Tag Archives: food

My Favorite Things: Noodles From the Basement

or

“Why it’s cheaper to eat out”

There are many fast and easy options for eating out here in China. My particular favorite take-out dish is pictured above. For a scant 6RMB (less than a dollar), you can get a generous portion of ramen like noodles, freshly juliened cucumber, and a deliciously light peanut sauce.  One of the charms of this dish is how refreshing it is. I prefer it cold.

In the beginning it was a trick to figure out how to get them to make the sauce. The grocery store puts out these little KFC style buckets with the noodles and cucumber, and then often has a plastic tub with small plastic bags of sauce next to them. You can pick up a noodle, and grab a sauce and you’re off. If, say, you get off work late and all the sauce is gone, but you still want the noodles, you have to ask the little guy behind the counter to make you more.

A trick.

If you are unfortunate enough to mis-convey the message to him, he might plop the noodles with some other vegetables in a water bath and cook them again – adding some other random sauce. Cooked cucumber isn’t very good, and it’s rather sad to watch it meet its end in a boiling bath.  Lately, I have been more successful and often get what I need. The little old man behind the counter is starting to predict what I’ll ask him.

Someday, perhaps when I leave China, I might try my hand at making the sauce myself. From what I gather it’s a mixture of peanut puree, vinegar, a touch of red pepper oil, a touch of soy sauce, and fresh crushed peanuts to top it off.

The simple truth is, usually it’s cheaper to eat out, or ‘take-out’, than it is to cook at home.  The majority of dishes in my arsenal are western, and thus need western type ingredients, which are naturally more expensive to buy here and are not always worth the price. I got cottage cheese once to make lasagna, and although it tasted okay in the finished dish, it was nothing I’d choose to eat fresh. That lasagna was probably the most expensive pasta dish I’ve ever made in my life!

If you can get a delicious meal-in-one dish in the basement for under a dollar, why spend a fortune on cooking? And when you’re tired of the noodles, you can always opt for a sit down dinner in a restaurant. Two people will set you back a whole $16. For a very nice meal, at an even fancier place, you might even pay $25!

Leave a comment

Filed under food, out and about, price of living

The Culture of Smell

There’s nothing quite as delicious, comforting or cozy as the smell of fresh-baked cookies straight from the oven.

Or not.

We were at a potluck the other day with some friends. One of the ladies had come with a tin of freshly baked scones. Delicious no? She shared an entertaining story of their trip over.

She and her daughter had just finished making the scones – just pulling them out of the oven – when it was time to head over to our get together.

Picture that it’s evening,  you’re hungry,  you have a tin of freshly baked scones in your lap and you’re stuck in this hopeless rush hour Beijing traffic. What do you do? Why you pop open the tin, and take the edge of an otherwise irritating situation with a bite of scone.

Which is exactly what the two of them did. About ten minutes into the ride however, the taxi driver looks back at them in his rear-view mirror and exclaims in great disgust and irritation,

“Would you PLEASE put a lid on whatever you’re eating! I cant’ STAND that smell! It’s horrible!”

Freshly baked scones! Who on earth would take issue with freshly baked scones!

China, like many other countries, is a place where ones olfactory nerve will be readily assaulted by simply walking down the street. No doubt foreigners in the US often think similarly.

Here many street vendors sell a preserved tofu and if you’re unlucky to walk past you’ll be assaulted by its reeking odor (pictured).  People not uncommonly joke that it seems as if a lot of asian cultures eat just about anything. And all of it has a very foreign smell.

The idea that someone would eat preserved tofu (and obviously I have no proof that this taxi driver does, but there’s no reason to assume he doesn’t.) but complains about the homey goodness of fresh scones is pretty hilarious.

Just one more example of the effect of how culture trains the senses. I’ve never seen any Chinese avoiding the corners with the street vendors selling the stinky tofu – or smelly fish.  I’ve also never heard of anyone in the US complaining about the stench of a bakery in the morning. What you might have assumed was universal is … well maybe not so much. Have we just trained ourselves to like the smell of fresh-baked bread?

2 Comments

Filed under food

Hot Coke and Ginger

To me, it sounds like something spiked – something I wouldn’t trust.  When it was served to us at a small restaurant off the trail to one of the sections of the great wall, it looked like a brothy soup.

In China meals are almost exclusively served family style. Show up at a restaurant, and your group will be seated and presented with one picture filled menu – whereupon you decide together what you’ll all have for dinner. Then, throughout the evening various dishes will arrive at your table and served just like your mom would – as they’re ready and hot.  You then spend the meal picking with your chopsticks at various dishes – sometimes using a little plate you’re given to dish up a proper portion for yourself. But usually not. It’s a family thing.

After a winter hike on the great wall this weekend, our guided tour treated the group at a local restaurant where, among other traditional dishes, we were served a bowl of piping hot…. Coke. Like I said. I thought it was soup. When our little bowls were passed around and I tasted it, it was indeed warmed Coca-Cola, seasoned with ginger and a few other spices.

Amazingly enough it was actually kind of good! Something you might have at Christmas – like a mulled-wine or spiced cider. Of course all the carbonation had been fizzed out of it in heating, and to my tongue it was a bit syrupy, but the concept was quite unique and not unpleasant.  I was told it was a common beverage served during the spring festival and cold winter months.  As my feet were thoroughly soaked and cold from melted snow on the hike, it didn’t go unappreciated.

Someone else told me there was also a chilled version of the drink that is very nice in the summer – iced coke and ginger, where it’s served cold and similarly spiced.  I’ll get back to you in a few months about this one.

2 Comments

Filed under food, out and about, seasons - winter

Sugar, Tahini Paste, and Honey

 

The extent of baking in China - steamed dumplings

I could never find Tahini paste at the grocery store in Minneapolis.  There was one time, where I found it at a store far from where I normally shopped (and was amazed at how expensive it was), but never did I succeed in finding it at the Rainbow down the street.

 

I found it today.  It was next to the honey.  Perhaps that is where I was amiss before.  I was never to think it should be kept near the honey, jam and peanut butter. (If you’re not the ‘chef’ type, you may not be aware that Tahini paste, something made from mashing sesame seeds, is often used as a seasoning in things like humus and other eastern dishes.  Generally nothing at all to do with the toppings of ones morning toast.)

This is often a problem I find.  I think it is likely a result of having people stock shelves that don’t read English. There comes a product they can only make out from it’s label or shape and not knowing directly what it is or may be used for, they place it near other products that are shaped similarly and have similar pictures or writing. As it happens, the tahini paste was in a bottle very similar to the honey next to it. Even I, a native English speaker, had to take a second look to make sure it was what I thought it was, because it seemed to fit in so nicely.

It is always a trick to figure out a new grocery store. Like the Chinese alphabet, there is not always an obvious way with which to categorize items. Tahini, for instance, might go near the spice rack with other  seasonings.  Or perhaps with ethnic foods. One never does know, even at a traditional store in the middle of Minneapolis.

I remember once reading a book about a boy who gets stranded out in the woods after a plane crash, and he describes how he finally succeeds in hunting a certain type of ground fowl.  Instead of trying to recognize their color and feathers the way we superficially would try and find a human being in the forest, he learns to search for their shape and outline.  I will have to be prudent of this technique when I go shopping for something similarly obscure.

Or maybe not so obscure.

Sugar, for instance, I would look for in a baking isle.  This doesn’t exist in most Chinese supermarkets, and certainly not the one in the basement of my own building. The closest china gets to a traditional  baked item is a little muffin like bun that is steamed.

I once saw some baking mixes – cakes and brownies kind of thing – next to the bags of rice. There is a reasonable population of expats that live in this building, so I think the supermarket in the basement tries to somewhat cater to the market. But the sugar wasn’t in sight.

Interestingly enough I quite randomly found, for who would think to look there, frosting (the kind that Pillsbury produces in those little cylindrical jars) in an isle next to teas and coffees. Sugar wasn’t next to frosting either.  It turned out it was in its own section, next to soup mixes and fish seasonings and, get this, giant bags of MSG (again, they both look quite similar both being white crystals, and come in the same clear plastic bags).

Interestingly enough there was an enormous selection of sugars! Tablespoon sized mono-crystal sugar, almost syrupy thick brown sugar, raw sugar, large clumps of small sugary crystals, and dozens of different brands of normal granulated white sugar, all in similarly sized packets and going at the same prices.  It was a great surprise to me, once I did find it. I’d been looking for sugar the day before and had succeeded in finding only those individual packets or cubes with coffee and tea stuffs.

(Having decided on sugar cubes, thinking they must be useful ways to prevent the need of an extra spoon, later realized that the downfall is… quite obviously …. Sugar cubes are quantized, and so one cannot take but a pre-determined serving sized dose, no matter the smallness of ones cup of tea that is in need of sweetening. So be forewarned, if you have ventured to read this far, that although charming, you might find yourself wanting to sweeten a very small amount of tea, with a very large amount of sugar.  I’ll close my parentheses now).

When you move to a new place, there’s always a learning curve associated with figuring out where the nearest Target is, and where to find your usual items in the local grocery store. As of course you would expect, this curve exists when you move overseas.  It’s sometimes a bit more entertaining – if you’ll give yourself the chance to see it that way.

Leave a comment

Filed under food, life in china