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: 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…