Wednesday, 7 December 2016

The Food Trail in Shanghai

As the Irish chef and his friends began to show me the city, I got the sense that I was embarking on an amazing culinary journey!

Awhile back, we went out with a young British fellow, Math Whiz and fellow teacher at the same school as the Irish chef. We wanted to check out the Woodstock of Eating in the Bund. The Bund, also known as wài tān, is a promenade on the west side of the Huangpu River. It's best known for the variety of architectural buildings (gothic, baroque, neo-classical and colonial), which are beautiful! Without knowing why the Bund is famous, the architecture was the first thing I was drawn to.

 
 The Bund: view across the river on a cool and cloudy day.
Take Two: a black and white which looks more like reality.
 Some of the gorgeous architecture! Too bad it wasn't sun shiny out :(

We made our way to the food extravaganza. Unfortunately, on the ad I saw for the event, there was NO MENTION of the entry fee (30 kwai/person, about $6 CAD/person). Not a big deal, but paying to enter a place where you're going to buy food anyway? Weird to me. It made us reconsider entering. Furthermore, it was annoying because we walked around, ate and drank from multiple vendors (for almost four hours), and this is where I bought my ID mask, so we spent a substantial amount of money overall. There were some interesting food vendors, but I thought there would be more variety. There was one Italian pasta vendor, pizza, burgers (a lot of burger vendors), Mexican food and various types of desserts, like ice cream and cakes. There were a few craft beer options as well, including another one of the Irish chef's colleagues' :)

 The first official event in Shanghai that I attended!!!
 There was a good attendance even when we arrived earlier in the day :D
 The crowd was a good mix of locals and expats!
 Dance music played allll day looong! I LOVED it!!!
 The lights offered a nice ambience as night fell upon the city.
I was oh, so tempted to try the cake, but I decided against it.
 Pies, too!!! Ohhh, they look so tasty!
 Locally brewed beer! COOOL!!!
 I eventually settled on a healthy granola bar from Lizzy's and it tasted delicious and filled me up!
The brew that the Irish chef's colleague was selling! The Irish chef and Math Whiz drank it all day and night :)

We've realized that, similar to Kuwait, some of the beset food spots are in malls. Yay. We went to The Cut with a co-worker of ours from AUM. This fellow halfie Canuck (half Irish, half Guianese and ALL Canadian!), hails from Guelph and helped the Irish chef get his current job. Let's call him the Diving halfie (he enjoys diving). The diving halfie loves food as much as we do! The Cut was a great choice. In spite of its steeper prices, the food was sooo worth it.

 The caveman-esque mantra and bored employee, lol!
 My fish and chips! :D  It was "all-you-can-eat" chips, and I've never seen the Irish chef so happy!
The Irish chef opted for burgers and fries :)
The Diving halfie settled on a steak dinner.

The Cut that we dined at is located at the IAPM Mall (Address: 6-7F, 606, 999 Huaihai Zhong Lu, near Shanxi Nan Lu, about 2 minutes away from the Shanxi Rd metro stop), in the Xuhui  area. I would absolutely return! The wine was awesome, too!!! Information: http://www.thecut-shanghai.com/.

As I continue to walk around our neighbourhood, I've found a few Japanese-style bread shops. I confess that I indulged and bought some bread the other day...I couldn't help myself! I also snuck a jar of one of my favourite candies that have a sweet milk flavour).

Top: a sugar twist doughut and a hot dog style bread with mayo!!! Yummy!!!
One of the perks of being in China is the availability of food that's almost EXACTLY like Japanese food!!! These are identical to Milky candy (Peko-chan), which you can also buy here! :D

In spite of all of my eating, I have carved out time to apply for jobs here. Over a month of hard work has paid off as I am the new Lead Editor with a firm in the New Pudong district!!! The position straddles the creation and publication of ESL material (physical and virtual), so it's a new realm for me in many ways. I can't express how relieved I am to get out of teaching! I hope that the visa process goes smoothly. I won't have two months off of paid summer vacation, but I know that I will feel much more satisfied in this new venture!

Saturday, 19 November 2016

The End: Leaving Oman

Now that I've had time to digest and reflect on working and living in Oman, I'm ready to offer my thoughts on the time we were there.

Why We Moved to Oman

My initial decision to move to Oman was based on fear. In January, the Irish chef was offered his job in Shanghai, but it didn't commence until August. Without any opportunities in Canada, I knew I had to find a good-paying job to tide us over until then. I was offered the job in Oman with Hawthorn Muscat, and then after an interview with Adveti/MOE (UAE), which I flew back to Toronto for, received a job offer with them. Both were for teaching in the gulf, but the main difference was salary. The other difference was that HM wanted me in Oman ASAP, whereas Adveti/MOE informed me that it would likely take 6-9 weeks. Adveti/MOE took their sweet time getting everything sorted (I had to keep on them AND the recruiter to get things underway. I gave up on them at the end of September choosing to try my luck in Shanghai rather than wait any longer. I primarily blame the recruiter/recruiting company in Ontario who I dealt with-AK Resourcing).

The Best Bits

In spite of the wonderful things I'd heard about Oman, I knew of HM's reputation. Furthermore, I was stationed in the small town of Ibri. To get to an actual city, one would have to drive to Nizwa (east) which is just over 135km away. The capital, Muscat (east), is 217km away. Heading north to Al Ain, in the UAE is just over 150km, and Dubai is 295km from Ibri. Renting a car every time you want to leave is tedious, but doable. Ibri is not without its charms. Seeing goats, donkeys and camels on my trip to work never failed to make me smile. Moreover, people in Ibri are extremely kind, and whether alone or with others, locals always stopped to offer me a ride-men and women. This kindness extended to my students, whom I loved. My class was full of brilliant, funny and warm girls who I will always treasure. Other perks? The date trees dotting campus gave ample fruit that I snacked on all summer, and who can deny the seemingly awful combination of mint lemonade that, to this day, I LOVE! The natural elements in Oman are stunning. Don't ever misunderstand my love of the outdoors there. On clear days, even the scorching ones, I was happy to be outside and exploring! Sohar, Wadi Dam, the mountains...It was incredible.

The Worst Bits

While there were pros, there were cons as well. My biggest physical problem was with the provided accommodation from HM. Now, it's no secret that I didn't pay rent. However, if you want to know what I need in life to keep me happy then let me apprise you: a HOT shower with substantial water pressure; clean air; communication; great people...coffee. The last two are clearly luxuries, but I wanted to add them ;)  Get back on topic, Mik! Right, so from the beginning of June until we left in August, we had NO hot water or water pressure. HM DID offer to let us stay in a hotel while repairs were being done. Yet, after claiming that the problems were fixed ("repairmen" came three times and never actually mended anything), and me contacting HM to notify them that there were still problems, nothing was ever resolved. In fact, the head office didn't answer my texts, calls or emails.

Another issue for me was the endless haggling with taxis. Taxi drivers there don't use their metres, so I'd have to fight over a flat rate from point a to point b. Many saw me, a foreigner, and would try to rip me off even though I knew the basic rates around town. I walked away from more taxis in Oman than I ever did in Kuwait. To be fair, Omanis drive taxis in Oman, not expats, so it was a different dynamic than Kuwait. Even if we could get a decent taxi price, there was nowhere to go. No nice coffee shops, restaurants, gym/places to exercise or-yikes-malls. So even on days when I didn't want to cook, I'd have to because we couldn't go out. There isn't diversity in the food availability there. Again though, even if there was, you couldn't walk/exercise there a lot of times because there were so many sandstorms, and I mean like the scary kinds you see in the movies. All of the sudden, a yellow cast would come through the windows, changing the hue in our apartment and we'd look out the window and the wall of sand suffocated everything in its path. In Kuwait, the sand particles simply hung in the air and the visibility wouldn't be great, but you could still go out. However, dust clouds in Oman swallowed everything and at times visibility was zero. Gross.

The surprisingly disappointing aspect had to do with my co-workers. The contract I was offered was six months with possible renewal based on my performance and the company's renewal with the government. However, I decided not to renew; I thought I had a better paying position in the UAE, but more importantly, in the six months I was there, I, unfortunately, didn't meet a kindred spirit. It was the usual bag of ESL teachers, but there was something very off about the bunch I worked with (the locals AND expats). I have never worked in such a toxic environment. People were so unprofessional. They gossiped and tore each other apartment openly and behind each other's backs. Even people I thought were friends. I learned not to trust anyone, but what who wants to feel like that on a daily basis?? The best thing about them was that they taught me to be more cautious with colleagues in the future. I really should have known better after working abroad for so many years.

In spite of those concerns, my main reason for not renewing was personal and had to do with me. Every institution I've worked at since LIS (excluding TQLS and The Educational Help Centres), has killed my love of teaching. I don't mean to blame, but the educational systems (in Ontario, Kuwait, Oman and China at least), are set-up in such a way that makes me believe that they don't actually care about educating students. Money is the priority (in private and secondary/post-secondary schools). Instilling responsibility, accountability, self-reliance, etc..., is not the priority (not to mention teaching financial planning, survival skills, logic, critical thinking, etc...). Add helicopter parents to the mix and you've lost me. The college I worked at was actually a bit strict which was interesting. However, whether I gave 10% or 110% still didn't matter. It was extremely demoralizing, and to stay would have slowly and painfully crushed my soul. I knew the UAE would be more of the same, so it was a blessing in disguise that nothing ever came of it.

In the End

Perhaps it was the time and/or the place. It would have definitely have been different if we'd lived in Muscat. Regardless, I'm-as always-SO grateful for the experience because I understand now that I needed one more journey to the gulf to truly feel like I'd had a fuller, richer experience in that region. I wouldn't take it back, and I miss things about Oman/the gulf (the SUNSHINE!!!), but it's time to move on. The gulf was the place I recovered from my break-up with Habibi. It was the place that showed me my true value and worth as an educator. It was the place I found love and lifelong friendships, and it revealed the things that are most important to me: helping others, pursuing knowledge, and always trying to better myself.

The Here and Now

So, here I am in Shanghai, China, with the Irish chef! We have friends here: the Canadian Science Guy (from Guelph, Ontario), who we met and befriended at AUM in Kuwait, among others the Irish chef has made. Also, I have landed an AMAZING job as the new Lead Editor for an educational institution!!! It's the break that I've been hoping for, but couldn't land in Canada.

Friday, 4 November 2016

A Japanese Canadian in China

I had signed a contract for a teaching position in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and after waiting nine months-yes, NINE months, for the contractors to get their act together, I stopped waiting and took it as a sign that I'm not supposed to be in the gulf. My incredible Irish chef never stopped asking me to join him in China, but I wasn't sure about...A lot of things. I'm not unaware of the recent tumultuous history between Japan and China. I have studied Asian history, read books and news about Asia often enough to know about the tension among Japan, China, and Korea (background info: http://asiasociety.org/china-korea-and-japan-forgiveness-and-mourning). I have a guilty conscience about Japan's actions...However, with zero offers for work in Canada and the strong desire to head to the far, not middle, east, I took a deep breath, applied for a tourist ("L") visa, and got on a plane to Shanghai. The weekend before I left, I was lucky enough to celebrate my aunt's 50th birthday in Hamilton and squeeze in a belated birthday bubble tea :)

 Wild Orchid, a Portuguese dining spot in Hamilton (Ontario): http://www.wildorchidrestaurant.ca/
 Calamari!!! This was AMAZING!
Shrimp...Sorry it's so blurry :(
 My sister, not a fish or seafood fan, ordered a chicken pasta dish.
 My dish was HUGE and I barely made a dent in it. A potato dish with cod and onions. SO YUMMY!
 My dad chose a seafood risotto which smelled incredible!
The birthday celebrations continued at my aunt's sister-in-law's home :)
 What was left of my homemade apple crumble!!! I used almond flour, added ground cloves and ginger, and allspice. I also cut the amount of sugar. I received the recipe from a colleague-turned-good-friend, Leah! Her baking photos on Facebook make me hungry!!!
The fall decor!!! I don't do anything of the sort, but I LOVE autumn and Halloween decorations!!!
A quick, but awesome belated birthday date with some special girls xo (birthday girl: bottom right)

Fast-forward a few days, and a hop, skip, and a jump across the Pacific brought me to Shanghai. My first weeks here were filled with rain. Additionally, I struggled to find a mask to filter pollution. Luckily, we're in Shanghai-not Beijing-where the AQI (Air Quality Index) is A LOT lower than its Northern neighbour. For example, yesterday, Shanghai (Yangpu) was at an "Unhealthy" level of 168. On the other hand, Beijing was at a "Hazardous" level of 363. Gross, gross, gross!!! Now, I will be the first to admit that my knowledge about the roots of pollution in China is almost nothing. From what I've heard and the information in Leonardo DiCaprio and National Geographic's documentary, Before the Flood (2016) [You can watch it free here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=90CkXVF-Q8M], it has to do with the overuse of coal and fossil fuels. For some background information, check out this link: https://priceonomics.com/why-is-the-pollution-so-bad-in-beijing/. I am continuing to do research and learn more. On my reading list: This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate, by Naomi Klein (2014).

Just like something out of a post-apocalyptic movie!
A necessity, not a luxury. Sadly, I rarely see people wearing these...And if it can get worse, children almost NEVER have masks on :(  Heartbreaking.
As if the mask wasn't futuristic enough, the Irish chef and I took part in some VR! Craaaazy! We chose a horror option and it was freaky!!! We want to try out another one that's like the Psyclone at Canada's Wonderland!

In spite of my voracious appetite for food, I've been warned about the quality of food here...I can't speak for the street food, and if you saw the level of cleanliness, or lack of, you'd understand. Unfortunately, my gut is too sensitive, so I've had to be careful. That being said, I've gotten to try out a few nice places so far :)  The Irish chef and I went out for Japanese food with his colleague and colleague's girlfriend. I didn't take pictures because I didn't want to weird them out. I DID, however, take pictures at the Italian and Korean spots we hit up.

 Bella Napoli (fb page: https://www.facebook.com/bellanapolish/)
 Outdoor patio seating
 The Menu
 ...The rest of the menu, lol!
 The Irish chef's steak was undercooked. He ordered medium-rare and got rare meat.
 My pasta was undercooked. ANNOYING! The gravy-like sauce was underwhelming. I wasn't impressed. However, the pizza and calamari looked good.

Before lunch at Bella Napoli, we visited the Shanghai Public Library and it was AMAZING!!! The Irish chef and I are bibliophiles, so it was a great outing!!! 

 BOOKS!!! In English!!!
 They have a great selection of books by Australian writers :)
 Ohhh, yeah! 7th from the right is Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchman (2015). 
The gardens, which I knew nothing about until I read this article in The Atlantichttp://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2015/04/a-visit-to-the-shanghai-public-library/391032/
 Mmmm! Korean starters and pickles!!!
 Our rather tiny dinner table, lol!
Salad (bottom), kimchi (top right), and a fruit salad...Wait...Wha?!?
The beef cooking to the left and the aubergine were the high points in my opinion :D
Seafood pancake!!!

So amid stares of curiosity, indifference, and wonder (the wonder is mine), I'm once again in a place where I blend in rather than stand out. My virtually non-existent Mandarin puts me at a disadvantage, and I've relied on the kindness of locals to help me because, while some written Chinese is understandable (Japanese people learn the Japanese and Chinese reading of symbols that the two nations both use), some is completely incomprehensive. It's these days when I'm out on my own that it dawns on me: I'm not unsafe here, and I'm so grateful. When people learn my nationality, no one is rude or mean, at least not yet. I'll never deny or forget the tragedies that have passed; I'll always apologize and make every effort to move forward in a meaningful, peaceful manner (that's the short version).

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

The Joy of Cooking

*DISCLAIMER: I'm NOT proposing that I make the best or most delicious hummus*

I'm not a trained chef; I'm a home cook who was taught by both of my parents and my grandmothers. Thinking more deeply about cooking and baking, however, I have to admit that those aren't the only people who influenced my cooking. My aunts and uncles (both Canadian and Japanese) have helped along the way, as have cookbooks, cooking shows, my friends and my partners. These people have all contributed to the food I prepare. So, while I was making hummus the other day (prepared the way that the Irish chef and I like it), I was curious about the recipes on the internet (other cooks/bakers and, of course, YouTube). I came across a website that made me laugh and then cringe because it made me think about cooking/baking and the preposterous theory that there's only ONE way a dish can be prepared (does anyone still think this way?!?). The website, a blog about hummus, criticized people's overuse, lack of use, or misuse of certain ingredients. It was really disheartening to read.

Just so people know where I'm coming from, let me give you some history: I grew up in a city full of people from all over the middle east; I have friends from Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Egypt, Kuwait and Oman. I have lived and travelled around the middle east as well, so I know that even people all over the middle east prepare hummus differently. Furthermore, when you have such a popular dish that's made by people of all different nationalities all over the world, who honestly buys into the concept that there's a foremost authoritative recipe that everyone abides by? It's a farce. The writer's criticism was so negative and authoritative that it made me question his/her intentions. If you want to use 10 cloves of garlic in your four-person serving of hummus, do it. If you want to use lemon juice from a can or bottle instead of fresh lemon juice, go for it! Your taste is just that: YOURS. Everyone has a different palate, and after trying MANY different recipes and methods of preparation, I have finally found the hummus recipe I love...For me. I like my hummus with a kick of garlic and punch of lemon. The Irish chef is a major fan of tahini. I really don't like using a food processor to make hummus (I mash it with a potato masher). So who cares how you prepare your hummus? The hummus police?!? Isn't the goal to enjoy the process and the end result???

The foremost authority on hummus can be found here: http://humus101.com/EN/2007/11/27/10-common-mistakes-in-hummus-recipes/.
P.S. This recipe breaks a ton of the former's hard and fast "rules" and comes from a Syrian: http://syrianfoodie.blogspot.ca/2009/08/one-hundred-and-one-mezze-7-hummus.html.

By the way, if you want to talk about how there is NO authoritative governing body over taste anywhere, look at the difference in opinions about the oh, so popular dish called 'okonomiyaki' among Japanese people (read all about it here: http://j-hoppers.japanhostel.net/2015/05/a-big-controversy-over-okonomiyaki-in.html). Let's go with a Japanese dish as popular as hummus: miso soup. I learned how to make miso soup from my Canadian mother who learned how to make it from my Japanese father who learned from his mother. A show of hands, please, as to those who believe my mother's miso soup was exactly like my grandmother's. My mom didn't love fish or seafood, so she used less of the fish-base. She wasn't a fan of sodium, either, so she added less miso paste and tended to favor shiro miso (white miso paste) over aka miso (red miso paste). I never ate miso soup with additives like clams, fish, carrots or celery, but that's what I ate in Japan. After all is said and done, I much prefer aka miso and have experimented with all sorts of different ingredients, including kelp soup base instead of fish. To be honest, I love my Auntie Keiko's miso soup best (my dad's brother's wife).

My mother's old cookbook (published in 1989).
She modified recipes time and time again.

Canada's no better. Simply ask people about butter tarts and you'll have a heated debate on your hands! (read all about it here: http://www.capital-cooking.com/top-10-foods-past-present-7-butter-tart-controversy/). Here's one of the more interesting butter tart controversies in Ontario: http://www.canadianliving.com/life-and-relationships/community-and-currents-events/article/the-canadian-butter-tart-wars. Speaking of, the two places I love butter tarts from are The Little Beaver (in Komoka), and Canada Comfort Foods located at the Saturday market at the Western Fairgrounds. Ohhh, man! Two different styles that are equally delicious!!!

 Meeting the Vagabonds at the Saturday market for coffee...
AND warm apple fritters from the Dutch Bakery (https://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Dutch-Bakery/353921442101), and, of course, great conversation!!!
 The pierogi vendor!!! How awesome are all those potato heads?!?
There were even more!!! Love it!

So please don't tell me how hummus should be prepared. Instead, offer me a recipe and let me figure the rest out on my own, please and thank you. For all of those who have contributed to my hummus recipe, a big, warm, garlic-infused THANK YOU!!!

My homemade hummus (left) with whole wheat pita that I baked in the oven with an olive oil, cumin and sea salt glaze (right).

Still Cooking: autumn dishes
 Pasta with a twist! The sauce (which I know you can't see) is a cream sauce with the lemon sheep cheese I bought from the market! Ohhh, that cheese is to die for!!!
 This HUGE butternut squash is from my friends' garden! The before picture :)
After picture (#1): butternut squash, cauliflower, carrot and pumpkin curry soup!!! I have a HUGE pot of this soup, lol!
 After picture (#2): I still had so much veg left that I roasted it :) This time, I tossed the raw veggies with olive oil, butter, salt, pepper and other spices then let the oven work magic.
 I finally made it to a Starbucks that had pumpkin spice syrup, lol! Mine is on the left (tall, half-sweet, non-fat, with whip, extra hot pumpkin spice latte), and my dad tried out the new salted caramel mocha (no modification).
Mmmm! Hello, autumn!!!
It may be autumn in Starbucks, but there's still a lot of green outside!!!