Savory Shanxi Continued

I just want to share this picture, because I got excited when I saw it in Pingyao, a preserved ancient town in Shanxi.

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Can you tell what it is?

IT’S A VINEGAR FOUNTAIN!

Shanxi is known for its vinegar, as I mentioned in a previous post, but I think Shanxi should also be known for how excited it gets about its own vinegar. Strangers boast about it, locals make me drink it straight out of a cup…

It even comes it different flavors, like the apple-flavored one the vendor let me try. She poured it into a cup, just like the family from Shanxi I met, and…it was sweet!

Okay, Shanxi. You just might make me a vinegar convert yet.

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Laowai vs Food: Drunk Pig

Disclaimer: This is not a food blog. I am in no way fit to offer cooking advice, nor should you accept any if offered.

Round Eight

Contender: Pork with beer

Level of Difficulty: So easy, even a drunk could do it (and they probably have).

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 go ahead anyway and of course, share my damage reports along the way. This time, it’s a DIY idea given to me by a Chinese friend I met.

Step One: Materials

Stanley was a Chinese guy who sang opera, was learning how to ride a horse and to shoot a bow and arrow (so he could do both at once), sold apartments and carried their keys around in manila envelopes, and who enthusiastically reenacted what it would be like to ride a rocket to work instead of a bike. I met him downtown, when I took a wrong turn and ended up being recruited to pretend to direct a children’s choir for money (which later ended up not happening, because they were performing in police headquarters, and foreigners are not allowed inside, so I was stopped at the gate as the children went in without me. Stanley had to pretend to be Canadian).

We got to talking about Chinese food.

“Seems to me that it comes down to the sauces,” I said. “Good sauce, good food.”

“It’s more complicated than that,” he said. “There’s a lot of secrets in the kitchen that only Chinese know. You need a Chinese person to tell them to you.”

“Uh huh.”

“Besides, you don’t always need sauce. Do you like beer?”

I admitted that I did.

“You should try putting beer into the next meat dish you make. The juices, the flavor…mmmm” (his words, not mine).

I wanted to ask more about these secrets, but later, as we were upgrading (or downgrading, depending on how you look at it) to beer, a drunk Brazilian came over. “We’re both American! I’m from the south, you’re from the north!” He accentuated the class of the moment by dropping his camera on the ground, picking it up, and dropping it again to show us how strong it was.

Stanley and I ended our chance encounter abruptly.

On my way back to Xiasha, I thought about how weird that would be to cook with beer.

So weird I had to try it.

Step Two: Preparation

I had an ice-cold “Snow” beer, a wad of pork, and my pan. The pork was frozen solid, and since I didn’t have a whole day to keep it in my fridge to defrost, I just cut it up rock-hard. Amazingly enough, it was much easier to cut than when it’s raw slippery to hold onto. I may have to remember this one. I also cut my meat into small strips, mostly because I’m such a novice that I’m paranoid about cooking it wrong.

I then moved onto the beer. It was an ice-cold bottle of Snow Beer. It looked delicious.

But then I remembered that I didn’t have a bottle opener.

Not to worry! My time in college and my older brother taught me that there are other ways to open a beer bottle. I decided to try a method, which is leaning the lip of the lid against a table and hitting it until the lid came off.

“Ouch!” I said when the heel of my hand came back up.

Not to worry! The same thing had happened in college once, and so I had used a hardcover collection of Mark Twain essays to smash the lid. (Because I figure, of all authors, Mark Twain would be least offended by this usage of his written word). I looked around my apartment for a good, hard book. I had a copy of Game of Thrones, but it was actually much lighter than I anticipated. I had my Chinese-English dictionary. But as for a hardcover book…

The Giving Tree.

“I hope the tree is still happy about this,” I said, grabbing the much-beloved children’s book. I hit the lid. Nothing happened.

Then I remembered that I had this deluxe knife that a former teacher had given me. I pulled it out. There was a bottle opener on the edge.

Step Three: The Cooking

I took a swig of beer, and then began. The meat needed longer to defrost, and so I put it in first, with a little bit of water. Once the meat became a whitish color, I then drained the water.

How much beer was I supposed to put in? Stanley never said.

I poured about half of the bottle in. (Chinese bottles are bigger than American bottles).

Poke poke. I took another sip. Poke poke. Sip sip. The mixture was getting kind of foamy, and I wondered if beer was never meant to be cooked like this.

Poke poke. Sip sip.

Eventually, the beer evaporated, and I dumped the meat into a bowl and added rice.

Done!

Step Four: Collateral Damage

Stanley was right: this kind of pig was much juicier. There was a hint of beer flavor, but from what I could tell, drunk pig and sober pig tasted about the same. The only difference was that my cheeks were a little rosier than usual after cooking.

Step Five: Clean-up

Pretty painless. Who knew that drunk pigs left next to no traces? (Save for the pan, the bowl, the cutting board, the knife, and the empty beer bottle…)

Result: As Stanley would say “Mmmm.”

The Winner: Situational Irony. Because as I was flouncing about and cooking, I remembered that, not only was I meeting a friend later for a goodbye party, but I had also eaten a little bit of leftover cheesecake for breakfast. So, in fact, the drunk pig was yours truly.

Damn you, pig!

Laowai vs Food: Coca Cola Chicken and Tofu-Egg

Disclaimer: This is not a food blog. I am in no way fit to offer cooking advice, nor should you accept any if offered.

Round Seven

Contender: Coca Cola chicken wings, and fried egg with tofu.

Level of Difficulty: Non-existent.

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 go ahead anyway and of course, share my damage reports along the way. This time, it’s an already-been tested recipe for coca cola chicken wings, and a new recipe with fried egg and tofu.

Step One: Materials

“So, I have a confession,” my friend said. I had invited her to my apartment to cook food, and had noticed that she was bringing milk tea, which she knew was my favorite drink, along with…

“Is that sushi?” I asked.

“Yeah. See, I actually am really bad at cooking and so thought it would be a good idea to bring some…just in case.”

I had no complaints.

We drank our milk tea and ate the sushi while plotting our next move. I explained the star-ratings, and we both agreed that we should stick with single-star recipes.

“But we also want something delicious,” she conceded, which became more and more difficult with each bland and easy recipe we saw. Then I remembered something stupidly easy I’d already made: coca cola chicken wings.

“Seriously. If I can make it, you definitely can,” I said.

She found a recipe that called for fried egg and tofu, we went to the corner market to grab our ingredients, and then returned to get started.

Step Two: Preparation

Here’s how stupidly easy coca cola chicken wings are: boil water, stick frozen chicken wings in, and then when they’re cooked, pour out water, replace it with coca cola and some soy sauce (the kind for meat, not the kind for vegetables) and poke poke until it’s more or less congealed or evaporated or something like that. Basically no prep whatsoever, aside from opening the coca cola can.

My friend, who insisted on making the tofu and fried egg, had more prep in store for her. She had to chop up the tofu, and then crack open the eggs and then chop some carrots “because they look pretty.”

All things considered, though, that’s pretty painless.

Step Three: The Cooking

I cooked my dish first, which involved, as previously mentioned, a series of heating up liquids and poking the chicken. As I was poking the congealed combination of coca cola and soy sauce, it was this alarming color of dark sludge-brown, which I chose to ignore and pretend was normal. In fact, I had forgotten what had happened the last time I had made this, but assumed that it was fine, since I had decided to make it again. Every so often, I would add a little bit of salt, which I’d read online was good to counteract the assault of sugar from the coca cola.

My friend poked her head in. “Wow, smells so good!”

“Does it? Well, that’s good.”

Poke poke…and then I sifted out the chicken from the sauce and put it on a plate.

“If someone were to look at this, they might not know it was meat,” my friend said with a laugh. “But I’m sure it will taste fine.”

Then she gave me a pitiful look before taking her tofu and egg combo into the kitchen. I’d washed the pan, and from what I could tell, all she had to do was fry everything together. She gingerly added some soy sauce to the very-white dish in the pan in tiny increments. And then she took it out and put it on the table.

It was time to own up to our creations.

Step Four: Collateral Damage

“Mmm!” she said, eating the chicken. I thought she was flattering me, but took a bite and was pleased. Sweet and salty, and a little saucy, too. To anyone reading this: you should make this dish. It is stupidly easy to make, and delicious, too.

Then we tried the tofu.

“It just…it needs something, but I don’t know what,” my friend said. She put her chopsticks down. “It was a good thing I brought the sushi.”

Step Five: Clean-up

“You’re not really going to save that, are you?” my friend asked as I picked up the tofu dish and put it in the fridge. “You really shouldn’t. I know Americans don’t like to waste food but…are you really going to save this?”

I really was.

“Oh, Hannah,” she said. “I am such a bad cook!”

I told her that it was the recipe’s fault, which to be fair, she had followed exactly.

I decided I could find a use for it.

Of course, the next day, when I tried to add that “something” that my friend said was missing, I ended up with nothing more than a weird distraction from the noodles I’d try coupling it with. In the end, it was the trash can that enjoyed it the most.

Result: Good, if it tastes like chicken.

The Winner: I call it a draw.

 

Laowai vs Food: Fried Noodles

Disclaimer: This is not a food blog. I am in no way fit to offer cooking advice, nor should you accept any if offered.

Round Six

Contender: Udon noodles, 茄子, onions, and Mystery Sauce

Level of Difficulty: Minimal

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 go ahead anyway and of course, share my damage reports along the way. This time, it’s a smattering of vegetables and a sauce from a teacher that just left.

Step One: Materials

“I feel sort of like a burglar,” my co-worker said. We were in a former teacher’s apartment, cleaning out the things that he wanted looked after, and scavenging whatever leftovers we could find. He had asked me to grab his guitar, and I had some DVDs that I’d lent him before he had to return to his country.

But then, of course, we ended up by the fridge.

“I mean, it’s going to go bad if we don’t take it,” I said, really more to myself than anyone else. Obviously, there was nothing wrong with grabbing the onion and noodles from his fridge, given that if I left it there, our landlord Mr. Yang would just toss it in the trash.

“Yeah, yeah, just take it,” my coworker said. “Hey, here’s some chocolate.”

“What?!”

“Just kidding.”

“Oh.”

And so, I left the former teacher’s apartment with three packets of udon noodles, some spices for Shepherd’s Pie, and then a big bag of something that looked saucy, but also had chunks of beef in it. I’d also found some frozen peas and corn.

In my own apartment, I was painfully aware of 1) how impossible it would be to up and leave very suddenly, and 2) how his packets of udon noodles and spices actually utilized my fridge space, which is usually home only to random vegetables.

“I wonder how I might cook these udon noodles…” I thought. I turned over a packet and saw that there were instructions in both English and Chinese.

Well then.

Step Two: Preparation

Of the vegetables I had in the fridge, there was: cauliflower, rather phallic-looking eggplant, and the onion I’d gotten from my former coworker’s fridge. I took out the eggplant and onion, the bag with the Mystery Sauce in it, and a packet of udon noodles. The Mystery Sauce was in a large packet, and so I had no idea what would happen when I opened it. Would a sudden torrent of sauce smother me in my tiny kitchen? Would I make the same mistake I usually do and put an inordinate amount of flavoring in my noodles?

I opened it, and was relieved to see a collection of smaller packets inside. I took out one, and then brought it with me to the kitchen. On the dining room table (I say dining room table as if it can actually host people–it’s more of a “here’s where I can dump my keys” table), I ripped up some eggplant and then chopped the onion.

Managing somehow not to cry from the onion or snicker at the funny eggplant, I was ready.

Step Three: The Cooking

The last time I cooked for myself, I managed to make a mockery of meat by burning it. From the good advice of my friends, I went and bought a new pan.

Here’s the old one. It’s fine, right?

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Let me just say this: I love cooking with a pan that doesn’t automatically cremate food.  I do not love the smell of burnt veggies in the morning, thank you.

Anyway.  The food.

I wasn’t 100% sure how to deal with the vegetables. I’ve had Chinese friends tell me that I have to suck all of the moisture out of vegetables before adding oil so that they absorb it better. I’ve had Chinese friends tell me to add water to make the veggies plumper. I never know which vegetables need to be bereft of their moisture, and which ones need to drown in it. So I usually start without oil and see what happens.

The eggplant looked shriveled and sad, so I assumed it was one of the vegetables I was meant to drown. I added some water and watched it turn brighter purple. Then, as I rejoiced in my great skills, the purple became a brown color, and I realized that it had been drowning for too long. Dumping some water into the sink, I muttered “close enough” and added the onions. The onions were more cooperative. Thank god for that.

Then it was time for the Mystery Sauce. I honestly had no idea if it was going to be salty, spicy, sweet, or some horrible bitter thing that was allegedly good for your health but bad for your general state of happiness. It was a dark, gloopy brown as I squeezed it on top of the vegetables. I mixed it around with my new spatula (chopsticks can only go so far) and then added the udon noodles, which I had already boiled before.

In a matter of minutes, it was done.

Step Four: Collateral Damage

As it turned out, the sauce was mildly spicy, but in a good way. The eggplant was a little sad, and not as flavorful as the rest. So, I ate all of the eggplant first to get that flavor out of the way, and then it was just the onions and noodles.

It was delicious.

What the hell did I do right?

Step Five: Clean-up

New pan or no, I did leave a mess and a bit of charred eggplant remains on the bottom, so my new weapon is currently taking a bath. All this time, I thought that my former coworker was a great cook, when really, he just had the right ingredients.

Is that the secret? Good sauce, a happy pan and a recipe in your first language?

That’s easy. Too easy…

Result: One fluke of a success.

The Winner: Mystery Sauce. Ingredients unknown, delicious-ness not.

 

Laowai vs Food: Lemon Bagels

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.”

Intermediary Round
Contender: Lemon bagels
Level of Difficulty: Intermediate

Usually, I attempt recipes from a cookbook a friend gave me for my birthday. Since that cookbook is all in Chinese, it’s usually a recipe for disaster, if you will. This time, I was in a different cookbook with a friend of mine, both of us doing our best to cook western food. Sounds easy, right? We’ll see…

Step One: Materials
The previous day, we’d been poring over a cookbook she’d gotten recently. It was all bagels, in all different flavors and shapes. I hadn’t eaten a bagel since being in China, so she decided that we would try to make some the next night.

“What flavor should we cook?” she asked her son.

“Sweet,” he said.

So it was decided to cook lemon-flavored bagels. She left for a while to get ingredients, and when she came back, had the lemons, flour, yeast and…

“Do you want some ice cream first?”

A legitimate part of cooking, I think. So I happily had an ice cream treat as she laid out the ingredients and I tried to recall times I’d cooked bread with my mom. There was kneading. Lots of kneading.

Step Two: Preparation
First, we had to get lemon skin to put in. Ordinarily, I might have used a grater to make nice shavings of it, but being without a grater, she used a massive cleaver to chop up the lemon skins. I had the much easier task of squeezing out the lemon juice.

“Is this small enough?” she asked. I said it might need to be smaller. She kept cutting and I kept squeezing, until it was close enough.

“Do you know how much a gram is?” she asked. “I don’t have a measuring cup.”

“Uh…no, actually.”

“Oh.” She found a bottle of water, cleaned it, and then filled it about halfway with clean water. “Close enough, I think.”

I had to laugh. That is exactly how I cook, too.

She poured the flour into the bowl and with a pair of chopsticks, I began to mix it together—the lemon peels, the lemon juice, the flour, the yeast. Eventually, I had to switch to a spoon, because I was afraid that I’d break a perfectly good pair of chopsticks. Then, when it had been mixed for a while, I told her that it was time to knead.

“Yes, okay.”

“I mean…on the table.”

“Oh!” and she went to clear out the table, wash it, and then sprinkle flour on it before I unceremoniously plopped the dough onto the table.

Actually, it was nice to knead, if only because it’s one of the first straightforward tasks when it comes to cooking that I’ve been able to do since being in China. Chinese households typically don’t have ovens, and so what I’m able to cook here is very different from what I could cook in the US. That, and the fact that China doesn’t have much need for butter or proper milk, and maybe you can appreciate why Chinese cooking is so much more difficult for me to figure out.

“Oh, we forgot to add the butter,” she said. She put some butter into a cup and heated it in her oven for a couple seconds before bringing it to me. I looked down at the mound of dough, and then cleared a little pocket in it for her to dump the melted butter into. Then it was a slimy mound of dough, but anyway…

“Close enough,” I said.

By this point, her son had come over to watch me knead. It was about time for the best part (the shaping!) and he of course was to join. First, I was trying to make the bagels into the same shape as the pictures, but when I looked over, I saw that he was making a turtle out of the dough. He also made a car, which turned into a hat, which then turned into a wand from Harry Potter. Once the dough was all shaped, we were ready to cook it.

Step Three: The Cooking
The recipe said that we had to boil water and then stick the bagels into the water for 30 seconds on each side.
“That just seems…strange,” I said. But given my track record, I wasn’t about to argue with a recipe, and so we did. Her son didn’t want the wand to go in, deciding that it needed to be rock-hard. The rest went in, including the turtle, right to the bottom. When they came out again, nothing appeared to be wrong. Strange.

We set them onto a rack and slid it into the oven. Then, we had to wait.

Like expectant parents, she and I crouched in front of the oven to see how they were cooking.

“It smells very nice,” she said. It did. It really did.

After the timer went off, we checked one more time, and the tops of the bagels were brown, though they were still whitish along the sides.

“I still see white,” she said. “We should leave them in longer.”

“Not too long,” I said. “Otherwise they’ll burn.” Being an expert on burnt food, I felt I could offer this advice.

So after “not too long,” we took them out.

Step Four: Collateral Damage

They were firm on the outside, and maybe a little too hard, but they were also chewy on the inside, and oh-so-warm. She had also made sugar to go on top, and it was sticky and sweet. By this point, we were the only two still awake, and so we got the first tastes. I only intended to grab one, but well. They were too good.

Best enjoyed fresh, right?

Step Five: Clean-up

The hardest part was cleaning up the sugar from the pot, but all in all, this cooking venture went over well.

I’ll have to take notes.

Result: Yum.

The Winner: My friend. She clearly knows how to cook, unlike some laowai here…

 

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.

 

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…