Musings on peanut butter

I’m a big fan of China’s many regional cuisines, which provide a nearly endless array of mouth-watering dishes: solid, proletarian Beijing dumplings, grilled lamb skewers from Muslim western China, delicately steamed fish from Hong Kong, sweet Shanghainese “red-cooked” pork, fantastic green vegetables from just about everywhere, and, my favourite, the exquisite “numb-spicy” dishes of Sichuan.

But sometimes, I just really need a peanut butter sandwich.

China’s cuisine is many things, but every so often it will come up short, and a craving for a peanut butter sandwich is one that Chinese food is particularly ill-equipped to satisfy. Firstly, there’s the problem of the bread. “Western-style” bread in China, as in perhaps every Asian country other than Vietnam, is at best a weak approximation of the concept. It is as if bakers have tried to reverse-engineer recipes from photographs of foreign loaves, without ever having tasted them. The result is bread that looks fantastic, but has the consistency and flavour of an old bath sponge. My current preferred brand is a step above most, but still makes my teeth squeak when I eat it.

Peanut butter, thankfully, is an area in which China excels. In addition to a wide range of local brands, international p-b giant Skippy is well-established here, and its products — both smooth and crunchy — can be found in many local supermarkets. This, however, is where the story gets interesting.

At first glance, China’s busy supermarkets are visions of plenty. Behind their shiny exteriors, however, is a re-stocking system that could generously be called “spotty”. I still remember the day that my neighbourhood supermarket in Beijing simply stopped selling bacon. There was no explanation: it was as if it had never existed. I was disappointed, but took it in stride. Then, suddenly, the peanut butter disappeared.

Assuming it had been relocated in one of the supermarket’s pointless bi-monthly reorganizations, I asked the store manager where I could find it.

“We don’t have it any more,” he said.

Worried, I continued: would they be getting more?

“We might get more, but we might not. I don’t know.”

And just like that, the peanut butter was gone, its place taken by a random selection of salted plums and something called meat floss. The next few days went by in a blur as the cold reality of life without peanut butter sank in.

When I saw peanut butter back on the shelves a week later, I was euphoric. That feeling came crashing down a moment later as I discovered that the variety on offer was a pirated version of Skippy. Now, I can understand a pirated handbag or coat, but I draw the line at knowingly eating knock-off food products — especially when each jar of supposedly identical peanut butter had its own distinct hue.

The Skippy did eventually return, but I had learned my lesson: I began stockpiling peanut butter in anticipation of the next shortage.

When I moved to Shanghai, I was dazzled. For the first few months after my arrival, I couldn’t stop talking about my supermarket. Forget peanut butter — hell, it had balsamic vinegar!

How quickly the lessons of the past are forgotten.

By this time, my tastes in sandwiches had expanded, and I was venturing into recreational mayonnaise use. I thought I could stop any time. Little did I know I would be forced to quit cold turkey when it vanished from even the fancy foreign supermarkets.

What had happened? Who was to blame? How could an entire city of 19 million people suddenly run out of mayonnaise?

I pondered these questions for weeks, unable to find an answer.

And, just as suddenly as it had disappeared, the mayonnaise was back.

And what mayonnaise! The old standbys like Kraft were there, to be sure, but there was so much more. German brands I had no hope of pronouncing filled the shelves, their contents held suggestively within flexible tubes rather than the familiar, rigid jars. Light mayonnaise, “real” mayonnaise, spiced mayonnaise — it was all there.

I grabbed a selection and headed for the cashier. Standing in line was a friend of mine, his shopping basket filled with two dozen cans of tomato sauce, his eyes filled with a triumphant gleam. We nodded at each other knowingly — for today, at least, we were both victorious.


The Beijing Left Turn

This explanation (with diagrams!) of cars at a Beijing intersection making a left turn is one of the funniest things I’ve read in a while. Substitute a Volkswagen Santana for the Hyundai if you’re in Shanghai, and add a couple of mopeds.

Edit: Proxy link here.


A letter to BOCOG

I was visiting the Web site of the Beijing Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games (BOCOG) a few weeks ago, and was disappointed to find that the weather conditions in Beijing — temperature and wind speed — were given only in degrees Fahrenheit and miles per hour, respectively. I sent a suggestion through BOCOG’s online form, but several weeks later, there has been no change. Today, I sent the following message by e-mail:

Subject: Weather Reporting for Olympics

Dear madam and / or sir:

A few weeks ago, I sent a message through the “suggestions” tool on BOCOG’s Web site, pointing out that Beijing’s temperature and wind speed, as given on (http ://, are shown ONLY in degrees Fahrenheit and miles per hour. I asked that the information also be presented using degrees Celsius and kilometres per hour, in the interests of the many English speakers unfamiliar with Fahrenheit and miles. To date, I have seen no response to my message, and there have been no changes to the site. I am sending this message in the hopes that it might be more successful than a Web-based form.

As the United States is the only country left in the world that persists in using Fahrenheit as a temperature scale, the exclusive use of Fahrenheit and miles per hour is both confusing and annoying to those of us who have adopted the metric system. Consider:

English is the primary language in Anguilla, Antigua and Barbuda, Australia, the Bahamas, Barbados, Bermuda, Belize, the British Indian Ocean Territory, the British Virgin Islands, Canada, the Cayman Islands, Dominica, the Falkland Islands, Gibraltar, Grenada, Guernsey, Guyana, Ireland, the Isle of Man, Jamaica, Jersey, Montserrat, Nauru, New Zealand, the Pitcairn Islands, Saint Helena, Saint Lucia, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Singapore, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, Trinidad and Tobago, the Turks and Caicos Islands, and the United Kingdom.

None of these countries and territories uses the units you have chosen in any official capacity. Only the United States does so. To use only Fahrenheit and miles per hour on your site, therefore, is to implicitly suggest that all English speakers are Americans. While I take no issue with America as a country, and indeed count many Americans among my close friends, this is an affront to the national sensibilities of all non-American, English-speaking countries.

I hope that in the spirit of international co-operation and friendship, you will fix this issue on your site. We may have “One World, One Dream,” but not all English speakers use “One System of Measurement.”

Thank you for your time, and I wish you all the best in helping to make the Beijing Olympics a great success!

Warm regards,

Andrew Galbraith

I am eager to hear back from them, and hope I can get the metric system up there before the Games start. 358 days left!

Edit: I’m aware that my statement that “none of these countries uses Fahrenheit and mph” is overstating the case somewhat… that’s only really true regarding Fahrenheit. I believe the point still stands.

Update: has bounced my message back. Apparently, it doesn’t actually exist, despite being listed on BOCOG’s site.

Travel, Video

Thunder on Jong-Il Peak

Another video, also from the Children’s Palace in Pyongyang. This one is of a band playing the song “Thunder on Jong-Il Peak”, possibly my favourite of the DPRK’s musical contributions:

Travel, Video

Arirang on Accordions

To make up for the continuing lack of a DPRK travelogue, I present this video, filmed at one of Pyongyang’s “Children’s Palaces” on our last full day in Pyongyang:


Back from the DPRK

I have just spent an incredible week in the DPRK, better known as North Korea. I plan to post a detailed journal of the trip at some point in the future. In the meantime, you are welcome to peruse my Flickr photo set of pictures from the trip. The photo here is of the monument to the Great Fatherland Liberation War, better known as the Korean War.


Shanghai hits the max

As of 4:30 pm, Monday, April 2, 2007:
Shanghai API at 500
The “500” is for respirable particulates. The other numbers are concentrations of Sulfur Dioxide and Nitrogen Dioxide, respectively. Taken from the Shanghai Environmental Monitoring Center. I’m not sure if this is a computer error or not, but looking out the window at the entirely brown air seems to confirm it. Yuck.

Edit: To be perfectly clear, 500 is as high as the air pollution scale in China goes.



Pancho, our family’s loyal companion of 15 years, faced with a long and painful decline after a long and happy life, was put to sleep today. He’s been such a big part of our family for such a long time, it hasn’t really sunk in yet. However, I think it’s the little things that I’m going to miss most: when I lived at home, he used to sleep on the rug beside my bed; later, when I visited during holidays, he would move from his hallway pillow to my bedroom rug at some point during the night, so he was always by my bed in the morning.

We originally got him when we moved from Vancouver to Tokyo and realised that our crazy whippet-pointer-lab-etc cross would be absolutely miserable in a large Asian city (we gave him to friends with a farm in the interior of British Columbia). Pancho was our “cat” and our “compact dog”, the only natural-born Canadian in the family apart from my dad. He became known to the shopkeepers in our neighbourhood, and was taunted by the gigantic Tokyo crows. He accompanied us on weekend trips to the lake district around Mt. Fuji, where my sister and I would race him down hills on our bicycles, and then take turns bundling him into our jackets and riding along the roads between the rice paddies, with his head sticking out under our chins.

He managed the move to Hong Kong admirably. He loved running along the beaches in Repulse Bay and Stanley, and in the country park around the reservoir at Tai Tam. He joined us on weekend hikes up the hills of Hong Kong island, even at the height of summer, when he would collapse, panting, in any shade he could find if he got too hot. He picked up the habit of hunting small birds, much to the consternation of our wonderful (and very Buddhist) Thai helper, Tum, who utterly adored him. On the other hand, he once saved the life of a frog by barking at a snake that was about to eat it (whether this was a case of gallant bravery or general dimwittedness is perhaps a question best left unanswered).

As he became older, he became a wonderful curmudgeon. You could have set your watch to his demands for walks — never noisy, but always insistent. And, once on a walk, he had very definite ideas about where he would go, exactly how long he would go there, and when it was time to go back.

I was not there for his last move, to Singapore, but visited last summer and saw him in high spirits, exploring the lush botanical gardens, and revelling in the wide open grassy spaces. At home, he still had his annoying habit of blending into the carpet, which frequently led to him getting punted across the room. He still loved sembei, the Japanese rice crackers, though having lost many of his teeth, they could prove hard to chew. He still acted like he was on crack after a bath, when he would race around the house with his ear to the floor, responding to the slightest movement by rocketing off in the opposite direction. He still proved entirely susceptible to tummy rubs, which would send his legs into spasms.

And every morning when I woke up, I still found him sleeping on the rug beside my bed.

Pancho, we will miss you.