Tag Archives: salad

Carrefour salad bar, revisited (hold the chicken essence)

The other day, I returned to Carrefour’s Chinese salad bar for the first time after my bad experience with the “chicken essence” seasoning (鸡精) a few months back. This time, hoping for a lighter, MSG-free meal, I told the guy to hold the chicken essence and to go easy on the salt. As he seasoned my salad, his ladle obediently skipped the bowl of yellowish powder.

I came back and dug in, expecting to find it a bit bland. On the contrary: the taste of MSG was overpowering and lingered in my mouth and throat late into the night, as did my disappointment. Very sad to report I won’t be going back for another few months, if again at all.

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Eating in, revisited

As much as I’m all for making my own meals as much as possible, I have to confess it’s been hard to stop myself from eating out while Sean’s been away these past two weeks: 8 out of my last 15 dinners were had outside the house. Granted, I had family visiting (though we did squeeze in a lunch at my apartment that weekend), but it’s still more than I’m used to, and more than I would like to average on a regular basis. They’ve all been nice social occasions, many of them were great food-wise, and I didn’t even pay for half of them, but a few have not been quite as friendly to the stomach/palate/wallet.

Last week, in an effort to get back on the health track after 5 straight days of dining out, I cooked five evening meals at home — and not just eggs on toast or instant noodles: whole, if simple, meals with fresh vegetables and eggs or tofu or beans. It felt great, especially knowing I wouldn’t have to fret about lunch the next day. One meal I shared with a coworker who came over for dinner and a DVD — I introduced her to spaghetti with fried eggs (with tomato, onion, and cucumber) and mashed sweet potatoes, and she loved it, if her second and third helpings were any indication.

What has been hard about living alone has been keeping the kitchen stocked with ingredients for dinner. Sean’s been our resident produce-shopper since I started my full-time job in March, and I’d come to take it for granted that I could come home, pull some things out of the fridge, whip up a meal — and enjoy some fruit afterwards, which I’ve really been missing — and not even have to wash my own dishes (yes, he’s a darling). Coming home from work on my bike, I’m rarely in the mood to stop and pick up food which I’d then have to cook.

Thank goodness, then, for City Shop, sitting conveniently in the basement of my office building. A lot of their food isn’t exactly wallet-friendly, but a few of their vegetables sell for just a tad more than their veggie market counterparts. After last night’s soulless veggie burger, I needed to reconnect with — to feel loved again by — my food. I hopped down to grab some tomatoes and cucumbers during my afternoon break, and with what I had already sitting in my fridge, spent half an hour creating a refreshing tri-topping rice plate packed with complementary textures and flavours (and nutrients!).

And there was love in every spoonful.

As with many things in life, simplicity is key to maintaining a habit of cooking by and for oneself. Tonight I wanted a bit of variety as I’d spent lunchtime dunking white rice in vegetable soup from City Shop, so I combined three very basic but tasty “dishes”:

Scrambled eggs with tomato and onion: Sauté half an onion (chopped) in olive oil til beginning to brown, add 1 tomato (chopped) and a bit of salt and sugar, cook until not watery and move to outer edges of pan. Whisk 2 eggs and pour into middle of pan. Let cook for a minute, then mix everything together until egg is fully cooked. Season with salt and pepper.

Rice-loving tofu: Sauté half an onion and a few cloves of garlic (chopped) in olive oil. Open a pack of soft tofu (~350g) and slice into bite-sized cubes before dumping into pan (I usually scoop the whole thing out with my spatula to maximize intactness). Let fry undisturbed for 2-3 minutes, then add oyster sauce (2 tbsp?) watered down with a bit of water. Sprinkle black sesame seeds on top.

Chopped tomato and cucumber (inspired by my lil sis): Wash thoroughly and dice 1 firm tomato and 2 small, peeled cucumbers. Put on a plate, drizzle with pure sesame oil and sprinkle with salt.

Scoop these over a plate of brown rice (holla at the dip tau fan) to feed two moderately hungry people (in my case, me and tomorrow’s me). If need be, increase number of eggs, throw some canned kidney beans in the “salad”, and/or make more rice. Be creative!

Eat-in V$ Eat-out: To figure out whether it’s as economical to eat in in Shanghai as I’ve claimed, I occasionally calculate how much I spend on a meal at home. Here’s the tally for today:

3/4 cup brown rice: 3 RMB
1 package soft tofu: 2.3 RMB
2 large tomatoes: 4.6 RMB
2 short cucumbers: 3 RMB
2 eggs: 2.4 RMB
1 onion & 4 cloves garlic: 2 RMB
oil & condiments: 1 RMB

= 18.3 RMB, for two meals.

9 RMB is pricier than a bowl of soup noodles delivered from Lanzhou Lamian downstairs, but 1 RMB cheaper than the home-style tofu on rice I would normally order from there. Factor in environmental costs (disposable containers become garbage) and health costs (swill oil, toxic food baggies), and the difference becomes a little clearer.

City Shop (Jing’an Branch)
1376 Nanjing West Rd., Shanghai Centre (basement)


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Carrefour’s salad bar, Chinese style

Shopping at the Zhongshan Park Carrefour supermarket is often a draining affair. While the expansive two-level store in the basement of Cloud Nine mall is relatively well-stocked compared to other supermarkets in Shanghai (though that’s not saying much– we’ve found our local Trust Mart devoid of milk more than once), the layout is neither intuitive nor streamlined, ventilation is almost non-existent, and its narrow aisles are usually crowded with bored salesladies and shoppers just as suffocated and flustered as we are. Sometimes when Sean and I decide to “stop by” to pick up some veggies and pasta after a day out, we emerge from the check-out so exhausted that we’ve lost the will to do anything else for the rest of the evening.

In an effort to minimize these experiences, we’ve been shopping more at the expat-oriented City Shop for imported goods — even if they are a little more expensive than CF — and the veggie and fruit markets for (much fresher) produce. But I’ve discovered a few offerings at Carrefour that will keep me coming back, and its salad bar is one of them.

Carrefour’s “salad bar”, for lack of a better name, is a spread of colourful foreign-looking things that can be off-putting at first glance. But this Chinese version of a salad — or 凉拌菜 (liang ban cai), a generic term for cold, usually vegetarian, dishes — is in my opinion much more interesting, tastier, and probably healthier (no creamy dressings or cheeses) than your average western salad.

The process is simple enough: You take a small metal bucket fitted with a clear plastic baggy, grab a pair of tongs, and fill the bucket with whatever looks good to you: green bean sprouts, a range of tofu products in different shapes, clear bean-based noodles, mushrooms, strings of crunchy seaweed, and other things that even other Chinese shoppers can’t seem to identify. Many of the 10 or so dishes are actually already salads in themselves, mixed with thinly sliced cucumber and carrot. They also have 烤麸 (kaofu, baked spongy gluten, tastes better than it sounds) and kimchi, though I’ve never tried the latter.

After you’ve taken your pick, you hand the bowl to the person standing behind the counter and watch as your bland pile of greens and bean products is thrown into a larger bowl and deftly upgraded in flavour and texture: a bit of salt, sugar, vinegar, soy sauce, minced garlic, sesame oil, cucumber and green bean bits, coriander, roughly crushed peanuts — and chili sauce, unless you tell them “buyao la” (you don’t want it spicy). In fact, if there’s any condiment you don’t want, all you have to do is tell them before they do their thing. When it’s sufficiently seasoned and mixed, they’ll slide the stuff back into the baggy, weigh it (11.8 RMB/500g), stick on a label and tie up the end.

It’ll look something like a bag of kitchen waste:

But you’ll be able to smell the appetite-whetting sesame oil through the plastic, which will give you a last-minute energy boost to quickly finish shopping and get home to eat it.

If you like some slurp with your crunch but don’t want to weigh down the bag with noodles, you can always grab a package of vermicelli (粉丝) on your way out and boil it at home — that can make it a full meal in itself. 6-8 RMB can probably get you a pack of 8-10 bundles, and you can store the rest indefinitely.

So living close to a Carrefour has its advantages: its Chinese salad bar offers a super refreshing and effortless solution for a cold, meatless appetizer — or simply a veggie boost — on any night of the week (esp. in the summer!). The only unpalatable part is having to elbow your way out of the store during rush hour.

EDIT 2011/04/27: I found out today that one of the seasonings they add to the salad is “chicken essence/powder” (鸡精) — essentially MSG. Should’ve seen that coming, but it still disappoints me that a country with so rich and varied a culinary repertoire must be so reliant on chemically produced seasonings to make their food taste good. Knowledge of this made my salad a lot less enjoyable today, and the chickeny taste still lingers in the back of my mouth. Would it be as “tasty” without the chicken powder? I’ll report back next time when I make sure to tell them buyao jijing.

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