Monday, July 03, 2006

I am the pizza king of Harbin

I am the pizza king of Harbin. Okay all you wanna be teachers or future teachers in China listen up. If you have read some of my posts about teaching in China you know that your money will go a long way. In fact you will be solidly in the middle class. That's the way it is now. I'm not sure that it will stay that way as much of the Chinese economy seems to be "artificial". What I mean by that is that there are a lot of jobs and workers who really don't have much to do. The supermarkets are a good example although it seems to be a common in most business situations. There are always hordes of "workers" in the stores. They are usually dressed in aprons and may even have a paper crown like they sometimes wear at Burger King. Mnnnn, that sounds good right about now as Mickey D is the only hamburger joint here in Harbin. I'm not a big McDonalds fan. These workers usually are just standing around talking with each other. Perhaps they think I cannot speak any Chinese, so I don't require any help. A small store might have 20 of these workers. They sometimes stock product or they weigh and tag things that need to be bagged by the customer, so you may stand in line several times as you bag fruit or candy or any number of different items as the price is then put on the bag. Most stores have bar code readers, the larger stores, not the mom and pop stores. There are a few stores that have imported goods. Sometimes you can find the same item that is Chinese at a much lower price. Here in Harbin there are three stores where you can find some of the things you may be craving. Case in point pizza fixings. Those stores are Metro, a German Chinese Joint venture, Carrafour, a French store, and Walmart. Now I should say that none of these stores will be laid out in a way that you are used to. Like so many other things here in China logic seems to have taken a vacation. In the States, placement of product is well thought out with the purpose of forcing the shopper to traverse most of the store. For example, the everyday items that you may need such as milk are almost always placed in the back of the store so you have to pass lots of other products even if you only want milk, same goes for bread, it's usually on the wall on the right or left, so you pass by the displays at the ends of the aisle and perhaps you will have an impulse buy. The bargain items are always on the bottom shelf and the more expensive items are at eye level. Most of you are familiar with this marketing scheme.

In China, like items may not even be grouped together, or they will have changed position since the last time you were at the store. Walmart is the worst offender here. They have obviously failed to transfer the corporate culture to China. They do however do a brisk business. You can really only find a couple of types of cheese at Walmart, mostly cheddar, edam. No mozzarella! You will be able to find two or three other soft Chinese cheese. Something you might spread on a cracker, not brei but something akin to that in nature. They are also about 2o percent more expensive than Metro.

Metro is really the best. They have bilingual signs and logical food groups in aisles. In other words, the flour is in the same aisle as the yeast and the baking powder and baking soda. Metro is almost like what you are used to except for all of the strange food that is in China. I thought I had died and went to heaven the first time I went into the section with the cheese. Then when I saw the price I thought I was going to die. The sight of a full wheel of high quality cheese was well, wonderful. The price is too high for most Chinese and frankly they are much more comfortable eating chicken heads and fish lips than cheese. Most would find a nice sharp cheddar or even a mild havarta or jack, awful and there is a good chance that many would spit it out. I have witnessed this with a friend who professed to like everything and demonstrated that at many a dinner.

Carrafour is a French company. I don't shop there, need I say more? Well perhaps I should. I got really turned off to that store in Beijing. It was early in my teaching adventure and the crush of humanity was nearly too much for me. I'm sure you can relate, because I don't know anyone who likes to wait in a line at the grocery store. Now imagine 25 checkers, and 30 people in line at each checker. Be prepared to have the entire contents of you basket or cart examined by most everyone. They are curious.

So I recommend Metro. If you live in a larger city you probably can find one as they have over 25 stores in China now. Now the bad news. 200 grams or less than half a pound will cost you 25 yuan or about 3 dollars. Black olives in the can will cost 16 yuan or two dollars. If you don't know how to make a sauce and opt for a bottled spaghetti sauce add another 2-5 dollars. I just buy an envelope of tomato paste for one yuan, and add a chopped fresh tomato with Italian spices. I got a big container with a mixture of the traditional spices. That cost me about 10.00 dollars. Everything else is cheap and can be found at the street markets, onions, pepper, mushrooms. Metro is the only store I have been able to find Italian style sausages. I opt for the salami, it's made in Shanghai and comes in three different varieties. That's another 3 dollars or about 25 yuan. It is what you expect. It is about 7.50 per pound. If you were to get the whole sausage, 100 yuan for about 18 inches of hard dry style salami. I did also see pepperoni but it was sliced and bulk style and when I turned the back over it was brown on the bottom and the top was a sort of red and 10 dollars for 2 lbs. If you have to have the traditional Italian sausage, and I mean the fat one that is mostly pork, you know the one that comes regular or hot, then you can get it but you have to buy one kilo and that will be about 80 yuan or about 10.00 dollars. You could easily spend 20 bucks. There are some alternatives, such as a certain sausage from Sechuan, but hard to find. There are also some cheap ham type of meats that can work well if you are doing a pizza similar to a Canadian bacon pizza.

I have never really liked the chain pizza, except for Pietro's so I make my own. I found early on that I could not get along with out an oven so I make pizza, I make roast beef, even tuna casserole. There is something that just transports you to your home when eating a roast beef dinner with mashed potatoes and gravy. So I indulge myself a few times per month. There is one independent pizza place here that I know of that does a decent job. You can get four eight inch pizza with 400 grams of cheese and the can of olives and the salami, so that's about 10-12 dollars. Still cheaper than what you would pay at the pizzeria but quite expensive here. You will only be able to bake one at a time as your oven will be just big enough to accept the eight inch pan, oh and I forgot that pan will be about 5 bucks too, but you only have to pay once for that.

You may find the whole process of making the dough and the sauce and putting them together and baking them quite therapeutic if you are suffering from culture shock or just a little homesick. If you are a Midwesterner like myself you may opt for the Land o Lakes brand cheeses and savor every bite, only at Metro. For all you novices here is an easy dough recipe that works for me. 1.5 cups hot water in a medium size bowl, if you take the hot water out of one of the water machines you will have to wait for it to cool a bit or it will kill the yeast. Sprinkle the yeast onto the water and cover the water with yeast, about a half a package if you are buying the individual packets. If not just cover the water so it looks brown. Add a little sugar to get the yeast going and a pinch of salt. You can add a small amount of oil too or wait and add it just before you add flour. Four cups of flour added one cup at a time. You have to work the dough until it does not stick to your cutting board and it starts to show some elasticity. Your hands will know. Let it rise for at least a half an hour. It should triple in size. It should make 3-4 pizza depending on how thick you like your crust. Your oven should be on full blast, 450 degrees and will take about 20 minutes.

Grab yourself an ice cold coke or Harbin beer and your set.

Larry aka worldtour


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