My New Favourite Machine

I bought a rice cooker a couple of months ago and it is the best investment I have made in a while. In my new flat, I have an electric hob, and well, we all know how difficult it is to cook rice well on a gas hob without having the rice sticking to the pan or burning…let alone on an electric one where it’s harder to control the temperature.

The one I bought also has a steaming tray, so it is already multifunctional in that sense, but last week I used it to cook something even better!

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My friend came over, we made Chinese hotpot in the rice cooker and it was such a good meal. The paste was £1.50 from a Chinese supermarket and all we really had to do was chop the vegetables (we had a meat-free hotpot).

Hotpot is a real winter staple in China, and it’s different from a normal soup. Using chopsticks, you cook your own food in the pot bit by bit. There are things like potatoes and tofu which kind of fall to the bottom and are difficult to grab again, and broccoli and sweetcorn that float on the top. Once your pieces are ready, you can eat them straight from the main pot, or leave them to cool a little bit in your own personal bowl. Typically, in Chinese restaurants there are various bits and pieces you can mix together to create your own sauce – my favourite being peanut sauce, sesame oil and garlic.

It’s spicy, warm, filling and all done in my new favourite machine – the rice cooker. It’s now going to be a staple piece of equipment for my home.

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Veganuary – 6 weeks later

The Veganuary website claims that after Veganuary, almost half of participants will continue eating a vegan diet, do you think I am one of these?

Well actually, I haven’t decided to continue with veganism, because it’s difficult in China and that might sound like an excuse, but it really is hard to eat a vegan diet here. You have to carefully choose dishes and then check that they don’t add any strips of meat, an egg or a meat based sauce to it, which is tricky with the language barrier and because veganism isn’t commonplace in China.

I felt reasonably healthy when eating a vegan diet, and although it made me eat much more fruit, try new vegetables and eat more nuts, I did feel hungry between meals and I missed snacking on biscuits and Chinese sweet bread.

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My fruit bowl

Veganuary has made me change my breakfast habit of guessing in the canteen and usually getting disappointed as I ended up eating something greasy, to eating a healthy bowl of oats, fruit and nuts each morning. This has been a positive change and it’s a great way to start the day, especially as mangoes and strawberries are in season right now.

I would describe my diet now as pescatarian, I eat fish about four days a week, but have cut my meat consumption right down, for a few reasons – food safety, animal cruelty, and environment. I’m currently reading Doing Good Better, and I learnt that in comparison, chickens actually suffer more than other animals, so I’m trying not to eat chicken at the moment. I also read about chemically made eggs being prevalent in China, so am eating less eggs, as I’m afraid they will be the chemical type and unnatural.

There are exceptions though, when I went to Hangzhou I ate a paella with chicken in it, and when I went out to eat with my friends, I also ate a pork dish. I’m surprised how easy it’s been to continue not eating meat, I thought I would crave meat as soon as Feb 1st came around, but I didn’t.

So am I still eating vegan? No, but I have cut down my meat and egg consumption and am eating more tofu than ever before – I really like the Japanese style tofu a nearby restaurant does. I eat fish because I like the taste of it and I think it has great health benefits. There are lots of fish in the canteen, some with bones, some without – it’s a bit tricky to eat with chopsticks but I’m getting there!

When China Lets You Down

When you think of China, what are the first things you think about? Fortune cookies, panda bears, rice? Well one of the things I think about is Chinese New Year. Celebrated according to the lunar calendar, it’s China’s biggest festival, with people enjoying up to a week off work. People shut up shop in the big cities and go back home to small villages and towns to celebrate with their families.

Ever since I started learning Chinese, I’ve wanted to be in China for lunar new year, even though our university held new years meals, and some fireworks were set off at Lakeside in Nottingham, it just didn’t come close to videos I’ve seen of being in China.

This year, I finally got the chance to be in China for the holiday, I was in Chongqing and a new friend of mine invited me to her house for Chinese new years eve 除夕, which is the most important day. Usually on this day, the whole family gathers and eats a huge feast, with no less than 10 different dishes. Everyone in the family sits down together to make dumplings (one of my favourite Chinese foods) and will watch CCTV’s Spring Festival Gala on TV, four hours of almost torture for locals and foreigner as the performances aren’t very awe-inspiring and the songs are full of propaganda messages with titles like A Beautiful China Rises (美丽中国走起来) and Without the Communist Party, There is No New China (没有共产党就没有新中国). No matter how corny it is, I wanted to be watching it and complaining with everyone else before setting off fireworks at 12am to scare away the evil ‘nian’ monster who comes once a year.

But unfortunately I didn’t get to experience a ‘typical’ new year. I went to my friends house and there was no dumpling making, her auntie would be making dinner for my friend, her husband and son, her brother, her parents, two uncles, her grandma and me. I asked if she could manage by herself and my friend told me it was fine, her auntie could manage. I couldn’t hear any sizzling of oil in the pan, nor could I smell garlic, ginger or chilli, as is usual with Chinese cuisine.

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Soon enough, dinner was ready, I went to the kitchen table and there were two hot plates on the table and two big metal bowls, one spicy, one not. My friend’s auntie brought various vegetables and fish to put in the bowls to be cooked and that was our 年夜饭 (big new years dinner). I was upset not to have any dumplings or tens of dishes to choose from. Because I’m not good at eating Chongqing spicy food, I was mostly eating from the non-spicy pot and it was basically just a hotpot.

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Diandian playing with a sparkler

We went to set off some fireworks with my friend’s son about 8pm on the basketball court, but most of them failed or were a safety hazard. We had the Spring Gala on the TV in the background, but it was muted as one of the uncles decided to bring his accordion so that I could translate the words on the bottom of it – nothing interesting, just ‘authentic Sonora product, distributed by Maxims co.’. So we listened to him playing the accordion for a while, he was really good but I missed a lot of the TV show.

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The first song he played was ‘Jingle Bells’

Then, after a bowl of 汤圆, small hot dumplings with sesame inside, we all went to our individual homes. I thought we’d all stay together to see in the new year, but I was back at my place on my own just after 11pm. I didn’t have a TV so couldn’t watch any type of countdown, so just played on my phone, sending and receiving 红包s – interactive envelopes with money inside that you can actually spend.

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Tang yuan

From 11.45pm onwards, all I could hear was a constant banging, cracking and squealing of fireworks from surrounding neighbours. I was a bit let down and sad I wasn’t there with anyone setting off fireworks together, but I guess it was safer to watch them from the balcony.

So when people ask me “how was Chinese new year? It must have been amazing to have been there in China for it” well yes it was great to be here, but nothing special happened for me. I’d only met this friend once before, so not being very close to her made it a little awkward, along with how everyone was speaking Chongqing dialect which I can’t understand and the fact that I was coming down with a bad cold just topped it all off. Either way, good riddance to my unlucky year of the goat and I’m hoping the year of the monkey will be a good one.

Veganuary – No meat on that

As I’m studying in China, I’m living in student dormitories, where kitchen facilities are pretty lacking. As it’s cheap and easy, I always eat out, whether it’s in the school canteen, restaurants or get a takeaway delivered (which is the same price, if not cheaper than actually walking to the restaurant myself). This makes eating vegan difficult, as I’m not 100% in control of what I eat. The chefs control the portions, flavours and even if you ask for a vegetable dish like 鱼香茄子 (fish flavoured aubergine, but it doesn’t come with fish), it will still come with shredded bits of pork on it, unless you specifically ask them not to put meat on it.

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It looked harmless, but there were bits of pork inside

At first, when I asked them for dishes without meat in, people are shocked – who orders a meat dish and asks for no meat to be put it in it? It sounds silly, but a lot of meals in China will contain meat, whether it says it in the description or not. But after the initial shock, they are usually more than willing to make something a little different for me, they lower the price and will answer my request not to put meat in it.

Let’s look at some more pictures:

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Biangbiang mian

These noodles originate from Xi’an and the character for them is the most complicated, it’s not even on a standard keyboard. The noodles are long, thin strips, and there is a vinegary sauce at the bottom. It’s topped with beansprouts, leaves and spices, which you mix together before eating. Really yummy.

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The wonton shop served pork and veg or prawn and veg wontons, neither of which I was prepared to eat. But I asked them if they could make me a set that was only vegetables and they agreed. The sauces were a sweet apple sauce and a sweet and sour sauce too. Very tasty indeed.

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煲仔饭

This is rice in a hot dish (which keeps it fluffy and warm) and all of the menu had different types of meat in – pork, beef etc. But I told the lady I didn’t eat meat and she put this together for me, green beans, leaves, pickled veg and peas. It was really really tasty.

So if you explain nicely to chefs in small and quiet establishments, you can get vegan/veggie friendly options.

Veganuary – Cheat Days

So here are a couple of pictures to show what vegan things I have managed to find in the canteen, this was my lunch on day 5: garlic pumpkin, simple cabbage/tofu/leaves and broccoli/carrots. The second picture is just to show you how much rice I can and do eat. Yes this is a meal for one, haha.

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It cost me 4.4 yuan (44p)

I’m treating Veganuary as a type of Lent (the 40 days before Easter where I usually give up eating chocolate). And as with Lent, I am finding there are cheat days. During Lent, some people say that Sundays and Saints Days don’t count, so you can do/eat the things you pledged to give up on those days.

The Veganuary cheats I’ve had have happened during the last three days, where I ate in different situations:

  • a KitKat chunky
  • Boiled pork
  • Spaghetti carbonara

Day 3: The boiled pork was something more difficult for me. I went to a restaurant with a friend for a catch up after not seeing each other for a few weeks, and when we ordered, I told him I wasn’t eating meat during January. When we’ve eaten out before, we’ve shared 2 meat and one veg dish. We chose 2 veg dishes, but he kept looking at the meat and I knew that was what he wanted to order. He chose this boiled pork in a spicy sauce as it was lighter and not fried. I felt like I couldn’t persuade him not to order it and I was obliged to share it with him.

Did I know it wasn’t vegan? Yes.
Did I enjoy it? No.

I wasn’t really in the mood to eat meat, but ate a bit to be polite, I mainly picked out the cabbage from underneath the meat.

Day 4: The KitKat chunky was not an accident, I came back to Jinhua after a few weeks away and found some Christmas presents that I didn’t take away with me to India as I knew what they were. I opened the KitKat chunkys [which are my favourite chocolate bar] and knew I was going to eat one. I had one earlier last year, but didn’t enjoy it, as it had been contaminated by the mint Aero (the only downfall of a variety pack of chocolates).

Did I know it wasn’t vegan? Yes.
Did I enjoy it? Yes.

I think the difference between the pork and the chocolate was that the pork was definitely and clearly meat – the texture, taste, smell, name. Nothing mislead me and I felt a bit bad. But with the Kitkat, it’s not like I could taste the milk in it.

Day 6: The carbonara was a translation miscommunication. I went to a Halal/Arabic restaurant and noticed there was a lot of meat on the menu, so asked the waitress what dishes she could make without meat, she said ‘noodles with mushrooms’, which sounded great. Then when it came out, it was carbonara, which was made from cream. I’m not the type of person to turn food away or send it back to the kitchen to be thrown in a bin, so I ate it.

Did I know it wasn’t vegan? No.
Did I enjoy it? Yes.

It was nice to have a good vegetarian pasta dish, ok it wasn’t vegan, but it was a nice meal that wasn’t Chinese – sometimes Chinese food can get a bit samey.

As predicted, it is hard to eat vegan in a country where it’s not understood or accepted by society. Today I also went to a cafe and asked the waitress to recommend something without dairy in it, she suggested a ‘milk tea’.

 

Food Waste – China

Food waste is a massive problem all across the world. There are plenty of articles online about how the food wasted by X amount of people could feed a million people for X amount of time. Even in the UK, it’s not just the food we don’t eat on our plate, the food that’s not eaten and goes rotten in cupboards and fridges, restaurants serving  big portions that people are unable to finish and supermarkets binning food close to or dead on it’s sell-by date.

So what’s the food waste like in China? When you first come to China, you probably think there’s a lot of food waste, and there definitely is. Even after the hard times during the Cultural Revolution, where famine victims were forced to eat mud named after the Buddhist Goddess of Compassion and Mercy [观音土], it seems modern Chinese society are very much set in the habit of wasting food.

At many average restaurants (the ones I regularly eat at) and in the canteen, you will often see the ‘slop bucket’ of leftovers, and in the canteen you are expected to clear away your own leftovers into the communal bin.

At meals out, with friends or colleagues, there inevitably be food left over. As, in China, sociable meals are ate around a round table, where each person takes as much or little as they want from the middle and puts it in their own bowl, there’s no way to pinpoint who’s to blame for the wasted food. When I asked a Chinese friend his opinion on food waste, he said that none of the food gets wasted, as it will be collected in buckets and given to pigs and cows to eat, therefore it is all recycled in the food chain. But I don’t know how true that is, since one time I saw a worker lift up a paving slab on campus and pour a slop bucket into a hole in the ground…I don’t know how deep the hole was, but there was certainly a lot of wasted food down there.

On the other hand, does China waste less food than us civilised Westerners do? When we go to the fridges in the supermarket to buy meat, we find nicely sliced chicken breasts, a “whole” chicken (with no head and no insides) and all of these other nicely packaged good, hassle free cuts of meat. In China however, in the supermarket you can find the heads of animals, which are often a speciality. Chinese people eat chicken hearts, chicken feet, gizzard, liver etc. They must be shocked when they shop in the UK and discover a ‘whole chicken’ doesn’t include the feet. I wonder how Tesco would respond to that query.

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Duck heads and Wings

So in this sense, they really make the most out of each animal that is killed for human consumption.

On a similar note, at fruit stalls, you will often have different prices for the same fruit, depending on how it looks. Red apples may be 5rmb/500g, but the ones that have bruises, are a weird shape or are already turning yellow are sold for 3rmb/500g. Sure these cheap apples may increase your risk of being ill, especially if you have a sensitive stomach, but it’s something that may prevent them getting thrown away or left to rot. I buy plenty of 3rmb apples and touch wood haven’t been ill.

In China, I think the food waste problem is much more visual than in the UK, where things are taken away to the kitchen before being scraped into a bin or supermarkets empty their ‘gone off’ food in big waste containers in the dead of night, whereas in China, you may be sitting opposite the slop bucket or see a big pile of rotting fruit on the street.

I think both countries acknowledge that this is a problem, but it’s not a priority at the moment. How many British households separate food waste, use a composter or make a conscious effort to cut down on food waste? Not enough, as I’m certain we are all guilty of seeing the first dots on a slice of bread,  seeing one yoghurt is out of date and or seeing one cherry tomato go furry before chucking the whole lot out into the regular bin.

Back to China, there are signs in the canteen persuading students not to be leftover boys and girls* and I think it is part of the Civilised Society vision that Xi Jinping has for China, but while servings are too big, and all people are unaware of the scale of wasted food, we will still nervously pour the remains of our dinner into the slop bucket, hoping that there’s no splashback.

*This is a pun on a modern day saying 剩女, which is a person over 30 years old who is unmarried

龙游 Swimming Dragon

Last weekend, I was invited to a town not far from Jinhua (15 mins by high-speed train and 30mins by normal train) called Longyou [swimming dragon or maybe dragon swims, dragons swimming, smt like that!]. It’s a small town.

The moment I stepped off the train, I felt like I was in the countryside, lots of fields were nearby, chickens running around and the air smelt so fresh and clean…or maybe that was just because I’d spent 15mins on a hot and stuffy train.

A friend of a dean at my university invited me there to be a judge at his school’s English reading competition. The competitors were all children aged 9-12 and they had to give a short self-introduction, then read a dialogue that they had prepared before the competition, then read a dialogue that they had not prepared.

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The third-prize winners

The competition was a lot of fun, with 27 young boys and girls in total. Some were funny, others more serious but they were all so brave to stand up on the stage and give a performance in a different language. I don’t know many British 10 year olds who would be willing to do that!

After the competition, the school’s director invited me and the teachers out for some food. I’d been told that Longyou is famous for it’s duck heads, but when I arrived, they told me that it’s speciality dish is 3 heads – duck head, fish head and rabbit head. They asked me which one I wanted to try, and I’m much braver with Chinese food now, so decided on the rabbit head after I refused the fish head and a lady told me duck head tastes horrible.

The heads arrived, along with chicken feet, tofu and small steamed buns. It was a bit gross when I came across the teeth, but I continued to finish the head and even summed up the courage to eat the tongue! That night, I didn’t know what would haunt my nightmares, the rabbit I just ate, the chicken feet or the ghostly picture on the wall.

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The next day, I went to the Longyou Grottoes, a place only recently discovered and claims to be the 9th wonder of the world, alongside the Sphinx, Terracotta Warriors etc. They are underground grottoes, that were found empty in the 90s. There’s no historical record of them ever being built and it’s still a mystery, what were they used for, who built them, why, why are the ceilings decorated with perfect lines? As Longyou is a small city off the tourist trail and it was a drizzly November Sunday, the place was really quiet, and it was nice to be able to peacefully look around the place, rather than have Chinese people taking pictures of me.

There was also a very nice Buddhist temple at the back of the attraction, where different houses held different coloured and shaped Buddhist statues. The smell of incense was nice and it was very peaceful, but also a little eerie, I felt like I was trespassing.

Should you visit Longyou? Well it was a nice getaway trip for me, as it was really close by. The grottoes were historically interesting and mysterious, but at the end of the day, were still just underground spaces with nothing inside [nothing much to see]. I loved the experience of being a judge at the speech competition, I was very harsh and didn’t give anybody 100% (there’s always room for improvement). I may or may not go back to Longyou, but it was a great experience and a lovely trip to escape from the manic life I have on campus.

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Luckily I didn’t take my restaurant, would have been banned!

Breakfast – the most complicated meal of the day

Usually, we are used to hearing how breakfast is the most ‘important’ meal of the day. But I’ve found in China, it’s turning out to be the most complicated meal of the day.

The last time I was in China, there was a small row of shops and food stalls right outside my dormitory, so I could buy fruits and (China’s sweet) bread for breakfast, no problem. Here, in Jinhua, my dormitory is really far from anything. They put the foreigners in the furthest corner of the university, as you can see from my brilliant Paint skills.

Annotated Campus Map
Annotated Campus Map

The orange star in the bottom right corner is our dorm, and to get to the pink star, it takes at least 7mins to get there. At the pink star there is a school canteen and a small building with some small restaurants and a supermarket. It’s ok, but there’s not a great amount of choice. Then there’s the yellow star ‘Beimen’. Although beyond the gate, it looks like there is nothing there, it’s actually where life begins. There is a range of fruit stalls, book stores, coffee shops, restaurants, phone repair shops, nail salons, a gym, KTV, a couple of hotels. Rumour is, anything you need, you can find it in Beimen. Someone once told me there is a place which sells Oreo McFlurries!

There’s no proper milk to have cereals here and don’t even mention the T word. It’s too far to go to Beimen for breakfast (about 1.7km from our dorm) so I go to the canteen in the mornings. In the canteen at lunch and dinner times, it’s quite straightforward – you choose if you want a small or large bowl of white or egg friend rice then go to choose which bits you want – fish, chicken, pork, veg, they have it all on tiny dishes and you get what you see.

But it’s different at breakfast time and I still haven’t figured it all out.

There are bowls of porridge you can get, I like the red one, but not the white one. It’s hot porridge and has grainy bits, like rice inside. Then everything else is like a mystery to me.

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包子*

There is always 包子, small wrapped steamed buns containing meat or veg. But often there is no sign to say which type they are. They are on the counter in large steaming circles and once I took two from two different places, thinking they’d have different stuffings, but they were both pork.

They usually have these round bread like circles, stuffed with meat, potatoes or vegetables. But they are all fried and are dripping in oil so I only made that mistake once.

Then the canteen always seems to want to trick me, and test me. They tease me with things that look familiar and then totally ruin it. There was once a round orangey thing that had the character 糕 (cake) in it. There was what looked to be sprinkled bits of coconut on top so I took one. I bit into it, and it was an oily fried circle of sweet potato, with bits of sugar on top – not the cake I was expecting.

Another time I saw what I thought was a cheese toastie, there were two triangles of bread placed together and although there was batter on the outside (they’d been deep fried) I took one, eager to have my first bit of bread. I bit into a corner and saw a yellow filling inside. Then when I got to tasting the filling, it was the Chinese custard they use in cakes – no cheese and I didn’t know why they deep fried it.

Once I picked up a bowl of white liquid, thinking it was yoghurt. Other students were putting sugar and what I thought was dried fruit into it. I did the same, but the white liquid was a warm solid, jelly-like soya bean thing. And I don’t like jelly. The ‘dried fruit’ was actually pickled vegetables and the sugar didn’t make it bearable – what a waste of 20p, I didn’t eat it.

Sometimes there are nice surprises, like when I got a pancake, opened it and found a fried egg and sausage inside. That was pleasant. I also had a nice nutty squishy triangle thing one time. They change the breakfast everyday, so I still have many things to try in the canteen. It’s sometimes fun, not knowing what you’re going to be eating, but there are days when I would just love a bowl of muesli or some honey on toast.

*Sorry, my USB ports on my laptop have all broken so I can’t upload any of my own pictures until I get it fixed =(