One of the biggest challenges of everyday life here in China is cooking food that my children will eat. Take something that was a challenge in and of itself in America, and add to it the fact that I am missing a lot of staples that I was so accustomed to having in my pantry, and it gets REALLY fun. That, and everything just has an off flavor. I don’t know why, or how to put my finger on it, but everything just tastes a little weird, even regular food items from the US.
There are some food items that I simply cannot get here—milk (Chinese milk is notoriously unsafe, with milk producers getting caught every few years putting cancer-causing chemical intentionally into the milk, and then getting executed for it; I should add here that Brian has been told about a store where we can buy imported milk, so hopefully we can have some for special occasions now), baking powder (I saw a spot for it at Metro, but it has yet to be occupied), salad dressing (I saw some rather expensive bottles of ranch at Metro), non-sweet mayonnaise (to make Ranch myself), Velveeta (not a staple, I know, but so nice for the occasional homemade macaroni and cheese that Brian loves so much), curry powder (I do not know what is UP with that spice that is labeled curry powder in the grocery story, but it is revolting), pepperoni, vanilla, and various US spices that would make cooking from scratch a little easier. Also, the white sugar here is moist, the consistency of brown sugar in the US, the brown sugar has a vinegary smell, and the powdered sugar is clumpy and not exactly powdery.
I do have access to a wonderful store called Metro, which is a French store that is basically the same as Cost-co, and it is the place I can get some Western items that I cannot find anywhere else. I can get a gigantic jar of Skippy peanut butter for about 33¥ (divide all of these amounts by 6.38 to get the dollar amount), a big can of tomato paste (for making homemade spaghetti sauce), bay leaves (unfortunately, they come in bags so large that I’d probably need 3 lifetimes to use them all), spices like thyme, chili powder, cinnamon and oregano (no basil that I’ve found yet, but I haven’t given up), raisins, cheese (the shredded mozzarella is 199¥ for 2 kilos, or about 8-9 2-cup bags in the US (so about twice what I’d pay in the US, now that there is no such thing as dollar cheese at Dollar Days anymore), mustard, balsamic vinegar (also for spaghetti sauce), and lots of other wonderful Western things (like hot chocolate and cocoa powder). Oh yes, and real, Irish butter, for 17¥ for half a pound.
The best part about eating in China is that fresh fruits and vegetables are so cheap. There is really no such thing as canned fruits or vegetables here. I go to the local market, which is enclosed, but still basically outside, and I can spend about 30¥ on 8 big tomatoes, 2 cloves of garlic, a big onion, a head of cauliflower, a head of broccoli, a red pepper, a yellow pepper, and an eggplant. I can spend the same again on a kilo of mandarin oranges, a kilo of strawberries (so delicious, holy cow; I don’t know what it is that makes Chinese strawberries so delectable, but if it’s the human poop they spread on the fields as manure, it’s magical stuff), a bunch of bananas, 4 giant apples and a pineapple. 18 eggs are about 10¥, and 3 big chicken breasts and a whole chicken (and I mean WHOLE, head and feet included, but smaller than a chicken you’d buy in the US) for about 30¥. For half a kuai (¥) I can get the equivalent of 9 packets of yeast.
My children’s favorite snacks here are yogurt (which you drink with a straw because it’s so liquid-y), fresh fruit (especially apple slices with cinnamon, and mangoes, oranges, strawberries, and bananas with peanut butter and raisins), and homemade granola bars (thanks to a recipe from Rachel Mitchell Greenfield, whose blog you can take a peek at here: http://nateandrachgreenfield.blogspot.com). The granola bars are ½ each of peanut butter, honey and brown sugar, 2 cups of oats, and 2 cups of cheerios (or other cereal), but as I can’t get cereal here without selling one of my children, I just add some “dessicated” coconut and 1-1 ½ cups more oats, oh, and some raisins. This is the original recipe: http://momonamission.me/?p=2175. And then, since I have no pans, I roll the mixture into balls. Even Brian likes them, which is saying something, AND my Chinese friend Zhao (it is amazing to me when a Chinese person approves of something I make, and it has actually happened TWICE!).
Cooking is challenging because I don’t have an oven, and I have a single hot plate to cook on. I also have a rice cooker, a microwave and a crockpot, so the crockpot is sometimes forced to act like an oven for something like eggplant parmesan. I also have no measuring cups or measuring spoons, so using my knowledge that a Take-n-Toss cup is ten ounces, and hoping that a big spoon is somewhat equivalent to a tablespoon, and a small spoon is somewhat equivalent to a teaspoon, I somehow get by. The biggest problem is my battle with the hot plate. It is instantly hot, which is nice, but it seems that most of my recipes need a temperature between 130°-160°, and I can only pick one of those two temperatures. It also, as it’s cooking, turns the heat on and off, so if I set something to simmer at 160°, it will simmer for a minute, turn off for a minute, and so on, but if I turn it up, it just burns whatever’s in the pot. And if I don’t watch it every second, I am very likely to burn something, no matter what temperature I have it set at. If I cook pancakes at 160°, the outside will burn (or get very dark) and the inside will be doughy, but cooking them at 130° is painfully slow, as I can only do one pancake at a time. The pancakes are the bane of my existence right now. I have had 2 or 3 batches that turned out alright, but having no baking powder, I have been making them with self-“raising” flour, a little extra baking soda (which I CAN find here), salt, egg, sugar and water (as I have no milk). I don’t know if it’s a problem with the flour, or an absence of milk, but they are usually too dense and don’t taste right. I also make the syrup, which is very easy (equal parts water, brown sugar and white sugar), and it almost doesn’t seem to need maple flavoring, but I’m starting to think it would be a nice thing to have. For breakfast, it’s pretty much just eggs or pancakes, or we can run down to the corner bakery and get some delicious chocolate-ish or pumpkin-seed decorated muffins, 5 for 7¥. It’s just a matter of how much I really want to go face China first thing in the morning.
I had thought that bread was a lost cause here, because all the bread I had previously tried was very almost cardboard in texture, and with a strange sweetness, like it was infused with marshmallow fluff, but I just discovered, at Hipermart (a Super Walmart-esque store with more food than non-food items where I get all of my non-perishable groceries that I don’t need to get at Metro), a light, fluffy, non-sweet bread that is like a very nice white bread at home. It’s about 5¥ for maybe 8 slices, and definitely worth it. The other bread we’ve been eating are homemade tortillas with a recipe from the Pioneer Woman (http://thepioneerwoman.com/cooking/2010/05/homemade-flour-tortillas/), made with butter instead of lard. I wouldn’t be surprised to find lard here in China, but it’s beyond my capabilities right now. Back to Hipermart, I can get ketchup that tastes a lot more like tomato sauce than ketchup but which I actually really like (made by McCormick! It’s funny the American brands that sell things in China that they do not sell (that I’ve noticed) in America, like Johnson & Johnson selling baby wipes), a package of shredded cheddar cheese for 40¥ (I’ve only splurged like that once), “Tiny Cheese”—can you guess what that is?, flour, rotini and macaroni, Chinese noodles, baby wipes for 14¥ for a package of 80, American chips (frozen French fries that are FANTASTIC when fried in peanut oil), Oreos for about 12¥ per package, Pepsi for 2¥ a can (sadly I can’t handle the caffeine in a Pepsi, and I am sure I will never find caffeine free Pepsi in China, if I could hardly ever find it in America), oatmeal, and Tang in many different flavors. I have been buying this lately, partly because it says it has vitamins in it, and I’m not sure I can find vitamins for the kids any other way (I have got to, and am hoping to have success soon, because I am worried about them, especially not getting any Vitamin D stuck in an apartment all day and in a smoggy city), and partly to administer melatonin to them as they occasionally need it.
I’ll tell you about some of the meal successes we’ve had. Number one would be pizza. I make the sauce using another recipe Rachel shared, from Budget Bytes (http://budgetbytes.blogspot.com/2009/12/homemade-marinara-379-recipe-029.html) , and wow, I love this stuff. The kids and Brian will not eat it on noodles by itself, but it makes a great sauce for eggplant parmesan and pizza. I make my regular pizza dough recipe (which I got from Kristen Baker, and using “dumpling flour,” which I think would be terrible flour for bread or anything else, I think it’s just for making pretty flat things), divide it into 4 equal parts and spread it out into a circle just the size of the frying pan, heat some olive oil in the pan, and throw the dough on, at 160°C, then flip it over when it starts to brown, turn the heat down 130°, quickly spread the sauce on and sprinkle on the cheese, and then cover the pan for a few minutes with a piece of foil. The whole process takes maybe 7-8 minutes. Now if only I had pepperoni…
The other favorite of the kids is my very beloved cauliflower roasted with red pepper and garlic that I have adored since introduced to it by my dear friend Dana. Of course, it’s not roasted here, but if I boil the cauliflower a little first, then sauté the garlic and red pepper in olive oil until tender, then throw the cauliflower in and sauté it all until it’s browned in spots, it is just as wonderful. We have that with chicken just seasoned with salt and pepper and sautéed in the same pan, and rice with butter and salt on it (very un-Chinese, I know); it is all just fantastic, the only meal my kids will eat every bite of, including the vegetables.
Brian’s favorite is chicken and dumplings, made from chicken that I first cook in the crockpot for about 7 hours, with just some seasonings and no added liquid (once I’ve done the dirty deed and chopped off the head and feet). I make broth out of the bones and the liquid that cooked off the chicken in the crockpot, and then put the broth and the cut up chicken into a pot with dumplings. This is the first (and only, so far) dish that Nai Nai has praised, and Brian loves it dearly (it has always been difficult for me to find a dish that I can make, and like, that Brian also likes).
MY favorite food is by far the Thai Chicken and Sugar Snap Peas recipe from Kraft.com. I wanted to be able to make it here, but wasn’t sure about how to get the Italian dressing (without which the dish just tastes weird). However, I found a nice recipe for homemade Italian dressing online, and even though I really only have the oregano, salt, pepper, sugar and garlic powder (in addition to the vinegar and the olive oil) that the recipe calls for, it is perfect! I make it with dried wheat noodles (I tried cooking with fresh noodles once and that was a miserable failure), chicken, and sugar snap peas from the market. Even Brian likes it, once he adds plenty of ground red pepper.
These don’t fit anywhere, but the kids really like sweet potatoes sliced and fried like chips, and I’ve figured out how to make funnel cakes (though finding a sturdy enough bag to squeeze out the batter with is a challenge), and of course, no-bake peanut butter-chocolate-oatmeal cookies. The eggplant parmesan made with breaded, fried eggplant, then layered with sauce and cheese in the crockpot for a few hours, was pretty good, too. But of course, the kids won’t touch eggplant, and I try to limit the dishes that I know they won’t touch to every other day.
As for Chinese food, Nai Nai has taught me that you take basically any meat that you cut up very small, some cut up garlic and green onion, and stir fry it with any vegetable, especially green beans, bias-sliced so that even the beans that seem the toughest and most inedible turn out nice and tender, add an egg scrambled to the side, and plenty of soy sauce and salt, and you have a meal served with rice, the measurements of which she can eyeball with astounding accuracy. She also makes a dish with what I could only describe as chainsaw pork (you may remember the picture of Piper eating chainsaw chicken), with lots and lots of pieces that are just plain fat. She basically pressure cooks the meat with garlic, ginger, onion, soy sauce and star anise (I don’t really care for the smell of this spice, but Brian loves it, very licorice-y), then pull out the meat and stir-fries it with lots of soy sauce and green beans. We love jiaozi (dumplings), especially reheating them by stir-frying them. I’ll find a recipe that is good and share it with you. I could eat these every day. And the best thing, that I have yet to make, as I can’t quite figure out what they’re even called, are these “pancakes” filled with minced meat and vegetables. They’re made by rolling out dough until it is thin, then spreading a layer of oil over it, then rolling it up like a jelly roll and rolling that jelly roll flat, so that there are many layers of dough separated by oil. Then you spread the filling of minced meat and veggies, fold the pieces over, and then roll that out into a circle and fry it in a frying pan or cook it in a thing like a Panini maker. My favorite Chinese dish is eggs with tomatoes. You scramble the eggs, then add chopped tomatoes, onion and sugar (a surprising amount). So very good.
My own personal triumph was, when we were desperately poor and I was terrified to leave the house while Brian was in Beijing for 6 days, discovering how to make steamed Chinese bread. The recipe is here http://www.tarladalal.com/Steamed-Chinese-Bread-4175r and it is so good with butter and honey. I think you can fill it, too, but I have yet to try. If any of you have a good recipe for bread (like pita, tortilla, or these steamed Chinese rolls) that I could make on the stovetop or in the steamer, I’d be glad to hear them. I do hope to get an oven soon, but I’m sure that takes lots of electricity, and I’ve enjoyed trying to cook on the stovetop. (Of course, my mouth is watering just thinking about making a pan of brownies.)
As for street food, because we don’t have a lot of opportunities to go out exploring together, and because sitting in a Chinese restaurant with our children, who are ALWAYS insane these days, is just too stressful, we haven’t had a lot of opportunity to try things, and have had almost no success with things that we liked. It seems like all the food in Tianjin has the same underlying flavor, like some particular spice that everyone uses, and I really don’t like it. I miss American Chinese food a lot. We have eaten out twice at McDonalds (once for New Year and once for Christmas Eve), comparable in price to McD’s in the US, and tonight we ate at KFC for the first time. KFC here doesn’t seem to be remotely like KFC in the US, very little actual fried chicken, but lots of sandwiches and lots of seafood. We had breaded starfish shaped minced shrimp, which was delicious, popcorn chicken that was too spicy, French fries and wonderful lemonade. We spent about $20 US, but it was 120¥, which just makes us feel kind of nauseous when you consider that we can live on a normal day for about 100¥.
And that is all for the food. Sorry it’s so long. I have this compulsion to keep things that are related in one blog post. Hopefully I can overcome it in the future. Thanks, if you stuck with it for this long.