We can now cook rice: home-cooking in China

Embarrassingly we’ve made it to 30 without knowing how to cook rice. Considering it’s the staple of a Chinese diet, it also seems ill-prepared to arrive in China without this knowledge. I guess I just assumed they know how to cook it so why do I need to?

To cook or not to cook in China?

Our local noodle bar
Our local noodle bar
It’s a fair question as where we live in Meicun, Wuxi it’s easy to get a decent noodle meal for ¥12 each which is around £1.20. That’s not even the cheapest thing on the menu as we once ate for only ¥7 each!! Eating at school costs even less for noodles with any meat and veg topping at only ¥6 a bowl. Even eating at a local Korean restaurant with included appetisers only set us back around ¥60 for us both. It’s true that eating Western is more expensive with a KFC meal around ¥32, an Indian (two mains, rice, Naan & drinks) costing ¥200 and Burger n Beers ¥140 (taking advantage of the happy hour & BOGOF burger deal).

However, that said, it’s still even cheaper than that to shop locally and cook at home. You just have to decide if your culinary skills are up to it and who’s going to do the washing up (Anthony!)

Finding imported products - possible yet expensive!
Finding imported products – possible yet expensive!

Where’s the nearest Western friendly supermarket with imported goods aisle?

If truth be told then yes, I did perk up at the mention of a Tesco store locally. I even had a stupidly large grin on my face when we found Metro with its imported goods aisles filled with pasta, baked beans and cheese. I’ve recently become quite excited to learn of the location of a Carrefour where I can supposedly get cereal that’ll turn the milk chocolately.

However, other than for treats, most food we buy is from local stores. They are easier to get to as there are so many you can walk to and the food is much cheaper. We’ve also started to buy fruit and veg from the market though they also sell it on the sides of the roads. Even though we haven’t brought meat in this way we did go on the weekend to see the quality – we were pleasantly surprised.

Top tips for buying and cooking Chinese food.

So here are some of our top tips on buying food locally and cooking in China:

  1. Don’t let the Chinese characters put you off from going shopping. More and more products have English on them or there are recognisable Western brands. Even if you can’t read it and it’s a local brand then look around at the aisle it’s in and you can often work out what it will be. Use your common sense and if you’re still not sure then take a picture and show someone you know who is bilingual.
  2. Deciphering instructions in Chinese
    Deciphering instructions in Chinese
  3. If it’s your local shop then take time getting to know your way around. I was extremely grumpy the first time we went shopping as it took forever! It was only Tesco and yet it wasn’t. Items may be grouped differently to how they are back home and you’ll be surprised how many new and obscure items there are to look at.
  4. Write a list. More than once we have given up on shopping or left with less ingredients than we’d need for Ready Steady Cook. We’ve not been able to cook a single thing. Go with a plan in mind, even if you adapt it once you’re there and can see the quality/what’s on offer.
  5. Use the internet to find recipes. This is useful for helping to write a plan and stops you eating the same meal every day (though we do tend to cook the same noodle variant 2/3 times a week!). Recipes are useful to give you new techniques especially as most kitchens don’t have an oven and you may only have one hob. We never thought we could have toast without a toaster or a grill but it turns out you can do it in a wok!
  6. Try a swap-out! If, like us, you’re not particularly good at cooking then make something you are confident with and then swap out the ingredients to try something new. This can also be great advice when looking at a recipe and not knowing where to get a particular ingredient – just swap it for something that has a similar taste or cooks in a similar way. We had already tried egg-fried rice in the UK but on receiving 90 free eggs from work (I know it sounds strange!) we found egg-fried noodles works just as well.
  7. Our local market
    Our local market
  8. Be brave and shop as the locals do Even though it’s tempting to head for an internationally recognised supermarket every time you need food, there are probably much closer options where the locals will shop. This may be a market, the back of a truck or even the side of the road. Don’t be scared to buy from here. Start with something safe such as fruit or veg that needs to be peeled. Remember if there’s no price then you may need to try out your haggling skills. As you get more confident you may find everything you need there but if you’re going for meat, our advice is to get there early especially on a hot and humid day (this is our next challenge).
  9. Don’t forget you’re in China. Might sound like an obvious one but if you only buy Western food you’ll pay Western prices. If you only cook Western food, you’ll need Western appliances (remember no oven). Don’t be afraid to try something new. Take pictures of foods you have never seen and don’t know how to cook – then show them to a local who speaks English to get some advice. You might even be able to join a local cookery class – look out for an expat community you can become part of.

Even though this post has been written based on our experiences in China, it will equally apply to anyone moving to a new country. If you have any great tips for buying food locally around the world, tips on cooking outside your comfort zone or simple recipes then please get in touch or comment below as we’d love to hear from you.

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