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Challenging Ralph Lauren to a fashion duel

In the two years I lived in Guangzhou, I kept meaning to have some tailor-made clothes done, but just never got around to it. However, once the move back to Hubei started looming larger and larger this summer, it seemed time to hit the Haiyin cloth market and find a good tailor. Although prompted by many people that tailor-made clothes were a bargain here, especially suits, I don’t think I’ve worn an actual suit (and tie) in maybe 30 years. So, my personal needs were pretty simple, just some new shirts.

Besides, all the “dress” shirts I brought with me to China were no longer looking all that dressy…

After the subway got us most of the way to Haiyin, we hopped in a taxi where the driver, after much discussion, said he know a woman with a shop (likely his uncle’s cousin’s wife), which turned out to be the typical dingy hole in the wall on a dingy street. Might have been at most four feet wide and about 10 feet deep. We’d brought one of my old shirts, the “pilgrim” style that I like without the flappy collar, to use as a starting point for the design. After, again, much discussion (there’s no such thing as a short, quick answer to anything in China), the woman allowed as how she could turn out a shirt to my specs for 70 kuai, roughly 10 dollars.

But we’d have to go buy the material first (as many of the tailors don’t carry cloth) and she told us how much we’d have to buy per shirt. We hopped back into the waiting taxi, where the driver assured us he had no relationship with the woman; he just wanted to be helpful to the laowai, so I’d have a good feeling about China.

We arrived at the Haiyin cloth market where they sell every kind of material you can imagine…for clothing to upholstery. And started perambulating around the maze of shops. Since I wanted to kind of test drive the whole tailor-made process, my intention was just to buy some good quality, 100% cotton material…in simple white. We bought enough cloth for two shirts…at a cost of 125 kuai (18USD).

Along the way, though, we’d passed by tailor shops actually located in the cloth market, so we stopped in one (another hole in the wall, but cleaner and classier looking) for a second opinion. I guess it was the upscale environment because the quote was 120 kuai (17.50USD). Maybe I should have gone back and given that woman a shot at my business (and saved a few bucks in the process), but I decided on one stop shopping and tailoring…convenience over economy, which I suppose is still very American of me despite my years here.

Having always bought off the rack, this was the first time in my life that I’ve been measured for clothing. A rather decadent (but inwardly delicious) feeling. Once they’d totted down all the numbers, we went over the design details…using the old shirt as a guideline, I told them I wanted some minor changes. Make the collar “this” wide, the cuffs just “so,” an inverted pleat in the back, etcetera, etcetera. Payment upfront required, handed a receipt and told to come back in four days.

When we returned at the appointed time, I tried both shirts on…both white of course but different button-down designs. And was very, very pleased. Not just with the quality, which was excellent. But also with the fit. A true fit for me, everywhere. Wonderful!

One shirt was button down all the way. The other was more of a slip-over, only buttoning down halfway. I like both designs, but find myself more partial to the slip-over. And now that I knew I could get exactly what I wanted…time to shop for more cloth. This time…black…and still 100% cotton. No surprises here for anyone who knows me. I tend to avoid prints, patterns and vivid or loud colors. Give me a solid, pleasing color…some soft, well-worn jeans…and I’m a happy fashion camper.

I had originally planned to have 10 shirts made, but found it harder than I’d thought it would be to find colors I liked. Finding, instead, a veritable glut of pastels and/or pin-striped cloth…I suppose for the typical business dress shirt these days. Bu zhidao…don’t know.

When we came back to pick up the two black shirts, I shopped more closely and eventually picked out two other colors…a dark, olive-green and a deep maroon…still 100% cotton, but in linen. But I only bought enough for just one shirt in each color, not being overly fond of linen cloth.

Jenny, by now moderately exasperated by my color cowardice, had been encouraging me (in her quiet way) to step out of my fashion prison…in particular, trying to get me to look at the countless silk prints available. I’m not sure how often I’ll have the gumption to wear it…and probably not to work…but I did end up finding a nice print that I rather like. And it’s some of that Guangzhou silk that’s sumptuously soft as well, so it’s very comfortable.

Before we left Guangzhou, we had some friends over for a goodbye dinner and they asked for a fashion show. So, the following is me on the living room runway…

The silk cloth cost about twice as much as the cotton material. I ended up with seven shirts for a total cost of about $200. Jenny was so excited that I’d actually taken a…for me…surprising fashion dive that she was showing it off to one of the shop ladies who exclaimed, “Hao kan, hao kan!” Good looking, or handsome!

And said that I could easily sell it for 1,200 kuai (175USD). Hmmm. Keneng…maybe.

Maybe I should give Ralph Lauren a run for his fashion…

A lemony day all the way

I somehow got fixated on lemons today, so it’s fitting to end with another of my all-time favorite tangy recipes. In case you missed them, the other two were: “Chinese” Lemon Chicken and American “Roasted Lemon Chicken.”

Chicken Parmesan with Lemon

4 small or 2 large boneless, skinless chicken breasts
2cups bread crumbs
1/2 finely grated parmesan
5 tbsp. olive oil
2 lemons, halved
2 tbsp. cream or milk
flour–for dusting chicken
1-2 eggs
2 tbsp. butter
spring onions/chives/or parsley for garnish

If chicken breasts are large, filet in half. You want to start with filets about 1/2 inch thick. Do not pound; it only toughens the meat. In shallow bowl, lightly beat eggs; add cream and 1 tbsp. olive oil, beating again lightly. Mix bread crumbs and parmesan together and place on cutting board. Dust breasts in flour, pat off excess, dip into egg mixture, then place on bread crumbs. Cover with crumbs and press hard with palm. Turn over, repeat process several times. By now your filets (or small chicken breasts) should be about 1/4 inch thick–any thicker and you’ll have to fry them too long, which will damage or burn the breading in order to get the meat done. Place breaded breasts on paper bag.

Heat remaining olive oil in large saute pan over medium heat. Add butter, then add chicken as soon as butter stops bubbling. Fry until golden brown, about 4-6 minutes, then flip. Wait 1-2 minutes for bottom to seal, then drizzle lemon juice over breasts. Continue to cook until golden brown, remove and drain on paper towel or bag. Garnish and serve.

You can use this recipe with pork loins or veal cutlets, too.

[Note: most "traditional" chicken parmesan is served with marinara sauce and mozzarella on top and then flash broiled. This is my personal take on this dish; I prefer the simplicity and the tang of the lemon. If you give it a try, let me know whether it suited your taste buds.]

Lemons roasting in a chicken

Roasted Lemon Chicken

5-6 lb. roaster chicken
2 whole lemons
salt
pepper
4 tbsp. melted butter

Clean, rinse and dry chicken. Use small skewers and lace up rear with kitchen string; tie legs against body as well. Roll lemons on countertop, squeezing to loosen the flesh inside. Pierce repeatedly with sharp-tined fork. Salt and generously pepper the abdominal cavity of chicken and place both lemons inside. Skewer and lace up the neck of the chicken. Baste chicken all over with melted butter.

Place on a rack in roaster pan in 450º preheated oven. Reduce heat immediately to 350º. After half an hour, baste frequently until done (internal temperature of 180-185º, or about 20-25 minutes per pound). Allow to rest 10-15 minutes before carving; serve with the wonderful, lemony drippings.

And another nod to my favorite chef for this recipe!

When a lemon is not a lemon

Lemon (Orange) Chicken

Marinade: salt, white pepper and 1/2 cup of rice wine (or sherry). Cut 2-4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts into chunks or strips; prepare marinade to your taste, add chicken and refrigerate for 1 hour.

Batter: 1 cup flour, 3/4 cup cold water, 1 egg, 1 tbsp. (peanut) oil, salt. Whip egg, oil and salt in small bowl, add water and then slowly stir in flour. Set aside.

Lemon (orange) sauce: juice of 2 lemons (or 1 large orange), 1/2 cup sugar, 1 cup water, 2 tbsp. cornstarch and 1 egg yolk. Heat lemon juice, sugar and water. Thicken with cornstarch. Pour about 1/2 cup into small bowl and slowly add egg yolk while stirring; then return to rest of the sauce. Do not make the sauce too early or you’ll cook the egg, which is only for color. Sauce should not be too runny, nor too thick–about the consistency of syrup.

Cooking: heat peanut oil to 375º, dip chicken in batter and deep fry in batches for about 6-8 minutes, until golden brown; drain on paper towel. Place chicken on serving dish and pour sauce on top; garnish with finely sliced half moons of lemon or orange. Serve immediately.

[Note: to date, I've never encountered this dish in China...in neither lemon, nor chicken form. The closest I've had, here in Hubei and also in Guangzhou (where Cantonese cuisine is predominant), is deep-fried pork strips slathered with orange sauce...though still hao chi (delicious). However, back home we would call this particular dish sweet and sour pork; indeed, the Chinese name for this dish is tang cu liji...tang means sweet, cu means sour and liji means pork tenderloin, though I highly doubt very many restaurants actually use the tenderloin.

Another popular dish is tang cu paigu...pork ribs chopped into roughly 3/4 in. pieces and deep-fried (I suspect also parboiled)...again with orange sauce.

Final aside–despite the vast array of fruits available here, I've never seen lemons at the wet markets (shichang), though you can find them in many of the large supermarkets (chaoshi)...leading me to believe the average Chinese cook has little use for them.]

Gold for action and drama

One of the differences between watching the Olympics here in China and back home is the sheer volume of coverage. We moved into our new apartment yesterday and after a full day of unpacking I have no mood today for trying to organize everything, so I’m sitting in the living room, laptop on lap, while also surfing five channels of live coverage on the multi-faced CCTV.

In the states, my brethren are limited to one network, NBC…and, most likely as usual, primarily the “big ticket” events. Here’s an idea of what I’ve been able to see during the last 10 days:

archery, badminton, basketball, beach volleyball, boxing, canoe/kayak slalom, cycling (road & pursuit), diving, equestrian (eventing, dressage & jumping), fencing, field hockey, handball, judo, rowing, sailing, shooting, soccer, softball, swimming, tennis, track & field, triathlon, table tennis, volleyball, wrestling (freestyle & Greco-Roman), weightlifting and water polo.

The only sports I haven’t caught, haven’t started yet. It’s a bit daunting trying to keep up with it all, but I persevere hour after hour for the sheer drama and action.

The games are more than halfway over now–China has a commanding lead in gold medals, while America holds a slim lead in the overall medal count. Thinking back over the past 10 days there are two events that stand out for me.

Gold Medal for Downright Action: the China/Cuba women’s volleyball match. Yes, the China/USA match was awesome, too. But if you happened to catch my pick for excitement, then I think you’d agree. China opened the match 2-0. The Cuban women fought back in the third set to make it 2-1. In the fourth set, it was a battle for every point, climaxed by (I believe, correct me if I’m wrong) eight match points for China. And I can’t remember her name, but I’m pretty sure one of the Cuban women was personally responsible for four or five of the match point saves. In the fourth set, Jenny was naturally rooting for China. I found myself rooting for Cuba just because I wanted to see more awesome play.

Gold Medal for Outright Drama: Michael Phelps–8 gold medals, 7 world records and that hundredth-second lunge! But what brought tears to my eyes as I watched was that his final gold…that record breaking, history-in-the-making gold medal…wasn’t earned in an individual event. The result didn’t rest solely in that 6 foot, 7 inch wingspan. It took a team to make it happen.

No Medal for No Show: And, finally, although I keep reading and seeing pictures online about the cheerleaders at many of the venues…one thing I have not seen on CCTV coverage, at all, are the cheerleaders. So this is my final medal award of the day…and a brief-bikini show…

Dutch fans "drink" it in. (Photo credit–Thomas Coex/Agence France-Presse–Getty Images)

Dutch fans "drink" it in. (Photo credit–Thomas Coex/Agence France-Presse –Getty Images)

The ugly duckling with a swan’s voice

China’s preoccupation with face (mianzi) has two faces, but only one voice.

For the “national interest,” Yang Peiyi (l) was replaced with Lin Maoke during the opening ceremonies because “the child on camera should be flawless in image, internal feeling and expression,” according to the music designer.

You can read the New York Times article, In Grand Olympic Show, Some Sleight of Voice, for more information.

I just feel sad for both of these innocents.

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