese food is considered to be one of the blandest cuisines in China. Although bland is not really a good thing, I might be safer off here than in Sichuan province which has the hottest food in China. It’s not unknown for long-term visitors like Peace Corps volunteers to develop stomach ulcers from the food. Yikes.

I’m over 2 pages now, so I think I’m going to have to make my thoughts on food a multiple-parter. But I will leave you with one more thing I love in China to balance out some of the things I’ve said I don’t like.

Another highly delicious cuisine in China is the street barbeque. Before coming to China I had never heard of Chinese barbeque. Korean barbeque, yes. Chinese barbeque no. Well. In China there is fabulous street barbeque. This is how it works. There is a big stand with loads of veggies and meats on skewers. You walk up and they give you a basket. You load up the basket with everything you want. We’re talking squid, fish, beef, pork, chicken, sausage, onions, potatoes, greens of all varieties, eggplant, tomato, peppers, bean sprouts, I can’t think of what else. They take it away and tally up your order. They cook it and bring things to you as they finish. And it’s delicious. It’s coated in some sort of special spicy sauce and grilled. Did I say it’s delicious? It’s delicious. And it’s cheap. And it’s fun. You sit at crappy little plastic and/or cardboard tables. There will probably be a roll of toilet paper on the table for hand and face wiping. You drink beer out of the thinnest plastic cups known to mankind, cups that require constant refilling as the slightest breeze will blow them away. The barbeque stands are very territorial; you must patronize whichever stand you sit in front of. Not that there are any major differences between stands as far as I can tell. They all generally are selling much the same things.

Of course street food is not technically legal. There are no permits of licenses. So one day when we’d gone to have barbeque we found the area mysteriously empty and quiet. Our students informed us that the police shut it down as they do every so often. We bemoaned the absence of our street barbeque and went elsewhere. Fortunately the barbeque returned within a few weeks. Business as usual.

Stay tuned for more food, glorious food!

Food, Republic of Georgia, Travel

The Pact

I finally made it to Tbilisi, the capital, last weekend. Since I hardly feel that my initial arrival counts, it was truly my first time in the city. I think it is a shame that it was my first time. I am not really sure why I had not gone earlier. Mostly I blame my teaching schedule which goes all the way to 4 PM on Friday afternoons. Makes it hard to take trips to anywhere of any distance.

 Cruising into Tbilisi on our miraculously uncrowded martshutka, food became a topic of conversation. Stories of the wonderous food to be found in Tbilisi have reached even the far corner of Georgia that I reside in. Chinese food. Pizza. Mexican food. McDonalds. Visions, not of sugar plums, but of Western food, were dancing in our heads. Not really sure who initiated it, but someone, maybe even me, said we should eat no Georgian food unless absolutely necessary. A pact! We agreed. I was surprised at the enthusiasm this created even though I felt it myself. We piled our hands in the middle to signal our solemn oath.

My last post got me some comments on how I was obviously over any initial attraction to Georgian food. That is true in part. Some meals here are endured, not enjoyed. However I think it is healthy. It keeps food in perspective and it forcibly reminds me of Kathleen Norris’ discussions on monasteries and aestheticism in The Cloister Walk. While any given meal might be something I despise, it helps me to realize that it is just as likely to be a favorite meal of someone else in the family. It’s the militant hospitality that gets to me more than the actual food itself. But I digress.

Here’s the summary of how our pact played out:

Thursday night (Thanksgiving dinner): Irish pub

We consumed slabs of pure meat, unimpaired by bones, gristle, fat, or skin, and drank excellent wine and/or beer. It was glorious. I would’ve sung a love song to my steak if I’d been asked to.

Friday morning: Swiss Bakery

Ham and cheese croissant and mini-chocolate croissant. We would’ve had coffee (Susy and I) but for some reason it was not available. Even though there was a shining espresso machine behind the counter. How very Georgian.

Friday afternoon: monastery in the middle of nowhere

After an entirely unanticipated hike that only my innate pride and stubbornness got me through, I chugged a Nalgene of water, ate a mandarin orange that our driver gave me (out of pity most likely) and a pastry that Susy had had the foresight to purchase before we left town.

Friday evening: Georgian Restaurant

I felt that this dinner slightly dishonored our pact but we really had no other options. We were all starving. We had barbecued pork, spinach, French fries, mushrooms, and a lot of wine. Susy’s argument was that none of this was something we had on a regular basis in the villages. I guess that was true.

Friday night: porch of our hostel

More beverages, Swiss cheese, and Sour Cream and Onion Pringles. How American is that?

Saturday morning: Muesli, bananas, milk, coffee with . . . creamer! I think I would’ve come to Tbilisi just to buy this. But the muesli was amazing. And so was the milk.

Saturday afternoon: Cheese, salami, bread, salad, and Lay’s Potato Chips purchased at the grocery store

Saturday evening: The worst Mexican food ever. It wasn’t Georgian, but it sure wasn’t Mexican either!

Sunday morning: More muesli, bananas, milk, and lots of coffee with creamer. Heaven.

Sunday afternoon: Leftover cheese and salami for me. Jason chugged the yogurt. We hit a cake shop on the way to the Metro.

The change in food was just that: a change. And we all know the saying that change is good. Change was very good that weekend. And when I got back Sunday night, opened the door and saw my family eating little grilled fish with leftover lobio, I sat down with relatively good cheer and had myself some lobio. Which is proof that all Georgian food is not bad.

Food, Republic of Georgia, Uncategorized, Village Life, Weather

Shameless Behavior

I cannot lie. I went to school today for the sole purpose of coffee and cookies in the teacher’s lounge. The colder weather has been settling in this past week and I have not been adjusting to the change well. I have broken into almost all of the warmest clothing I brought: the Capilene shirt and long-johns, the heavy wool socks. I’ve been sleeping in at least 2 layers of everything underneath my comforter and 2 blankets I purloined from the spare beds outside my room. If this is what it is like in October, how am I ever going to survive when there is actually snow on the ground?

I am seriously not trying to be dramatic, but a few nights this week, before I put new measures into place, I was having a hard time falling asleep because I was too cold. Nasty flashbacks of backpacking in Yosemite. Leadership Trek #2. You remember, right Jenn? The fallout of this is that I sleep restlessly all night and then tend to fall deeply asleep in the morning once it starts getting a little warmer. Twice this week I woke up 15 minutes before I needed to leave for school. That’s okay. I am a professional quick change artist, but it is always a nasty jolt to see the clock.

So today I slept deeply from about 7 to 9 and then woke up. It was just so cold once I was out from underneath my covers! The whole house is shaded from a big front porch on both levels, so there is never any sun to warm up the rooms. I looked longingly down the road at the school where the sun was streaming in. I had no reason to be at the school. No classes. But it was 11:15 and if I was at school before 12 I would most likely be served cookies and coffee in the teacher’s lounge. And that is one of the sunniest rooms in the school. So stay in the house and shiver or shamelessly go to the school for hot coffee and sunshine? There was no question. The coffee was hot and the sunshine was warm.

Communication, Food, Republic of Georgia, Village Life

Shotis Puri

 The other day was one of those days. A long morning with another carb-filled breakfast and gloomy skies. One hour of teaching followed by an agonizing three hours of sitting in the teachers’ lounge with nothing to do. A nearly interminable wait until “lunch” was served after 5 PM. (Breakfast had been at 8:30.) Coming ravenous to the table only to find that “lunch” looked completely unappetizing: soup with large chunks of bone and cartilage containing small bits of an unidentified meat. Oh man. I miserably picked through it and said “no” to seconds much more firmly than usual. Normally I’m a big push-over.

 The family was trying to communicate something to me, but I was just not getting it. “Ver gavige, I don’t understand,” I said wearily. Teona, the second daughter, simplified the matter by gesturing towards the door and saying “Ts’avidet” or “Let’s go”. We picked our way through the muddy backyard out to the . . . tone. And here my day changed for the better.

Shotis Puri – Flat, long bread with narrow ends, wide at the center, baked in a tone, an earth oven dug deeply into the ground

 I became aware some time after I arrived in Korbouli that my family makes their own bread. That is very cool stuff to me. The family is mildly amused by my enthusiasm, probably thinking, “What? Don’t you have bread in California?” Yes, we do. But it is not homemade and not nearly as good.

All the Laura Ingalls Wilder of my childhood, especially Farmer Boy, gave me a fascination for this sort of self-sufficiency. It’s just so uncommon in the States. Okay, actually we have a lot of hippies and “natural food” types in California who probably do make their own bread. But I bet that they have a bread machine and bake it in the oven. They cannot possibly be baking in a tone.

So out in the backyard, Grandma Neli is baking shotis puri in her homemade tone. She has already got her fire burning and now she banks it by laying down pieces of what look like terracotta roofing tiles with a pair of large tongs. Then she turns to the board where she has all her dough ready to go. She cuts each round in half and flours it. I had been looking at the tone, which is a round, deep oven, with no racks inside, wondering where exactly the bread goes. Silly me. Neli turns and slaps the dough onto the side of the tone. Ah. Mystery solved. She proceeds to apply dough down all sides of the tone, without any mitts or gloves, seemingly unconcerned by the heat or the possibility of burning a finger or two. A total pro. I make little sounds of amazement the entire time. When she is done, she removes all the tiles and then covers the tone.

My Georgian is inadequate to express how impressed I am or why I am so impressed. But I want Neli to know how cool I think it is. So I tell her, “Dzalian magaria, Neli! It is very cool!” and repeat it a few times. Who can resist such wide-eyed, guileless appreciation of their work? Neli looks faintly amused, but I think also quietly pleased. All her work making bread for the family is probably something more taken for granted than applauded. Neli is my inspiration. Someday I too will bake my own bread.

The bread, puri, bakes for only about 15 minutes. Then the tone is uncovered and all the loaves are now crispy and golden brown. Neli expertly removes them and stacks them on her table. Pretty as a picture. She takes one loaf and breaks it in half, giving a half to me. This is the warmest, softest bread ever. A perfect crispy outside, wonderful insides. I eat my half. Then I eat another half. I am full of fresh shotis puri. The disappointments of the day and the horror of lunch are only a memory, disappearing into the distance.