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!