Tag Archives: 钟楼

Chinese Dishes at Willow Street

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“I like this place,” a Chinese friend said, “because the food is good, and it’s relatively cheap.”

She was speaking of Willow Street 样柳巷,· a Chinese restaurant not far from downtown’s Injoy shopping mall and the BRT station that serves it. She had taken me out to belatedly celebrate my birthday once I had returned to from USA. Since she knew I was genuinely curious about trying new foods, she also chose Willow Street because the it serves food local to southern Jiangsu province. As a result, the dishes turned out to be not that spicy. Also, if an expat wants to eat here, they should either be able to read Chinese or take a Chinese friend with them. The menu is all text and no pictures.

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One dish, my friend said, was native to Changzhou. This consisted of thin strips of tofu in a slightly thick clear broth. Bread-like dumplings filled the soup out, but a lot of the contrasting flavor came from strips of congealed duck blood. As I have also liked to point out, blood in Chinese cuisine often has the consistency of tofu, but with a stronger flavor. Duck blood tends to be strongest, most metallic tasting of all of them. However, it was not over powering in this soup. As I said, it provided contrast. That said, for a tofu soup, it certainly makes it not very vegetarian friendly.

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“I don’t know how to translate this other than chicken on a pole,” my friend said.

And when it was served, it was exactly that. Chicken on a stainless steel pole. Perhaps the oddest thing about this was how it was served. Once cooked, the wait staff brought it to our table to look at. I wondered how we were supposed to eat it, because it was literally a small chicken — with head and neck intact — impaled on metal pole. A bowel of smoking dried ice in water was there purely for dramatic effect. Before I asked how we were supposed to eat it, it was taken away and the chicken was chopped up. The head and neck were absent once this was actually served. Despite how weird it looked, the chicken itself was well cooked, juicy, and quite delicious. I reminded me of roast or rotisserie chicken I have eaten in back in America.

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We were also served a pork dish. It seemed rather simple. The exterior was slightly charred for a crispy texture, and the meat itself reminded me a little of pork belly. Stripes of meat and fat came with each thick slice. However, it lacked the saltiness that sometimes come with pork belly. So, that made me think it just looked like that cut without it actually being this. The coolest thing, however, was the presentation here. The meat sizzled on a tin foil cooking surface. The flame itself, however, was inside of white stone container with black Chinese calligraphy.

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Two of the other dishes consisted of a very simply pumpkin dish. Sometimes, pumpkin is a lot like sweet potato. You don’t have to do much to it make it yummy. It’s just delicious in its most simple form.

The other dish used cassava, which is interesting since that is a plant that grows more in tropical and sub-tropical climates. The last I had ever heard of cassava used as food was when I lived in Bermuda a very long time ago. At Willow Street, cassava flour had been used to make gelatinous cubes that had been served with ground pork. Actually, this reminded me a lot of mapo doufu —  just substitute cassava cubes for tofu.

On the whole, Willow street struck me as a very good Chinese restaurant where good flavor and taste didn’t come with a high price tag. It was a great place to spend some time with a dear Chinese friend.

For the Love of Lotus Blooms

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Besides peaches, lotuses are perhaps one of the more culturally significant plants in China. It has a particular resonance within Buddhism, and they flower can take on multiple meanings as both a symbol and a metaphor. A lotus, for example, grows out of mud and muck — and that can be taken as a sign of rising purity.

One can ponder all of this significance, or one can just enjoy looking them. Lotuses are fascinating plants, the blooms are lovely, and the seed pods sometimes look downright alien and extraterrestrial when compared to simpler flowers.

In all of Changzhou, there is one park that is especially dedicated to this flower. It’s in the northern end of Zhonglou and near the border with Xinbei. It’s called He Yuan 荷园 — which translates as “Lotus Garden.” It certainly is an appropriate name, because lotus grows very thickly here.

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The park is laid out in such a way to give visitors many different ways to view both white and red blossoms, as well as a few other plants. A large pond lays at the center, and there are many wooden walkways. Around the edges of the place, there are also twisting and secluded stone paths. These seem to be preferable on very hot days, because these walkways afford a lot of shade and benches to sit on. One of these walkways leads to a second story viewing deck that allows a visitor to get a more panoramic vista the water and greenery.

I spent about two hours, in the middle of a hot July day, trying to find the most perfect specimen to snap a picture of. Only, it didn’t take me long to learn that I wasn’t the only one doing that. He Yuan was filled with people with cameras doing exactly the same. Some were just people and their cell phones striking dynamic poses with selfie sticks. However, more serious photographers with expensive zoom lenses were also wandering around, trying to find the most perfect lotus blossom to take extreme closeups.

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It was the first time, however, I also saw this park as crowded as it was. All other times, it seemed empty and largely ignored. But, then, I realized I had first found this place at the wrong time of year. When the lotus flowers are not blooming, there really isn’t much to see except barren stretches of still water.  When winter comes, the only real suggestion as to the park’s purpose is a metallic sculpture of seed pods.

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Reclaiming Old China

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“Stop,” my aunt told me. “You’re ruining my fantasy of where you are going.” She said this, one evening, over a very delicious home cooked dinner of Italian food. For her, the word “China” elicited a vision of vast rice fields and farm workers wearing pointy hats. You know, the sort of thing people read about in Pearl S. Buck novels? I had just told her that Changzhou had two Walmarts and several McDonald’s, KFCs, and Starbucks. That made her grimace. This conversation happened in 2013 and before I left New Jersey. I had just signed a contract with a college in Wujin, and I was waiting out the clock and calendar until I departed. Of course, I had been obsessively Googling “Changzhou” in the meantime.

Nothing ever fully prepares you for arriving into the Middle Kingdom for the first time. You can obsessively net search as much as you like. My first impressions of Changzhou were one of mild shock. Here was a huge city that constantly seemed to be under construction, and high rise after high rise apartment building looked the same. Nearly no traditional architecture seemed to be anywhere. Via Facebook, friends and family back in America asked me to describe what I was seeing. I thought of my aunt and replied, “There is a profound difference between old China and modern China.” This was a non-judgmental statement, too. I was more concerned with new beginnings and making a living wage for the first time in my life than being opinionated.

Of course, I made it a habit to go out and look for history as much as I could. I wanted, and still do, to learn more about my new home. This earnest desire to learn history is often shared by Chinese people I meet. The only difference is that they have spent most of their lives here. I haven’t. There is something else to consider, too. Some foreigners tend to think Chinese business people are all about money and nothing else. These are expatriates who hardly leave their homes, their bars, the tables of their expensive western restaurants, and their small circle of friends. They trade in stereotypes, and most of the Chinese people I meet do not fit that narrow worldview.

For instance, there is a man named Kevin Cao 曹克文. A very good friend introduced me to him. Kevin welcomed me into his home as a matter of humble pride. Currently, he is in the wine importation business, and he can afford to live in any part of Changzhou he pleases. Instead of opting for a life of high tech luxury in one of the many new residential developments, he chose to live in a traditional Chinese home dating back hundreds of years.

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This would be in Minyuanli 民元里 in Changzhou’s city center. This area is a restored bit of traditional Chinese architecture tucked into the Future City development next to the Injoy Mall and not that far all the expensive dance clubs are located on bar street. Minyuanli used to be derelict, but now it has been reopened with expensive craft shops, a cafe, a tea house, and more. In the times I had wandered in there, I didn’t know that people like Kevin also called this place home. IMG_20160615_105816

There are three dwellings at Minyuanli, and Kevin’s home is just one. These homes are absolutely nothing to look at from the outside. In Kevin’s case, the exterior modestly hides something he cares very deeply about. He has put a lot of time, effort, and money into restoring the place and making it as authentically “old China” as possible. This means a lot of antique furniture and fixtures. Real antiques have been worked into the decor. Calligraphy and traditional ink brush works of art hang on the wall. Even the stones in the open air sections of the home have been replaced with care. Having a home like this requires a lot of constant attention and a lot of time replastering walls. Something always needs to be fixed, but you can see in his smile how meaningful it is to him.

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As he, my friend, and I sat around drinking tea, I sort of forgot where I was. The peace and quiet of this place was not that far removed the constant car horns, traffic, and bustle of Lanling Road. Outside of his place, you can sometimes hear construction when you are standing in the Minyuanli compound. Here, things were tranquil, relaxed. It was very easy to see why Kevin was so quietly passionate about this place — why he finds solace in caring for it and its upkeep.

 

This was further reinforced after I left. My friend drove me back to Xinbei. I still had afternoon and evening English classes to teach. My friend and I discussed food, heavy metal, roasted Hong Kong duck, and Kevin’s home. In the back of my mind, though, I thought about the dynamic between what people call “old” and “modern” China. Why was I thinking of this? We were stuck in a traffic jam.

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Hong Kong Roasted Goose

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Living in Changzhou and trying to eat locally means you will eventually try things you wouldn’t back home. For me, duck and goose were marvelous revelations. I simply never had them before moving to China, and once I tried both with Chinese friends, it was love at first bite. So, when a good friend recommended a tiny roast goose restaurant, I desperately wanted to try it. And trust me, this friend really, really knows food. He’s a professional.

Weeks went by without me trying out the place, however. Apparently, the place is so good, it always is packed during Saturday lunch. I decided to take a different approach: wait till Monday morning and go right after the doors open. That plan worked.

So, was the meal as good as my friend promised? Yes. For 38 RMB, I was served goose, rice, and side dishes of vegetables. Half of a hard boiled goose egg also come on the plate, but I didn’t care for it all that much. Think of a chicken egg, but bigger and with a strong “game” flavor.  The star of the dish, of course, was the goose itself. Both the texture and flavor are similar to beef. However, badly prepared goose can be extremely greasy. This wasn’t. It was both juicy and tender. This is a Hong Kong specialty, and the manager explained to me that his cook comes from there. It’s really important. For example, try eating Italian food when the kitchen staff were not trained by an Italian or an Italian American. My only complaint, however, was I found myself wishing the portion size was a bit bigger.

The place is also convenient. The menu has pictures. It’s close to the Injoy Shopping center downtown. Cross the street and go to Youdian Road 邮电路. This is the street where all the phone markets are. Basically, you take your first right until you see the place pictured below.

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Chongfa Temple Looks More Like a Temple

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When I moved to Changzhou two and a half years ago, Chongfa Temple in Renmin Park 人民公园 was in a bit of a shambles. While it sported a yellow paint job and the architecture of a temple, it really didn’t function like one. Every time I peered in, I saw large tables of most older people drinking tea or hot water. A lot of the paint was peeling, and people often complained of leaking roof. Then, one day, the government shut the place down for renovation and a structural overhaul.

For some months now, that rejuvenation project has ended. Now, if you got to the park and peer in, it actually looks like a temple complete with a golden Buddha, stone statues of what look to be lohans, and a shelf of buddhist reading material. Of course, there also seems to be a tea counter in there. Plus, the tables with the hot water carafes are still there two. So, Chongfa now looks more like a temple, but I haven’t seen anybody actually use it as one yet. So, you can say the space has been multi-purposed now. That is not a complaint either. It’s nice to see that place is being better looked after now.

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Fast Food Salad at Paris Baguette

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So, a friend of mine recently told me, with much excitement, that there was a new place to get ready-made sandwiches in downtown Changzhou. And since I like a good sandwich, I felt the need to check it out. The place turned out to be Paris Baguette, and while sounds extremely French, it’s actually a Korean chain that specializes in French style baked goods.

The place offers a lot of tempting sweet things in display cases. There is also an open-air refrigerated unit also showcases a variety of wrapped sandwiches and boxed salads. I opted for a sandwich and a salad. The sandwich — with sincere apologies to my friend — left me unimpressed. I just won’t get into it. The salad, on the other hand, was okay.

But let me qualify that “okay,” these salads are better than Starbucks. The city center has like six Starbucks, and all of them serve takeaway salads. Those usually seem relatively skimpy. For example, the pepper beef one his like two rubbery slices of meat and a lot of lettuce. At least, the last one of those I had was like that. Paris Baguette’s salads seemed a little bit better.

However, let’s be real for a moment. If you are a vegetarian or a vegan, than these salads are simply not for you. The might just be another frustrating example of how Changzhou doesn’t have a lot to satisfy particular dietary needs. The one I had featured bits of shredded chicken and Chinese bacon. The other option had cheese in it. As for me, it’s just fast food salad on the go; and sometimes I find that appealing. It’s better option than McDonalds or Burger King when you do not have a lot of time.

As for the lackluster sandwich, I will return someday and try a different one. The location is selling-point convenient, however. It’s on Beidajie 北大街, near the Luqiao Market and the New Century department store. That means its across the Yanling Road from Nandajie.

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Lushu Park in Zhonglou

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Lushu Park 芦墅公园 is a rather small public place in Zhonglou. In theory, Canal 5 is not that far away — but there is the actual canal in the way. Qing Feng park is also many kilometers away, and that usually acts as the bigger distraction. Lushu is more of a place where you see locals sleeping on the benches. Typically, older men sit around here during the day to play cards. In the many times I have been here, I have seen a number of stray cats huddles into the corner. Essentially, this is a small recreational area serving the residential estates nearby. It’s a nice place to take a stroll in the area, but honestly, this isn’t worth a special trip — especially on a very hot, very wet, very muggy day.

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Mr. Churros at Injoy

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In theory, it sounds really hard to screw up a churro. Basically, it’s just fried dough with a little bit of cinnamon and sugar.  In reality, there are multiple ways it can happen. Bad dough leads to a bad churro. Old and dirty deep fry oil can also mess up what should be utterly simple. Then of course, there is a the quality and the type of oil when it’s fresh.

I was thinking of this because a Mr. Churros recently opened at Changzhou’s downtown Injoy Plaza. It’s yet another coffee and snack place that’s already near a Bread Talk, Costa Coffee, and a Starbucks. I went to try it, and when it comes to western food, the pessimist in me usually expects the worst. Thankfully, my sense of churro-related doom remained unfulfilled. Mr. Churros — while surrounded by coffee competitors — gets one thing uniquely right.

Their signature item is made fresh and on the spot. A string of fresh batter goes directly into the fryer, and the resulting churro is served warm. The menu is kept extremely simple: plain, with chocolate, with ice cream, and so on. It’s a very quick, very simple snack. Their coffee, however, left me unimpressed and with a little bit of heart burn. I had an iced Americano; I wanted it hot and with milk, but that’s not a service issue. My Chinese is just terrible. Still, I would go back. They have a take out window if you just want to stop quickly while on the go.

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Bellahaus Presumed Dead

A Collection Notice?
A Collection Notice?

It’s hard to know the full story of how and why a restaurant goes out of business. From the point of view of a customer, you show up one day and the doors are locked and the place is dark. In Changzhou, this has happened numerous times: Aria, Jack’s Home, Bros Wings, and more. It seems people can now add Bellahaus to that list.

A friend of mine reported this to me the other day. Although I had some issues with the place, I largely liked Bellahaus and ate there frequently on Saturday afternoons. It was a place I often introduced friends to, because when it came down to it, I did like the food there and I wanted the place to succeed. And the times I did eat there, I saw a number of others in there, too. It seemed they were attracting customers. So, I went to go see the door for myself. I had already eaten lunch, but I had other business downtown and it was just a stop on the way. Sure enough, the place was locked with what looked like a collections notice pasted to the door.

In retrospect, maybe the signs of slipping were already there and I fully didn’t notice. Bellahaus didn’t have the problems or shortages that a place like Jack’s Home in Wujin had. However, two things began to happen regularly. When Bellahaus opened, service was prompt and swift. Towards the end, it seemly took forever to get something as simple as a salad. Portions also routinely fluctuated. One week, a friend would be served a large salmon salad, and the next, she would get something smaller. Side dishes to standard menu items also seemed to become randomized. One week, it would be grilled veggies and the next would be a simple lettuce salad. Week after that? Nothing.

There are rumors that the owners or the management will move on and start someplace new. But, then again, those are just unsubstantiated rumors. All I can go off is what I see. One of my favorite restaurants downtown– despite it’s flaws — is now gone. Time for me to find a replacement for my standard Saturday lunch.

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Old China Charm at Minyuanli

IMG_20160514_130336When I first arrived in Changzhou, Minyuanli 民元里 looked utterly deserted, crumbling, and overgrown with bamboo. It looked like an old, traditional Chinese building tucked away among the bustle of downtown Changzhou along Yanling Road. That’s what it still is. Back then, the completely empty Future City shopping center encircled it.The only thing of interest, back then, where these utterly weird statues of a fat guy playing golf

Times change. Future City’s storefronts have been slowly filling in, and Minyuanli has been renovated and openned to the public. It’s kept its centuries old charm, too, while now being put to more modern IMG_20160514_130317usage. There are three private residences here — as well as a cafe, a Japanese tea room, and a shop for expensive handicrafts like jade sculpture and carved bamboo. Some of the spaces may rotate their uses. The first time I came in, one building had a second floor calligraphy exhibit. I went there again recently with a friend, and that’s gallery was gone and the door was locked. That came as no surprise. Art displays are usually temporary with a limited runs.

Most of the charm of the place remains in some of the subtle details. One building is completely elevated on top of still pond with fish. Some of the walls showcase ornate dragons. In one narrow corridor, there is even a small gazebo set above water. Some of the bricks in the place is brand new, but they have been colored gray to look old. Even though new material has been brought in to restore the place, some of the older bits of wood and stone have been used. So, parts of the entire compound are hundreds of years old.

Sometimes, sitting in a place like this gives off that relaxed vibe. Minyuanli can feel like a sanctuary from modern China. Yes, you can still hear some car horns from Yanling Road. You can also hear some construction noise, too. But, for the most part, the place and its businesses and residences feels tranquil. It’s totally worth a walk through if you are passing by. Future City and this place are opposite of the Qu Quibai Memorial Hall on Yanling.

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