Living in Shanghai is all about the food. Yes I am in China. And yes there are definitely food safety concerns (salad is a rarity – mostly cooked veggies for us). But the international, metropolitan, critical mass aspect of the city makes it a food mecca for anyone wanting to do a world tour and never leave a single city. Not only are there Chinese citizens living here from, I am guessing, all 56 ethnic groups, but there are also expats from every conceivable area of the globe. And all of us long for the food of our homeland at one time or another.
As I wander the grocery store aisles I find mysterious items with labels that would confound everyone but the most studied linguists. Swedish, Turkish, Greek, Palestinian, German, French, American, British…….You name it. But most of these non-Asian foods are crowded together in one small aisle of the grocery store and each culture gets two or three items to choose from. But this time of year – the convergence of so many winter holidays – makes that selection grow to new and more mysterious heights.
Today I went to the store to get an onion. One of the most basic cooking items in any culture. And there it was, front and center with the veggies. It’s bright white flesh glowing amongst it’s dark green friends. I chose carefully and could have just paid and left the store. But no. I heard the siren song of those mysterious items calling me from the further reaches of the store. If I have learned anything here in China it is NEVER pass up the opportunity to wander in a grocery store. Food items come and go and you may not see the same item again for months, or ever. So if you see it and you think you may want it, get it. I knew that this store had once had risotto rice (arborio) and my friend J longed for some so I gave in to that sirens call and plowed forward like Veruca Salt in Willie Wonka. I WANT IT NOW!!!
Wide eyed I wandered up and down the aisles looking for my long lost Risotto. I was coming near the end of the aisles of dry goods and was starting to give up hope. My disappointment was pushed aside for a few minutes when I came to the baking section. No, it did not have the rice, but things more dark and mysterious than I could have ever imagined! Baking is NOT a typical Asian form of cooking and many, if not most, Asian kitchens do not have ovens. So I expected all the items in this area to be more familiar to me. Boy, was I in for a surprise.
I love to bake and this time of year I long to make doughy breads, crisp ginger bread men with raisin buttons and royal frosting eyes, sugar cookies in all shapes and sizes, and a buche noel with meringue mushrooms to ring in Christmas day. In this store I found a whole series of shelves dedicated to different flavorings and thought they might be a fun addition to my baking this year. They had beautifully printed European looking labels with delicate red flowers on the edges. These label designers must have been peering into my childhood memories when they came up with this label.
One of my favorite memories (and my mother’s worst nightmare) is of my mother’s precious collection of these delicate flavoring bottles. They were (and still are) quite expensive. We didn’t have much spare cash when I was little but my mother always loved to bake and the flavorings keep for years. So over time she would save her pennies and get one or two of these bottles to add to her baking collection. I knew they were dear to her but I had no idea of the monetary value, just that they were a special thing. And one winter day, having a friend over and looking for an indoor activity, we decided to be witches and make a brew. What better to make a brew than 20 little bottles of magic potions, each with it’s own special scent? So in they all went to a big pot. We added some potting soil from the rubber tree plant in the living room, some wood shavings from my bird, Roberto’s, cage. Add in a few threads from a sewing box and a pin from a pin cushion to make it really seem evil, and stir. We were so engrossed in our game and sitting on the kitchen counter discussing what special incantations we could say, that we didn’t even see my mom come in. I am sure you can imagine the ensuing scene. My mother, God bless her, held it together pretty well while also making it VERY clear that I was NEVER to do such a thing again! I think the restrained tears on her cheeks made the biggest impression on me. I felt awful. I guess she made her point pretty well because that was about 37 years ago and I still remember it clearly :)
So, I digress….I shook the distant childhood memories from my brain and started to look carefully at all the different things on the shelf. The variety of flavors really surprised me. There were the typical Vanilla, Mint, Almond, Coconut and the more mysterious “Perisa Keladi Yam Flavor”. I can’t imagine what you would need to add this too. I would love to find out.
My attention turned to “Durian Flavor.” For those who haven’t had the pleasure of meeting a Durian, it is a type of fruit that is a little larger than a large coconut. It has a green spiky looking shell that you cut open and eat the flesh inside. The smell is often described as similar to rotting flesh – I kid you not! After hearing this lovely description I have opted not to try it but I have seen it for sale in many places so obviously it holds some favor with a group of people. (whoever you are DO NOT invite me to dinner the night you have Durian!) But I can’t imagine buying a flavoring like this. Can you picture this scene:
Me: “Hello dear friend, I have brought you some special treats that I made just for you!”
Friend: “Oh, thank you so much! How thoughtful. And they smell so wonderful, just like rotting flesh!”
Just around the corner came the jars of preserved cherries. In the USA I am used to the ‘marichino’ variety which glow red from their jar. Here the cherries bloomed in acid green, popsicle blue, tang orange etc. etc. It was like an ADHD nightmare of food coloring. Next to the day glow cherries were the coconut sport strings. But don’t worry, they were preserved in syrup, ready for all your sporting events :) Sitting quietly on the bottom shelf was a bag of Attap seed and lest you feel unsure about the ingredients they were listed quite clearly on the back of the bag, even in English. But alas, the poor Attap seeds, I don’t know what to do with you so I will leave you to find another home where the cook is more sure of an appropriate recipe to show you off in all your glorious goopy wonderfulness!
PS. As a side note, I did find the box of risotto and purchased it for my friend J. I saw J today and was so excited to give her the rice. J said she had something for me and pulled out a box from another grocery store – it was a little gingerbread house kit complete with baked house pieces and m&m’s to decorate, even a little gingerbread man to stand outside his home and admire the finished product. It is these small moments that make Shanghai a wonderful adventure just as much as walking down the alleys and warrens of Chinese shops selling tourist goods and Christmas supplies so plentiful that it looks like someone is trying to recreate Liberace’s home for the holidays. But that story has to be left for Christmas in Shanghai,Part II
PPS. Here is a special find just for my beloved brother in law, B.. I hope you now see that it is truly safe to come to China!
- How to Choose a Durian and Open it (theasiangrandmotherscookbook.wordpress.com)