Experiments in cooking

I know that spring break seems in the distant past at this point, but I feel like one of the things I did over break is relevant to the content of the class, so I’ll share. A few days before I came back to Boone, I was intensely craving some authentic Chinese food, which is ridiculously difficult to get in North Carolina. Luckily, I live not far from a rather large Asian market where they have a small restaurant section. However, since I wasn’t busy that or the following day, I decided to try cooking a few Chinese dishes with ingredients from the market.

I made 叉烧包(chāshāo bāo), 粽子(zòngzi),and 馄饨汤 (húntuntang). These are respectively a steamed bun filled with chopped Cantonese barbecue, glutinous rice with duck egg yolk, chopped pork belly, scallions, and peanuts wrapped in bamboo leaves, and the ubiquitous wonton soup. Everything turned out wonderfully, although making all of it took roughly ten hours. The flavors and textures are unlike anything that you can get at a typical American Chinese restaurant, and most Americans haven’t come close to tasting them.  

Making the food wasn’t difficult. What was an interesting experience was the trip to the Asian market. I’ve been many times, so I’m somewhat used to the atmosphere in the market. The all-encompassing smell of fermented soy, tofu-water, and the fish market present at the back of the store. The complete lack of English labeling and distinguishable price markers. The aisle full of medicinal Chinese herbs that I’ve never seen, the live soft-shelled turtles, cow hearts, and boiled blood in the meat section, and the colorful wrappings masking bizarre snacks. All of these things become strangely comforting once you get used to them.

The trip to the market wouldn’t feel the same without the sense of otherness that I get, though. 95% of the patrons are Asian and speak Chinese, Korean, Thai, Vietnamese, or Japanese. The announcements on the intercom are in Mandarin Chinese. I can understand some of the Chinese, but that doesn’t stop me from being entirely out of my linguistic comfort zone. This sense of being a minority is something that most white Americans don’t – and maybe go out of their way to never – experience. People assume that they know what Asia is like because they know their Chinese Zodiac symbol and eat takeout vegetable dumplings, but in reality never actually interact with the culture. I think this is quite sad, actually, and encourage anyone who hasn’t been to shop at an Asian market – of course it is not the same as going to China or Thailand, but the microcosm of Asia in one of these markets is a good start.

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