Posts Tagged 'food'

Freshest By… Last Week?

Everyone has standards. When it comes to deciding on the best, people have different opinions. This is natural.

When it comes to food labels, here in China it seems no different. "Best by" and "Freshest by" dates are only subjective, right? We have taken to carefully watching this information before buying anything at all anymore. In our experience, those dates really do make a difference! There’s only so many boxes of stale cookies and cereal that one can choke down before learning to read these numbers.

But sometimes, even the dates can bring false assurance. Last week JM walked to the corner store for some fresh milk. Picking up a carton, it felt strangely warm, already well at room temperature. He noticed the dairy refrigerator was turned off.

"Why isn’t this on?" The answer from the grocer on duty: "It’s a cold day outside."

Granted, it was a really cold day, as snow flurries were drifting around. Also, the store’s front door was wide open. But neither of these offset the heat from the working radiator. Apparently thinking the better of it, the clerk walked back and turned on the fridge.

Hmm.. better pass on that carton after all.

You can always read the package, but don’t count on it being the whole story. Not in a country where saving everything possible, even a few watts of daytime fridge electricity, is a cultural norm.

It can get even trickier. The last bag of pasta we bought from a respectable import store looked fine at first glance. Arriving home, we noticed some strange holes on the sides. Sure enough, opening it further, there was a small larvae cocoon, revealing the author of the holes in the bag, having feasted on some of Italy’s finest semolina.

But the reason it escaped us at the store was that someone had already noticed the holes- and put scotch tape over them to hide the fact!

High cooking temperatures correct a lot of wrongs. So pass the chow mien and don’t think too hard about where those noodles and veggies were before they plopped in your bowl!

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The Unlabeled Life

Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living. I (JM) think that there is an exception- the life in China of unexamined nutrition labels is entirely liberating. Every food product in the States had nutrition information that I would at least glance over before eating, but since arrival here, I haven’t once been able to decipher the Chinese coding on food items that must say things like ‘mono-unsaturated,’ ‘thiamine,’ or quite possibly ‘melamine'(!). I have to say that life without the pressure of doing a quick mathematical calculation before every bite (‘Is that more than one-third’s worth of fat?’) has brought a new level of peace that I imagine can be likened to some kind of Nirvana, aloof from the care of this worldly weight of calories.

In fact, many things here don’t even have food labels. If I asked the Chow-mein cook how much oil was in my fried noodles, he would probably stare at me blankly, or else say ‘As much as I put in.’ Sometimes there’s a lot, more often a whole lot. Oil is used liberally on every dish except for steamed rice (but thankfully there’s the fried version). All of the oil, sugar, MSG and saturated fat notwithstanding, the average citizen here is not less healthy than Americans, but appears to be the opposite. Is it the mobile lifestyle, the substitution of tea for coffee, the lack of significant dairy consumption, or just genetics? It’s hard to say. People are in fact rather large consumers of food, but still avoid avoid becoming.. rather ‘large’ consumers of food.

So, no real need for food labels. It’s a lucky quirk of the system that no matter what you are eating, your chances of gaining weight are significantly reduced. Vitamins? Just eat your veggies. Protein? Tofu can be made into almost anything. Sodium? Better worry more about the effects of smoking and second-hand smoke before heart attacks.

It’s been nine months of the nutrition-label-free life, and I have to say that now having arrived, I don’t plan on going back!

Sick again

We seem to be a little too trusting of the food at the local restaurants. This time we’re pretty sure who the culprit is, which is a shame since we’ve eaten there time and again with relatively few problems. However, this time it’s clear that we tempted fate one time too many. All of a sudden one toilet just isn’t enough for a household of two adults.

Leo of course is fine, since we don’t let him eat anything besides our own food. His nanny commiserated with us, saying she never eats at restaurants during the summer season. It’s just too easy with the heat and humidity for the food to go bad quickly.

Luckily there’s plenty of 7-up and crackers available. We’re pro’s at this now. Give us three days and we’ll be up again for some Peking roast duck!

Were those hot peppers?

We cooked 地三鲜,’3 treasures of the earth,’ a stir fry of potatoes, eggplant, and green peppers, which is a delicious traditional dish here in China. It’s more economical for us to cook in, with the price of 3 eggplants running 50 cents, the potatoes and green peppers not much more expensive.

Taking turns cutting the vegetables, we also made Leo’s dinner and started feeding him. To our amazement he started bellowing out right after we started feeding him. Picking him up from his chair to see what was the matter, we noticed his lips had turned bright red. Liz had mentioned earlier that the green peppers seemed spicy, not the usual mild bell pepper taste we expected. In fact, they were hot peppers, and the oils had seeped into our fingers (making them throb!), and we concomitantly transferred them to Leo’s eating spoon! We felt stupid for not realizing what was happening, especially once his arms and legs also turned red where we picked him up with our hands!

The moral of the story: if it doesn’t look like a green bell pepper, it probably isn’t, and, don’t feed hot chilis to children under the age of 1.

Bird Flu and Dinner Chit Chat

Tonight we ate dinner at our favorite neighborhood noodle shop. It’s just a block or so down our street, and is run by a nice family. We go there often and they know what we like to order. We’re actually not sure how many family members there are, but so far we know there’s Mom, Dad, Big Brother, Big Sister, Little Brother, A Cousin or Two, and a few other helpers that we’re not sure are actual family members.

They are always happy to see us, and Mom often will take Leo when our food arrives, saying, “Gei mama chifan!” (“Let your Mother eat!”) She is on the very short list of people that Leo is allowed to go off with for a minute or two unsupervised (so far there are three people on this list!). It’s always a mixed blessing – on the one hand, it’s GREAT to have a few minutes to eat with both hands free, but on the other hand, we are always a little nervous about what might be happening to Leo in our absence.

Tonight it was going well, as Leo was enjoying everyone’s company in the front of the shop. He had about six admirers making every attempt to amuse him. JM and I were telling ourselves to relax about the germs, no one was spitting on him or sticking their fingers in his mouth, after all! So what if his toy fell on the ground and they gave it back to him. He’s had his vaccinations.

Suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, I spied Little Brother making haste to play with Leo, dragging his little pet wild bird on a string along the sidewalk behind him. I almost laughed at the irony of the situation – there we were telling ourselves to relax, Leo was just fine, not in any present danger, he’s made it this far without getting ill, everyone’s so kind, etc, etc, and suddenly a wild bird is about to make contact with our precious 9 month old son! For anyone who doesn’t know, Bird Flu is a risk here, and one of the most important precautions is to stay AWAY from contact with live birds. It’s a big no no. I saw JM’s eyes widen, said “GO!” and he leapt up, scooped Leo into his arms and made a very gracious exit with Leo back to our table. Phew!

We’re not letting our guard down anytime soon, although we really enjoy our growing relationships with our friends at various restaurants and shops in our neighborhood! Little Brother and his little bird, be on guard! 🙂

Running to the market

We are getting back on our feet after the food poisoning (have we said that already? :)) Seriously though, it hit us hard, and this morning’s tough run was proof that our bodies are still recovering. We are in the last few weeks of training for a half marathon, and the food poisoning caused us to miss a week and a half of running. In the meantime, the weather has become rather warm here, in the 80s most days. There are more people out exercising in the mornings, and a few more runners on the road! I must admit, I actually try to run a little faster here out of patriotism. I realize (this is Liz writing) this is somewhat illogical, but it’s true. My long-run outfit is also red, white, and blue (this is coincidental). No one is going to mistake me for an Olympian anytime soon, but it’s interesting how being in a foreign country has brought out my patriotic side. I’ve also learned that if I respond to the inevitable stares and gawking with a smile, most often, I get a smile in return. Every once in a while there’s an obnoxious person who yells out HELLO in the loudest voice possible, just to get laughs from other observers. I usually ignore this, but I’ve thought about stopping and yelling NI HAO (hello in Chinese) really loud just to make a point. I probably won’t, since that would mean slowing down.

We’ve been cooking up a storm in our home! After two months of going out to eat, it finally got old (getting sick probably had a lot to do with it). We both love Chinese food, and it is really cheap to eat out, but we were craving “xicai” (Western Food) and some more normalcy in our daily routine. This has meant that we’ve been heading to the markets for fresh food a few days a week. The produce here would be the envy of anywhere I’ve ever been in the US. It’s fresh, bountiful, and incredibly inexpensive. We’ve been taking advantage of this to learn some new words and some new foods. They have most things we have in the States, but it’s not always exactly the same. The carrots here are a little sweeter and are about the size of my forearm.

Bargaining is the norm here in China, in any marketplace. However, foreigners can expect a “foreigner’s mark up” right off the bat. Although I’ve been frustrated at having to pay higher prices than the locals, it’s motivating to learn the language so that one day I can bargain (and therefore perhaps pay) like a local. I have always been a pretty good negotiator in the States, but here I have no skill. When the shopkeeper tells you the price and you counter-offer, they look at you disdainfully – like you just kicked a puppy… or worse! It was really disarming the first few times it happened, until I realized that this reaction is all part of the negotiation process here. I’m also getting to know fair prices for things, which really helps. I asked a Chinese person how they know what to counter offer, and they told me, “You just have to know it in your heart.” This was not so helpful, but I got the drift… “Follow your gut.”

And… We’re back!

After a week of battling food poisoning of some sort, both of us are officially on the mend! The week consisted of a forced fast, as we were told the only way to cure the poisoning was to basically starve it out of our systems. This news was ill-received (ha ha), but turned out to be right on. We drank gallons of tea with honey, sipped bowls of salty chicken broth, and tentatively ate a few crackers when our hunger pains got the better of us. All the while we dreamed of the day when food would once again be a part of our daily lives. Neither of us can remember a time when we were sick for a full week in the recent past! We canceled Liz’s tutoring sessions, skipped JM’s classes, and basically camped out in our apartment with Leo’s care and our own survival as our main preoccupations.

Leo really enjoyed this arrangement and made impressive developmental strides in the past week. All in one day he decided to push himself into a sitting position, and then proceeded to pull himself up to standing on our living room furniture. He now tries to pull himself up onto everything and anything, so we’re watching him even more closely to make sure he doesn’t maim himself in the process. He is really fearless. In the past couple of days, his food intake has about doubled. It’s pretty fun to watch him chow down a bowl of cereal and bananas.

We slept in the living room for a few nights while we were sick to make sure Leo wouldn’t be disturbed by our many trips to the bathroom (Leo sleeps in a crib in our room). Lo and behold, he just started sleeping through the night all on his own, going to bed at 7pm and waking up at about 6:30am! Liz is especially excited by this new milestone, and is already feeling less groggy.

Chinese studies were very limited this week, so today was spent taking shifts caring for Leo so we could begin reviewing and catching up. It will be a couple of weeks before we reclaim our lost ground, but we are truly just relieved to be feeling better.