The Things We Take for Granted

November 24th, 2010

Location: My bed

Time: 9:17 p.m.

The temperature has steadily been dropping here in Shanghai and this has led to some serious fall cravings: pumpkin spiced lattes, soccer games wrapped in blankets, crackling fires, and some good old fashioned chili. None of the above can readily be found in China. But, if you look hard and long enough the ingredients for the latter can eventually be attained.


As in, I got a hankering for chili one day and about 3 weeks later it sat bubbling away on my stove top. 3 weeks, 5 trips to different grocery stores, 6 trips to different convenient stores, 2 borrowed knives, 10 texts to neighbors and my roommate, 1 hammer, and 1 nail later I had satisfied at least one fall craving.

The story goes I decided I wanted chili in a big way. But I didn’t want to just go out and buy it; I wanted to make my kitchen official and actually create something. Every once in a while the mood to be all domestic strikes and once I indulge I’m good for at least another six months, give or take a year. This mood required meat, and lots of it, peppers, the spicier the better, and quite the collection of tin cans. After my last debacle with a Chinese grocery store, I realized that they couldn’t offer me much in the way of western demands – at least, I’m pretty sure they don’t, not being able to read Chinese and all, I may be wrong. But, I’m pretty sure I’m not.

So, I hit Carrefoure and did slightly better, but truth be told, not by much. So I journeyed south and ventured into Jing’An’s international market. Other than Italian sausage I managed to cross nearly everything off my list (paprika does not exist in China). Still, despite my burgeoning fridge I wasn’t satisfied with my less than complete list of ingredients. The next day, and *fingers crossed* my last journey to yet another grocery store I stumbled upon Italian sausage all wrapped up in synthetic casing ready to be cooked up in hotdog form. Not necessarily ideal, but it would do. Finally, finally I was going to make me some chili.

I got home, unwound the plastic handles from around my aching fingers, set up my ingredients and got to work. Only to be put to a halt a mere 30 minutes after all my peppers, onions, and celery had been chopped up. The hamburger I had bought smelled disgusting. Utterly disgusting. Guess I should have remembered that I’d accidentally poked a hole in the plastic toting it home a week before. Probably should have also remembered that I’d bought it a week before. No worries, there was that grocery store down the street – the round one with the elevator in the middle – you know, the one entirely in Chinese. I should have remembered that bit too. Because I got there thinking I would recognize ground beef if I saw it, but as far as I could tell, there wasn’t anything in the meat section but pork, pork, and pork, with a little chicken and some fish thrown in on the side. Chinese people love their pork. Thinking maybe I just had the character for beef wrong, I returned home and did a little Google translation. Not keen on the idea of hoofing it all the way back to the store, I popped down to the local grocer – a place I never plan to enter again. They had a lot of pig’s feet but no ground beef. Plan D: text roommate. Fall upon his good graces and his hope for a home cooked meal and salvage the night. Success.

With nothing else to do until Rob returned home I decided to kick back and watch some TV and eat my lunch. Little did I know I should have been employing my time better.

Because eventually Rob did return home with beef in hand, and I fell to my task of chili making. Until I was halted, yet again. Before me sat 8, count ‘em, eight cans of tinned goodess. 8 cans too many. There I was so close to my goal only to be stopped by a flimsy piece of metal. Never again will I take my can opener for granted. I can see it nestled in the drawer beneath the cutting board, tucked away beside knives and other random kitchen paraphernalia. Who knew that such a simple contraption could save hours of work?

Because it can. I would know.

I tried my pocket knife but I decided I’d rather keep my fingers. Went to 1 . . . 2 . . . 3 successive convenient stores. Trekked across the apartment complex (it’s the biggest complex in Shanghai, believe me it’s a trek), went into what my neighbor called a “kitchen store” which was in reality a hodge-podge of well, anything you can imagine jammed into a space the size of my living room – the aisles were literally 12 inches apart, you had to shuffle sideways to get in. Amidst all the junk I found some hooks I needed for my kitchen but no can opener. So, convenient store numbers 4 . . . 5 . . . and 6. By the 6th I decided to actually take a look at the cans in the store and that’s when I finally came to grips with the reality that my situation was hopeless. There are no can openers in China. They don’t need them. Their cans all have a pull tab. All of them. Curse you western cans.

So I pounded on my neighbor’s door and borrowed another knife – a sharp one this time. No, I don’t have knives but that’s a different story. It’s not every day you gambol down the streets wielding a deadly weapon. I felt entirely inconspicuous.

I made it home and attempted to hack into my cans. Failure. Seriously, who knew tin was so resilient? In a last ditch effort, I googled it. I literally put in the words “how to open a tin can without a can opener.” Based on the results, I am not alone in this plight. Solidarity, my can-openerless friends. Solidarity.

So, I didn’t have a can opener and my knives were worth crap. The next best option? 1 hammer, 1 nail, and hours of pounding later, I had my chili. Sort-of. I realized I was short 1 28oz can of diced tomatoes. Shoot me in the face, right now. With nearly 3 pounds of meat in that pot, 28 ounces of tomato was kind-of imperative.

The things I get myself into.

The next day, after finally getting out of work at 6, I returned to the international market and bought that stupid can of tomatoes and returned home to my hammer.

I made that chili and it was delicious. There’s enough to freeze and last me all winter.

I have not stepped foot into a grocery store since.

Totally unrelated, but here's proof of my promise to start seeing more of Shanghai, although I can technically see this from my balcony, it's from a new perspective. Not to mention, it was about time I set foot upon the famous Bund.

And this picture just makes me laugh. Alex, the blurry one, wasn't supposed to be in this shot - just thought he was being sooo funny. Also, came to school this week and discovered that Daniel's once straight as a stick hair is now curly. Same with one of my 5-year-old's. His name is Dennis. Sometimes he has a bow. Uh, Koreans? Explain.

Nope, Still Don't Understand a Lick of Chinese.

November 5th, 2010

2:31 p.m.

Location: My bed

Today was my first real foray into a Chinese supermarket. I’ve been in and out of a few, but usually just to grab a coke or some juice. Today I actually attempted to shop. For those of you doing the math, yes, I’ve been here since late August and yes, I am just now going grocery shopping. No, I have not cooked a single thing since arriving in China – unless you count toast.

Up ‘til now, (and let’s be honest, probably until I learn to read Chinese or get really kitchen savvy) my diet has generally consisted of whatever the office staff orders me at lunch and what I order at – a courier service designed especially for those expats who cannot or just will not cook – or those scared to enter a Chinese supermarket. It’s a website made especially for me. It’s also utterly destroying my budget and my waistline.

And so, today after my Friday cleaning stint I tucked two shopping bags into my satchel and strolled down to my local grocery store.

The store itself is built into one of the buildings in the apartment complex. It is two levels, round, and features two escalators smack dab in the middle. It also features Cosco-sized oil – olive, ‘maize,’ bean something or other, and sunflower – all in bulk, boxes haphazardly strewn about the aisles, workers in blue smocks, and a pervasive, unidentifiable smell that always makes me slightly nauseas. Something about a place that sells food products and also makes me want to vomit doesn’t seem like such a good combination. Oh, this Chinese supermarket also features a lot of Chinese products – advertised in Chinese characters. I could list the number of Chinese characters that I know using only my ten fingers, and I’m not sure that I’d even need all of them. The only one that pertains to food is coffee.

Still, food is food and labels aren’t entirely important if you know food. Oh, except here’s the thing – I don’t really know food. I mean, I know that I enjoy eating it. But back home when I decided to cook, I mean really cook, not just whip up some eggs or pasta, I had to look up a recipe, go grocery shopping for those exact things, and then follow said recipe to the T. I tell people that I can’t really cook, but I can follow a recipe. People who can cook, really cook, don’t use measurements. They throw a little of this and a little of that and wah la!, goodness in a dish. Those people also know food. And spices. And vegetables. My knowledge of fruit and veg comes from my working days at Rossi Farms. Without those hours ringing up cilantro and carrots and 15 different varieties of potatoes all from sight (not a bar code in the old barn) I’d be totally lost in the produce section.

Now, take away all of the signs that identify what it is you’re buying and if you don’t know the difference between cumin and curry at the bulk bins, guess what? Screwed.

Somehow I still managed to load up my plastic cart with odds and ends and found the check-out. There was some kind-of blocker thing impeding my progress to the actual check-out, but the lady was motioning me forward so I just hopped over it. She then started talking to me in Chinese, to which I shook my head. She looked slightly exasperated and repeated herself. I shook my head again. She repeated herself. Again. This time I didn’t bother shaking my head, I just gave her my classic blank look. I’m getting really good at this look. Lady, I get that I’m in your country and you have every right to expect somebody shopping in a grocery store off the beaten path of tourist central to speak a modicum of Chinese. But guess what? I don’t. What’s the definition of insanity? Doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results? Or maybe it’s moving to a country without knowing the language and attempting to go grocery shopping.

Cross your fingers and throw-up a prayer that the meat I bought is in fact ground beef. Please.