Wake up, throw on some clothes, down a cup of coffee, jump on my little fold up bicycle, mumble to myself, “Don’t hit me , don’t hit me …“ while cycling tentatively down my little alley to school. Jump off my bike when I arrive at the new wet market thats just set up shop at the base of the bridge I have to cross, and manoeuvre my way through a pile of muddy lotus roots, massive flapping fish and fish guts, while eyeing out the pile of mud grass, sweet potatoes, white radishes, lettuce stems and fat free range chickens meditating in a grass basket. Back on the saddle: “Lunch? Maybe a poached chicken with some white radishes, roast sweet potatoes and garlic fried mud grass?” Now I’m too busy planning my menu to worry about speeding cars hitting me while head off to learn the grammatical structures of “被” and “把”.
It’s been 7 years since I landed in China and I am still asking vendors what produce they are selling, where its grown and the easiest way to cook it. My thirst for experimenting with the vast array of produce that this country offers is never quenched as every season and in every city, new and exciting crops pop up and say, “Cook me.”
I come from a family where food, and in particular healthy food, is a common passion, so when I see foreigners living solely on 热干面 (hot dry noodles) or 包子( steamed pork buns) whilst complaining about how all the food here gives them the runs, they don’t like Chinese food or they don’t know how to order, I get a bit defensive for China.
When I first arrived in 2010, I didn’t have a smart phone, so there was no Pleco to help me out, only a little pocket Chinese-English dictionary. I had a hungry belly, a need to learn what I was consuming and hands that are able to make clear anything you desire or don’t wish with just a few simple theatrical gestures. You do not have to know Chinese in order to order food here, I tell my complaining expats. In my first year here, I would walk across the road, pick the cleanest looking of the restaurants I had lined up in front of my apartment block, and march my way past the patrons and waiters into the kitchen. Greet the chef with my biggest smile (which I have since found out is a bit of a no-no in China as it means you are psycho) and pick up vegetables whilst asking what they are, have a dig in the fridge, grab a chunk of meat, put it all in a pile and say in my worst Chinese “wo yao zhege”: Done. Through trial and error, you figure out the names of vegetables and cuts of meat that you prefer, how to tone up or down the spice of a dish and which names of gross things you never want to encounter ever again (I kept ordering pork tripe as it sounded like pork and tofu, 猪肚. Tough lesson to swallow).
So, you jumped on plane and came to China, you great adventurer, you! Now you are running around town eating cheap stomach churning fried noodles, over-priced pizzas and throwing all your money away in foreign coffee shops. How is that immersing yourself into this weird and wacky country that we chose to live in ? Its not.
Whether you are vegan, Muslim or have a few food allergies, it’s no excuse for eating badly over here. Get a Chinese friend to write down your basic food restrictions, go into a vegetable market and pick up something you’ve never seen before. Ask in crappy Chinese, “ zhe shi shenme?” and next time you go to a restaurant, ask them to cook said vegetable and show them your little slip of dietary restrictions. Or you could buy the veg, take it home and try figure out how to cook it. Thats how I ended up cooking pretty, Instagram-worthy purple potato pancakes.
Go out there, you great adventurer, and experience the wonders of your local wet market.