Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Eating in China

Today was a beautiful day, warm but not too hot, with bright sunshine and a sea breeze – especially nice after a real gullywasher of a rain yesterday, following a week when we never saw the sun.

What does this have to do with eating? Well, the weather motivated me to take my $1 lunch to a bench outside, rather than eating it at my desk as I usually do. And enjoying it in the sunshine made me think of our rather haphazard meals in China.

First of all – lunch for a dollar? You bet! Most days on the way to the office I stop at a little store near the law school. I buy a bottle of orange juice, a packet of crackers, a hard-boiled egg, and a piece of fruit. Total expenditure, $1. Now, these are not just any crackers, these are spring onion crackers. (I love the unfamiliar flavors for familiar foods we find in China.) Spring onion crackers are like saltines, but with a delicate flavor of spring onion. Zoe and Maya like the seaweed-flavored crackers or the shrimp-flavored crackers, but give me spring onion any time! And these are not just any hard-boiled eggs – these eggs are boiled in soy sauce and sesame oil – yum, yum! My fruit today was a huge hunk of fresh pineapple on a stick.

But I've gotten ahead of myself. What about breakfast? There really aren’t any traditional breakfast foods in Chinese cuisine – unless it is congee, a rice porridge. But then the Chinese eat congee at other meals, too, so even that probably doesn’t count. The Chinese will eat soup, noodles, dumplings, rice, the same stuff they’d eat for lunch and dinner, at breakfast-time. We eat breakfast at home, and usually have yoghurt, fruit and some kind of bakery goods. The yoghurt here is much more liquid than we’re used to, and it’s often-times packaged with a straw, even if it looks like the conventional eat-it-with-a-spoon yoghurt container from home. We pick up something pastry-like at the store every couple of days, and pick something different each time. A lot of the time, no matter the shape, what we’ve picked is essentially sponge cake. We’ve gotten better at figuring out which breads/cakes are sweet and which are savory. And we’ve learned that if it looks like chocolate, it’s not – it’s red bean paste (which is still good, if not quite as good as chocolate!).

The girls eat lunch at school. I THINK they’re also being given breakfast and dinner, since kindergartens in China usually serve three meals a day, but Zoe and Maya think they’re getting snacks. They usually have noodles or rice, soup, and fruit for lunch. The noodles or rice usually come with fish or chicken and “some kind of green veggie, but I don’t know what.” They each report gleefully when I pick them up that they ate every bite of their lunches! The girls also have a morning “snack” at school, but that’s usually just a glass of milk. Zoe doesn’t like Chinese milk, but Maya does. Sometimes they get cake for the morning snack. Their afternoon snack is usually noodles, and I think those noodles at 3:45 are really dinner. One of the other Fulbright moms told me they served dinner at her daughter’s school at 3:45, so I’m thinking that must be dinner here, too.

When I pick the girls up at 4:30, they’re usually clamoring for a snack again. In fact, most of the parents come armed with snacks at pick-up time. Sometimes I’ll bring something with me, like fruit or crackers, but they really love it when I’ve “forgotten” to pack a snack and we have to stop at the store for them to pick something out. They like “Poky sticks,” which are like thin bread sticks and come in different flavors – we’ve actually bought those at the Hong Kong Market in Arlington. They like the chocolate ones, but also the pizza flavor and shrimp flavor. Sometimes they’ll pick Lays potato chips – Maya likes the “Tomato Italian Beef” flavor (essentially spaghetti sauce flavor). Zoe gets the “American Tradition” flavor – I would have expected American tradition to taste old and musty and stale, kind of like leather-bound law books (!), but instead they taste “just like potato chips at home, Mama!” We have yet to try “French Chicken” flavor. The girls’ current favorite snack is seaweed – not seaweed-flavored something, just seaweed. Yes, they eat sheets of dried seaweed!

For dinner, we eat out a lot. Given our small kitchen, and my laziness, it’s hard to beat eating out! And it is sooooo cheap! Our most expensive meals, at the KeLi Center Restaurant on campus, for the three of us run $10. One of our new favorite restaurants, Lin Duck House near campus, runs us $4 for all three of us! We always get three dishes – rice or noodles, some kind of veggie, and some kind of meat. Our favorite veggies are Chinese broccoli, which is more like spinach than broccoli, snow peas, and American broccoli. Our meat dish is often fish (my favorite), clams (Zoe’s favorite), or duck (Maya’s favorite).

When we eat at home, the girls like a “picnic dinner” of Vienna sausages, crackers, cheese, and fruit. They sit on a towel on the floor and watch Chinese TV while they eat. (This was also one of their favorite meals at home, too). We also do lots of cup-a-noodle dinners, which isn’t cooking at all! I just have to walk downstairs to fill our insulated carafe with water from the boiler that is always going for that purpose, so I don’t even have to boil water!

When I really cook, it’s usually pretty simple fare. We don’t have an oven, so everything is stove-top fare. We have a microwave, but there aren’t the usual convenience foods to heat-and-serve in a microwave that you have in America – or at least I haven’t found them! Last night, I made fried rice from leftover rice we had from a big pot I made in the rice cooker last week. I sauted some garlic and spring onions, put in the rice to heat it up, pushed it to the side so I could scramble an egg in the pan, threw in some soy sauce and sesame oil, and we were good to go! I also cooked some baby bok choy I bought at the market near Beach Gate on our way home. All I had to do was fill a pot with water, chicken broth granules, onion, soy sauce, sesame oil, and bring it to a boil. Then cut the bok choy in half, stick it in the boiling water for 2 minutes, and it’s dinner time! Tonight, I’ll use the left-over “chicken stock” as soup with some leftover rotini pasta from an Italian-esque dish I made Monday (unless, of course, we decide to go out!). And we usually have fruit for dessert.

Still, this is more cooking that I did at home, I know. The girls are pretty amazed to discover that someone other than Mimi in this family knows how to cook! I’m actually enjoying experimenting with these new ingredients we have in China. I know we’re not being too adventurous, though – I have yet to try to cook a meat dish here, other than frying up some frozen chicken nuggets I bought at Wal-Mart (the girls loved them!). It’s a good thing none of us are big meat eaters.

Then after dinner, and after the girls go to bed, I have my one indulgence – I pour myself a Coke and spike it with . . . ICE! The smartest things I brought with me from home were three little ice-trays. They make heart-shaped ice cubes, but that’s just because that’s what I found around Valentine’s Day when I was looking for small ice-trays to pack. I fill them with bottled water, and each night I have 14 cubes of icy goodness in a glass! Ahhh! It’s the little things . . . .

Anyway, although I don’t cook much, we seem to be going to the store ALL the time. Between having a small refrigerator, little pantry space, and having to CARRY home everything we buy, we make lots of trips to buy little bits of food. And we will go to one store for basics like cup-a-noodles, a farmer’s market for fruits and veggies, yet another store if we’re buying soap and cleaning stuff at the same time, yet another store if we’re walking from school rather than from home . . . . But everyone else here has the same constraints we do – small refrigerator, small kitchen, etc. – so they’re going to the store all the time, too!

We’re definitely having fun with food here, and who knows, I may end up a pro at cooking Chinese before we head home!


StaceyB said...


I am really enjoying your posts about living in China. Oru daughter Emma is also from Nanning, so I only started reading recently when you posted to the NanningKids yahoo group. But, it is very interesting.

Stacey Bedgoood

Anonymous said...

Sounds like all that walking is
a good way to get your exercise.
I enjoy your daily posts so much.

Gena said...

Hello, my name is Gena and I have really enjoyed reading your blog. I have 2 daughters from China as well. I also have an exchange student from Xiamen. She really has enjoyed reading your blog and seeing the pictures from her hometown. I would love to have you 2 meet when she goes back home in July. Thanks again. Gena

mimifrancoise said...

I expect some good home-cooked Chinese food when you get home!!!!The egg boiled in broth and soy sauce sounds yummy too.