Tag Archives: seasonings

Open sesame

One of my new favourite foods is black sesame. It’s actually two foods, I guess: black sesame seeds and black sesame paste, both of which can be found at our closest Carrefour store, giving me another reason to keep crawling back in spite of its less-than-comfortable shopping environment.

Even with the odours of a neighbouring KFC hanging heavy in the stagnant mall air, the aroma of freshly ground sesame manages to make its way through the aisles, past the cashiers, and into my nostrils every time I walk past the store, luring me in. Inside, in the middle of the store, sits a little station displaying bottles of sesame oil and bags of various seeds, ground grains, and suchlike, as well as a machine that grinds sesame seeds into a paste — the source of the smell — that is funneled into plastic containers for immediate sale.

Having read about the nutritional properties of sesame seeds and been told it is believed (by the Chinese, at least) to improve hair health/colour, I picked up a bag of pre-toasted sesame seeds a few weeks back… and have been sprinkling the stuff on almost everything since.

Not sure if my hair is any different, but it has made many a savoury dish more interesting and textured and flavourful, and I feel better about showering a veggie dish with seeds than dousing it with its also immensely delicious — but likely more fattening and less fibrous — cousin, sesame oil. (I still use a lot of sesame oil though, just less :)

As I’ve also been looking for a replacement for peanut butter, the newborn sesame junkie in me dragged me back to Carrefour last weekend for some black sesame paste. Luckily for me, they had just finished making a new batch, so I was able to grab a fresh container of the stuff.

This sesame paste has a more subtle flavour than your average peanut butter — or even the sesame paste you find on supermarket shelves– and might be deemed too bland by some (Sean is sticking with his Skippy), but that’s because there’s nothing added — no salt, sugar, msg, hydrogenated oils. It does have the nutty fragrance and delightfully gooey, slightly grainy texture of natural peanut butter, making it a perfect match with honey on whole-wheat toast.

The tar-like paste might look kind of ominous, but it has become my favourite way to start the day, and its relatively high calorie content gives me energy for my bike commute. I have a feeling the stuff would also be delicious with noodles — I’ll keep you posted.


Where to find…

  • black sesame seeds: Carrefour, 17.8 RMB/300g bag (lasts ages)
  • fresh-ground black sesame seed paste: Carrefour, 33.8 RMB/500g
  • Mankattan brand whole-wheat high-fibre bread: Carrefour and Trust Mart (and prob. other large supermarkets), ~6 RMB/6-slice bag
  • Carrefour (Zhongshan Park store)
    B1-2/F, Cloud 9 Mall (龙之梦购物中心),
    1018 Changning Lu (长宁路), near Kaixuan Lu (凯旋路)

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    2 more reasons to cut back on salt (at least in China)

    Eating and drinking in China is always somewhat of a gamble. What with meat being injected with illegal additives, fruits and veggies coated with deadly chemicals, artificial brand-name wine, fake eggs and soysauce, fresh milk fluffed up with scrap leather protein, oil skimmed off garbage bins, and so forth, no matter how much we actually want to believe, we are probably wagering our health against increasingly unfavorable odds. If anyone’s counting, we now have something else to add to the endless list: salt.

    Salt has long been attacked for causing various health problems, which has led to some awareness that we should watch how much we consume, but, as with seemingly every single food ever to be put in the spotlight, there is a host of other researchers claiming otherwise—that it poses no health risk to the general population. Whatever your salt practice has been up to this point, there are now two more reasons to cut down. The first being the phenomenon of poisonous industrial salt being packaged and sold as table salt. (It’s actually not that new and not limited to China: Taiwan also had a salt scandal back in 2009.) Shanghai Daily advises us to “purchase salt in supermarkets” (as opposed to… on the street?), but who knows if that safeguards us against anything (considering supermarket veggies have been found to be more pesticide-laden than vegetables sold at wet markets)?

    And even if we wanted to, as of today it is no easy task. Due to assumptions that the iodine in salt could protect against radiation from Japan and that the radiation falling into the sea would affect salt safety in the near future, people in China have been making a mad dash for the salt aisle since yestereve, leading to salt being sold out in numerous supermarkets around Shanghai, Guangzhou, and other cities. Here are some pictures of the madness. Which brings me to the second reason: whether or not these dubious radiation salt claims are true, with salt prices skyrocketing and none to be found on the shelves anyway, it’s the perfect time to start conserving!

    Instead, stock up on other handy, delicious, and versatile seasonings, such as:

  • basil (13.3 RMB/10g at Carrefour)
  • paprika (13.9 RMB/35g at Carrefour)
  • roasted sesame seeds (black or white, I prefer black—delicious on anything) & pure sesame oil
  • cumin (goes for around 6 RMB/bottle)
  • garlic powder (or better yet, minced garlic)
  • oregano
  • dill
  • red pepper flakes
  • MRS. DASH or other multi-vegetable/herb seasoning. Have yet to find a good one over here, but I’ve been using Trader Joe’s 21 Seasoning Salute bought on my US trip last Nov. and rationed, but it’s almost all gone :(
  • all kinds of SAUCES! In any remotely Asian dish, soy sauce would be the obvious salt replacement (but watch out for the alleged human-hair infused brand if you’re in China), but oyster sauce, bean sauce, and all kinds of chili sauce also bring lots of flavour to a dish. They all, of course, contain salt as an ingredient and have lots of sodium, so not good if you’re cutting back for health reasons.


  • The government is urging people not to panic (as governments tend to do), so maybe this salt craze will blow over as quickly as it began. It was definitely the talk of the office though; one coworker’s mom had bought 4 bags before noon. With radiation masks being sold out two days ago and salt companies’ stocks going way up, at least some people are having a good week.

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    Things to get used to

    #1. I peeled a mandarin orange to eat this morning. The pith appeared a lacklustre white and the flesh beneath the membrane a pale orange (and full of seeds!), so I prepared myself for an unpleasant (sour, bland) orange-eating experience. But guess what? It was incredibly sweet. And a little fizzy. Like orange Capri Sun*. And you know how sometimes when you’re eating fruit that’s unusually sweet, you say with giddy delight something like “man, tastes like someone pumped sugar in this”? That’s what went through my mind. And the next thing that went through my mind was that I’m in China, and that that seemingly ridiculous idea could very well be reality. And who gets the last laugh? Not me.

    #2. I really should know better than to eat chocolate when I’m sick. I gave in yesterday morning and it made my throat feel like a pool of gluey chewy gooey goo from Dr. Seuss’ Fox in Socks.

    #3. Sichuan pepper (花椒). These things are seriously the bane of my existence and my fear of them makes me feel embarrassingly un-Chinese. Somehow I’d managed to be shielded from this little but lethal spice throughout my childhood, when ginger had been my worst enemy**, so I was in for a nasty surprise my first meal out alone in Shanghai back in September. I ordered a seemingly innocuous 麻婆豆腐 (mapo doufu, a spicy tofu dish), but what I got, apparently, was 麻辣豆腐 (mala doufu, mala meaning hot & numbing), because the first bite numbed the hell out of my mouth. The tangy, tingly, and highly uncomfortable feeling was exactly how I imagine mistaking citrus-scented floor cleaner for mouthwash would feel (after spitting it back out). Following up with an entire bowl of white rice did nothing to ease the discomfort—or the feeling of betrayal.

    But yeah. Turns out that the Chinese love throwing Sichuan peppercorns into all sorts of dishes, so the kind of experience described above has happened several times since, and most recently last night, when we decided to order in from the Xinjiang place downstairs. One of the dishes we got was 大盘鸡 (dapanji, or “big plate chicken”), which we’d had twice before at different Xinjiang restaurants and thought we liked. Well, turns out that our previous experiences were not-so-authentic, because dapanji, according to a sample of google results, is typically loaded with sichuan peppers, as this one was. So much of dinner (and today’s lunch) was spent picking out these little pods, because the dish is actually more than palatable as long as you don’t bite into one—and don’t mind feeling like you’ve just picked out a schoolyard of dead bugs.

    Anyway. The race is on. Who will win Frances’ favour first, sichuan pepper or ginger?


    *Capri Sun has a video game out? Huh?
    **We’re still not friends.

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    Filed under eating out, SH living