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.

The Day I Lost my Face

Face is an Asian and Chinese concept, and losing face is not a good thing. It involves things like feeling embarrassed, being showed up by other people etc. Like if a couple went on a date and the girl paid for dinner, the guy would have lost his face, because traditionally, it should be him paying.

So last week I lost my face…

I’d been on a day trip with my friend Marisol to pick waxberries in her hometown, 千岛湖, which is a beautiful part of Zhejiang, with a huge river created when they built a dam. It’s green, leafy and the air is fresh. We picked waxberries from the little island her father owns as it’s now the season for them. The dark ones are sweet, but the others can be bitter. I ate quite a few while we were picking them and late that evening, Marisol gave me a basket to take home.

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Waxberries don’t keep too well, so you need to eat them fast. I’d already eaten enough that day, so on my way back to my house, I passed by my 兰州拉面 restaurant (a Halal noodle restaurant that’s popular in China). The owners are always very friendly to me and specially make me noodles depending on how I’m feeling.

I saw the man outside and offered him the waxberries. He said no thanks. I said go on, just have a couple, we just picked them from Thousand Island Lake. He refused again. I was like please, there’s too many for me, just take some. He refused again, so I walked away. Half way down the road I realised why he’d said no…

It’s Ramadan and it was still daytime.

I definitely lost my face, and haven’t returned there since.

Things that worry me in China

I’ve been living in China for over a year (cumulatively) and there are some things that I and other foreigners worry about. I don’t worry about them on a daily basis, but they are things that kind of linger in the back of my mind.

How bad is the pollution today?

China is very polluted, there’s air and water pollution all across the country, and the weather forecast often tells you the Air Quality Index of which city you’re in. Except, there is a large difference between what the Chinese government says, and the USA (who also have weather/pollution monitors set up in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou) says.

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A very foggy afternoon in Qingdao

Is this food safe to eat?

Food safety isn’t regarded as highly in China as it is in other countries. At home, restaurants have a 5 star health and safety rating, and they’re usually always 4 or 5. In China, there is an ABC rating, along with a green, yellow or red face that’s either happy, apathetic or sad. I’ve only ever seen two green A ratings in China, one in a hospital canteen and one in a Japanese restaurant. All the rest have been C’s, meaning the way they prepare food isn’t very sanitary. But I still eat in these places, because there’s no other choice, and the locals all do it too.

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Sometimes they try and hide it

 

Is this real?

Similar to the food, there are a lot of fake products in China, electrical goods, alcohol, luxury brands, even money can be faked. I bought a dictionary online and after using it for a few weeks, I realised that some of the pages were printed incorrectly, and the quality of the paper is not consistent. Fake products are cheaper and sometimes are just as good, but for example when I bought my router, I didn’t know if it would be ok or trip the electrics (luckily it didn’t).

Will the police take me away?

I have a lot of respect for the police in any country, but something scares me about the police in China. I don’t know where it’s come from, but there is this fear that at any moment, the police could knock down my door, confiscate my laptop and arrest me for using a vpn or something.

Is my phone tapped? Is someone listening to/watching me?

Phone tapping and governments screening people’s emails etc is no new thing, it happens all over the world. But I’m worried someone is listening to me sometimes, especially when I say negative things about certain stuff, if you get me.

Don’t think I’m paranoid, I’m sure lots of people living in China worry about these things too. And it’s ok, because I’m leaving soon!

Peer Pressure

When I hear the words ‘peer pressure’, it immediately takes me back to secondary school and being told not to give in to peer pressure from older students trying to get us to take drugs or alcohol, those kinds of things. But in reality, I never experienced any type of (direct) peer pressure in school. Quite the opposite, now I’ve grown up, I’m experiencing more peer pressure than ever.

I think peer pressure has been thrown together with words like ‘bullying, alcohol, drugs, smoking’ etc for too long, and in reality, your peers can pressure you into doing a lot of things.

Food : I took part in Veganuary and it was pretty difficult to follow it through anyway, since I am living in a country that doesn’t have much awareness of veganism, but also because of the influence of my friends. If we went out to eat, as in China you share the dishes you order, there was always meat on the table, and I would be encouraged to eat. I told my friends I didn’t want to, because I was taking part in Veganuary, but it wasn’t really accepted.

Alcohol : After I was ill in Chongqing and as part of my half-marathon preparations, I stopped drinking alcohol. I still went to the bar to hang out with my friends, but I would constantly be asked “why are you not drinking?”, “where’s your drink?”.

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Embracing the new me

I guess the only reasoning behind them not accepting my decisions to not eat meat or drink alcohol is that I used to eat meat and I used to drink alcohol before, so surely I can do it again. Unlike because I’ve never smoked, if they offered me a cigarette, they’d know and accept my refusal.

But that way of thinking is totally wrong. People are constantly changing, and we change our minds about things every single day. The closest people around us should respect our decisions, even if they are the exact opposite from what we did yesterday.

I just wish that when I went out, people didn’t try to force me to eat meat, or drink alcohol in the same way that nobody forces me to take drugs or smoke. “Just one bite”, “just one beer” etc shouldn’t be used to try and persuade people to do things they don’t want to do, especially if they’re your friend and they’ve told you the reason why they’re doing what they’re doing.

Just because somebody used to do something, it doesn’t mean they will continue to love and enjoy doing that thing forever. Things happen, people change, so don’t try to force people to change back to their old self if they are busy embracing the new them.

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!

Veganuary – Changed my breakfast

I wrote before about how breakfast in China was proving difficult for me as it wasn’t the same as eating breakfast in the UK – toast, muesli, cereals etc just weren’t available for me.

When I started Veganuary, I knew that I wouldn’t be able to find much in the canteen for breakfast, I asked a vegan friend of mine and she suggested oats. Last summer I ate a lot of oats for breakfast, so this seemed like a good idea. I remembered looking for oats in the supermarket before, but they all needed milk and a microwave.

I went to a larger supermarket and found some oats that just needed water. Perfect! I bought a bowl and was excited for breakfast. At the university’s north gate there’s a whole line of fruit stalls, so I stocked up on fruit for my new breakfasts. The fruit sellers are pretty cheap and they often give you a couple of extra pieces of fruit if you’re friendly with them. For convenience, they sell small trays of pre-cut fruit like dragon fruit and different types of melons. These are usually 3 for 10块 (£1).

Since changing to eating oats for breakfast I feel a lot better in the mornings. Sometimes at the canteen I’d eat something greasy, meaty or strange, leaving me with a weird feeling in the morning, or dirty hands. But eating oats I know is good for me and having fresh fruit is a great way to start the day, so I’m going to continue this trend after Veganuary too.

Here are some examples of my new breakfast, it’s so flexible, I can buy whatever fruits are in season and also add melon seeds, peanuts, raisins and my favourite….peanut butter.

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Local strawberries and grapes
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Chinese pear, melon seeds, raisins and peanut butter
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Banana, peanut butter, raisins and peanuts

When buying fruit I always try my best to buy local fruit. The stallholders tell me their fruit is local, but I’m not sure how local is “local”. My meaning of local is that the fruit has come from the surrounding 100km or so, but I have a feeling they think local is the whole of the province and a little further.

I’m also very puzzled at how China can produce strawberries and oranges in such cold weather right now. But that’s another topic altogether.

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 – Starting off

I decided to go vegan this January, as part of the Veganuary campaign to stop cruelty to animals and raise awareness of veganism.

I chose to do this for a few reasons. In India, I ate a lot, like so much I felt my stomach expanding and really didn’t like feeling that way, so I knew I wanted to eat healthier in the new year and have a detox period after eating so much. When I was in India, I was staying and travelling with a vegan friend Melissa, and being around her and being in India in general, where a large percentage of the population is vegetarian, made me think about vegetarianism and veganism. Then I saw a friend of mine make the pledge, so it just seemed like something I could do too.

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I’ve taken the pledge, have you?

Before starting, I was a little nervous, I only decided to do it on 31st December, so didn’t have time to go on a huge meat and dairy binge before starting, but I knew I’d miss eggs for breakfast and some of the Chinese food I’d missed when in India 番茄炒鸡蛋,饺子,糖酥里脊 etc.

I had lots of questions about it, and still do, but just 2 days in and I’m actually finding answers to things that before puzzled me. For my whole life, I’ve never known why some vegetarians don’t eat eggs, thinking that eggs aren’t living animals and the hens are kept alive, many of which (especially in the UK) are free range. But I never had the confidence to ask a vegetarian why they eat the way they do, but now I realise that it’s the fact that we are keeping animals outside of their natural environment to fuel the demand for humans. And especially in China, I know free range isn’t a thing, I’ve seen cages the same size that our cockatiel at home lives in, housing 3 chickens, just on the street, surrounded by motorbike fumes, oil on the floor and all other gross things.

I know aswell there are many different reasons why people go vegetarian or vegan, there are health and diet reasons, some people are against animal cruelty, some don’t like the texture or taste of meat so I’ll be really interested in reading other people’s stories.

I still have my doubts about veganism, of course. I’m very anti food waste and it’s been proven that most of domestic food waste is fruit and vegetables, which raises concerns about the sustainability of a vegan diet. As an athletic woman, I also like to consume a high protein diet, and the easiest way to get that protein for me is through meat. But we’ll see how it goes and if my opinion changes by the end of the month. I hope you can join me on this journey.

Image source: http://www.veganuary.com/

Indian Wedding

I was invited to my Indian friend’s wedding this Christmas. I received the invitation months ago, and my friend told me about some of the preparations him and his family were doing ahead of the big day. It was a fairly small wedding (on Indian terms) consisting of three days, which from talking to other Indian friends, is quite common.

Day 1:

On the first day, the bride and groom had separate functions with their own families. I am a friend of the groom, so went to his ceremony, which was in a small hall close to his home. In the morning we went there and he was presented with gifts from his family – gold Hindu jewellery, a special coconut knitted in burgundy cloth and jewels and also a sword.

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He was sat at the front of the hall with his closest family members and all the guests were sat around talking amongst themselves as there was no specific leader or person to address the audience. It was like we were there to see the function, but weren’t actually a part of it. Me and foreign friends all wore Indian kurties, a long tshirt with coloured leggings or trousers. Somehow we all matched and chose to wear blue, which looked great in the pictures! Of course there was food provided afterwards, we all loved the paneer curry and snacks.

In the evening there was also a function, which was kind of like a bachelor party I guess. We returned to the same venue and upstairs there was dancing, both Indian and international music. Downstairs there was a buffet with Indian sizzlers (veg on a hot plate), curries, rice, pani puri and also a very distinctive ice cream making machine, which was a big cylinder of ice that one man twisted as another spread cream, fruit sauces and fruit juices over it. It froze when it touched the ice, then later he scraped it off into bowls for us. It was yummy!

Day 2: Wedding

The second day was the actual wedding ceremony, there was a wedding breakfast at the groom’s house, but unfortunately we were a little late (saris take a while to put on, and there were 9 people getting ready in one house) so missed breakfast. The whole of the groom’s party went in coaches to a location near to the bride’s house and when we arrived, the groom got on a horse and was accompanied by drums, trumpets and everyone dancing in the street to show he’d arrived. It was loud, exciting and the groom looked stunning on the white horse, which was also draped in a red and gold coat.

Groom's procession

We went inside and waited for a while…quite a long time actually. There was live traditional music and to pass the time the guests spoke amongst themselves.

We went downstairs for another Indian buffet (rice, bread, curry, garlic bread, buttermilk, dosa) and then rushed back up to see the arrival of the groom to the wedding hall. He was now dressed in gold and carried the sword from yesterday as he made his way to the stage and sat on the red throne waiting for his fiancee to arrive.

When the bride arrived, her family held a carpet above her head, threw rose petals as she walked and accompanied her to sit next to the groom. It was strange that they didn’t really look at each other during the first few minutes.

The ceremony happened and to confirm the marriage, they both walked around a fire four times and it was complete. We were all given coconut ice cream and after lots of pictures on stage with the married couple we went back home.

Later that evening, we went to the groom’s house for dinner (even though he wasn’t there). We ate typical Gujrati food, which is really special and tasty, I love the tetlas and potato curry.

Day 3:

We could finally have a lie in and relax during the day before the evening dinner and dance reception. This was an event for both the families and there were about 300 guests. The couple were again on stage, this time the bride in a heavily jewelled pink dress and the groom in a suit, sat on a sofa as a very animated and lively host talked to the audience and played some games. It felt less formal than day 2 as the crowd was engaged and the couple seemed more relaxed than the day before. After a few speeches, we ate (do you see a pattern here?) and then the hall turned off the lights and converted into a dance floor. The guests went crazy dancing and I did too, singing to Bollywood songs and Western pop songs. It was so much fun and everybody was dressed so well.

In summary, Indian weddings are exhausting, it’s a lot of waking up early, driving to functions, wearing lots of make up, smiling for photos, eating and dancing. But I loved being part of their special few days and learning more about Indian and Hindu culture through the events I saw and the people I met.

Although I’m in India for a few more days, I feel I’m all wedding’d out and am not quite ready to attend another one, my stomach is looking pretty big after all the food I’ve eaten.

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