Hipsters in my tea

This post is largely a copy of a critique I posted on Facebook of the “Manual Tea Maker No 1”, a “modern” take on the gaiwan (a tea brewing device invented in the Ming dynasty) that I and several others found immensely irritating. Here’s the campaign video:

This is not “inspired by” a gaiwan. (No more than the beer opener – I’m sorry, the Bar Blade – on their website is “inspired” by a beer opener.) It is simply a white hipster trying to stake his claim on a “modernized” gaiwan against a backdrop of white people trying to make good tea into something mysterious and rarefied and elitist and confusing. It is literally a transparent insulated gaiwan with included cup…which you can get for 5-10 SGD on Taobao ($10 for a really nice one, or you can get two push-button-valve tea making devices at a capacity large enough to satisfy all your “Western quantity”* tea needs!)

By all means introduce the wonderfulness of gongfu teatime to a broader audience. But don’t make it sound like slowing down to enjoy tea is something you and your product have finally rediscovered from the mysterious depths of East Asia and made accessible and enlightened, instead of something my people have been doing and sharing (or having stolen) for centuries.

The teacup is also the wrong size and shape for its stated and implied purposes. Both the aroma (which such a tall cup would have been useful for) and emotional intensity of the act of drinking gongfu tea are lost when you drink it from a wide container even if the total amount of liquid is the same. Except by endeavouring to modify the teacup for Western tea quantities you lose an essential part of why we sit down for hours to drink gongfu tea in the first place and the entire “slowing down” idea that you are trying to promote.

I evidently have a lot of feelings about tea and the recent “discovery” by white people that tea is actually very interesting and complex. I find its hipsterization and subsequent gentrification and elitism of tea in the West silly and unfortunate.  It upsets me that many people’s first experience with good tea will involve some impractical Teavana device and a bag of overpriced loose leaf marketed to make people a little scared of drinking too much of it, and that for even more people this wonderful beverage and culture will become just a little more out of reach.

*On “Western quantities”… Chinese people also just guzzle tea like water (if they even drink tea regularly; not everyone does). We don’t actually sit down to do this Exotic Ritual every day, except the lucky few and maybe retirees.

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Fenster, Rauchen, Tür: German windows, smoking and doors

In which I sing the praises of German windows, am puzzled by smoking in Europe, and scoff at German doors.

German windows are fantastic. I’m seriously considering getting some for my abode when I grow up and become not-broke, just so I can show them off to visitors. They open at the top: the verb to describe the action is kippen, to tilt. Like so:

I know, it blows the mind. (If that was interesting, have a look at these various contemporary styles of European windows – the 3D renders have occlusion shadows! Hover over a window on that website to see how it opens.)

From the existence of a window position specifically for letting in air from outside, you can tell that Germans have a bit of a thing for ventilation and fresh air. In green spaces, people comment on how good the air is and how you’ll never get that in the cities – and check out this lengthy German Wikipedia article on ventilation.

This puzzles the heck out of me because Germany has one of Europe’s higher smoking rates, which has been causing me lots of misery. (I hate smoke.)

In general, Europeans smoke much more than what I’m used to, and the phenomenon seems more loosely linked to socioeconomic class and far less stigmatized. Look at the numbers: In the US 18% of the population smokes (2014 figure) and in Singapore only 14.3% of the population does (2010 figure). Compare this to, as of 2011 for male smokers: 22% in the UK, 30% in Denmark, 31% in Switzerland, 35% in Germany, 39% in France, 46% (!) in Austria. Germany also has cigarette vending machines everywhere, one per 133 inhabitants; every two blocks or so in Mannheim you can see an ugly metal box affixed to the wall with ZIGARETTEN stencilled on its side. Now, in China the smoking rate is 47%, and in Indonesia it is a whopping 67% – but that’s something you sort of expect. I can’t say I entirely understand it in Europe. These people recycle obsessively, they eat organic food, they work out – they breathe smoke as if it were air. I don’t get it.

 

Now German doors are not quite as fantastic as their windows, except for their rather clever soundproofing, which, when present, involves a partially recessed frame, and is the reason hotels here are impossibly quiet even when full of guests. But for some reason all the doors I’ve run into in Germany in everyday life are usability nightmares. Take this one near the neighborhood supermarket, which had me stumped and lurking in a corner furtively waiting for someone else to show me the correct way to escape:

Confusing German door

 

Look at those large curved handlebars, invitingly calling your name! Do you push? Do you pull? Both wrong. You use the little door handle on the inside. What?

My aikido dojo here offers another horrific example of German door-engineering, so convoluted I can’t even find a photo of a similar one on the internet. It involves a metal plate that sticks out slightly from the door proper, and a handle underneath it that seemingly serves no purpose, as to open the door you must pull the plate. Yes, you pull the metal plate.

Only slightly more stupid than the ‘pull’ plate in this unfortunate set. (source)

For all the smoke and weird doors, though, I am sad to be leaving this country – this continent, really – in a few weeks. I’ve settled in quite well in my apartment, and I’ll miss cooking. For now I am making the most of it: tomorrow I will buy a whole chicken (hopefully my landlady’s rubbish knives are up to the task of chopping it up) and attempt to make chicken rice, that most wonderful of Singaporean dishes.


1. For further reading, Don Norman writes about doors quite a bit in The Design of Everyday Things.

2. While checking noun genders for the title of the post, I finally realized that Tor and Tür are actually not just different forms of the same word. An elementary mistake, but one unobtrustive enough that I’d never bothered to look it up. Wikipedia says:

Eine Tür, vor allem ober- und mitteldeutsch Türe, auch Tor für größere Exemplare, ist eine Einrichtung zum Schließen einer Öffnung in einer Wand, in einer Mauer, in einem Durchgang oder in einem Einstieg.

So a Tor is a large Tür – a large door. There doesn’t seem to be an exact definition, but often Tore (pl.) are more like gates – large, somewhat grand, two doors if there are any – for instance, das Brandenburger Tor, the Brandenburg Gate. And of course, in football, a Tor is a goal.

Germans and their pedestrian crossings

Nearly every English-speaking German expat writes, with much glee, about how Germans will patiently wait 15 minutes for the walk signal to come on even if there have been no cars on the road for the past hour.

Note: I’m posting out of chronological order, because if I don’t, this blog will not be updated until climate change kills us all.

English:
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Nearly every English-speaking German expat writes, with much glee, about how Germans will patiently wait 15 minutes for the walk signal to come on even if there have been no cars on the road for the past hour, and about how the easiest way to upset a German pedestrian’s travel plans is to tell them to take a route that does not involve clearly delineated road crossings, maybe throw in a war joke about how the Allies should have set up zebra crossings and red men. I suspect this is a Germany blogger initiation ritual of some kind; I’ll update you if I receive a membership card in the mail a few weeks after publishing this post.

Despite this, I have found in my 2.5 weeks here so far that the “Germans never jaywalk” stereotype is nowhere as extreme as most make it out to be. It’s been a little disappointing, to be honest, as I was looking forward to finally feeling comfortable about waiting for the walk signal to come on surrounded by my non-jaywalking brethren. Being at university has diluted it a great deal, but it still pleases my law-abiding Singaporean heart to only cross the road when the green man comes on.

Among the few other places in this country I’ve been to, the truth of the stereotype fluctuates quite drastically with how dense and urban the area is. It makes sense, I suppose – you should be the most careful in places where you think you’re the least likely to get hit by a car. Hence, mostly deserted suburban street in Mainz: traffic signals are the word of God. Quiet downtown Berlin: most people wait if there are cars in sight, but some do cross the road if it seems empty. Busy downtown Berlin: more jaywalkers than – I would say Elm Street*, but I don’t think anything in the Western world surpasses that, so let’s just say those parts of Berlin have lots of jaywalkers.

Central downtown Mannheim is the same as the last, although I think the jaywalkers here do not do it out of spite for rules, nor for convenience, really. I don’t even know if it counts as jaywalking if you have no other way of crossing the road: the urban planners in this city at some point thought to themselves “pah, who will ever need to cross Kurpfalzstrasse (for instance)? Anyone can get all they require in their half of the Quadrate!”. The section of Kurpfalzstrasse that I cross daily is just so blatantly unfriendly to foot traffic, with odd turns for traffic and several foot-snagging tram tracks laid on the already-uneven cobblestone (and no road crossings of course), that they couldn’t have been thinking anything else. More about Mannheim’s sometimes bizarre city layout later.

I think, though, that Germany bloggers shouldn’t make fun of traffic-light obedience so mercilessly. You do see flickers of irritation and self-doubt on people’s faces when they stand waiting by a road that has but one car in the far distance, happily and harmlessly trundling on at 5km/h…towards the collision that can only be averted if the pedestrians do not so much as take one foot off the sidewalk. They fiddle with shopping bags. There are anxious glances to the car and back to the traffic lights. People standing across each other on either side of the crossing avoid each other’s gazes, both knowing they seem a little foolish, and that in no way would their lives be endangered if they crossed the road, but yet…something compels them to remain waiting. Should I go or should I stay? Imagine having to enter this world of inner strife several times a day, every day. Have some sympathy.


 

*Actually, the section of Elm Street in New Haven that runs between two sides of the Yale campus must surely be one of the most jaywalked roads in North America, or at least New England.

Related reading: The Red Dictator: Crossing the Strasse

Black pepper pork stir-fry

An easy recipe for pork in a teriyaki sauce marinade made more interesting with black pepper.

Today’s dinner dish was based off this Onion Black Pepper Pork Neck recipe found on a Chinese recipe website – it was one of the first recipes to show up when I searched for ‘pork neck meat’. I’ve modified the ingredients a little and have added some elaboration to the somewhat handwavey steps in the original. Serve this with rice or toss it with noodles; it’s too flavorful (in my opinion) to be eaten alone.

Black pepper pork stir fry
It looks kind of slimy, but it tastes fantastic.

I bought two pounds of pork neck bones/meat on my first-ever grocery shopping trip today. It may sound strange, and this cut tends to have a bit more fat, but the meat is ridiculously tender, akin to the best parts of pork rib – if you haven’t tried neck meat before, I’d definitely recommend doing it. Pork neck is one of the least expensive cuts of meat because most Americans prefer lean meat and don’t like to eat ‘weird’ parts of animals – all the better for me.

pork-neck

Obviously, any other cut is fine, I just refer to pork neck here because that’s what I used. I’m not sure if this would taste good with either chicken or beef. I imagine you’d tone down the amount of seasoning with beef, and marinade for longer + cook for shorter with chicken.

Getting the meat off the bones was surprisingly tricky. Muscle sticks to bone more strongly than one imagines, and I had to do a bit of sawing with my knife-that-is-dull-because-I-can’t-find-a-whetstone-in-this-apartment. I also forgot to trim the larger pieces of fat off…but it made it taste really good.

Before starting, I was uncertain that this would taste like anything because pork on its own just tastes like…pork. Well, I’m now very impressed by what a teriyaki sauce bath can do. Unfortunately, the store-bought kind is usually very high in sodium. I fumbled the sauce-to-water ratio for the marinade (thanks, vague recipe) and it probably would have been less salty if I had used more water, but in the future/once this bottle runs out I’m going to attempt this mix:

Most Japanese just mix soy sauce (2TBS), rice vinegar (2TBS), sugar/honey (1tsp) and salt (to taste) instead of buying teriyaki sause. — Seen on this forum discussion about teriyaki sauce substitutes.

With the preamble out of the way, let’s get to the food!

Black Pepper Teriyaki Pork Stir-fry

This took me a while because it’s probably the most complex thing I’ve made so far, and I was stopping to wash dishes in the sink in between. If you know what you’re doing, I think 25 minutes would be enough, including 15 minutes of marinading. Enough time to cook a pot of rice and some vegetables for the rest of your meal!

Ingredients (this made enough to accompany two solo meals)

  • 200-300g pork neck bones (remove as much meat as you can from the bones, and don’t throw them away – you can use them for broth/soup if you want, although some say you should only use bones from high-quality organic meat for this)
  • 1.5 to 2 teaspoons cornstarch
  • 70ml teriyaki sauce (original recipe calls for 90ml, which I found excessive)
  • half an onion
  • a generous amount of ground black pepper
  • some vegetable oil for the frying
  • (optional) finely chopped green onion/spring onion/scallion (confused? here’s a picture)

Directions

  1. Cut the pork into chunks – if needed. When I removed the meat from the bones it sort of had no choice but to turn into 1 inch/2.5cm-long pieces. Not too thick, as that will slow cooking: about half inch/1cm is great.
  2. In a bowl, pour in teriyaki sauce and half as much water (more water or less sauce if you want it to be less salty).
  3. Add pork to this, making sure the sauce can reach all the meat, and let marinade (sit) for 5 minutes.
  4. Meanwhile, peel and cut half an onion into large pieces (I cried). Set this aside for now.
  5. Add cornstarch to the pork marinade – just sprinkle it in – and mix well to coat the meat. Marinade for 10 more minutes. The cornstarch helps thicken the gravy/sauce you get at the end, and more importantly, keeps the meat tender and juicy when cooked.
  6. Heat up a wok or frying pan, then pour in a little oil. A circle with around 1-inch diameter is fine. Excessive, even? I’m not sure – I haven’t done this enough yet.
  7. Wait for the oil to get really hot – apparently sticking a wooden implement in and watching for bubbles fizzing up will tell you if it’s ready; I just winged it. Add the pork and stir-fry (chao, sort of like sautéing but with more flipping). If there’s marinade left in the bowl, add it to the pan, because why not.
  8. Set the cooked pork aside and add a little bit more oil to the pan if needed.
  9. Put the onions in and push them around until they’re a little softer.
  10. Add the pork back into the pan, and as much black pepper as needed to make it smell good, then stir-fry for a few more minutes. If you have green onions, toss them in. (The original recipe calls for adding a pinch of salt here, but I wouldn’t – the marinade packs enough sodium and you can always add more later if it’s not enough.)
  11. Done!

I am worried about cooking in Germany because I will have to use a hot-plate type of stove, or an induction cooker. According to a friend originally from Stuttgart, open-flame stovetops haven’t been in common use for at least the past 30 years. I made spaghetti at her place a few days ago, and it was awful trying to understand how much heat was getting through to my food through numbers and dials. What does a setting of ‘5’ even mean? How much heat is there in the maximum setting? I can’t find out by touching the pan, so what else can I do? Grr.