There are two very cute French girls who sit behind me in my Chinese class. They look impeccable, they have wonderful skin, they wear chic things, and sometimes they are adorably pathetic at pronouncing tones. When my teacher explained that there are no tenses in Chinese, I could see the wheels in their heads spinning–their eyes read “does not compute, does not compute, does not compute…” (I’ve been told that French has more tenses than Latin, and having studied French I believe it!).
One day in speaking class my teacher asked us to compose a list Western and Chinese foods that we enjoy eating. One of the French students wrote macaron on the board in cafe-menu cursive. When our teacher came to this item, she (of course) had no idea what it was.
“It’s a type of French cookie,” I offered.
“Mais non, it’s not a cookie,” the French students immediately rebutted, “it’s a macaron!”
“Ok, so then it’s more like a cake–it’s a little cake,” I offered.
“No! It’s NOT a cake, it’s a MACARON!”
All of this back and forth, and the insistence that a macaron simply could not be labelled, left our instructor lost and ready to move on. In that very moment my understanding of the French way of life deepened. What could be more French than insisting that our Chinese language teacher learn the proper name and (non-)classification for a dessert that she will absolutely never see or taste in her entire life? But it’s important that she knows the correct name, I overheard them murmuring to themselves. I both admired and laughed at their conviction.
I have these girls to thank for my first attempt at cooking in China, which I imagine is rather akin to running your first marathon.
We were chatting in between class a few weeks ago, when I mentioned that I missed cooking. In China I have yet to see a single oven, and most foreigners I’ve met choose to abstain from cooking because of the hassle and low cost of eating out. For instance, I ate on campus tonight with another student. We ordered four dishes: egg fried rice, spicy tofu, baby bamboo with pork, and stir-fried potatoes with chili peppers. Our total was 18 yuan–the equivalent of less than $3.
Although I adore how inexpensive it is to go to a restaurant, I still yearn to cook what I want when I want it. Because of this, when the French girls suggested that we organize a class potluck of sorts I thought why not? I love cooking!
Why not? Because the odds are stacked against me, that’s why! I soon realized that I would have to get more than a little creative to make a meal that I would classify as “easy” in the United States. I’ll give you the rundown:
My goal: tofu curry soup. It seemed easy enough. I figured that I would be able to find all the ingredients in China, since it’s an Asian dish.
- Chicken broth does not exist (at least for someone with my level of Chinese), therefore chicken broth = a packet of mushroom chicken instant soup
- Coconut milk = coconut juice boxes supplemented with runny yogurt
- Limes = cannot be found in all of Hangzhou
- Red curry paste = yellow curry powder from the UK that smells very different
- Basil? basil? Can you hear me, basil? Are you there?
While attempting to wrangle up ingredients, I found myself in the cramped aisle of a local supermarket sweating over my basket as I pleaded with two Chinese clerks over the difference between coconut milk and coconut juice. This consisted of my repeating the only thing that I knew how to say, which was coconut milk, coconut milk, coconut MILK over and over again. I was suddenly feeling more than a little bit French.
In the end, the soup turned out miraculously edible, perhaps even tasty. I also learned an invaluable lesson:
Sometimes you have to fight for the food that you know and love, because at the end of the day coconut juice is not coconut milk, and a macaron is not a cookie, it’s a macaron.