Food for thought

Having just finished smacking a god-like amount of meat into patties for a BBQ I’m hosting tomorrow, food isn’t exactly the topic I’m most excited to blog about.

However, a little vodka’n’cranberry therapy at hand, it’s time I tackle a topic I’ve been meaning to address for a while now – the biggest bone of contention between my wife and I. Yup, it’s food.

Coming from two wildly different cultures, it’s likely of little surprise that we differ quite a lot. I’m outgoing, she’s introverted; I joke, she scowls (even at my best material); she’s fit, I’m … not; I’m flexible mentally, she’s flexible physically; I’m creative, she’s practical; I grew up playing with Transformers, she grew up playing with dirt (a fact she loves to remind me of when I get a bit too bourgeois for her commie sensibilities).

But despite, or perhaps because of, all our differences we get along amazingly well – except when it comes to food.

You only need to take a quick look at me to realize I am a man that likes to eat. I really enjoy food. And because I enjoy food, I also enjoy the creation of food. I like the idea that I can go into the kitchen and make something that is nearly as decent to eat as a good restaurant. I like finishing putting together a meal, sitting down and enjoying it.

My wife is much more utilitarian when it comes to food. Whether she likes something or not is largely based on two factors – is it healthy, and therefore something she can use to benefit herself; or is it food she’s eaten all her life, and therefore unquestionably comfortable.

The first bit irritates me, but I could certainly lose a few pounds, so am not at all opposed to eating healthily. I, perhaps mistakenly, assume that healthy food can taste good as well.

But that second part – there’s no rationale.

This penchants for only eating that which is familiar is a trait I’ve seen wide-spread across China, and it’s a pain in the ass. Commonly, cuisine neatly falls into the well-worn structure that seems to permeate the entire country:

  • Home
  • Home Town
  • Province
  • Region
  • Country
  • Foreign

Allegiance, dialect, gastronomical preference… it all sits in the same framework.

For me, I look at food like I look at music. I enjoy music. I have my preferences, but because I appreciate music for music’s sake, I can easily recognize quality music even when it sits outside the sphere I’m comfortable with.

Good music is, quite simply, good music. And, I believe, good food is good food.

As such, I love eating all kinds of food, and all nations’ food. So, to me I look at a week and see an opportunity to try food from seven different places – each one unique from the last.

So when my wife suggests that eating so much “foreign food” is too much and feels we should do 50/50 Chinese/Foreign (to be fair) – I protest. I protest because I really don’t want to eat that much Chinese food, but I also protest on principle.

To me this doesn’t just boil down to “cultural differences”, it is just bad math. Thai food, or Indian food, or Japanese food are no closer to my “home town food” than Chinese food. It’s wrong that it be lumped in with it.

Fortunately the saving grace in all this is that more than health and comfort, my wife just loathes cooking. She does it, and she’s good at it, but she doesn’t take any joy from it. It’s a task that must be done and is not meant to be enjoyed.

And as I’ve stated, I quite like cooking. So, after months, years really, of arguing about this we’re shifting tactics. Whereas we’ve always split cooking duties, starting today I am our home’s sole chef.

I’ve free range to cook whatever I want, but must make a solid effort to cook Chinese dishes a couple times a week. I get to take the reigns in the kitchen, and as a trade off Maggie gets out of ever having to lift a spatula or learn the difference between tomato sauce and ketchup.

We’ll see how it goes. I can easily foresee some potholes in the path ahead, but I’m pretty excited to finally have an excuse to really explore cooking. All recipes graciously accepted.

8 Responses

  1. I cooked to pay my through my uni and over time, I really began to enjoy it. I went from getting to paid to cook to paying for it. (much to the delight of my lazy ass roommates)
    As it stands now, I’ve been in China a little over a year and I’ve hardly cooked at all. I’ll eat in, but I haven’t been cooking for scratch. There’s a lot of reasons for this (I work a lot of nights, my kitchens not great…er, blows, I haven’t done the proper utensil/cookware shopping run yet, etc)
    Anyway, I’m thinking once I get a little more settled in I’m going to get back behind the pans.
    One thing I’m considering is hiring a cooking ayi for only a few days a week and seeing how that goes. I’m not sure how long I would keep the service, but it would be a great way to learn some Chinese ancient techniques (ahem, recipes)
    Check out Rice Again for some ideas.
    Good luck and may the force be with you.

  2. @Jason: Despite loving to cook back home, I didn’t cook in China for a long time; mostly for the same reasons you mentioned – just not having a well-prepped kitchen.

    I don’t much have that excuse anymore. Plus, because we live in a pretty swank neighborhood there are few, if any, cheap Chinese eateries and so cooking at home is, once again, a cost saver.

    I have no idea why it didn’t occur to me to check out Rice Again, a fellow Suzhou expat, for recipes. I should pay more attention to the blogs I host haha.

    The aiyi thing is something we’ve considered (for cleaning as well), but it just seems wrong. I’m middle-class, I have no right to have servants.

    As a zuofan laoshi though, that’s a thought.

  3. I know how you feel about the ayi. Actually, the apt I’m in now already had an ayi when I moved in. I continued the service until I realized that most of the time she was here cleaning, I was sitting around or just being lazy. I had to man up on that one.
    Also, I actually don’t mind cleaning. It gives me an excuse to blare music for an hour or two.

    Once I’m busy enough to justify it, I’ll consider a cooking ayi though. The prospect of home cooked food on a regular basis is just to hard to resist…

  4. My mother-in-law cooks for us–really good Chinese food. But I’ve also managed to get in the kitchen a few times. I got them to enjoy gumbo, shepherd’s pie, and some other oven-baked meals. Fortunately, my wife is an adventurous eater and loves trying non-Chinese cuisine…still can’t believe I got her to like pastrami on rye when she visited the US.

  5. My culinary skills are very basic, so too my wife’s. Fortunately she is very open-minded about the food she eats and has taken to baguettes and pasta with a passion.

    It irks me considerably that Chinese people generally turn their noses up at any food unfamiliar to them, having been indoctrinated with the idea that their food is superior to any other country’s, and that westerners live on bread and beef.

    Further, ‘What to eat’ is the number one concern voiced by my students when asked about the difficulties of living or studying overseas, and that includes those heading to Italy. Go figure.

  6. I’m (slowly) teaching myself how to cook. It doesn’t always taste good, but I enjoy experimenting with food. Like the time soon after we arrived in Suzhou when our fridge was basically empty; I made an omelet of eggs, “Laughing Cow” cheese, green olives, and picked red peppers. It wouldn’t win any awards, but it was edible. (my wife may take issue with that assessment…)

    Re: Stuart: “that westerners live on bread and beef”, when I read this I immediately thought of all those times my Korean students asked me what Canadians eat… and how there was no easy answer to this questions. I always started by mumbling something about poutine and maple syrup and then stumbled my way into a discussion about Canadian ethnic heterogeneity. In the end, my poor fourth graders were annoyed, bored, and still had no idea what Canadians eat. Next time it comes up, I think I’ll just tell them Green Olive Omelets and leave it at that.

  7. Pingback: Living in China is Easy… | A China Blog on Suzhou Expat Life | The Humanaught

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *