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musing on food, family and an empty city
singapore sunset
amw
The most recent episode of Top Chef was one of those family challenges, where the chefs deconstruct some classic recipe that's a regular fixture at their family gatherings. It reminded me of the cookbook my step mom put together a year or two back. My dad showed it to me when i was at his place last year, and it was really cool - part cookbook, part memoir. It contained tons of recipes from her side of the family and little anecdotes about times when those recipes were in high rotation or memorable events where they starred. It occurred to me as i was reading that i will never have something like this.

One thing you often hear from people when you mention you are trying to eat vegan (or even just vegetarian) is a list of dishes they would never be able to give up. I've learned it's not worth pointing out that plenty of great flavor profiles and textures can be constructed using plant-based ingredients, because most people aren't really interested in learning different ways to cook. I've written before about the especially bitter omnivores who go out of their way to heap scorn on those who choose to try eat more conscientiously. I wonder if they act that way because they see the trend as somehow threatening their ethnicity or - more specifically - their family traditions?

I can't remember what i was reading the other day, probably some long read on the Graun or something, but the commenters were having a discussion about how the most basic human instinct is to protect family. At first i rolled my eyes. Like, it's the 21st century, for fuck's sake. But reflecting on the past week, it started to sink in. This metropolis full of ambitious youths jammed shoulder-to-shoulder on the subway each morning has been empty. Millions and millions of independent souls just poured out of the city so they could go see in the new year with their families.

It's really a gap for me. I write my parents maybe once every few months. I see them once every few years. I love them and everything, but they're not a significant part of my life at all. I never really think about them, or my sister, or my step family, or my cousins. It's not that they're not important to me, it's just that they're not particularly more important to me than anyone else in the world. I guess it's always been that way. I spent most of my childhood thousands of miles from my grandparents. My mom and dad separated when i was 10ish, and by the time i was 13 i was living on the other side of the world from my dad too. I moved out when i was 18 and that was that. God knows there's no such thing as a treasured family recipe in my repertoire.

So how did i spend my Spring Festival break? To be honest, mostly just lying in bed relaxing. I'd only been working for three weeks, but i was already done. I give so much to my job, after i clock out all i want to do is nothing. And i am quite content doing nothing.

One day i did take a short walk up to the outdoor gym on top of the hill out back of my place. I did a few rounds on the heavy bag and cursed my poor fitness. I can't even do a push-up any more. Then i just kept walking, making a bee-line for one mountain after another. In this part of town there is a whole string of them, snuck in between the high rises. I found a little theme park where i became a star attraction and countless people all stopped me to snap a photo with the foreigner.

Side note: dear lord, the Putonghua people spoke out there was shockingly bad. I asked my Chinese teacher about it and she said she often struggles to understand it too. This is the reality of life in southern China: people who attended university or grew up in a tier-1 city can communicate fairly comfortably with one another, but the rest still have a pretty rough time talking to folks from the next village over. I wonder if the only people left in Shenzhen during Spring Festival were the ones whose families lived in the villages that were here before the city engulfed them all?



At one point i found a little temple nestled in a winding lane between two hills. It reminded me of Taiwan, where you can't walk two steps without falling over some ornate building festooned with paper lanterns and dragons and statues of guys with very long goatees. There are a handful in the Hong Kong New Territories, but in the modern megacities of post-revolutionary China these sorts of structures are long gone, so it was a real treat to see.

I enjoyed the smell of joss sticks for a bit then crossed another little hill and was amazed to spy a little community that looked like a seaside town in the Med. I checked my phone and saw it was a little cluster of now-merged villages on the edge of the reservoir that have somehow managed to stay mostly cut off from the other urban development. I decided to walk down.



Of course. Fucking Spring Festival. Nothing was open. It looks like it might be a nice place when the shop owners are back, though, all low-rise buildings and mom'n'pop eateries. Walking around there made me want an icecream. I haven't been anywhere in mainland China that had such a quaint feel to it. Even the backwater towns i visited here were over a million people with highrises and freeways and hustle and bustle.

Though, i guess once everyone is back from eating dumplings with their families, they'll all have the same idea as me and flood that neighborhood for their own weekend getaways. Ah, the curse of city living.

I did head into work for two days this week, but it was still a ghost town. Finally last night a handful joints started opening up again, perhaps anticipating people traveling back this weekend. I decided to stop into a Texas-themed bar for after-work drinks and some snacks. It is hideously expensive to drink at bars here - 30 kuai for a can of beer that costs 5 kuai at a corner store - but sometimes it's nice to just sit down and listen to country music and watch ice hockey.

Right, so that was my Canadian nostalgia kick out of the way, back to sitting on plastic stools eating street-side fried noodle.

Or, for now, cooking my own nibbles in my own kitchen with the cyberpunkest view.



It was very weird seeing no cars down there.

Thinking back, i did cook one little comfort food dish over the break. Pretty much everything i had been cooking was just veges down in the wok with various seasonings - tofu, okra, potato, napa cabbage, water spinach, pea shoots, king oyster mushroom, all that sort of stuff. But the other day i spotted a can of baked beans.

I haven't bought baked beans in years because you can make just as delicious sauce yourself with a can of navy beans, but here in China canned anything is hard to find because the tradition is fresh, dried or pickled. There are no fucking navy beans. There is, however, a tiny section of the grocery store that appears to cater to migrants/returnees from Southeast Asia, and there you will find cans of SPAM, tuna and baked beans. When i got home i decided to slice up two small potatoes and fry them with garlic and ginger and chili and soy sauce and then dump in the can of beans and serve the whole lot on a bed of rice crackers (my go-to bread replacement). I didn't even fancy it up with nuts or greens or anything. It was glorious.

This "family favorite" harkens back to the first meal i learned how to cook after moving out of mom's place. My roommate cooked it with a can of baked beans, can of creamed corn and various spices. He liked to eat it on toast. It's not really a specific dish, i guess, more just a technique of quickly preparing something very cheap and relatively nutritious. I've been cooking variations on it for 20 years now. My roommate turned out to be a creep and i was overjoyed when he dropped off the face of the Earth, but that dish apparently stuck better than anything my family ever made.

I don't have a photo. I was hungover. It's a great hangover meal too, by the way.

Oh, i guess i drank a lot of beer over the break too.

Also, i ate dragonfruit. Dragonfruit is the best.

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We're making one of those cookbooks for our family, but it's got a pretty wide range of recipes since what we cook is so dependent on what we can get food-wise where we are. Plus, I don't want the kids to forget the stories and the things that we ate during their childhood since they're only things we five know about.

It is such a great idea! I think the wide range of recipes is exactly what makes it interesting, personally as well as culinarily. My step-mom's had sections in it about a period where they tried to eat vegetarian on an 80s health kick, Indian-style food handed down from a family friend and so on. It's a great context to record your family's stories.

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