Wednesday, March 10, 2010

March 7th: Food and Wal-Mart

When I started to tell people that I was considering moving to China, one of the first things most people asked about was the food. Do they eat cat? (no) Do they eat dog? (only in the winter; it’s considered a good food to bulk up against the cold, and they only eat certain breeds). What if you get soup with chicken feet in it? (I’ve seen them in stores, and I was warned about that, but so far I’ve never been served anything like that).

I don’t think I’ve ever eaten Chinese food in the states. My mom got food poisoning once from Chinese food, and has never had any interest in it since, so we never had it growing up. Besides, there really wasn’t much Asian food of any type in Columbia until recent years. It wasn’t until I moved to Italy that I started to appreciate Chinese food. Lewis and Tammy like it, and often ate it. One of the women in the church there, Lan, is Chinese, and sometimes I would meet her for lunch. She worked for the Chinese chamber of commerce, so she had coupons for Chinese restaurants in the Chinatown area near where she worked, so we always went for Chinese food since it was cheap with her coupons. She introduced me to several dishes, and I fell in love with sweet and sour chicken. The Chinese takeout place in the mall near where I lived made it particularly well—I would get cravings for it. Before long, the owners would recognize me and all I would have to say was “the normal.”

I heard a lot of horror stories before coming to China, but everyone agreed that the food is in general quite good. So far, it has been. Nearly everything I’ve had has been wonderful.

When you go out to eat in China, you don’t order a plate of food for yourself. Rice is served automatically, and then the group orders as many different dishes as there are people. Then, you eat family-style, eating a little of each of the dishes. For example, on Sunday for lunch I went out with Tabby and Casey. We ordered tong cu li ji (sweet and sour pork), fried eggplant, and fried lotus root, three of my favorite dishes. Instead of each eating one plate, they are all in the middle of the table and we take helpings of each. When there is a bigger group, then everyone sits around a big round table with a huge glass lazy susan in the middle. There are as many dishes as people, and you spin the lazy susan to bring around whatever you want to get a helping of. It’s a great way to be able to try many different things without being stuck with a whole plate of something you don’t like.

Some of my favorite things so far are of course the sweet and sour pork or chicken—it’s wonderful. The fried eggplant is cooked until it’s soft, and served with bell pepper and sometime garlic. I also like the carrots and pork—the carrots are shredded into long strips, and cooked until they are soft but not mushy, and have a great flavor from the pork. One that most of you have probably never tried is the lotus root; I’ve had it two or three different ways already. I don’t really know what to compare the taste to; it’s not very strong, but I like it. Feel free to comment on this post if you’ve tried it and have a good comparison.

I’ve eaten out quite a bit since I’ve been here, and will probably continue to do so. I’ve gotten hooked on the Chinese food, and I want to learn how to make some of this stuff because I already know I’ll miss it once I move on. Also, it’s so cheap to eat out here that it’s often cheaper to eat out than cook myself—the meal I mentioned earlier with Tabby and Casey only cost 20 Yuan (not quite $3).

As far as cooking for myself, I’ve been a little slow getting started. The grocery stores here stock totally different ingredients from what I’m used to; I’m still finding my way around. However, there is always meat, fruit, and vegetables. They thankfully do have bell pepper and eggplant, two of my favorites, in abundance. However, I am missing zucchini, which is nowhere to be found. Dairy products are only just now becoming easy to find; the Chinese don’t use them much. I did finally find some garlic powder. There is ketchup, but I haven’t bought any yet as I haven’t bought anything I’d want to put it on yet. However, there is no canned food at all. The bread is good, but sweeter than what we usually use, and sometimes has raisins in it. There is (thank goodness!) peanut butter, and at one of the major stores in Shashi there is pasta and some Hunt’s spaghetti sauce, which makes me very happy. I used the sauce as a base to make some great vegetable pasta sauce yesterday, with bell pepper, onion, eggplant, and garlic in it. I’ve also enjoyed some frozen dumplings that I bought at RT Mart that just have to be boiled.

Oh, and there is a Wal-mart here! Billy Wayne got a kick out of that—he says I really am a southern girl if I can move to a small city in China and find Wal-mart within three days. It does have some resemblance to the Wal-mart you’re used to, but it’s quite different. It’s in a shopping mall; I have to take the escalator to the third floor to go in. On the third floor are all the non-food items, plus the dry non-refrigerated foods (crackers, cookies, drinks, etc.). Then, you take the escalator ramp down to the second floor of the building, where there is the grocery area with all of the meat, fruit, vegetable, and refrigerated or frozen things. Part look like an American Wal-mart—the shoe section, for example, is pretty standard. However, I’ve certainly never seen a bin full of dried chicken carcasses in a Wal-mart in Tennessee. And at least that was recognizable; I’m not sure what the dried thing in the next bin had been. I surreptitiously took a few pictures the other day, I thought you’d all like to see that. I’ll post them on here if I can ever get this things to work right with the internet censoring here; if not, you can check them out on my flickr site:

I’ll try to upload pictures frequently if you want to bookmark that site.The pictures here are, from top to bottom:
1. We do have a few American brands here.  We have Chips Ahoy cookies, Skippy peanut butter, and Hunt's tomato sauce.  There are also oreos, land o' lakes butter, pringles, and, of course, Coca Cola.  Not much else, though.  There's some Spanish brand of pasta, thankfully. 
2. My favorite dish--sweet and sour pork.  Tong cu li ji in Chinese (tong tsu lee jee, with the accent on the lee).
3. What the inside of a Chinese Wal-mart look like
4. There are some differences between American and Chinese Wal-marts...dried chicken carcasses and ??? maybe catfish?? 


magicshoemonkey said...

Awesome stuff. Now I want to move to China. The only thing I could think of for that dried stuff was maybe some kind of fish or eel? But I don't know, either.

Katy said...

You should come to China, then. Teaching English in the university is really a pretty good job; you'd be good at it. Yeah, I think maybe it was some sort of dried catfish...whatever, I can't imagine what exactly you would want to buy it at Wal-mart for.

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