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Sticks & Rice

Hey Ayi, I made a big faux pas at my girlfriend’s mother’s dinner party, but I have no idea what it was. All I remember is that I stuck my chopsticks in a little bowl of rice, so it looked like a couple of antennae on a bug’s head. It was a very bad scene, Ayi. What have I done? Thanks, and sign me, Lost in Face

Dear Face Off,
Well, if you don’t think it’s a crime to wish for the death of your girlfriend’s mother, don’t worry. But if you prefer your mother-in-law alive, you’ve made a major social blunder.

Here’s the deal. First of all, don’t play with your food. Second, remember that many Chinese people, especially Southerners, honor their ancestors by burning incense in bowl-shaped holders. That bug sculpture you made with your bowl of rice and chopsticks looks a lot like sticks of incense burning in a censer. Making food sculptures is a bad idea in general, but especially if it looks like you are prematurely honoring members of her family who are not yet deceased.

Don’t hurry back to the dinner table just yet: there are plenty more food faux pas you should know about. If you get the evil eye from her mom and she repeatedly says gong shao, try using the serving spoon. Your personal chopsticks are not for rooting around in the common dishes, even though all your friends do it. Chinese culture places a great emphasis on sharing with everyone, but not on the sharing of your personal contagious diseases. Furthermore, be careful about rubbing your chopsticks together at the table, as this suggests you do not trust your host to provide splinter-free utensils.

In spite of all that, you will be pleased to know that it’s okay to flip your chopsticks around and use the other ends. Some chopsticks taper to a point (Japanese-style) and some are straight (Chinese-style). Both kinds may safely be flipped around to use when serving other diners.

Now get back to the party and start scoring points.

Hey Ayi, What’s the deal with the white gunk at the bottom of my kettle? Will it hurt me if I make tea from it? How can I make it go away? Help me! Signed, Scared of Stuff

Dear SoS,
First of all, relax. Have some tea. Your pot contains clumps of Calcium Carbonate (CaCo3) and Magnesium Hydroxide (MgOH2) The bottom line is that Beijing’s water supply is “hard”, meaning it contains a large amount of suspended particulates, chiefly minerals. The water looks good on its way out of the tap and into the pot, but these minerals gunk up the bottom of your kettle pretty quickly, and also end up as a fine whitish powder in the bottom of your glass of tea.

Neither of these minerals will hurt you, so go ahead and pour yourself another cup of tea. What may hurt you are the bacteria in the water, so if you are drinking from the tap just make sure that you boil the water for a couple of minutes first, especially in the summer when it festers in hot pipes before it arrives in your tap.

If you really don’t like looking at all that stuff in your pot, there are a few things you can do to clean it up. The conventional Beijing remedy is to boil up water in the pot for a long time, then dump it out and dunk the pot in cold water. Ideally, the white stuff should break up and fall out. If your pot is a piece of low-quality junk however, you might just wind up breaking the it. If your pot is a worthier item, the boiling method may not work anyway. The method I recommend for you SoS is to pour some white vinegar into the pot and let it soak until the calcium has softened enough so that you can just rinse it out.

Preventative maintenance is the best way to keep both your kettle and your kidneys clean, but it costs: using only distilled water will ensure that your pot remains gunk-free.

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