Laowai vs Food: Peanut-Battered Ham

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.”

Round Five

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.

Whoomp!

Smoke everywhere.

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.

 

Blue Skies

I have become a woman obsessed.  With what?  This picture:

Image

My knee-jerk reaction when I saw it: “FAKE!  This has been altered, for sure!”

Then I realized that it was definitely a real photo.  How do I know this?  Because I’m the one who took it.  Yes, I took this sucker myself when I was in Duluth, Minnesota visiting grandparents before schlepping off to China.

Can you believe how blue that sky is?

I couldn’t.  In fact, I started going through other pictures from Minnesota to see if there had been something wonky with my camera.  Graduation photos, pictures taken when out for a walk with friends.  And there it was–blue skies!  At the time I never paid attention to it–that shock of blue right above my head.  It was always there.  Always would be.

Until it wasn’t. 

I won’t sugar-coat it: pollution can be pretty bad in parts of China.  Not all of China, but parts of it.  To the point where I usually bring an umbrella with now, because it’s hard to tell if it’s overcast, if it’s actually going to rain, or if it’s just “haze.”  Funny enough, though, you really do get used to it.  In a weird way.

Well, after confirming the fabulous Minnesota air quality, I started going through Chinese photos.  I had the above photo displayed in one corner of my screen, and then started searching for the bluest skies I’d found in China.

Image
Taken in Xinjiang Province, outside of Urumqi, en route to Tianchi Lake.
Image
Taken in the Badan Jarain Desert (a section of the Gobi Desert) in Inner Mongolia.
Image
Taken in Gansu Province, near Zhangye.
Image
Taken in Gansu Province near Xiahe, a Tibetan village.
Image
Taken in XInjiang Province, near the border of Pakistan.

Not too bad, right?  (Especially that last one, which I snapped on my bike way out by the Pakistan border.  When I compared that picture to the one in Minnesota, they were almost the same hue).  Go back and forth between that first picture and the ones from China. 

Now, I was relieved, to be sure, to know that there is good air in China.  But then I remembered that these places in the pictures were way far out in the West, where the land rolls long and large, and the people scatter sparse across the grasses.  The city I live in (Hangzhou, which is about an hour away from Shanghai by fast train) will never have skies like that.  I’m on the East coast, where apartment buildings clump together like cornstalks and there are as many factories in my district as there are universities.  But, because I’m stubborn and don’t like there to be only one narrative, I looked for those Chinese blue skies.  And I found them.

I really had to look, though.

No matter the level of pollution, I always look for stars at night and am delighted by every twinkle.  Right now, I imagine that American skies are very blue.  But after being in China, I have this creeping fear that they might not be so blue forever.  Are they becoming an endangered species?  Will we be looking back in 50 years at photos like these and trying to convince people that, no, they have not been edited?

I hope not.  I don’t think we need to fall into a doomsday narrative.  Besides, you know me: I’m all about proving things wrong anyway.  And apocalyptic skies I want to be wrong.  Very very wrong.

Because, believe me, it’s easier than you’d think to get used to seeing skies like this:

Image
Taken in Xiasha, a district of Hangzhou, China.

 

Laowai vs Food: Pickled Vegetable and Pork

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.”

Round Four

Contender: A soup with pickled cabbage and pork

Level of Difficulty: Easy.  The book rated it one out four stars for difficulty.  We’re good.

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 a pickled cabbage and pork soup. 

Step One: Materials This time, I just brought the Chinese cookbook with me when I had lunch with a Chinese friend.  I told her I wanted to cook.  She flipped through the pages and pointed to a savory-looking meat dish.

“This looks good,” she said.

“Yeah, but it has four stars,” I said, pointing to the difficulty-rating in the corner.

“Oh.  What about this one?”

“Two stars.  Still too difficult.”

Since coming to China, I haven’t eaten as much meat, mostly because I don’t know how to cook it without infecting myself somehow.  (Even if it’d been sterilized, I just know I’d find a way).  One of my coworkers encourages me to try anyway, and so because of this, I was looking for a meat dish in the cookbook.

But…an easy one.

“This one looks good,” I said pointing to a drab-looking soup.  It had one star.

My friend nodded, looking over the instructions.  “You boil the water.  And then you put the ingredients in.  Add whatever else you like.  But not too much.”

“Is that all?”

“Yes.  You just need to watch the time.  It’s very easy.”

“Don’t underestimate my power to fail.” 

Later that day, I went to that same market to get the meat.  This time, I actually learned how to say “gram.”  But of course, that didn’t mean I actually knew how much that was. 

“100 grams of pork,” I said.  The shopkeeper looked at me and complained that that would be too hard to cut and suggested I get more.  I asked him to show my how much 100 grams was.  He indicated with his impressive cleaver.  True enough, it wasn’t much meat.  But I insisted, knowing that as a bachelorette, there was really no need to stock up.  So I got the pork.  Time for the pickled vegetable.

I meandered around the shop before asking someone, “Where are the pickled vegetables?”  I got more funny looks.  See, it’s not just a language barrier here.  I just don’t even know what some vegetables look like.  A shopper guided me over to a row of pickled vegetables.  I consulted the pictures in my cookbook until she just pointed to the one that was in the picture.  So much for being suave.  To spruce up the drab soup, I also got mushrooms and cilantro.  Then, because my inner child was really whiny, I also bought some skittles. 

Step Two: Preparation I had no idea how long this ordeal was going to last.  I began cutting things up around 6pm, which seemed reasonable.  The mushrooms didn’t take long, nor did the pickled vegetable (which looked like limp white celery).  The meat, however…

“Why is this so hard to cut?” I asked myself.  I wished I had a giant cleaver to hack it apart.  Then I remembered my last cooking attempt and decided that I shouldn’t be trusted with sharp things.  So I kept using the same knife to no avail.  I had another clean one, so tried it.  Still nothing.  The meat was hard to grab and I couldn’t seem to saw through it.

The only other knife I had was a really sharp one that I was using spread peanut butter onto my toast, because China doesn’t really do butter knives (or butter, for that matter).  I had no choice.  I went to the sink, cleaned off the peanut butter, and hacked and sawed away at the meat.  I could only hope that the pork wouldn’t taste peanut-y. 

Step Three: The Cooking It was as easy as my friend said.  The water boiled.  I plopped the ingredients in.  I poked them around with a pair of chopsticks.  And then I dumped it into the white bowl I had set aside for dinner.

Step Four: Collateral Damage What I hadn’t accounted for was that the bowl would heat up very quickly with boiling-hot soup inside.  So when I tried to move it from my cramped kitchen to the table in the main room, I couldn’t.  Instead, I hunched over by my kitchen sink by where my bowl was and ate from there.

Looking at it, it wasn’t much.  There’s a running joke in my family that our Midwestern meals end up being all white, and that was what had happened to my soup.  Mushrooms, the pickled vegetable, the pork…hell, even the bowl was white.

But the taste was not.

The combination of pickled vegetable, which was juicy, succulent, and sharp, complimented the dry pork quite well.  How did the Chinese know? 

Mostly, I was shocked, because I had cooked something, and was not gagging after tasting it.  Victory dance?

Step Five: Clean-up In my heady victory and haste to sing “We are the Champions!” this still has not been accomplished. 

Result: Success shall be mine…at last!  (To be read in a Radcliffe (from Pocahontas) voice).

The Winner: The dishes.  Because I was just about to make some peanut-butter toast and realized I had no knife to spread it with.  D’oh… 

 

One hoop to rule them all

I only saw one leaning against the sporting goods store, so I knew it was mine.  Green, yellow and red, it sort of looked like the google chrome logo when a page is loading. 

“How much?” I asked.  The shopowner was playing computer games, somewhat annoyed by my presence.  (To be fair, it was 8:30pm, and when I asked, the shop had already closed).

“15.”

The deal was done, and I slung it over my shoulder to take it home.

My very own Chinese hula hoop.

It all began back in Inner Mongolia when my friend and I watched in amusement as older ladies hula-hooped in a market area.  We thought they were just being goofy, until we tried the hoops.  They’re heavy behemoths!  On the outside, there’s soft foam and padding, but this in no way cushions the metal pole in the middle.  After using it for less than 5 minutes, bruises.  I thought they were crazy.

Later, my friend told me she had bought a hula hoop and that it actually freaking worked.  I’m not much for exercise, but she said it was actually not a bad method for doing ab exercises.   

What can I say?  I hate gyms, I have bad hand-eye coordination, and it’s hard to motivate myself to run around in the smog.  I had to try.

So last night, after I lugged my new hula hoop back to my apartment, I got ready.  I turned on some wacky music (because I wasn’t about to hula hoop to Carmina Burana), moved my tiny table to the side of the main room, and gave it a go.  The first couple of times I tried using it, it fell with a loud thwack to the floor.  I picked it back up and kept trying–a major challenge being not to think about what I looked like while using it.  Thwack!  To the floor.  Bam!  To my sides.  And because these are not the cute plastic creations that children use on a lark, they really do pummel the abs into submission.  After two or three more songs, I could keep the hoop up for maybe 30 seconds. I’d been hula hooping for about 20 minutes when I stopped.

Afterward, as I began correcting writing homework from class, I felt it.  Really, it just took those 20 minutes.  20 minutes of ab-pummeling.  Give it time, and I think I could both be a beach babe AND join the circus. 

I doubt my little loading google-chrome icon of a hula hoop will make waves in the exercise world, but it’s at least something that relieves stress (because who can be angry when they’re hula-hooping?) and counts as working out.  Plus, it’s China.  Being an expat here is not a guarantee that I’m normal in any way, shape, or form.

Hula hoops.  Who knew?

Spirited Away

I had no idea where we were going, when we would get there, or why we needed to go there at all.  They had the whole day planned long before I met them face-to-face.  They knew where we were going for lunch, for dinner, and where we would be stopping along the way along the beaches.  I was a child following a wayward balloon’s path among the clouds.  All I had to do was arrive, and that was enough.

This was last weekend for me, when a friend, her mom, and I went to Xiamen together.  But I think this is emblematic for most of my favorite memories in China.  The times when I get swept up into the momentum of a moment and am spirited away.  Sometimes, it’s another traveler shrugging and saying “Why the hell not?”  Sometimes, it’s a Chinese person more or less adopting me for a while and taking me on a sensory joy-ride of their home.  “Look at the food!  Look at the colors!  Come over here!  Look at everything!” they seem to say when I follow them.  And I do: I follow them and it’s great.  I never know where we’re going, but it never seems to matter.

I’m looking back now to about a year ago when I went to Guilin to see rice terraces and ended up getting truly spirited away for the first time by a nun and some smarmy pseudo-Buddhists.  Before that trip, travel was all about the place I wanted to go.  After that trip, it was about the current that took me there. 

There are lots of travelers out there, but I will say this: my best travels were when I knew when to let go of control.  I’d have a plan, a gust of wind would come along and blow it out of my hands, and what could I do?  I’d get spirited away.

And I wouldn’t have it any other way.