Sunday, January 31, 2010

I have a wok and I know how to use it!

Food. We all need it, most of us want it, some of us are consumed by it (har har) and some of us are on an eternal search for the holy grail of our favorite varieties. Myself, I do enjoy food and sometimes enjoy the challenge of making it myself, but other times, I find it a chore. If I'm busy or down in the dumps, I usually find myself irritated at having to figure out, once again, "What am I going to eat?"

When I first came to China, I did not know much. I had to slowly piece together where to get groceries, where I could find a decent meal prepared for me, and w
hat specialty shops to get the equipment that I thought would be basic (cheese grater, pie pan, etc.). I eventually discovered a foreign grocery store as well, but then it was a matter of evaluating just how badly I wanted cereal or imported cheeses or tortilla chips, because it would often cost an arm and both legs. No box of cereal is ever worth $10 to me. However, $5 for a block of Land-o-Lakes cheddar? You better believe it.

I not only had to gain footing in a foreign country and how to make it feel more homelike on the dinner table, I found I actually had quite a lot to learn about cooking period. If not for my mother, a few foodie friends and good ol' Betty's cookbook (Crocker, that is) I would have been eating way more ramen noodles than I care to think about.

Now, I'm in Jining. We shipped a few boxes of food when we moved, which (pat ourselves on the back) was so smart. While there is now a new grocery that does sell cheese and some decent bread, our first two months here I spent talking to a few ladies living here who were giving me all their tips of where to find what and at which store. "This store sometimes has bread that isn't sweet, but you have to ask them which ones are which." "This store has good vegetables, but don't buy the meat here." "These frozen fish filets aren't too bad." I confess, I never tried using the odd "cheese spread stuff watered down with milk as a cream substitute" option, but much of their other advice was vital and so very helpful to me. At the end of the day, though, there is much I just cannot get here. It can sometimes feel like some sort of survival test or challenge to your creative powers when you cannot get everything you want or need just like that. I cannot get cream. This cuts out a majority of the desserts in my cookbook. They don’t sell fresh basil or tubs of pre-made chocolate frosting or bags of baby greens for fancy salads or hot dogs. I buy shrimp, but no other meat here because when the meat counter guy tells you that the red meat AND the pink meat are both beef, you can't help but be suspicious of the lot.

That is just a sample of what I can and cannot find here.
I'm not trying to complain. It is just hard sometimes to really convey what types of things I have to work around to get dinner on the table. Now, I probably cook dinner 3 or 4 times a week. That's significantly more than I did back home, or even in Shanghai. It helps to have someone else to cook for, as it just seems more worth the effort when two people will be eating it. This also pushes me to try new things or try to improve my techniques.

But you know what the funniest part about having limitations is? It actually helps me. Yep. If you know me at all, you will be well aware of my difficulty when it comes to too many options to choose from. ("50 flavors of ice cream?? Oh nooo!!") So, not having everything in the world available actually makes my job easier, but it also makes me realize how many combinations you can make with 5 items and how many things you can make from scratch. Essentially, I'm getting back to whole foods, whether I set out to or not.

Which finally brings me to the real point of this post. Many people spend their whole time in China trying to find good western food. I'm guilty as well. Most times, however, the results are mostly disappointing. It really does make more sense to try to find the really good Chinese restaurants, because, “Hello? Is this thing on?” we're in CHINA. There are tons of more options with a much higher rate of success if you look for good Chinese food. And guess what? It makes just as much sense to actually cook Chinese food as well.

I inherited a Chinese cookbook last fall and recen
tly purchased three more from the same company. For the first time since I've been in China, I actually love looking in the cookbook. Every single ingredient listed in those books all exist in the grocery store here. All of them! And the best part is it's fairly simple to prepare yourself for cooking this cuisine. If you have soy sauce, rice wine, sesame oil, salt, pepper, flour, corn starch, sugar, chili sauce, chilies, garlic, ginger and spring onions, you are totally set to make a great number of dishes.

So the other night I set my sights high. I chose two northern Chinese dishes to make for dinner. I bought all the fresh ingredients for sprin
g onion and garlic chive dumplings and an eggplant dish. I had no idea what garlic chives were, but I studied the picture in the book. Low and behold, there they were in the produce section. So cool. I love learning new things. I also bought the skinny eggplants, which I find I like much better than those bulbous ones back home.

The recipes are straightforward enough, and once you
have all the prep done, cooking is fairly easy as well. Bu the prep, how I underestimated the prep! First, I had to finely chop about two cups of garlic chives...(see top picture). Takes a lot longer than you would imagine.

Other chopping was needed, but that was pretty short and sweet. The dumplings, however, were a lot of work. From making the super sticky dough to rolling each piece out and trying to fill them without making them ugly or broken, the process took quite a lot of time.

Luckily for me, I had a helper. So in the end, we only ate about an hour later than usual. David even opened one of our stashed bottles of white wine, which I have to say, goes really well.

And the results? Pretty darn good! It's simple, the eggplant was delicious, and once I get the hang of it, it could be a pretty streamlined process. The success of making some of the Chinese food I have discovered here really got me thinking. Maybe instead of my success here being marked by whether or not I learn Chinese it can be measured in my mastering of its food! (At this rate, I might leave here knowing how to cook more Chinese food than western.) Hey, if I can continue some sort of trend of cooking easy dishes at home more instead of grabbing that easy bite down at the drive-thru, I will consider the lessons learned a huge success indeed.