Otherness and Laowai Pie 老外派
A neighbour cleans beansprouts in the sunshine
Last week I was commenting on WeChat about why it’s still rare to find an oven in a home here. The majority of Chinese cuisine requires just a wok and a cleaver, which when you think about it, is wonderfully simple. Ovens are only really used for a limited amount of dishes like Peking duck, or dishes that have been influenced by the West, like a Macanese egg custard tart.
That doesn’t mean the Chinese aren’t partial to a pizza, or a crusty sourdough loaf, and whilst ovens are a rarity, it hasn’t stopped people being inventive with their rice cookers to make New York style cheesecakes or a five bean chilli.
Then there was one person, one bad apple spoiling the barrel, as they say.
“That's not our food.”
Whether it was intentional twisted humour, or just an ignorance inherent to the character of the poster, it really made me think.
This guy was saying Chinese homes don't have ovens because Chinese people only cook Chinese food. Fair enough, China has only been open to the modern world for a few decades, so not everybody has been exposed to comforting shepherd's pie, or the magic of a Baked Alaska. But it was how he said it. An implication of unsurpassed greatness.
It wasn't, “That's not CHINESE food”, he said, but, “That's not OUR food”.
I know how it feels...
Days later I was still thinking about it, as I believed it revealed something to me about the way the Chinese view themselves and the rest of the world.
Maybe he isn't aware of how much modern Chinese food has changed over the centuries thanks to interaction with the West. The cuisines of Sichuan or Hunan for example, wouldn't exist if it weren't for the chilli pepper that was introduced from the New World in the sixteenth century.
But I had other more important things to focus on, and so put my musings aside while I prepared a little celebratory meal. Not only have we finally equipped our kitchen with more than two knives and forks, but we now have enough new friends to invite over for a home cooked meal.
Whilst I wasn’t willing to risk running the gauntlet by cooking Chinese food for the Chinese at the first outing, I decided it was safer to opt for a third party cuisine that offered some familiarity, but also some distance.
Most world cuisines are well represented in Shanghai, but what this city seems to be lacking are the wonderful flavours of the Levant. I decided to cook from one of my favourite cookbooks, Palestine On A Plate, by my gorgeous friend Joudie Kalla.
There are many parallels between Palestinian food and that of Xinjiang, a region of China in its far west where the country borders a number of Central Asian countries such as Kazakhstan, Afghanistan and Pakistan. The flavour combination of lamb with cumin is as popular there as it is in the West Bank and Gaza, and vegetables like aubergine, courgette, and saffron are shared and enjoyed equally.
Then I had a panic.
Sumac, a wonderful fragrant citrusy spice with lip puckering sourness, that is a key ingredient of za’atar, itself a cornerstone of Palestinian cooking, could not be found anywhere.
What nation could I cook up instead? I had my heart set on cooking from Joudie’s book.
Maybe I could substitute it for other sour flavours, like amchoor powder from India, or tamarind from South Asia, but that would have been like trying to cook Chinese food without soy sauce--the taste has no comparison and you’re probably best off not bothering.
The Avocado Lady on Wulumuqi Road (she's not had her coffee yet)
After a week of anxiously searching high and low, online and on the streets, I found it at the Avocado Lady. She is famous amongst the expat community in Shanghai. Her tiny shop on Wulumuqi Road is stacked high with imported food, spices, and the best avocados in town.
She rummaged around in a small metal box hidden under a table, seemingly full of contraband items and other delights smuggled into the country in small quantities. She pulled out a plastic pouch of red powder and popped it into my basket.
It felt like some sort of illegal transaction had just happened. I was happy nonetheless with my 50g of sumac, even if it landed me an invitation to the local police station.
I spent the better part of a beautiful Saturday indoors, cooking up an absolute feast. There was everything from Besara, a broad bean dip, to Namoura, a semolina cake soaked with orange blossom syrup, and of course homemade za’atar with my prized sumac.
Our Chinese guests had nothing but praise for the floral flavours, the sweet meats, pungent spices, and flavour combinations they had never tried before.
Before the end of the evening, one passing comment stood out. With his belly full, and a smile on his face, one of our guests said in Chinese into his wife's ear that it was the best dinner he had ever had... cooked by a Westerner.
Initially, I was flattered.
Then the following day over a breakfast of leftover Namoura. I thought about it again. By a Westerner?
In fact he had not said Westerner he had said 'laowai'.
The concept of otherness personified, a laowai can be interpreted to mean someone who doesn’t belong here. It is a blanket term for all people who are not Chinese or Oriental in appearance, and is even said by Chinese when they are themselves visiting or residing in a foreign country.
To be so utterly patronised or to be made to feel like something less than a human being is both demoralising and enraging.
I came back to my thoughts from the beginning of the week. What are the chances of there being two rotten apples in such a short period of time? Well, if you consider the population of China, the odds are quite high. Yet I shouldn't let these experiences colour my opinions of the entire nation, because to do so is hypocritical. I can't make broad sweeps at the Chinese as a whole unless I want to accept broad sweeps at myself.
One bad apple only spoils the barrel if you let it. But it’s important to hold on to the good things in life rather than let negativities drag you down. Pick out the bad apples, and make a (laowai) pie with the rest.
Laowai Pie (Apple Pie) 老外派
200g caster sugar
200g butter, softened
300g plain flour