2006.03.05 Urumqi


I have a bag of yoghurt hanging in the kitchen. It might be more accurately described as a large blob of yoghurt wrapped up in cheesecloth, bound together with safety pins and clothespins. Every so often a drop of water drips out into a tub beneath the clothesline from which it hangs. If all goes according to rumor, this will turn into cream cheese overnight. Cream cheese is one of the ingredients I've found impossible to find around Xinjiang Province.

Since my return to Urumqi two weeks ago, Nisagul has frequently been pestering me to bake a cheesecake. Each time she's asked, I've had to remind her that the key ingredient--cream cheese--is unavailable. "What's that in the fridge, then?" she asked once. "Isn't this what you need?" she gestured to a stick of butter.

David: Uh, no... that's butter. It comes out of the same cow, but it's not the same.

Nisagul: Can't we turn it into--what did you call it?--cream cheese?

David: You know, I have heard that you can turn yoghurt into cream cheese by straining it through cheesecloth.

Nisagul: Hey, the Kazak people make cheese by cooking milk and yogurt together, then hanging it up in a bag for a week!

David: Yeah, but their cheese is hard, sour, and tastes nasty. Maybe ours will turn into cream cheese if we hang it up for just a day or two.

I decided to call my friend Bahar. It was 10:00 P.M. but I figured it wasn't too late to call--especially if a cheesecake could be made all the sooner.

David: Hey, Bahar--you're Kazak, right?

Bahar: Uh... yeah?

David: So you must know how to make cheese. Tell me: what kind of cloth do you use? Is there a special sack I can buy? What else do I need to do?

Given that Bahar is young and urban, I doubted that she would have any familiarity with the process, let alone be able to give me detailed information. Still, it was a good excuse to call and chat.

The detail of Bahar's response surprised me: "Oh yeah, I've watched my mother make cheese many times. You have to heat milk, but not too quickly. Cut the yoghurt in slowly: don't throw it in all at once. There's no special sack--any piece of cloth will do, as long as it's clean, and white. Do you want to get together now?"

David: Uh... not tonight. But thanks for all the info. I'm going to bake a cheesecake. If your recipe works well, I'll bake one for you as well.

Bahar: Okay. Call me.

The topic of cream cheese also came up in an unrelated way a few days ago, in a conversation with Tiffany. We were chatting about how many of the written rules of English are no longer observed, even by native speakers. Tiffany's pet peeve was seeing would of when would have or even would've would be deemed the correct usage. My personal issue was seeing past-tense verbs without a terminal "d" when used as adjectives. I've seen bottled water, corned beef, and baked beans written as bottle water, corn beef, and bake beans on recent visits to the U.S..

Tiffany brought up a similar example: she's often seen iced tea, written as ice tea. Contemplating that point made me wonder why iced cream and creamed cheese are not the accepted written forms. Grammatically, they should be equivalent to the examples I gave above.

Since starting the process of making my own cream cheese, I've thought of an application other than using it in baking cheesecakes. In contrast to the scarcity of cream cheese across this country, Xinjiang enjoys an abundance of bagels. There is not a lot of variety in Uighur cuisine, but along roadsides across the region, tables are stacked high with bagels--spot-on duplicates of those baked in the U.S..

Uighurs refer to bagels as kurda, I've never seen varieties other than plain, salt, or sesame. They are baked without first boiling the dough, which many purists insist is required in true bagel art. I don't know of anywhere outside of the northeastern U.S. that boils their dough, anyway. Bagels from the Noah's chain taste just fine to me, but I've often heard them slammed for skipping that step.

The bagels Uighurs bake are great when right out of the oven. All Uighur bread products go stale pretty quickly, so freshness is key. I suppose if my attempt at making cream cheese is successful, lox will have to be the next impossible-to-find ingredient I'll try to seek out.

I sometimes think that it's more fun to cook here, in an area where many ingredients basic to western cooking are unavailable. Discoveries that would otherwise be completely mundane are exciting, prompting field-trips to show other foreigners where scarce goods are available. A certain shop across from the zoo is where I find mozzarella. Earlier this week I excitedly showed Tiffany a place where I've found brown bread baked in the Russian style. I happened into an Azeri restaurant with Turkish menu while looking for an apartment yesterday afternoon, then alerted friends via SMS message upon my first taste of a doner wrap.

I've been back in Urumqi for a couple weeks now. I'm presently staying back at Chris and Mary's flat, though Mary returned to Canada just before I arrived. Chris will follow on back home after one more term of study. Chris is completely laid-back about how long we stay on as houseguests. Nisagul has, in fact, been staying on the entire time I was away from Urumqi, over three months.

Kitami and Nisagul
Kitami and Nisagul

Despite that we've got an open-ended place to crash, I want to be in my own place. Nisagul and I have been looking around for an acceptable location to move into, though that's not such an easy process. An agency showed us an ugly, expensive apartment, insisting that it "wasn't so bad". Their other listings sounded pathetic, so we've been asking people we know. Most everything in this country gets done through connections, even finding a new place to live is better done through casual inquiries to friends and co-workers.

It seems like we may have found a place. Kitami, the Japanese student with whom I stored all my things, wants to move. His apartment is even larger than my old one was, and the rent is less than half what I was paying. It's nowhere nearly as nicely furnished as my previous flat, but does have three bedrooms and two bathrooms. I figure I can pay a bit to make it comfortable--I'll be saving $100 U.S. every month from the rent I was paying at my old place.

Theoretically Kitami will move tonight, though so many things change at the last minute in this country. He was supposed to move over a week ago, but his new landlord insisted that he pay a higher rent and some additional fees which had initially been understood to be included in the rent. Kitami and I met for dinner last night, during which time he said that those issues had been resolved. However, given the crazy back-and-forth situation with my landlady last autumn, I'm not going to consider anything finalized until well after I've moved in.

Classes began this past Wednesday. I specifically decided to not study Uighur language this term. The majority of my friends here are native Uighur speakers, so I won't lose much ground by not attending class for a term. I figured that my Chinese hasn't improved much in the time I've been living here, so should take this semester to focus on that.

While I've dropped the Uighur language courses, I haven't dropped the calligraphy. I'll be working once again with Abdu-Shukkur, the instructor with whom I've had private Islamic calligraphy lessons at X.U. for a year. The registration office says they've also arranged a teacher to give me one-on-one instruction in Chinese calligraphy, starting this Monday. I specifically came to this corner of the world to be able to study both forms of calligraphy, but never worked with an instructor for the Chinese form. I'm excited to be finally getting around to something I expected to be doing long ago.