Mosaic of China Season 02 Episode 02 – The Streetside Foodie (Jamie BARYS, UnTour)
Food can be a window into a culture. But it can also be a intimidating barrier. Jamie Barys has made it her mission to remove these barriers, by uncovering the hidden delights of Chinese street food.
JB: I got married here. My husband is British.
OF: I'm so sorry.
OF: Welcome to Mosaic of China, a podcast about people who are making their mark in China. I'm your host, Oscar Fuchs.
Thank you very much for all your feedback from last week's premier episode of the Season with the Chief Consumer Officer of L'Oréal China, Stéphane Wilmet. It's great to be back, and especially with such a thoughtful and thought-provoking conversation. Please join that conversation by following us on Instagram on @mosaicofchina_* or Facebook and WeChat on @mosaicofchina. And a special thanks to everyone who subscribed to the longer episodes on Patreon, including Jeremy Bivol, Vinnie Apicella, Anthony, Peter Arkell, and David Rempel.
Today's chat is with Jamie Barys, who gets introduced right up front. But before we start, a quick warning: at times Jamie speaks very fast. And I often mirror her energy, and speak very fast right back. So if English isn't your first language, I would definitely recommend following the transcript of the conversation on https://mosaicofchina.com. And please keep listening until the end, where I'll share details of a special discount code available to listeners of the show.
OF: Jamie, thank you so much. How this came about was this introduction.
[Start of Audio Clip]
Lexie COMSTOCK: My friend Jamie Barys, who runs UnTour with her business partner, Kyle. They basically give you a really awesome tour of the best street food in Shanghai or Beijing. They also partner, I think, in various other cities across China. And as someone who loves food, and especially street food, it's… they just do a really good job. On the tours, they give you a tonne of really cool information about Shanghai, about the food you're eating. It's not only satisfying for your tummy, but also for your brain.
[End of Audio Clip]
OF: Tell me about your friendship with Lexie, how do you know her?
JB: I have known Lexie since she first moved to Shanghai. She was interning and needed a place to stay, and somehow got hooked up with a couple of my friends who had an extra bedroom. And she started her cookie business in that apartment, using the āyí that I still use today.
JB: Yeah. And so there's pictures of my 阿姨 [āyí] on her website doing her first batches of cookies. But she is just one of those pure, wonderful human beings that you just want to spend all your time around.
OF: Well, before we go into more about your story, why don't you show me the object that you've brought which, in some way, epitomises your life in China.
JB: So I wanted to bring a snack, because Chinese food is my life. And the thing about Chinese food is, it's really hard to find something that's portable and really good, because everything is made fresh in front of you, and it's best eaten right then.
OF: It's messy, right?
JB: Yeah, but in a good way. And so I brought a dessert which is called a 老婆饼 [lǎopó bǐng], which is sometimes translated as Sweetheart Cake or Wife Cake. But it's a very traditional Chinese dessert. A lot of desserts you get in China are the product of colonialism, but this is a traditional Chinese dessert that originated at the end of the Yuan dynasty, so late 1300s, right before the Ming started. There are so many legends about how this 饼 [bǐng] got started, this pastry. One of them is that there was the wife of a general for the rebels against the Yuan emperor made them so that it was easier for the soldiers to have a quick snack. But then there's a lot of really romantic stories, and that's where you get 'Sweetheart Cake' from. Where this man, his father was really sick, and his wife ended up selling herself into slavery. And then he created this cake and sold a lot of them until he could buy her out of slavery. Or there's another version where he goes to a dimsum house, and he eats this 饼 [bǐng], and he's like "I know my wife is in the kitchen because this tastes exactly like her 饼 [bǐng]". And so every Chinese dish, I feel like, has this crazy story behind it. And also, it's delicious. It's got winter melon in the middle.
OF: What? OK, I've had all kinds of 饼 [bǐng], and I've never even heard of 老婆饼 [lǎopó bǐng]. OK, we will now have a commercial break, where I will eat one.
JB: So I love winter melon, you don't really see it outside of China very often.
OF: It's very good. It's so dense.
OF: Like, I can't imagine eating the whole thing.
JB: No. So usually you would cut it up, kind of like a pie. You would have it with tea and other sort of pastries and things like that.
OF: When it comes to dessert, you were saying a lot of desserts have this colonial shadow. What did you mean by that?
JB: I mean, what we consider dessert in the West is not necessarily considered a dessert in China. A lot of times, if you order a sweet dish at a restaurant, it just comes in the middle of the meal, it's not going to come at the end of the meal. Fruit is often consumed at the end of the meal. And you do have some desserts, but the idea of a dessert culture, really, a lot of that came through the Portuguese and the British, who colonised Macau and Hong Kong respectively.
OF: And so do you know the history of the dessert in the West?
JB: Yeah, well, a lot of desserts are baked. And baking is not something that was native to China. You would see things that came along the Silk Road from India, where things are cooked inside sort of a kiln, and that's a flatbread. But actually having an oven is not something.. Even today, you know, I moved into the first apartment I've ever lived in, in China, that has an oven this weekend. And I've been here 13 years. And so when there was colonisation, a lot of these things were brought over. A lot of times they were given a local twist. So you'll see, you know, even Hong Kong milk tea, that comes from the British. You would not put dairy products in tea, in China, typically.
OF: And so, when it comes to this particular bǐng, so you were saying the story about the Yuan dynasty, and of course, the Yuan dynasty, they were actually the Mongols, weren't they.
JB: Right, yeah.
OF: So is there a kind of nationalist element to this bǐng like this was, you know…
JB: …"Fed the troops so we could overthrow our foreign conquerors" thing? Definitely. And you have that with a lot of different… you know, like mooncakes, and things like that. Supposedly, there were messages snuck into the mooncakes, that then, people knew when to rebel… So like, I always say on our tours, whenever we're introducing this, you know, 'grains of salt', there are usually about three different legends behind every dish. So you never know how accurate they are. But they're all super fun.
OF: Well, you mentioned the tour. So now it's a good juncture for us to talk about what it is that you do here in China.
JB: Yeah. So I am the Chief Eating Officer of UnTour Food Tours.
OF: UnTour Food Tours.
JB: Yes, that's correct.
OF: OK. What's that then?
JB: So we wanted to show foreigners who are visiting China, how wonderful Chinese cuisine is. A lot of times there's such a language barrier. And just a cultural barrier. People don't feel comfortable going out and just trying a lot of these hole-in-the-wall places that are where some of the best food in China comes from. So we wanted to bridge that gap, and just showcase how amazing the food of China can be. The sheer variety of it, because so many people have only had Cantonese food. And they think that is 'Chinese food', because you have most of the Chinatowns around the world, Cantonese is the language that everyone speaks, and most people are from either Hong Kong or Guangdong area. It's starting to change now, you're getting a lot more Mandarin in Chinatowns around the world. But you're still not seeing a lot of very authentic Yunnan cuisine, or Sichuan.
OF: Yeah, this is obviously where all of this wealth of information comes from. I mean, how did that arise? What's the story?
JB: Yeah so my business partner at the time, Kyle, he had just left Shanghai and gone to Germany to go to business school. And I was still in Shanghai writing about food. So I was a food writer for a while. So I was working there, and when he came back, he said "I really want to start a business." And I said "Well I kinda have this idea of food tours". Now at that point, food tours were still a really young industry, there weren't that many around the world. And now you go to any city, and there's at least three companies doing something like that. And so we started it, December 1 2010, and I went full time with it in February 2012. So it took about 14 months for it to be able to support both me and Kyle. And then after that, it just grew so much. We got in The New York Times, and The Guardian, and all these big papers, and it just blew up, and we expand a lot.
OF: So is Kyle still around in the business?
JB: So unfortunately, Kyle got stuck out. And he had been considering leaving China anyway, his husband had been here for, like 20 years. They left when COVID kicked off in Shanghai, and then ended up getting stuck out. And so they've decided to leave China.
OF: And no goodbyes, right?
JB: I know, it's so sad. Yeah.
OF: It's hard for me to read into what he is thinking, but at least with you still around, there's continuity. Like, he knows that it's gonna be a new phase for this baby moving on, right?
JB: Yeah, we're definitely in a new phase, not having any foreign tourists. So it's been an interesting change of pace for us.
OF: Well, let's talk about that then. So, I don't want this podcast to be too COVID-heavy, but the fact remains that lives are different after COVID.
JB: Yeah, I would say before COVID, 90% of our our target audience was foreigners who were visiting China. So we were closed all through Feb, and we were able to relaunch in Shanghai towards the end of March. But we have really shifted gears. And, you know, obviously, all of our marketing and BD is now focused on the people who are here, the captive audience that we have. Which is small, but very active, which is great. But once I got out of quarantine, I realised that everyone just wanted to booze. So we launched a speakeasy tour. And it's been super popular. We launched that in May, with expats. And so we do a cocktail mixing class to start. And then we go to one of our favourite hidden noodle shops. And then after that, we go to two more speakeasies and we also get food at another stop. But I'm pregnant, so I can't drink cocktails at the moment.
OF: Mazel Tov.
JB: Thank you.
OF: And I don't know when this is going to be released, it could be months, so that baby could be talking by the time this comes out. If the baby has already been born, and it has a name, I'll make sure to include that at the end of this episode.
JB: Oh, great.
OF: Let's go back to the food thing. So what are the basic conceptual differences between street food here in China versus elsewhere?
JB: Yeah, so street food, unfortunately, is not as prominent as it once was in China. When we first started, a lot of our tours were street food focused. But we've had to change a lot of that over the years, as night markets have been shut down, and a lot of our street food vendors have been closed. So we just try and support locally-owned, family-owned businesses that are kind of… I guess you could call them 'hole-in-the-walls' or 'holes-in-the-wall'. But they're fantastic. And it's where some of the best food is.
OF: So tell me about who these people are. People who go to street food, they didn't really think about actually who they're dealing with. So who are these people?
JB: Oh, I love my vendors. I think that's probably one of the favourite parts of my job. For our wedding… I got married here, my husband is British and…
OF: I'm so sorry.
JB: And since we were gonna get married in Shanghai, I said "At least half of the food has to be from my street food vendors". So we had a 拉面 [lāmiàn] vendor, like a pulled noodle, a 小笼包 [xiǎolóngbāo] vendor. And a 煎饼 [jiānbing] vendor. So, you know, a lot of our… It's nice introducing this really cool food, and these people that are a big part of my life, to my friends and family at the wedding.
OF: And you mentioned earlier that you also have an offshoot in Beijing.
JB: Mmm yes.
OF: What is the difference, then, between what you'd say is the street food culture of Shanghai and Beijing, or is it more or less the same?
JB: Yeah, so I mean, on our tours specifically, Beijing and Shanghai, we do a breakfast tour and a dinner tour. But if you compare our dinner tours… Beijing, we really focus on what we call 老北京 [Lǎo Běijīng] cuisine, so Old Beijing food. So we have, like, the Mongolian-style hotpot, we get these amazing 串儿 [Chuàn'er] chicken wings that are hidden in a 胡同 [Hútòng] in 东城 [Dōngchéng]. They're amazing.
OF: And I like the way you did your "儿 [Er]" just there.
JB: Yeah, you gotta do "串儿 [Chuàn'er]". Yeah, these these really interesting foods, donkey burger… Whereas in Shanghai, our nighttime tour, we made a conscious decision not to focus entirely on Shanghainese cuisine. Going to five different Shanghainese stops is a lot of Shanghainese food, which can be… a lot of foreigners consider it a little too sweet, a little too oily. So we actually decided to focus on the fact that Shanghai is the economic capital, it's kinda the 'New York' of China, and so you can get amazing food from all over the country without actually leaving the city limits.
OF: Well, that is the perfect excuse now for me to ask you about this diversity. So tell me about Chinese food in general then.
JB: Yes, so we have so much fun regional diversity in Shanghai, because you have these migrants from all over the country, who bring their local dishes. And so, you know, when you try and tell foreigners that goat cheese is a Chinese dish, they're like "Wait, what?" And you start to explain the geography of Yunnan, and how up in the north part of Yunnan you get amazing mushrooms and goat cheese, and then you go down to the south where it's close to Myanmar (or Burma) and Thailand and things, and you get, like, a tea leaf salad and these really interesting spicy flavours that are very Southeast Asian to a lot of palates, but are actually very Chinese as well. So we do Yunnan food, we hit up a Ningbo restaurant, which has a lot of seafood. We also, of course, have Sichuan because that's my favourite. I love Sichuan food.
OF: Sichuan is the one that everyone will know, right, with the famous peppercorns.
JB: Yes, the Sichuan peppercorns, yeah.
OF: What are the dishes of Sichuan that people might not have heard of?
JB: Well, we do - for people who would like to try it on our tour, we do not force this on anyone, but if anyone would like to try - rabbit's head. It is a very popular dish in Chengdu in Sichuan. And it's very spicy. There's actually… it's interesting, if you look at where a lot of the rabbit's heads come from, a lot of them are from France and Italy, because they eat rabbit meat, but they don't actually eat the heads. So, like, 70 to 80% of the rabbit's head eaten in China is imported.
OF: I can just imagine opening a case of rabbit's heads…
JB: Yeah. We keep most of our dishes very much well within people's comfort zone. But we do like to stretch people a little bit if they're interested. We never force it on anyone. But I think a lot of times people look at Sichuan food and they think "Oh, the 担担 [dàndàn] noodles", which are very famous, or "麻婆豆腐 [mápó dòufu]" which are delicious, and I love them. But if you delve deep into the snack culture of Sichuan, and try all the different noodles, you're gonna find so many that are so much better than 担担 [dàndàn], like 宜宾燃面 [Yíbīn ránmiàn] comes from a city 宜宾 [Yíbīn], it's called Kindling Noodles. They're amazing, we eat those on our tour. My favourite type of noodle from Sichuan is 碗杂面 [wǎnzá miàn] which is a cowpea. It kinda looks like a chickpea, but like a subtle chickpea. I eat those all the time.
OF: Wow, there's already a lot of noodles out there that I don't know of, in that case. When you talk about the rabbit head - going back, because I still can't get that out of my head - it's just the cheek, I guess.
JB: Yes, you eat the cheek. You can eat other parts of it as well.
OF: Really? And what, do you see the head in the thing, or it's already been…
JB: No, no no, you get a whole head.
OF: You get the head.
JB: Yeah, you get to, like, break into it and get all the meat out. We show you how to get to all the best morsels.
JB: We're also launching a vegan tour. We're trying to, you know… we offer options for everyone. So people who don't want rabbit's head, we also have different things that appeal to them as well.
OF: This is where it's interesting, because you do have to deal with the food, you have to deal with your vendors, but then you've got to deal with your guests. There's a lot of human interactions there, and with humans comes unpredictability.
OF: I'm guessing you have a few stories where there have been some tours that have gone slightly awry. What are the ones that stick to your mind?
JB: I think we're really lucky in that our guests are super self-selecting. So it's people who are already visiting China, so they're a little bit more adventurous, and then people who want to eat local food. So 99% of our guests are really easy to get along with, and really just there to learn, and to eat, and to enjoy themselves. You do occasionally get someone who's been brought along, by a spouse or a family member, who is just not having it. And they are not interested in learning anything about Chinese food, and they can be a bit difficult. I had one guy on a tour who… what did he say? I think it was… we got to the 小笼包 [xiǎolóngbāo] stop on the tour, and he took a bite of it, and he was just like "Um, well, that's an acquired taste". And one of the other guests, I think, had just had enough, and turned around to him goes "An acquired taste? It is literally, like, a noodle wrapper around pork, like, what do you need to acquire about that? It's delicious." And I was like "thank you so much". But of course, I couldn't say anything. We do have, you know, the occasional person who gets absolutely wasted. We had a university come on our tour with a bunch of students. And the organiser got so drunk that we had to cut them off. They loved 白酒 [báijiǔ]. And so they drank a lot of it. And the students had to end up taking him home. So that doesn't happen very often, people are usually great.
OF: Nice. And finally, why the name? So it's 'UnTours', right?
JB: Yeah so when Kyle and I first started the company, all of the tour groups in China were matching hats, umbrellas, you know, big tour buses. Our groups are really small. It's designed to feel like you're at dinner or having lunch with a friend, just a friend who happens to know a lot about Chinese food. And we want it to be the opposite of that. So an 'Un-Tour', yeah.
OF: Excellent. Well, thank you so much for that.
JB: You're welcome.
OF: And is there one dish that you would say is the best?
JB: It's impossible. I feel like if you named a region, I could pick one. But I think the thing that I eat the most is 碗杂面 [wǎnzá miàn].
OF: Thank you, we'll move on now to Part 2.
OF: What is your favourite China related fact?
JB: OK, so this one's about Sichuan peppercorn, Sichuan peppercorn actually gives you paresthesia in your mouth. So it feels like your tongue and your lips are vibrating, which is cool in and of itself. But they've actually done studies to see at what frequency it's vibrating. And it turns out, it's 50Hz, which is the same frequency as the Shanghai power grid.
OF: That's a crazy fact.
JB: I know.
OF: I just love those Sichuan peppercorns.
JB: I do too.
OF: Do you have a favourite word or phrase in Chinese?
JB: Yes. So my favourite word or phrase is 吃撑了 [chīchēngle], which… A lot of times when people want to say that they're full, they'll say 吃饱了 [chībǎole].
JB: But I have found, especially when I'm working with my vendors and things like that, we oftentimes are doing tastings at a lot of different places, and if I don't finish what they put in front of me, I can offend them. But I can usually get out of it really easily. Because I used to like "吃饱了,吃饱了 [chībǎole, chībǎole]" and they'd be like "Oh, just have a little more". And then I found out about 吃撑了 [chīchēngle], which is like "I have eaten so much, it is coming out of me" like "I am so full, it is up to my neck. I cannot put anything else"… And it's not very commonly used, and so they just crack up and they're like "OK, that's fine". And so it kinda gets me out of a lot of things where I'm like, "I literally can't eat anymore. Please stop feeding me".
OF: That's brilliant.
JB: I know
OF: 吃撑了 [Chīchēngle], OK.
JB: 'I am full to the point of bursting'.
OF: I love it. What is your favourite destination within China?
JB: Oh, there's so many good places, it's hard to pick one. But my most favourite place that I've gone recently would be Ningxia.
JB: And I went out there with a couple of my girlfriends to wine country. And we had amazing food, amazing wine, just the most hospitable people. You know, it's funny because people are always like "Oh, Shanghainese people are so mean" and I'm like "They're not! They're lovely!" And then you go to Ningxia, and you're like "Oh, maybe in comparison", because they're just so welcoming and so friendly.
OF: And Ningxia, so I don't know much about it, but it is a province up there in the north near Gansu. And it's quite Muslim up there is it? Or…
JB: Yeah it's a 回 [Huí] Autonomous Region.
OF: Right. If you left China, what would be the thing that you missed the most? And what would you miss the least?
JB: Food. Food, food, food… Sichuan noodles, 碗杂面 [wǎnzá miàn], I just… That would be so hard.
OF: What about anything that you wouldn't miss?
JB: That's tough because I feel like that's a coin that has two sides, whenever it happens. You know, a lot of times, I'll take the subway and get pushed around and jostled around a little bit, and it's really annoying. But then I go to a wet market, and an 85 year old woman shoves me out of the way because I'm standing in front of the daikon radish that she really wants, and that just tickles me. So there's things that annoy me in the moment. But then on the flip side, if you understand why it's happening, it just… you can get over it really easily.
OF: Yeah. Is there anything that still surprises you about life in China?
JB: Expats who just have not even remotely invested in China. And they live here, they lived here for years… So I met a woman, who had lived here for 13 years, the other day, she had never tried 煎饼 [jiānbing].
JB: Yeah, I was like "OK first of all, let me change your life, because it is the best breakfast food in the world." But also "Just what have you been doing for 13 years that you've never had the opportunity to try 煎饼 [jiānbing]?" She was such a nice person, so lovely, so great. But…
OF: Yeah. And it just shows you how that first step can be so hard, like, you might have walked past the 煎饼 [jiānbing] maker, and just thought "Oh it's so intimidating to try and ask that person", like, good for her for having been here 13 years, but then having that first step with you.
OF: This is gonna be a hard one for you. What's your favourite place to eat or drink or hang out?
JB: I love the holes-in-the-wall, and the mom-and-pop owned places. But those are not places you can hang out because a lot of times they don't have AC or heat. And they rely on fast turnover. So the longer you sit at their table, the less money they're making. So it's not cool to just sit and hang out. So if I'm going to go hang out somewhere, I would say Heritage by Madison, Austin's place, is just the best. I absolutely love it.
OF: Very good. What about the best or worst purchase you've made in China?
JB: It's kind of boring, but I love it. I got a Japanese reverse osmosis water subscription. I hate the giant plastic…
JB: Water 桶 [tǒng] dispensers in the house. I feel like it's just very distracting. And I cannot deal with buying lots of plastic water bottles, I just feel way too guilty and I think that's horrible for the environment. So we got that installed a couple of years ago, and it has been fantastic. And then I also got SodaStream. I have free-flow bubbly water in my house. It's so good.
OF: Ah, very good. What is your favourite WeChat sticker?
JB: My Beijing guides are really tech savvy. And I still don't know how to make my own WeChat stickers, but they have made several for me. My favourite one that they made is… my husband came to a team building dinner, and they just took a couple pictures of him and made it into a gif. And it just says in Chinese underneath it: 高富帅 [gāo fù shuài]. So like "Tall, rich and handsome." I don't send it to people, but I just love it. And one of our former operations managers, she just moved back to the States. She got hired to be in a commercial for a Learning English company. And she was a robot that killed people with her laser eyes. She has this crazy robot wig. It's so great.
OF: Wow. What's your go-to song to sing at KTV?
JB: I'm such a bad singer. It is so embarrassing. It's 'Super Bass', by Nicki Minaj. Because I don't actually have to sing, I just get to rap.
OF: I kind of want to see you do that pregnant right now. Why am I saying that?
JB: You're right, I actually, um, you know, my friends are like "Oh, we should go to KTV!" And I'm like "Can we do daytime KTV? Because I'm not gonna drink anyway". So it'll be, yeah…
OF: Yeah, because you really have to do sober KTV, and that's hard.
OF: And finally, what are the other China related sources of information that you rely on?
JB: So in our office right now, because we've had, you know, so many people stuck out, we actually have a bunch of empty desks. So I've had a couple friends who are journalists who are actually allowed to work from home but have children, so they need to be able to work from a place with no kids either. So that's actually been like my recent source. I'm just like "What's going on in the world, guys? Do I need to know anything?" But the other thing I've been doing for years is, I have news alerts. So I get emails whenever something I'm interested in happens. Usually I get the weekly roundup. And that's great, because then you can see coverage about the same stuff from everything from the New York Times to the Global Times. Most of my stuff is food-based, that I'm interested in. So, shocking.
OF: Jamie, thank you so much.
JB: Thank you, it's been a pleasure.
OF: I really learned a lot from you, even in the story behind the bǐng that you gave, which is still here. I've had three bites. And I'm gonna finish it off on the way home today. So the only thing left for me to ask you is, out of everyone who you know in China, who should I interview for the next season of Mosaic of China.
JB: So I think it would be great if you interviewed Emma Gao. She is the owner and the winemaker at Silver Heights Vineyard, which is in Ningxia. And it is a boutique winery that is doing amazing things.
OF: Oh that's one of the ones that you mentioned before with your favourite destination, right?
JB: Yes, yeah. She's just the most amazing woman and the wine she's making is unbelievable. And she has great stories.
OF: Oh, wow, that's so wonderful. I'm so glad you mentioned her, I've never been to Ningxia and now is the perfect excuse to go.
OF: Thank you again, Jamie.
JB: Any time.
OF: First things first, here are a few clips from the PREMIUM version of today's episode, please go to https://patreon.com/mosaicofchina to subscribe.
JB: We got in, I think it was, six hours before the border closed.
JB: There's another name for it, 油炸鬼 [yóuzháguǐ], which is basically a 'deep fried ghost'.
JB: It was a couple months before my wedding, and it got shut down. And I never saw any of them again.
JB: He invented 煎饼 [jiānbing], 包子 [bāozi], and landmines. You're like "Well, he wasn't all good".
[End of Audio Clips]
The happiest updates first, Jamie has indeed given birth since she recorded this episode, I've included a photo of new mother and little Hamish - both looking gorgeous - on social media. And the other happy news is that listeners to this show can include the code 'Mosaic10' when booking any tour on https://untourfoodtours.com, and enjoy a 10% discount. The code is valid until the end of 2021, and also covers the new Koreatown tour, which includes all the best-kept secrets of Korean restaurants, bars and shops in Shanghai.
The saddest update is with Austin Hu, who passed away suddenly since we made this recording. Austin was the person behind Jamie's favourite place to eat or drink or hang out in China, 'Heritage by Madison', which was incidentally the same answer given by by Michael Zee from Episode 07 of last season. I never met Austin, but I only heard the best things said about him, so I did want to include this small tribute, especially since I know he and Jamie were also close.
Lots of other photos there too, including Jamie's object, the 老婆饼 [lǎopó bǐng], and the winter melon from which its made; a cup of Hong Kong milk tea, one of the by-products of the British influence there; photos from food tours, as well as one of Jamie and her co-founder Kyle from the early days; some photos from the street food served at her wedding; some of the foods she mentioned from the tours in Beijing and Shanghai, including those rabbit heads; and a whole lot more.
Mosaic of China is me, Oscar Fuchs, with artwork by Denny Newell. Stick around for a shortened version of my catch-up interview with Lexie Comstock from Episode 20 of Season 01, and I'll see you again next Tuesday for the last episode of 2020.
OF: Here you are, I can't believe you're sitting in front of me.
LC: I know, I made it back.
OF: Well, what the hell was your Coronavirus story?
LC: It was pretty wild. I left for Christmas for an extended time back in the States with my parents…
LC: …And my sister actually. And then Corona happened. And I've been out of China since then, which is insane. I got back two and a half, three weeks ago now. I did the two weeks in quarantine.
OF: I think you're in this wave that has come back since September. But it hasn't been immediate, right?
LC: No, a lot of people gave up. I think people were like, "OK, I guess this is a good time just to move." Yeah. It was very mentally taxing to just have the uncertainty of the flight situation. The rules were changing constantly… constant anxiety.
OF: What about your dog? That's the main thing.
LC: Yeah. So I'm very lucky that I have great friends. And a handful of people took care of him. For the bulk of the time, really like 10 out of the 11 months, was my friend Pei, who did an incredible job with little Mario. And Mario and I will go see him every week just to make sure that Pei gets his Mario time, because they really bonded. It was really cute.
OF: Ah. So what was it like to meet him, then, coming back?
LC: Incredible. He was so excited. And it was honestly one of the happiest moments of my life.
OF: And then the business. So, Strictly Cookies…
OF: …It continued with you gone.
LC: I have an amazing team. And they all really stepped up, and credit to them. They just… they nailed it.
OF: Well what it does say to me is this is a litmus test for you to show that actually, you don't have to be here, you actually could be overseas, and life would go on with the company. So was that, kind of, liberating for you at the same time?
LC: It was. It was funny, because I actually did better work when I was away. And I don't think it was because I was, like, so nervous that everything was gonna fall apart. I think it was… it allowed for a nice separation that gave good perspective on things. And as crazy as it was to be living with my family for six months, it was really nice. Having lived abroad for 10 years, it felt incredibly special.
OF: I think that's going to be a bit of a theme to these catch-up interviews that I do with people who have come back.
OF: And then now you're coming back, you must be seeing Shanghai with new eyes, almost.
LC: Absolutely. So, a year and a half ago, a year ago even, I was very much like "I need a plan, I need to know where I'm going to be in the next month". Now I'm a lot better with uncertainty, and just kind of going with it, and just letting things unfold.
LC: It's really… it's honestly… it's a massive, massive change for me. But I do think it was a good life lesson. Just, you don't have a lot of control. And you just have to kind of make the best of it.
OF: Yes, absolutely. I'm nodding fervently, because I just know that anyone who was more a control freak, now has to be less so.
LC: Oh my gosh, yeah. You really… After the first, like, two months. I was like "OK, I guess I really have no control over anything anymore".
OF: Yeah. And the things that you said that you would miss if you left China, you said the thing you would miss the most was 煎饼 [jiānbing].
OF: And you would miss the least, was the construction noise.
LC: Yep, that still holds.
LC: Yeah, when I got in, that was the first… I think that was the first thing I ate. I woke up early, left quarantine, and got a 煎饼 [jiānbing].
OF: That was it. Number one.
LC: Number one, for sure. I love 煎饼 [jiānbing].
OF: And of course we are going to be releasing this update at the same time as the episode of Jamie Barys…
OF: …Who is the person who you recommended for Season 2.
OF: So have you been in touch with Jamie?
LC: Oh my god, yeah, we're very close. Yeah, so I saw her the other day, she just had a baby. OF: Yes, she did.
LC: Little Hamish. Honestly, seeing her, seeing my friends… I still haven't seen… I mean, I really just got out of quarantine a week ago.
OF: Yes. You're fresh out.
LC: Yeah, really fresh out. I really want to go to Cages. My friend, I have a friend Dalton. I haven't seen him yet and I feel like he'd be down. Maybe I'll just send him this podcast, and say "Wait till the end. I'm inviting you to Cages." Yeah.
*A different Instagram handled was mentioned in the original recording. That handle is now obsolete, and the updated one has been substituted.
Oscar Fuchs was the Co-Founder and Managing Director of a global executive search firm dedicated to the Human Resources profession. He was born in the UK and has lived in Asia for 18 years, including 3 years in Hong Kong SAR, and 7 years in mainland China. In 2019 he sold his company, and launched Mosaic of China.