Eye of the Chicken
A journal of Harbin, China

Eating native
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Well, as I suspected, food is getting to be a problem for me. It's not the problem I thought it would be. I thought I would run out of things to cook; I want to sustain the same type of diet I was eating in Harbin, because [a] I like Chinese food a lot, and I want to learn to make the dishes I'm going to start missing soon, and [b] I have this vague notion that it's a healthier diet (although I gained 10 pounds while I was in China this time, so I'm thinking that I have to reexamine that claim). Nonetheless, I've come home pretty well weaned from butter and cheese, which seems a good start towards losing those 10 pounds, and [c] it's a lot cheaper than the traditional American diet, which is very appealing to me lately because the cost of food in this country is getting me down . . .

There's absolutely no doubt in my mind that food is much, much cheaper in China than it is here. Before I stayed for such a long time, friends would tell me that the costs were similar because the cost of food is rising very fast, that the cost of meat is comparable in the two countries - and it might be; it's US pork futures that determine the price of pork in China - but I discovered firsthand that everything else is way cheaper. I could get a pound of strawberries for around $2. I fed 60 people a buffet that consisted of items from breakfast (including bacon), lunch (including tuna sandwiches and chili with meat), and dinner (spaghetti, and meat loaf) for $100.

So even a small trip to the grocery store here sends me into sticker shock.

And let's not even think about eating out. In Harbin, eating out was a convenient and economical way to eat. The sheer density of the population means that there are restaurants everywhere. I don't mean chain restaurants, or fancy restaurants; the majority of the restaurants in Harbin probably seat less than 50-75 people. They're little mom-and-pop, hole-in-the-wall places with incredibly fresh and tasty food, many of them, and at incredible (by American standards) prices. Last summer my friend Rob, another teacher, and I wandered in to one such place and got 3 excellent main dishes, an appetizer, and several beers for about $20.

In the summertime the restaurant clientele spill out the door into the sidewalks. Every restaurant has outdoor seating; "sidewalk" restaurants (a barbecue stand, say, that doesn't require a kitchen) spring up on the periphery of the year-round places. Lara found us a terrific one of those in the month or so before I left. Again - 3 people, full bellies, several beers - I'm going to say a little less than $10.

And then there's the street food. In Harbin, I lived equidistant from 2 KFCs that were in opposite directions, each about a 1/4-1/2 of a mile from my dormitory. It doesn't matter which direction I headed; I would pass half a dozen quicker, tastier, and far cheaper options before I'd reach the KFCs (assuming I had wanted KFC, which I never did). In one direction, I could get an ear of corn that was freshly-steamed, or a steamed sweet potato. In the other direction, one possibility would be to stop at a street stall whose proprietor made lung mian - a large, square noodle fried flat with an egg on top and then brushed with tomato-y hot sauce, cut into strips, and served in a bowl accompanied by a toothpick so you could eat it while you walked . . . The ear of corn would cost 30 cents, as would the sweet potato. Lung mian, at 75 cents, was kind of extravagant.

So I'm not doing very well in restaurants, either.

And I wonder why food is so different in our two countries. Population density plays a huge role, I'm sure, but that's not the whole story. In China, the cheapest food was the plainest (a 2-cup bowl of rice in the school cafeteria cost a nickel). In America, the cheapest food is the most toxic. Now, I'm not saying that China's food system is perfect (I remember the melamine scandal). But the food I encountered there makes me wonder: how long can we, will we, in the US continue to poison ourselves? What's it going to take for us to get healthy food for everyone in the country? Why is that not a priority?

Anyway. On the subject of actually eating, I'm not doing too badly. I've learned that as long as I have bean paste or hoisin sauce or sesame paste, I can make myself a dinner out of almost anything else that will leave me feeling pleasantly fed and maybe, if I'm lucky, pleased at my ingenuity.

But that bag of tricks is going to be empty soon, so I'm looking for more techniques and ingredients daily . . . stay tuned.

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