Monday, November 03, 2008

Learning How to Eat!

I've heard it said that when you move to a different culture/country, it takes a while to "learn to eat" there. The food may be different, the preparation and methods are different, and the seasoning is different. The way of eating may be different, and the finished product and taste is almost always, most certainly, different. This takes some getting used to.

Looking back over almost five years in this country, I can say with confidence that I have learned how to eat here! Just for fun, here are some of the bumps in the road along the way . . .

Intially I loved the food. It all tasted good to me, was cheap, and I didn't have to cook it myself! (Because we lived in a dorm room without a kitchen when we first arrived.) I soon learned some of the names of our favorite dishes, with ba si di gua (carmelized sweet potatoes) topping the list.

Then pregnancy nausea hit me about five months after we moved, and suddenly nothing tasted good. I quickly lost 10-plus pounds since all I could manage to get down each day was some crackers that tasted like too-oily saltines and a fried egg sandwich that was made down in the little snack bar on the first floor of our dorm. I had to make sure, though, to ask for the sandwich without ketchup, cucumber slices or the mayonnaise which they usually put on it. (!)

At that point, all the food tasted too ginger-y and way too garlic-y, two ingredients used fresh in almost every stir-fried food I tried here. I went through several months of eating basically mantou, a steamed bread which is very bland and plain, and a few bites of veggies when I could manage it.

It was with great relief that we moved to an apartment where we then had our own kitchen. I could finally make some simple western food and that agreed with me better. But after my nausea abated, I found that I really enjoyed eating the local food occasionally, and so John and I would often order in on a night when I didn't feel like cooking.

Finally by then I got used to buying my eggs from a street vendor. The eggs in the street and the grocery store are not refrigerated, and so actually, buying them off the street is safer, since they are fresher. There was also the notable instance where we were having guests for supper and I needed some pork, and was forced to buy it from a street vendor since I didn't have enough time to travel to the grocery store. (I washed it thoroughly upon arriving home!) After cooking and eating it, both John and I declared it the most delicious pork we had ever tasted! It had probably just been butchered the night before or early that morning!

So, slowly, slowly, we've gotten used to the food. Fast forward to the present. Now, I eat local food basically every day. Rice is also a staple. (I prefer the Thai jasmine rice which is readily available but more expensive than the rice grown in this country). Because of my family's love for rice pudding, I sometimes find that we eat rice at every meal! Today for example, I had some rice pudding topped with homemade granola for breakfast, we had several stir-fried dishes for lunch with rice, and I ate some lunch leftovers for supper since John was out tonight.

As I mentioned in my last post, I really appreciate the freshness of the fruits and vegetables here. Now that we have Lou cooking lunch for us every day, we take full advantage of this. She goes out each morning to the street market and buys what just came in on the truck from the countryside greenhouses a few hours before. Today at lunch we had a delicious dish of baby bok choy stir-fried with shiitake mushrooms, as well as a spicy chicken dish, stir-fried egg and tomato, and glass noodles with shredded cucumber and pork. I have now gotten to the point where I crave the local food and feel like I am missing something if I don't eat it for a few days. It also doesn't seem like an indulgence to eat a lot of it: "Why yes, I think I will help myself to some more of that baby bok choy!"

We often find ourselves following the local custom: "zao chi hao, zhong chi bao, wan chi shao", which means at breakfast eat healthy, at lunch eat until you're full, and at supper eat only a little. So it works out great that Lou makes a great lunch for us each day--then we can eat a simple western meal or have leftovers for supper. Even our eating habits have changed from the typical western style where you just eat a bit of lunch to get by and then have a full supper. We still sit down for supper but it is a simpler meal.

So I guess I have really learned how to eat here. I practically feel like a local in terms of my eating habits--who ever knew I could love to eat tofu, or lotus root, or cabbage, or rice so much! We now have several "western" veggies that we enjoy the most in their stir-fried form. Lou, my helper, makes a wonderful dish with carrots, potatoes, and meat cut paper thin and stir fried together--it's tasty! I'm not a local, though, in my seafood-eating; I still stay away from that and fish as well, only because they hack through all the bones and no matter how careful you are, the bones end up in your mouth!, and I don't eat some of the weird stuff like congealed blood and bugs of various sorts.

Here's the kicker: last Saturday morning as a "special treat" John went out early and stood in the line to buy you tiao from a small vendor in the alley that leads up to our apartment complex. It is basically a fried dough in the shape of a long stick which puffs up dramatically when deep fried and is light and crispy. Locals usually eat it dipped in soy milk but we prefer to dip in sweetened condensed milk. It's not Krispy Kreme, but pretty good nonetheless! I also don't think it will replace cinnamon rolls in our hearts, but still . . . who could have thought I would consider it a special treat?! We've learned how to eat!


Morello Madness said...

JiaYou Wind family! I not sure we'll ever see the day that we "crave" the local food here. I'd say we do better than we did a year ago, but still have a long way to go before we meet your enthusiasm for the local goods!

Gretchen said...

Rach, this was such a fun and fascinating post! I really enjoyed reading about your food journey! :) You make everything sound so yummy when you write about it!

The Culbertsons said...

Rachel, you are to be admired for embracing the food as you have (at least in my humble opinion). I didn't visit for that long, but do you remember after a week I was craving mac-n-cheese? It is amazing how your cravings can change and what a blessing it is for you! Western food will be a novelty to your girls when they visit the states again!

Kevin & Becky Peek said...

I've got a looooong way to go. Yes, a long way.