I noticed it even after a few months of living in China that oftentimes the locals would turn their noses up at us foreigners when they would see us eating out or bringing home take-out. In response to their opinions and my own wedge of pride within, sometimes I get a domestic hair up my nose and try to buy, chop, and fry various Chinese dishes. But it’s always disappointing; the flavor is lacking, the meat is tough, the vegetables soggy. Plus, it usually takes about twice as much time to cook for myself as it would for me to get the food from a local vendor.
If I spend this kind of energy cooking in the kitchen, I want it to taste like mom’s home-cooking. But mom’s cooking, I’m realizing now, involves a lot of canned vegetables, milky broths, and processed cheese. Ah yes, cheese! The phantom ingredient not found in recognizable form in Chinese supermarkets. And cheese isn’t the only thing that is hard to find in China. This evening, as I whipped up a home-made pizza, I used about 5 ingredients that I could never get in the local supermarket: instant pizza crust mix (just add water), alfredo sauce, canned olives, sun-dried tomatoes, and parmesan cheese. This past winter, I also helped my mom cook some soup. My task? To open up three cans of vegetables and empty them into a pot; it took me about 4 minutes. Similarly, the pizza I made this evening only took about 20 minutes to prepare, but to get a similar product in China would take me an incalculable amount of time (especially since I would have to culture milk to make cheese and grow some olives in the garden I don’t have.)
(One of our white sauce home-made pizzas, a staple of summer in the Strasser household.)
In fact, anytime I want to cook some western dishes in China, I should be prepared at least a few hours before expecting to eat. Take the simple meal of spaghetti for example. In order to cook spaghetti, I should have fresh tomatoes, onions, garlic, and a little bit of peppers on hand. I should cut them all up early enough to let them stew for a good hour. I should also have a special kind of Italian noodle only found at the supermarket downtown where we live (about 15 minutes by bus). This step, although simple, does require time and forethought. By the time the spaghetti noodles and sauce are ready, I will have spent a good hour in the kitchen already, just chopping and stewing. As you might guess then, even a simple meal of spaghetti is quite time consuming and not usually high on my list of things to do in a normal day.
As I think about living another year in China, facing the suggestions and haughty attitudes of neighbors who have been cooking Chinese cuisines in their kitchens since birth, I find myself not even caring. Happy to leave behind this expectation that I need to cook for myself, excited to see what kinds of sickness or ecoli trouble I can get myself into on the streets of Hengyang.
(My former team-mate Ani looking pumped to eat her lanzhou noodles (pronounced la mian in Chinese.) These delicious noodles are made right at the restaurant and fried with tomatoes, garlic, onions, and beef, sold for the equivalent of about $.80.)