17 October 2013

Let's Talk About Food in China

Food--a complicated subject.

There is some really good food in China.

Congee photo 2013-09-07115406_zpsbfa5966f.jpg
Michael made congee with our friend Jackie and convinced me that weird pickled things and old eggs can taste good.

Eggettes, yum! photo 2013-10-06123349_zps4610bbdd.jpg
These eggette waffle things are delicious. I'd had one at a boba place in California, but somehow it wasn't nearly as good as the ones here. Oh, and boba/bubble drinks everywhere. Mmmm.

Street noodles photo 2013-10-03230807_zps52e7a738.jpg
Delicious "street food"--noodles and rice. You pick what goes into the wok and pay around $1. I can't eat a whole bowl in one sitting. It's also quite convenient and cheap to pick up bāozi (steamed dumpling bun thingies) for breakfast on the way to the metro. Unfortunately, the veggie ones are gross, so I have to force myself not to look at the raw-looking meat inside and to be really careful about not letting the grease drip all over my arm.

The smells of Chinese food--I have thought about this often. Is there another kind of food that people describe as "bad-smelling but good-tasting"? I don't know. And how did people get past the smell in the first place? Were they starving and willing to eat anything? 

 photo 2013-09-14133704_zps03bf618b.jpg

Great Shanghainese food photo 2013-09-14133147_zps2f381dff.jpg

Michael's cousins photo 2013-09-14133224_zpscf7ceecf.jpg
Michael has a couple of awesome relatives in Shanghai. (This is my favorite picture of them.) They took us to this really great, back-street Shanghainese place called "Yong Xing Restaurant." I was the only non-Asian there. I loved the fish, the onion sprouts, the tofu, the fried chicken pieces, the seasoned seaweed, the greens in sauce, the sour spicy soup (a Shanghai classic), the pumpkin cake, the neighborhood, and the decor (check out the fake brick sticker wallpaper stuff). Wow!

We've also had some nice dim sum with some of Michael's dad's alumni friends. 

Japanese Food Near Hult photo 2013-08-29122609_zpsfe37e402.jpg
This Japanese place that we went to with Harry, Danric, and Alberto near HULT was pretty good.

But you can't always eat out. It gets pricey and old and smoky (despite non-smoking regulations), and the not-expensive, non-Asian restaurants mostly aren't all that great anyway.

Italian restaurant with Johnny and Dave photo 2013-09-11193243_zps25db61c8.jpg
Mediocre Italian with our entrepreneurial/tech friends Johnny and Dave. I was just excited to talk to these guys and have Parmesan cheese--Michael had the waitress leave the bottle on our table.

Taiwanese dessert--doughballs, barley, sweet potatoes, shaved ice, sesame jelly, tofu . . . photo 2013-10-15211544_zpsbe4020cf.jpg

Honeymoon Dessert Menu http://honeymoon-dessert.com/en_us/ photo 2013-09-30225325_zpse62ceb35.jpg
Desserts can be quite good, though the ingredients aren't what I'd think of for dessert: dough balls, barley, sweet potatoes, shaved ice, sesame jello, burnt sesame clumps, tofu . . . I loved the stinky durian and mango sago pudding we had at Honeymoon Dessert.

I try to be open-minded, but some things just freak me out or at least make me shake my head--especially meat stuff, which can make me queasy in any country.

Appetizing dead things photo 2013-09-27114759_zps6e1fbd35.jpg

Making chicken friends photo 2013-10-11124922_zpsf9d4b60a.jpg

Giant fish photo 2013-09-28203856_zps0ed9fd6c.jpg
I wish I had thought of a way to show you just how big these fish were. I just don't understand the appeal of making it clear that what you're eating is a dead animal, which always makes me think of my "Animals in America" class taught by Paula Young Lee in Leipzig. Side story: Michael's cousin asked me if I like crabs. I said I like to look at them because I'd just witnessed a crab climbing from one aquarium into another at the supermarket. The cousin who asked didn't think that my answer was very funny, but the other cousin sure did. :)

I realize that eating food that people provide for you is very loaded with meaning because of China's concern about "guānxi" and "losing face," and sometimes that's really hard for me--especially when I'm expected to eat so much that my reflux acts up and my appetite is gone because people are smoking nearby, but I've been trying really hard. I'm so glad that Michael is there to discreetly take care of extra food. It's also sometimes helpful that we've realized I'm way better at eating a lot of lunch than a lot of dinner.

Octopus slab photo 2013-09-28203531_zpsd9f19ebc.jpg
Octopus slab.

Pig with sparkling eyes photo 2013-09-30223728_zps5c008517.jpg
Does putting a sparkle in the pig's eye make eating it even better?

Faces make everything better photo 2013-09-29213542_zpseffeffad.jpg

Bok Choy Face photo 2013-10-17133807_zps5ad1bb8d.jpg
Or how about putting faces on mochi-like dough ball sweets and bok choy?

Dried rose petals. Hmmm. photo 2013-08-30164448_zps458c4dea.jpg
Dried rose petals? Hmmm.

Fish chips (instead of fish and chips) photo 2013-09-29144124_zps5eaed281.jpg
Instead of fish and chips, how about fish chips? I let Michael finish these.

Grape crackers photo 2013-09-28213927_zps8d0900ae.jpg
Grape crackers?

I often feel like Dusty Bottoms in The Three Amigos. While in Mexico, he asks, "Do you have anything besides Mexican food?" Sometimes you just want something you're used to, you know? Sometimes I just want some good non-Chinese Chinese food at Panda Express:

Cheese, though. I crave it more than anything else. If you or anyone you know is heading to Shanghai any time in the next six months, I will honestly pay for you to bring me food--cheese specifically. You could freeze a big bag of shredded Costco cheese and pull it out of the freezer on your way to the airport.

It is hard to find good cheese, and good or not, it is expensive (yes, even from the famed Avocado Lady). Cream cheese is especially hard to find, and I was excited to make my mom's amazing chicken alfredo fettucini using a package we bought, but someone stole it. It was in the only freezer, five floors away. Sigh. (People have been fighting with staff to get mini fridges to replace the barely-cold bar fridges in their rooms, but it doesn't seem likely to happen. Also, because of our IKEA trip during our first week here, our kitchen is the most well-stocked as far as supplies go, so people from other floors have been taking that stuff, too. There was ONE spoon in there yesterday.)  

China's love for stock photos and false advertising almost does me in every time we're at the supermarket.

Mocking stock photos photo 2013-10-04120126_zpse31ef36b.jpg

Mocking stock photos photo 
Century Mart doesn't have pies or real cheese (or strawberries, at least not this time of year), though these photos greet you on the way in. I feel mocked every time.

I'm also dreaming of cocoa powder, butter, chocolate chips, Honey Bunches of Oats (with strawberries), tuna, Worcestershire sauce, lemon pepper, poultry seasoning, rosemary, vanilla extract, canned black beans, refried beans, canned fruit, frozen fruit, Italian dressing, cheese fantastico dressing, graham crackers, pita chips, wheat crackers, cherry pie filling, hash browns, avocados (guacamole is a favorite afternoon snack of mine), cream cheese, ground beef, sour cream, dill pickles, cinnamon, tortilla chips, and tortillas (not all at once, of course). I have to remind myself that paying for shipping will probably end up costing more than the expense of buying the imported items. Even better, I reeeeeally need to learn to cook some Chinese specials and just use what's around me.

I went through my recipes, and there's hardly a thing I can easily make because of hard-to-find/expensive ingredients like cheese, butter, tomato sauce, seasonings, cream, cocoa . . . a lot of foreigners say that Shanghai is cheap, but then they live a purely expat life and it's not cheap at all. Check out the price of special imported goods:

Pie $11.50 photo 2013-09-14185353_zpsc6bc6fa7.jpg
Pie: $11.50

Shredded Mozzarella $35 photo 2013-09-14184028_zpsc3f6e74a.jpg
Shredded mozzarella: $35 (Dad, where are you and Egg Products Company when I need you?)

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I may just have to spend the $14 to get this much cheaper, 2-kilogram block of cheddar and shred it myself. But how to keep it from freezing together, going bad, or getting thrown away since food isn't supposed to be in the shared fridges longer than a week?

Paul can now come to China because we found his favorite jam. $13 photo 2013-09-04171803_zps530f764e.jpg
Non-Chinese jam: $13 (Paul, China is calling your name.)

Sriracha Sauce $4.50 photo 2013-09-14184757_zps02db1e9d.jpg
Sriracha sauce: $4.50 (Josh, now you can come to China without worries.)

Lime Tortilla Chips. $10 photo 2013-09-04172113_zpsbfd2c32c.jpg
Lime tortilla chips (even normal tortilla chips are hard to find): $10. Looking at these made my mouth water.

Pop Tarts $9 photo 2013-09-04172200_zpsfbc41585.jpg
Pop Tarts: $9

American Breakfast Cereal Starting at $15 photo 2013-09-04173044_zps3dee1098.jpg
American breakfast cereal starts at $15.

Blueberries, $8 photo 2013-10-11142934_zps0f61bbab.jpg
Blueberries: $8

I want basil photo 
Oregano? We decided to pay $5 for a small bottle. Basil? We couldn't find it, so we planted some that has yet to peek its head out (who knows if it ever will).

The food we can find isn't always that great. The Chinese blueberry jam just tasted like watered-down sugar jelly. My smoothies have been meh because of fake yogurt flavoring, juice that is no bueno, flavorless packaged fruit, and the lack of frozen fruit. (I always heard that you should eat fruit in its season, but in America, everything seems to be available all the time, so it seemed like it must be in season somewhere. Not so here.) When I do think of buying meat, the pale color (combined with the bones and gristle and the stories of high levels of weird chemicals) scares me, so I mostly veer away from it.

100% Grape Juice and Probiotic Drink photo 2013-10-17134232_zps7438d69e.jpg
At least we finally found some good 100% juice. Also, probiotic drinks--Michael jokes that the reason there are whole aisles of them is because of the bad food. Whether that's true or not, I do like them a whole lot better than the milk.

After seeing dragon fruit everywhere and reading on someone's blog that it was their favorite, we bought one, and guess what? It tasted like nothing. It looks pretty, but I don't know what the appeal is . . . then again, a lot of produce here has been disappointing.

Tasteless tomatoes photo 2013-09-10105707_zps64c7ed46.jpg
Tomatoes. Flavorless, not-red mush, even from Subway. A lot of produce throws me off because I'm so used to color showing ripeness. For example, green mandarin oranges? I'm just not sure about that.

Produce on the street photo 2013-09-14202614_zps535e7a2d.jpg
Maybe we'll try these spiky things next.

Crustless bread photo 2013-10-01221008_zps78f2d4c7.jpg
Most bread is sigh-worthy, even when they cut off the crust for you. Luckily, we've found that Bread Talk sells a brown loaf covered in seeds that is quite good. Anything fried from the bakery, no matter how good-looking, has this same weird taste that I don't like. Must be the oil?

That doesn't look like American breakfast to me photo 2013-09-27181852_zpsd1422ba6.jpg
This doesn't look like American breakfast to me, but I'm partial to sweet breakfasts. However, I don't know anyone from any country who eats salad or raw-looking ham/bacon for breakfast.

Turns out being in a super-moist location changes food storage. Our asparagus went bad in two days. The beans I put out to soak got moldy overnight. The plain tortilla chips we splurged on were soft. Even with soap and boiling water, I can't keep our water bottles from smelling like dirty fishbowls, so I mostly leave the lids off, endangering everything around.

How have we been surviving?

Nutella with canned congee photo 2013-09-08193007_zps42e10a7c.jpg
We are on our THIRD, ten-dollar, 800-gram jar of Nutella. Liquid joy. Michael eats it with canned congee. I eat it with . . . a spoon. Ha.

We've been cooking, mostly with our good friend Gunjan, who started out eating bachelor meals like this:

Gunjan's bachelor food photo 2013-08-31195310_zps6de86f6c.jpg

Bread with mustard and ketchup.

We pitched in money, ingredients, and efforts, but we still struck out a lot. I dare you to try cooking everything in a wok. It's way harder than you think. Aaaack!

Brown spaghetti failure photo 2013-09-06200901_zps8dfe3cfb.jpg
Our spaghetti turned brown. The internets told me it could be because the wok was rusty, the acidity of the tomatoes pulled iron out of the wok, and/or the onions we tried to sauté were caramelized. Michael liked the idea of extra iron and ate the whole thing. Blech.

I decided to try to make spaghetti again when we weren't cooking with our vegetarian friend, thinking it may taste better with ground beef. Michael asked the butcher for ground beef, and was told, "We don't have any, but you can take it home and grind it." (And in case you're thinking we could have asked for ground turkey--they don't do turkey here.)

We're getting the hang of things, but mostly because we finally got pans besides woks (yay, crepes!), we found frozen packs of paratha-like paratha at the supermarket, and because Gunjan had his fiancée ship an assortment of tantalizing Indian ingredients:

Indian food, yay! photo 2013-10-04172654_zpsc4fbea3c.jpg

Cooking friends photo 2013-10-15175802_zps29f0463a.jpg

Bhel puri, daal, paratha photo 2013-10-04194708_zps38fac654.jpg
We've made daal, bhel puri, paratha, bindhi masala, mutter tofu, curry, and other amazing vegetarian Indian dishes. Joy. Did I come to the wrong country?

On Sunday, Gunjan, Michael, and I cooked a whole bunch so we wouldn't have to cook as much during the week. We didn't think to plan ahead for enough Tupperware and how to fit it all into the fridge, but we figured it out. It's been nice having these meals to heat up, because without them, I feel like I mostly get by with whatever instead of real lunches.

Now out to the kitchen I go to make some crepes for breakfast (I am soooo glad to finally have a frying pan). And after that I will text my friend to ask if she'll teach me how to cook Chinese food.

Food--a complicated subject.


  1. So crazy Michelle! I think I would die living in China. The smells would make me sick and Chinese food every day would seal the deal. You're amazing! (I love the Nutella jar by the way)

  2. Jon and I bought a dragonfruit once. We COMPLETELY agree with you. We were so excited and then it was bland and boring and useless. sigh.

  3. Please don't waste away. Next time I see you, I'll cook whatever you want as a welcome home present.

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