Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Virtus Foundation, Lamb Paomo, Sour Plum Soup & Xian

I recently tried a bowl of “Paomo” in Xian and found this soup worth mentioning here. Before telling you more I am going to explain why my husband and I went to Xian. Our first destination was Yinchuan, Ningxia. We went there with a group of volunteers who joined the Virtus Foundation to select students eligible for a scholarship. How does this foundation work? I am going to share it with you. It's so meaningful that I cannot but not mention it.

Virtus Foundation (明德慈善教育基金) [I will hereafter call it Virtus] is a Hong Kong charitable organisation.  Each year Virtus gives scholarships to Chinese students (in China). This scholarship covers the cost of a 4-year course in a university in China. 

Eligibility: 2 requirements: 1/ excellent academic results, and 2/ no sufficient financial means to cover university fees.

Selection process (3 steps):
1st step:
Virtus selects a province whose officials are willing to cooperate with them.
The relevant provincial authorities send a list of students to Virtus. [Those students are already receiving local financial assistance in secondary school]. Virtus’ selection committee chooses students from this list.
2nd step:
Virtus’ volunteers go to the selected city. Team members a) conduct interviews, while others
(b) observe students (via group activities).
3rd and final step:  The selection committee finalises the list of  awardees and  decides whose (from the newly selected students) families to visit.

Virtus volunteers visit the selected families.
The announcement of scholarship recipients is made at a special ceremony in the presence of the relevant provincial officials.

This year Virtus chose Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region (寧夏回族自治區)[in the North-Western part of China] and went to Yinchuan (銀川市to interview and assess students. The selection committee pre-selected 101 students out of 200 and allocated 67 scholarships after interview and assessment thanks to donations from kind-hearted people.

Below are photos of one of the students' home.

The one and only room        

Outdoor cooking over a wood fire

Rearing cows for farming

Official ceremony
Scholarships and follow-up: The scholarships are paid directly to the students’ bank accounts during the course of their studies. Virtus keeps in touch with all the scholarship recipients and check the progress of their studies. Students share a common blog where they can exchange their views and experiences. Virtus also organises gatherings with all the students (former and current ones) during their 4-year study. 

This year I have participated in phase 2b) as an observer. My team assessed the students’ self-confidence, leadership skill and team spirit.

Student volunteers (in red T-shirts) explaining the activities
One of the group activities

Virtus gave its first scholarships in Jiangxi province (江西省) in 2006. The interviews and assessments were conducted in Yichun 宜春市. The students selected in 2006, in 2007 (Anhui province 安徽省, City of Chaohu 巢湖市) and in 2008 (again in Jiangxi province, Yichun) have now graduated. Some of them are very active in the organisation and one has become the representative of the scholarship recipients (former and current ones).  
The most meaningful thing is to see those students (former and current ones) taking time off to come specifically from another part of China to help Virtus with the selection process of new students. They arrange the classrooms for the interviews, organise the group activities, set up the hall for the awarding ceremony, etc. This year 30 of them came to help.
Even more touching is the story of a group of 20 students who jointly offered 1 scholarship. This also shows that Virtus’ action is spreading and its spirit will continue to flourish.   

Now let’s talk about Paomo, Sour plum soup and Xian.

On our way back to Hong Kong, coming from Ningxia, we stopped at Xian (Shaanxi province). We arrived quite late (our flight was delayed by almost 2 hours) and reached our hotel at almost midnight. We only had a  light meal in the plane and felt hungry for late night snacks. We decided to explore the alleys near the hotel. Some places were closing but we finally found a small eatery that accepted to prepare Lamb Paomo for us (for a group of 15 people). We were longing for a cool beer after a very hot day. However, no alcohol was allowed in the premises (sigh).

Lamb Paomo - 羊泡饃 
Paomo (泡饃:literally means: soak-flat loaf of bread) is pronounced paâu-mòh in Cantonese. 羊 means lamb and is pronounced yèuhng in Cantonese. Lamb Paomo is a specialty of Xian. Small pieces of baked unleavened bread (mòh) are tossed into a bowl, a few pieces of lamb are added and lamb broth poured over. The soup is served with some pickled garlic and a bowl of chilli sauce.  There is also a version with beef which is similar except that the lamb is replaced with beef. The meat was quite strong; tasted like mutton to me but I did not mind. I liked the texture of the bread soaked in the fatty broth (reminded me of the toasted baguette that I soak in my Mum's onion soup).
While we were drinking our soups the shop owners were crumbling baked flat bread pieces using fingers.

Lamb Paomo

Baked flat bread being torn into bite-size pieces

Sour plum soup - 酸梅湯
We could not have beers so we ordered sour plum juices. Syùn-muìh-tông, as it is pronounced in Cantonese (酸梅湯 – literally means: sour-plum-soup) is not a traditional soup and tastes more like an herbal sweet drink. It is made with plums, hawthorn, liquorice root and Ostmanthus flowers. I like the practical presentation of this drink. You just need to poke a straw through the plastic film covering the cup and take a sip. Wow! So refreshing! This popular drink is said to be cooling and good for digestion.

酸梅湯 / Sour plum soup

Xian - 西安
We only stayed ½ day in Xian and went to see the famous terracotta warriors and horses, army of the first emperor of China Qin Shi Huang. The centre has become part of the Unesco World Heritage in 1987. It has changed a lot since the first time I visited it in 1986. I remember that we were harassed by peddlers as soon as we got off the bus! Today hawkers are nowhere to be seen and there are shops everywhere. The site has grown substantially in size. More pits have been opened to the public and the museum is much larger. The whole compound includes plazas, lawns and lots of trees. It is also much cleaner.
The warriors and their horses I saw in 1986 are still there but as I mentioned above many more have been discovered since then. Although the soldiers might all look the same, each face is different! Amazing work! What’s new today is that you can see archaeologists excavating and restoring pieces. We were told that the site was employing a really large number of people, and this is going to continue for many more years to come. What a legacy!

View of the terracotta army

Pieces being restored
Archeologists at work
While archeologists are digging and the terracotta army is getting bigger and bigger Virtus is continuing its action. The scholarship recipient numbers are increasing each year and the students are part of an ever-growing family.
Keep it up and strive for the best! Add oil (加油 gâ-yàuh) !!!

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