Monthly Archives: May 2011


I recently realized that I haven’t used the rice cooker (to cook rice) in a long time. Weeks, probably more than a month. Which is a little eerie to me, given that I remember proclaiming at the dinner table just a few months ago that I can’t live without rice. I’ve always loved the stuff and eaten lots of it. Something changed, though, in recent weeks — maybe the decline of its appeal has something to do with the onset of warmer weather, or my resolve to up the ratio of (less tasty but more healthful) brown to white rice from 1:1 to 3:1, or even the fact that our rice cooker is scratched at the bottom, making for imperfect pots of rice and an annoying wash job. I guess I’ve also been moving away from Chinese-style stir-fries in my exploration of new foods and ways of preparing food, making other carbs more likely candidates at the dinner table.

Whatever the case, I think diversification is a good thing, especially in light of news of an impending drought-induced rice crop failure (even though wheat hasn’t exactly been safe from rising prices, either…). The knowledge that I’ll still have my fill of rice at the restaurant table makes me feel okay about continuing to neglect our unopened 2.5kg bag of organic brown rice. To this end, I made two “new” noodle dishes over the weekend, both of which turned out quite deliciously and make for light — but satisfying — summer fare.

Saturday — Penne with canned corn and chickpeas

This was born out of a last-minute realization that the crisper was empty (save for two mushy tomatoes) and our leftover pasta sauce moldy. Thankfully we’ve been pretty well-stocked with canned things, so the dish was pretty much a no-brainer. Garlic and olive oil could stand alone in a plate of pasta if there’s reeeally nothing else, but here I’ve thrown in corn, chickpeas, and the least mushy third of a tomato.

Turns out corn and chickpeas are a winning combo! The corn’s crunchy sweetness balanced wonderfully with the salty, soft nuttiness of the chickpeas, while the tomato and olive oil ensured sufficient moisture on the tongue. We had this with a side of mashed sweet potatoes, a healthier alternative to both regular mashed potatoes and sweet potato fries — and much quicker to whip up than the latter. We found the recipe here, along with other tempting sweet potato ideas I want to try.

Sunday — Soba noodles with black sesame paste

I picked up a fresh jar of black sesame paste at Carrefour on Sunday, and as I was randomly browsing food blogs and recipes in my afternoon idleness I found a way to incorporate it into dinner… with soba noodles!

The noodles were a bit annoying to cook, sticking to the bottom of the pot and turning very soapy, almost gooey… so once they were cooked I had to rinse them under cold water. Just googled “how to cook soba noodles” and it turns out rinsing under cold running water is a critical step -__- Also, having more water in the pot would’ve helped with the sticking.

I was dubious when I first realized how the dish was going to look — black and grainy and not very visually appealing. But the carrot sticks added some colour and crunch that made the whole thing a little more presentable and just… well, complete :)

I’d made nutty cold noodles a couple times last summer, but tasty as they were, I always felt a little sickened afterwards knowing how much Skippy peanut butter (and in turn hydrogenated veg oil) I’d consumed in one sitting. This is a lighter, more healthful alternative that I plan to make again and again… at least until the arrival of cold weather makes raw carrot the last thing I want to put in my body.

Penne with corn and chickpeas

200g penne pasta (or your favourite pasta)
1 can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
1 can whole kernel corn, drained
1 tomato, diced
4-6 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
Olive oil
Salt, pepper
Dried seasonings such as basil, oregano, rosemary, parsley (I use an “Italian seasoning” mix)
Crushed red pepper flakes (optional)

1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Cook pasta according to package instructions, then drain and toss with a bit of olive oil to keep from sticking.
2. While the pasta is cooking, heat oil on a pan. Add garlic and chickpeas when oil is hot; fry for a few minutes until chickpeas become soft, then add corn and tomato.
3. Reduce heat to low and add cooked pasta to pan. Drizzle with more olive oil and season with salt, pepper, and your choice of herbs.

Serves 2.

Mashed sweet potatoes

For a sweet version, leave out the paprika and cumin and add some honey or maple syrup, and replace the salt with brown sugar.

2-4 sweet potatoes depending on size
1-2 tbsp butter
1 tsp salt
1 tsp paprika
1 tsp cumin

1. Wash, peel, and dice sweet potatoes.
2. Bring a pot of water to a boil, then add sweet potatoes. Cook until soft (5-8 minutes depending on size of pieces — pick one out with a fork to taste test), then drain.
3. In a large bowl, use the back of a spoon to mash the sweet potato along with butter, salt, paprika, and cumin.

Serves 2-4 as a side.

Soba noodles with black sesame paste

Thick black sesame paste is thinned out with soy sauce, vinegar, and a bit of water. Green pepper and tofu are thrown in for added nutrition and texture, but you can be creative with these additional ingredients (chopped up broccoli could also work well). Regular (white) sesame paste and thin Chinese wheat noodles are viable substitutes in this recipe.

1 package (~300g) dry soba noodles
2-4 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1 green pepper, sliced into thin strips
3 five-spice tofu squares, rinsed and sliced into thin strips
A few stalks of scallion/green onion, chopped up
Sesame oil

2 heaping tbsp black sesame paste
4 tbsp potable water (i.e. not tap, if you’re in China)
1 tsp vinegar
2 tsp sugar
2 tbsp soy sauce
1 tbsp sesame oil
1-2 tsp chili garlic sauce (optional)

2 medium-sized carrots, peeled
1 cucumber, peeled (optional)

1. Bring large pot of water to a boil (do not skimp on the water). Put noodles in pot, return to a boil, and cook until soft. Drain and rinse vigorously with cold running water. (See here for detailed instructions!)
2. While the noodles are cooking, fry garlic in 2 tsp of oil (more if not using non-stick pan) on medium-low heat. Before the garlic browns, add green pepper and tofu and fry for another 3-5 minutes until hot through.
3. Mix sesame paste, vinegar, soy sauce, sesame oil, sugar, and chili sauce in a bowl. Put the cooked noodles into the pan and coat evenly with sauce mixture. Toss with heat on low until noodles are hot through (especially important if you used Chinese tap water to rinse noodles). Add more sesame oil if noodles are sticking.
4. Cut carrot and cucumber into thin “matchsticks” ~8cm long; drizzle with a bit of soy sauce and sesame oil. Serve on top of the noodles with a sprinkling of scallion.

Serves 2.


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The case for eating in more often

One of the questions I get most often in China is 你自己烧饭吗? “Do you cook?” Which isn’t too surprising considering Chinese people’s preoccupation with food and meals. What has been surprising to me is how many friends and colleagues I know don’t cook on a regular basis, preferring to eat out or bring food home (or let their mothers cook). I want to address some of the reasons behind their preference and make the case for eating in more often (at least in China).

It’s cheap(er) to eat out. Groceries can get expensive.
This is probably true if eating out means 6 RMB bowls of niurou lamian and grocery shopping means stocking up on imported foods at City Shop. But if you really do the math, you can cook your own (non-instant) noodles with 4 slivers of meat and a sprinkling of scallion for under 5 kuai. If you’re craving western food, you can make a huge bowl of pasta for much less than the restaurant price of 50+ RMB, or two burgers with sides and dessert for 20 RMB. The veggie market’s around the corner, and even though food prices are rising, its offerings are still damn cheap.

I don’t have time. Getting food to go/delivery is so convenient.
After a long day and maybe a longer commute, who has the energy to labour in the kitchen for an hour when it’s so easy to pick something up on the way home, or better yet, pick up the phone and wait for dinner to arrive, often with no delivery charge? No dishes even have to be washed — just stuff the wooden chopsticks, disposable spoon, plastic baggy that held the food, and styrofoam bowl all into the bag that everything came in, and throw it in the bin. Yes, it’s convenient, but also costly — to one’s health (it’s only a matter of time before we hear about the plastic-baggy scandal*) and to the environment. It takes less than 15 minutes to whip up some (non-instant) noodles with veggies and a fried egg, or an omelet with toast, or a hearty sandwich — Google “15-minute meals” and you’ll find 200,000+ hits. Not to mention — knock on wood — those extra minutes by the stove might well save you hours over the toilet later.

I can’t cook. I never learned. The stuff I make doesn’t taste good.
BS, BS, BS. I did spend a lot of time in the kitchen growing up, but unfortunately didn’t take away much from my (grand)mother in the way of recipes — tricks for peeling garlic and thickening sauce with cornstarch, sure, but you can learn all these things and more from the almighty internet. Most of my cooking these days is either based on, or greatly helped by, information found online. And while I’ve been at work, my bf’s been busy in the kitchen too; a few years ago he couldn’t make anything beyond spaghetti, tuna fish sandwiches, and frozen turkey burgers. Experimenting is part of the fun, and trust me, it’s sooo satisfying when you get it right!

It doesn’t make sense to cook if I’m living alone.
While I have the joy of being able to share the fruits of my labour with another person, I can relate to this sentiment on the occasional day Sean doesn’t come home for dinner. It doesn’t feel worth the effort of turning on the stove and preparing a whole meal just to sit alone and eat in silence. (I admit on these nights I’ll often just resort to eggs on toast or somesuch.) But a meal doesn’t have to be complex — have some noodles, bread, eggs, or canned stuff on hand and you’re set. And if you’re worried about eating alone, I’m sure any friend would be happy to be invited over for dinner! (And if your friends are busy, save the other half for lunch the next day.)

Cooking means fighting flame and steam and smelly grease that sticks on my clothes.
So one of my coworkers tells me. Yes, I’d probably hate cooking too if it involved struggling with a heavy wok, having my hair singed by soaring flames and being splattered with hot oil after a long day at work. But preparing a meal doesn’t have to be like that. It can be done lightly and cleanly — if you’re willing to give up wok hei and invest in a non-stick pan!

My kitchen’s too small.
My kitchen’s small, too. It’s probably still bigger than the kitchens of most old people living in old buildings in China, and they cook up a storm day in, day out.

I like having someone else cook for me.
Well, I’ve never actually heard this one, but am using it to stress the point that outsourcing food preparation comes with many risks. Call me paranoid, but you never know whether the ingredients have been properly washed, what kind of oil they’ve used, what kind of artificial flavourings or colourings have been added, or whether your food has touched sidewalks or dirty kitchen floors on its way to your mouth. While we cannot control how the crops were grown or animals bred, buying, cleaning, and cooking our own food is one way we can regain some control over what goes into our bodies.

Of course, one can argue that I’m speaking from a position of privilege: my workday ends at 5 (or 6 at the latest), my boyfriend does most of the grocery shopping, I have someone to share a meal with, making cooking more viable and more worthwhile. And even then I don’t make my own meals all the time — I’ll still enjoy a dinner out with friends, and I almost never bring my own lunch to work (that is something I aim to change). All I’m saying is that eating in — eating food you’ve had some say in — can be done cheaply, quickly, simply, and cleanly. So go ahead, do it when you can!

I’d also love to hear more reasons for eating in, or arguments against :)

*Update 2011/6/13: here’s the plastic baggy news story I was waiting for!


Filed under eating in, food news & issues

Groupon ad strategy a bit misguided?

Hmm… to go veggie or get 70% off hamburgers?

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On bloating, bananas, and one yummy smoothie

A week or two ago I came up with a hypothesis regarding my uncomfortable daytime bloating: that the cause was neither beans nor lentils, but… BANANAS! Yes, the healthful, dependable, seemingly innocuous banana. I realized that on days that I brought a banana to work for my morning snack, or quickly scarfed one down before my morning commute, the bloating would emerge and persist loudly through the workday and into the evening. (TMI? heh.)

I looked it up online and found a few pages about bananas (esp. not fully ripened ones) causing indigestion, but the correlation didn’t appear very strong. Either way, I started holding off bananas in the morning and sure enough, I’ve been bloated at work less often.

But I still like bananas, so what to do? Why, have one AFTER work, of course! Which is just what I did today, in the form of an ice-cold choco-banana smoothie.

Simple, creamy, and refreshing — not to mention a convenient way to use up hot chocolate mix left over from the winter — this might not be your most healthful smoothie, but it’ll get you a serving of fruit and the satisfaction in knowing that it only cost you 2 RMB, whereas a glass of basically the same stuff would sell for over 10 times the price at some western joint.

The recent spell of prematurely hot weather has had me dreaming about ice cream almost every day, especially while I’m on my bike on my way home, but this is a great alternative on days I manage not to cave in to my cravings :) And if it makes me bloated for the rest of the night, then so be it.

Choco-banana smoothie

1 ripe banana
1/3 cup water
4-6 ice cubes
2 tbsp hot chocolate mix
Splash of milk (optional)

1. In a blender, combine all ingredients until ice is fully crushed. Enjoy immediately.

Makes one large glass.

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White Bean Dip

I’d kept coming across mentions of white bean dip in my recipe searches, so I decided to try it the other day, loosely following this recipe, halving the recipe and using the juice of only half a lemon. I also fried the garlic beforehand so it wouldn’t be as strong, and added some red pepper flakes.

The cilantro gave it an interesting flavour and the resulting texture was denser, creamier than that of the hummus I’ve been making (and loving), so it was a nice change. It was quite good on pita, and I love how it looks — very Christmasy.

I’ve seen other recipes calling for fresh parsley rather than cilantro, so I’ll try that next time (though the latter is much cheaper!).

Festive White Bean Dip

1 400g can cannellini beans, rinsed and drained
3 tbsp chopped fresh cilantro
3 cloves garlic, fried lightly in olive oil (or raw)
3 tbsp olive oil
1/2 lemon, juiced
salt, pepper, and crushed red pepper to taste

1. In a food processor (or blender), combine all ingredients. Process until smooth.
2. Serve with pita, cut veggies, or whatever tickles your fancy.

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Shanghai Veggie Burger quest II: DIY cookin

Sean and I had a mini pre-summer cookin (as opposed to a cookout) this past Tuesday. As it has been very warm in Shanghai these last few weeks — hitting 34C on Tuesday before a bit of rain (very briefly) cooled things off — we wanted to make some grub that’d put us in the mood for the season.

The menu:

  • Corn on the cob
  • Sweet potato fries
  • Veggie burgers

  • The corn was easy: rather than grilling it, boiling for 5 minutes or so worked just as well — and kept the corn juicier, too, in my opinion. A dab of butter made it heavenly.

    For the fries, we deviated from our usual method, cutting the fries thinner and skipping the boiling part. I wanted to see if it would make the fries crispier, but was stingy with the oil so they turned out equally soft. We’re sticking to the original recipe, or making mashed sweet potatoes instead from now on.

    As for the veggie burgers, we basically used our recipe for falafel and shaped them into larger, slightly thicker patties to fry (1 full recipe makes 4 regular-sized patties or 8-10 smaller patties). Since we didn’t have regular bread, we toasted half a large pita for the bread crumbs. We layered raw tomato, cucumber, and onion and a generous schmear of dill aioli on lightly pan-toasted hamburger buns.

    …It was damn good. We had two each, in quick succession. Our burger cravings were satisfied.

    All this, along with bananas & ice-cream (Nestle, 8.5 RMB tubs) for dessert, came to 20 RMB (3 USD) per person — for all who maintain eating out in China is cheaper than cooking, think again! (Unless you’re ordering from Lanzhou Lamian all the time, in which case you win.) It did take a little over an hour to make, but the satisfaction is that much greater knowing it is possible to make affordable, healthful (minus the ice-cream), uber colourful and delicious meals :)

    I think this meal also spelled the end of my short-lived quest for the best veggie burger in Shanghai, though I’ll still review any that I end up trying. It’s just so much cheaper doing it myself!

    Where to find…

  • Hamburger buns: City Shop (multiple locations), 8 RMB/pack of 4 standard buns; 6 RMB/pack of 6 smaller buns
  • Another note: while a lot of City Shop’s produce (esp. fruit) is way overpriced, I’ve found their tomatoes, cucumbers, cilantro, and corn to be pretty reasonably priced, and fresher/better-looking than their Carrefour/Trustmart counterparts. I’m not sure if that means pesticide levels are higher, though… :\


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    Food news round-up

    A round-up of this past week’s food-related news.

  • Blue tap water is safe, say officials Officials try to assure us that the blue tap water recently coming from our faucets is actually “better quality”. Uh, right.
  • Cancer popcorn buckets seized While America fusses over the saturated fat in cinema popcorn, Shanghai’s moviegoers worry about larger problems.
  • Punishments follow steamed buns scandal Hualian/Lianhua supermarket steamed buns were found to be made from recycled expired buns and coloured with illegal dyes. Fining and firing officials are okay, but it might be more fulfilling for the public if the punishment involved some form of televised forced toxic-bun-eating.
  • Fat reward for deep throat in food industry Probably the best/worst headline ever.
  • Lastly, guess what’s front page news on the New York Times today? An article summarizing the above and more!

  • While having all this press (esp. in Chinese news sources) bringing food-safety issues to light is a good thing, it’s depressing to know that in spite of the publicity, in spite of the crackdowns and even executions, a lot of these “news” are actually not new: tainted milk and meat have been problems for years, and will probably remain so for a long while — especially if you have nearly half of surveyed food producers believing that ‘strengthening self-discipline’ is sufficient for increased food safety, and some dean of a food sciences college over here saying “It is not as bad as people think it is.”

    That being said, if eating in China doesn’t kill us, breathing apparently will… so eat on, I suppose!

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    Weather conditions for today

    Not relevant at all, but I had to share. I’ve become accustomed to “haze” in the weather forecast, but today was the first time I’d ever seen this:

    Ugh, this stuff is supposed to happen in Beijing, not Shanghai…!

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