Dispelling the biggest myth about China – FOOD

September 3, 2009

Every other day I happen to speak to a colleague, acquaintance, long lost friend and when I tell them that I work in China the reaction invariably is “China; are you vegetarian? – it must be terrible for you there” or worse still “Are you eating cockroaches and lizards every day?” And this comment is invariably from people who have never visited China. For one to think that everyone in China eats lizards and cockroaches is akin to someone who would watch Slumdog Millionaire and think every Indian lives in a slum and has to beg for a living! I am writing this merely to highlight the reality in China today in terms of food. For most of the world and more so for India (in spite of being a neighbour), China remains an unravelled mystery.

When I visited China for the first time on a short trip, I came here with an open mind, not expecting anything but not carrying the notions that some of my friends/ acquaintances in India have about China. Born to a Brahmin mother and Jain father, I am vegetarian by birth and now by choice – and not because of religious reasons. I don’t mind sharing my table with people eating meat or having my food made in same utensils used for cooking meat and I don’t eat meat simply because I don’t like the taste. And it’s not that I have to eat only Indian vegetarian – I like all cuisines, as long as its non meat dishes.

When I came to live in Shanghai, It took me all of 2 weeks, speaking to some Indian acquaintances and some googling to figure out the following about Shanghai:

• There are more than 30 Indian restaurants in Shanghai and growing by the day (the Indian consulate website also provides details of Indian restaurants in China)
• There are hazaar American, Italian, Mexican restaurants with some good vegetarian options on their menu
• Most Chinese restaurants make vegetable fried rice, stir fried broccoli, Chinese cabbage, stir fried vegetable with mushroom, braised eggplant, spinach etc (In fact the Chinese also make spring onion chapatti and call it “congyoubing”)
• In Shanghai, there are more than 3 (that I know of) independent Indian chefs – who provide a dabbawala kind of service depending on which area one lives/ works in (Jain food also available)
• There are Indian grocery stores wherein one gets everything from basmati rice to all kinds of pulses, spices to desi daru
• There are Buddhist vegetarian restaurants where people who don’t eat meat but like the taste get mushroom/ soybean dishes cooked to taste like meat

Other cities like Beijing, Hangzhou, Suzhou have Indian restaurants; in fact Yiwu (frequented by lot of Indian businessmen) has a pure vegetarian Indian restaurant.

So one may think what about all those emails floating around showing pictures of lizards, cockroaches, and various insects sold as street food in China. Well, yes, those do exist but very rarely have I seen any of my Chinese friends or colleagues eating that and it surely is not available everywhere – I can’t find a single such place anywhere near my office or house in Shanghai. I know of the food stalls near Wanfujing walking street in Beijing and that is the only place in China where I have seen the insects being sold. Also, I am told that in interiors of China, rural China, especially in the south, people eat more “exotic” stuff including monkey, cat and dog. But in Shanghai; KFC, McDonald’s are surely more frequented than the roadside food stalls.

Let us understand why some people in China eat this “exotic” or “weird” or “unusual” stuff in the first place. It is said that because of food shortage in the past, the people ate anything and everything to fill their stomach – it was a question of survival! Also when it comes to normal food like chicken, it’s the Chinese style of preparation which is very different. For example, Chicken feet are eaten and the chicken is normally not skinned – which may not be acceptable to most Indian meat eaters. However, this still does not warrant the 5 kg basmati rice and other food stuff most Indians carry along with them when they arrive in China – almost as if there is no food available here!

So if you are an Indian vegetarian or meat eater looking to visit China, please do so just as you would visit any other country in the world – without having notions about the food – as global cuisine is available in most of the big cities here.

Not Wasting Food

July 2, 2008

Love Food Hate Waste has five tips on how to save money by not wasting food (via). Although the list has been designed with a UK audience in mind, some of the tips hold equally well for us junta sitting in India. For example:

Tinned beans, frozen vegetables, meat and fish and dried fruit, nuts, pasta & noodles, rice & grains, are all essentials with a long shelf life – meaning you will always have the ingredients standing by to pull together a delicious meal or to jazz up your leftovers. The trick is to replace items once you have used them up. It helps to keep a note stuck on the inside of the cupboard door – scribble down items as soon as you have finished them and check it when you write your shopping list.

Planning your meals is one of the most effective ways you can cut wastage and food bills. Start by checking your fridge, freezer and store cupboard so you don’t shop for things you already have.

(Love Food Hate Waste)

When I was in Bangalore, not planning my meals in the morning could lead to disaster. I would forget I had fruit or salad lying in the fridge, and then eat dinner out near office assuming there was nothing at home to prepare. By the next day, the salad would have spoilt, and I would have wasted the salad as well as the cost of the dinner out. Sticking a list of what I did have on the fridge door every weekend would have helped in the planning meals if I’d checked it every day and planned my dinner and breakfast according to it.

On a related note, it’s time to bring up another rant about refrigerators (people who read my mailing list know I do this often). Picking a refrigerator is fraught with peril. You’re always trading off convenience with expense and a tendency to waste.

I positively hate manual defrost refrigerators. If the light goes for extended periods (as it does so often in India) you wind up with a huge puddle on the kitchen floor. If you forget to defrost, whatever is in the freezer gets iced over and you have to go at it with a pickaxe. And I’m too much a twenty-first century types to remember to defrost the thing myself. That’s the fridge’s job, dammit!

Now unfortunately a frost-free fridge comes in large sizes and so uses more electricity than the manual defrost ones (in addition to being more expensive to begin with anyhow). The large size also means you have a tendency to throw stuff in there and then forget it’s there – as I did with my salads.

Fortunately, there are mitigants. You can cut down on the wasted electricity by filling the freezer with water bottles so all that energy goes to some use. And sticking a list of what’s in there on the fridge door could help you avoid forgetting it.

Extreme geekiness alert: In fact, if you wanted to truly power-use your fridge lists, you could create an individual Post-it for every item, and flip the Post-its around so that what you were planning to use in the evening would be right on top. The only way to be even geekier is to have a laptop in the kitchen and update your fridge MIS on an Excel sheet (or Google spreadsheets for that matter) as you remove stuff from the fridge and eat/ cook it. Sadly, my kitchen in Bangalore was too small to allow this. But I recommend it highly – a laptop in the kitchen also means you can download recipes.

The stuff I’ve written above does assume that:

  1. You do your food-buying-and-preparing yourself, instead of leaving it to your bai. Given how much people complain about the quality of their domestic help, they damn well ought to do it themselves instead of leaving it to their bai.
  2. You’re a relative newbie when it comes to managing your kitchen, and you haven’t internalised obvious stuff like remembering what you have already.
  3. You actually have a kitchen (so many people in Bombay just take dabbas and heat them) and give a shit about running it properly.

What with current trends of urbanisation, corporatisation, sararimanisation, growing numbers of young migrant professionals, growing salary demands of bais, yada yada, I think the number of people fulfilling the above conditions will grow. This is my yumble contribution to them. Maybe, I should set up a post/ page for useful kitchen tips.