Category Archives: Xinbei

All You Can Eat at Pomel

“One day, I am going to try eel, but today is just not that day.” 

This is something I used to say while looking at a sushi menu. Essentially, I would be tempted to be adventuresome and try new things, but I would always chicken out in the end. This was seemingly a lifetime ago, back when I lived in North Carolina and New Jersey. Sushi places seemed few and far between, and I quite often had zero disposable cash. So, the fear was partly economic — why pay a lot of money for something I may not exactly like?

Times change, and now I am in Changzhou. Sushi isn’t really a hard to find, exotic item here. That’s especially true now that I live near Hanjiang Road / Japanese Street in Xinbei. While there are plenty of sushi options to pick from, one place has a great deal to consider.

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Pomel has an all you can eat deal for 198 RMB. This is not a buffet, either. You basically have full run at the menu, and you can order multiple times. Both beer and sake are included. Upon a recent visit with a friend, we basically got to have our fill of sashimi…

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If you think about how much sashimi grade salmon and tuna can cost, the 198 RMB price tag quickly pays for itself, and that’s not even factoring in beer and sake refills.

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And, of course, it’s hard to go to a Japanese place and not order sushi. Then, there is another good aspect of an all you can eat deal.

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You can try things out without the fear of wasting money. I have long gotten over trepidation surrounding eel. The friend I was dining with had already introduced me its yumminess on a separate occasion. However, this time, I had the opportunity to try my first couple of cups of warm sake. I also got a chance to sample sea urchin as part of a second sashimi platter. I appreciated the sake, yet raw sea urchin just really isn’t my thing. It’s got the appearance and consistency of — not to be gross — snot. However, I now can say been there, done that and move on. Again, that’s the value of this deal at Pomel — or any other Japanese all you can eat places — you can try things you normally wouldn’t if you were doing ala carte.

Unfinished, Other Worldly in Xinbei

“Once you’ve seen one temple, you have pretty much seen all of them.”

This is a comment that I have heard on and off from several people over the years. While I disagree, I will concede one point. The style of both Buddhist and Taoist temples in this area share a lot of the same stylistic points. A lot of the statuary can either be vibrant or colorful, or they can be based on different shades of gold. So, when you find something that deviates from that pattern, it really stands out. Recently, I did. In fact, it looks like no other temple I have ever seen in Changzhou or elsewhere in Southern Jiangsu.

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Xiushan Temple 修缮寺 has the standard paint job and architecture of other temples. So, the strangeness of the place is on the interior, not the exterior. And it hits you immediately when you step through the front door.

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The religious statuary is all unfinished. For example, some of them have been sculpted in what looks to be clay. However, something seemed to happen to halt the installation process. Then, over the course of time — and due to heat — the statuary began to form wide cracks. This has lead to a seemingly unearthly, somewhat otherworldly look.

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This has lead to some wear-and-tear issues that leads to somewhat creepy-looking damage — like a jawless demon.

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These are just but a few of the statues. A majority of what can be seen has been crafted from wood. These are the statues that normally wouldn’t be painted. Rather, they would be plated in gold or otherwise gold-colored.

 

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However, some of them also have their own issues that has caused damage. Like the clay statues, cracks have developed.

 

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These are not simple fissures, but cracks wide enough you can see through.

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Some of these “cracks” are necessary. Not all of the pieces were carved from a singular piece of wood. Some parts were made sparately and then jigsaw-puzzled together. Take a close look at the above photo, and you will see that. Even if the statues were not damaged, the natural, unfinished look of the wood adds other elements I have not seen at other temples.

 

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In each of these statues, you can see the striped grains in the wood. You can also see the some of the circular knots. It’s just two more things that adds intricacy of something that already has intricate detail and weather damage.

So, what exactly happened here?

 

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This place is open to the public. It looks like it is being used as a local place of worship. I am just assuming, but I am basing the deduction off of the places to kneel, the sound system, and a few other things. There is a poster by the door of the main hall. From what I can piece together using Baidu Translate on my phone, the funding for Xiushan Temple seemed to have fallen short. Some of the signage seems to solicit donations.

Either way, visiting this place is a profoundly unique experience. It’s in northern Xinbei — on the way to the industrial ports alongside Changzhou’s portion of the Yangtze River. One can take a bus out this area; the 27 and 40 come to mind, but it also involves getting off and traveling down a narrow, but paved, country road. While it is open, there still seems to be active construction with workers. In that regard, it will be interesting to return here in the future to see what eventually changes. While I do hope the people running these temples can find a way to keep their statues from crumbling, part of me hopes they find a way to keep this the one-of-a-kind place that it currently is.

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Dabei Temple Was Not Sad

Sometimes names can be misleading, and this can be especially true when translation is involved. Other personal outside influencing factors don’t help either. Recently, I have been learning how to play the card game Magic The Gathering.  It’s fantasy based, and it is a million times more complicated than poker or canasta. Magic involves specialty character cards, and many of the them work and interact differently. It makes for a game of nearly infinite and hard-to-predict strategies. Since this a basically a fantasy, Dungeons and Dragons type game, many of these cards can have weird names. The following examples are made up by myself, but they speak to the oddity that sometimes is Magic The Gathering:  Codex of Dubious Confusion, Library of Lesser but Real Horrors, and Spire of Ominous Despair. All of this, recently, had an effect on how I explored Changzhou.

Copyright Magic The Gathering.
Copyright Magic The Gathering.

While looking at Baidu Maps recently, I noticed something called  大悲禅寺 dàbēi chán sì. That literary translates as “big sad temple.” Since I was looking at this with my head in the Magic The Gathering fantasy world, I started to laugh. Binge listening to the Welcome to Night Vale podcast didn’t help. It’s a fictitious community radio broadcast filled with sinister dog parks filled with hooded figures and reports of supernatural happenings – yet, it has the humdrum, low-key delivery of America’s National Public Radio. In short, I projected my own personal culture onto Dabei Temple instead of thinking of a possible Chinese context.  I thought if I went there, I might see a large statue dedicated to profuse weeping.

So, I set out on my ebike. This Buddhist place of worship is in northwestern Xinbei. It’s near the both Changzhou’s airport and the city border with Yangzhong. In short, this is not a place easily accessible by public buses. It is also a real place of religious worship and not something aimed at tourists. Eventually, I reached my destination by traveling down a dirt road.

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Dabei Temple quickly revealed itself.

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As it turns out, Dabei Temple is neither “big” nor “sad.” It just happens to be an average countryside Buddhist temple in a very remote part of Xinbei.

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It has the standard courtyard set up and grounds layout of small temples. This means a main hall with a few other nooks of worship and community space.

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You have the usual sort of Buddha statue set up once you enter the main hall.

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Behind that, there is a sculpture wall dedicated to Guanyin, a figure of divine compassion. This is also a pretty common thing in the layout of temple main halls in this area — Buddha upfront, Guanyin in rear.

Despite the fact that I have seen a lot of temples like this, I left this place feeling grateful. I got to see a part of Changzhou and Xinbei I have never been to before, but it reminded me something I had already known. It reminded me of a fundamental truth. I had just temporarily forgotten it due to my new obsession with Magic The Gathering and the great many professional distractions and obligations I have had over the last month. It’s this: you can’t make assumptions on things when translation is involved. Not only are you bringing your personal biases into a travel experience, but you are letting your native culture effect how you see a foriegn country. That is not a good thing.

The 50’s Purpose

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Sometimes, public bus routes are like riddles. They usually exist for a reason. Some are quite easy to understand, and others are not. Bus #50 actually was actually quite easy to figure out once I got off at its Zhonglou District terminus.

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This municipal bus depot also acts as an intercity coach station with destinations in places like Jurong and elsewhere. Sure, it’s not like the hub downtown and next to the high speed rail station. In many cases, places like this are also stopping points on coaches heading out of town. In trips to both Liyang and Yixing, the intercity buses have stopped in other city locations to pick up more travelers, for example.

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Ok, that’s well and fine. So, what’s the purpose of the 50 municipal bus?

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It connects an intercity coach station to Dinosaur Park, which is the other terminus. Dino Park is a major source of tourism revenue for both Changzhou and Xinbei. In theory, people in smaller cities to the west could get off bus here and switch to a public bus that would take them to Dinosaur Park and a potential hotel reservation in the area. That’s well and fine. Why would a Changzhou resident use this bus, besides the convenience of some of the stops in the middle of the route?

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Zhonglou’s Decathlon is the second to last stop. Changzhou only has two of these sporting goods stores. During my years in China, this retail chain has actually meant a lot to me. I am a tall guy with big feet. A lot of brick and mortar stores do not carry sizes 46 or 47. Decathlon does. Also, my Taobao situation is a bit screwy, so if I want to try on shoes to see if they actually fit me, this place has always been reliable. I will ride a bus in the name of convenience and not bothering Chinese friends to order, receive, and return footwear for me.

Changzhou’s other Decathlon is in Wujin. Quite honestly, both are pains to get to when you live in Xinbei, but the one in Zhonglou is easier. I boarded this bus actually at Xinbei Wanda Plaza, and that seems to only other major landmark this line services. For the most part, the 50 is not a scenic ride.

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Manhattan Gets a Central Park

Noticing things that were not there before is a common part of city life, and this is especially true when that city is in China. Construction and development is a nonstop business here. Sometimes, shopping centers are built, and they they lay mostly empty for while the storefronts are slow to fill in. This is the case with the Risesun Manhattan Plaza in Xinbei. Currently, it’s most known for having a statue of Marilyn Monroe that exposes her panties.

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Actually, you have to walk behind the statue to see Monroe’s underwear.

Construction barricades are still in the area near this plaza, but a bunch of them recently came down and revealed a new park. This is on a plot of land adjacent to the shopping center. Whether it’s coincidence or product of urban planning, it bares the name of Central Park. Remember, the plaza has “Manhattan” in the name, and that borough of New York City is home to the greatest city park in America. So, does this new Central Park in Xinbei resemble the one in the Big Apple? Um, no. Not even close.

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This tract of land is home to lot of colorful planters with stone mosaics.

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Since this place is relatively new, there are patches of dirt that have yet to be covered with sod or seeded with grass. A lot of the trees that have been planted still have wooden supports to keep them upright. And, it seems one building is still under construction.

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While new, the place still seems unfinished and is still a work in progress. China gets some criticism for its relentless building of shopping center and apartment complexes. In Changzhou, at least, it’s always nice to know that open green space is always part of that urban planning. The new Central Park next to Risesun Manhattan Plaza is an example of that.

The 59 to Mengcheng

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Riding the 59 public bus reminded me that Xinbei is way much larger than what your average expat may think. This is a route that begins at the downtown train station and terminates in Mengcheng. This village is so northwestern in Changzhou, the city boundary with Yangzhong is actually not that far away. It’s actually closer than Xinbei Wanda Plaza would be.

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While going north on Jinling, this line eventually turns west onto Hanjiang and eventually ends up on Huanghe Road for a long stretch. In the process, it passes through Xuejia and the many, many factories between that town and Luoxi — where Changzhou’s airport is located. However, it must be noted that the 59 is not really an effective means of transportation to the local airport, as it turns north before getting near enough to the terminal. Because of the heavy industrial presence along Huanghe Road, this bus can also become absolutely crammed with factory / plant commuters during rush hour.

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So, what exactly is in Mengcheng? On this visit, I didn’t find much. It’s essentially small town China on the far fringe of Changzhou.

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There is a very tiny public park with a semi decrepit building.

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There appeared to be one Christian church and two temples in the area. However, one of them looked very closed to the public, and the other I passed on the bus. It was too late in the day to hop off and take a look. The final ride today was at 6:15pm, and I didn’t want to get stranded in a place where getting a cab would be difficult.

From a foreigner’s perspective, the only real value of the 59 is if that person has business in Xuejia. This is a smaller urban center to the west of the greater Wanda / Dinosaur Park area. I know this because I once consulted with a language center near Xuejia’s KFC.

Brightly Colored Mother’s Love

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Who says my heart of a grass seedling

Can ever repay her warm spring sun?

–Meng Jiao, from Traveler’s Song

Meng Jiao 孟郊 clearly loved and cared for his mother. The above lines — taken from this translation of “A Traveler’s Song” — convey that as do the rest of the poem. For a large part of his life, he refused to take the imperial exams, but he eventually relented once he reached middle age. A civil service job, he reasoned, would allow him to financially support her as she grew older.  This eventually led him to a ministerial position in Liyang — a city to the south that is part of Changzhou’s prefecture. There, he dithered around among streams and forests while composing poems.

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“A Traveler’s Song” (遊子吟) was one of those poems he wrote while living in Liyang. It’s a short bit of a verse. It speaks of a son about to set off to travel, and his mom is sewing his clothing for him before he leaves. The poem doesn’t mention where the son is going or how long he will be gone. It’s just the departure is impending, and that both the son and the mother will miss each other.

Generality can be a blessing and a curse in poetry. It largely depends on the linguistic skill of the poet in conveying emotion. This poem, in the variety of English language translations I have read, uses generality and vagueness rather well. It gives a reader just enough information while allowing them to read their own life into the lines.

For example, Meng Jiao’s poem remind me of my own mom. While I was in college in West Virginia, my parents still lived overseas — The Netherlands for a year, and then the UK until my father retired from the US Department of Defense. I came to visit for a few weeks every Christmas and New Years. Eventually, I would have to get back on the airplane and fly across the Atlantic. I wouldn’t see them again until summer, when they would come to the US to see my brother, sister, and myself. There was always talk of time and distance every time my Mom and I parted ways.  Of course, plenty of other readers around China and the rest of the world have had no problem understanding this poem. It is one of Meng Jiao’s most famous works.

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It is always interesting to see how a famous piece of literature transcends written text and takes on a life out in the world. “A Traveler’s Tale” is actually part of the decorative lanterns at Dinosaur Park in Xinbei. A large chunk of the colorful art on display have more generalized holiday themes. However, there is a portion close to Hehai Road that recreates Changzhou history.

I found this recently because a friend and I went on a stroll specifically to look at the lanterns and laugh at their gaudy silliness. We both sort of stopped and lingered at the Meng Jiao display, because, well, part of it looked a little creepy.

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At the time, we both didn’t know what we were looking at. The reddish marks on her face look a little like bruises. I didn’t quite know what to make about the black smudges around the both eyes. Now that I have had time to think about it, it’s the limitations of the medium when it comes to this sort of public art. Spring Festival lanterns easily look childish. The vibrant, bright colors have something to do with that. However, if you look at Meng Jiao’s mom, and the nearby recreation of Su Dongpo, they have a difficulty in conveying age.

Of course, I am nit picking. The point Spring Festival lantern displays is to do exactly what my friend and I did — walk around and smile at them. There is plenty of time to do just that. While the western holiday season is coming to an end, the run up to Spring Festival is just beginning.

 

Western Breakfast at CF Cafe

There are two reasons why I would ever eat Pizza Hut’s food. They can receive orders in English if you call them for delivery. Also, they do scrambled eggs and French toast breakfasts up until 10:30. Given Pizza Hut’s wide reach, that’s highly convenient if you are traveling through unfamiliar places in China. In Changzhou, however, there are some places that offer a western styled breakfast with higher quality food. CF Cafe is one of those establishments.

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The food here has always been of high quality. Their cakes, breads, sandwiches, and pizza are all worth the trip. However so are their breakfasts, and the prices are roughly the same as Pizza Hut. As implied earlier, the quality of their offerings are much, much better.

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This is scrambled eggs with salmon. It came with a fried tomato and a salad with Japanese style dressing. This cost about 45 RMB. For me, salmon is a very rich-tasting fish. There is only so much of it I can eat in one sitting. The portion here was just about the right amount. While I enjoyed this, I liked the next dish even more.

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The baked beans and the tomato makes me think this is a more British styled breakfast than American, but that that’s really splitting hairs. So this is basicaly scrambled eggs with spinach and mushrooms. Other sides include a breakfast sausage and potatoes. This runs about 55 RMB. That’s roughly similar to what I normally pay at Pizza Hut. Maybe it’s 5 RMB more, but I will gladly play the difference.

These two options are not the only breakfast choices CF Cafe has to offer. However, this category of food is just another indication of the quality you can find here, whether you are seeking breakfast, lunch, or dinner.

CF Cafe is located in Taihu Road in Xinbei and is across the street from the media tower and complex. It’s walking distance from Wanda Plaza and it’s BRT station.

A Skatepark in Xinbei?

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Recently, a small skate park has popped up in the Found City shopping plaza across the street from Xinbei Wanda. This is actually in the inner part of the plaza, and is currently in front of the equally new Ellen’s Bar. It’s fairly simple with a few obstacles like two rails, a launch ramp, and a few others. There are two quarter pipes at each end, too.

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I’m not sure exactly what is going on, here. Could this be linked to an upcoming event? A few months ago, Vans did a skateboarding demo in Wuxi. Regardless, in the time this little skate spot has been in Xinbei, I haven’t actually seen anybody riding it. I would have tried, as I do have a board. However, I’m a middle aged guy that easily prone to foot injuries these days. Some of the signage seems to suggest it’s legit and lays out terms of use.

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There are only two sports I tend to be a fan of: professional wrestling and skateboarding. So, I hope the above place is legit. However, I have to speak with a little bit of skepticism. Up till now, Changzhou has had two big skate spots. Over in Qingfeng Park, there is a X-Games styled place that even has a half pipe. Yet, the obstacles are rusted, it’s unsafe to ride, and it’s closed to the public. Down in Wujin, there is a concrete set of banks set up like a snake run. A few years ago, I had actually spent an afternoon riding it. This is in the park next to the Holiday Inn near the Wujin governmental complex. Last time I was there, layers of dirt had made that place unusable.

The other issue, really, is Foundcity. From time to time, things pop up there, remain unused, and then vanish. I remember an attempt to set up a outdoor gocart track, for example. So, as I said. Count me as skeptical. As somebody who appreciates skating, I really want this place to be used and still in Xinbei within a couple of months. However, I will not be surprised if this vanishes, too.

A Mysterious Chinese Fragrant Pot

A common mistake some foreigners make is thinking their Chinese friends are all experts when it comes to their native cuisine. I will admit that I have been guilty of that in the past. There are many errors to this way of thinking. For example, which Chinese food? It’s a huge country with many different regional cuisines. Once you factor in local delicacies, you can live a lifetime of trying a new dish everyday and still not have gotten to everything China has to offer an adventuresome eater.

In the end, some dishes are harder to research than others — even in Chinese. The restaurant 筋牛坐筋头巴脑香锅米饭 Jīn niú zuò Jīn tóu bā nǎo xiāng guō mǐfàn has been very difficult to figure out. Let’s start with the name, as half of it is easy to miss-translate into Chinglish. Following the rule of translate the easy stuff and leave the specifics in Chinese, I would call it Jin Tou Ba Fragrant Pot and Rice — or just Jin Tou Ba as a short form. The official sign outside the place says “Ribs, Head, and Brain.” I don’t feel comfortable saying that, so for me, it will be just Jin Tou Ba going forward. The other option would be the place’s actual Chinese name, Jin Niu Zuo.

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The frustrating thing is I really like the food here, but none of the Chinese people I ask know anything about this restaurant or the style of food. That’s weird, because every time I go here, the place is busy. I even asked my students at Hohai, and even they didn’t know. Hohai University is national institution and draws students from all over China. I often joke that while I am their English teacher, they are my Chinese cultural instructors. To use an extremely Chinese expression, it’s a win-win situation. Not one of my students said, “Oh, I know Jin Tou Ba!”

Okay, so enough of the personal mystery. What is the food actually like? The closest comparisons would be malatang 麻辣烫 and malaxiangguo 麻辣香锅. Even that comparison is not entirely accurate. Malatang is a soup, and Malaxiangguo I think is a spicy stir fry. The point of comparison with all three involves self service.

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Jin Tou Ba has a similar set up, but it results in a beef stew. A diner walks in, grabs a bowl, tongs, and selects from meat, vegetables, and dumplings. Then, they must choose from a series of pots of braised meat. A lot of those choices are organ meat like tripe, but the first pot is essentially braised beef. The woman behind the counter weighs your selection, gives you the price, and then asks your preferred spiciness level. I tend choose weakest option above “not spicy,” but you can get Sichuan levels of heat if that is desired.

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The quality of the food is very good. Jin Tou Ba has become a reliable and convenient lunch or supper option for me, as of late. The braised beef has always been tender and not over cooked and chewy. All of that is served with a simple side of white rice. However, I like that they have a hot pot condiment station. I always prefer mixing minced garlic and scallions into sesame seed paste (think, tahini).

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Changzhou currently has two of these places. One is on the pedestrian street at Xinbei Wanda Plaza. The other is in the basement of Injoy Plaza downtown. My average meal here has averaged somewhere between 40 to 50 RMB, but I have always left full and satisfied.

I still haven’t figured out what this food actually is. I have now sort of given up on figuring this puzzle out. It comes more from a memory of my mother. She had been experimenting in the kitchen, and I had been poking her creation tentatively with a fork. “Stop analyzing your food, Rich, and eat.” Sometimes, I just need to do exactly that.

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