This, apparently, is our cooker. We’ve also, apparently, got a microwave somewhere in our apartment. Both these facts came as something of a shock to me, because as things stand, both these things sit unused in the kitchen, like old curios in an attic just waiting to be discovered one day so they can disappoint someone on The Antiques Roadshow. Why? Well, because since arriving in Shanghai 35 days ago, we have cooked food for ourselves a grand total of…once.
That doesn’t seem like much – so I thought I would write a quick blog about the reasons. I don’t usually like those internet lists you can find so easily but, my online snobbery notwithstanding, here are the 5 main reasons we don’t cook in China.
- Eating Out
Shanghai is not short of a restaurant or two. Let’s not kid ourselves, they know how to offer you food in this city. The restaurants so far have been just like the transport we have used to get there – pretty cheap, easy to find, and really very good. Plus of course, there are 24 million people to feed in this city so the variety of options is fairly staggering. Our contracts here are due to last for three years at a minimum, but plenty of people on the staff have been working at the school for a lot longer than that, presumably because they are still trying to get round all the restaurants they liked the look of during their first week.
So, when very reasonably priced and extremely good food is available in any number of venues right on your doorstep (as in the case of ‘Blue Frog’ or ‘Pistolera’, just two of the four hundred thousand restaurants
we can hit if we throw a stone from our front door) or further afield in the gorgeous French Concession (‘Lost Heaven’ was a particular highlight, although the new Nordic bar we went to on Friday did a mean bbq pork belly too) and you and your new friends are looking for somewhere to chill out after a long day at work, or somewhere to spend a relaxing evening on a weekend…how likely are you to go home and cook?
Incidentally, it doesn’t just extend to eating on an evening either; last Sunday we went out for an extended brunch at ‘Maya’, a Mexican place in the city. I say extended, because it lasted 5 hours and so really wasn’t brunch at all so much as it was people sitting around taking advantage of the ‘Bottomless Margarita’ offer, but you get my point. Any time, any day, you can find somewhere new and exciting to eat, and the chances are it will be lovely. Cooking can wait.
When we first came out here, someone told us that the process of settling into life here would be like climbing a mountain; so tough as to be overwhelming at the start, and not without serious challenges along the way, but more than worth it once we finally reached the summit. I see the logic of that, and the argument is strengthened by the fact that we simply couldn’t do it without the help of Sherpas. I’d heard of these mystical beings in whispers around blogs and rumours from people who’d been to Shanghai before, but now we have been here for a month, I am whole-heartedly endorsing them as the heroes that Shanghai deserves, and also the ones it needs.
The process is simple enough – you log in via the website, and are presented with a list of (basically) every restaurant within a 15 mile radius (or more if you want). This is similar to somewhere like ‘Just-Eat’ in the UK, but unlike Just-Eat, this is ANY restaurant, not just fast-food and garbage takeaways. You place your order, and the restaurant make it. While they are doing this, a man on an orange electric scooter goes to the restaurant, picks it up, and brings it to your front door for you. All this for the princely sum of ¥15-30 (somewhere well south of £5). The food has always arrived hot, the drivers (thus far) have been friendly and kind, and the service has been nothing short of excellent. Not for Sherpas the famous ‘it’ll be there in 20 minutes’ line as you sit growing old on your sofa waiting for Domino’s to deliver a heart attack in a box. They tell you how long it will take, and come hell or high water, they will have it at your doorstep on time. So not only are there brilliant restaurants at every turn in Shanghai, you don’t even have to leave your apartment to eat there. Picture the scene. You arrive home after a long day at work (or even a short one, in all honesty) and you can start cooking for yourself, or you can spend less than 5 minutes ordering just about whatever you want from wherever you want and someone else will make it and bring it to you all for less than the cost of a Sainsbury’s meal deal. Come on, which are you going to choose?
- Jian Bing
Breakfast has not been my favourite meal for some time now. On a morning, I am cranky and tired and I do not wish to get up earlier than I have to just to eat something that I don’t really want anyway and isn’t all that tasty. This, of course, has been made worse since I left the age at which mainlining Coco Pops was deemed socially acceptable. Who made that rule anyway? Breakfast is a private affair, for which I and my choices should surely not be judged. It turns out, though, that piling several tons of sugar into my system at 7am leads to the kind of crash at 10am that would have made Wall Street feel sorry for me in 1929, so Coco Pops have had to go.
Even though breakfast is a pain, scientists keep saying that it’s the most important meal of the day…so what can I do about it? Well, I’ve been shown the answer. Jian Bing. Now, this entry is going to be vague, because I don’t really know what it is, and I certainly don’t really know what’s in it…but what I can tell you is that it’s a spicy and utterly gorgeous concoction (not unlike myself) that a very nice woman comes to the pavement outside our school and makes on a morning while you wait. It’s a kind of omelette, with coriander and chilies, some odd sweet paste or other and a crispy wanton all rolled up and served hot for your pleasure. A quick look at the process can be found here.
It is fairly giant, fills you up to a satisfyingly comfortable level, and costs a mighty ¥7. So, for 78p (at current rates) you can eat like a King on a morning. Let me tell you, after a brisk 30 minute walk to work in the ‘fresh’ air of Shanghai, it is a fantastic way to start the day. Next week, the lady will not be outside school as it’s a holiday so she is going home to her family. I understand that these things are important, but I will be mourning her absence every day until she gets back, at which point I may or may not throw my arms around her with excitement and sing a small song. Whether I do that or not, I will certainly get back to buying her finest Jian Bing and consuming it with the excitement of a child on Christmas morning.
Ah Seb, you scandalously handsome wonder. Nous t’aimons. Seb is the husband of a colleague of ours and is also (tremendously handily, as it turns out) a French chef. Even more handily than that, he cooks and prepares food for us! Every Saturday he will send out an order form, which we promptly fill out and a couple of days later…voila! He brings the food to us at work, we take it home and can cook it from there. I haven’t tried everything on the order form yet, but what we have tried, believe me, is quite magnificent. From chocolate scones, via baguettes, through Duck fried rice and a Chicken liver pate that equals any pate I’ve ever tried, Seb has provided it all and made us extremely happy in the process. Merci, mon ami!*
Our local supermarket is Carrefour. I’ve blogged about a Carrefour before when talking about our trip through Italy, and that one was very helpful, as is this one. BUT, unlike Italy, some of the things you can buy here at JinQiao Carrefour are enough to put your hunger firmly back in its box. I haven’t taken a lot of photos here, but if you want live fish, crab, lobster or even a terrapin, you can pick them straight out of the water right there in the store. You can also buy such delicacies as dried Octopus (pictured here) and spicy chicken claws.
Honestly, while it has been incredibly useful for picking up utilities (iron, ironing board, kettle, bins, water dispenser, etc) and drinks, we haven’t yet found a lot of food that has taken our fancy. It doesn’t help that we can’t read most of the labels of course (we’re working on that) but we can see the contents of the packet, and many times out of 10, it doesn’t look like a better option than any of the four you’ve just read about. I’m sure we’ll find our way to it and get better at eating more organically, but I can’t imagine coming round to live terrapin on toast any time soon so maybe it’s more Sherpas and nights out for us!
Anyway, that’s what we’ve found out about food in Shanghai so far. I can’t wait to keep trying places out and letting you know what we’ve discovered!
*Seb is French, you see, so I have used the entire cumulative skill of my French GCSE (A*, I’ll have you know) and written some of this bit in French. This, I presume, will impress all the readers of this blog with my utter multi-lingualism. You’re not imagining things, dear reader. I have used English, French, AND Mandarin in this blog post. Was fur ein wunderkind, oder?**
**I am really struggling with my Mandarin by the way and most of the French here came from Google translate. Anyway, 再见!