Toffeed fruit on sticks is a Beijing speciality and this was one of the best we've ever had. Freda was on the look-out for toffee apples yesteday but the only ones we came across were on display, unwrapped, near a string of small butchers. I later wondered whether I'd been over-cautious and promised her, "the next time we see some, you can have a stick, whatever..." The next time was as we emerged from the Metro, as a man passed on his bike along the busy, fume-filled street, with a full display of toffeed fruit on his rack. Even Freda was put off those and agreed to wait until something more hygienic came along. These were worth the wait -  the toffee had set but was still warm as the lady lifted them from the drying tray to put in her glass cabinet [a good sign] and the bite-size crab apples were succulent. Freda's teeth got an extra scrub that day!

It's shaped like a scone; it smells like a scone; it tastes like a scone; in fact, it REALLY IS a scone! If only the same could be the same for the cream. Actually, that's a little harsh. After four cream-free years Dream Topping fools my taste buds quite easily. Why didn't we think of making scones sooner? Maybe it had something to do with a block of butter costing a day's pay. It just so happened we splashed out for Hongyan and Yanhui's visit last week. So, any time you fancy cream tea, just bring some butter and we'll do the rest. THANKS AGAIN to all of you who keep those little goody bags [parcels] coming this way - such home(-baking) comforts really are a dream (topping?) come true!

zhutong fan for sale in Simao.
Today I spotted the first of the season's zhutong fan for sale. This Dai-nationality streetfood is delicious sticky rice steamed and grilled over hot charcoal inside a bamboo tube. We usually pick up a few tong (tubes) with the girls on the way home from school at lunchtime. The special variety of bamboo that is used only matures over the autumn and winter months, so it's only available from now until January. Better make the most of it ...

For more details check out the Yunnan 18 Oddities page on the LEAF-go-VSO website.

The Waiban Ladies and Ali.
Ali cooked up a delicious Thai meal for our friends in the Foreign Affairs Office - otherwise known as the Waiban Ladies. Zhang Lingyu [right] spent nearly a year in Thailand, teaching Chinese and learning Thai, and was impressed by the authenticity of Ali's dishes. While she scoffed the Thai green curry with aubergines, Zhang Fei [left] and Mrs Gan [centre] stuck to the dishes more similar to Yunnan cooking. Lesley was heartbroken when they said they were too full to try her pudding. When the Banoffee pie came out of the fridge, however, they soon changed their minds.

It was a lovely evening. These women really make us feel at home in Simao and we know we can always turn to them for help and support. What's more, they're keen to keep our eat-our-way-around-the-world evenings going. They voted for Italian next. We'll have to see how Tina (half Italian) rates the authenticity of that meal!

Freda, Magda & Roise, Longtang Temple.
It wouldn't seem right visiting a town without also finding its temple. Magda and Roise, two of the graduates we visited in Changning (2 hours from Baoshan by bus), were delighted to take us to Longtang Si, 10km out of town. Both of them had visited the temple before, Roise's last visit being only a few weeks before, when she prayed for success in her teaching exam. Although Magda and Roise were excellent students and did very well in their PIE teaching practice (2 months in rural schools), they failed to make the grades in the County teaching exams. They have both been working as teaching assistants - same work as teachers for a fraction of the pay (400-600RMB a month) - and are now looking to get a better job.

Becoming a teacher here is a bit like joining the army. Once registered with a local Education Bureau (usually their home town) they are at the mercy of leaders. Having passed her exam this time round (the prayers worked), I received a message from Roise saying that she had been posted to a small village several hours from Changning. They have no control over where they end up working, though a bit of guangxi (a complex concept that involves 'relations', 'contacts', 'favour') can improve one's chances of a favourable posting. There are ways to move between counties but it's a convoluted process that involves re-taking exams and pre-empting what the outcomes might be. It's much easier to stay at home.

Freda preparing a tofu dish for dinner.
One of the highlights of our time in Changning was a visit to Jiujia village, where Magda is currently living with her boyfriend and his family. We bought lots of vegetables in Changning market and took over the farmhouse kitchen to prepare dinner. Our contributions consisted of lemon cucumber salad, baked aubergine and Freda's ma po doufu (tofu, tomato and herbs). Cooking in a giant wok, solid fuel (logs burning underneath) beats our tiny, ceramic hot plate in Simao. When all the dishes were ready we ate outside, at a small table in the courtyard. With our afternoon stroll around the village and country kitchen experience, this was a very memorable day.

Lesley with the Jiujia foragers.
On our exploration of the village we met these local women who were on their way home after a day of foraging. Their baskets were empty but they were in good spirits, especially after our chat, which covered the usual - age, nationality, salary (in that order). The markets have a lot of wild mushrooms for sale these days but there are a lot of people competing for this valuable source of income. Better luck next time ladies!
Dinner in the courtyard.
Magda [front right] gets along well with her soon-to-be mother-in-law [back left, behind Roise], sharing the tasks of cooking and cleaning. Traditionally girls have been considered a burden to Chinese families, particulary if money is short. This isn't because of sexist misconceptions that women can't work as hard. On the contrary, Chinese women seem to be the backbone of the economy and keep many a family afloat while the men keep their brains afloat, with bai jiu (rice brandy). The main sense of burden comes from the fact that, traditionally, girls are brought up to be 'married out' to another family. They are cared for, educated and then sent off with a dowry to care for a husband and all his relatives. Young women often found themselves 'married in' to a family that treated them as a slave. What's more, if they didn't produce a son within 9 months of being married, they'd find themselves replaced with 2nd, 3rd or 4th wives and concubines. Although much of this has changed, it's still common for newlyweds in the countryside to live with one of their families, to help take care of their ageing parents and take over the farm.
Magda is delighted to have found in-laws who respect her. We also enjoyed getting to know her new family. Magda and her boyfriend hope to get married some time in the next year. Freda and Edie have already been asked to be bridesmaids, if we are still in China.
ELF with their 'Western' breakfast
JINGHONG Our pre-term backpacking trip started in Jinghong, where we 'lived it up' for twenty-four hours in the Banna Hotel. The main draw was the swimming pool [pictured below] but it turned out the room rate included a 'Western breakfast'. As well as having a waitress-served menu including toast, bacon, eggs, coffe and fruit juice (well, orange squash), we were seated at a small table in the corner while the rest of the (Chinese) guests were crammed into a buffet area. By the time we finished our silver service indulgence the rest of the dining room had cleared. Not bad for 200 RMB - that's for four of us!

LEAF at the Crown Hotel swimming pool.
We enjoyed Jinghong much more this time, perhaps because we know our way around and can find everything we need - supermarket, tasty food and swimming pools. What's more, we've found a string of sparkling new hotels with cheap twin rooms (40 RMB) that are clean and central. We'll be heading down for regular weekend retreats. Although it's less than a couple of hours by bus, it feels very different to Simao - more tropical with a strong South-East Asian (and Dai) influence. There are even traveller-types sitting around drinking milkshakes in Western cafes. All a bit surreal coming from Simao.
Lesley and Marissa, Baoshan temple.
BAOSHAN As time was short we flew from Jinghong right up to Xiaguan (Dali City) to leave us with just a 2-hour bus ride to Baoshan. We spent a night there, but squeezed in some sightseeing with Marissa and one of her school friends. The best part was exploring Baoshan's old city park, which covers a hillside on the west edge of town. This temple had been spruced up more than any other I've visited in China. Unfortunately the main prayer hall was shut because the monks, all women with beautifully done-up hair, were out front arguing with builders about pathwork underway. From the temple we even managed to spy on some new army recruits having marching and Kung Fu lessons on an adjacent military exercise ground.

It was in Baoshan that we discovered the first of the holiday's culinary delights - rice noodles with green bean mush. It doesn't sound very good but we lived off this this local delicacy for two days!

ELF with Marissa and Tina, about to tuck into some mi xian (rice noodles) and other delights at Ludao Restaurant.
Our recently graduated friend, Marissa, is about to embark on a new journey - she has enrolled for a two-year postgraduate certificate in education at a university in Kunming. Marissa has been involved with lots of LEAF family activities, and celebrated Spring Festival with us earlier this year. She has also tutored Freda during difficult homework periods and looked after Dougal and the fish when we've been on holiday. We've also shared many a meal with Marissa, including some 'Western style' home-cooking. We'll miss her, and wish her all the very best for her studies in Kunming.

'Sorry, was this for the salad?'
Lesley's 48-hour game of 'will it or won't it [work]' with the new oven has taken it's toll. She took to bed this afternoon with a mud pack on her face, trying to take her mind off pastry and other recipes. Freda and Edie were shocked to find her in this ghostly state, touching the gooo and asking: "What's that mummy? Can you eat it?" Lesley's not the only one obsessed by food at the moment!

You are what you eat is a new addition to our daily blog, for all of those who ask, "So what do you usually eat in China?" Of course, today's menu of date loaf, oven-baked bread, quiche and banoffee pie wasn't that usual, as the following months will reveal. Nevertheless.....

Today we are
: Above items plus soluble multivitamins and echinacea - Ali's got a cold he's trying not to pass round.
Alleged gang member before the incident.
Xinhua News today reported a Scots-Italian raid on Lanhua Market, in the southern tea city of Pu'er, Yunnan. What first appeared to be an innocent shopping outing from this international gang appears to be more serious, according to local reports. Due to the immediate lock-down of Pu'er by the Public Security Bureau, who earlier this year interrogated one of the gang members for photographing a street demonstration, we are relying on brief reports. A by-stander sent this message to a journalist in Kunming, who forwarded it to Xinhua:

"Hey, you'll never guess what happened at Lanhua market today. These two foreigners walked in and started wandering around looking really weird. Everyone was staring at them and ducking behind their vegetable stands 'coz they looked really suspicious. I've never see anything like it. It gets better. Guess what happens next! The woman walks up to a farmer, has an altercation over the price of the bamboo then buys, shoots and leaves."

On receipt of his friend's text our source immediately alerted the press and local police contacts, who rushed to the scene. By this time the culprits had fled though a County-wide search is now on. Preliminary enquiries suggest the gang is operating from Simao Teachers' College, masquerading as volunteers. Market vendors report having seen at least one of the gang members regularly over the last four years. Previous visits are now thought to have been part of their long-term surveillance before today's attack. Lack of clear evidence or motives is not hindering the authorities' attempts to flush them out. The Bureau is currently spreading rumours of the gang's infection with Swine Flu following a recent visit to the UK. This is hoped to prevent local friends and colleagues harbouring the fugitives. The public have been advised to avoid any direct contact and to alert others if they feel threatened. Mobile phones may be used to report sightings to the authorities, preferably with photos.

Roast vegetable and goat's cheese flan
Meantime Lesley stayed at home with her apron on and continued her obsession with the new oven. You may have guessed by now that this must be about more than just food, or eating. Being able to recreate British homecoooking is very symbolic after four years of living with simple soups, canteen dinners and local noodle bars. We love Yunnan food and our crockery consists of small bowls and chopsticks. The fact is, it never occurred to us until now to make pizzas, flans or fruit loaves, although we have managed the odd biscuit-base banoffee.

Perhaps we're missing Scotland a little. Perhaps we're missing the independence in our lives outside China. Sure there are restrictions in any country, but on a day-to-day basis we were relatively free in the UK. Even a visit to a doctor in China involves roping a friend in for trannegotiation of the convoluted stages and for interpreting - that's if we want any meaningful interaction with the doctor on more technical points. Nor can we drive here and if we leave home for more than 24 hours we are supposed to register with the PSB (Public Security Bureau). Hotels do this for you but staying with friends is (not coincidentally) much harder, if one is to avoid possible trouble. Except from at home, we are either under intense scrutiny  yet, in some ways, even our closest of friends don't really know us; don't know how we live our lives in the UK. How we are (or come across) as people is, to some degree, shaped by the given environment. Eating with chopsticks involves different behaviour than eating with knives and forks. Crossing the road involves more assertiveness, as does bargaining in a shop or going to the post office. It sometimes feels like we are only partly ourselves here and that the other half is boxed away in Scotland. It's not a case of good or bad, better or worse, just different. Hard to explain, although I'm sure it's possible to understand this feeling even without living in China. It's merely a form of isolation and estrangement, which can occur anywhere. Anyway, this oven means more than baked food. It means creativity, challenges to adapt something known to a new context. It means bringing a bit more of our old selves and old lives into being in China, breaking free from the obvious confines  

The most recent experiment was with shortcrust pastry, used for the flan pictured above. Oil was used instead of butter/marg and it seems to have worked. A bit more successful than yesterday's banana and date loaf. The second batch of pastry is being used for tonight's banoffee pie. The first course will be Ali's Dai dish - sour fish and bamboo shoot soup.

Ceremonial cutting of the first pizza.
No, the LEAF family isn't expanding. We have much more exciting news than that! For years Lesley has been craving an oven, though they only appeared in the supermarket here six months ago.

We finally took a leap of faith and optimism, yesterday purchasing a dinky little Galanz that now sits on top of our microwave. A suitable-for-stir-fries-but-not-much-else hot plate is our only other means of cooking. Although lack of suitable ingredients may yet hinder our attempts at home cooking, we got off to a flying start with pizza. The cheddar cheese was bought when we passed through Kunming last week. We have become used to products seeming high quality and breaking or looking good and tasting horrible (to our palates, that is). A 200 RMB (£20) risk seemed acceptable. The good news is that the albeit small loaf of bread I baked this morning was also a success. A new culinary era lies ahead.

Our new appliance with this morning's fresh loaf. Pity butter is so expensive (12% of the cost of the oven for a 250g block!)