Food is such a reminder that one is in a different country.
On Saturday mornings we head over to the local market, a five to ten minute walk over a footbridge, to buy eggs, meat, vegetables and fruit. These are all fresh and reasonably priced. Pointing works well for communication and we use a mixture of looking at the weighing machine, my understanding of Chinese numbers, and trust, for the payment process.
The range of fruit and vegetables is similar to New Zealand, with some things we don’t recognise. We have set ourselves the challenge of buying something that we can’t recognise each week. Examples are relatively flavourless chive like vegetable, small apple like fruit, and couscous like grain. We also bought what we think are Sichuan peppercorn outsides – the numbing bit. We have only used these once, so nervously that they had no effect, so our NZD2 probably gives us enough to last until we leave. The produce has all been great quality and seems to last better than in New Zealand – maybe because it has not sat in a cool store before purchase. Eggplant is a pleasant surprise. Neither of us liked that much before we arrived, but I was charmed by the blended purple green skin so we bought one and it was delicious – firmer and tastier than in New Zealand, and now a weekly purchase for us. There seems to be some seasonal variation. Last weekend was the first time we had seen the small apple like things, and they were everywhere. So I am looking forward to what will pop up next.
Our first visit, we were nervous of buying the meat which sits or hangs in the warm air as below – disconcerting for those of us used to meat cooled in plastic. But we have suffered no ill effects, so now purchase freely. Another kiwi who goes to the market with us, said that a meat inspector friend of his assessed local meat handling practices and concluded that anything purchased before 10am should be fine. The main difference between us and locals is that we buy chicken breasts and chunks of pork without bones, rather than whole chickens, ducks, rabbits, or pork with bones. We also choose to walk past containers with cow stomach, chicken feet, and other parts we are not even sure of, and the live turtles, squid, eels, fowl etc. And we do not ask for our meat to be chopped up into little pieces including bones. Our kiwi friend bought pork spare ribs, and had to stop the vendor chopping them up.
Each week at the market, we also try a local cooked delicacy, with mixed results. The least popular was a ginger fudge look alike that turned out to be cough lolly flavoured. (Small aside, our new toothpaste is bubble gum flavoured with a lingering cough-lolly aftertaste.) My favourite, from our first week, was a ‘birds nest’ type snack, grated deep fried starchy thing with unknown green vegetable and corn threaded through it, but we have not managed to find that vendor again.
The next level of ease are things we can buy within walking distance. We use the local convenience store, right next to where we live, for milk and yoghurt (drink). Last weekend we discovered a supermarket on the way to the market. This has some of what we need – washing powder, butter, chocolate, brie and camembert.
A 30 minute bus ride away is the supermarket we know best. Here we have bought teabags and coffee, bread (sweet), bacon, German sausages, peanut butter, honey, vinegar, salt, pepper, oregano, pasta, cleaning products, and, once we could find them, glad wrap and toiletries. Cereals are limited compared to western countries, but we are both low demand, creatures of habit for breakfast. Raymond is spoilt for choice for rolled oats which locals obviously consume, and I found a nice muesli in the foreign foods section.
For baking, it has been more difficult. I could find many different brands of flour, eventually opting for the one that said multiple purpose in English. I could have bought special dumpling flour. But we have relied on a Chengdu-based foreign foods website that offers same day delivery of foreign foods to purchase other baking ingredients – baking powder, cocoa, sugar and powdered sugar. We haven’t baked anything yet, but wanted to feel we could.
In New Zealand, stir fry and omelettes were our standard evening meals and they are easy to do here. It is hard to cook if I want to follow an online recipe. I decided to try spare ribs given our friend’s positive experience, but struggled to find the required sauce ingredients within walking distance. I selected a recipe with beer in because I knew we had that, replaced barbecue sauce with tomato sauce, paprika with ‘red hot pepper powder’ (similar looking, different tasting), and threw in a random five spice packet that seemed the only western type flavouring in the super market. And then I burnt them anyway.
Then, there are many other supermarkets, each with some things but not others. Each westerner we meet recommends a speciality from another place. We are yet to build a picture of which supermarket has what and is easy to get to and then get into a routine of where to shop for what. I found paprika yesterday in yet another supermarket, along with a cake tin. I have invited several other non-working wives for morning tea next week – let’s hope the cake is better than the ribs.
We have eaten out a bit, but still have much to explore. There are many restaurants near us, but we have tended to socialise with others further afield (often for a kiwi or Australian get-together). So our only nearby experience has been a wonderful dumpling place, where my fledgling Chinese proved useful. Generally, the Chinese food has been delicious. We are already finding favourites – kung pao chicken for Raymond. We rely on pictures to select, which works well most of the time. I was fooled by the intestines looking lovely dotted between vegetables. We tried one of the local delicacies – Sichuan hot pot. You order meat and vegetables to dip into heated spicy oil or broth, and then have a blend of garlic, coriander, sesame oil to dip it into for extra flavour once cooked. Yummy, and fun in that fondue, cook your own meal, kind of way. The local who was with us, was surprised at our limited tastes – no to intestines, stomach and testes – and said she therefore can’t introduce us to her favourite local delicacy.
I feel like our food journey has just begun, so I am sure I will come back to this topic.