You Are Where You Eat
Tuesday, 20 January 2015 Filed in: Food | Ayi | China | Buying Things
I have never bought meat from a wet market in Shanghai. I'm not sure if that's something to be proud or ashamed of. I think it's just sensible. Our wet market is pretty nasty. There are flies and foul odours. I have it on a reliable source that there are rats too. I have been warned never to look through the windows of the market at night. Teeming with life - apparently.
Meat is a pretty dodgy substance in China. I imagine it's injected with everything going...steroids, botox, concrete. In Guangdong, they injected lamb meat (so just lamb I guess) with dirty pond water. True story. You can see why I'm not too keen on the wet market. I don't even buy my vegetables there anymore but that's ever since they told Ayi that I had to pay more because I'm a foreigner. I've been boycotting. I don't think they've missed my business.
The longer I live here, the more careful I get about where our food is sourced. Like most things regarding safety here, my standards sway depending on my mood (which are directly influenced by the pollution levels and the amount of public spitting that has taken place in my immediate vicinity). Some days I will only buy food that has been hand-picked by a Nicaraguan virgin and air-flown to China in a hermetically sealed chamber lined with pink Swaraovski crystals. Other days, I'll eat something grown in China.
So, I often end up in the foreign butcher weeping over the price of Australian beef or Norwegian salmon - neither of which we have eaten since arriving here because it's just too expensive. If we're lucky, I buy chicken or pork but even they cost double what you'd pay at home.
They call this 'sticker shock'. It's when you nearly pass out in the supermarket because they want to charge €3 for small baguette. And it's not like the bread is expensive to make or imported. It's just the kind of things that foreigners like and those things are always expensive. That's Mr Oh's theory anyway. He says it explains the price of dishwasher tablets and toilet roll (the locals use toilet paper too, it just doesn't come on a roll).
Speaking of toilet roll, the first week we were in China, Mr Oh paid about €15 for six rolls of toilet paper. He said he bought it because there was English on the package and he knew what it was. I calmly said "NEVER BUY ANYTHING WITH ENGLISH ON IT. USE YOUR EYES TO SEE WHAT IT IS. WE DO NOT NEED OUR TOILET PAPER TO BE IMPORTED". (Mr Oh slinks silently off with the €15 toilet paper under his arm.)
So, first I decided that we would go vegetarian because meat is too expensive. That didn't work out so well because I almost bankrupted us buying a small tub of ricotta for the creamy vegetable pasta. The mistake, I thought at this point, is that I'm trying to cook western food when I should be cooking Chinese food. It was a lightbulb moment. I scuttled off to get my Ken Hom Simple Chinese recipe book. I picked out a nice noodle dish and spent the next three days trying to find either water chestnuts or gai-lan in China. You'd think that it being Chinese cookery, you should be able to find the bloody ingredients in China. Not so.
So I picked out another recipe that didn't involve either gai-lan or water chestnuts. It did involve Sichuan peppercorns though and Sichuan peppercorns are not called Sichuan peppercorns in Chinese, so I couldn't find them. Eventually, I had to enlist Ayi. I googled a picture of all the unfamiliar ingredients and did some kind of pathetic translation attempt and Ayi worked out the Chinese name for me. She thought it was pretty stupid that we call Sichuan peppercorns Sichuan peppercorns when their real name is 'Hua Jiao' or 'flower peppers'. Having translated for me, she went to the market to get them for me. I would have gone myself but I'm boycotting the market, as discussed.
Eventually I have all the ingredients Ken Hom says I need to make Northern-Style Cold Noodles. I've got the Sichuan peppercorns - I've even roasted them and hand ground them into a fine powder as Ken requested. I'm standing in the kitchen yesterday afternoon making my noodle sauce as Ayi looks disapprovingly at me.
"Too much spice", she says in Chinese, pointing at my large spoon of chilli bean paste. I'm like "the recipe says I need to use a tablespoon". Ayi says "you foreigner, too much, ah-la-la". I reduce the amount, mostly to stop her grabbing the spoon off me and taking over. The recipe called for four tablespoons of soy sauce, Ayi only let me put in three.
Me - "The recipe says four spoons, Ayi".
Ayi - "Ayi says three".
Me - "This is Ken Hom. He's Chinese. He's famous. He knows"
Ayi - "Ayi is Chinese. Ayi knows.".
Turns out Ayi did know. The noodles were delicious, the spicy level just right. I now call it the Ayi Hom Noodle dish. If cooking vegetarian Chinese food is going to involve so much collaboration though, I'd be better off just asking Ayi to cook instead. I know she thinks we'd all be better off if I did that too.
(Apologies if you’re offended by the photo at the top of the blog. It’s of chicken feet at our wet market. I’m offended by it too…that’s why I don’t go there).