Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Chinese Cooking

I've had a bunch of Chinese cookbooks languishing in my U.S. shopping cart, waiting for us to head to America or for another friend to business trip there or here. I've been warned repeatedly that shipping books to China is a crapshoot... many friends report they've ordered books which never arrived, caught up somewhere in customs. Certain things are restricted here, and while books are not expressly restricted (unless they are critical of China, promote division in China, or are "harmful to society"), the number of books you are allowed to bring in at once most certainly is (though the number of books we brought with us when we moved here from Macau did not exceed the limit). So while just sending one or two books seems like it shouldn't be a problem in theory, in practice it is quite a bit more complicated (hey friends who want to send us care packages through the mail/Fed-Ex/UPS - skip the books!).

Michael's quick trip back to the States was the perfect opportunity to finally place that book order so he could bring them back for me with his heavy weight allotment. After a couple years of reading 95% of my books on the Kindle, I must say I relish being able to hold a paper book in my hand! I ordered four Chinese cookbooks (and five other cookbooks), and though I've not yet cooked anything from them, I have been pouring through them and putting post-it notes on anything that looks interesting.

My cooking used to heavily feature Mexican cuisine and pasta dishes. Now that I live in a place where a small can of refried beans is $5.00 USD and cooking a pot of pasta means I have to purchase a big jug of water to boil it in as the water from my faucet is unsafe to consume, my cooking habits, and therefore my tastes, are changing. Even when we lived in Hong Kong and Macau the imported goods were more expensive than what I would pay in Los Angeles. Shanghai takes the cake though, with its high duty on all those imported foods which is passed on to the consumer.

One way to save money while living abroad is to cook and eat like the locals do. For us, this means many vegetables, less meat, and lots of rice. We live directly across the street from a wet market (sort of like a farmer's market you'd find in America but more permanent and less "nice") where I can bring home a large plastic sack of produce for under $3 USD. The number of Asian sauces here is staggering, but the hard part for me is nothing is in English. So I end up going to the imported aisle to find a particular sauce, snapping a pic on my phone, and then walking back to the local aisle to compare the label and characters, hoping for the best. The price difference between an identical brand of imported soy sauce vs. the locally bottled soy sauce can be five times the cost. A little detective work on my end means a big savings.*

The cool thing about now having these Chinese cookbooks is the ability to better find a match for a recipe for some of the veggies I find across the street and the spices and sauces filling up my pantry and fridge. The funny thing about the cookbooks is their frequent reliance on canned products instead of the fresh stuff because of availability in America. For example, check out that last paragraph below:

Strangely enough, I grew up consuming a lot of canned water chestnuts in my very non-Asian family. My Mom puts them in her Thanksgiving turkey stuffing, my Dad uses them in stir fry. So to me they taste like a good memory. But can I get canned water chestnuts in Shanghai? Dunno, haven't looked. Because I've got the real deal across the street at the wet market.

As soon as I figured out what these gorgeously colored little orbs were (and how to prepare them for cooking), I started putting water chestnuts in everything I could, just to see if it added anything (my verdict: YES! The rest of the family's verdict: Um, okay, I think so, maybe).

It's funny how my attitude about cooking has changed since arriving here in Shanghai. It's well documented here on the blog that I've always viewed it as an undesirable task, a means to an end, rather than something fulfilling or joyful. However, when presented with the challenge of creating meals with unfamiliar products, my creative and artistic side sprung into action. It's not so much the nurturing or caring for my family by feeding them each night which appeals to me, it's the idea of creating an artful concoction from mystery vegetables for a handful of coins which brings me to life as I step into my kitchen.

Full disclosure: having an ayi who cleans up the mess I make in the kitchen makes a huge difference in my attitude toward cooking as well.

*I know, I know, many Chinese food products regularly make the Western news with horror stories of what they contain, production quality, etc. You don't have to flood me with emails or comments warning me. I'm not unaware that there can be a risk in consuming products which do not have the stringent code of the USDA applied. There are certain products I only buy imported, including dairy and poultry. You might do something different in my position, but this is what I am comfortable with at our stage of living abroad.


  1. My mom started using water chestnuts in everything when we lived in Taiwan, and they feature in many of her recipes, but I have to say - don't care for them myself. My cooking has definitely changed since we moved to Korea - the local produce is wonderful - especially the mushrooms! It's like living in mushroom heaven. Every kind of mushroom you can think of - and lots that I didn't know existed. Maybe when my kids are adults they'll feel about mushrooms the way I feel about water chestnuts -OK, but maybe not in every single dish...

  2. I love water chestnuts - but I've only had the canned variety.

  3. I have never cooked with water chestnuts! You are way more Chinese than me!!


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