Disclaimer: This is not a food blog. I am in no way fit to offer cooking advice, nor should you accept any if offered. “Laowai” is the Chinese word for “foreigner.”
Contender: Ham battered in egg, flour, and chopped-up peanuts.
Level of Difficulty: Moderate.
In an effort to learn how to cook Chinese food, I’ve decided to try a recipe every so often from a cookbook given to me by a friend for my birthday. Even though the cookbook is completely in Chinese, I’ve decided to forge ahead anyway and of course, share my damage reports along the way. This time, it’s peanut-battered ham.
Step One: Materials
“It’s a kind of…” my friend had a pained expression trying to translate the ingredient. “…ham. Yes, it’s ham.”
“Okay,” I said. (I was more than a little dubious about that translation, since a lot of meat can be called ‘ham.’) “Is there anything else?”
“Yes…flour, two eggs, peanuts…and oil. And maybe some salt.”
I looked over the cookbook and agreed. I mean, given how many Chinese cooking terms I know, it’s not like I have a choice. I decided to try a slightly fancier-looking dish with two stars (out of four) based on my semi-victory the last time I’d cooked. The end result would be slices of meat battered in peanut, if all went according to plan.
Later that day, armed with my cookbook and good intentions, I went to the local Supermarket of Death.
I usually go to the small market around the corner from my apartment, but because I had a gift-card for the Supermarket of Death (given to me after I judged an English singing competition), my choice was made.
If you don’t live in China, you cannot imagine what “crowded” actually means, let alone grocery shopping with all of your local best friends. Basically, to enter a supermarket is to sign an agreement to despise China for the next hour or so. I go in knowing this, and also knowing that the silent rage will subside. But until then…
Dodge, dodge, dodge
(Couple stops in the middle of the aisle in exactly the right place to prevent me from walking past. I am forced to shuffle up against a wall of crackers, fuming and side-stepping an older man bellowing on his cell phone…this is China, people).
I got to the meat section and asked the butcher where the ham was. He looked at me strangely and said “We don’t have it.”
No ham? No way.
I double-checked the recipe.
“Sorry, I said it wrong!” And then I said it the right way. He still looked at me strangely. Then he just pointed way over toward the seafood and told me to look over there.
At first I thought he was crazy. Ham is nothing like seafood. (Can’t even pull a “chicken of the sea” type argument). But then I was face-to-face with cheap sandwich ham. Which…was actually what I needed. A bit anticlimactic, and also somewhat less fancy than I thought, but oh well.
It meant that I got to leave the Supermarket of Death and continue liking China again.
Step Two: Preparation
The recipe called for me to dice peanuts before creating the batter, dunking ham in it, and then frying it. So I started dicing the peanuts around 5:30pm. Someone was coming to my apartment at 6:30 for a tutoring session, but I figured it would be okay. First, I had to peel the peanuts. Mine had the crackly skin on it, which needed to go.
I thought I was okay on time, but once I started dicing, it was almost 6:00. I still needed to clean my apartment (or, create a Potemkin Village style farce, wherein I only make the visible parts look nice). I put the diced peanuts away when I was done, and decided to just have a late dinner.
All throughout tutoring, I was thinking about the ham and how awesome it was going to be. Which was exactly why I wanted to cook it earlier. So as not to fumigate my head with thoughts of peanut-ham.
Step Three: The Cooking
When tutoring was done, I was all ready to cook. It sort of reminded me of pancakes…but hammy. I went according to the pictures in the cookbook. I took out my pan, put in oil, lathered the ham slices, set them in the diced peanuts, and then placed them into the pan.
Except…why was there so much smoke?
I turned down the electric stove, I tried adding more oil…and then I made a rookie mistake and decided to replace the oil in the pan by dumping the burnt pan-oil into the sink.
I still persevered, slathering more ham, dunking it in the peanut concoction and then placing it in the pan. But the result was that they looked like lumpy flying saucers.
I put my Unedible Flying Saucers on a plate and sat down to eat them, trying to ignore the plumes of smoke wafting out of the kitchen and the faint crackle of the pan as water and oil fought skirmishes with each other.
Step Four: Collateral Damage
I ate it because I owe my creations as much. The peanut batter didn’t have much flavor, but combined with the ham, it had a good contrast between savory and starchy. Of course, most of this was lost when accompanied with the taste of burning.
Step Five: Clean-up
In retrospect, I’m glad I cooked this after my friends had left. I had to open all of the windows and turn on the kitchen fan to air out my apartment. The Pan from the Black Lagoon still awaits my Brillo Pad, but its time will come. For now, it’s about dispelling smoke fumes.
Result: Maybe I should stick to one-star recipes.
The Winner: The pan. I know that all of that sizzling was really just evil laughter.