Some people collect rocks, or stamps, or cute little ceramic figurines–I have always collected cookbooks. It is a habit I picked up from my mom, who had anywhere between 3 – 6 full sized bookshelves STUFFED with cookbooks in my home growing up. However, I have also chosen a life that involves moving around every few years. First that was around the U.S.A., and now I have made the jump internationally and am in China. When I was driving myself from New York City to Portland, Oregon (and then back again) it was easy enough to put my cookbooks in a few boxes and toss them in the back of my trusty blue chariot and set them up in my new home. However, when I was faced with a strict weight limit on luggage, and far too many clothes, I realized that my cookbooks would not be able to make the journey across the ocean. So I embarked on my journey book-free and ready to explore my new home and kitchen options.
Here are a list of some of my biggest lessons, surprises, and tips for those coming to China and wanting to explore cooking in this, admittedly quite different, environment:
1. Kitchen Appliances
The kitchen was missing some key cooking items that we are used to having in the United States. Namely, there is not usually a built in oven and the stovetop usually only has 2 burners. If you want to bake, you can buy some amazing mini ovens on Taobao or JD. I started with a little toaster oven and turned out some great chicken and muffins, but I upgraded to a larger model with a built in rotisserie when I inadvertently purchased a HUGE Chinese duck and needed something large enough to cook it.
Also, the stove runs hot hot hot. Chinese cooking relies more on fast frying with high heat, not so much long simmers and stews. I burned more than 1 pot of chili and stew because I didn’t watch and stir enough. I have since learned how to moderate the heat better, but be careful. On the other hand, water boils for pasta really quickly!
2. No dishwasher
No dishwasher (unless you look in the mirror). Now, I lived in NYC for many years so I was already used to this, but a lot of people will be missing this key item.
3. Grocery Delivery
Grocery delivery is fast, efficient, and amazing. You can order pretty much anything you could possibly need online and have it at your door in 30 minutes. I have ordered ingredients that I forgot at the beginning of a cooking project, and had them arrive just in time to throw in the dish. If it’s not something you can find at the store, you can order it online and have it within 1-3 days. There are lots of specialty stores for Western-style ingredients and prepared foods, but be prepared to spend more for it. However, I belong to WeChat groups and I order waygu beef, fresh oysters delivered from France, Italian cheese, Australian octopus, and so much more that comes right to my door. It has made cooking creatively a lot more accessible and fun since arriving.
4. Local Shopping Opportunities
On the opposite side, going to the local wet market can be an amazing opportunity! Even if you don’t speak Chinese, you can use your translator or just point and smile and get by. The piles of fresh vegetables, tubs of live fish and shrimp, every kind of egg you could possibly imagine (last weekend I picked up chicken, duck, and goose eggs, and was also offered quail and pigeon varieties), freshly butchered meat to your specifications, and amazing smelling spice shops is an experience not to be missed.
5. Try new ingredients
Be willing to try new ingredients. You probably won’t be able to make your favorite recipes with exactly the same ingredients without a lot of searching and a lot of money. HOWEVER, if you are willing to try some new veggies, a slightly different seasoning, a different cut of meat, you can really make a close approximation and you might even enjoy it more. That also means my hunting down recipes on New York Times Cooking involves a lot of thinking, “Hmmmmm….I probably can’t get that, that, or that…but if I switch it out for this, and this, it will probably taste great!” and usually it does.
6. But also bring your favorites from home
DO bring your own favorite seasonings and spices from home. Switch them out of glass containers to save weight if you need to, but having my favorite Nashville BBQ rub, Penzey’s chili con carne seasoning, and japaleno verde salad dressing mix has made a world of difference. It is an inexpensive way to bring a taste of home, and you won’t find things like that over here for the most part. Don’t worry about bringing anything else kitchen related, you can get it all here for a lot less money than flying or shipping it.
7. Potluck dinner adventures
Potluck dinners with fellow expats are a great way to share favorite recipes and great conversation. We hosted a Southern Food potluck here in Nanjing a couple weeks ago and we had 2 kinds of shrimp and grits, brisket, BBQ chicken, ribs, pumpkin pies, cheesy potato casserole, mac and cheese, and lots and LOTS of bacon! I have also been invited to dinners of home-cooked Pakistani, Ghanaian, and Colombian food, and been thrilled to share flavors and stories with so many new friends.
Cooking is my favorite form of stress relief and connection with people. China has helped me to expand my horizons in terms of ingredients and techniques, but it has been an exciting and rewarding experience. My cooking has never been more creative, and my Instagram has definitely benefitted from the colorful dishes! I get regular messages from home expressing jealousy at my latest cooking projects.
Have fun, eat well, be willing to explore, and cooking in China can be a real joy.
Christine Henderson teaches Secondary Performing Arts and Drama, and AP English Language at BASIS International School Nanjing. She is also the House Mistress for the Winter House on campus.
All photos from Christine’s Instagram, @shakespeareantomato
For more information about teaching abroad with BASIS International Schools, visit our careers website.