During my twenties, my hubby and I spent three years living in northern China. Prior to our arrival we had a few lessons of Mandarin, but we were working on the ‘sink or swim’ principle.
My husband was assigned an interpreter. I was not. Yet the little crowd of taxi drivers that gathered every morning at the hotel gates saw me as their personal project. They never ripped me off and always made sure I learnt a few words each day.
Chinese customs confounded me. I was very, very green and felt as though I were on a completely different planet. Everything I had previously held to be proper or acceptable or hygienic or edible or part of the highway code…all these ideas were challenged by an ancient culture very different to my own.
It was a pretty tough time. I had long blonde hair. I stood out. I was pointed at, shouted at, followed, and I was often fairly miserable. I drank a lot.
I loved the Chinese food. I loved the egg-fried rice. I loved the Snow Peas sautéed with garlic. I loved the dumplings. I loved the cucumber in sesame oil. I loved the spicy noodles. I ate a lot of Chinese food. And when I was sad I ate a lot of chocolate. I gained quite a lot of weight.
Once I had to attend a formal dinner with my husband’s Chinese boss and other Chinese staff. The boss held forth and we all listened politely. Suddenly the musical language was being directed towards me. I listened more politely. I waited as the interpreter did her stuff,
‘Mr Wang says you are looking very fat!’.
Everyone around the table nodded in smiling agreement. I felt a hand grasp my knee under the table. Very Hard. My husband’s pleading eyes and fixed smile said, ‘Shut up! Don’t speak! Nod in Smiling Agreement!’ I nodded in smiling agreement and gulped on some Tsingtao beer.
Apparently, for a certain generation in China, being ‘fat’ is a sign of prosperity.
I did manage to lose my fat. I went on a long backpacking trip. I got very ill in one country but was determined to do a 9-day mountain trek in the next country. I barfed my way to the top of the hill and I barfed back down again. I lost lots and lots of weight. It was wonderful.
Back home in China the new, svelte me had to send a fax from the hotel Business Centre. By now my Mandarin skills were fine, thank-you taxi-drivers. As I waited for the staff to send the fax, in walked another member of staff.
‘Have you seen?’ asked the first member of staff, ‘That’s Mrs X sitting there’.
The other staff member turned and looked at me. They were safe in their belief that foreigners didn’t understand Chinese.
‘She has lost so much weight!’ (I nonchalantly crossed my legs that were clad in short shorts.)
‘She really needed to, she was just getting fatter and fatter. She was just doing this…’ The first member of staff blew out her cheeks and slowly brought her two arms up to indicate a body shape resembling that of a barrage balloon.
‘Really fat she was. Really fat.’
Apparently for another generation in China, being ‘fat’ may be a sign of prosperity, but it is certainly not to be admired.
Please enjoy my Not Very Chinese Rice. But do watch your portion control. Too much rice can make you fat. Really fat.
Not Very Chinese Rice
About 2 cups of Basmati rice (rinsed in cold water)
1 dessertspoon of yeast extract (ensure it is gluten-free, here's one)
4 medium mushrooms
2 cloves garlic
1 large pinch of dried Herbes de Provence
4 medium tomatoes
1 tsp Dijon mustard (make sure it is gluten-free, here's one)
Olive oil to fry
1 tin of kidney beans (400g)
A handful of rocket
Half or all of an avocado (depending on taste)
2 green chillis
- Put a large pan of water to boil.
- Peel and finely chop the carrot.
- Finely chop the garlic and the mushrooms.
- When the water is boiling pour in the rice, the chopped carrot and the yeast extract and stir well to dissolve the yeast extract. As it boils, stir occasionally, Basmati usually takes about 10 minutes to cook.
- Fry the mushrooms and garlic gently in a frying pan with the olive oil and Herbes de Provence.
- Chop the tomatoes in half and squeeze their innards into the frying pan with mushrooms, stir. Discard the skins. Add the Dijon mustard to the frying pan and stir it all around.
- Drain the tin of kidney beans and add to the frying pan. Stir again and let it all sizzle quietly while you wait for the rice.
- When the rice is cooked drain it and leave it for a few minutes so that most of the steam evaporates. Put the rice back into the saucepan and tip in the contents of the frying pan.
- Mix it all around. Cover for a minute while you dice the avocado and finely chop the green chillis.
- Place the required amount of chilli and avocado onto each serving plate and dollop the required amount of rice on top.
- Throw a handful of rocket on top of the rice and then using your hands quickly toss it all together. Do it quickly or you’ll burn your hands.
- Season with black pepper and decorate with a flower if you wish.
- Do not eat the flower.
© Pig in the Kitchen 2007